Okay, so it doesn’t qualify as a trade secret. Heck, in modeling circles, it’s considered an integral aspect in diorama construction. In miniature garden design, though, it’s sadly underappreciated by beginners, as they learn in a relatively short time. We’re talking about bases for figures and displays.
In standard model and diorama construction, a figure base exists for three reasons. Firstly, it allows a top-heavy or otherwise unstable figure to stand upright without leaning against something or being held in place. Secondly, the base allows the model builder to conceal construction aspects such as wires for lighting. Thirdly, in a well-constructed diorama, the base is as integral to the final appearance as the main figure, and usually helps set the mood. Scatter some tombstones and crosses around a fen, and you have an abandoned graveyard. Elevate a section with rock strata and a miniature rattlesnake, and you have a desert pass. Cover it with various body parts from Warhammer 40,000 figures and lots of red paint, and you have an effects shot for a GWAR video. You get the idea.
When working with miniature garden displays, a good base for figures has additional benefits. The base can give a desired mood to a particular piece, such as a garden wall supporting a series of pots. Since most standard potting mixes are, by comparison of scale, the equivalent of trying to stand upright in a dumpster full of Styrofoam peanuts, the base gives stability for figures that would otherwise fall over in the first good breeze or settle up to its neck in the soil. In highly acidic soil mixes, such as those used for carnivorous plants, a nonreactive base allows the use of items that could either be damaged by the acidity or could damage any plants in the pot if they were in direct contact with the soil. Finally, in the case of poseable figures, a good base allows a lot more animation than what could be accomplished by simply sticking bamboo skewers through a figure’s feet.
A few months back, this site discussed using dinosaur figures in miniature gardens, and good bases are essential for most of them. Using most bipedal theropod dinosaurs in a miniature garden absolutely requires a good stable base, particularly to avoid what the Dinosaur Toy Blog refers to as “the tripod cheat” of propping the figure back on its tail. Even with quadrupedal dinosaurs, a base adds stability to the entire arrangement, especially if you’re trying for a particular motif (hadrosaurs feeding on maidenhair ferns springs to mind). It all depends upon whether or not you want the base as an obvious component to the miniature garden, or merely as a point of stability intended to be hidden by foliage or soil.
To give a few examples on possible techniques, the photo above contains (clockwise from the left) a cultured marble bust of Elvis Presley, an alien astronaut from the long-defunct HorrorClix figure game, and a Spartan figure tie-in to the Halo video game. Not that this is a perfect cross-section, but it’ll do.
As mentioned before, the classic figure attachment option for miniature and fairy garden arrangements is the metal or bamboo spike, attached to the bottom and then driven through the planting medium. Not only does this not work in shallow pots, such as bonsai trays, but a little shifting of the medium and the figure looks as if it’s balancing on stilts. The idea of a base is to give the impression that the figure is against the earth, whether lying, standing, or running. (Jumping or lunging is a completely different issue, and waaaaay beyond the scope of this discussion.) Stilts won’t cut it.
When it comes to proper weight and heft, there’s a lot to be said about using natural rock. Veteran model builders used to swear by using redwood bark chunks as a lightweight substitute, which would still apply if you could find the stuff any more. Wood can work in some circumstances, such as desert arrangements, but only ones with generally dry planting media. Unless you’re building a miniature garden with plants that absolutely need to avoid wet roots, such as Lithops and other Karoo Basin succulents, avoid sandblasted grapevine if you can help it: it’s great for desert reptile enclosures, but it rots rapidly if it remains moist unless it’s well-sealed with spar varnish or another wood sealer. For most arrangements, stay away from limestone and sandstone because they’ll gradually dissolve and thereby raise the pH of your soil mix, which can be lethal for carnivores.
For most figure arrangements, the best options are either granite or slate, because they’re both non-reactive and rather attractive. For slate, you have plenty of options aside from collecting in the wild, including visiting aquarium shops and poking through decorative rocks for sale. Alternately, if you have access to a shop specializing in sales and repair of pool and billiards tables, talk to the owner about buying chunks of the broken slate from a damaged table. If all you need are bases for a few figures, said owner will probably let you take chips and chunks for free, but don’t pass up a big slab of slate if you can get it. Properly fractured, it can supply pieces for projects for years.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you live in a place comparable to North Texas. The local rocks are all weak limestone and chalk, and imported rocks are prohibitively expensive. That’s when it’s time for a trip to the local home improvement store, especially when the store has its annual floor tile closeout. Most mosaic tile sheets are already attractively colored, and you also have the choice between real slate or ceramic that sometimes looks better than slate. Pick your color and shape, and the whole tile sheet is held together with plastic fibers or sheeting that keeps the whole lot together until you’re ready to use them. Bought on closeout, this whole sheet cost 99 cents US, and this should keep me busy for weeks.
