laser cut, frame, modular terrain board, MDF

Measure what is measureable – laser cut profiles for a modular skirmish board part II

At last my plans for a skirmish board set during the Second Punic War can advance a bit more and naturally I am very happy to share this progress with you. Last time we looked at the basics: theming and design of the board, possible materials to construct it, historical considerations (including roman viticulture and villae rusticae)  and miniatures to use with the board.
This installment is all about the laser cut frames for the modules. The design for these has been improved, the material changed from HIPS to Bamboo and it got all very extravagant in the end with the possibility of fancy inlays. All this should be of use for any gaming board you might plan, no matter if laser cut or hand cut.

Materials for the frame – Why Bamboo?


After I raved about HIPS in the last installment of this series it might come as a surprise that I now changed to Bamboo. The reason for this is simple: The laser service I use first told me that HIPS can be cut, however, tests with the material did result in melted edges and unsavory chlorine gas (that seems to corrode the innards of the laser) so while it is surely possible to cut HIPS with a special setup it seems not feasible in my specific location.

There were a number of alternatives: Plywood, MDF, laserable plastic, cardboard etc. Laserable plastic or acrylic is unfortunately very expensive (no comparison to the cheap HIPS).

Cardboard is not sturdy enough at the thickness I was looking at. Furthermore the edges can get dented and it might absorb water easily. That said, it is cheap and well suited for a prototype.

Plywood and MDF are the traditional materials for laser cutting. Plywood is more expensive than MDF, but it has a visible grain and depending what kind of veneer you choose all kinds of wood finishes can be achieved: Oak, birch, pine, bamboo etc. MDF is very cheap and smooth, but can be heavy as 2mm MDF is hard to source with 3 mm being the industry standard.

In the end I decided to give Bamboo veneer a go. Bamboo has a number of advantages when compared to other materials.  Most important for me was weight. Bamboo has a similar density as MDF, however, it is more elastic and the strength-to-weight ratio is higher. This implies that one can use thinner sheets while not compromising on protection for the XPS core.  Through some tests I was able to confirm that a 0.9mm thick Bamboo sheet should provide enough protection and is sturdy enough for a frame. That said it needs to be supported by XPS. The frame with a filling of three sheets of XPS foam comes in at about 150g.  Depending how heavy the terrain features will be I could see that a 900 mm by 900 mm board would only weight 2.5kg or less, which is really not too bad. I might also test 1.8mm Bamboo veneer to see if this can support itself.

0.9mm Bamboo veneer bending test
The Bamboo veneer is quite flexible and can be bend easily. Accordingly the frame needs XPS for support, but if you use 2 mm Bamboo or MDF you should be able to also have a free-standing frame if it is more practical in your specific case.

Bamboo is also a sustainable material, which is a nice added benefit. Check if your supplier is FSC certified and make also sure that the Bamboo veneer is made using adhesives with no added urea formaldehyde. Finally the Bamboo veneer can be stained using common oil or water based wood stain. If you are after a uniform dark frame this can be achieved, but at the same time a light maroon or any other color is no problem either.

Bamboo veneer grain
Bamboo has a nice neutral color when untreated and a visually appealing grain.

A 0.9 mm 1220 x 1220 mm sheet of Bamboo veneer costs 42.50 NZD (and I understand 1.8 mm is not much more expensive). We could thus cut about 12 modules (300 mm x 300 mm x 20 mm) out of one sheet with a variety of profiles. Accordingly the price per module frame comes to approximately 3.50 NZD. This is only 1.50 NZD more expensive than the HIPS.

Naturally we have to take the price for the laser cut into consideration. For two bases and about 10 profiles I got a quote of 15 NZD. So the price for one frame  is about 7.50 NZD.  We also need to add  2.88 Dollars NZ per module for the extruded polystyrene foam. Accordingly we look at 10.38 NZD. This is slightly cheaper than you can get a Back 2 Base-ix frame for. The profiles of this product do not feature inclines and are entirely flat. The frames are also significantly heavier as they use 3 mm MDF, yet they can easily stand free.

That said, if we would use MDF the cost comparison would be even better. I intend to get some more profiles cut in 3 mm MDF (or 2 mm if I can source it) and 2.5 mm pine and then compare the different materials to find the best compromise between weight and sturdiness.

