How to Paint Miniatures that Survive the Apocalypse! (Or at Least a Minor Fall)

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Edited October 20, 2020 to add additional information in the Seal Your Figures section.

A lot of people believe the key to a strong paint job that doesn’t chip or scratch is using a good sealer. But in my experience, creating the sturdiest paint jobs starts before you even put any paint on the model, and even before primer! You might not be able to follow all of these steps every miniature, but the more you can do, the tougher your paint will be.

IMG 0409Examples of what we want to avoid.

Sturdy Paint Steps Checklist

I’ll go into each of these in more detail below, but I thought a shorter checklist might be handy for people to refer back to.

1. Prep the Miniature
If you can, do messy and potentially damaging filing, conversions, assembly, and base work prior to the cleaning step.

2. Clean the Figure
Dip/brush the figure with isopropyl alcohol, or scrub with dish soap and a toothbrush and then rinse thoroughly.

3. Prime the Figure (Except Reaper Bones)
Whether you use aerosol primers, brush-on, or airbrush, you need to use a primer. Unless you’re painting Reaper Bones.

4. Let the Primer Cure for One Day or More Before Painting
Primer is touch dry in minutes, but takes minimum 24 hours to cure to full sturdiness.

5. Don’t Touch the Miniature while Painting
Affix the figure to a handle while painting to minimize touching it.

6. Maintain the Paint Film
Use stronger paint brands for tabletop models, and don’t add more than 30% water (and/or additives) to any brand on foundation coats. Use medium instead.

7. Let the Paint Cure for One Day or More Before Handling or Sealing
Acrylic paint seems to dry quite quickly, but like primer, it doesn’t cure fully for at least 24 hours.

8. Seal the Paint
Gloss sealer is the most protective. You can use matte sealer over gloss to dull the shine. Avoid aerosol sealers on Bones.

9. Safe Storage and Travel
A lot of damage occurs not in play or handling, but in storage and transit.

Orc skin left damage cuWe definitely want to avoid this.

Now I’ll go through the steps above in a little more detail, as well as explaining how those help create a sturdier paint job.

Miniature Preparation

It’s worth taking a little time and extra effort to assemble your figures well. Use pins to attach multiple parts or affix miniatures to bases. Paint gets damaged when parts break off, so repair usually involves not only reassembly, but repainting.

Harbinger damage fullIt’s only a flesh wound, but it’s going to take pinning and paint to fix it.

If possible, do as much assembly and base work as possible prior to painting. This helps avoid damage, stray glue, debris, and other issues that can damage finished paint work. 

Base damage fullExamples of damage along integral base edges and texture.

The one area I do regularly have problems with paint rub-off is on bases. I often paint metal miniatures with integral bases. The outer edges of metal bases and those with Bases with sharp textures near their edges are prone to paint rubbing away when they are picked up or slid across tabletops. The best way to prevent this is to glue the miniature to a slightly larger base. This might be a plastic base, coin, washer, or a number of other options.

Arilynn damage fullThe paint ended up being much sturdier than my assembly method.

The base for the above figure is made of Sculpey. Only the top area of the ’tiles’ was painted. The metal figure detached from the base soon after it was finished. I’ve just left her lying on top of the base for years. It got moved repeatedly around my display cases. And then up and downstairs during a renovation. And then to add insult to injury, I dropped her on the vinyl tiling floor that was installed during the renovation when I took her out of the case to take pictures for this article! There’s a tiny chip on her thumb and another on the hem of her dress, but considering the way this has been treated, the paint has held up pretty well due to the kind of prep steps I’m describing. The familiar is lighter weight, but eventually detached as well.

Clean the Figure

Filing off mould lines and other types of figure preparation creates debris, and you are depositing finger oils on the surface as you handle it, so I always recommend washing a figure, regardless of what it’s made of. The moulds used to make metal figures are dusted with powder prior to casting, and resin mould release agent is even worse. People involved in production may have handled the miniature with greasy fingers at several points, as well.

Primer and paint will not adhere as well to surfaces that have debris or skin oils on them. Sealer cannot hold on primer and paint that is flaking off due to issues with the underlying surface. Cleaning your miniatures is probably a more protective step than sealing! I know there are lots of painters who do not bother with this step and rarely have problems. To me it is such a simple step and not that time consuming, so it’s worth the effort to avoid even rare problems.

