Friday, November 18, 2011

Building a Modular Canal System

I've always really wanted to make some big water features to add to my gaming tables. I think they add a lot of complexity and strategic choices. I had originally planned to build them into my boards but I got impatient and decided to build some modular ones. Modular river sections are also great as rivers can really affect gameplay. With a modular set like this you can change the river system and remove it for some games.

The pieces so far.
-1/4" Hardboard (I used 2 2'x2' sheets for this and some other things)
-approximately 18 feet of 11/16" rounded moulding
-wood glue
-wood filler (could be replaced with glue and sawdust)
-Matte grey spray paint primer

I chose to use 1/4" hardboard as I thought it would be less likely to warp than thinner 1/8" hardboard. The moulding is the stuff used as baseboards in houses or between the walls and ceiling. I chose the 11/16" rounded ones as I thought they would be stronger than some of the thinner ones and would look alright painted up. Use whatever shape and size of these that pleases you most. You can find them at any hardware or home improvement store. Total cost for the materials used was about $20.

-table saw
-mitre saw
-electric drill
-various drill bits
-safety glasses
-various grits of sandpaper

I had access to power tools, which sped up this project considerably. All of this could be done with a handsaw and a mitre box as well. Important note: If you are under 18 or unfamiliar with power tools, please get someone to help guide you. Table saws are dangerous. 

I was visiting my parents' house a few weeks ago and decided to really get this project started as I had access to their power tools. I started by laying out the approximate pieces I wanted. I decided to make the canal 4.25" wide, including the sides and to do each length in 6" increments.

I started by setting the table saw to 4.25" wide and carefully cut the hardboard into 4.25" wide strips. I then used the mitre saw to cut these strips into 12" and 6" lengths as needed. I also cut a 6" wide strip and used a handsaw to cut out the corners to create a corner that is 6" in each direction.

I then used the mitre saw to cut the moulding to fit each piece. For long straight pieces I simply made a 90 degree cut to the correct length for each piece. I then set the mitre saw to cut 45 degree angles in both directions and carefully cut the moulding to create the 90 degree corners where needed for corners. I set it up so the rounded side of the moulding is always facing out. Be sure to carefully check each piece when cutting as it can be confusing with the rounded sides and the mitre cuts (I made lots of cuts in the wrong directions).

Here you can see some of the different shapes I made. The filler shows where the 45 degree mitre joints are.
Next I attached the pieces to their bases. I carefully applied a thin layer of glue using a scrap piece of wood. I put it carefully in place and let it set for about 10 minutes (while I worked on others). The moulding was not sitting perfectly on the wood so I decided to flip the pieces over and insert screws through the hardboard and into the moulding to secure them in place. I then used a small drill bit (the back of your screws will say the size to use) to drill pilot holes where I wanted to place screws. I generally put in one screw for each 6" in length. Be careful to place the screws 1 inch along the moulding to prevent it from splitting. I made this mistake on the first few. Drill the pilot holes about the depth of your screw. Then change drill bits and put in the screws. Try to get them as flush with the base of the mdf as possible. For some of the short pieces I did not bother with screws as it would have broken the small pieces.

The screw at the top right is to close to the edge. The moulding split and the edge of the hardboard broke down a bit. The bottom right screw is much better. I used a sanding block to remove the excess hardboard around the screws.
I left the glue to dry overnight. Once it was set I cleaned off some of the excess glue. I used wood filler putty (sawdust and glue works equally well) and filled in all of the cracks where the moulding meets the mdf, where I split the moulding, where the mitred corners meet, and where I glued small pieces together when I ran out of moulding. Let that set overnight and then sand it smooth using a sanding blog or various grits of sandpaper.
You can see where I used wood filler to fix the messy mitre joint.
I also cut a few pieces of hardboard to make small permanent bridges on a few pieces. This is optional but for skirmish games I thought some walkways would be nice. You can also add some junk on the bottom of what will be the canal before painting so you have some floating debris.

Once this was complete I brushed off the dust and spray painted them outside using a matte grey primer.

The set so far. You can see that the different pieces allow for a lot of different options. This is more than I will ever use at once on my 4' x 4' skirmish table.
You can see where this leaves us now. The current set includes the following:
-4 12" straight sections (1 with bridge)
-1 12" section with intersection
-3 6" 90 degree corners
-1 terminus
-2 6" straight sections
The painted sections can be seen here.


  1. Thanks for adding my blog. All my hobby projects are on hold as I try and try to find a job.

  2. Have you done anything more with the canal as it looks awesome! Just looking at the rest of the terrain you've built on the blog and it's really impressive.

  3. SW1-Thanks for visiting. Well, I moved the canal from one box to another... I have not done any more work on it. I should sit down and do it. It will only take a few hours to finish it off.

  4. I recently volunteered to build some roads and/or rivers for our small gaming group and being a complete terrain modelling novice I started to trawl the web for examples. Your canal system has really inspired me (and shown me how relatively easy it can be to do).

    I've now also read all (i think) of your excellent terrain articles and am full of ideas :)


    1. I'm glad they helped you. I'm actually making some river sections at the moment. If you send me an email through the contact section I can send you some pictures of them. They are almost done but I probably won't post them up here for a few more weeks (I am a bit behind on my posting).


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