While the anvils at Dwarven Forge are busy making lovely terrain for Caverns Deep, Hellscape and the Wildlands, those with adventures set in urban environments have been craving a few more options. The clamoring voices have definitely been heard—survey questions about potential future campaigns suggest fun in the settled regions is coming next—but it’ll be a couple years before that stuff hits gaming tables. Today I’ll show you how to scratch that itch while you wait by making your own shop fronts. You can also use the same materials to make the longer building floors and walls necessary to create jettied upper stories of your buildings.
Here’s what I’ve made. Let’s have a profusely-illustrated stroll through the history which led me to that design and then I’ll walk you through how you can make your own Dwarven Forge options like these using $20 worth of supplies, a metal ruler, a nice sharp hobby knife, toothpicks, a wire brush (or you can use a toothpick), the craft or mini paints you probably already have, and—if you decide to go for any bigger than 10″ pieces—either contact cement (like Barge or DAP Weldwood) or Cyanoacrylate (CA) glue (e.g. Loctite Super Glue).
Shop fronts! Let’s go!
The most prevalent historical examples to draw on are from the late Medieval period in Europe. I’m still hoping to find pre-modern examples from other parts of the world. The Chinese images I looked at suggested a complete open side to the shop—requiring no modified pieces for our terrain—but that may just be an artistic visual device. This one Japanese scene from Japan in 1855 does support the complete open side idea, but again, may not fully reflect the real appearance. Given the context of this and its companion post-earthquake image, though, I think it’s fairly likely it’s realistic.
Note how the kimono shop uses an awning with side panels to display inventory in the street. Goods also are placed in front in the street at the shop in the upper right. It appears that the shop openings may have fittings for panels to be inserted to close the front when not open. Note also the shape of the shop, with a two-story section in the rear. That portion may be workshop, residence, or a combination of the two.
We can somewhat suggest this shop style without matching it exactly using existing Dwarven Forge pieces and a bit of creativity.
The European examples have some common elements to the Japanese—use of the street space and integrated workshops and/or residences—but also some distinct differences, most notably a shop counter separating the seller from the buyer. The European examples generally incorporate a wide arched window and a simple countertop. Often items are hung around the top of the opening and—taking advantage of the light—the area directly inside is usually a workspace as well as a spot to sell to customers. The wide arched window shape itself seems to signify a shop rather than a residence (see for example this mention on page 313 of The Oxford Handbook of Later Medieval Archaeology in Britain).
Shutters were widely used to close up the shop front when not in use. These might be removable, or be in a vertical configuration as we’re used to seeing in the present day (shown in the illustration below), or horizontal, where a shutter would fold down to create the counter when supported on trestle legs or fold up to provide an awning over the counter. (This is described extensively with many photographs of surviving English buildings in this page on the Architectural Traces of Shops by Stephen Alsford.)
The counter might extend outside as seen above. Or it might only be on the inside, as seen in the tailor’s shop below. We also see in the picture below a barbershop with cabinets which protrude.
The protruding cabinet model appears a lot in Italian market scenes of the 15th century. It is unclear if these are spaces which would be sealed up with shutters or other closures (such as would be used for a tent) when not in use or if the goods would just be taken away. By comparing many images of the same types of scenes we have a better chance of identifying details that have been omitted for artistic clarity in other pictures.
Italian examples also show counters with an entryway at the side, as in this 14th century view of a pharmacy from Tacuinum Sanitatis. (Note also the stairs leading to an additional floor of the building which has been rendered very small to place emphasis on the shop.) Here’s a link to a German example from 1533 with a half-door set into the gap by the counter.
Below is an early 16th century German example of a chain suspended counter:
One of our best resources is the book Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden published in Frankfurt am Main in 1568, which shows all sorts of craftsfolk at work.
Many of the historic illustrations of craftspeople also show them working in rooms at tables under large windows (possibly upstairs, based on the lack of customers or street level activity outside the windows, and on architectural traditions in later centuries as seen in buildings like the 18th century stocking knitters’ cottages in St. Mary’s Lane, Tewkesbury).
