Basing Wargame Miniatures on Ferromagnetic Steel Bases

Napoleonic French and Prussian wargame miniatures individually mounted on 0.4 mm ferromagnetic steel bases.

Napoleonic French and Prussian wargame miniatures individually mounted on 0.4 mm ferromagnetic steel bases. These figures are often used as individual skirmishers, but they may be deployed on larger unit-sized magnetic stands to represent platoons, companies or division of an infantry battalion, regiment or brigade. When different sets of miniature wargame rules with incompatible basing systems are used, the troops are simply moved from one magnetic stand to another. Magnetic stands stick to steel tool boxes or other storage boxes lined with ferromagnetic sheet metal, holding the miniatures securely in place during transport. The 0.4 mm steel bases used in this example are so thin that the miniatures appear to be part of the diorama, rather than just standing on it. While this is a very pleasing visual effect, the lack of a chunky base leaves the wargamer no other option than to move his troops by handling the figures themselves.

Tools and Accessories

  • 0.4 mm Steel Sheet Metal
  • Masking Tape
  • Set Square Triangle
  • Pencil
  • Scissors
  • Flat-Nose Pliers
  • Flat fine Needle File
  • White Glue (PVA)
  • Cork Bottle Stopper
  • Circular self-adhesive Magnet
  • Sand and fine Gravel
  • Static Grass

Caution

0.4 mm steel sheet metal has sharp edges and pointed corners which cut skin like a scalpel knife. To minimize the risk of injury, transport the steel sheet in a sturdy paper bag. Cover all four edges of the sheet metal with masking tape prior to working with the material. Wrap both index fingers and the thumb of the hand holding the steel base with multiple layers of masking tape, before you start filing bases. If the file slips off the base, as often happens, the sharp edge of the base will cut the index finger of the hand holding the file. When small bases are filed, the file will take off skin layers as well as the side of the fingernail of the index finger holding the bases. This is a cumulative injury which remains unnoticed until enough damage has been done.

Cutting Steel Sheet Metal

0.4 mm steel sheet metal, sold at art supply stores and hobby shops, can be cut to the required size using a paper cutter (paper guillotine) often available at the store. Paper cutters and scissors used to cut steel sheet typically leave a raised edge which needs to be filed off the custom bases later. Unless a paper cutter is available, strips of steel sheet metal are easily cut with scissors. Since galvanized steel sheet does not accept pencil markings, wide strips of masking tape should be applied along the top edge of the sheet metal. Using a set square triangle, measure the required depth of the metal bases and draw a cut line onto the masking tape. Carefully cut the entire strip of sheet metal with scissors, making sure that no kinks are introduced into the material. Using the set square triangle, mark the width of each metal base and draw the cut lines across the masking tape. Snip each base off the sheet metal strip.

Filing and Finishing Metal Bases

Using flat-nose pliers, flatten each base prior to filing. Protect your thumb and index fingers with multiple layers of masking tape, then round the four corners of each base, using a flat fine needle file. Files cut most effectively when pushed across the corner and edge of the base. Two or three strokes of the needle file should be enough to cut the dangerously pointed corner, and three or four more light strokes will finish the perfectly rounded corner. Raised metal edges on the underside of the base need to be filed off as well, otherwise the based miniature may later scratch table surfaces and fellow troops travelling in the same storage box. With practise, a batch of 30 bases can be cut, filed, and finished in an hour.

Mounting Miniatures on Steel Bases

Most 1:72 scale foot troops fit 12.5 × 15 mm steel bases perfectly, and metal bases of this size are heavy enough to make a plastic infantryman stand up securely even on sloped terrain. The smaller the individual figure base, the closer together the miniatures may be deployed when they operate in column or line. Kneeling riflemen may have to have their plastic bases trimmed to fit a 12.5 × 15 mm metal base, and 17th century musketeers firing from musket rests need deeper bases than their brothers in arms who are just advancing with or loading their muskets. Generally, it's a good idea to cut much of the excess plastic of a 1:72 scale figure's base off before mounting the miniature on its steel base. The more space there is between the figure's thick plastic base and the edge of the metal base, the more gently the terrain will slope towards the figure, making the chunky plastic base virtually disappear. Atlantic 1:72 scale Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman troops are unrealistically tall, and they have very thick bases which need to be reduced in height to make the figures appear shorter and more compatible with infantry from other manufacturers.

