[Surprise Attack!] Portable Game Table Pt. 1: Construction

¡Buenas tardes, Adeptus Astartes! Right around the middle of last year the subject of building a portable game table came up at your favoritest hobby site ever.

No, Ron’s still taking a break from FTW. Yeah, I’m sure he’s fine and he appreciates your concern.

No, Frontline’s still on break, too. Yes, I am sure he is also fine.

Holy crap, dude.

Those guys are mega awesome but…seriously? I have to spell it out for you? I’m talking about us, of course.

Wow, that was awkward. Let’s just agree to move on quietly and pretend that didn’t just happen.

Okay, okay! No more cutesie animal pics. I promise.

So, it was “challenge accepted” and in true Stinson fashion I took my sweet-ass time and screwed around for a while before knuckling down and getting serious on the bad mutha. In my defense, and I do seem to be coming up with shitty excuses a lot, I had some busy-ness like a new kid and stuff. Gopher Mafia World Tour 2014 almost happened but got canceled at the last minute. Then it happened again, and also got canceled. About three total months out of town for work, plus a month of visiting the inlaws for Christmas.

Note to self: Why do I bother to unpack my bags?

I also had to figure out exactly how to crack this nut. What did I want to accomplish here? Were there measurable goals? Yeah, sure, I could slap some plywood on a few bricks and declare it to be “portable” so job’s a good ‘un, but that’s not really going to cut it, is it?

I started by compiling a list. First of all, and most importantly, I would need someone to blame in case it didn’t work. That’s always step one for any self-respecting Mad Scientist, and you should emulate my example. This was followed by a series of desired traits the finished product would need to have to be considered a success. In order, they are:

  1. SinSynn 
  2. Storage: Something that could be stashed in a closet, or under a bed. That was the whole point of this, a fully functional game table that can hide out of sight.
  3. Rigidity: It had to be able to support itself and be gamed on. It’s okay if it needed to be on a sawhorse or kitchen table, but a 4×4 roll of green felt spread out on a squishy bed wouldn’t do. 
  4. Transportation: At a bare minimum it needed to be transported in a typical four door sedan. Something you could ride a bus or subway with was probably out of the question, but most people have access to a car or truck. 
  5. Cost: Under a $100, at the very most. Less would be even better. Times are tight. 
  6. Construction: Easy for anyone to do, with no weird exotic parts, skills, or tools required. Ideal would be something that could be built in an aprtment with what you already have lying around.
  7. Durability: No sense making something that only lasts a few uses.
  8. Flexibility: Modular terrain boards that could be swapped around would be cool. So would the ability to go from 4×4 to 4×6. Whatever it is, it should work for as many game systems as possible. It’s be sweet if you could change surfaces, too.
  9. Not Look Like Shit: Need I say more? 
That’s a tall order. Let’s get started.

I had three inspirations: Zab from Almost Perftec is frighteningly cunning and hangs his hand painted urban table on the wall. I like this a lot, but I’m not sure we can all trick our spouses into letting us hang a big piece of “abstract art” in a room. Also, it doesn’t hit all the points in my list. Cameron from Rust in the City sliced his and uses duct tape as hinges so they fold into themselves. More genius, but the porridge was too hot. There was also this fine tutorial from Board Game Geek, but the porridge was too cold.

I mixed these around in my head for months and months before settling on a winner who had it all.

Here’s how to build what I finally came up with.

You will need:

1 Sheet of pink insulation board, 2 inches thick. The sheets come standard as four feet by eight feet, so if yours has less than that go get your money back and try again. This is the standard stuff that gamers everywhere make hills and other terrain out of. Don’t get hung up on the color, in some places the only color available is blue. Long story behind that, but I’ll tell it another time. Avoid the stuff with the silver foil sheathing on it if you’re planning on using a hot foam cutter. It may look flimsy but the full 2 inch thick stuff holds up well with minimal flex. $35 US.

16 feet of baseboard. This is the stuff you see in homes where the wall meets the floor. The height and thickness don’t matter, but you need 16 feet of it for a 4×4 table. If you have to cut it up to bring it home (and you probably will if you’re not driving a dump truck) cut it into 4 sections that are 4 feet long. About a dollar a foot, so $16 US.

