Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Learning Experiences - Electrical Box Terrain

By Raymond Ford

From Over The Hill Gaming

Editor's Note: You may be wondering, "Eli, why another electrical box terrain piece?" I found this two-part piece to be a very well through out, yet brief look at a hobbyist's first experiences with electrical box terrain. He points out some things some of us might not consider and I know I learned a thing or two.

This is project that got started after doing a little reading on the Internet. The idea is simple – take a blue plastic box normally used for electrical work and modify it to look like a futuristic building suitable for a smaller scale sci-fi game.This article on the Reaper Miniatures site and this post on TMP do a good job of presenting the concept. The boxes and bits were inexpensive and everything looked like it would be within my skill level.

But, as they say, experience is the best teacher.

The first step was getting all the materials. A quick trip to the local Home Depot and a few dollars made me the owner of a couple of promising looking electrical boxes. A few minutes of sorting through my bits boxes yielded enough plastic doodads to provide some additional details like doors. I already had plenty of paints.

There were a few things on the electrical boxes that needed to be removed. Basically, anything that made them look more like electrical boxes and less like buildings. A few minutes work with my trusty Dremel took care of that.

Next was assembly. I washed everything in soap and water and let it all dry completely. Then I sat down to work.

First Point of Failure – Plastic Cement. I decided to use plastic cement since I was assembling plastic bits on plastic bodies. The only exception was a metal bit that I used super glue on. This proved critical awhile later.

After everything was put together, I let everything sit until the next day.

Since I had two electrical boxes, I decided to try two different approaches to painting and see which worked best. The smaller box got sprayed with some Krylon Fusion left over from a home improvement project from last year. The bigger box got hit with some craft store primer left over from one of my wife's projects, also from last year.

Second Point of Failure (Smaller Box) – Spraying on a base coat without primer. I noticed I wasn't getting good coverage on the smaller box. The original colors of the plastic box and bits were showing through the light gray of the spray paint. I applied more paint to correct for this, ultimately spraying down two fairly thick layers. This turned out to be a mistake. The second layer never really set correctly – it was still tacky to the touch after a couple of days. The age of the paint may have also been a factor.

Second Point of Failure (Larger Box) – Cheap primer. I had a much easier time spraying down the primer on the larger box, although multiple thin coats were needed for good coverage. The primer set overnight and was ready for painting. Unfortunately, it didn't do a good job of holding on to the paint. I have some experience with painting large, flat surfaces on miniatures – shields and larger pieces like Warjacks – so I knew the need to thin down the paints and go for multiple thin layers. But the paint refused to flow properly on the surface of the primer. It either pooled or ran down the sides. In any case, the results were unpleasant.

At this point, I had two unusable terrain pieces – one with paint that wouldn't set, the other with paint too ugly to put on the table. Hoping that everything would look better in the morning, I gave up and went to bed.

The next morning revealed even more horror. At some point during the night, one of the boxes was knocked to the floor. (Ah, the joys of letting my wife keep cats around.) As I leaned down to pick up the wayward terrain piece, I noticed that a few of the plastic bits had come off. A little experimenting revealed that the plastic cement had failed to provide a strong bond. I could break the plastic bits off the boxes with little effort. On the other hand, the metal bit I had super glued on refused to budge. These pieces wouldn't have lasted long if they had made it to the table.

Lessons Learned:
  • Both pieces have taken a long soak in a solution of Simple Green and water. The paint and primer came off after a good scrubbing. They need another wash in soap and water to get rid of any residue from the Simple Green, but are otherwise ready for assembly.
  • First Lesson Learned – Assembly. I will be using super glue to assemble everything with time around. The bond is much stronger than plastic cement on this material.
  • Second Lesson Learned – Priming. Both pieces will be primed a dark gray with an auto body primer. The dark color will cover up the original colors of the plastic better. I've also had good results with auto body primer providing a good surface for paints on large, flat surfaces. Multiple layers of thinly applied primer will be used to provide good coverage.
  • Third Lesson Learned – Painting. I'll try a slightly thicker paint mix when I get started. The paint mix I used before didn't seem too thin, but it's best to be sure. It's easier to thin down a paint than thicken it back up, anyway.

This is a fresh start incorporating the lessons learned from my previous attempt.


First Lesson Learned – I used super glue to reassemble the piece this time. Some tugging and a short drop served to test the bonds after the glue set. It should stand up to normal use - place it on the table, remove it from the table, put it in a box, maybe drop it on the way a couple of times - just fine.

Second Lesson Learned – I got out the auto body primer and started spraying. Sandable auto body primer is good stuff - it leaves a surface that holds on well to paint and bonds to plastic, metal, and resin. It took two thin layers to get a good, even coat that covered up the original colors of the plastic.

Third Lesson Learned – A darker color for better coverage seemed like a good idea. I also went back to the tried and true method of paint large, flat surfaces - multiple layers of thinned down paint. The paint dried smoothly.

The end result wasn't bad, but it looked dull and flat. Applying a thinned down dark wash brought out the details, but the piece was still missing something. I highlighted the corners and top with the original base color. Finally, I applied a thinned down brown wash to weather the piece. Small steps like these add character to a piece, but I might have gone overboard with the brown wash.

There is another, larger piece in the wings. I plan on adopting the same techniques to complete it later. For now, I've got some other projects to complete first.


  1. Love it, I've got a couple of these, but not nearly as detailed.

  2. That was an excellent posting thanks Eli. I would not have guessed what it began as if I had not seen the first picture.