Saturday, 4 June 2016

Fun with bricks



I've been trying my hand at bricklaying recently. I got so carried away that I built a Wizard's Tower and now a Roman Temple is under construction. It's hard work, this brick-work malarkey!

  

Hirst Arts Fantasy Architecture Inc. The source of my latest experimental terrain building. Well, to more accurate, on old plastic ice-cream tub of assorted Hirst Art bricks bought in the distant past, probably at a show, with good intentions and stored deep in the bowls of the Battleshed. There they lay, long forgotten and undisturbed. Until recently that is, when I kind of had a 'Eureka!' moment whilst rummaging round looking for suitable materials for my ancient chariot racing board - and the cob-web shrouded tub of bricks were rediscovered.

For those unfamiliar, Hirst Arts are a system of silicone rubber moulds created by Bruce and Joanne Hirst over in the US from which a whole range of 'blocks' can be cast from the material of your choice, such as casting plaster, and assembled either using plans provided or simply your imagination. Think of it as a kind of terrain builder's Lego. The Hirst Arts site provides pretty much everything you need to know, from video tutorials and project ideas to detailed casting, construction and painting instructions. It even has customer reviews of the various casting materials available from all over the world.

For those of us in the UK, I found TerraGenesis, (a miniature building community), an excellent alternative site which included a comprehensive review and further project examples. Another great place to start.

So how did I progress from an old tub of Hirst Art blocks to adding a fine film of plaster dust to the Battleshed's strata? As mentioned, I'm currently building an ancient chariot racing board for the upcoming Faustus Furius rules and these blocks provided the perfect material to create some suitably ancient architecture. Similarly, I was also looking at sourcing a 'Wizards' Tower' for my Frostgrave terrain. So the first thing I did was - go on the interweb.

A few days later I was in possession of two Hirst Art moulds - one called, coincidentally, 'The Wizard's Tower' (mould 50) and the other 'The Roman Temple (mould 62). These were from Hirst Arts UK and cost £29.63 each. A sound investment in my opinion if you know you're likely to casting many bricks for future projects.

The Roman Temple (left) and The Wizard's Tower (right) Hirst Arts moulds in action
The Wizards Tower is recommended as a good beginner project and the blocks it produced looked familiar too - they were mostly the same ones in the forgotten tub! With the moulds, all I needed were a few items to get started. I followed the advice in the TerraGenesis article and gathered the items suggested, most of which I already had. In fact I only added a pack of cheap plastic cups, a bottle of 'rinsing agent', e.g. the stuff used when rinsing dishes to stop water marks and lastly, some casting plaster. For ease of use and cheapness, I bought a couple of 2.5kg bags of Plaster of Paris from my local Hobbycraft. Its recommended to buy casting powder in small bags if you can as it does have a shelf-life, even when unopened.

There are lots of options when it comes to the material used for casting. Plaster of Paris is cheap and easy to use, but not as strong as for example, Dental Stone, another suggested medium. I plan to experiment with different materials once I gain more experience with the process.

As for the actual casting process, it was actually quite straightforward. The moulds were cleaned and prepared for their first cast using the Wet Water method, which is where the rinsing agent came in. This caused howls of derision from The Teenager and my brother-in-law when I tried to explain that I was making the water 'wetter'; the science of surface tension being lost on them apparently. Its nothing fancy, it just helps the casting material to reach all the crevices in the mould better than regular 'water'. 
The moulds being prepared for first-time use using the Wet Water method

With the first cast poured, I waited for about six minutes before carefully 'scraping' the surface of the moulds with a 4" wallpaper scraper to remove excess plaster from the top of the moulds. A further thirty-odd minutes later and I was easily 'popping' my first bricks from the flexible little moulds as they had set hard enough to be handled. And they were pretty good too, for my first ever set. Hardly any air-holes evident. Its advisable to leave the blocks to dry completely before use, preferably in a location where the temperature doesn't fluctuate too much. I moved mine - after judicious negotiation with Her In Doors - to the house where we had a dehumidifier.

A tray of bricks drying from multiple casts from the Roman Temple mould
If I was going to make the Wizard's Tower from scratch I'd need to cast the mould 18 times. However with my tub of pre-made blocks I started building the tower from the plans straight-away. I didn't know if I'd have enough from the tub but I thought it would be useful practice anyway. And it was pretty easy. A bit of trimming with sandpaper here and there, a dab of PVA glue and the blocks were soon piling up - aided by my special 'line-a-upper' tool made from some real Lego! I got a bit carried away and started detracting from the original plans a bit, adding in a chimney accessory from one of my old GW sprues. The tub of blocks didn't have enough of the fancy portal decorations, but I continued on, regularly breaking to recast the moulds.

Magi Bayaz (top) and his apprentice, Lancrix the tall (28mm) at home.

Before the building was painted, I wanted to ensure there were no gaps between bricks and there was an fairly even application of mortar, so a fairly fluid wash of PVA and Spackle was applied with an old brush, forcing it into the cracks between the bricks.

Note: the lower tower roof can be removed to provide access to the interior
The building itself was firstly primed with basic grey acrylic spray primer. Then a wash of fortress grey paint was added, with a touch of PVA in the mix. When dry,a couple of increasingly lighter grey acrylics were dry-brushed onto the brickwork. Finally, some 'lichen' was washed in a bit of paint and glued onto the walls to add a bit of character.

Building ready, apart from adding a suitably wizardly door
The Tower was based using some pre-cut 'hard-board' - my jig-saw is a hard-working Battleshed tool! Lots of Spackle was used to form the snow on the ground, which was then topped with a mixture of PVA glue, Baking Soda and white acrylic paint (in equal measures). Once dry, the edging was sanded and more white paint applied. The flagstones were simply a mix of blocks cut in half. I just need to add a door now! Magi Bayaz is complaining his new digs are too draughty already!

My first idea was to simply use as much of the old bricks to assemble a Wizard's Tower as I could, as a sort of practice session. Then, when I'd made enough bricks from the mould, build a second tower using what I'd learned and use the plans properly. However, with the first tower built - and not too shabby either - I've decided to redirect most of my new bricks for use in the Faustus Furius race-track, along with the Roman temple, which I'd been simultaneously casting. I'll need 13 casts for that project. I'm pretty much there, and as you can see below I've already started laying the first temple bricks. 
 
The first couple of rows for the Roman Temple in place
I'll be posting up the chariot racing board once it's done with the temple, and whatever mad buildings I assemble in place. In the meantime, I recommended having a look at Hirst Arts for your terrain projects. After the initial outlay for the moulds and a few cheap tools, all sorts of wonderful things could be built. I'm already contemplating purchasing a couple more moulds with plans for a more elaborate 'fantasy building' taking shape!