Friday 20 December 2013

Eye Catching Sci-Fi Scenics: Crystal Spires

I was given a large bag of random shaped pieces of clear 6mm acrylic. There must have been easily in excess of a thousand pieces, all ranging in size from a couple of millimeters across to around 30mm. These pieces were the scrap left-overs of an architectural model that one of my students had been building. They were cut on the laser cutter and as such the edges were all polished, and to use a popular (Firefly) phrase “shiny”.  What to do with all this attractive looking scrap?

I knew I had a resource that was too good to waste, but I had no real plans as to how to use it. I had some samples lying around during one of my weekly gaming sessions, and while playing around with them we started to stack them up into towers, when the light shone through them they looked really interesting, so with that in mind I sat down to make some plans. 

As a science fiction gamer I am always looking for new and interesting terrain that can represent an alien planet. Also I have been building up both my 28mm pulp sci-fi range of figures, and my 15mm Critical Mass Games collection, so some new scenery for both of those was definitely needed.

Twinkle effect automatically added by Google!

Thinking about the stacked acrylic put me in mind of a crystalline asteroid, or possibly a strange crystalline forest. As well as simply stacking and gluing the acrylic shapes together I wanted to do something quite eye catching and so I decided to light them up from below. That was the full extent of my plans. From there I moved on into experimenting with the acrylic gluing it into towers, or as it became better known crystal spires. I turned out several spires, trying to make them in fairly eccentric shape but also with the intention of making them look as natural as possible. As well as the basic spires, I also added an arch and a temple like centrepiece that brought three spires together into one large and awe inspiring crystal tower. As all the acrylic was 6mm thick, that was one limiting factor that gave the spires a quite uniform shape. I also wanted to add a hint of colour to the spires, as the clear acrylic looked very ice-like, and I wanted to give a little more of the alien worlds look! 


I took some clear casting resin, added some transparent blue dye and then, sitting the spires on some polythene, sparingly poured the resin over them. This gave the structures a softer, slightly rounded shape that helped eliminate the obvious 6mm steps. It also added just enough colour to the spires that they really caught the eye. I had to leave them to dry for a good couple of weeks as the resin can be notoriously sticky for a long time, and I didn’t want to get any finger prints, or indeed dust on them, at a later stage. The UV light in the photo below is there to help accelerate the setting of the resin. For most of the time, the spires were kept under a box, to hide the UV light and also to keep dust off of them while they completely set. Just a a side note, try to avoid exposure to too much UV light as it is really not good for your eyes...

The next step was to decide how I was going to light the spires. I am no electrical wizard, so it had to be something pretty simple. Also, I didn’t want to make the pieces too complex, so I didn’t want too many hatches or lift off parts for light bulbs etc. The solution was a series of cheap torches that I picked up in a pound store. The torches have an array of nine LEDs on a small circuit board. They also contained a simple battery holder that would hold three AAA battery. It didn’t take much for me to work out that each LED array needed a 4.5 supply to light it up! These arrays were about 25mm across, just perfect to sit underneath the spires, and as they are “super bright” LEDs they give off a good glow.

The base boards I used for these terrain pieces were all cut from 6mm MDF, cut to suitably random natural shapes, designed to support the rock outcrops that the crystal spires would rest on. Once the shapes were cut I sanded the edges down, to give a smooth transition from wargames table to terrain feature. 

Next I took some scraps of 18mm and 25mm MDF and drilled a 25mm hole through them. These would be the locators for the LED arrays and also act as supports for the acrylic spires to sit on top. This led into the wiring stage and I spent some time wiring up the different LED arrays and working out how they would be positioned on the base boards. As I say my electrical knowledge is minimal, but I know enough to be able to work out a simple parallel circuit, which meant I was able to run two or three LED arrays from one battery holder. Clearly this would reduce the battery life, but from a little experimenting there seems to be enough life in the batteries to last a good few hours at least.


I cut some grooves through the bottom of each of the MDF pieces so that the wires could feed through them.

Here you can see I have added some extra bits to hold the switch and the battery compartment.

Once I had all the parts I was able to judge the lengths of wire needed. I soldered the circuit together and then glued it in place under the MDF. The wires running from one side to the other, were simple buried under the filler I used for the landscaping. The switch was hidden under a rubber cap that had, again, been salvaged from the cannibalized torches. The plan was to cover the rubber cap with PVA and sand, in much the same way as I would with the the rest of the model.The flexiblity of the PVA and the rubber underneath it, would allow me to press the switch, but it would mean there were no unsightly switches sticking out.

