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Take the High Road: Making Cheap and Easy Dirt Roads

I have wanted some good roads to add to my games for a while now. My first attempt was a couple of years ago when my standards were a bit lower and I wasn't sure how much I was interested in investing in this new hobby. I bought some PDFs of cobblestone roads that I sized, printed, and glued to felt. The result was okay, but the way my laser printer  produced the roads ended up being quite reflective to the point of almost being glossy looking. The combination of glue, paper, and felt also meant the roads had a wavy consistency and almost always curled at the edges. I used them once or twice but was never happy with them.

My sub-par first attempt at making roads for my games using felt strips, glue, and printed designs. You can see how shiny and how wavy and curled at the edges they turned out. I never felt good about putting them on the table for our games and eventually stopped altogether.

I've been meaning to take another crack at making some roads now that I have more terrain-making experience under my belt and find the process less intimidating. If I had to pass on any advice to newcomers to terrain making it would be to watch a number of YouTube tutorials or check out a site like my pal John's 1,000 Foot General, and then just jump in and get your hands dirty. Material is typically fairly cheap, and the more you are willing to improvise and make mistakes, the faster you'll become comfortable with the creative process involved.

When I was putting together my board for my zombie apocalyse game for Halloween 2017, I landed on the idea of using linoleum floor tile for the small town's paved roads. They turned out well enough, and the tiles had three main virtues: (1) they're easy to find, (2) they're incredibly cheap, and (3) they're easy to cut with simply scissors.

When it came time to construct terrain for my game adaptation of the Conan short story "Beyond the Black River," I went back to vinyl floor tiles because I appreciated another inherent quality: their low profile, which allows them to feel more integrated with the surrounding terrain and less like a piece sitting raised on top of the mat or board.

The next time I was at Home Depot, I bought another small stack of 10 tiles ($0.49 each), knowing I'd use them for something else. That "something else" turned out to be the dirt roads I made last weekend. Below are some shots and notes on the process. In the end I made several feet of dirt road (as well as lots of bases for forest floors or muddy/rough terrain patches with the spare bits) for around $10 or less in materials.

To get started, this is all you really need.

I decided 3" was a good width for my roads. Just make sure both ends are exactly that length so you have no problems cleanly connecting up your sections on the table. If you're unsure while you're making your initial cuts, just cut a smidge wider: you can always trim down, but you can't add back what you've already trimmed off! I drew on the non-adhesive side of the tile. Unlike this particular tile, my sections didn't typically have twists and turn this pronounced, and so I was usually able to get three 12"x3" road sections out of a single 49 cent tile. 

Here's a T-section (forgive the funky shadow)...I started by just drawing straight lines across the length of the tile with the ruler to ensure my ends all measured exactly 3", but then I went back over with the Sharpie and added some slight bends and variations to the lines. Perfectly straight dirt roads across a country side would look artificial to my eye.

A handful of the many sections I cut from several tiles in about an hour (maybe less).

The next step: Get something to serve as a tray in which to pour sand. I used a plastic tub's lid. An old cardboard box would be just as good.

I half hoped the adhesive side of the tile would work to capture and hold the sand in place, but it was no where near sticky enough. I just peeled off the paper and poured a healthy amount of matte Mod Podge on the "adhesive" side of the tile.

I used the plastic knife for the first couple tile sections, but it quickly became too slow and frustrating so I abandoned it and just used my fingers to smear glue around more evenly. You don't want to get glue over everything you touch, though, so I got a dish rag and simply wiped my fingers off after spreading the glue on each tile.

Dip the glue side down and shimmy it around a bit. 

I'd often notice small spots where not enough sand adhered to an edge or something. Just get a pinch of sand and sprinkle it in the spotty areas.

You'll see some largish white patches on these sections where there was a larger glob of glue than was likely ideal. These spots did tend to dry at a slightly different consistency, but ultimately they looked enough like a muddy patch in the road in the final product that I didn't care. You might be slightly more careful and get the glue a bit more evenly applied.

I brought these inside to dry. This represents about a third of the pieces I constructed in total. All in all, the glue and sand was messy fun. Use your fingers and an older shirt, and you'll be good. As you can see here, though, using plain sand left the roads looking more like a strip of beach. I wasn't going to be happy with these until they looked more like a dirt road, which meant spray painting them all.
When you cut out the irregular road sections (curves, intersections, etc.), you'll end up with all sorts of chunks of tile that you could easily turn into "flooring" for a small group of trees or rough dirt patches to represent more difficult to traverse terrain. Might as well knock some of those pieces out while you're going to the trouble of making roads. I used three of these to test out color schemes. I painted the top left with a darker spray paint that came in a six-pack of camouflage from Rust-oleum. The top right was a high-end brown I bought from an art supply store a couple of years ago. The middle bottom was the light brown from the camouflage six pack.

I played around with some different dry brush colors to further determine which scheme I wanted to apply to all of the road sections. The lightest of the browns (from the previous photo) ultimately looked too dusty and arid for a road that I imagined would mostly be used on grassy terrain. The darkest brown pictured here looked pretty great, but it almost felt more like very fecund jungle soil to my eyes. I ended up going with the mid brown. It felt the most versatile, and I can imagine it working on a grassy battle mat as well as an arid one. 

I labeled the backs just so I can remember what color combos I tried.

Here's the brown I ended up going with as the base color. It's pretty expensive on Amazon ($16/can), but I think I got it for around $10 at my local art supply store.

In the end I probably used about half a can for everything.

I got a sunny Sunday afternoon after a couple days of rain kept me from getting these sprayed.

