I’m starting a series of miniatures hobby articles, enjoy!
Everyone can improve their painting and modeling skills. I’ll start with the basics for a solid foundation.
A moderate investment in hobby supplies will pay off. Unless you are some kind of hobby genius, your work can only be as good as your tools. Old frayed brushes and cheap dried up paints will give you poor results.
Basic tools: Brushes, model paint, black spray primer, glues, razor blades or a hobby knife, clippers, and basing materials.
Optional tools: Files, pin vises, razor saws, sculpting tools, magnets, palettes, and paint additives.
Each of these will be covered in more detail below. (By the way, GW stands for Games Workshop)
Good Brushes: Now here is an investment worth making! GW’s brushes recently dropped in price to about $5 a brush, and now there are more flavors to choose from. I would recommend the fine detail brush, detail brush, and standard brush to start with. For vehicles you should grab something larger as well. There are other brands out there besides GW but make sure the brush is sable or at least a natural blend. Nylon brushes are simply harder to paint detail with and usually more time consuming.
Junk brushes: You probably have a selection of old frayed brushes kicking around that you can use for drybrushing. If not, this is where the cheap nylon brushes can come in handy. Sometimes you can get a large bag of crappy brushes for about $5 at craft stores like Michaels, these are great for drybrushing and terrain projects.
Paint Brands: I’ve used nothing but GW paint for years. Some people like Vallejo or other brands. There is nothing wrong with getting a competing high-end miniature paint, just don’t skimp or get something oil based like Testor’s.
Viscosity: Keep your paints wet, you want them close to the same viscosity they had when you bought them. This usually means occasionally mixing in water (or blending medium). Do this a little at a time so you don’t water down your paints too much. Sometimes I use cheap paints for bases and terrain. I will often let them dry out a little as they are too thin.
What to buy: Every painter will need a supply of Black, Grey, and White. I’d suggest you also grab some neutral tones and browns, after all most miniatures are supposed to be on a battlefield and not on a parade ground. Browns will let you detail things like pouches and belts, and will come in handy for basing. Bleached bone is a very useful color, for skulls, horns, bone, teeth, wrappings, purity seals… and if you find yourself over-using it then you can diversify with colors like Kommando Khaki and Dheneb stone. For browns, go for scorched brown, bestial brown, and then a lighter brown of your choice. Now here is the tricky part when buying paint. How much do you really need? Frankly, the more the better. Usually you will want a base color, a highlight, and a shadow. You can save money and mix your own or you can save time and buy some paint.
If you are low on cash, many game stores have a selection of paints on hand you can use, although you will still need to buy your own brushes. This can be a good resource if you want to add some extra detail to a character but don’t wan to buy colors you only need a little of.
Washes: Grab yourself the whole box of these if you have the scrilla, they are a huge time saver and can also turn average blending into good blending when used properly. You can slather the whole model with a wash or use them strategically. Washes can take a model that is base-coated and turn it into a shaded model ready for the table top.
Foundation paints: I’m not a fan of stocking up on all of these but they definitely have their uses. They are thick and a little chalky looking, but they cover up black with one coat. They truly are a foundation for later colors, but not necessary for every color. If painting something with decent surface area blue, red, or yellow, I would go ahead and get some.
Storage: Find some sort of case for your paints, the wider and shallower the better. You’ll want to keep track of these things. To make selecting colors fast, I paint a dab of the paint on the top of the lid. For black, varnish, washes, and inks, I’ll usually paint on a letter or word to make it clear.
Priming: Prime every miniature you paint! This will save you tons of time. It is especially vital for metal and resin models because you want a solid foundation for future layers of paint to stick to. All you really need is black primer. Even models with a lot of light areas will still have dark patches. With the GW foundation paints now available it makes spraying black more of a no-brainer. There is a major exception to this: if you are going to be using washes as your primary means of painting, then go ahead and paint everything white first. (With my tyranids I sprayed everything white, then did a heavy ink wask of various browns, then drybrushed bleached bone and white. If I was to do it over I might spray black first, then drybrush, then wash, then drybrush again.)
Spray Brands: Now you can go ahead and get the $15 GW spray primer, and it is a good product but kind of a rip-off. I recommend the $4 cans of Krylon brand flat black. Many spray paints are thick and will obscure detail but Krylon is just thin enough to work for a quarter of the price.
