Friday, 10 December 2010

Model Making: Laser Cut Wargames Scenery

The rise of CAD (Computer Aided Design) has seen a marked change in the production processes used by figure manufacturers. Rapid Prototyping, sometimes called 3D printing is playing an important role in figure design and even more so in the design of prototypes for vehicles, whether they be tanks, spaceships or huge steampunk airships!

The main companies that I have encountered that produce laser cut products for wargamers are as follows, there may well be others and if you know of any please leave a link in the comments section. Rapid Prototyping is a fairly expensive process (although it is getting cheaper all the time), however there is an alternative CAD driven technology that is starting to prove useful within the wargaming industry. Laser cutting and engraving falls somewhere between printing and rapid prototyping. Laser cutters can be used to cut and engrave a variety materials including MDF, plywood, acrylic, cork, card and rubber.

S6 Engineerings Road Bridge #2 (Acrylic)

Litko produces a whole range of game tokens and markers produced in various coloured acrylics that really raise the quality of many games tables. They also do various other gaming accessories including several model buildings. S6 Engineering, a new company have recently released a series of laser cut acrylic roads and canals, and they also have a selection of templates and other accessories. Finally Warbases make an extensive range of laser cut MDF bases and movement trays, they are also developing a range of MDF kit buildings.
Litko 28mm Modular City Building (Micro-plywood)

In the workshop I run we have just purchased a laser cutter and over the past few weeks I have been running through a series of projects to familiarise myself with running the machine and preparing files for it.

OK, so what is "Laser Cutting and Engraving"? 

The laser cutter itself shares much with the larger commercial inkjet printers, in fact the software that drives it is installed on a PC as a print driver. At it's most simple level, using vector graphics software, lines that are drawn in red will be cut, and lines that are drawn in black will be engraved. The initial outlay on a laser cutting machine is quite high, but the day to day running costs are fairly low.

As part of my learning to use the laser cutter I wanted to try out an architectural model (my workshop is part of a school of architecture after all). While I was thinking this over I happened to read the September issue of Wargames Illustrated which had the plans in for a project to make a Spanish style convent model. This seemed like the ideal project to try out on my new machine.

I downloaded the plans from the Wargames Illustrated website and stated to plan the build. Firstly I extracted the image files from the downloaded pdf (WI have made these available for photocopying so as my project was going to achieve more or less the same result I don't think I have infringed any copyrights etc.), which I then imported into Corel Draw (the vector graphics software that the laser cutter uses). I converted the JPG images to Vector graphics, this makes them infinitely scalable and also prepared them for laser cutting.

At this point I did encounter a minor problem, the conversion from JPG to vector graphic seemed to introduce some distortion in the plans (although part of this may have been present in the original WI plans which were never designed for such accurate development). Consequently I ended up more or less redrawing the whole thing in Corel Draw to get them squared up and to get the arches and windows nice and even.

Rather than using foam core board as suggested in the WI article I decided to make my model in 4mm MDF sheet (I happened to have some lying around the workshop). So as well as redrawing the plan, I also added in the roof plans, that were left out of the WI article so that readers could set their own wall thicknesses.
This is a much reduced version of my cutting plan, it shows the cut lines in red and the engrave lines in black.

As an experimental model I was making this quite small, suitable for 6 or 10mm gaming. If however, I up scale it for, say, 15 or 28mm I will need to adjust the roof size to suit whatever material thickness I use.

Now everything is ready to go. The laser cutter we have has quite a small working area (around 610x45mm) but fortunately this whole job will fit on to one sheet.. I cut a piece of MDF and placed it in the machine, then in Corel Draw I hit print. Under the print preferences I specified the material to be cut and the thickness. Then I sent the job to the laser cutter. It took around 38 minutes to cut the whole thing. I may be able to reduce the cutting time as I experiment with the cutting speed of the laser.

The laser cut parts of the Convent.
Finally I had the plinth and dome to construct. The eight arched sides had to be sanded to an angle to get the to fit neatly together (the laser cutter will only make vertical cuts). Once this had been done I glued them all together following the octagonal shape I had laser etched into the top of the plinth.
I rescaled and laser cut the top plinth and arches to show how simple it would be to build this for any scale of figures you might wish for.

I wont go into the details of texturing and painting the convent as that was well covered in the original Wargames Illustrated article.

Here are a few examples of other hobby related projects I have done recently on the laser cutter.

My first attempt at texturing using the engraving settings on the laser cutter.

A painting station, with storage for paints. (I don't have the room for a permanent painting desk since my sons came along).

Well I hope that has gives some kind of insight into a tool that is being used more and more withing the wargaming industry.

Anyone interested in the Paint Station, please drop me an email and I may be able to sort you one out!

All of my model making (whether it be wargaming, miniatures or otherwise) blog posts will start with the Model Making: prefix!
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