Douglas Donin
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=============== 1 - Introduction ===============

Hello, fellow gamers.

In this series of (3) articles I will show the techniques I use to make my own wood blocks for wargames. I am by no means a professional carpenter or woodworker - in fact, I'm a lawyer - and most of these techniques I learnt as I did. So, I'm sure some of you have much better ways to do the same job, but I'm sure as well some of you don't have a slightiest idea where to start, too.

Feel free to contribute with your comments and please forgive me for butchering the beautiful language of Shakespeare, as well.

The articles will cover these topics:
1 - cutting and preparing your blocks;
2 - basic painting;
3 - decorating and adding symbols.

For the sake of accessibility, I will not use power tools (electric saws, etc), for four main reasons:
1 - not everyone have these tools;
2 - they are not 100% safe for we laymen to use, and I don't want anyone losing fingers on me;
3 - depending on the wood you use, the final result may be rough and below what you desire;
4 - they shake too much, difficulting fine work.

That said, let's jump to the tutorial.

=============== 2 - What you'll need ===============

You'll need the following materials:



- Some wooden laths. For this tutorial, I bought (at the local Leroy & Merlin store) four 1cm x 1cm x215 cm 100% certified Imbuia (Ocotea Porosa) laths, wich is a very, very good wood, used mainly for fine furniture. Each lath cost is R$ 4,60 (U$ 2.50), and the four laths (wich costed U$ 10.00) were enough for up to 210 1x1x4 cm long, linear warfare, Napoleonic age style wood blocks;

- Some scraps of wood of various sizes. We'll cover its uses later;

- A good hand saw;

- A small hammer;

- A bag of small steel nails;

- Some C-Claps (here in Brazil we call them "Generals" in some regions). Nowadays small chinese iron c-clamps are very cheap and can be found nearly anywhere;

- A pen, or a pencil;

- A measuring device;

- Some pieces of sandpaper;

- A bench, table or other good stand, comfortable to work on.

=============== 3 - Measuring the Blocks ===============

First, we must determine the sizes, measure and mark the blocks for cutting.

Any game you make will have a specific shape and size needed for the pieces. As I will make a Napoleonic era game, my need is for long blocks, that simulate very well the linear warfare of the time. The size will depend on the board. In my case, 4 cm long blocks would fit the map spaces. 5 cm, on the other hand, could make a very cluttered board.

So, knowing this, I used a C-Clamps to hold together 4 stripes of wood. This reduced the time, the work needed and, most importantly, reduced the risk of breaking the wood while cutting:



Remember to trim, with the sandpaper, the side where you'll start to cut.

Next, I made small marks every 4 cm:



=============== 4 - Cutting the Blocks ===============

Then I started the cutting proccess. This must be made with patience, to avoid hurting the wood (and yourself):



The result was... a lot of small pieces of wood, the embryos of bold, brave, ferocious, infantry units. Although they don't seem so ferocious by now.



"But", you may argue, "this process ends up with very different sized units! These blocks don't look professional at all! I want my money back!"

Well, I'm aware of that. I'm pretty sure Napoleon himself would haunt me for the rest of my days (not to mention my OCD) should I allow these unaligned, sloppy, malformed units enter the battlefield to face the damned Austrian blocks, ruining the good name of the French Army. So, fear not, let's make a proper army of these blocks.

=============== 5 - Trimming the Units ===============

First, we must "cage" them together. Using spare pieces of wood, build a tight box, lower than the blocks, and fill it with ALL the blocks of your game. I said ALL. The next step must be done with all the blocks at the same time.



Make sure they all hit the bottom...



...and voilá, here they are.



Another view of the blocks. See how they are irregular. This is natural, but it is not an excuse.



Another look:



Let's sand them down. With a sandpaper, start removing the excess:



Remember to scramble the blocks every now and them, when they start to look smooth enough. AND remeber to flip them, to sand the other sides:



The final result: a lot of identical, perfectly aligned blocks, ready for the next step: their "uniform":



Should you desire to smooth them further, you can even round the edges, one by one.

I hope this article was useful enough.laugh

Next: Painting your blocks.
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This is an excellent set of instructions. I am particularly impressed with the frame used to corral the blocks for sanding, and I look forward to the remaining instalments.