A key example I’m drawing from are surviving English buildings, especially one which I was able to visit personally, the medieval shop from Horsham at the Weald and Downland Living Museum near Chichester in the south of England. The building is presumed to date from the late 15th century. This is a fairly wide building with room for two shop fronts.
“The shop on the left on the ground floor does not connect to the room on the right and might have been rented separately, perhaps with the building owner residing above and only using the small shop front on the right (which connects to the upstairs with a staircase).Each of the two units had a shop at the front and a small hall or ‘smoke bay’ open to the roof at the back [My understanding is that this is inclusive in the white ground floor part of the building in my photo]. When the building was dismantled the timbers were heavily sooted, indicating that open fires had been burning over a long period. The fires would have been used for warmth, and possibly also for producing goods for sale — for example, smoked meat, pies or bread. …
The building had been dramatically altered during its life and many of the original timbers had been removed. The surviving timbers provided sufficient evidence for the reconstruction, but many of them were not in good enough condition to re-use and have had to be replaced with new oak. On the front elevation none of the ground-floor timbers survived, so we have no evidence for the original shop front. The reconstruction is a copy of a surviving shop front of similar date at Lingfield, near Horsham.” – Weald and Downland Living Museum
In narrower buildings than this Horsham two-shop example, a hallway off the street might have a door opening into the shop as well as to living areas and to the outside behind the building. As the Tewkesbury example is described, “The front door opened onto a corridor which ran past the shop, but gave immediate access, from the side, to the shop; it also gave access further in to the living quarters, and at the far end to the service rooms and garden. The hall lay behind the shop; part of the hall was open through the upper storey to create a void for smoke from the hearth to drift upwards rather than disperse into living areas. Behind the hall were the service rooms (kitchen and buttery [which is where you keep the butts of liquor, often a small room or closet which can be locked]). A steep, almost ladder-like, staircase on one side of the hall led to the upper storey where were two bedrooms: one above the hall and shop, the other above the service rooms. A latrine would likely have been located in the garden at rear of the house.”
To return to our Horsham example, here’s a lovely photo showing museum staff or volunteers demonstrating the shop in use:
With confidence about the appearance, now it’s time to make our shop. First, we make a pattern for a piece which will fit in the front of a Dwarven Forge 4″ building front. Start by creating a piece of cardstock the size of the piece for which you are substituting.
For our shop front we’re going to use the proportions of the door piece, but make the door opening be the shop arch and the wall be the narrow door. We want to capture to our template the size of the timbers so that the piece feels consistent with the others.
Make note also of the top timbers.
Now you can draw in your shop arch and narrow doorway. Draw the whole archway to the ground, even if your finished version will have a wall below the arched opening. It’s easier to cut this way and no problem to adjust back afterwards.
Now it’s time to meet your new best friend: EVA foam. EVA, or Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate.
This magnificent substance is heavily used by cosplayers so there’s lots of good info out there for working with it. It cuts with a craft knife, can be gently sanded to created curved surfaces, and takes paint well (especially after you give it a little heat with a hot air gun or hair dryer). For our purposes you want small panels, of high density, in 10mm thickness so that it matches Dwarven Forge walls. You can buy a stack of eight such 9.6″x 9.6″ panels from Amazon for under $20 (and that link helps support this site through the commission I earn).
Our next step in building our shop front is to cut out a piece of 10mm thick high density EVA foam the same size as the wall piece we’ll be replacing.
Use your paper pattern, out of which you’ve cut the openings, as a template and mark with pencil where you’ll cut the EVA foam.
Before you cut the openings, while the piece is still at its sturdiest, trim the ends to fit in Dwarven Forge corner posts. Set a wall on top and trace the point onto the EVA foam on both sides, top and bottom.