In most circumstances, the standard squares don’t work, and I don’t blame you. That’s why you keep an eye open for odd shapes or materials, such as glass or metal-glazed ceramic. This is a ceramic tile intended to simulate travertine, only without the softness and alkalinity of the real thing, as well as the cost. Getting it in oblong rectangular pieces like this gives a lot of flexibility in how it can be used as a base, because it can also be set on its side or its end and used that way.
And if all else fails and you can’t find the perfect piece, you can make it. This might include casting a base from resin or Ultracal 30 plaster, but that tile comes in handy as well. Look among those closeouts for something the shade and consistency that you seek, and then cut it to size with a wet tile saw. If you need something rougher, then feel free to break a standard tile with a hammer, using pliers to nip off chunks until it’s the perfect size.
Next comes affixing the figure to the base. In standard model arrangements, that usually involves using glue or epoxy to attach the figure, but other factors figure in when working with miniature gardens. Not only do you need an adhesive that can flex with the figure and the base in heat and cold, but you’ll need something that’s relatively resistant to decay from ultraviolet light. Insolubility in water isn’t even negotiable. Mixable epoxies and many epoxy putties will get the job done, but they usually need to be painted afterwards to hide the join. If you need to use epoxy putty, I highly recommend Milliput, a brand highly prized in the modeling community for its variable colors and its fine finish. Best of all, Milliput can be smoothed with water before it cures, allowing elaborate sculpts with a minimum of sanding. When you’re affixing a base to a figure that may be standing in an inch of water for days or months at a time, that lack of sanding will make a difference in your enjoyment of the final arrangement. Just pay attention to the instructions: always wear gloves when mixing Milliput, and don’t touch the arrangement for at least 24 hours until you know for sure that the epoxy putty is completely cured.
While standard cyanoacrylate superglues work for a while, their biggest problem in miniature gardens is that the dried cyanoacrylate tends to be a lot less flexible than the pieces with which it is intended to join. A surprising discovery recently in the local Lowe’s store was Loctite’s new Go2 Glue, which promises a superior bond between otherwise incompatible materials. This winter will be the real acid test, but its initial tests suggest that it might come in very handy for miniature garden constructions.
And now comes the execution. Elvis here is constructed of cultured marble, which is obviously cheaper than real marble, but even slightly acidic soil will erode the sculpture’s base to nothing. Sealing it would destroy a lot of the merits of the marble, and even small stains will stand out on its surface. A simple tile base does wonders for its stability in a miniature garden, and there’s no reason not to build a more elaborate pedestal if desired.
This alien astronaut originally came with a base as part of the HorrorClix game, but the figures had a tendency to detach from their bases, so it was moved to a chunk of slate. This photo demonstrates a problem with most adhesives: the nice bright shiny spots from excess glue. The classic modelbuilder trick is to cover this with more glue and then sprinkle sphagnum moss, sand, or ordinary dirt over the new glue to hide the whole base. If the base is one chosen for its particular color merits, though, we can borrow another modelbuilder trick of covering those joins with dust. Traditionally, that involves grinding up artist’s pastel sticks on sandpaper, putting down glue, and applying the pastel dust to the figure. In this case, rub the bottom of the base on fine sandpaper, collect the dust, and sprinkle and brush that on the fresh glue. That is, unless you like the nice slimy look of the dried glue, which in this case, kinda fits.
When working with larger figures, you have several options. if all you want is a standard pose, such as of a warrior standing alert, pick a base that keeps both feet relatively together. In a miniature garden arrangement, unless the figure needs to be standing at attention, spread the space between the feet a bit. The idea is to hint that you’re looking at a scene that could restart at any time, and that you’re looking at a slice of life instead of a mere presentation of garden components.
For more active poses, such as kneeling or jogging, you don’t need both feet attached to a base, but you will need one. This figure has the left foot adhered to its base, with the other propped up with a similar slab until it dries. Once the glue or putty sets, move the figure to whatever position you choose. Take note, though, that this works for simulating motion from a crawl to a brisk jog. Stop-action animators will tell you that an actual run requires that both feet (or all four for quadrupeds) leave the ground, requiring them to fudge having one foot attached at a given time. Try to simulate a run on a figure without taking that into account (supporting the figure with a metal rod through one foot to complete the illusion), and that “run” will look more like a pantomime than anything else, destroying the effect.
Irregular surfaces offer special challenges. If you’re going to have a figure climbing a rock, make sure that it looks as if it’s climbing, not merely propped up for inspection. Usually, this means the foot to the rear is turned perpendicular to the one in the front. The idea is to imitate a real item or being moving up a real surface, including imitating the weight of said item or being on an inherently unstable surface. Make sure that it appears to sink in a little bit: familiar with the ridiculous image of someone gardening in six-inch stiletto heels? In miniature, this will look even more ridiculous.
As mentioned a while back, several very good reference books on modeling also work well for miniature gardening concepts, and don’t be afraid to research further into those techniques when adding figures to a miniature garden. You just need a stable base for your operations, after all.