Bones baggie fullFine for unpainted Bones, but not a great storage method for anything with paint on it.

My preferred method of cleaning is to dip or briefly soak figures in isopropyl alcohol. I’ve also used it to ‘spot clean’ miniatures if I had to do some putty work or filing after I already started priming and I was concerned I’d gotten oils on them. If I can’t do that, I want to scrub them with dish soap on a toothbrush and then rinse thoroughly. I even do this with miniatures I’m prepping for convention classes and paint & take events.

I also always wash my hands before I sit down to paint in case I have lotion or anything else on my skin that might get on the miniature while I’m handling it during painting.

Primer

Metal and resin are slick materials. Primer is designed to adhere well to these slick materials. It is also designed to be a surface that acrylic paint adheres well to. 

I’ve long believed that aerosol primer is a sturdier coating than brush-on primer, but I have no evidence one way or the other and I’m not finding much about whether durability varies in doing some casual research.  So I’d suggest picking on the basis of what you find most convenient.

Many people find it quicker and easier to spray aerosol primers. However, as with any aerosol product, they should not be used in certain climatic conditions. Generally speaking they work best in temperatures between 60 – 90 Fahrenheit and at less than 60% humidity, but check the brand you’re using for its specific guidelines.

Pencil case exterior fullI store and transport class example miniatures in hard plastic pencil cases.

It is possible to spray in less than ideal conditions, particularly if it’s a little too cool. You can spray outside, and then bring the figures inside to cure. However, be aware that the fumes are still off-gassing throughout the curing process. If you or other members of your household are sensitive to fumes and chemicals, this may not be a great idea.

One issue that can occur when you use aerosol primer in less than optimal conditions is ‘fuzzy primer’. The surface will look bumpy or gritty, and the grit may rub off when you touch it. Vigorously brushing the surface with a hard dry toothbrush or similar can help. You can also paint on a coat of brush-on sealer to smooth and seal the surface. However, if you want to paint a high quality paint job on such a figure, it’s best to strip off the fuzzy primer and start over.

Brush-on primer is ready when you are regardless of the weather, and is easily used indoors without issues of fumes. It can take a little more time, but you are familiarizing yourself with the figure during that time and discovering elements that might need special consideration in painting. You can spray brush-on primer through an airbrush and get the best of both worlds. A general purpose airbrush with a larger needle is best for this task. Primer will quickly clog a detail needle airbrush.

Depending on your primer, it may say that it is touch dry or safe to handle within minutes or an hour. Dry enough to lightly handle is not the same as fully cured. If you can, allow a freshly primed figure to sit for at least a day before handling it extensively or beginning to paint. I believe that heat can help primer cure a little more quickly, but I have no idea how much running a hairdryer on it it would take to equal waiting a day.

Pencil case interior fullWhen I travel with a pencil case I wrap the figures in bubble wrap. The unwrapped figure is metal, and is one of several metal figures I have taken to numerous conventions where they are handled by dozens of people. I only starting mounting them on holders a few years ago. None have chips or damage.

Note that your primer coat doesn’t need to be thick and 100% opaque to be effective. In fact, some primers can form a slick surface that repels paint a little if applied in too thick a coat, in addition to the danger of filling in fine detail on your figures. You also don’t need to worry if you don’t get primer into every crook and cranny, since heavily recessed surfaces and under-hangs aren’t likely to be touched in game play. Aim for a decent coat over the areas that will be handled often, and you should be good to go. If you use black primer to ensure crevices are shadowed, you can use brush-on primer to touch up areas you missed when spraying.

It is a good idea to keep some brush-on primer on hand even if you primarily use aerosol primer. This will allow you to prime in periods of inclement weather, and to do touch-ups if there are areas you missed or which experienced rub-off during painting. When I repair a chip or scratch to a paint job, I always try to start with a layer of brush-on primer to help the paint stick.

Primer fullMy favourite primers. I live in a humid place, so the brush-on and airbrush primers get the most use.

