Reader Tutorial: Build Your Own Aerial Combat Stand

Posted on June 20, 2011 by

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Hey guys, NewbieDM here…. As you may know, I love showcasing what readers of the site do in their own games, and often provide a space here for tutorials and other things that DM’s may find useful.  This article, by Scott Harris, caught my eye when he first proposed it to me.  Aerial combat is one of those things that can get a little confusing or hard to represent at the table, so when Scott pitched me the idea of a tutorial for making stands to represent height I told him to go for it.  So here now is the tutorial, I hope you enjoy it, and keep those great pitches for articles coming, you never know when yours might get published.

When it comes to aerial combat in D&D (or any other game with the option for flying charactes/creatures), I’ve never found a gaming aid that offers the options I truly wanted. There are different aerial combat aids out there, but they are either too limited or too expensive (or both). In particular, the aids I’ve found fall short in simulating the relative altitudes of miniatures in combat. For example, if my character is 60′ off the ground (in the gaming scale), then I want the miniature to actually be 12″ off the table (i.e. assuming a 1″ = 5′ scale). Since I was unable to find a stand that offers the features I wanted, I decided to build my own. Below are instructions on how I did it.

For lack of a better name, I’m calling this aid the Aerial Combat Stand or ACS for short.

The ACS is very inexpensive and easy to assemble. The stand itself can be built in about 15-20 minutes (assuming you have all of the supplies on hand). Other “add-ons” take a little more time, but are still inexpensive, easy to make, and worth the extra effort.

Materials

In order to build the ACS, you will need the following materials.

Item Quantity Price Notes

3/4″ Steel/zinc flat washers 4 $0.40@ (USD)
3/16″ x 1.25″ Steel/zinc fender washer 1 $1.25 for pack of four (USD)
Quick dry super glue 1 $3.00 – $8.00 (USD)
Telescoping magnetic pick-up tool 1 $2.00 – $5.00 (USD)
Black felt w/adhesive backing 1 $1.00 (USD)
#6 Steel/zinc flat washer* 1 Pack of 36 for $1.25 (USD)
Sheet of clear .080″ acrylic (a.k.a. plexiglass)* 1 $2.00 (USD)
Plexiglass cutter* 1 $2-5 (USD)
Re-usable putty adhesive (a.k.a. Poster tack)* 1 $2-4 (USD)
* Optional. Used for larger miniature platforms.

A Few Comments on the Materials

The most important part of the ACS is the telescoping magnetic pick-up tool. This is one of those handy tools that’s used for picking up small metallic materials (e.g. nuts, bolts, washers, etc.) that have fallen into hard to reach places. The telescoping nature of this tool is what allows your miniatures to be at different altitudes. The magnetic tip is also useful for holding larger miniatures (more on that later).

For the ACS, you want one of the silver/chrome pick-up tools that does NOT have a fancy handle. Also, it MUST have a screw at the end opposite the magnet. The end screw is crucial for attaching the pick-up tool to the washer base we will be building. Luckily, the type of pick-up tool that’s ideal for the ACS is also the one that’s the least expensive. I got lucky and found some very inexpensive ($1.50 USD) generic pick-up tools in the automotive section at Sears. Sears also offers a Craftsmen version ($4.99 USD) that works well, but it has the Craftsmen logo on it, which (if you’re finicky, like me) takes a little away from the mystique of the game setting.

Another version of pick-up tools that is hard to find, but adds a nice effect, is where the magnetic head is on a swivel. The swiveled magnets allow your flying miniatures to appear as though they are banking/turning in flight. It gives the whole thing a little extra added realism. The down side being that they will likely cost more. If you find one of these and want to pay the extra money, then be sure the swivel is strong enough to hold your larger/heavier miniatures.

Another important material is the type of glue you use for building the washer base. I suggest Gorilla Glue because it provides a strong bond, is easy to work with, and sets up quickly (i.e. 10-ish seconds). If you can’t find that, then any super glue that works with metal will probably be fine. Also, if you can find super glue that dries clear (and works with metal), then that’s the best option.

Don’t bother with the fancy metal epoxies (e.g. steel reinforced epoxy). Those are a little cumbersome to work with and overkill for this project.

Assembly

Okay, let’s get down to building the darn things. The steps for creating the ACS are really quite easy…

Step #1: Prepare Felt for the Bottom of the Washer Base (approximate time to complete = 3 to 5 minutes)

Flip the felt over so that the paper backing is facing up. Place one of the 3/4″ cut washers on the felt, and trace an outline around it with a pencil. With a sharp pair of scissors, cut the felt along the lines you traced. You will want to cut the inner circle of the washer out as well. Once you are done, the piece of felt you cut out will look like the letter “O” (or a flat donut). Set this aside. You will need it in Step #3. Do NOT peel off the felt adhesive backing, yet.

