Making A Lava Base: Turning Failure Into…. Not Quite Failure

Sometimes when I finish a modelIng project, I’m quite happy with the result. Things went well, and I managed to generally execute in plastic what I envisioned in my mind. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does – it’s very gratifying.

Most times, the model ends up looking reasonably good, but it’s just not what I saw in my head before the project started. Perhaps I had a certain weathering theme in mind, or a desire to apply a particular style, or maybe even a level of drama to the final product. Yet at the end, while it worked out OK, my gut tells me it fell a bit short. Still, it looks decent.

Then there are times I finish, and when I look at it, I am completely surprised that I was able to achieve anything remotely resembling presentable, because the whole process was fairly haphazard, sloppy, perhaps a bit lazy, and at times – born out of desperation.

This is an example of the latter.

I was working on the flying stand for my Citadel Warhammer 40K Stormhawk. As a counterpoint to it’s cool blue tones, I thought that perhaps a warmer, earthy base might look nice. Nothing fancy…. a bit of sand and grass, a rock or two, maybe a happy little bush. 🙂 (I love Bob Ross.)

I decided to use a product I’d never tried before, Grumbacher Acrylic Modeling Paste. A friend had told me it was great for basing dioramas, allowing nice texture to be built up. So I’d hurried over to the local craft store, shelled out waaaaaay too much money for it, and brought it home, with plans to use it on my next diorama.

Small problem though…. I’d never built a diorama. Ever. And had no real plans to start. But this stuff WAS THE BEST EVER. Surely I could try a diorama? So with big plans to do just that, I set it on my shelf ready for use with the next diorama. Soon to be built, I was sure.

That was in 2011

As I stared at the Stormhawk base, I recalled that paste. I dug it out from the back of the shelf, expecting it to be a dried up, solid chunk of money tossed away. To my surprise, it was not.

The paste is much like thick, white PVA glue. I dabbed a bit on a piece of cardboard, just to see how it worked. It seemed simple enough. Glop it on, let it dry, and then add more. Repeat until the base is suitably lumpy. Grabbing the model’s base, I began work.

Actual photo from my Facebook page. (Hint, hint…)

I applied it with a large flat brush, basically shoveling it on to the base in great blobs. After I’d covered the entire base, it was set aside to dry. Being very proud of myself, I even posted a photo on my Facebook page. (Shameless, groveling plug – please go Like my page. 🙂 )

Returning to it the next day, everything had dried to a hard, smooth, rolling texture, and it looked pretty good. I decided to see if I could build up a few areas, so I added some more. Once again I set it aside to dry overnight,

I’ve always had a problem with being a bit greedy. Put a bowl of M & Ms in front of me, and I’ll eat a couple of them. Then maybe a few more. Before long, the bowl is empty, and everyone is wondering where the M & Ms went. (But none are the wiser, because, you know… they melt in your mouth, not in your hands. 😉 )

I should have left well enough alone. Walked away from the bowl. Enjoyed a handful.

But No….

The next day, more paste was added. I thought it looked wonderful. Rolling hills, lumps and bumps. The vision I’d had in my head and the way it was looking were lining up perfectly. Keep going, Icarus! Fly higher! {sigh}

Without waiting a full day for it to dry, I globbed on some more, and set it aside to dry. Circumstances conspired which caused me to not look at it again for 24 hours.

In that time, something had happened. Cracks…. loads of cracks…. had formed across the base. Not just surface cracks, either. Deep fissures. Canyon like. It was horrible looking.

And I’d planned to finish the base up that day, then get the model photographed, and published the next day. I had no project ready to replace it. It was this or nothing.

I thought about filling in the crevices, and following my original plan. But this stuff took – obviously to me now – a while to dry. I could have tried to make it work as is, but I didn’t think it would look right. As I stared at it, the notion came to me that it looked kind of like those lava flows you see on TV nature shows.

And then I thought I’d found a way out of my predicament.

To The Youtubes, Or Not

I’d recently watched some videos about making lava bases. One was by Rob Baer, on Spikey Bits. The other was by Sam Lenz, on Tabletop Minions. I’d also watched a few others. All did a great job of describing methods for achieving a very nice, dramatic, professional looking lava base. Quality stuff, put together by artists who have a passion for sharing their knowledge with folks like me.

So all I needed to do was to go watch those, as a way to refresh my memory, and I’d be good to go, right? Simple.


I’m an idiot.

