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Send in the Clones - DIY Thunder Alley Miniatures - Part I

Kevin L. Kitchens
United States
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Snowflakes Melt
Snowflakes Melt
Loved Thunder Alley since it first came out. But since my first plays I always wanted the game to have miniatures. Quite a reversal for me, since I normally prefer counters for most games. But for some reason Thunder Alley by GMT Games screamed for minis. I know many people have replaced the cardboard counters with actual 1:144 scale die-cast cars, but I didn't want to spend a fortune acquiring them. Not to mention have the real wheels rolling all over the place!

So then I began a quest to upgrade my Thunder Alley experience to something cooler.

One idea I had was to create some print and fold cars and wrap them around some balsa wood blocks. But given the scale (about .5x1") my fat fingers were not going to fold those very well. I also had hoped to find little cars similar to what architects use to decorate their models, but nothing that would suit. 3D printing sites turned up nothing that wouldn't be too expensive (I figure someone would have tackled this by now and sold them in sets)

Then I got the idea to try my hand at casting my own miniatures for the game, then I could paint them in the simple color schemes of the ones in the game and it would be just enough to ramp up the game without being too extravagant. So I started researching the process. Of course, I'm no sculptor, so I would need a "positive" so I could create mold. Back to the 1:144 scale NASCAR die cast cars. I ordered two of these Jeff Gordon (he's a racer, right?) replicas -- got a backup in case one was damaged in the process.

Creating the molds was actually a very simple process that I made complicated. The product I used was Amazing Mold Putty (I got mine at Hobby Lobby with 40% off coupon of course). It's a two part product that you mix in equal amounts. Kneed it together, roll into a ball when mixed and then roll over the the item you want to replicate. It catches and holds detail very well, but I found the molds only last about 12 uses before the finer elements start wearing down.

My first thought was to make full two-piece molds. To do this, you make a mold for half the car, let it cure, then make a mold for the other half (with the first mold still in place). You make indentations in the border of the first half so that when the second is made, it will fill those indentations and then line up for your pouring of material. However you have to leave an opening to pour as well as channels for air trapping areas (like tires) to let the air escape. There are easier ways to create a two-piece mold with pourable silicone, but I was trying to keep expense down.

NOTE: If you're wondering, it's the space between the mold halves that create "flash" in miniatures that are included in games. The "sprue" is normally where the resin or casting compound is poured or injected.

I couldn't decide what part of the car I wanted "marred" by the pouring location... so I ruminated on this for several weeks. Finally I decided that the bottom of the car did not matter. So much so that I didn't even need the detail of the underside. To that end, I gave up the idea of the two piece mold and would simply create a one-piece featuring the detail of the top and sides of the car. I superglued the car to a piece of heavy cardboard and rolled the putty onto the car and pressed it flat onto the cardboard. This could give me a nice, even, flat bottom (without working out) for the minis. I repeated this three times to make four molds total. Each mold takes about 20 minutes to cure or set up, then you can remove the original and you're left with a flexible silicone mold that holds and restores to its shape when you flex it.

The four molds to create copies of the Jeff Gordon car.
Beneath each actually a top part of the mold as I tried (again) to make a two piece setup,
but they failed on casting.

To "cast" the miniatures, I used a two part pourable resin: AlumiRes RC-3. Again, this is normally $30 at Hobby Lobby, but I got for $18 with coupon. This is a two part set (two 16 oz. bottles) that you mix in 1:1 ratio, resulting in 32 oz. of resin. You simply measure equal parts (I used a postal scale, zeroed out to the weight of a 3oz. Dixie cup) of each part, stir and pour into your molds. You need to be ready as you have only two minutes of working time before it starts to set. You can "demold" your new car in just about 10 minutes, but I found for the current weather/climate, I let them sit about 20 minutes.

Thunder Alley has up to seven teams with six cars each for 42 total cars. I calculated based on team sizes that I'd only need a total of 30 cars and since I only play solo (and would choose the same color) that would be fine. However, while I was going ahead and doing it, I figured I'd just make them all. This would require a total of 11 "pours" into each of the four molds (two cars extra). I was initially worried that the 32 oz. of resin wouldn't be enough, but as it turned out, each pour required only a single ounce to complete (only about 11 oz of material total used). In fact I probably could have made two more molds and filled them as well, resulting in less pours and less waste. But in my trial and error, I'd run out of putty, so I just did more rounds. I definitely suggest you watch videos on the process to get comfortable before you try this yourself for Thunder Alley or other mini projects.

Flash! Ah Ah!

When you fill up the mold with resin, some will certainly overflow, resulting in some flash that needs to be trimmed. In addition, I tried to remove imperfections in the casting and to minimize the extra plastic beneath the card body and wheels. I probably overcompensated here and made a mess of things. My plan is to paint the underside a dark asphalt grey to allow the car and tires to stand out. That will be shown in part two of this story (eventually).

Trafficopter reports a multi-car pileup

Now all that's left is the painting of these bad boys. I'll cut stickers for the numbers and then apply sealer to keep it all in.

Overall I'm pretty happy to have gotten this done. I definitely made mistakes and the quality is not quite what I'd hope for. Like I mentioned I should not have been so quick to cut down the bases like I did. Some of the casts I removed too early and it shows. Some had air bubbles that left some of the finer details out. But it will just look like some race damage. I'm hoping the primer and paint will fill in and cover up some of the flaws as well.

Attack of the Clones

One other method I want to try with the molds is to press polymer clay into them and make the cars from that. The silicone can be baked at the temperature the clay cooks at, so you fill it, bake it to harden, then prime and paint. Downside is the time for curing in the over and cooling before demolding each batch. If I try this, I'll certainly make some more molds!

I am my own worst critic on my creative stuff, so I'm trying to see beyond it. Those of you with more time and patience with me who attempt this will probably do a much better job.

I hope this has shown you what can be done... not just for Thunder Alley, but for other games and prototypes.

Full Series Index

All the entries for this series.

1. Send in the Clones - DIY Thunder Alley Miniatures - Part I
2. I'm Certainly No Earl Scheib, But I Don't Charge As Much Either
3. Slow and Steady Wins the... (ahem) Race?
4. Canvas Primer? Surely You Gesso!
5. Let the Good Times Roll
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