Step #2: Build the Washer Base (approximate time to complete = 5 to 10 minutes)

Since you will be using the super glue for this step, you will want to be sure it is done in a spot where stray drops of glue will not cause a problem. I would recommend a work bench, but if you don’t have one of those, then make sure you put some newspaper down on your table, just in case.

With the super glue, you’ll be gluing the four 3/4″ cut washers on top of each other so that they are arranged in a tower. You’ll want to glue them to each other one at a time. You don’t need a whole lot of glue for a strong bond. When gluing, use
dots of glue (rather than a constant beed). Five or six dots between each washer should be enough.

Once you’ve glued the first two washers together, let it sit for about about 30 seconds. Then you can glue the next washer onto the previous two using the same steps as above. Let that sit for about 30 seconds, and glue the fourth washer
to the other three. Let that sit for about 30 seconds.

Once the four 3/4″ cut washers are glued together, you can glue the fender washer to the top of the four washer base. Since this washer is smaller, you will not need quite as much glue. Also, it will be a little easier to get glue on your
hands so take your time. Be sure that the hole in the middle of the fender washer is centered in the middle of the four washer base you have already assembled.

Once all of the washers are glued together, let them sit for a few minutes to make sure the glue is dry.

Tip for stacking the washers (prior to gluing):

Each side of the washers is a little different. There is a flat side and a slightly rounded side. In order for the washers to stack nicely, make sure the flat side is facing down (i.e. the rounded side up) prior to gluing them together.

Tip for getting super glue off of your fingers:

When working with any type of super glue, it is almost inevitable that you are going to get some on your fingers. I have found that the dispensing tip of Gorilla Glue minimizes this issue, but it does not totally eliminate it. When you get super glue on your fingers, let it dry, and then use an emory board (a.k.a. finger nail file) or fine grade sand paper to rub it off. It works remarkably well.

Step #3: Attach the Felt Base to the Bottom of the Washer Base (approximate time to complete = 1 minute)

Take the piece of felt you cut out in Step #1, peel off the adhesive backing, and attach the felt to the washer base you created in step #2. I find it easiest to peel off the backing, set the felt down (with the adhesive side up) and then
place the washer base on top of it. If any of the felt is hanging over the edge, then you can trim it off with a pair of sharp scissors.

Step #4: Attach the Telescoping Pick-up Tool to the Washer Base (approximate time to complete = 1 minute)

Remove the screw from the bottom of the pick-up tool, and use it to attach the pick-up tool to the washer base (i.e. through the fender washer’s hole). If you have fat fingers, then it may be a little tricky to get the threads of the screw to poke out
the small hole of the fender washer. Jiggle it around until it falls into place.

Step #5: Enjoy

You can use the poster tack to attach your miniature to the magnetic side of the pick-up tool. Adjust the telescoping pick-up tool to the desired height and your miniature is flying. If you only have small miniatures, then you are all set. If you want
to have larger miniatures flying about your gaming table, then read on to learn how to build the Miniature Platform.

Building the Miniature Platform (Optional)

The platform is intended for larger miniatures or for situations when multiple small miniatures are at the same altitude and/or next to each other (e.g. locked in combat). Essentially, it is just a bit of clear acrylic cut to size (e.g. 2×2″ or 3×3″) with a small washer glued to the bottom so that it will stick to the magnet on the telescoping pick-up tool on the base we’ve already built.

A Few Comments on the Materials

When you get your acrylic, you don’t need to get anything fancy. Just make sure it is clear. The acrylic I use is .080″ thick, and is labeled “easy to cut”. Also, you don’t need a whole bunch of it. Acrylic comes in various sized
sheets. If you get a 10×12″ sheet (or something about that size), then you’ll have plenty to work with.

Step #1: Cut the Acrylic to Size (approximate time to complete = 15 to 30 minutes)

Important Note: In the picture to the right I put some black felt under the acrylic so that
it would be easier to differentiate the acrylic from my work bench. You would not actually do this when
cutting the acrylic.

Cutting the acrylic is the most difficult part of building the platform. If you’ve never cut acrylic before, then you’ll probably want to practice a few times, and don’t worry if you make a mistake or two. You will also want to do this at a sturdy work bench and NOT your kitchen table.

You will not really be “cutting” the acrylic. Rather, you’ll be scoring it multiple times, and then snapping off the piece you want. To begin, measure out the dimensions of the platform you want. I created a few 2×2″ platforms and a few 3×3″ platforms. Those should be large enough for most miniatures, and anything bigger will not be stable when it is attached to the combat stand.

Once you’ve got the dimensions determined, you will want to score the acrylic with your plexiglass cutter. You will need to hold the acrylic down very firmly. I actually used some small clamps to hold it in place, because I found it difficult to do
free hand. Also, you’ll want to use a straight edge to make sure your scoring is straight. I recommend a metal straight edge, because you might end up cutting into a wooden one with your plexiglass cutter.

