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The Complete Beginnerīs Guide to Preparing Miniatures for Painting

Completely untreated from the blister pack.
Completely untreated from the blister pack.

Painting miniatures is something that everyone can learn, but good results require some knowledge of techniques. This is a guide for those who are curious about the hobby and are just getting ready to try it out.

This tutorial is not even about painting, but about what you will have to do to get from a new miniature in a nice blister pack to picking out the brush and paints. To get a good final result we have to start with the right preparations.

In this example I will use a 28mm samurai archer from The Assault Group as my volunteer.

Clean up flash and mold lines

When you pick up a new metal or plastic miniature you are likely to find two things: flash and mold lines. These are residues from the molding procedure. Some molten material might slip through the crack between the halves of steel or rubber that are pushed together to form the mold. In addition there are vents for the air to slip out in metal casting, and these vents form thin strips.

These have to be removed. You can use some kind of fine file such as a jewelry file, or a blade such as a box cutter or a scalpel. Examine the miniature for flash, which usually runs as a single line across the miniature from the feet to the head and back. I use the back of my box cutting blad to scrape off thin flash, while thicker flash requires some cutting action. Be careful not to cut into your thumb or index finger while doing this.

Clean the Miniature

In some cases there will still be remains of a release agent on the miniature, which will prevent the paint from attaching properly. This problem also occurs if a lot of oil from fingerprints, dust or other particles have gathered on the metal. If you suspect that your miniatures are not completely clean it is easy to fix with a quick dip in some warm water mixed with dishwashing soap.

Brush them with an old discarded toothbrush if they are really dirty, and then leave them to dry. If there are small parts you can wash them in a sieve or similar object to prevent them from disappearing down the drain.

Glue It Together

In this case there was only one small part that I needed to glue on: a sword attached to the belt.

If you glue metal on metal, or metal on plastic, you should be using some kind of super-glue. When using super-glue you should remember that less is more: drowning the joint in super-glue will not make the bond stronger. It will also ruin the details. Super-glue is notoriously good at attaching skin to skin (this is why it was invented, for field surgery), so be careful.

If you glue plastic to plastic you are better off with some kind of plastic cement. These actually melt the plastic, which creates a welded joint that is very strong.

If you have a joint between two metal parts that are too heavy for super-glue to securely attach you should "pin" it. Pinning is not very difficult but it is a topic that deserves its own tutorial.

Glue on the Base

Which kind of base you want depends on what kind of gaming system you use. Some systems use large bases with several miniatures on, for example Impetus, DBA and Field of Glory. Other systems use individual bases of various sizes and shapes. In this example I use single 20mmx20mm rectangular bases used for Warhammer and Warhammer Ancient Battles.

The easy part is to put some super-glue on the bottom of the miniature and glue it in place. The tricky part is making sure that everyone in a ranked up unit fit. In this case there are pulled bows, horisontal swords and quivers to keep in mind. If you take your time to make sure that there is plenty of room in your ranked up unit now you will save a lot of time down the road.

Even Out the Base

This is a step that depends on what bases and miniatures you use. In this case, TAG miniatures comes standing on a rather large slab of metal. In addition, my old square slottabases have big holes in them. We need to even these things out, and we will use "Green Stuff".

Green Stuff is an epoxy clay that is very useful in the miniatures hobby. It comes in two parts, blue and yellow, which is mixed together to make a rubbery clay that turns hard after about one and a half hour. Green Stuff is really called Kneadatite, and if you buy it as Kneadatite on e-bay instead of as Green Stuff from a miniature company it will cost a fraction of the price.

Cut a small amount of Green Stuff, mix it, and roll it into a snake. Put this snake around the metal base of the miniature. Then even it out so that the slab looks more like a hill. You can use your fingers, a tootpick or some other improvised utensil. In this example I use a dentist's tool which is very useful for sculpting Green Stuff.

If there are any holes slotted in your base you can use Green Stuff to fill in these as well.

Mixing Green Stuff Flattened Green Stuff Green Stuff in package

Glue on Sand

There are many spectacular and impressive ways to add details and themes to the base of your miniature. However, we will do it in a very simple manner that does not require many tools or exotic ingredients. We will use wood glue and sand.

