MDF vs 3D Printed Terrain

If you have not purchased wargaming terrain before, there is a lot of learn about what options are out there. For the true artists and professionals, the best option is building your own custom work - hand cutting buildings and painting fine detail on models about the size of your fingernail. This is the stuff you see posted on Reddit or featured in a YouTube video which makes you realize how terrible every table you have every played on looks. It’s a good ceiling to strive for, as long I personally keep some perspective about my actual ability. For those of us with shaky hands and the artistic sense of a seasoned tax accountant, the best option is usually to purchase and paint pre-made terrain from online vendors to use on our tables.

I made my first purchases knowing next to nothing. If it looked cool in the pictures, and fit the theme I wanted to build around, I ordered it. As you can imagine, I learned quickly that not all terrain is going to be equal. Three months later I settled on two basic categories for the terrain I find for sale - MDF terrain and 3d printed terrain. In the interest of helping future would-be architects of Star Wars battlefields I wanted to go over the differences between these two options (as I see them), and what I see as the pros and cons of each (again, according to no one else but me.)

3D printed terrain, which itself has subsets based on materials used in the printing, is pretty self explanatory. Someone uses 3D modeling software to build a object, then uses a 3D printer to create a physical representation of that object from plastics. This is the majority of what I see being used in my local games, likely due to the rise in 3D printers priced for consumers as well as the numerous amazing online vendors. Imperial Terrain is a great example of 3D printed terrain (and also just awesome in general for the Legion community!)

MDF stands for medium-density fiberboard. It’s basically a sheet of wood from which parts are cut with a laser. You pop these parts out the sheet and assemble them into your terrain piece, usually following a set of directions provided by the vendor. Most of what I found is geared to 28mm wargaming (ie Warhammer), but there are a number a vendors providing MDF terrain designed for Legion - Battle Kiwi is a company making MDF terrain specifically made for Star Wars Legion.

So when you are looking into buying terrain for your table, is there a reason to choose one over the other? When I started buying I was not aware there were options, much less what each would entail. It’s not something immediately obvious - or at least it wasn’t to me. Having now purchased, assembled and painted some of each, I have formulated opinions on each.

3D Printed Terrain

Pros

3D printed sniper tower. No amount of terrible painting can completely ruin this piece. It looks pretty good on the table no matter what!

3D printed sniper tower. No amount of terrible painting can completely ruin this piece. It looks pretty good on the table no matter what!

  • It can be used straight out of the box. It might not look as good as it will once painted, but it works just as well either way.

  • Everything looks better once painted, but a good paint job on 3D printed terrain makes for an amazing set piece

  • Has a good “weight” on the table - by which I mean it fills space in a usable way, and it feels sturdy when you interact with it

  • Capable of producing complex shapes, patterns and designs with depth.

Cons

  • Often more expensive. The materials and time are more than is needed for MDF, so you spent 20-60 dollars for single piece or set.

  • Single blocks of printed plastic can be bulky and harder to store than MDF terrain which can often be broken down.

  • Ridge lines. When the plastic is laid down by the 3D printer, it leaves concentric ridges across the object. You will want to sand these down (lightly!) before priming to keep the ridges from showing on your final product.

Don’t drybrush if you didn’t sand down the print lines…

Don’t drybrush if you didn’t sand down the print lines…

MDF Terrain

Pros

  • Cheap! Once the designer has engineered the parts and set a template, it cost very little cut into the wood. I was shocked when I first started looking at MDF how inexpensive it was (admittedly, not knowing anything else about it vs 3D printed)

  • Easier to store. The MDF pieces I own all break down fairly well and can be stored in much less space than the 3D printed counterparts. This is likely not always true but seems to be more often  true than their counter.

Cons

A ‘sprue’ of MDF terrain.

A ‘sprue’ of MDF terrain.

  • Arrives as a sheet of wood. Before you can do anything with it, you have to at the very least glue it into shape. And in my experience, if it needs paint you will want to paint it before you start gluing. All this means a lot more time before you can start using it on your table.

  • Speaking of assembly - MDF terrain is often a puzzle. A well engineered puzzle, but a puzzle non the less. You get 2-3 sheets of wood with flat parts of various sizes that pop out. Its almost never immediately obvious how it goes together, so expect to spent some time on the vendors website pouring over building instructions, trying to confirm if that little part in your hands is in fact the part it’s asking you to glue down.

  • Harder to prime and paint. I’m sure there could be debate on this, but the MDF I have painted so far has been way more work for a much less impressive final product. The wood soaked up the primer I was using, so I ended up needing to spay three coats to get it fully primed. With drying between those coats, I needed a whole day to prime before I could do anything else. Once I started the painting I found that it usually took a lot more artistic ability to make the MDF terrain look “good” than I felt I need with my 3D printed parts.

  • Lack of options for shape and form. As mentioned. Everything comes from a sheet of medium density fiberboard. That means no part exists which was not produced out of this board. While I have seen some amazing feats of engineering, it usually (not always) results in something less “real” looking, and often lacking in weight or dimension.  

Despite the poor paint job, this MDF crashed ship airlock looks pretty good from the front.

Despite the poor paint job, this MDF crashed ship airlock looks pretty good from the front.

From the back it looks less impressive.

From the back it looks less impressive.

In choosing terrain for your table you should of course always pick the things you like and would want to see played in your games. Those with more time, skill and patience than me can also discount many of my concerns. But for those of you who are new (and honestly, that’s all this is really geared towards) it is worth considering the above before making a decision.

For the purpose of supplying an opinion based on my experience, I would say to avoid MDF terrain until you know more what you want and can deal with. To a beginner collector, the 3D printed items will be much clearer in terms of what you see on a website being what you will be receiving to use.  And when considering MDF terrain look now just at the promotional photo of the item as given, but what the item would look like from all sides. Will the sides and back have the same apparent depth and weight of the front? Will you like it as much if your ability to paint is not the same as the professional job done in the photo? 

I’ll wrap by adding some additional links to a few MDF and 3D printed terrain vendors -— both because it can help see the difference between the types and because I like their stuff.

MDF 

3D Printed