miniature carpentry : painting wood tutorial

Having an affinity to build fantasy or historical wargaming terrain, I generally can’t avoid adding (and having to paint) some wood element, be it furniture, construction elements, floors… In order to have some terrain uniformity on my wargaming table, I wanted to develop a simple and repeatable recipe to paint wood.
In recent wargaming terrain posts, I noticed, that I repeatedly had to describe the same or similar techniques, when covering painting wood (examples: shelves , doors ).
Thus I said to myself, why not write a post, which I can link to “in lieu” of a tutorial on how to paint wood.

1. Preparing wood

So for this project I prepared some “wood”samples made out of different materials.

A note on tools

wargaming terrain wood tools
The usual tools I use for working wood or fake-wood 🙂
  • a heavy duty cutter
  • an exacto knife : for details and filleting balsa 😉
  • a small wood saw (if possible with a guiding tool)
  • a file brush : to add texture ; always brush in the same direction !
  • sanding paper : to soften corners or clean cutting edges
  • glue : I generally use PVA glue. Be mindful not to “coat” the wood grain with blotches of glue.
  • a sharp pencil or pen to emphasize texture
wargaming terrain wood
The above examples are all made with the materials listed below. From left to right:
Barn made of cardboard (built in the 90es by a younger me)
– modular scaffolding made of balsa and crafting wood
shed : the body is made of Styrofoam with wood texture (see also pic4) ; the roof and the door are made with balsa
– an outdoor loo : balsa

types of material

  • balsa (pic1&3) : a lightweight material, perfect for planks and boards. You can buy them in sheets and cut them to size with a sharp knife.
    I sometimes roughen up the texture with a file brush. Be careful not to break the balsa. It is a very flimsy flimsy.
    Balsa has one disadvantage though: it soaks up water and can bloat. Keep that in mind, especially during the painting step.
  • crafting wood (pic1&3) : sturdy wooden sticks. I use them for freestanding pillars or structural elements.
  • coffee stir sticks : I won’t include them in this (wanna-be) tutorial. They often behave like crafting wood.
    I almost never use them.
  • cardboard (pic2&3 ) : a beginner friendly material.
    Depending on the amount of time and detail you want to invest, you can try indicating woodgrain using a file brush (good luck) or a sharp knife. I did not on purpose, to show how cardboard behaves under regular instances.
  • Styrofoam (pic2,3&4) : a very versatile material.
    I use it for larger “wooden” elements like heavy pillars or even whole structures.
    But I you have to add texture to Styrofoam. First I use the file brush. Pay attention to always move in the same direction. Then I emphasize the woodgrain or the gaps between planks with a sharp pencil.

2. Step by step painting

Colours used


I prefer a dark primer for most of my projects. (pic7)
I usually go for a black/very dark grey priming. But in this case you might as well use a dark brown. If you prime your project properly, the dark(er) colour will act as shadows in the recesses. To me, this is extremely useful when painting larger surfaces made of “wooden” planks.

Depending on the project, I tend to mix PVA-glue or Mod Podge (more expensive) with the priming colour. This mix will insulate your material. Balsa, for example, will take up less water and consequently bloat less.
Additionally, it provides a sturdy protective coat.

(7) priming with a mix of mod podge and black


I basecoat my wooden structures with a regular dark brown. (pic8)
It has the very surprising name “dark brown”. This is the only time, when I try to be rather thorough and cover all the exposed areas properly. Try not to get (too much) colour into the recesses between planks, for example. You don’t want to ruin your shadow effects. Focus on the flat areas.

Alternatively, you may use “burnt umber” as base colour. This shade will give the build a warm and clean glow.

(8) basecoat with dark brown.

Bringing out the texture

Once the basecoat has properly dried, grab your favorite and sufficiently large dry-brush-brush (is that even a word -_-‘ ).
Next we brush over our “wood” with an irregular diagonal motion, strictly avoiding to apply a proper coat.

  1. thick overbrush with “burnt umber”. If you did not use “burnt umber” as base colour, you’ll need it now. If I want the wood to look older and weathered, I sometimes skip this step. (pic9)
  2. brush with “sienna” (any type of warm yellowish brown will do). Normally you’d be able to bring out some of the woodgrain and emphasize the edges on your project. (pic10)

Final touch

I usually finish the project with a very light drybrush, intending to bring all the areas together. (As a bonus, it will hide all the imperfections 😉 )
For this step, I use a thick and cheap make-up brush. If the colour is sufficiently “dry”, the fine haired make-up brush will apply the colour almost like a dust cover and still accentuates the edges.

For indoor objects I usually use a mix of a “sienna” and some pale yellow-ish colour (e.g. “ivory” or “sand”). I aim to get a warm and inviting look. (pic11)
For outdoor objects, wood that is either exposed to the elements or very old wood, I use either pure “ivory” of a very clear grey. The pale hue will indicate weathering or usage.

I rarely apply a wash to wooden structures. I prefer the “dry” look of wood after the dry brush.

Aaaaand this concludes our little tutorial ( /recipe) on how I paint wood for my wargaming terrain.
Happy crafting.

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