Friday, May 18, 2012

Interview: Mike from TerranScapes

In todays interview I talk with Mike from TerranScapes. He has a great set of terrain pieces and boards and does a lot of custom work. You can find his work on his site at

[TP] How long ago did you create Terranscapes? Did it start out as a hobby?

[Mike] I started TerranScapes about 5 years ago after I left teaching (middle school science) as a career. I had been running an after school club for Warhammer (40k and Fantasy) for a few years based on student request. When I determined that teaching wasn't for me, I still had several pieces of terrain that I had built for the club. I decided to sell them on eBay and discovered that others were creating terrain for sale as a business. Since I had an opportunity to try something new for work, I decided to try out terrain for a year and see how it went. Haven't looked back since.

[TP] From your videos on youtube it looks like you have quite the setup in your shop. How much space do you actually have? Any perticular part of the workspace you use the most?

[Mike] My work space is actually very small. I converted part of my basement into a workshop adding two large workbenches, a painting hood and squeezed in as much shelving as I could manage. Total area for the shop is a little over 400 sq. ft. so its pretty cramped most of the time. I'd say the most used piece of equipment is the painting hood that vents outside. Without that, I'd be swamped in spray paint fumes and plaster dust.

[TP] It seems that you manage to keep your hours fully booked out pretty easily. How many projects does it take to fill up your time for the month?

[Mike] The amount of work I complete in a month varies depending on the type of pieces I am working on. No matter how much I do though, it doesn't keep up with demand. Last year I got a bit more popular and demand has since far outstripped my ability to fill it. As a result I now shut down the store for a few months to allow me to fill orders that come in. I would say I am able to fill 3-4 orders in a month depending on their size.

[TP] Are you doing this work full time or do you have a side gig?

[Mike] TerranScapes is a full time job for me and I work hard to maintain a 40 hour week. Working at home means that those hours get squeezed in where I can *looking at the clock -> 8:30 p.m.*

[TP] Do you have any employees other than yourself?

[Mike] Currently I don't have any employees but I am investigating some options at the moment. I'm very focused on quality so having someone else working on projects makes me nervous. In addition, to be fair, I'm not sure I can afford to pay an employee a living wage (see #6) and I don't believe in being exploitative for profit. Saying all of that, I actually enjoy working alone so that has also been a deterrent to adding employees.

[TP] Are you able to realize much profit in making Terrain?

[Mike] TerranScapes does turn a profit, though its quite modest. Terrain making is a very labor intensive business, and requires somewhere around 50% of my time doing things to support the business that don't directly create a product. Web site maintenance, photography, videos, email, shipping, ordering, researching, experimenting, etc. are big competing time investments.

[TP] What is your personal favorite piece and why?

[Mike] Its hard to have favorites as I really enjoy the variety of the job. If I had to pick, I might pick the Crypt Entrances I did about a year ago. I felt they melded playability with great looks, with the added bonus of being gothic horror. I love the undead. :)

[TP] What piece do you get the most requests for?

[Mike] Modular board sets are probably the most requested orders. I've been very pleased with how they have evolved over the years and I'm constantly looking to add to and improve them.

[TP] You do a lot of custom designs using hirst arts blocks. How do you protect the IP for these pieces?

[Mike] Well, I hadn't considered that unique designs were an IP issue. After your last interview however, I reviewed the contract and I can see a paragraph that could be interpreted as the rights going to Bruce Hirst. *shrug* To be honest, I'm not a big fan of the concept of IP and if Bruce gets concerned I would be happy to go with what ever the contract stipulates. We have a good working relationship and my designs don't generate enough profits to be a big concern for either of us I imagine.

Note: The interview referenced above is the one I did with Ian here:

[TP] Tell me about one of your most memorable "doh" moments when you messed something up beyond repair.

[Mike] I was trying to do a new style of mold pouring called cavity mold pouring. You build a shell around the master and then pour the rubber into the shell to fill the space between the shell and the master. I skipped the important step of screwing the shell to the table (who knew hot glue wasn't enough) and as the shell filled, the buoyancy of the rubber lifted it off the table with a resulting mass flow of silicone spilling everywhere. :) Gotta learn somehow.

[TP] How long does it take you to put together a video for youtube? What is your inspiration for the videos?

[Mike] The videos are much more time consuming than I think people realize. I work hard to try to put up polished videos and for a 15 minute video, it might take me 2+ hours from set up of lights to starting the upload. Its the main reason I don't do tutorial videos. I just can't spare the time to do them the way I want to. As for inspiration, I just try to put up the kind of videos I want to see: good close ups, not a lot of repetition, clear descriptions, and a willingness to be humble and receive feedback and suggestions. I'm always looking to make them better and I am probably my own harshest critic.

[TP] Any short cuts that you have learned to help in casting or making terrain?

[Mike] I still feel like a newbie when it comes to mold making and casting, though I have learned a lot. I think the best tip would be knowing several casting materials and mold making methods. The right selections for a project makes a world of difference. Getting locked in to one type of plastic/foam or one type of molding will reduce your quality and creative potential.

[TP] Any closing thoughts or advice you would give someone just starting out?

[Mike] I get a lot of inquiries from people interested in starting up their own terrain business. In general I would say that being a sole proprietor of a terrain business requires a really wide variety of skills (see #6). While its rewarding, its not for everyone. A small business can be very hard to manage and may not make a lot of money. You need to love the work, love learning, and be willing to put in a lot of hours. A little discipline, organization and self motivation doesn't hurt either. ;)

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