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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Painting Toy Soldiers

This is probably one of the most common questions that folks in the hobby have, and there are many good answers out there. I certainly spent my share of time looking for answers and I learned and benefited a lot from the experience of others and the knowledge that they have generously shared. This post is my attempt to 'pay it forward' by documenting and compiling a list of the tips and techniques that have worked the best for me.

1) Remove any excess plastic from the figures. Sometimes there's extra plastic at the seams where the two halves of the mold met, or at the points where the plastic was injected.

A snap-off knife like the one below works fairly well for this purpose.

2) Use an old toothbrush and a cup filled with dish detergent to wash the figures. Rinse well, and let dry completely. I usually let them dry overnight. Washing the figures well is probably the most important step to ensure that the paint will adhere to the figures. This is because during the manufacturing process, the mold is coated with a non-adhesive release agent so that the plastic does not stick to the mold, and some of the release agent gets transferred to the figures.

3) Apply a good coat of primer. I've read that it allows the paint to bond better, but for me the main reason to do it is that it lets me get away with doing only one coat of paint. Otherwise, depending on the color of the plastic and the color of the paint, you would need to apply a couple coats.
You want apply the primer homogeneously to the entire figure. Sometimes that can be tricky. I use a primer in spray form, like the one below, and what I do is a line up about 100 guys at a time on top of a 2x2 plywood board. I line them up in the standing position close enough to each other that I won't be wasting too much primer spraying the board, but far apart enough so that one guy does not block the primer meant for guys around it. Once I have sprayed them from above, front, behind, left and right and the primer has dried, I then place them on the board lying down so I can spray them from 'below' and reach between their legs, underneath their arms, beneath their weapons and packs, etc.

4) Now you are almost ready to paint. But before you apply the paint, you want to make sure you have a few brushes in good condition. I would say that you want about 3: One large brush for painting broad sections fast without attention to detail, like painting the base uniform color, or the ground color. A small brush for painting small things like shoes, backpacks, weapons, etc. This brush can also be used to 'cut' the edges/boundaries between colors. Lastly, a fine brush to paint thin things like straps and the fine detail on the figures. The smaller the brush the more important that it is still in good condition. One or two hairs sticking out can deposit paint where you don't really want it, and cause unnecessary touch up work. Rinse them as needed while you work and clean them well when you are done painting for the day.

Sample brushes. I actually have quite a few more, but you can really get by with 2-4.

5) A word about the paint. I use water-soluble/acrylic paints as they are easier to clean up and don't require to work in a well ventilated area as oil-based paints do, which is good during the winter. Now, here is the important point. You want to make sure that the consistency of the paint is adequate. By that I mean that it has not thickened to the point that it starts to clump on your brush. Otherwise, it makes the tip of your brush fat and ends up putting paint where you don't want it. Sticky/clumpy paint, can also remove paint from the figure from places where you just wanted to touch up. Stirring them at the beginning of your session and whenever you notice that the surface starts to thicken usually takes care of it, but at some point you will need to thin the paint. Some paints can be thinned with plain water, some paints require their own brand of water-based thinner, like the one below. Do what is called for by your specific brand of paint.
BTW, I have found that it is not a good idea to shake the paint containers as that leaves the inner part of the lid covered in paint, and when you close the container again, and that paint dries, sometimes it makes it really hard to open the container again, plus every time you do that, you'd be wasting the paint that covers the lid. Instead, you can use a thin wooden sticks (see picture below) to stir the paint. This takes care of mixing the paint well with minimum waste and no tight lid problems.

6) Now you are ready to paint. Many fellow figure painters recommend the tried-and-true technique of painting from the inside towards the outside. This means that you start with the hands, face and any exposed skin, then you move on to the uniform, and then the things on top of that. I also find this a good approach, but besides the order in which to paint things, I've discovered that giving consideration to the type of brush that you can use and the amount of cutting/edges that you need to paint can save you a good amount of work. So I generally do the following:
-use large brush to paint skin fast, without regard for painting beyond the actual skin surface
-use large brush to paint uniform pants and blouse fast, without regard for anything at the bottom of the pants, but making sure not to get any uniform color on the skin.
-use large brush to paint ground fast without regard for shoes, but avoiding any legs on the ground.
-use medium brush to cut uniform neck, cuffs, and the pant's leg openings.
-use medium brush to paint and cut shoes.
From here on it's a matter of painting weapons, equipment and the finer details, but in general, you try to use as big a brush as you can to paint as much surface quickly enough, and then you use the smaller brush to cut the transition lines. A good rule of thumb is to paint only as much detail as you can see when you hold the figure at arm's length, which is what you will normally be able to appreciate when you look at them in the course of playing or putting together a diorama. It's also the amount of detail that you would see if a real man were standing about 50 ft (15m) away. Then again, if you are planning to shoot pictures close up, like the ones I have been making for these posts, you might want to paint a bit more detail than I usually do.

7) After you are done painting you have a good looking figure, but you might not be able to do much with it besides looking at it or else the paint might chip off. If you want to use them for gaming or you don't want to have to worry about how to store them or transport them, then you want to apply some kind of protective finish. What I have found the best solution so far is to cover them in a coat or two of liquid rubber. I do two coats, just to be on the safe side. Since the rubber is elastic, it allows things like rifles to bend, without the paint cracking and coming off. There is a great product to do this called 'Plasti Dip'. It comes in spray and liquid formats and in multiple colors. Buy the clear color, in liquid form. The spray version does not work as it comes out too thick and creates big clumps on the figure.