To keep from going too far off the cut line, just go halfway down for each cut, flip the piece over, and then finish from the top. When cutting, go slowly and carefully to keep your lines more straight and to avoid cutting yourself. EVA foam is dense, but still springy. Be careful. 🙂
Try to keep your craft knife blade perpendicular to the surface of the foam panel, use a metal straight edge as a guide, and cut in smooth, steady strokes. (EVA foam is dense and hard on blades; don’t work with a dull blade. Keep fresh blades on hand.)
Before we go on to gluing and painting, here’s a quick example of making a simple outside counter as seen in many of the sources above. I’ve cut a counter out of my archway cutout piece and pierced it with two toothpicks. Once I got the height settled to a pleasing position, I cut the toothpicks off with a plastic frame cutter.
If you want your shop front to have a solid door, take your doorway cutout and split it vertically to be half as thick, as shown below.
EVA foam also is available in large, inexpensive batches as floor matting. This comes in many colors, for example, 24″ square brown pieces (approx. $1/sq foot in a six pack). These floor mats are not quite as dense as the black non-floor-mat type and have a pattern on one side, but are still serviceable. (That link helps support this site through the commission I earn.)
To build a multi-level shop-front building with overhanging fronts, I’ve cut each floor 1/2″ longer than the one below, representing an overall 5′ overhang at scale. They’re 4″ wide to match standard Dwarven Forge Cottage walls, so I’ve only needed to cut special side walls for the top and middle levels.
Before heat sealing, I’ve textured all the surfaces since cuts in EVA foam will separate slightly when heated. This helps retain the detail.
Before painting, you’ll want to heat seal the surface. This is super easy with a heat gun, but doable with a hair dryer on high (or so the cosplay folks say; I’m the kinda gal who owns a heat gun but not a hair dryer and haven’t tested the latter myself). Let the heat gun come to temperature, then pass it over your cut foam pieces, watching the surface become less porous and less matte. It is a very quick change—don’t go nuts and melt your foam—and will leave you with a nice smooth surface for painting, no priming necessary. Note: you’re heating plastic; do this in a well-ventilated area. A silicone place mat is handy to prevent heat damage to the surface you’re working on (and if you get a smooth one in dirt brown or dungeon gray it can do double duty in your builds hiding random items you’re using for elevation like board game boxes).
I made the holes for the Dwarven Forge corner posts using a hand-powered hobby drill after heat sealing the pieces so that the fit stays tight. If you don’t have a hobby drill (like you’d use for putting pins into the bottom of a mini), just use a drill bit about half the diameter of the corner post pins. You don’t need to remove much foam in the hole to create room.
For a roof of the new longer length, I got a brown yoga block made of EVA foam and cut it down to size. These blocks happen to have a black stripe, which makes a nice decorative effect. Each block is enough for two roofs for a 5″ x 4″ building, with big extra bits left over. (That link helps support this site through the commission I earn.) For cutting something like this, I used an Olfa Utility Knife (as recommended by Jeremy of Black Magic Craft.)
Since the EVA foam doesn’t require priming, I can move straight on to painting. For this I roughly followed the excellent color advice and order of operations from Dwarven Forge, with two big changes:
• These aren’t lovely DF sculpts; you won’t get as much instant effect from drybrushing and may have to do a little more painting to get your finished effect.
• Cheap craft paint works fine on EVA foam; an inexpensive assortment like these Apple Barrel paints will get you through a lot of projects. (That link helps support this site through the commission I earn.)
It’s not perfect, but I am very pleased with the results of this first experiment with EVA foam. I’m looking forward to the day I can replace these with real pieces of Dwarvenite, but until then I’ve got a lot more building options available to me.
Whatever shop style we choose, it’s worth remembering that it almost certainly exists in the wider context of temporary market stalls, herded groups of animals, wandering mongers with trays, and all manner of people trading from wagons, baskets, and goods they carry on their backs. Have fun filling in lots of less formal commerce activity!
For much more detail on markets as public spaces, primarily from an architectural and current civic space design viewpoint but with many historical notes and illustrations, see The Marketplace: Bringing Back the Public Space Inside the Market by Andreea Tron (2016)