When scoring the acrylic, start with several light to medium strokes. This will make it easier to ensure the score line is straight. Essentially, you are creating a shallow groove in the acrylic. Once you’ve got a good groove started, you can make five or six firm cuts along the groove. You will need to press down very hard. With these multiple cuts, you will likely be about half-way through the acrylic. Once you are there, you are ready for the last step of the cutting process.

After you have cut about half-way through the acrylic, set the cutting tool aside and prepare to snap the piece off. To do this, hold the acrylic firmly with one hand, line the groove line you created earlier with the edge of your work bench, and
push down slowly with your other hand. This will cause the acrylic to snap in two along the groove you created. Repeat this process until your platforms are cut to the size you want. You should wear some eye protection when snapping the acrylic just
in case stray pieces go flying. Also, you may have some sharp edges and corners on the cut acrylic, so use a file or sand paper to grind those down.

Step #2: Add Grid Lines (optional) (approximate time to complete = 5 to 15 minutes)

A nice touch for the platforms is to add grid lines to them. This only makes sense if the miniature combat system you use makes use of grids. I use the platforms for D&D which uses a 1×1″ grid. So, I put a 1×1″ grid on my platforms. You should do
whatever makes sense for the game system you will be using the platforms for.

Creating the grid follows the same steps as cutting the acrylic, except we won’t be snapping the piece in two. Rather, just use the same scoring method as before. That is, several light cuts to create the groove, and then one or two firm cuts. You
don’t want to do more than one or two firm cuts, because we won’t actually be snapping the piece like before.

Create as many grid lines as are necessary for the size of your platform.

Step #3: Glue On #6 Flat Washer (approximate time to complete = 1 minute)

On the same side of the platform as you added the grid lines, we will now be gluing the small #6 washer to the center of the platform. Once the platform is finished, this washer serves as the mechanism for attaching the platform to the magnetic tip of the telescoping pick-up tool on the ACS base.

There is not anything fancy with this step. Just add a drop of super glue to the center of the platform and set the washer on it. The small washer will have a flat and rounded side like the larger washers. I put the flat side of the washer
towards the glue so that it lies flat. Also, when I set the washer on the glue, I will push it down slightly to make sure it is flat against the acrylic. This will help to make sure the platforms are parallel to your playing surface when the
glue dries.

When gluing the washers onto the acrylic, you will want to use a little extra care to avoid using too much glue. I’ve found that some super glues cause a slight discoloration of the acrylic, and if you accidentally get some glue on other areas of the acrylic then it won’t look quite as nice.

Once the glue dries, you are all set to have your miniatures fly across your game table.

Weaknesses

The Aerial Combat Stand works pretty well, but it is not perfect. I have found the following weaknesses with the stands.

Minimum Height

The stand works great if your miniature is at middle to high altitudes (i.e. at or above 4″ or 20′ in a 1″ = 5′ scale). If you want your miniatures to be flying lower than that, then it won’t work that well. This is due to the minimum length/height of
the telescoping pick-up tool.

Maximum Height

The opposite of the minimum height issue, is a limitation to how high the stand can go. If you want your miniatures to be at an altitude higher than the telescoping pick-up tool allows, then you can compensate by saying the base of the stand
starts at a higher altitude (e.g. 100′, 200′, etc.). Presumably, this would only become an issue if you had multiple stands in use during some sort of aerial battle.

Don’t Bother Painting It

Using the materials I’ve listed, your entire stand will be a silver/chrome color. I tried painting the washer bases on early versions of the ACS. I primed and spray painted them. I found, though, that the paint was prone to
chipping when the bases from multiple stands bumped into each other (e.g. when transporting them). I didn’t care for that, so I removed the paint and decided that painting the stands was not worth the extra effort.

I also tried painting horizontal lines on the telescoping pick-up tools for designating altitude, but found that the paint would scratch off when you expanded/collapsed the tool. So, I wouldn’t recommend that either. In order to get the correct altitude,
you can use a ruler, tape measure, or the grid map you are using in your game.

A Few Parting Comments

For ease of storage and transport, I usually leave the telescoping pick-up tools detached from the base and then attach them
when gaming starts.

While gaming, I find it useful to have a small tape measure on hand to determine the distance between flying miniatures and
other miniatures/landmarks.

The Aerial Combat Stands offers a realistic option for your aerial encounters. It allows you to have flying miniatures at altitudes that correlate with your gaming table. The ACS is easy to use, easy to assemble, and easy on the pocket book.
I hope this tutorial makes your game day a little bit more enjoyable.

Happy gaming!

Scott Harris

P.S. The artwork for the cool cardstock buildings, castle walls, and roads in the pictures above were created by Dave Graffam of Dave Graffam Models (davesgames.net). I encourage you to check out his site. He has some truly awesome products.

P.P.S. The dragon miniatures were supplied by one of my gaming buddies. Thanks Adam!