Glue. Probably your bog standard white glue, but wood glue will work as well. Not strictly necessary, but it will make your life easier.

A large, sturdy X-acto knife. The kind construction workers use. It has to get through 2 inch thick foam,  so choose wisely.

Clamps. Borrow these if you don’t have them, or get a helper to hold things for you. Not strictly necessary, but it will make your life easier

6 4 inch carraige bolts that are 1/4 inch wide. $6 US.

-6 hex nuts that mate with the carriage bolts. Not like that , you perv. $1 US.

6 washers with a 1/4 inch hole.  $1 US.

A drill with 5/16 inch bit. Brand new is like a hundred bucks, just borrow it from someone or rent from the store. You could use a hand-drill for this too, but you’re gonna need something so scrounge one up somehow.

Saw. Hand saw, power saw, whatever. You can cheat and use one for free at the hardware store (see below).

Here’s some pics if you’re totally lost and wondering where you can find a horse and carriage to steal the bolts off of. Everything here can be had at your local hardware store. They will not look at you like you’re stupid if you ask for it, but they may sigh a little that you can’t find it yourself.


First step is to cut your baseboard into four pieces that are four feet long, if you haven’t already. Pro tip: If you don’t have a saw just use the handy dandy cutting stand located near all the trim and baseboard in your hardware store.

Seriously, there is one. No fooling. 

Next, lay a baseboard piece on a short edge of the pink foam. Measure out four feet on both sides, draw a line across the pink board, then place another piece of baseboard across that. Get a permanent marker…shit, you’ll need a marker…go get one… and trace the outlines of the baseboards on the pink board.

Flip the pink board over and do the exact same thing. Clamp the baseboard in place, because they’re going to serve as guides when you start cutting the pinkboard.

Slice off the big leftover piece of pink board you’re not going to use. Save it for terrain making days! It’s kind of a bitch to take a decent picture of the process, so here’s a fantastic diagram that will make your eyes bleed from the sheer beauty.The black lines are the edges of the baseboard, the red line is where you cut.

After this, mark the middle of the baseboard sections and cut down the middle, where the red lines are.

Keep the two leftover pieces, they’re important. Now you have a 4×4 square with two little bits sticking off the end, each one half as wide as the baseboard.

 Next, measure one foot intervals on the big piece and cut down them. CUT AS STRAIGHT AS YOU CAN. Go slowly, this is important. It helps to clamp the baseboard on both side as you cut and use that as a guide. Don’t worry if you nick or gouge the baseboard.

 So, now you have four pieces that are roughly 4×1, and those two half sized end pieces. This is all the cutting you have left to do, grab a beer.

Now, at this point you may be thinking “That’s a lot of styrofoam to cut. Sounds hella shitty, dawg.” 
Indeed, dawg, it is. Cutting it with an X-acto knife will take a long time, and most electric hot wire cutters don’t have the reach to handle it (but if you have that electric blade type of cutter, you’re not even worried and probably half way through this by now). 
So, is there a better way to cut styrofoam that is both cheap and hazardous to our health?

Yes, there is. You can take an old, shitty knife and heat it up with a blowtorch. Works like a charm. If you have a gas stove, that could also do the trick.

Here’s some pics of me working on it. Note that, unlike the directions earlier, I cut the long 4×1 pieces before I sliced the ends off. This means I have four little pieces on each end instead of one big one that’s easy to deal with. I encourage you to do it the easy way.

Also important: NUMBER THE BIG PIECES ON ONE END! This is so they fit back together when you re-assemble it. Only number one side! You can label one side “A-B-C-D” and the other side “1-2-3-4”, but you don’t want both ends to have the same labeling, because they can get flipped around and mixed up when you’re storing or transporting them. Its not likely that you can cut Styrofoam to a perfectly straight line every time, so by matching up the same sides to each other you compensate for those minor mistakes.

Yeah, these are dumb. Don’t do it like this. 

Okay, once you’ve made all those cuts take the skinny little half-sized pieces you cut off from the end and glue them to the baseboard. If you cut them off first as one piece, you won’t have to deal with lining up four little pieces like I did.

Once the glue dries, partially re-assemble everything and get it lined up.