Spray Technique: When spraying it is advisable to shake the can for about a minute before spraying, using both vertical and circular motions. Keep your spray strokes even and do multiple thin coats if possible. Spray outside or in a ventilated garage that you can leave once everything is sprayed. Put down some cardboard or a tarp to protect the ground. Once you have everything sprayed you might not be done. If you tilt a few models over you may see major areas that have not been covered, due to the angle of the spray. You can tip the models over or spray again, or if want the more time consuming route you can manually paint black in the parts the spray missed.
Safety: When gluing or spray painting, make sure you have adequate ventilation! Don’t lean over the bottle and make sure to take breaks. This stuff can slowly damage your brain or lungs if you aren’t careful, but there is little risk if you have good airflow in your workspace. Don’t let kids use glue unsupervised.
Plastic glue: If you don’t know it already, GW plastic glue + plastic parts makes for easy modeling. It dries as an incredibly strong bond, and gives you some working time while things are tacky. For plastic on plastic this is all you will ever need. If there is paint or glue on the plastic surface this will need to be scraped or cut off first.
Superglue: Plastic glue won’t work on metal, resin, or other materials, and doesn’t work as well on some of the cheaper plastics used by other miniature companies. This is where super glue (cyanoacrylate) comes in. Now if both surfaces are perfectly flat and clean, super glue by itself works like a charm. Follow the instructions and just put a little dab on one side. Super glue accelerants are out there to quicken set times but I don’t recommend them as I have heard that it makes the bond more brittle.
Superglue brands: Time to rate the glues! (these are in order).
1) Gorilla brand super glue (it has rubberized molecules in it for durability, and it’s goopier and stronger than normal superglue. The nozzle is a bit wide so you sometimes get more than you need ,but this stuff sets up quick and )
2) Loctite (Cheap, adheres well, dries strong)
3) Zap-a-gap (About as good as Loctite)
4) Krazy glue (If you get this brand try the kind with a brush in it, like nail polish)
5) Generic super glue (gets points for being cheap)
6) GW super glue (overpriced at about $8 a unit)
Gap filling and quick-setting superglue: In most modeling parts will not be perfectly, and clamping parts together with your fingers or a tool can be difficult or tedious. Sometimes you have to fill a large gap, or sometimes you need to play around with positioning. This is where glue tricks come in! Putting Tacky Glue on one side and superglue on the other makes gluing a lot easier. The bond is not 100% as strong as possible but it holds up well, and usually holds up better than superglue alone since it fills gaps and provides structure. Be careful not to get one kind of glue on the other kind of glue’s nozzle or you can get clogs. (Clogs can usually be cleaned with a paperclip or needle.) Tacky Glue is a brand of glue, it is similar to Elmer’s white glue but thicker and stickier when still wet. It is great for basing and terrain projects as well as gap filling, and cheap. You can also use mixed Green stuff (or Grey stuff) with small amounts of super glue, this can be tricky to work with but it fills any gap perfectly and if done right dries very strong. Make sure both sides of the join have some glue reach them as the epoxy putty may not be strong enough to hoold all on its own, but since it conforms to shapes it makes tricky joins easier. Sometimes I will cover the bond with a small amount of superglue if I fell it is too weak otherwise. Super glue gels do not usually have much durability in my experience, and they also are not as economical.
White Glue: Tacky glue and Elmer’s glue were already mentioned… these are types of PVA glue, and all you need for most basing. Any time you want to cover a surface with flock, basic white glue is the way to go. I don’t water mine down as it is less runny and holds a bit better. The GW white glue is a joke, it is expensive and watery.
Hot glue: It’s bad for small model assembly, helpful for quick terrain assembly, and fun for crazy effects. Hot glue is dispensed from a “gun” that costs about 5 bucks. It can singe you so don’t get it on your skin or fragile surfaces. It dries translucent so if you are careful you can do some great slime effects, but it can be hard to work with. Hot glue often leaves little glue threads which have to be cleaned up.
Other glues: There are also many other adhesives out there, from two-part epoxy glue to industrial goop. I have tried many and haven’t found anything that beats the super glue and tacky glue / green stuff combination for filling gaps. I know the GW studio uses Liquid Nails for a lot of their terrain building, that is some strong stuff but only good for large projects.
Two-part modeling putty: Green stuff and Grey stuff. These are very similar and easy to work with. They consist of two parts of putty that when kneaded together will be sticky and pliable for an hour or so, and then dry hard. These are absolutely essential for advanced conversions and will make your life as a hobbyist easier. I recommend the Gale Force 9 series as it is the same stuff as GW brand but way more economical. Green stuff is a bit stickier and better for assembling models, grey stuff is firmer and holds detail a bit better. Make sure you blend thoroughly until the color is uniform, fortunately this stuff doesn’t stick to fingers too badly. If going for a shape extruding out into space like a tentacle, it is advisable to cover the dried result with small amounts of superglue or white glue for added strength.
