Wednesday 23 March 2011

Making Smoke and Flames

This tutorial is my version of how to make Smoke and Flame Markers for use in Flames of War and other tabletop wargames. Battlefront sell a pack of coloured acrylic 'wool' as Smoke and Flame (product XX601) but it was the spectacular Smoke and Flame markers that have often graced the pages of Wargames Illustrated that I wanted to recreate.

I can't take credit for all of the techniques described below as much of this tutorial is a combination of ideas gathered from several sources, in particular this YouTube Video by the Terrain Guy on RHQ-TV (the tutorial starts at 3:40 into the video). However I have tried to experiment with different materials and techniques as much as possible to come up with what I think is the simplest and quickest method for making Smoke and Flame markers.

Materials Required:
  • 3/4" washers & Nuts - Used as a heavy base
  • Thick wire or pipe cleaners - To form an armature
  • Wire Clippers - To cut wire armatures
  • Clump Foliage -  The 'smoke' itself
  • Superglue - Lots of it
  • Acetone or Acetone based Nail Varnish Remover to unstick glued fingers!
  • Cocktail Sticks -  To stand model on when gluing
  • Black spray paint for smoke
  • Red/Yellow Paint for flames
  • Varnish (optional)

Stage One : A Heavy Base - The finished smoke columns are very light and easily knocked over. To prevent this I wanted a heavy base, preferably with a wide 'footprint' for stability. Some online tutorials suggest using coins as a base but as this is illegal in many countries I won't be recommending this method. Instead I bought a pack of nuts and 1" bolts with corresponding metal washers. Initially I used the bolt as a heavy core for my smoke markers but this resulted in rather fat looking smoke columns. In the end I found that super gluing a single Nut onto a larger washer (about the size of a penny) formed a perfectly stable and weighty base on which to build the model.

Stage Two : Making an Armature - I've read six or seven tutorials on how to make smoke and flame markers and they all recommend different materials from which to construct an armature on which to build the smoke column. Some advise using thin wire, others thick wire. The versions in WI281 used bamboo skewers and other sites suggested pipe cleaners. All have their merits and in the course of experimenting with this build I tried them all. Wire armatures work fine if you want thinner columns of smoke but it can be quite hard to fix the clump foliage to such a small core. The skewers worked best but frankly the idea of putting little sharpened stakes on my games table (ready for me to accidentally lean on them) didn't seem all that safe. The best option - and the one used here - were pipe cleaners. The furry surface gives plenty of surface for the clump foliage to 'key' onto and the wire core means these can be shaped pretty much as desired.

Stage Three : Adding Clump Foliage - I used cheep pound store superglue throughout this project, mainly because I needed so much of it. The main advantage of superglue is of course that it sets fast and it sets reasonably hard. The downside is that no matter how careful you are it will get on your fingers. Top Tip; don't start this project until you have a ready supply of Acetone or Acetone based nail varnish remover on standby! Take the pipe cleaner armature and - working one small section at a time - add a small amount of glue and then press on small clumps of the foliage material. Work your way around and up the armature until the whole thing is covered. Then go back and fill in any small gaps. Its worth giving the model a squeeze to compact the foliage and make sure its stuck firmly all round the armature.

Stage Four : Superglue, lots of itWarning! What I'm about to suggest is probably extremely hazardous and ill advised, but bare with me. Put the clump foliage covered model on a couple of sticks (cocktail sticks are fine) laid over an old dish of some kind to catch drips. Then soak the whole model in cheep superglue! The glue will set hard in a few minutes and results in a tough and durable model. However... the glue sets with an exothermic reaction (it produces heat) and gives off noxious fumes. Needless to say this stage is best done in a very well ventilated area! Some tutorials I have read suggest soaking the model in watered down PVA but I found this didn't produce as hard a finish as I wanted. Also the soaked model takes ages to dry out whereas my method means you're ready to start painting in a few minutes... assuming of course you haven't passed out from the fumes!

Stage Five : Painting - There are actually three simple steps to this process and you'll be amazed how fast this is to complete. First spray the whole model with red primer making sure to cover all the green foliage material. Give this ten minutes to dry then spray from above with black primer. This tops the fire with black oily smoke and adds definition to the billowing column. You may need to add a little more red to the bottom of the columns but I found that with short bursts of spray paint from between 10-15cm from the model a good look can be achieved easily. Leave this to dry thoroughly and then just drybrush the bottom third with bright yellow. Another method you could use is to paint red, add solid yellow to the lower portion of the model then dust with black so that the yellow and read are 'inside' the black smoke.

Stage Six : Varnish - The model is essentially finished at this point and you could stop here. However I wanted to make them even more durable so I sprayed the whole model in GW Purity Seal (a satin varnish) and then with Testors Dullcote to return the matt finish to the model.

And that's it. This method is fast and easy and I was able to make a dozen smoke and flame markers in just a couple of hours. Looking at my pictures I think I need to add a little more black to the tops of the models but on the whole I'm very happy with the completed markers. And here's what they look like in action.

As stated earlier I'm not taking credit for coming up with all the ideas described here, as much of the above technique can be found in other tutorials on the web. This is just my attempt to bring together the advice and ideas I found from many different sources, with a few experiments and disasters of my own thrown in for good measure. I hope you've found this useful and if you have any suggestions of your own please feel free to leave feedback (good or bad) in the comments below.


