Scratch building Wild West structures

A couple weeks ago I posted pictures of a finished scratch-built building for my Wild West minis. It was a simple, one-story business type building. Nothing fancy. I posted the pics on a Wild West Facebook page, and one of the gents there asked if I had a tutorial on the build. Well, I didn’t. I don’t do anything special or unique. My builds tend to be pretty simple. Occasionally I venture into the stupidly complicated, but not often. Most of what I know is from watching YouTube tutorials from Black Magic Craft, Real Terrain Hobbies, Luke’s APS (Geek Gaming), Eric’s Hobby Workshop, Luke Towan and a few others. Those guys are WAY better at terrain building than I ever hope to be. So if you need a good place to start, go watch their videos.

But that guy asked nicely, and I was sort of flattered that he thought my building was interesting enough to want to know more. So here goes.

The materials are balsa and basswood strips, milled basswood form Northeastern Scale Lumber, and basswood sheet. Various thicknesses were used. I mostly eyeball parts and select a piece of strip wood that looks right. So go buy a bunch of basswood strips and go to town! The roof is a dense paperboard from Hobby Lobby. You could as easily use cereal box card, plasticard, or that dense card on the back of legal pads. I have used all of them to good effect.

With materials gathered, I set out a cutting mat, a hobby knife, a utility knife with an extendable blade, a couple metal squares with measurements etched in, some small clamps, wood glue (Elmer’s brand, but any will do) and a pencil with a sharp point.

I started with the milled basswood clapboard siding. I bought the sheets from Northeastern Scale models Clapboard Siding in the following board spacings:1/8, 3/16, and 1/4. 1/8th is perfect. The 3/16th is ok, but you may find the boards a bit wide for your taste. The 1/4th is far too large for 28mm models. The original model and the one I built for this tutorial both use 1/8th.

Whenever I start a scratch build, I lay the base material out and start imagining what I might build. I usually have a specific building in mind, and can decide how many stories the building will be. I keep a model handy to use to mark doors and windows. After deciding on a width, I start cutting. Once I have enough pieces for the front face, I start to mark openings.  I sketch lines on the flat side of the clapboard and mark out the pieces to cut out. Carefully cutting the openings out, left me with the first wall.

Since this is a two-story building, I need to connect the two pieces that will give me enough height. The thin 3/16 wood doesn’t have enough edge surface to make a solid glue joint, so bracing is required. I used square basswood strip. Using a chopper from Micro Mark, I cut the pieces to length and glue them in place. Liberally applying clamps to hold the parts together until the glue dries.

While the front is drying, I started on the sides. I wanted a flat roof with some slope for rain runoff, and again the stock piece wasn’t tall enough for the two-story walls. More creative cutting gave me the pair of pieces for each side wall. The rear wall was basically the same, cut to width, then add a small section to build up height.

I don’t have enough small spring clamps to glue all the pieces at once, which meant I was done for the night. The next day I glued up the side walls, returning as possible to glue another wall until all four were done. More window and door marks were penciled in, and the openings cut out.

At this stage, you will have to decide if you want the second story to be playable. One way to do this is to make each story a separate unit, which I have not done before. Most, if not all, of the mdf kits are built this way. Each story is a separate unit. I added supports along the four walls for a floor that I will add later. A good craftsman would measure carefully and make sure each support is at the same level. I eyeball them in place after using a based mini to set the front wall support. With the supports glued in place, I can add in windows.

I am in the middle of designing some basic window units to 3d print (there are files available online, but i haven’t bought them) but these are not done yet. For this build I constructed basic windows from strip wood measured, cut, and glued in place. This probably my least favorite part of scratch-building. It is tedious and repetitive. And very fiddly. Once all the window frames are in place, I begin to assemble the building.

I use a gluing jig to help square the walls. Made of steel and supplied with magnetic blocks, I can square the walls while the glue dries. This is very helpful, but not necessary for construction. With careful clamping, the structure can be glued square without a jig.

Once all four walls were glued together, I realized I had made a mistake on measuring the rear wall, and it was wider than the front once assembled. Luckily, I was able to carefully separate the glued edges, trim the side and reattach it. I get a bit rushed at times, and measure less carefully than I should.

Using a sheet of basswood, I measured and cut out the first floor. Cut to shape, I then used a sharp pencil to scribe in boards. Using a steel rule, I pressed firmly into the wood leaving indented lines making each long board. Then I marked perpendicular lines to divide the lengthwise boards into shorter individual boards. If you are planning to leave the floor unpainted, I would use a pointed metal tool of some sort to scribe the lines, instead of a pencil. I am planning to paint this floor, so the pencil lines don’t bother me. I will make the second floor in a similar fashion, the real trick is making it fit in place, but still be removable to get to the first floor.

At this point I realized I made the same mistake I have made on several other scratch-built western buildings. I failed to account for a foundation. While smaller buildings might be built with a small, or no foundation, a more substantial building like this will be built to last, and use the boardwalk connecting the shops and businesses on Main Street. Pulling some bigger square basswood pieces out of my stash, I measured and cut, and glued together a base for the building, and left the front open to add in supports for the porch/ boardwalk.