Apoxie sculpt: Apoxie is a company that makes two-part modeling clay, in many different flavors. This is better suited for large projects like terrain and the basic shapes of large creatures. It comes in various sizes, I usually go for the 4 pound deal. I had the natural color before, which is ugly to look at but works like a charm. Last time I bought some I went for the black color, which sticks horribly to the hands when mixing (so use disposable gloves)
Air-dry foam clay: Most air dry clay sucks and will break on you, and is messy. I recently discovered air-dry foam clay, which can be had for about $5 at Lakeshore learning center and perhaps other places. It is very lightweight and won’t hold detail too well, but cheap as hell and not messy at all. Save it for terrain projects or basing, or adding gribbly tentacles to everything.
Sculpting techniques will be covered in a later article.
Razor blades! Cheap, effective, and only slightly dangerous. I prefer these to model knives because they are cheap and you can get more power for a clean cut when cutting through a thicker area. With razor blades you can clean up plastic parts, scrape off mold lines, add battle damage, and make clean cuts for conversions. Cut away from anything living, and protect your work surface if you or a loved one cares about it.
Safety Disclaimer: I used to be more risky and stupid with razor blades and cut my fingers from time to time. If this happens, rinse out the wound with water and then apply direct pressure with a paper towel or bathroom tissue. Disinfect the wound with Neosporin, or hand sanitizer / rubbing alcohol if you like the sting. Then get a band-aid and be more careful next time! Cut away from your fingers, not towards them. Don’t let kids use razors or other sharp tools.
Plastic clippers: The GW is expensive but worth it. It cuts clean on one side, and makes removing bits from sprues faster. You can use it to cut up models but it will mess up one side of the cut, so razor blades are usually better. Be careful not to use these on metal other than pewter or lead as it will degrade the blade, you can get a cheap wire cutter that will do a better job on tougher metals.
Pin vise: A pin vise is a simple tool that holds a drill bit. I use a cheap one that can hold multiple thicknesses of bits. They are great for drilling out gun barrels or adding bullet holes. To drill out a barrel, first make sure the barrel edge is flat and without mold lines. Prepare the hole by making a small nick with a blade in the exact center of the gun. Next, slowly rotate the drill bit against the nick, then stop and make sure you are on track. If you are off center then adjust, and you can try going in slowly from a slight angle, then stopping to check again. Once you have a hole centered that fits the diameter of the bit, then you can go in further. I usually start and stop the drilling from two to five times to make sure I am on track. It can take some practice before you get it down, but you can always practice on scraps of sprue to get warmed up. If you make a mistake, gentle razor blade cuts can even out the hole, and for a major mistake there is always green stuff.
Razor saw: Unless you are working on a conversion with large resin or metal models you will never need this.
Clay shapers: These have silicone tips that do not adhere well to putty, making them good for smoothing, shaping, and moving epoxy putty. You will probably have to order them from an art supply retailer. I got mine too large, get the smallest they have for regular sized gaming models. Usually the firmer black silicone is better.
Metal tools: Some of these are designed for cleaning teeth, some for clay, but it is good to have a variety of shapes on hand. Keep these tools slightly wet or thinly coated in oil / vaseline so they don’t stick. These are better for hard edges and inorganic shapes.
Improvised tools: Grab a few round point toothpicks (free from many restaurants), a needle, and anything else firm with a useful shape. You can also find stuff with an interesting texture and make a negative impression of that texture by gently pressing it into the clay.
Neodymium magnets: These are powerful! They are great for swapping out vehicle weapons but have many more uses. I have many of my Ork Nobz and Warbosses modified with magnetic arms and heads, for fun swapping. A stack can be had for about $7 to $10 (plus shipping). Get the thinnest magnets you can. When you get your first stack, choose a side to be the “base” and mark it with paint or by wrapping a rubber band around. This will save you a lot of headaches if you are consistent with your magnet orientation.
You can choose to recess the magnets, drilling or carving a hole in the model and then putting the magnets in. This way is classy but more time consuming, and if the magnets are too small they may not hold up heavy pewter bits. When using bigger magnets and not recessing, sometimes I will use putty to make the magnet look more like a natural part of the model.
Let me know if you have any questions, and stay tuned for future hobby articles. I plan to cover painting next, and show some examples of my finished work. Cheers!