Designing the profiles


After you decided which material you would like to use to fashion the frame it is now time to design the profiles for maximum utility. No matter if you plan to get your sheets laser cut or would like to cut them by hand, accuracy is of the utmost importance. It is thus a good idea to use a vector drawing program to design your profiles. I use Adobe Illustrator, but open source software such as Inkscape is also an excellent choice.

What do we need to keep in mind when designing the profiles?

  1. You need to account for the kerf of the laser cutter. This can vary from machine to machine, but should not be more than 0.1 to 0.2 mm. Accordingly, if we want the modules to be exactly 300 mm we need to add 0.2 to 0.4 to account for the kerf. If you live in the states (or use imperial measurements) it is worth considering making the modules 304.8 mm, which is exactly one foot. With kerf thus 305 mm.
  2. You need to account for material thickness. In my case it is 0.9 mm (given there can be a 10 percent variety in material thickness I assumed 1mm to have some wiggle room), but if you for instance use 3 mm MDF you would need to change measurements accordingly. This affects the sides, and the pegs on the base. Basically one set of profiles needs to be 298.4 mm, the other set 300.4 mm, and the pegs need to be 1mm long accounting for material thickness and kerf.
  3. The profiles need to be symmetrical. If they are not you will not be able to combine them freely. Here the vector drawing program can shine. You have full control over measurements and can mirror, rotate and transform shapes easily. That said,  if you design a river profile it looks more realistic if you place the river bed closer to one side. This limits combinations, but looks much better than straight, symmetrical river beds.
  4. You need some form of peg system to make sure the sides can be easily attached to the base without moving around and introducing inaccuracies.
  5. You might want to add some circular recesses to add magnets to the profiles. This way you can make sure that the modules won’t move when you bump against the table. You can add such recesses to the base sheet, too, and put magnetic receptive sheeting underneath. If you plan to have variations in height between modules these magnets can also be used to attach a module to a similar sized flat top module underneath to bring it to the required height.

Keeping all this in mind I came up with the following set of profiles and base:

Laser cut profile gaming board outline

We have the base (A) and one ‘standard’ profile (B) where B1 is the female and B2 is the male part. It features a lightly undulated top. As opposed to having an entirely flat top this should help to hide transitions between modules, as the eye might be less prone to see slightly irregular lines, than straight ones.

Profile C features a gentle incline that brings the height of the module up to 4 cm. The incline does not exceed 15 degree and should thus pose no problem with miniature placement.

Profile D has the same top finish as profile B, but is 4 cm high, accordingly it fits perfectly to profile C.

Profile E is for modules featuring a river and is unsymmetrical for added realism. That said the river profiles can still be combined with each other in a variety of ways, illustrated in the sketch below:

With only two river profiles a variety of river modules can be realized.

Finally we have Profile F, which has a flat top and can be used with Profile A if a flat profile to one side is needed (for instance to connect to a module of a friend that does comes with a flat top) or to bring Profile A to the same height as Profile C.

To inlay or not to inlay


As you can see in the pictures below I also had the idea to use the rather large surface of the base for some more extravaganza, namely an inlay of some sort. You could obviously argue that this is nonsensical, after all you won’t see much of it during gaming, but as is often the case hidden details that only you know are there can be fun. When the boards are stored in a shelf it is also possible to display the inlay. There is also no reason this could not be used for a box the modules are stored in or any other application. Alternatively I also thought of a Montefortino helmet with a suitable quote, and designs that feature a Falcata and Gladius Hispaniensis.

Inlay Iberian Cavalry Montefortino Helmet

Inlay Falcata Gladius Hispaniensis Outline

In general this is entirely optional. The idea would be to cut the inlay out of a darker bamboo sheet (carbonized bamboo is quite a bit darker than the natural one) or stain the natural bamboo and then combine the two for a striking result. Given the laser cuts a bit on an angle best practice for such inlays seems to be to cut the shape out and then for the inlay piece to flip the design so that it is cut again on a slight angle that will fit perfectly in the recess. Another variation is to engrave the design into the base, then cut the inlay out of a thinner veneer. The inlay needs to be slightly bigger to account for the kerf.

Another option would be to cut a geometric pattern into the base. Not only would this be visually pleasing, but it would also reduce the weight of the module significantly, especially if you use 3 mm MDF. A piece of card or colored plastic could then be used to back this. I could see that a weight reduction of  40 to 50% is feasible without affecting the integrity of the base.



