Hello Sean, thanks for taking the time to speak to me. You’ve been interested in miniature model making and the WH40K universe for many years now. Do you remember what initially drew you to it? Do you still have your first mini?
In grade school, growing up in California, I was exposed to a copy of D&D my mom picked up (she’s pretty cool – a SF&F writer, so I had good connections). I didn’t play it per se, but loved poring over the maps and modules, reading about monsters, and even pushing around some poorly painted metal figures. I started drawing my own crude maps on graph paper… but I really started gaming in earnest in High School, playing RPGs with my friends – Gamma World, Traveller, Car Wars – just pen and paper back then. In college, I ran a Gundam RPG and used model kits for the combat. Then I ran into Rogue Trader at the local game store, and everything changed... I started by converting some plastic army men and dinosaurs, but eventually picked up a copy of the RTB01 plastic Space Marines, and devised my own chapter – the Storm Horses. I think I still have them somewhere... I also got some of the first Eldar Aspect Warrior miniatures – the models were so nice, I had to do a proper paint job on them – I still use them today. My paint skills have gotten a lot faster, but not much better...
I first came across your work with the fantastic Necromundicon city terrain you made for WH40K about the time Necromunda was released. What inspired you to build all those incredible models, and then put them online?
After college, my friends helped me get a job in the video games industry. Earning a living doing paper games was near impossible back then. But I still managed to find time to play those kind of games at home, and work on terrain. For my old Gundam games I had made terrain out of packing foam and cardboard laid out on the floor. In college, my 40K terrain consisted of architectural drawings printed out and pasted onto cardboard boxes. I knew I could do better, and set to converting toys and model train buildings into terrain for our games. I’ve been a longtime fan of urban exploration, and wanted to capture the feeling of exploring abandoned buildings and industrial sites, but in miniature. Necromunda’s urban setting was fun to achieve, making terrain gritty and industrial however I could. My friends encouraged me to make a website, so I taught myself the utmost basic skills in html and Necromundicon was born. Once I figured out how to make and modify a table, my web design growth stopped – which is why my site is still so clunky! I really should spend more time on it, but given the choice of website or models, I always choose models. Or games.
|Some of the Necromundicon terrain, much of which dates back to the 1990s|
Do you still add to your 40K collection?
I do. Work keeps me super busy, but as the kids get older and more self sufficient, they are actually the main audience for my games and projects. They're in Middle and High School, the golden age of gaming. Old enough to watch Fury Road, but young enough to have time and enthusiasm for campaign games! Currently I’m running a Rogue Trader RPG for my kids and friends. Finding players gets harder as you get older and have less free time – so it’s nice the kids enjoy playing, and I often pick up players from work. A maybe-not-so-surprising number of video game developers like tabletop games. We even play at lunch now and then. Fortunately, I have a healthy collection of terrain and minis, so I can concentrate on special projects like scratch-building ships for our campaign. There's a thread on Dakka Dakka here where you can see what we’re up to.
|The scratch-built fleet from Sean's current Rogue Trader RPG|
Those ships look brilliant. Beautifully detailed. You have a fascinating ability to spot discarded household items and repurpose them for your miniatures. I remember you suggested using old hair curlers as the cages around tall ladders. Where do you get these ideas? Do you have any favourite re-appropriations?
The more you build, the more your eye is trained to look for things that could be useful. Studying reference photos and real environments comes naturally to me. The stuff I’ve found most useful is anything that I can get a lot of, especially plastic bits that have lots of detail. I used to collect obscure discarded electronics and parts, but if you figure out what to do with them and you only have one, it’s kind of a dead end. I constantly find uses for CPVC pipe fittings, electrical work boxes, VHS cassette cases and reel hubs, plastic clothespins, sprinkler cutoff risers, plastic levelling shims, cross-stitch grating, and on and on. The lock rings from Minute Maid juice bottles are particularly cool looking. Recently I discovered Tropicana juice lids, which make excellent gothic exhaust ports, but even better Eldar terrain.
|A 40K scale, scratch-built Thunderhawk Gunship from over 15 years ago|
We can see that Eldar terrain on your Dakka Dakka link above, right? How does the idea for a model come to you? Do you tend to start with components you’d like to work with, or is it more about having a model you’d like to achieve? Is there a lot of experimentation during a typical project, or do you have fairly accurate plans right from the off?
Often when I’ve found a new material to work with, I just monkey around trying it against other parts to see what looks cool. But other times I’ll have a deliberate functional piece in mind, and sketch it out in a crude little sketch book. I can usually remember the size and shape of a lot of materials, and identify them in the sketch. This is a more recent workflow, discovered when riding the bus (time to sketch). It can save a lot of staring at parts at home, and time is my most precious resource these days...
|Ork minelayer, built around a large plastic bottle|
If only there were more hours in the day… Got any tips you can share?
Don’t be afraid to just try something, with the understanding that if it ends up looking lame, you can always rip it off and try something else. Also, the more you can have of a material, the more things you can try, and if you find a combination you like, you can mass produce it. And when painting terrain, try to use more than one color. Just a few washes and a bit of drybrushing can make your work look amazing, especially if you put some effort and texture into its construction.
|Another 40K scale, scratch-built ship|
Do you have any tricks for adding texture?
