How to Build an Army Display Board

I was recently tasked with building a display board for our Adepticon team army.  I documented the whole thing so you can try your hand at a similar DIY project!

How to build an army display board

Because time was an issue, as seem to always be the case with tournament prep, a lot of this process was trial and error and educated guesses.

This is a quick step by step on building a nice and relatively easy display board to score precious presentation points in your next tournament!

The best thing to remember, specially if you are not familiar with building terrain and display boards is this: the goal of a display board is to showcase the miniatures on it.

As such, you really don’t need to go overboard.  Make sure your models fit and they follow a certain narrative when they are on the board.

Of course, you can go totally overboard – but this is a tad more advanced.

Plan your Work

I could break this into smaller steps, because it is huge, but this step is all the hoops you need to jump through before actually starting the thing.

I am not much of a planner when it comes to painting, but trust me on this. For bigger or more complex projects, it is mandatory.

Plan something and draw it out. It doesn’t need to look pretty nor make sense to anyone other than yourself, but this should give you some idea of where you’re going.

I don’t think I’ve kept the original doodles, but it was drawn on a bar napkin and looks somewhat nothing like the finished product.

In that doodle, write down, or take a mental note on the materials you need or can use.

This big board was for a 4000 points army.  So while I was planning, I also planned for a more standard board in the same theme for my regular army.

That one is the simplest kind, and is a good starting point if you’re unfamiliar with terrain building in general.

My initial plan was to do something really simple with a couple elements that stood out. With more time ahead of me, and now some practice under my belt, I would go for bigger projects.

Reality-check yourself before you wreck yourself.


The second part of this step is gathering up the materials needed. Here’s a list of the most common things, with some with links to get them on the cheap.

  • Insulation Foam – either 1”, 1½”, 2”, that’s why you need a plan
  • Sand – Unless you want a city-feel or lava-themed board, any other texture I can think of, you will be better served by a sand texture for your display. More into this later
  • Cork– This is optional, but it is quite simple to work with and quite cheap. For 1$ you can buy 2 18” squares that will be enough to base your army and board.
  • Foamcutter – This is mandatory if you’re using foam, don’t try to x-acto you’re way out of this, you will contemplate your wrists at some point. Also, don’t get a battery powered one, they work like crap. There was a vibrator joke material somewhere in there but I missed it…
  • Sharpie /Black Marker – I always carry one around for autograph purposes, but if this is not your case, get one. Draw out basic shapes on foam with no imprint and maximum clarity.
  • Wood glue – Like white glue but much stronger and only slightlymore expensive. This board is hard to carry around and will see a lot of action, you need your basing materials to hold, so it’s worth it.
  • Hot glue gun – I’m a great fan of saving every penny possible, and hot glue is the cheapest around and holds like nobody’s business. You can get a gun for 5$ and a bag of glue sticks for 1$. This will last you ages and you will find a lot of uses for it as you go.
  • Box Cutter – let me be clear, I’m not talking about your fancy little hobby knife.  I mean the heavy duty thing, with a 3’’ blade that cuts linoleum. Basically, you need the blade to go through the foam otherwise you’ll ruin it. Also, it’s not work ruining good hobby knife blades on this. Save money, buy more beer.

This covers what you’ll need to build the backbone of most display board, of course you might want some more specific supplies to fit your needs, like LEDs or plasticard.

Work your Plan

This step is where the fun begins.

Once you have the idea and the doodles down, it’s design time.

The first step is the board itself; the structure upon which we will add texture and terrain.

Unless you are crafty and enjoy this, I find that buying a board or tray is a much better value for the money you spend versus the time you have to put in.

The little trays for breakfast in bed are really nice (and you can score couples-points if you buy an extra one for your significant other) or wooden canvases from art supplies stores.

Next, once we have the actual size of the board covered, we can start drawing and mapping out our terrain elements.

Start by drawing out ALL the shapes and pieces you will need first. This not only ensure you have enough foam to complete your project, but also that pieces fit together.

Also write down which side you want to use, as usually boards of foam have some slight bruises and you want to hide them when possible.

It might seem dumb to mention this, but just to be thorough, try to keep straight edges and corners for when you actually need straight edges and corners.

This step does not need to be pretty, make sure that cuts that should be straight are straight, and that you have the right shapes and size for hills/whatever, the detailing will come later.

Dry Fit is Best Fit

Once you have carefully cut the shapes you need, place them on your board and sand them down to fit.

Re-cut pieces until you are satisfied with the look of everything.

While all the pieces are on there, mark out additional pieces you will add with your black marker – the fly-shape gouges and the puddle, in this case. Or where to place ruins if you are doing a city fight theme, for example.

Once the add-on parts of the display boards are covered, it’s time to looks at the removed parts, if you want any.  This can be puddles, rivers, or even trenches.

We do this after, because once we start cutting and carving into the display, it’s much harder to put back together.

As the title for this step suggests, this step is more of the mise-en-place, where we make sure everything fits together.  Nothing is glued yet. That part is the next step, once everything is done, ready, measured, and fitting.

Building the Display Board

At this stage, I am also doing all of the bases for the models in the army.  This serves two purposes:

1- I save a lot of time because all the materials are already out

2- This will ensure that the bases fit perfectly with the display.

Start with cork or big rocks and glue these down.  Work your was from bigger texture to smallest texture, it is much easier that way.

Again, before going totally crazy with rocks and cork, you might want to fit your army on the display board first.  This tells you how much extra space you have, and where to best display your characters.

Once this is done, apply wood glue across the entire board, and sprinkle generously with sand.  There is not much to be said about this process, it’s quite straightforward and not the most fun.

I use a flat piece of cardboard to spread the glue evenly.  It goes much faster than a brush on large areas.

I started with the hills on mine, applying glue and then flock. Then did the same on the second level of hills. Then finished the whole board.

Most people suggest working in small area, but I never seem to get this to look even.  Instead I just try to speed through this process.

You can also speed this tremendously with a helper.  One of you can spread the glue all over while the other follows with the sand.

Painting the Display Board

Everything is in place and dry means it’s time to start painting.  There are a couple of things you should know to make this whole experience more enjoyable.


Display boards are quite large, so the tools you need to use are usually slightly different.  The same goes for time saving techniques, like spray guns or airbrushes, whose value and efficiency increase tremendously.

Unless you buy specific brands designed for it, shaker cans will eat through foam.  You have to be careful if you try this, it can ruin your good work.

The brown basecoat on a board that size is quite time consuming with a brush, even a very large one.  That’s because you still have to make sure you hit every nook and cranny in the sand texture.

The same goes for the paint you use.  Because of the size, using fancy hobby paint quickly turns into an expensive endeavor.  Also, the small sized pots of most hobby lines are downlight not practical.

Instead, reach for cheap craft store paint.  Mine is called Creamcoat, and costs a dollar for a pot that’s five times Citadel’s size )

This applies to pretty much everything on your board so far, from the basing to the rocks to the buildings.

Make sure that whatever step you’re doing on your board, you are also doing on your army’s bases at the same time.

Additional details

This is where you make your display board come to life really.  You get to make it your own by adding all the cool elements that tie in with your army, like the green goo or the hanging parchment on our Nurgle themed one.

You can (and probably should) add a name plate somewhere on your display baord.  This comes in handy for paint judging at events, and if you have a somewhat hobby-related project, like Instagram, YouTube channel or the like, it can serve as a little add of what you do.

Share your thoughts