NOTE: Use of aerosol primers is not recommended for Reaper’s Bones plastic figures. Many people have experienced issues where the primer doesn’t cure and remains sticky or occasionally outright gooey. Primer is not necessary to paint these figures – acrylic paint adheres well directly to the surface. See the Bones FAQ reference for primer alternatives.

Minimize Handling

Once you do start painting it is helpful to minimize how much you touch the surface of the figure. Holding the figure in your hand causes a lot of paint and primer rub off. This is most likely to happen on sharper areas like weapons or outward facing areas like the top of the head. Those are the areas most likely to be touched in game play, so are the ones you want to have the strongest primer and paint on! Touching the primer surface can also deposit skin oils or debris that might interfere with how well the paint adheres to the primer.

To minimize these problems, attach the figure to a holder. You can use anything that is comfortable in your hand – dice cubes, dowels, wooden spools, old pill bottles, I’ve seen a ton of variations. If the base of the figure is flat on the bottom, double sided mounting tape works best to attach it to the holder. If it’s a slotta-base or concave on the bottom, strong poster tac can work well.

Mini holdersJam jars, pill bottles, spools – there are lots of different options for painting holders. The mini holder with a hand brace is from Rathcore. They offer different heights of braces and a smaller size holder as well. Games Workshop sells two sizes of holders that clamp bases into place while painting. (More info on holder options.)

If you need to brace your hand against the miniature while you paint, you may prefer to buy a few purpose-made holders that have finger bracing frames you can use while detail painting.

I also always wash my hands before I sit down to paint in case I have lotion or anything else on my skin. Even using a holder and the best intentions you’re bound to touch the figure now and then.

Acrylic Paint Considerations

To understand the reasoning behind some of the suggestions in this section, it may help to know a little more about acrylic paint.

A key idea here is that there is a paint film. The paint film is the solid layer of the paint that remains on the surface after the paint has cured/dried. If you think of pieces of paint that have peeled or chipped off a wall, that is a paint film. What we want is to create one that is as sturdy and durable as possible! How sturdy the paint film is largely relates to preparing the surface (cleaning and priming) and how you treat the surface after painting (sealing and storage). But there are definitely some considerations related to paint mixing and usage.

Paint has three main components: pigment, binder, and additives. (I go into this in a lot more detail in another post.)

Pigment creates the colour of the paint. Pigments are dry ground particles that don’t inherently stick to anything. They need to be mixed into a binder to become paint.

Reaper case eggcrate fullEgg crate foam that immobilizes figures during transit is a good storage option. This is Reaper’s new figure case.

Additives are substances added to a paint to alter its behaviour or finish. Most miniature paints have matting agents added so they aren’t glossy in finish. Reaper paints have a little flow improver added to help them flow off the brush. Painters may also choose to mix in additional additives. People who live in drier climates or like to wet-blend might add in drying retarder.

Binder holds the pigment and any additives together. It literally binds. In the case of acrylic paint, the binder is a sort of plastic resin. The binder is what creates the paint film. You need to have the correct ration of binder to pigments and additives for the paint to cure into a sturdy paint film. This important role of binder affects a few things you might not have thought of.

The first is that there is a limit to the amount of pigment (or additives) that you can put in a paint and maintain the correct ratio. Some paints seem more prone to rubbing or scratching off, and this may be a factor. If a company adds a little more pigment to make a colour more opaque or intense, they may also risk making a paint that has a more fragile paint film. Similarly, if a painter adds a lot of flow improver and drying retarder to a strong paint, they are altering the ration of binder and might be weakening the paint film. A general rule of thumb is to add no more than a ratio of 25-30% additives to your paint.

Mediums fullExamples of mediums you can use to thin paint and maintain a sturdy paint film.

Note that water counts as an additive! The more water you add to paint, the more thinly you spread out the plastic molecules of the binder, which reduces their ability to bind together in a strong paint film. I think this is most significant for the first layer or two of paint you apply to the miniature. For base coats and/or initial wet-blending layers, adding no more than 30% water (and/or other additives) is safest. Generally you want those first few layers to be as opaque as possible anyway. For opaque applications, paint only needs to be thinned if it is so thick that it might add unwanted texture to the miniature or fill in delicate sculpted details. If you can run a brush through a pool of paint and the ‘wake’ behind the bristles fills in within seconds, that’s as thin as you need to be. 