Of course! I love rivets, and add them to anything I can. Here's a tutorial for the different methods I use. I also love brick – I often start with O scale train buildings just for their brick and stone textures. You can buy corrugated and diamond plate plastic from hobby suppliers, but you can also use Zip Ties, Floor Shims, Cross-stitch Grating, and Fluorescent Lighting Panels to make interesting looking wall and floor paneling. And of course, when all else fails, drill holes in it!
|Sean's gun turret, part of his Necromundicon project|
Good tips, thanks. Plus some excellent ways to add rivets in that tutorial. Your site is jam-packed full of great tips and tricks. Have you ever written anything for Games Workshop?
I was contacted by Fanatic magazine back in the day, to do some articles on terrain (mostly stuff from my site, which they must have found). I contacted the White Dwarf crew much later, and managed to get a couple articles done for them – that was pretty cool.
|Sean's article on Eldar terrain, from issue 309 of the US White Dwarf|
|And his cooling tower from issue 314|
Do you have any connections with any other commercial gaming organisations?
WizKids asked me to make a couple of terrain tables for them – one for Mage Knight, and one for Mechwarrior. They were fun projects, I never worked on anything so big. I discovered some new techniques working on those, like using sound dampening board and pine bark for natural terrain. The sound dampening board I'm talking about is basically just pressed paper shreddings, so it is easy to tear by hand, and it yields very organic shapes.
|The 8' x 4' MechWarrior table|
|And a shot showing part of the beautiful Mage Knight display table|
Your site contains stage by stage articles on the construction of a lot of the things you've mentioned (the MechWarrior table can be found here, for example). But it's not just terrain you tackle, is it? You have a tonne of other related projects, many of which break away from the WH40K or WizKids universes. Which ones have you enjoyed the most?
I love making props, stuff you can wear or play with. I don’t have as much time or space for props as I used to, but it’s fun to see how good you can make something look, even if it started as just a Nerf gun or some foam. Making or repurposing terrain for other aesthetics is a nice break, like the grungy sci-fi of Votoms and Star Wars, to the post-apocalyptic chaos of Gamma World.
|A tiny portion of Sean's extensive Mordheim scenery|
You clearly love modelling and painting, but you also play a lot of games, right? You mentioned Star Wars and Gamma World. Which games are your favourites?
I’m more of a co-op guy than competitive. As a result, I don’t even play with the official 40K rules! For example, I made alternate rules for Space Hulk that let you play co-op against automated enemies (you can see them here). This makes games more approachable for my kids too – we can play together instead of against each other. Other games we enjoy are Galaxy Trucker, Relic, and Flash Point Fire Rescue. We also play PC and console games together, like Terraria and Borderlands. As I mentioned earlier, professionally I design video games, so I like to take a break from work... by designing tabletop games!
Do the skills from making tabletop games help you when working on video games?
Well, as an example, when designing and laying out the strongholds and wilderness spaces in Shadow of Mordor, I found that having an eye for combat, traversal, and exploration spaces really came in handy.
|Sean's Imperial War Train rumbles through an industrial sector|
That makes a lot of sense. Where does your inspiration come from?
Star Wars was a pretty big influence when I was a kid, especially the used-technology aesthetic. Films like Blade Runner, Alien and Road Warrior have been a strong visual inspiration. And John Woo’s Hard Boiled is a cool example of extremely close range combat in urban settings. In fact my urban exploration adventures were always more fun when I imagined them in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic setting. I used to explore the Coastal Defense Gun Emplacements around San Francisco, and, since moving to Seattle, have explored more in the Puget Sound and around the mouth of the Columbia river. I’ve taken photos of all manner of industrial compounds, ruins, and the like, and found even more impressive photos online by others so inclined. And of course, the 40K universe and Mordheim have inspired an interest in gothic and classical architecture.
|A photo from Sean's recent exploration of Fort Worden|
You mentioned Star Wars there, you're clearly a fan. The Force Awakens or Rogue One?
Rogue One, of course! I always liked Episode IV the best of the original trilogy... the galaxy seemed so much bigger and more wondrous than in any other Star Wars film. Returning to that time period was really satisfying, and it was refreshing seeing characters that were more morally questionable, and expendable – it meant the villains could be a lot more believably dangerous than usual.
It was a great film. I’ve heard people say the first half was a little boring, but I didn’t find that at all.
Yeah, the pacing is very different from A New Hope. But it still managed to make the universe feel huge. They totally nailed the tech aesthetic from ANH – I love all the black control panels with panel lines and heavy lights and switches... Droids, weapons, armor and vehicles, all felt so tangible. We’ve lost that tactile feel to our technology in real life, I fear.
But it’s still very apparent in your industrial terrain. Do have any hobby plans for the future that you can share with us today?
I’ve been working on a little co-op Star Wars board game, and I have plans this summer to start up a Gamma World campaign again – this time, with my own rules system to keep the game moving at a good pace! As an RPG based on D&D mechanics I find it a little clumsy and archaic compared to modern RPGs, but I love the theme. All the RPGs we play are just an excuse to play more narrative minis games, really. We use miniatures for all our gaming! My Star Wars Adventures game makes use of minis from Imperial Assault and the Star Wars Miniatures game. The IA minis are way better quality, but expensive and require painting, whereas with the SW Miniatures game the figures were pre-painted, so that speeds things up a bit and they can be handled with less care.
Speed – such an important aspect of this time-consuming hobby. It’s so easy to get bogged down in long, drawn-out projects. So on that note, thank you for dedicating so much time to this interview. I really appreciate it. And I can’t wait to see what you build next.
Sean's website, Iron Hands, can be found here, and includes links to many of his incredible projects, rules sets, and tutorials.