Some comments and suggestions - I hope these are helpful:

trade You use a hacksaw to cut the lengths of wood - this is a sensible choice, but it is worth discussing the blade. For this kind of work, fine toothed blades are essential, and more expensive blades give better results (generic hacksaw blades are often thicker).

trade A useful trick is to place a small piece of masking tape on the surface of the wood where you intend to cut- the blade bites into the tape immediately and is less likely to slip. With practise this ceases to be an issue.

Rather than using a tape to measure all the blocks in advance, it is reasonably easy to make a wooden template. This may sound fiddly and time consuming, but it will save time if you need to make a lot of identical pieces.
You need
(1) a small rectangle or square piece of wood approximately 60mm x 60mm, with at least one clean, straight edge,
(2) a wooden batten (cut from one of the pieces of lath!) 50mm long,
(3) a second wooden batten, approx 300mm long,
(4) glue or nails for assembly.
(a) Fix the 50mm batten to the square of wood, 40mm parallel to the straight edge. Be as accurate as possible.
(b) Fix the long batten at 90 degrees to the first batten, along one edge of the rectangular piece of wood. The intention is to create an L-shape right-angle with the two pieces of lath.
This is a basic set-square. To use it, arrange the pieces of wood you are cutting so that all their ends are even, then clamp them. Turn the set-square upside-down, and place it over the ends to be cut. The long arm of the L should be parallel with the laths and pressed against them. The short arm butts up against the end of the laths, and the square of wood is resting on top. It is now possible to use the straight edge of the wooden square as a ruler to mark your next cut.
(I hope this explanation makes sense - a picture would tell a thousand words!)


trade I have always found it easier to use a pencil than to use a pen, but YMMV

trade The second and fourth photos show clamps applied directly to the wooden rods. When clamping wood with metal (in a vise, with g-clamps etc) it is always a good idea to use scrap pieces as "pads" to protect the timber from compression marks and scratches. My grandfather was a teacher of cabinet-making, and I can hear him coughing!

trade Your eleventh and twelfth photos show you sanding the blocks by hand without supporting the sandpaper. This will cause the paper to wear out very quickly and unevenly. It is far easier to wrap the sandpaper around something. The best choice is a big piece of cork, about the size of a deck of cards (you wrap the sanding paper around to the back, then use drawing pins to hold it in place). But a block of wood will do in a pinch, and is still better than using loose sandpaper in the hand. It is also possible to use high density polystyrene, but it will become grooved and need to be replaced.

Quite correctly, you instruct people to scramble the blocks during sanding. This bears repeating and emphasis. The blocks need to sanded from all directions, and they need to be moved around so they have several sets of neighbours through the process. This eliminates the risk of uneven work.

trade People with power tools can save a lot of time here. Either a belt sander or an orbital sander would be very helpful, but care is obviously required: eyes and ears require safety equipment, and a filter mask is essential. Use the equipment on slow speeds, be wary of blocks that might be loose in the frame. Use appropriate sandpaper- finer grain as work progresses. It will still be necessary to finish by hand, but the "evening up" process will be a lot faster.

trade The final step, if you want to take this to another level, is to tumble the wooden blocks in a drum-polisher. This is actually easier than it sounds- the blocks are placed in a metal drum which is slowly rotated for as long as you care to wait. Inside the drum the blocks tumble and roll over one another; very slowly any remaining imperfections are worn away. This sounds like a complicated piece of equipment, but it can be as simple as a circular cake tin resting on a pair of rollers, turned with a Lego Technic motor. It is surprising how effective this can be.

-R
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Douglas Donin
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Ozludo wrote:


trade The second and fourth photos show clamps applied directly to the wooden rods. When clamping wood with metal (in a vise, with g-clamps etc) it is always a good idea to use scrap pieces as "pads" to protect the timber from compression marks and scratches. My grandfather was a teacher of cabinet-making, and I can hear him coughing!



Thanks for the suggestions, Ozludo.

In fact, this is very, very good advice, and I strongly advice everyone to do it. The only reason I didn't used scraps as pads was because my clamps are very small (2'') and they didn't fit.

Anyway, I corrected the instructions above.
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Brian
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This post motivated by my hate of sanding, No flame intended.

Egad! Sanding what looks like 1/16 of an inch of end grain off of a large percentage of 200 blocks by hand! Twice! Ok, probably not that bad, if you chuck the worse blocks to big with and also the second side will have a lot less difference.