The roof is the last bit. After cutting piece of heavy card, or plastic sheet, to size, I may or may not add way too much detail to the roof. Rafters and joists are so unnecessary, but there you go. One building had standing seam metal simulated with Evergreen Scale Models plastic sheet. I sprayed that with a metallic silver to represent a very new building. Both standing seam and corrugated metal are appropriate roof materials for the wild west era. As are cedar shingles. Check out TheTerrainTutor’s video here: Miniature Roofing for making real wood shingles. This is a great one for super detail. Start at the 6:20 mark and watch Mel craft wood shingles. Tar paper and canvas are two other alternatives. I have used heavy construction paper cut into strips to represent tar paper, both with and without battens.

Standing seam roofing

I was trying to decide what to do to add detail to the windows when I decided to give plastic canvas, or granny grate, a try. Its that plastic grid material used for crafting. I cut some pieces to fit the open windows, and it gives a decent multi-pane effect to the window openings. And at a lot less effort than cutting and gluing dozens of tiny wood parts. Is it perfect? No. Is it totally appropriate for gaming terrain, and a huge time-saver? You bet.

The completed building

With assembly finished, it is time to paint! I have used a spray primer on a couple of my builds, and I have also painted directly on the bare wood. I think the paint covers better over a primer coat, but this is a personal decision. Using cheaper craft acrylics from the hobby or craft store, I pick out a random color and brush it on. A couple coats, if necessary. I paint the trim in a nice contrast color, and add signs created and printed on the computer. I haven’t painted this one, though, as I can’t decide what it is yet.

At Historicon, I realized why I haven’t liked the paint jobs on the buildings I have made. Not enough weathering. The paint is too flat. At one of the booths in the vendor hall they had a small western layout to showcase Gunfighter’s Ball. All the buildings were heavily weathered, toning down the base colors. And they looked great. More weathering! Using a light tan, or grey, or even off white, drybrush the entire building until you are happy with how it looks. Adding a dirt color splashed up low on the walls will enhance weathering and realism.

With the shell constructed, detailed, and painted, the interior is up to the individual. Personally, I waste too much time detailing the interiors with printed wall papers and wood floors I have collected from various doll house sites online. Printed in color, cut to size, and glued in place, these wall and floor coverings look great, but are unnecessary unless you play inside your buildings.  

There are plenty of interior detail parts available to spruce up those interiors. Bars and pianos, poker tables and players, billiards tables, stoves, tables and chairs are all available in metal and resin. This is very much individual taste. Needed to play the game? Not really. Fantastic set dressings? Absolutely. I have a few pieces I picked up at Historicon to paint up and add to my collection.

While I was waiting for assemblies for dry, I was busy with other small, or continuing, side projects. I assembled another 4Ground mdf kit, Harper’s Dry Goods. It’s a neat little kit of a false-front building with a tent structure. I also printed a roller guide for my 3d printer. The filament I use is quite squeaky as it enters the extruder, and this roller straightens the angle into the extruder and eliminates the noise. 3d printing parts for 3d printers. Wild. I also have been printing the dozens of parts necessary to build an alchemists guild tower from a Printable Scenery Kickstarter. Too busy.

And there you have it. Borderguy’s steps to building your own Wild West buildings. I hope this gives you some ideas and tips so you can start crafting your very own western town. If you have any questions, drop them in the comments section and I will be happy to answer them.

15 thoughts on “Scratch building Wild West structures

  1. theimperfectmodeller December 14, 2021 / 3:38 am

    Very nicely put together mate. There is something very satisfying about scratch builds and you might just have given me the motivation to do another further down the line. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Dave Stone December 14, 2021 / 5:20 am

    Excellent step by step guide Harry, and don’t sell your building skills short, as I remember the windmill you built.

    Liked by 3 people

    • borderguy190 December 14, 2021 / 10:18 am

      Thanks Dave! I really hope it inspires someone to try building their own. As nice as the 4Ground and Sarissa stuff is, we can’t have every town looking the same!

      Liked by 3 people

  3. John@justneedsvarnish December 14, 2021 / 4:51 pm

    Very good tutorial! 🙂 I tend to follow your method loosely using 1.5mm mounting board (artboard). Since I’m not great with wood I just score in the planking with the back of a knife if I’m making a wooden building and then pick out the planking with drybrushing and a wash! I don’t think I could have written a tutorial half as well though! And I must get some granny grating!

    Liked by 3 people

    • borderguy190 December 14, 2021 / 4:54 pm

      Thanks John! I have used mounting board covered in wood craft sticks, too. Mounting board is so easy to use to mockup the building, then clad it in materials.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Mark A. Morin January 10, 2022 / 11:31 am

    Superb and detailed write up Harry – one that I enjoyed and will mentally file away many pieces for future consideration!

    Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s