Here I have some find sand from the great outdoors in a box. I put the glue on something where I can dilute it with water, such as the plastic cover of the blister pack I got the samurai in.

Paint on Glue

I paint wood glue mixed with a little bit of water on the base. Use a crappy brush that you don't mind ruin.

If you get glue on the feet or legs of the miniature it is easiest to wipe it off now.

Add Sand

You can either sprinkle on the sand, or just dip the base in the sand.

Inspect Your Troops

Here are a line of samurai, all ready to be painted. After dipping them in sand I used a spare brush to remove sand that had gotten stuck to the feet and legs. When the glue had cured I added a second layer of watered down wood glue on top of the sand to ensure it will stay in place.

Prime Your Miniatures

This is the most important step in this tutorial. Priming is necessary because ordinary acrylics are very bad at attaching to both resin, metal and plastic. First you have to paint your miniature with a layer of primer, so that your paints can attach to it.

When using primers there are two big questions to answer, and none of them have a definite answer: to spray or paint, and white or black.

Primer: Spray or Paint

Spraying has some great advantages. It is very quick, and you can spray many miniatures at the same time. If you follow instructions correctly and spray at at least 30 cm of distance and in quick spurts so that the paint doesn't pool you will get a nice and even coat. So why doesn't everyone spray?

Spray primers must be used in well ventilated areas where some spots of paint is not a big deal, such as an empty garage or outside. Humidity is very bad for spray primers, which makes spraying a bad idea if it has rained earlier during the day or if it is a very humid summer's day. Any wind will make your effort difficult. Both too hot weather and cold weather can ruin a spray job. This means that if you live in an apartment in a temperate climate or in a swampy area, you will be looking for an alternative about 6 months every year.

Paint-on primers take more time, but I also find the coat to be easier to control as sprays are likely to leave some areas untouched. You can do it inside on a newspaper even as a tornado passes by outside. You can use a primer paint specifically made for miniature painting. However, personally I use Gesso.

Gesso is a type of paint made for painters to prepare canvasses. It is painted on as a thick gloopy mess, but as it dries it contracts and seemingly magically covers the miniature. One advantage of Gesso is that it is quick and simple to use, as you don't have to be very careful: as long as it is not applied too thickly, it will contract to a smooth layer. Another advantage is that it is cheap, for the price of a can of spray primer you can prime entire armies with Gesso.

The disadvantage of using Gesso is that the layer is not as resilent, and will more easily fall off if you don't coat your finished models with varnish. It's also likely that some spots of the miniatures will be left bare as the Gesso contracts, which is easy to fix with a second layer.

Primer: Black or White

The colour of the primer forms the base for all paints that you will use later. A white primer is good if you want strong, light colours. A black primer is good if you want a darker, more gritty feel.

The choice of primer colour also shapes what kinds of techniques you can use. A black primer means that you already have the darkest shadows painted on. This is a big deal, as if you miss a spot with a black primer it is hard to notice, as it just looks like a very dark shadow. However, if you miss a spot and you use a white primer, the mistake will be very noticable as a white spot sticks out so much more. Finally, painting metal on a white primer looks very bad, so you will most likely have to make a separate layer of black on your metal areas anyway if you prime white.

Personally I most often use a black primer, and I would recommend a beginner who wants to try samurai painting to try black primers first unless you want a very vibrant colour scheme for your miniatures with lots of yellows, whites and similar colours. First of all I can paint on black quicker, as mistakes are less obvious and you get a set of shadows for free, which is good for painting big armies. Secondly, I like to use Gesso, and sadly it's only really black Gesso that works for miniature painting. Experiments with white and grey Gesso usually end with poor, streaky and ugly coats.

However, it is important to keep in mind that neither choice is correct, but rather suitable for different end results. There's even people priming in grey as a compromise with some strengths of both schools. So do not be afraid to test both out and see which one you likes the most. It never hurts to have both white and black spray available.

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Did you know...

The reason why the samurai class shaved their the top of their heads is for helmet to fit more easily when they go into battle.
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