I would think taking the time to make a simple miter box (or buy one) would save much more in the end. Clamp in a stop block and all your blocks will come out very close in length. Could possibly skip end grain sanding altogether. Will still need the edge bevel sanding.

I suspect u simplified the sanding step. Maybe to leave out the power sander. Definitely want a sanding block. Definitely want more than one grade of sand paper. Which ever grade leaves u with the smoothness you want, start with a rougher grade to do the majority of the removal.

-Tumbling sanding: Definitely the next step up, as mentioned above. I’ll add that u also need a 'media'/abrasive to go in with the wood pieces. Sand paper cut into confetti is one home-brew method. Breaking the 12 edges on 200 blocks isn't my idea of fun. They do sell cheapish rock polishers that would work. On my list of projects to make. I haven't finished my Settler's of Catan playing piece set made of 4 kinds of woods (zebra, purple heart, walnut, curly maple) for just this reason.

-The miter box method works especial well if you use a Japanese type flush cut saw. Very smooth cut. Would only need to make an L shape ‘box’ with out a saw slot. You would cut against one end. If u are going to buy a saw or blade anyways…
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Am I the only person who read the post and thought "where are the machines"? A planer/thicknesser plus a table saw will allow you to make blocks of pretty much any thickness (depending upon the stock that you start with) ina fraction of the time.
 
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Because he made that clear in his first post, maybe? whistle

(For the sake of accessibility, I will not use power tools (electric saws, etc), for four main reasons:
1 - not everyone have these tools;
2 - they are not 100% safe for we laymen to use, and I don't want anyone losing fingers on me;
3 - depending on the wood you use, the final result may be rough and below what you desire;
4 - they shake too much, difficulting fine work.)
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RDewsbery wrote:
Am I the only person who read the post and thought "where are the machines"? A planer/thicknesser plus a table saw will allow you to make blocks of pretty much any thickness (depending upon the stock that you start with) ina fraction of the time.


One point against a table saw, it is hard and expensive to find a table saw blade with a kerf narrow enough that you don't waste lots of material when going from a large piece of wood to many, many small pieces.

A hack saw or miter saw usually is thin enough that you don't waste too much. I too would second the the other posters tip on getting a miter box. Even the pre-made ones are dirt cheap and allow more control over the process. I use a miter saw with miter box to cut wood pieces, and though time consuming, I feel like I have better control over the process than when I use the table saw, which I have used. Table saws are great for furniture sized projects but game pieces prefer a lighter touch.
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This is a table-saw (band-saw), like the one I use at work, and as long as the saw isn't too big, you can work very accurate with it, as my homemade dinosaurs prove.

Saw:


Dinos:


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Coenst wrote:
This is a table-saw (band-saw), like the one I use at work, and as long as the saw isn't too big, you can work very accurate with it, as my homemade dinosaurs prove.


Ah, that's where the confusion is. in the U.S. when people say table saw they are pretty much exclusively talking about one of these:



A band or scroll saw do seem to be suited well for small pieces. Unfortunately, I own neither and can't see buying them in the near future as they tend to special purposes that I can't justify the price for.
 
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I think to be fair, it is worth pointing out that table-saws, bandsaws and (drool) thicknessers are very rare tools for the home woodworker. Mitre-saws are most people's most advanced piece of kit. Giving people the impression that this project "requires" complex gear is unreasonable: a good result is quite easy given patience.
Having said that, a mitre box with an adjustable stop 40mm from the cutting plane is a sensible way to ensure consistent lengths, and a nogiri is an improvement on a hacksaw if you can find one.

-R
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Brian
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In answer to some of the posts here.



Blue 3rd ed Mayfair (i believe) Catan city; Cherry wood custom city; Curly maple settlement; Zebra wood settlement; Purple heart settlement; Cherry road showing chip out problems.