  1. Thanks for the great tutorial.
    They do look great.

  2. BigLee,

    Excellent tutorial and you offer quite a number of useful ideas for material. I had not thought of using pipe cleaners as a "core" and clump foilage.

    I don't game WWII, but I do find smoke screens, grass fires and the like useful with our scenarios.


  3. They are great, nice tutorial, how much do you charge?:D

  4. Great ideas Lee. I think I can try this with thinner wire / pipecleaners for 6mm. In Spearhead killed tanks are simply removed from the table but I like the idea of leaving smoking hulks where they lie - the after battle images are much better.

    Another project (groan!)

  5. Very nice - there seems to be a lot of "how-to-make" smoke markers popping up on the web lately - I think your method is a nice blend of all the ideas. I've used a similar method for splash markers in naval gaming - a washer, a dry wall anchor and some window caulk and one has a splash marker to record near hits.

  6. Fantastic tutorial, and the results look very good. The idea of pipe cleaners is a really good one. I also like your blend of ideas... and I am definately going to have a go!

  7. These look superb. Great tutorial, thx

  8. Great step by step tutorial. Thanks!

  9. Nice one.
    I wonde if it could be used to represent Flame throwers...or napalm?
    "I´ll miss this war....the smell of napalm in the morning"

  10. How are the fingers? I like the green foliage column before you painted it, that started some ideas for a creapy forest.

  11. Very nice. If you want to avoid the "finger" episode again, try hot glue. Cheaper in the long run and less issues with nail varnish remover.

  12. I tried hot glue but burned my finger! Lol. I admit my version, with superglue and fumes, is probably very unwise. But I'm not a very patient person! Also I found the whole model ends up harder and more resilient when soaked in superglue.

    I also tried papier mache but these took ages to dry. Also I didn't think they looked as nice as the clump foliage versions.

    I also had a go at the Acrylic wool method but again I just couldn't get them to dry quickly. I even resorted (unbeknown to my wife) to putting them on the Bread Shelf above the boiler because its always warm there. Still took over 48 hours to dry properly!

  13. 10/10 Great tutorial Lee, the markers look fantastic!

  14. Thanks for posting this tutorial. It is excellent and now I've got another project to start. :)

  15. Hear you on the fingers getting burned!

    Choices we make - glue fingers together and curse vs. burn fingers and curse.

    They do look very good!

  16. Hey, BigLee. Can you clarify a little about the pipe cleaners? How big around are they? And how did you attach them to the nut? I'm guessing that you wrapped the pipe cleaner around the nut at the base and then brought it up to the desired height and then bent it back down to the base again? Thanks

  17. Luckyjoe The pipe cleaners I bought were 'art supplies' from a local branch of Wilkinson’s. They were much bigger than regular pipe cleaners at about 30cmm long, with long hair on them. I cut the pipe cleaner into three equal lengths to make three armatures from each.

    Your right, I wrapped the around the base of the Nut. I put the nut in the centre of the 10cm lengths of pipe cleaner and twisted both ends round leaving two 'tails'. I then added a drop of glue where the pipe cleaner touched the nut. Once this had dried I twisted the two ‘tails’ into one column and this formed the armature on which to glue the clump foliage.

    You can use shorter haired cleaners but I think the long haired version gives the foliage more surface area to glue to.

  18. Thanks very much. I may be to try this on Saturday so I wanted to make sure I understood.

  19. Wow, they look great!


  20. Bored at the proverbial, thought i'd see if i could find these markers. And low and behold it's right under my nose. I can make them, kerching! Just got back from the poundshop, superglue in hand, they've finally got some facemasks back in, woo hoo! 99p shop tomorrow they've got a better selection of fittings.
    Cheap spray paint now, i don't think the £1shop hammerite copy will cut it,although i could cover the rust spots on the car, another story.
    Pipe cleaners and clump foliage = check.
    Cheers Lee.

  21. You weren't wrong when you said a lot of superglue, 30ml later i have 5 markers, an a gazzilion (although i only had 3 to begin with) less braincells. I also managed to burn myself, what a chemical reaction, the cat's face was a picture when she entered the living room, something got up her nose. Oh yeh make sure the wifes nail polish remover has acetone in it, unlike mine who's acetone free... They're now sprayed red and waiting for black and yellow, back to my stugs for now.

  22. Glad you found the article useful. Its not the most subtle (or environmentally safe) way to make terrain but I've used my smoke markers several times now and they stand up well to general handling.

  23. I remember this article now, a very good one. I think I would use the PVA soak in your 6mm smoke tutorial over the super glue coat stage in this one, but still a great article. Thanks for posting the link.

  24. They are the best I've seen.
    Great work & thanks for the tutorial.

  25. This is a great tutorial, thanks

  26. This is brilliant! I'm trying to make a burning wagon for Sertorius' Lusitanians in 15mm and I've found the solution. THANKS!

  27. Mark Lueckenhoff17 May 2016 at 04:28

    Looks great! Thanks for sharing your techniques!

  28. I dont have the stuff for this but would love to buy just a single marker to pimp n axis and allies miniature tank thats supposed to be a wreck

  29. nice job! will work outdoors to avoid the fumes!!


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