Tip: Paint the side edges of these tiles, too. You don't want the tile's natural color (in this case white) to break up the continuity between the brown road and whatever colored mat you're laying it on. Intrinsic to good rather than just serviceable terrain making, to my mind, is anticipating the ways your material or technique help maintain the illusion you're after. 
I let it all dry for about an hour before stacking it up to take inside and start the dry brushing.
To break up the uniformity, first I randomly stippled about half the surface with Craftsmart Espresso acrylic.  

I then decided to drybrush the entire section with Craftsmart Golden Brown. (I wasn't as heavy handed as the streaks in this piece suggest...I overcompensated once the wife started snapping photos.)

Hard to see in this photo, but in the end the texture looks natural on the table.

One cat paw for scale.

In the beginning, Gigi was quite excited by this project...

...but I eventually got the stink eye when she realized all of these sandy bits were not actually part of an elaborate litter box for her.

She couldn't have been more crestfallen.

Over the course of another hour or so I powered through the last of the dry brushing.

All in all, setting aside the time for glue and spray paint to dry, I would say the rest of the project—measuring, cutting, gluing sand, spray painting, and then dry brushing—was the equivalent of an afternoon's work (perhaps 3-4 hours). I'm pretty pleased with how it all turned out, and I have something like nine feet of road and a lot of other terrain bits out of it.

I'm surprised more wargamers don't employ linoleum tile when building terrain, given how cheap and versatile it is, and how it eschews a lot of the headaches associated with using MDF board, which I find a nightmare to cut with my electric jigsaw and prone to warping without lots of extra prep.

Working on this blog reminded me of this song from a lifelong favorite film that changed me forever upon seeing it as a child. Take a moment, give it a listen, and contemplate what kind of road you want running through your imagination and across your game table.



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, friend! I can only aspire to your amazing terrain. Someday, I hope...

  2. They look great!

    Excellent idea about writing the paint colors on the bottom.

    1. Thanks...necessity is the mother of invention!

  3. I have used tiles for bases for small terrain pieces. Why I didn't think of them for roads I don't know! Great tutorial.

  4. I'm a rank beginner at tabletop crafting but I tried to do something very similar using some chipboard I had around and joint compound for texture. It came out tolerably well but there's a lot of room for improvement; if I do it again in the future I'll definitely keep tiles in mind, since the chipboard curled pretty badly.

    1. Thanks for the link to you blog. Looks like we both just recently took to road building. As a fellow neophyte, I hear your frustration with learning how different material will behave in these projects.

  5. Hate to say this, but... I, too, used vinyl floor tiles, the very same ones, for figure bases, small, and large. I painted PVA Glue on the tile, then I swirled them in sand mixtures, for texturing. It went well enough, for the first few months. After six months, however, they curled: the edges curled upwards, toward the center of the tile piece. They were ruined. This happened on tile bases from1"-square, to 6"-squares.

    On a brighter note, I, too, printed off PDF terrain (2D dungeon layouts) on paper, then I peeled off the wax paper backing on the tiles, and applied the dungeon layouts to them. I covered the dungeon prints with clear contact paper (clear vinyl), to protect them from wear during play. This worked perfectly! The vinyl will curl slightly, over time, but I just flex it backwards, and it flattens out nicely.

    Do this with your cobblestone road PDF's, and you will have very nice roadways for your tabletop games. I did the same with a 2D river PDF. I now have flat river sections I can throw down to create a river as long as I need. Nice thing is that the river is scale-less, it works for virtually any figure scale, from small creek, to wide river, depending upon the figures used with it. Cheers!

    1. Hmmm....that's concerning. I will say that I made my rivers using these tiles almost a year ago, and that involved a ton of glue and paint with no warping issues at all so far. Hopefully I have similar luck with these road tiles. It seems odd that it took so many months for your vinyl tile bases to warp. You'd think it would absorb any moisture from the PVA with a couple of days. I know some vinyl tiles actually have some wood in their make up...I wonder if yours could have? These cheapo tiles I'm using seem 100% man-made chemical artifacts of modern science. Can't imagine a single organic moisture-absorbing molecule is contained within them. Keeping my fingers crossed...

  6. Forgot to mention, your river is superb! Was that done on vinyl floor tile, as well? Regardless of what you used for a base material, can you give some insight on how you did it? That is one of the best I have seen. Cheers!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words. The rivers feel like one of my more successful builds. They were done with the exact same tiles about a year ago, and haven't had any warping issues. I go into a fair amount of detail on how I constructed them in the following post:

  7. Nice roads, I've also used vinyl flooring to make roads and rivers ( it was the depth of winter and my sand was damp so I don't think I got as consistant finish as you!) But it was some time ago and I can't say I've had any warping,mine wasn't squares but an offcut from my kitchen but I figure it'll be the same entirely man made material!
    Best Iain

  8. So...I did some more research into the curling issue Sgt. Slag reported on his prior foray into vinyl tiles, and the issue comes down to the water content of the glue you use and the small amount of resin in Mod Podge. Mod Podge definitely has less water, which causes it to constrict/shrink less when it dries. Mod Podge also has some resin in it that white glue doesn't, which makes it better resistant to water, too, when it dries (incidentally making it a better glue to paint on top of, if you need to). The combination of those factors likely explains why Slag's tiles curled and mine haven't, even a year later. Sorry your first time out of the gate with the vinyl tiles was a frustration, Sgt. Slag, but I think Mod Podge instead of Elmer's or other white glues would make the difference. I just got lucky on my first choice of glue, I guess. To be honest, for anything that requires any sort of PVA for crafting, I always default to Mod Podge.


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