Discover the secret to creating awe-inspiring desert bases for your miniatures using this simple yet tried and tested 9-step technique.
Desert bases can provide a striking contrast to your miniatures, especially if they are painted in cool tones. The desolate, sandy landscape can evoke a sense of harshness and desolation, which can add to the overall narrative of your miniature scene. I love them for skeletons miniatures in particular.
Whether you’re painting a squad of Space Marines for Warhammer 40,000 or a band of adventurers for Dungeons & Dragons, desert bases can provide a striking contrast to your miniatures. For my skeleton army, the desert base makes the white of the bone pop and really stands out on the tabletop.
As a seasoned railway modeller, I’ve spent countless hours crafting intricate landscapes for my models. One of the most effective techniques I’ve honed over the years is using sand to create realistic terrain. It’s a simple, cost-effective method that can bring your bases to life. Here’s how I do it:
Materials You’ll Need
To create a desert base, you’ll need the following materials:
- A base for your miniature
- PVA glue aka Elmer’s glue.
- Sand (fine and coarse
- Tissue paper
- Alternatively, Citadel texture paints
- Paints (in desert colours or reds and others to match different worlds)
- Optional: small rocks or pebbles, static grass, and miniature desert plants
- Clear matt varnish
With the materials out of the way, let’s dive into this step-by-step how to build desert miniature bases.
Step 1: Gather your sand
The key to a realistic desert look is using sand with varied grain sizes.
I usually mix different types of sand and crushed rock together. The color of the sand doesn’t matter much as you can paint or ink it later to match your desired appearance. But remember, scale is key. Your choice of sand grain size should reflect the scale of your models, for instance, 28mm miniature and larger scales, like 1:32 or 1:24, a coarser sand will be appropriate. For a smaller 1:48 of 1:76 scale model, very fine sand or even Arm & Hammer Pure Baking Soda might work best to represent desert sand.
For my train layouts, I use a really fine local golden sand – my town is rumoured to be named after a crossing on the local river near this golden sand, Guilden (golden) Ford (crossing) in Saxon times becoming Guildford today. For miniature bases, I use a variant of this, found on the river banks slightly further up where the sand grains are slightly larger and more textured.
Either way, use a standard kitchen sieve or tea strainer to separate the sand into different grain sizes, leave it aside for a few days for any critters to have time to climb out, and finally, then bake it in a preheated oven or air fryer at 200°C (392°F) for 20 minutes to eliminate any organic matter.
If you don’t have a source of local sand, these WWS 500ml pots of coarse sand work really well for miniature bases; while baking soda can work for smaller scales. Alternatively, Citadel textured paints are a quick and easy substitute for stoney deserts if you don’t want to mess around with sand and PVA. See below for directions on using these instead.
Step 2: Prepare Your Glue
Start by thinning your PVA glue with water. I recommend using a 10:1 ratio of Elmer’s White Glue to water.
This ratio ensures that the glue is thin enough to easily apply with a paintbrush, but still thick enough to hold the sand particles. To do this, pour 10 parts of PVA glue into a mixing bowl. Then, add 1 part of water. Stir the mixture with a spoon until the glue and water are fully combined.
If you have a digital scale, you can use it to measure out the glue and water to ensure that the ratio is accurate. Remember to clean your brush immediately after applying the glue to prevent it from hardening and damaging the bristles.
For miniature bases, it’s easy to get this glue on the sides of the base, but it’s easy to wipe off with a damp cloth.
It helps if you have an airtight bottle to keep the glue in so it doesn’t set between applications. If you do this, however, make sure you shake or vibrate the bottle well before each use, otherwise, the PVA will sink to the bottom.
Quick Alternative: As mentioned above, the quickest method, which avoids the following steps 3, 4 and 5, is to use Citadel texture paints. Agrellan Earth, Astrogranite or Armageddon Dunes work well for dry stoney desert terrains. These not only give the texture required but being thick paints they can build up a more natural uneven surface too.
To use these, scoop out some of the technical paint and paste it to the base. Let this dry and reapply additional coats if required.
Once dry and apply a wash of Agrax Earthshade followed by dry brushing in step 7 below.