Important points:
- blue city is 1 cm wide.
- the end grain is untouched from the table saw.
- tablesaw used was a middle to low level contractors saw (this is what carpenters use on the job, not fine woodworkers).
- I did not use a stop block to get length. I measured once and put a mark on my fence. Good enough for this job.
- The roofs are sanded because its easier to do before they are chopped from the 'stick'. Roofs did show a good amount of tool marks. It took less than a minute to remove them on a 12"+ stick. (Bottom and sides are thickness planed, but so are the sticks u would buy)

Conclusions:
-I do have better than average skills. (I have not been wood working all my life. Skills and knowledge largely acquired in last 5 years).
-Even an OK table saw is capable of very fine work. >they shake too much, difficulting fine work< is an inaccurate statement on power tools. This person may not have used the right power tool for the job, or the right technique. The fact he used a saw and a blade meant for metal to cut wood tells a lot here (notice the wavy blade). If u don't think it makes a different i suggest u spend the money and buy a cheap coping saw (is cheaper than a hacksaw). I will guarantee u it is significantly quicker. Even more so in harder woods. Well worth the money if u are going to do this project (unless u value your time very lowly).
-Look at my picture. Look at the picture side view picture above. >depending on the wood you use, the final result may be rough and below what you desire< . Maybe so, but more so for your hand tools. Inaccurate statement under why not to use power tools.

I do agree with your first 2 statements on power tools 1- accessibility, 2 - danger. But I will note that I have never seriously hurt myself using a power tool. I have dinged myself (say, drilling a block and it spins and whacks you) but have as many dings from hand tools (say, cut through a board and whacked hand).

Conclusion not to make:
-Table saw is the right tool for the job. I would actually use the miter saw method to cut the roads next time (and for this project) because of the chip out problems. Maybe the settlements too. But the cities are getting big enough that the table saw will be quicker.

Some other things-

The miter saw method can make cuts as smooths as in my picture above.

Tip - Thin kerf table saw blade - Actually an easy and cheap solution: 7.25 in circular saw blade. Kerf is less than 2mm and a good finish blade is near the same price as cheap (crap) regular 10" blade. Depth of cut is, of course, reduced.

I have read that in Europe the band saw is the central tool in a home type wood shop, where as here its the table saw. A band saw can do things a table saw can't, while a table saw does the more mundane things better.
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ionizedbrian wrote:
In answer to some of the posts here.
-Even an OK table saw is capable of very fine work. >they shake too much, difficulting fine work< is an inaccurate statement on power tools. This person may not have used the right power tool for the job, or the right technique. The fact he used a saw and a blade meant for metal to cut wood tells a lot here (notice the wavy blade). If u don't think it makes a different i suggest u spend the money and buy a cheap coping saw (is cheaper than a hacksaw). I will guarantee u it is significantly quicker. Even more so in harder woods. Well worth the money if u are going to do this project (unless u value your time very lowly).
-Look at my picture. Look at the picture side view picture above. >depending on the wood you use, the final result may be rough and below what you desire< . Maybe so, but more so for your hand tools. Inaccurate statement under why not to use power tools.


Well, I understand the use of a hand saw or a table saw could (and certainly would) speed up, ease and make the work much more even. But these are not the saws I'm talking about.

I'm talking about small electric hand saws:



And believe me, these tools DO hurt the wood grain. I know because they were my first choice.

At least here in Brazil, no one besides wood workers or professional crafters have band or table saws (and those certainly would not need a pictutorial on how to cut and sand. But I'm pretty sure anyone could buy a hack saw near his house.
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Brian
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Quote:
But I'm pretty sure anyone could buy a hack saw near his house.


And they need the wood and sand paper too.

So this article is intended for people who have stores near their house that sell high quality square dowels, hack saws, and sand paper BUT not any kind of saw meant for wood?

Certainly in the US its just as easy (and cheap) to get a wood saw as hack saw (any hardware store, online store (ie Amazon has free ship if u can get to $25). Would put money on Europe and Japan also.

You do see and understand how easy and good the miter saw method is?

When u said 'power tools' and listed why they would be bad for this project we where suppose to know u meant only the tool u pictured (jigsaw, sabre saw). I am no big fan of the jigsaw, and i do agree with the your statements applying to it. But with a bit of knowledge and set up it can give a good cut, at least as good as the ones in your pictures.







 
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For sanding the stuff I'm working with (Mostly polysyrene, but works good with wood also), I use almost exactly this machine:



It's rather small, and you have to be careful with very small pieces, but it works very fast.

After that, I work out the finer details by hand, with small self-made tools (made of small wooden strips with sanding-paper glued on), and wood-files.
 
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