The black piece on the  right is the cover for the battery compartment. So that I I got a good close fit, I put the plastic panel into a plastic bag and the pushed it into the (two-part) wood filler. This meant that the cavity left in the filler, once set, exactly matched the panel, but as the filler doesn't stick to the plastic bag I was able to remove it after the filler had set!

At this point I was ready to do the first group test...

Really very effective under normal house lighting, and in the dark, bright enough to actually play night fight games - assuming you can see the dice results...

The landscaping was mainly done with ready mixed DIY filler, although I did also use some two part resin based wood filler. The two part filler sets very hard and is useful for the more critical parts of the models. The ready mixed DIY wall filler, takes longer to dry is a heck of a lot cheaper... Also, I wanted to take advantage of one of the properties of the ready mixed filler. Normally you have to be careful not to apply it to thickly as it can crack while setting, due the shrinkage that occurs as it dries out. I actually wanted some crackes to appear as it it would add to the naturally rocky look.

I left the filler to dry for a full week, one disadvantage of applying it so thickly. Then before I glues the spires in place I added a small piece of blue theatrical lighting gel (blue cellophane, but somewhat heat resistant) over the LEDs just to make them a little stronger blue once they were lit up. Then I glued the acrylic/resin spires in place, using Z-Poxy Epoxy adhesive.

The next stage was to add some sand over the filler. I left parts of the bare filler exposed, as these would be painted up as bare rock.

The central piece, or Temple Spire as it has been christened, had an extra lighting array added under the central part of the spire to adds some extra light to the top, combined, part of the structure. I decided that this would be a small round pool, of "magical" water.

I didn't want to pour clear resin over the LEDs in case it adversely effected them in some way, so I decided to laser engrave some water texture onto the a piece of transparent blue acrylic. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to reproduce the ripple effect, at first I tried laser engraving a photo looking down on water and it just didn't look right. Eventually I found a texture that looked about right and work really well once in place. As it turns out it is virtually impossible to see unless you get right up close and have a real good look!

On to the painting! All through the construction process I had been pondering the colour scheme that I would use. I wanted the terrain to have a definite alien feel to it, and possibly reflect the adverse effects of the energies coursing through these strange crystal structures, however, on a practical level, I don't have an endless amount of storage space to build different terrain for different games, so they had to be versatile. Should I go with a wintery look, with frost or snow around the spires, it might reflect the glow nicely and add to the weirdness of the pieces? My initial decision was to use my normal tub of brown emulsion that I use for all my terrain.

The rock I went for a dry brushed gray, which helps it stand out from the brown.

That is more or less where I have left it for now. I have used the terrain in various games (mainly Sci-Fi), just with the brown/gray scheme. I am planning on dry brushing some more of a red-brown colour over the sand, to give it a bit more of a Martian feel (my recent Sci-FI figures have all been based with a red/brown Martian earth colour), although I hope to keep this reasonably subtle, so I can still use it with normal terrain too.

I am planning a new set of winter terrain boards for the near future, so I will also possibly add some snow, at least around the bases of the actual spires. If I keep it localized I will still be able to use the pieces with Non-winter terrain as I can put the snow down to weird effects from the crystals...

So to finish off this article here are a couple more photos of the Temple Spire, under slightly different lighting conditions. I hope you'll agree, my efforts have been worthwhile, and it certainly adds some interest to a gaming table!

Finally, here are some photos showing the Crystal Spires in use in 40K games.

When I finally get around to a adding some plant matter or snow I will post some more photos.


  1. Superb.



    Very well done in using scrap to produce a unique piece of scenery.


  2. That is an astounding build, very clever.

  3. Absolutely I can't get Picasa to add twinkles, could you run us through the 'Google' image process you used?


  4. Brilliant stuff.

    Love the blue hue even in the (seemingly) unlit state.

  5. Those are amazing! Just brilliant.

  6. Thanks for all the comments!

    As for the Google added Twinkles, I haven't a clue where they came from, I uploaded the image to the blog, Google automatically saved it to Picasa and worked it's magic!

  7. Very nice Dave. Creative and inspiring.

  8. Very cool... But curse you for using materials we can't get. I don't know anyone with a laser cutter, alas. Fortunately, the idea of using clear materials under lit with LEDs has many possibilities! Thanks for posting this on TMP!

  9. Absolutely brilliant! Great tutorial and some marvellous scenery produced.


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