Building Terrain for Cassino

Cassino Build

Building the Terrain for Road to Rome
With Joel Williams 

Road to Rome was a team-based campaign run at Cancon 2015 centred on the battles around Cassino and Anzio.

You can read all about the Road to Rome event here...

A feature of the tables was the massive mountainous terrain for the double size Monastery and Snakeshead Ridge tables.

This is a brief description of how the terrain was made.


The basic material is “DCTech XPS” foam. It is a dense foam that is easily carved and durable. 

One of the biggest advantages of this foam is that unlike most packing foams it does not create a huge volume of messy shavings.

The foam is available from Make My Model at the following link:


The best way to carve the foam is by using a hot wire cutter. There are commercial models available such as this one:

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Commercial hot wire cutter.

Make My Model sells those too and you can find other models by doing a quick search over the internet.

However, I found the ‘blades’ on the commercial models were too short to make only one cut and result in a mountain slope that was gentle enough. It is very time consuming and hard to get an even slope if multiple cuts are required. So I made my own.

Home Made Hot Wire Cutter 

The components are a variable power supply, fuse, push switch, fuse wire, and insulated wire with alligator clips.  

The power supply is a Powertech MP3800 switching power supply. Output voltage is variable between 0.0v to 24V with built in protection in case of overload. 

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Variable Power Supply.
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Fuse wire, fuse, push switch, and connecting wires.

If you look carefully, the fuse wire ‘blade’ is stretched between the switch near the top right corner and the end of the red wire on the left. It is important to use fuse wire. Normal wire will not heat up enough to cut the foam, or it requires a much more powerful energy source that is in my opinion unsafe. 

The fuse to protect the power unit is the white ceramic fuse in the centre of the photo. The code is 10W 3R3J. 

The push switch allows an easy to control method of putting current through the fuse wire. 

I used insulated wire of about 50cm length with alligator clips to connect to the fuse wire and the switch to the power supply. Using insulated wire like this provides a high degree of flexibility in being able to place and move the blade where you need to make a cut. 

The circuit is:

Power Supply / short insulated wire / fuse / black insulating wire / switch / fuse wire / red insulating wire / power supply

The variable power supply is useful for two reasons: 1) adjusting the power changes how hot the wire gets and therefore how quickly it cuts through the foam. Sometimes it is better to have a lower temperature to make a slower, more precise cut, and 2) the amount of resistance varies according to how long the fuse wire blade is. The variable power allows you to adjust the power output to match the length of the wire.

Care is needed when cutting because the wire can get very hot and it is very easy to give yourself a minor burn. However, a high heat also makes it easier and much faster to carve the foam.


The standard foam block is 600 x 600 and comes in thicknesses of 25mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm. I ordered a non-standard size of 1200 x 600 to reduce the number of pieces that had to be joined and to minimise the potential for gaps to appear during play.

The base is 25mm thick and most of the layers are 100mm thick. 

Step 1. Layout the uncut blocks.

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Pre-cut laid out blocks for the mountain with the Monastery.

This shows three 1200 x 600 x 25 base blocks with four 1200 x 600 x 100 and two 600 x 600 x 50 blocks on top in the rough shape of the mountain to come. 

If you look carefully you can see an FJ team near the top – that gives an idea of the size of the mountain.

Step 2. Carve the blocks 

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Carved mountain.

These are the blocks from Step 1 after carving with the hot wire cutter. 

Some shaping and finishing is done with the rasps and a small, sharp knife.

Step 3. Gluing parts

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Glued join

I tried to minimise the number of pieces that need permanent joining, however, in some places the model is more stable with a permanent join.

You can see the join near the top of the photo.

A water based contact adhesive, such as Selleys waterbased Kwik Grip, is needed because solvent based glues will eat into the foam.  

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Water based contact adhesive.

Step 4.  Adding Texture

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Surface textured with sand and kitty litter

Once the carving is finished the pieces were painted with standard white undercoat house paint. 

When dry, a diluted PVA and water solution is sprayed over the part to be textured. I used a plastic spray container bought from a hardware store, like the ones household cleaners come in.

I then sprinkled two types of sand and kitty litter over the dampened surface. In the photo above finer river sand is applied quite thickly to form a road. To the side of the road and on the slopes I used the darker and courser river sand for general surface and kitty litter for larger rocks. 

I then oversprayed the area again with the diluted PVA/water solution to help keep everything in place. 

Step 5. Painting 

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Snakeshead Ridge with FJ defenders on the summit.

For painting and finishing I used sample pots of household acrylic paints. These were less expensive than artist or hobby paints and even student acrylic paints. It is also possible to get any colour you like. Since household acrylic paint is thicker than artist or hobby paint it needs to be diluted with some water. 

The stages were:

•  Overall thin mixture of a dark brown and water.

•  When dry, a wash of black paint and water to create shadows and pools of paint in crevices. The mixture is about 1 part paint to 20 water.

•  Thick dry brush of a darker shade of grey.

•  Consecutive thinner dry brushing of lighter shade of grey to highlight rocks and edges.

•  Apply some shades of brown paint to break up the grey.

•  In some places where a light cover of vegetation is needed, dry brush a dark green and then a lighter moss coloured green and then apply some different grades of flock over the top secured with watered down PVA.

•  The roads were painted in lighter browns, beiges and off white .

Step 6. Fight!! 

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The Monastery mountain table in the foreground with the adjoining Snakeshead Ridge table in the background .

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The Monastery table from seen from above.

The Monastery table from seen from above. 

This is a standard 1800 x 1200 (6’ x 4’) table. The mountain is 400mm high from ground level to the base of the Monastery. 

This table adjoins the Snakehead Ridge table in the top right hand corner.

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The Monastery and mountain from ground level looking north.

From right to left the three structures are: a) the ruined castle at Pt 236, the bombed out Monastery, Hangman’s Hill.

The only approaches were via the steep slopes in the middle or via the long winding road to the left. 

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The Monastery and Mountain looking to the west.

US troops move up the steep slope. Some German Fallschirmjager defenders are to the right of the destroyed castle in the foreground, up along the bend in the road, and a mortar platoon on the ridge line in front of the monastery.

~ Joel.