I thought “Oh yeah, I can do that. Some yellow and white and orange, and some other stuff, and … yeah. Easy.” No need to watch the professionals, for just a few minutes. Nah.


I charged ahead, all by my lonesome, with nary more than a fleeting recollection of “add some colors to a thing” gleaned from the videos.

I grabbed the base, and gave it a coat of primer, choosing a black Stynylrez. I decided to not worry about keeping the clear part of the base completely clear, but rather to fade the black primer a bit, to give burned look. So far, so good.

The next step, I thought, was to add some white into all the crevices. It needed a glowy bit, right? So grabbing some white paint and a nice chunky brush, I very roughly filled in all the nooks and crannies. A bit sloppily, but I had a plan in mind. Well, less of a plan, and more of “we’ll figure it out when we get there”.

I recalled in the videos I watched, that at some point they used yellow. Or at least I thought I recalled they did. Besides… fiery stuff has yellow, right? So I added in yellow. Rather haphazardly. (Detecting a theme…?)

When I finished that, I reviewed my work. It looked as if a slightly trained chimp had finger painted some white and yellow on a Warhammer 40K base. (My wife would probably say that is precisely what happened… but I digress…) I realized it looked like a baboon’s hind quarters. 

I considered stopping here, repriming, and actually watching the videos. Did I? Nope. Idiot.

I thought perhaps if I painted back over the yellow and white that had gotten outside of the crevices, that might work. So I did just that.

OK, I thought… that is a bit better. I recalled in some (or all, or none, who knows…) of the videos, someone had airbrushed some colors on. (It was Rob…) What colors they were, or in what order, I did not remember. At this point, I realized I was in full IdiotMan mode, so I flew higher.

I grabbed a lighter rust/orange color, and sprayed it around the cracks in the base.

Huh? How about that. It made it look quite glowy. But quite a bit of the orange had gotten into the yellow, which had also completely covered the white. Figuring I might be able to fix that at the end, I decided to add more orange.  Mixing the previously used orange with a darker orange, that was sprayed around the edges of the previous color, this color being a bit darker.

Now feeling particularly artsy, and hoping I might be able to pull this one off, I added one more round of orange, this time using only the darker color.

With that done, I needed to do something about all the orange sprayed into the yellow fissures. Combining a few yellow colors, I hand painted those into the fissures, using a heavily thinned mixture of the paint.

That helped, but it still needed more heat… more glow. A lighter shade of yellow was brushed in, again being very thin.

I liked where this was going. Maybe I could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? Or at least play it to a tie and turn a profit on t-shirt sales… 

Not knowing what else to do, I decided to add some Reikland Fleshade, one of Citadel’s Shade paints. I arrived at this conclusion because Warhammer. You just use shades. It’s what you do. Thus says the Duncan. So I slapped it on. (Hello, Ted…) All over everything.


That made a right proper mess of things. The bit of reddish color in the fissures looked OK, but on the surface, it made it too bright. Of course, if you’ve ever used any Citadel products, you know what solves most problems. Loads of Nuln Oil, another of their shade colors. So I slopped it on too, though avoiding the fissures. Surely Nuln Oil could rescue this hot mess?

Of course, as you are now witness to, I grabbed the Nuln Oil GLOSS, not the flat stuff. {sigh}

Time was running out, so I finally decided to leave well enough alone, and gave the base a matte varnish, and call it a day. Even slightly trained chimps get tired of aimlessly tossing bananas around.

Now, in the end, it looked…. not completely, horribly, awful. I managed to recreate something that looked a bit like a glowing lava field, if you squint and use your imagination. I could live with it.

(On the plus side, I did figure out a method for accurately recreating burnt macaroni and cheese crust in a casserole dish quite nicely.)

What did I learn?

  • I’m an idiot. (Well, I already knew that. This affirmed it.)
  • When you make a mistake, don’t shout “charge” and run headlong through it
  • If you have a good source of information, do take the time to review it, rather than charging headlong into aforementioned mistake
  • Don’t be afraid to stop and asses the situation, rather than charging… oh, you know
  • It’s better to be lucky than good, sometimes

Of course, we all know I actually did not learn any of those things. I observed them, wrote them in a bullet list, and will promptly forget them. That’s just me.

However, all this does show that there are simple, effective methods for getting a professional looking lava base. Just go watch those videos I linked to.

However, if you’re looking for a simple, quick way to replicate your mom’s burnt casserole, look me up. 🙂

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