Applying heavily water thinned washes or glazes over a couple of coats of thicker paint is less likely to cause issues. Once you have an initial sturdy paint film down, these thinner layers should be able to adhere to that.

Medium info fullWith art store mediums, check the back for information on properties. Look for products that are thin or fluid, transparent, and the finish of your choice.

It may also be helpful to note that we have an alternative to water when we want to make paint more transparent – medium. Fundamentally medium is binder. The main ingredient in medium is the clear acrylic resin that makes an acrylic paint an acrylic paint. The other ingredients are additives to make the medium (or the paint it is added to) behave in certain ways in terms of finish, flow, or dry time. The bounty of medium options can seem overwhelming, particularly if you visit an art store.

Fluid matte medium and glaze medium are the products most often used among miniature painters. For our uses we need products that are fairly fluid, and most of us prefer matte products. For Reaper paint users, Reaper’s brush-on sealer is equivalent to matte medium. Vallejo also makes a matte medium and glaze medium. You can use one of these products or a mix of half medium and half water to make a paint much more transparent, but maintain the integrity of the paint film.

Paint filmThe white circles represent the acrylic binder. You need a specific amount of these for the paint to cure to a sturdy paint film. The pink circles represent pigment, and the blue circles represent water or other additives. The top section is paint from the factory. Water (or additives) have been added to the middle section to decrease the amount of pigment and make the paint more transparent, but note that this has also decreased the amount of binder. The paint film will be weak. Medium and a little water was added to the bottom section. This still decreases the amount of pigment and makes the paint more transparent, but it also maintains the amount of binder necessary to form a strong paint film.

Just as with primer, acrylic paint can feel dry to the touch within moments, but it doesn’t cure to full strength for at least a day or three. If you can, avoid handling or playing with newly-painted figures to give the paint time to fully set.

Seal Your Figures

Sealer (also called varnish) is a protective finish placed over your paint job. However, think of it more as a coat or two of transparent paint than a tough resin varnish or piece of plexiglass. It is a little harder and a little less flexible than standard acrylic paint. It helps, but it’s not a forcefield of protection. It also can only do its job successfully if your primer and paint coats are strongly adhered to the surface by following the practices recommended in previous steps.

There are some differences between gloss and matte sealers. In most brands, gloss sealer is thicker than matte sealer. In the Reaper line, the Gloss Sealer is a little more fluid than the original Brush-On Sealer. Sealer products with matting agents added to them (anything with a matte or satin finish) are less protective than gloss sealer. You are also limited to applying only a few coats of matte sealer on before it begins to appear glossy. It is very important to shake any matte or satin product very thoroughly before every use. The matting agents are actual particles which are heavier than the acrylic polymer and fall out of suspension easily. If you do not mix well before every use, a larger proportion of matting agents may concentrate in the bottom third or quarter of the bottle/can, and become very likely to apply with a visible frost/mist appearance on your work instead of appearing clear.

It is possible to apply a coat of matte sealer over gloss if you don’t like the shiny appearance. In my experience you can only get a truly matte finish over gloss sealer by using either Dullcote aerosol spray or an ultra matte formulation sprayed through an airbrush. If the figure starts looking shiny due to the matte coat rubbing off in play, just apply another coat of matte. I have never been able to get a 100% matte finish with brush-applied products. Gloss followed by matte is my preferred sealing method for metal figures intended for game play. 

 

This product information sheet is for Golden Polymer Varnishes. I have confirmed that this is very similar to the products used in our hobby, so this may be a useful reference

Sealer fullThe can of spray sealer is at least a dozen years old. I use the brush-on sealers more for prep and as mediums than as sealers.

Note that Bones plastic miniatures can suffer issues with aerosol sealer as well as aerosol primer. I think that paint adheres strongly enough to Bones plastic that no sealer is necessary. It is more helpful to take precautions with storage and transport. But if you want to seal Bones figures with a spray, I recommend getting a cheap airbrush to spray liquid products through over using aerosol cans.