To apply the Plasti Dip you will need to thin it with Turpentine, so you will want to do this in a very well ventilated area. Use an empty yogurt cup. Fill it up about a third of the way with Plasti Dip and another third with Turpentine. Stir well. Make sure the consistency is such that any excess will slide off the figure. If needed add more Turpentine. If the coat is too thick, you won't appreciate the figure's details. Hold the figure by the base and dip it into the cup. As you take it out, shake off the excess and let the figure drip back into the cup for a few seconds. Once you let the figure stand on its base, can wipe off any big droplets that might accumulate on the figure's chin, elbows, etc, where gravity pools the liquid rubber. You can use an old paint brush for this purpose. Let the figures dry overnight. The next day you can do the base. To let the base dry set the figures on their sides on a cutting board or something similar that will allow the base to hang over the side. Make sure you have protected your table surface with newspaper as the base might continue to drip. You can use this same technique to deal with figures without a base, doing one half first, letting the wet half hang over the cutting board while it dries and then doing the other half the next day. Once you get the hang of it, you can work on several figures at the same time (i.e. in between dipping guys you can go remove the excess drops from guys that you dipped earlier).

8) The only problem with the Plasti Dip is that well, it feels rubbery, so to give it a smooth finish I follow the Plasti Dip with a coat of liquid lacquer, the kind used to finish wood. I use Minwax water-based polycrylic protective finish.
The same dipping/drying techniques apply as described in the Plasti Dip point. BTW, you can use the satin finish for a shinier appearance or a matte finish for a more realistic look. These two steps do take a good amount of extra time, but IMHO they are well worth the effort as they do protect the investment you have made into painting your figures. I have not had a single paint chip in about five years, since I started using this finishing technique.

9) Lastly, depending on whether I want the figures to have a clean look or a rough/combat look, I might apply a coat of blackwash. To do this I use highly-watered-down black acrylic paint.

Make sure the paint is thin enough that it won't cover entire areas of the figure. The idea is to make it so thin that it will only accumulate in areas of the figure where there are folds or create the appearance of a random patch of dirt. Again, I use the yogurt cup dipping approach, with the cutting boards to aid with the drying. Note that you could probably perform this step before the Plasti Dip, but I usually do it at the end because it helps me remove the satin look of the liquid lacquer that I have.
Here's how the blackwash looks on an unpainted figure. BTW, this will be the rare time in which you will see me posting a non-WWII figure. The reason for this is that when I was experimenting with this technique, I actually tried it on a guy who I did not care that much about :-)

Well, this post turned out to be quite a bit longer than the bullet point list that I initially conceived, but I think it contains most of what you might need. Good luck with your projects!

Click here to see some painted US infantry figures.
Here are some pictures of British Infantry half-way painted.


  1. Excellent blog and good advice

  2. Glad you found it useful!

  3. I've found that, with better quality plastics, the last steps aren't necessary. For cmpanies like Conte and SWTS, who use some of the best I've seen, I've found the paint sticks and bonds better than others.

    It's something to do with the fact that with bendier, rubbery plastics, the paint simply sits on the top like a layer, whereas with better plastics the paint bonds with it and seeps in. The newer 'red box' Airfix figures, now that Hornby have them safely under their wing, are cast in K-Resin, not plastic. Quite a shrewd move, and it means that the paint doesn't come off, whatever you put the figure through. I once dropped a commando officer in a glass of coke - I wouldn't ask - and he came out, thankfully, absolutely fine. I really dislike having a gloss look on my figures and K-Resin means you can have the matt-finish paint on the outside without worrying if it'll flake.

    Something I found when painting some re-issues of Marx French infantry was that it was better to coat them (in this case with Humbrol 'Matt Cote') after priming them, and then paint over that. I haven't seen any retrogression thus far, but I wonder if they'll deteriorate, a fear I haven't had with resin figures.

    I love the blog, by the way! I've got something a bit similar but I've nowehre near your collection. Ever considering wargaming with these chaps?

    1. Good to know. Thanks for sharing this info. I wonder if the priming step is even necessary with the K-Resin figures. It might even be counter-productive as it seems like one would want the paint layer to be the one directly on the figure's surface so that it gets soaked into it. Well, something to experiment with at some point!

    2. K-Resin needs a very good wash as it leaves the mould very sticky, but I think I would still prime it. I also tried to paint some Australians without primings them and the results weren't as good.

      I noticed that, after priming some bendier figures and then leaving them lying about, the primer flakes off. With K-Resin, and I've tried this, you can't even scratch the primer off.

  4. Wow.. that is some good absorption! BTW, I just realized that I did not answer your other question about the war gaming. I did give that a try a few years back. I even compiled a set of rules based on three books plus a few adaptations of my own, but in the end, I find that it is an extremely hard thing to balance a good level of realism with keeping the game 'flowing', so I have not gone back to play in a while. I may give it another go at some point, since ultimately, that is why I also make sure that I paint them in a way that allows them to be handled without damage. BTW, this reminds me that I have been meaning to write a post on my experience war gaming...