Then, spread glue on the half-pieces and end. Push it all together so it looks like it hasn’t been cut, and put some weight on the ends to help the baseboard and half-pieces glue up nice. Note: No glue is touching the 4×1 boards in the middle of this big pink sandwich.

Remove the weights when the glue’s dried, and you’ll have these two odd shaped fellows below. They need a name, so let’s call them the clamp pieces.

You may want to label the inside of the clamp pieces so they match up with their conterpart ends on the 1×4 pieces you just finished with.

Find the middle of the pink part on each edge, then mark it on the baseboard.

Then draw a line across the baseboard connecting them. When you’ve done that, mark one foot intervals across the line you just drew.

Get that drill and find a bit slightly larger than your carriage bolt. If you got the 1/4″ bolts a 5/16″ bit will work perfectly. Drill at each of the one-foot interval spots you marked, and go straight through to the other side. Try to keep it straight up-and-down, but don’t cry if it’s a little crooked. It’s cool, man. Relax. Breathe a little.

Should look something like this when you’re done.

You’ll notice the glue is starting to crack and come apart, and that’s fine. The glue was just there to keep it all together while you drilled. The bolts are actually to hold it together, so now push a bolt through a hole you just drilled and put a washer and nut on the end. Tight the nut until it is snug against the baseboard. Do it another five times and guess what? You’re done for now. It should look something like the completed stack o’ stuff below. 

Get ready to have your mind-hole blown wide open…

You better click this!

Yeah, I know, it doesn’t look like much at first glance. But let’s take a look at our criteria…

SinSynn: Well, he got off easy this time but there’ll be another. I know, I know. It’s okay. I’m sad, too. 

Storage: Yeah, you can store this damn near anywhere. Under a bed, in a laundry room, closet, dorm room, whatever. Put a check in that box.

Rigidity: Well, I don’t think it will give away too much of a surprise if I say I’ve gamed on this a fair bit and it handles well. Full load of Infinity terrain, bunch of models and whatnot. Did fine. That 2″ pinkboard is sturdier than you think. It can also be picked up and moved around just fine when it’s assembled. Speaking of which, the final stage of assembly is to tighten those bolts down on the clamp pieces when you’ve slipped everything together. That compresses the two pieces of baseboard together and those thin strips of pinkboard in the ends. This allows the clamp pieces to, you guessed it, clamp against that big 1×4 pieces in the middle and it all locks together. You can use pliers or a small crescent wrench, but I’ve started carrying this tiny fancy-pants auto-ratcheting box wrench from my garage in my pocket when I bring this table out to play, and I can put it together in about a minute or two at the most. 
Transportation: Yeah, it transports well. It fits across the back seat of my tiny pickup truck, so it should fit in the trunk of someone’s car. It’s light and easily carried by one person. You could bring it on a bus or subway but you’ll get weird looks. If you get a velcro strap or piece of string to wrap around it and keep it all together, even better. I have one of those big 20 gallon rubbermaid storage containers that I keep my terrain in, this lays on top of it and I can carry all of that at once by myself when venturing out to the FLGS in search of victims. Doors are a pain in the ass, but nothing’s perfect.
Cost: Definitely under $100, probably closer to $60 at the most, depending on how much of this you already had. 

Construction: Well, that’s really for you to judge. Not me. But I made it as easy as I possibly could and I don’t think anyone’s head hurting from the concept here. 

Durability: Surprisingly tough. As long as you don’t put your foot through it, I feel confident it will hold up for years. What’s really nice is the ends of the 1×4 boards are what gets banged up the most but, guess what, they get covered by the clamp pieces so it can’t be seen. Score! 

Flexibility: Yeah, you can make this 4×6 real easy. Just make the baseboard 6 feet long instead of 4 and cut two extra 4×1 sections. As a nice bonus, the foam is 2″ thick so you can also cut out 3-D terrain features in relief, should you choose. Rivers, lakes, craters, roads,whatever. Just be careful not to cut so much that it weakens the board and snaps on you. Major bummer. You can set this up pretty much anywhere: On a floor, a kitchen table, a bed, a coffee table…anywhere. 

Not Look Like Shit: Well, here’s a problem. Definitely not accomplishing this part, is it? I hope I have some kind of awesome solution to this that would necessitate a Part Two…
Take it easy, see you next time…but in the meantime: Thirteen-minute power ballads FTW!


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