It is very important to do some prototyping before you send your design to a laser cutting service. I recommend to print out your design on some paper or card and cut it out with scissors. Obvious mistakes, inaccuracies and non matching parts will be easy to spot at this stage and apart from a need to revise your design no harm is done.

Profiles Prototype test Gaming board
Printing the profiles on paper and cutting them out with scissors allows to test the fit and accuracy of your pieces.

Profiles Prototype test Gaming board

Profiles Prototype test Gaming board
Testing the female and male connectors is especially important to assure a good fit.

When you think you are ready it stands to reason to make a test cut in a less costly material, for instance cardboard of a similar thickness to your material of choice. Given MDF is so cheap you can easily use it for prototyping and then move to your plywood or acrylic of the same thickness. You can then check if your allowance for kerf was enough or too little and if your pegs work out and you achieved a nice flush finish. You can also assemble this prototype and see if everything fits nicely. This is also a good opportunity to test cut the inlay if you decide to go for one, as the artwork might need some adjustment if it turns out to be too fragile in some areas.

Profiles Prototype test Gaming board
An early prototype cut in Bamboo to get an idea about the its qualities. As you can see only two pegs were not enough to assure easy assembly, so I revised the design accordingly.
A second test cut in 3mm MDF worked much better. The frame can support itself and an increased number of tabs make the construction easier to assemble. I also altered the profiles slightly to make them look more natural.

Making the frames lightweight was one of my goals, accordingly I designed two solutions that would reduce the overall weight. The first idea was to simply cut a geometrical pattern in the base to reduce the weight:

The base is still strong enough after cutting out the pattern and does not bend when force is applied. The frame is not glued yet, but a dry fit is already promising. All parts fit nicely and any small gaps will disappear when the frame is glued together.
The gentle incline works out well. It allows miniatures to be placed without falling over and avoids the “stepped hill” look.

Another option, in my opinion the more elegant one, is to have four separate pieces that form the base:


I think this design for the base is superior as you will get more sections out of a sheet of MDF. The disadvantage could be stability, but I first need to glue the frame together to see how it compares to the other design.
A dry fit looks already promising. The base sections fit together well and with the sides attached the constructions gains stability. This configuration only weights 150 g.


Finally you can go and cut in the actual material of your choice. Again I would recommend to cut one set of profiles and base only, build the frame and make sure that everything works out in the actual material as intended. Now final changes can be made (if necessary) and mass production can commence.

What holds the future?

Now that we have the frames for our modular skirmish board we can start assembly, glue in the magnets, fill them with XPS and heat up the hot knife (or sharpen the cutter) to carve the terrain. This will be the focus of the next installment of this series. For now a sneak preview of how I want to layout my board:

90 by 90 sketch

I will focus first on the four central boards, featuring the vineyard, an olive grove with part of the villa rustica (the wall of the garden), the villa rustica main building and finally a river piece. This can then be extended with five more modules that will feature further river pieces and will also have a slight incline towards the lower left edge.

I hope you found this treatise on laser cutting gaming board frames interesting and can make  use  of it in your own projects. If you have suggestions how I could further improve the design or any questions comment below. Let me also know which of the inlays you like best. In the meantime wield your brush with honor!




6 thoughts on “Measure what is measureable – laser cut profiles for a modular skirmish board part II”

  1. Lots of great information, especially seeing your thought process on the planning. As far as the inlays go I think either of the sword designs are the lay to go. While I like both of the other designs I really can’t see how you would align the other pieces for an inlay, unless you just intend to laser etch the finer details like the script.


    1. Hi Brian. Thank you for your comment. Much obliged. I was thinking about the fine detail of the Iberian warrior, with soem parts being just a bit more than 1mm wide. This could pose a problem.
      Online I found some instructions that might help with this: First I engrave the design into the base with the depth being 0.9mm if I would use the bamboo, then I cut the inlay out of veneer, but slightly bigger to account for the kerf. This obviously only works if the base would be thicker. I will in any case cut some of the profiles in 3mm mdf and 2.5 pine to see how that compares. Ultimately I am concerned about weight, so if I go for 3mm mdf (and can’t source 2mm) it might eb an idea to cut a geometric pattern into the base to reduce the amount of mdf to about half. This should still be fairly rigid, make the module light and also add visual interest.


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