I seal metal figures intended for game play with a coat of gloss followed by a coat of matte. I don’t ever seal Bones figures that I paint. I hardly ever seal metal or resin display figures that I paint. I used to use brush-on sealer more, but I was concerned that it was altering the appearance of the paint jobs very slightly. I choose to put my efforts into the steps I’ve outlined above instead. I have had few issues with damage to the paint that aren’t directly related to storage/transport methods or glued parts detaching. 

A note on some off-label uses of sealer. I don’t know if it’s still popular to do, but for a time some years ago several painters I knew used coats of Dullcote as a sort of ‘save’ feature. If you were going to paint freehand on a cloak, you might do a spray of Dullcote on the painted surface first. People find it easier to use a damp brush to lift up paint applied over Dullcote to correct errors while painting. If you’ve already got the bulk of your miniature painted this probably isn’t too risky. However, if you apply it to a finished cloak but other areas are still just primer, paint applied in those areas isn’t going to adhere as strongly, and it will be more likely to scratch and chip. (I am speaking from experience on this one!) Similarly, when Bones miniatures were first released, people used Dullcote spray as an alternative primer and to reduce the hydrophobic behaviour of the Bones plastic. My tests of various ‘primer’ methods on Bones demonstrated that paint over Dullcote does not adhere strongly and is more prone to damage than other preparation methods. I recommend against using Dullcote as a primer alternative on Bones.

The following information is a direct quote from Anne Foerster, who designed and mixed all of the Reaper paint lines made prior to April of this year. She was kind enough to reply after some people had questions about my statements on sealers in this article. If you want to know more about Reaper paint and miniature painting in general, I highly recommend her PaintingBIg Patreon. She also streams miniature painting videos on Twitch via the Reaper Miniatures channel and her own paintingbig channel.

 

In the case of Reaper’s gloss sealer, I would say that it is slightly thinner than the regular Brush-On sealer. 

In this case the Brush-On has additives which make it more matte, which influences the viscosity, whereas of course the Gloss Sealer doesn’t need those!

In other brands than Reaper, however, yes, the Gloss Sealer is almost always thicker than the matte or satin. The reason for this is the way that the resin particles act in thicker layers. If you  have used spray Dullcote, you may have noticed that if you put many layers of the spray on, it will eventually go glossy. This is because the tiny microparticles that create a matte finish eventually build up and start “filling in” their own texture with successive applications. Because of this, it’s desirable to make a matte sealer more thin, to avoid this effect. Whereas, with a gloss sealer, you want the shine, so you can afford to make it a thicker, more protective coat (you will almost always see this in sprays). 

The Reaper Gloss is thinner because it pretty much comes that way. 🙂 You can build up successive layers on top of each other if you would like a thicker coat, or leave it thin. I find it’s more versatile this way so we didn’t really look for a high-viscosity gloss (other brands produce these anyway). 

You’re very close in your conclusion that sealers in water-based paints are usually just putting an extra layer of base on top of the paint! The difference here is usually in the specific resin that is in that layer of base. For paints you typically want something with more thickness, viscosity, and coverage, but with a protective layer, you want it very clear and hard, so most sealers use a high-acrylic resin because it’s the most transparent and durable. Again, of course, this will be different in spray sealers. 

As an aside, if you are using Reaper Sealers to fill in heat pitting or unwanted texture on a sculpt the regular Brush-On Sealer 9107 will work better for that than gloss because it is slightly more viscous.

Storage and Transport

One of the most important things you can do to keep the paint on your miniatures protected is to take care with how you store and transport them.

These are factors to consider when choosing storage options:

Immobilize the Miniatures
Paint damage is much more likely to occur when miniatures bang into each other or jostle around inside the storage container. Magnetized bases on metal trays, bubblewrap cocoons, double-sided mounting tape, and poster tac are all options to keep miniatures separated and immobilized. 

Reaper case foam squares fullThis kind of case (and probably pluck-foam) separates the miniatures, but can still cause problems.

Minimize Scraping
I have a storage case with foam cells. It separates the miniatures. But parts of them often scrape against the foam walls when being placed into or removed from the case. I added a piece of bubble wrap to a few squares to store metal figures more securely. The plastic of the bubble wrap also seems to have prevented scraping damage on them. I suspect just adding plastic wrap to the other squares would be enough to protect the paint on the lighter Bones figures.