Step 3: Build the base
Sand in its natural setting is rarely flat. It has peaks, dunes, and troughs where it’s been blown around by wind.
To recreate an uneven base mimicking the natural landscape of a desert., I use the same material I use occasionally for making river banks on my model railways: tissue paper.
Tear the tissue paper into small pieces, about 1 cm in size. Submerge each piece into the glue mixture, then place it on the base. Layer the pieces of tissue paper until you achieve the desired height and repeat this over the surface of the base to create an uneven surface. Cork could also be used but while it’s great for rocky outcrops, I find the edges where the cork ends are too steep and vertical for mini sand dunes. Layers of tissue paper by contrast create a smoothly graduating uneven surface which, once sand is applied, looks very credible.
Typically, I do this by laying down some PVA and delicately placing pieces of torn-off tissue on it, adding successive layers in places until I reach the height I want. Then, I lay further sheets over the entire base to smooth it out.
One mistake to avoid when doing this is not to place any pieces with the straight edges of the tissue across the base. This creates edges in the sand and looks very fake (although if you’re making a large base, it could perhaps, once covered with sand, hint at buried foundations). Instead, tear the tissue on all sides so there are no straight edges.
Step 4: Apply Glue to the Miniature’s Base
Let the tissue paper/glue layer dry and then apply a thin layer of your glue mixture to your model’s base. Make sure you cover every surface that you want to look like the ground or earth.
Step 5: Add Sand
Once you’ve applied the glue, it’s time to add the sand. Some people hold the base upside down and press it into the sand. Personally, I prefer to sprinkle the sand over the base so I have greater control of the visual effect. This is also from habit, it would be difficult to dip a model railway baseboard several feet square into sand – I’d need an entire sandpit for starters and I’m not sure the local council would be pleased if I did this at the local playground🙂
Regardless of how the sand is applied, once the base is covered, take a close look and with a pair of tweezers remove any particles of sand that look out of place. Being glass, sand frequently includes transparent particles which are large enough to stand out but don’t have the solid appearance of rocks.
Step 6: Paint or Ink the Base
After the glue has dried, apply a wash or ink to the base. I recommend using Army Painter Quickshade Wash Set for this step. Dilute the ink with water in a 1:1 ratio, then apply it to the base using a Citadel Medium Shade Brush. This will darken deeper areas of the base texture, and keeping raised surfaces brighter and help to unify the colour of the model and the base.
Step 7: Apply Drybrushing
Now use the drybrush technique to apply lighter shades of paint, Tyrant Skull is my preferred choice, to the raised areas of the sand. This will create a realistic, sun-bleached effect.
To apply a dry brush layer, dip the brush into Tyrant Skull and then wipe off most of the paint. Very lightly skim the brush over the raised areas of the texture, let this dry and repeat with progressively lighter coats.
This will highlight raised areas, preserving the recessed areas, adding depth, and emphasizing the texture.
Step 8: Add Details
For added impact, you can glue rocks or pebbles to the base to represent larger desert rocks and skulls from the Games Workshop Citadel Skulls or Green Stuff World’s Resin Skulls packs.
To add larger rocks or skulls, use a pair of tweezers to place the items on the base. Apply a small amount of glue to the bottom of each pebble before positioning it.
You can also add static grass or miniature desert plants to create patches of sparse vegetation. When you add larger rocks, sprinkle some fine sand at a 45-degree angle to the base on the exterior facing side of the rock to simulate the accumulation of wind-blown sand around the rock.
Step 9: Seal the Desert Base and add the mini
Finally, seal your desert base with a clear matte varnish to protect your miniature’s base. I recommend using Testors Dullcote Lacquer Clear Coat. This will help to prevent the sand particles from coming loose over time.
Once that’s dry, test position the mini on the base and once you’re happy, fix it in place with Superglue or Gorilla glue.
Using sand and white glue is a quick, effective, and visually pleasing way to create realistic terrain for your model railway. It’s a minimalist approach that allows the rest of your model to stand out. You can also add other elements like grass, larger rocks, and debris, or use different coloured inks to add more interest to your model. This technique has served me well over the years, and I hope it can do the same for you.
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.