Once the plastic base has been trimmed, attach the figure to its metal base using PVA glue. Standard PVA glue is water-soluble, ensuring that miniatures may be removed from their metal bases simply by placing them in water for half an hour. Infantry fighting in close order formation should be mounted facing the narrow 12.5 mm frontage of the base, although battalion commanders, staff officers and other individuals not deployed in line may face the wider 15 mm frontage if desired. Check the alignment of figures before the glue sets to be sure that the individually mounted soldiers may deploy shoulder to shoulder with other miniatures of the same type. This is particularly important in the case of infantrymen carrying weapons horizontally in front of their bodies, where long musket barrels or fixed bayonets may prevent adjacent men from marching in close order. Charging miniatures with levelled muskets or pole arms may be mounted at a slight angle to ensure that their pikes or bayonets just miss the men deployed directly in front of them. Allow the glue to dry for ten minutes before flocking the base.

Flocking Steel Bases

Once the PVA glue has dried for ten to 15 minutes, the figure and metal base will be bonded well enough to be handled again. Miniatures with steel bases stick to magnetic sheet. The easiest way to hold them during painting or flocking is by placing individual figures on a cork bottle stopper topped by a disk of self-adhesive magnetic sheet. We used a ¾ inch hole punch to cut a disc from a self-adhesive business card magnet purchased at an office supply store. Place the figure on the cork holder, allowing the metal base to overlap the magnetic disc on two sides. Using a matchstick, apply white glue to the triangular section between the face of the plastic base and the edge of the metal base. Do not cover the top of the plastic figure base, because the built-up of sand, gravel and flocking will increase the height of the base, whereas we are trying to camouflage it. Once the overlapping sides are covered with glue, turn the figure, letting the two remaining sides of the metal base overlap the cork holder, and fill their gaps with white glue as well. Remove the figure from the holder and carefully dip the metal base into your favourite flocking or terrain mix of sand and fine gravel. Using the clean end of the matchstick, lightly tap the most prominent rocks into the PVA glue to securely attach them to the base. This ensures that the rocks just break through the topsoil, rather than sitting on top of it like bowling balls.

The figures shown here have had their bases covered in a sand and gravel mix scrounged from a well-trodden footpath. Most of the miniature rocks included in this mix are nicely compatible with 1:72 scale figures, and no two are alike in shape or colour. If an unusually large rock sticks to the PVA glue, a creative decision is called for immediately. The rock may stay if it is compatible with the pose of the miniature on that base, otherwise push it off with the matchstick and dip that side of the base in the sand and gravel mix again.

Many 1:72 scale horses have very long and perfectly smooth plastic bases which form a prominent and unnaturally flat ridge even after the metal base has been flocked on either side of it. To break up the silhouette of such a plastic base, paint one or more diagonal bands of white glue across it and dip the base in the sand and gravel mix again.

In his classic book The War Game, Charles Grant suggests that linear infantry deployed with a frontage of approximately 21" per man, whereas close order cavalry needed 48" per trooper. Using this ratio, if 12.5 mm is our line infantry frontage per figure, each cavalryman deploys on a metal base with a frontage of 28.57 mm, or close to 1 1/8 inches. Cavalry bases should be just deep enough to accomodate the horse and leave a couple of millimetres at either end to apply sand and gravel. Again, the plastic bases need to be cropped close to the horse's front and rear hoof to minimize the footprint of the required metal base.

Please refer to our previous article on Basing Wargame Miniatures for advice on painting and detailing the miniature bases.

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