Forecales front full

Prevent Bending
A second issue with my foam cell storage case is that for some of the figures a weapon or arm extends up over the foam walls. The flexible Bones plastic material can easily survive a little bending like that. Acrylic paint isn’t quite as flexible, and these figures are exhibiting a lot of chipping and wear. In the centre left of the storage tray above, you can see the two warriors and how their weapons protrude past the foam squares. There’s no damage on the body of either figure, but the paint is flaking off their swords, likely due to the bending in storage. Keeping them in larger sections like the following would help.

Reaper case foam large squares full

The first picture of this article is an example of some goblins that have experienced rub off, likely due to scraping against the foam of the tray. The second picture is an orc that was stored and transported in a baggie with some other half-painted Bones. You can see scraping damage on his armour, and severe damage to the paint on the sword due to its being bent repeatedly in transport.

Patron Spotlight: Dave Cecil

This blog is made possible by the generous support of my patrons, and I want to share more about them and their work with the world! The following are Dave’s words, and I think he has given us all some great food for thought here:

In the forums and most other gaming related places I go by the name “Lord Dave” or some variation of that. This is more a sarcastic title than a statement of nobility, but that is a whole other story.

Dave cecil3Figures from the Song of Ice and Fire game painted by Dave Cecil.

I have been playing and running D&D games since the very beginnings of the game (yes I’m that old). As a natural byproduct of that, I began collecting and painting miniatures, initially to a barely acceptable tabletop standard with crappy paints. For years, I would buy a few minis at a time, paint them, and use them in games.

More recently, thanks to multiple kickstarters, I had amassed an army of hundreds of miniatures, and I began to get more serious about my results and materials. I have since won a several medals and awards at various Cons including ReaperCon and Wonderfest.

I started teaching six years ago after winning a speed painting contest at CONglomeration in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. I was asked to share some of the techniques I used on that piece. After teaching that first class, I discovered how much I enjoyed sharing techniques with fellow gamers and artists. I started to learn as much as I could from any source I could find, not only to become a better painter, but also to be able to share even more with others. As I have said in many of my classes, I am OK at a great number of things. I have taught many classes at conventions, festivals, fund raisers, game stores, and local art centers, and I enjoy that very much.

Dave cecil2Ghoul painted by Dave Cecil. Available in metal or plastic.

My real gift is my speed. I can go from blister pack to “meh thats not bad” ridiculously fast. At heart, I’m still a gamer. While I do very much enjoy painting, I want to get models on the table fast and still have them look presentable. Most of what I paint is completed in an hour or less. True, some of my competition pieces I spent 20 to 30 hours on, but in general those aren’t for my games.

I guess my biggest tip to share with people is to first know what your target is. If you have an army of 100 miniatures for a boardgame, the goal is to have decently painted minis while you play the game, not to win a trophy for each one. Therefore, don your boots of speed and crank them out. If you want a trophy, the approach will be much different. And if the joy of painting itself is the goal, relax, do some research and try new things. In short, it’s OK to be OK.  

Dave cecil1Bones T’Raukzul painted by Dave Cecil.

Figures in this Post

The left goblin is from the Pathfinder Goblin Warriors pack available in metal or plastic.
The right goblin is from the Pathfinder Goblin Pyros pack available in metal or plastic.
The orc berserker is available in metal or plastic.
The Harbinger of the North was available with subscriptions to Harbinger magazine.
His wolf companion is available in metal. 
Arilyn, Water Sorceress comes with the shell.
The fairy dragon I added to the shell is available in metal or plastic.
Ziplock baggies are available from numerous vendors.
The Castle of Deception wizard is available from Dark Sword.
The left skeletal archer is available in metal or plastic.
The right skeleton archer is available in metal or plastic.
Mangu the warrior is available in metal or plastic.
Hajad the pirate is available in metal or plastic.
Orc Marauder is available in metal or plastic.
Anirion elf wizard is available in metal or plastic, or clear plastic.
The Skeletal Archer, Mangu, and Orc Marauder are included in Learn to Paint kit: Core Skills
Hajad, Anirior, and Ingrid (not pictured) are included in Learn to Paint kit: Layer Up!
There are too many more to list in the foam squares case pictures, but if you are interested in getting a copy of one of those, let me know and I’ll find you the information.