How to Transport Miniatures

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Whether you’re going to a local game store to play or traveling hundreds of miles to enter a handful of display figures into a contest, the best way to transport the miniatures you want to use is an issue that can take some thought, effort, and money to resolve. I’m going to share my ideas and experiences, and also ideas that other people have shared with me. I’ll include links to some commercially available options at the end of this article. Many thanks to the people who shared their experiences and suggestions!

Video of a stream I did about transporting miniatures is also available.

Foam compA foam compartment tray is one travel option.

What Types of Miniatures, and How Many?

Before you begin buying or making transport containers, it is helpful to have as thorough an understanding as you can of what you need. It is also helpful to think about this well in advance of a trip, so that you have time to work out the best solutions. I have more than once put a lot of effort into creating and painting an ambitious contest entry and only a day or two before the trip realized I also had to figure out how to safely transport it! If you decide you want to order a commercially available option, remember it will take some time to ship to you.

Once you have purchased/created a transportation container, you may want to keep its parameters in mind when in the design phase for new pieces. For example, you will need to be able to put the piece on its side or use another container if you design a piece taller than your transportation container.

Too tallThis figure is too tall for lowest shelf position in my carrying case, and the base protruded over the plinth on all sides so I couldn’t put it on its side. I had to affix it (and any other figures I wanted to transport at the same time) to the bottom of my case, which has damaged the material coating the interior.

Some questions to consider:

Number
How many miniatures are you likely to want to transport? Is it a handful or an army of hundreds? This will heavily influence the size and nature of the storage solution you need.

Nature of the Miniatures
What size(s) are the figures? Are they sturdy metal or plastic, or fragile resin or 3D prints? Remember to consider everything that is part of the figure, not just the figure itself. A lot of basing material used on display figures is pretty fragile. Your transport system needs to accommodate not only the size of the figure, but also the base or plinth you attach it to.

Method of Transport
How will you be traveling? You can consider a much wider array of options if you’re traveling in your own car than if you’re traveling via plane, train, or bus. Flying introduces a number of constraints to the size and other requirements of your transport system. If you choose a stand-alone case, remember that it will count as one of the two items you’re allowed to carry with you on the plane.

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Secure and Protect

As I was putting this information together, I realized that transport and shipping is made up of two components. One is the inner method used to secure and/or protect the figures. The other is the outer container. These work in tandem, and the choice you make for one may limit or dictate the choices for the other.

The inner methods break down into two main options. One method is to cushion the miniatures in a protective layer like foam or bubblewrap. The other is to securely attach the base of the miniature to a flat surface. The figure is freestanding, with nothing touching it on the sides.

ShelfAnother option is to attach the figures to a shelf via magnetization, poster tack, or mounting tape, or a combination of those.

Each of the inner methods has advantages and drawbacks. Foam pockets and magnetization are probably the best options for gaming scenarios where you want to be able to quickly and easily pack and unpack numbers of figures. Bubblewrap, poster tack, and mounting tape are more cumbersome to pack and unpack, but can allow for more customization or transport security. 

Bubblewrap and some foam options are designed to keep figures secure regardless of the orientation or impact to the outer case. Poster tack, mounting tape, and magnetization may work best when when the outer carrying case will be kept largely in an upright position, just tilting somewhat or being bumped or jostled.

Foam

Foam is a common method for cushioning fragile objects, and comes in a variety of forms. All of them mostly or completely enclose the figure. Some kinds of foam are a little abrasive and could damage paint. Sharp pieces like swords or spikes tend to stick into foam. You can use a barrier like sheet plastic (plastic wrap, cut up plastic bags), bubblewrap, or tissue between the miniature and the foam to reduce these issues. You can wrap this around the miniature or fold it into the foam compartment. Contact with foam (or any surface) can be be damaging to fragile base work like dried or paper plants. 

Waffle: Miniatures are secured between foam sheets that are shaped into peaks and depressions. It can accommodate a variety of figures and be fitted into a variety of cases. If miniatures of different widths are stored in the same case/layer, it can cause the foam to not clamp tightly enough to secure the smaller figures. Waffle foam is easy to use, but not the most secure option.

Compartments: Shapes (usually rectangles) are cut into the foam or created by gluing sheets of foam together. One miniature is stored in each compartment. Pre-made commercial compartment foam may not accommodate the exact number or dimension of figures you have to transport. Some cases can store multiple layers of foam sheets so you can purchase sheets with different sizes of compartments. You will need to find foam sheets that match the dimensions of your case (or vice versa). Some companies may offer options for customizing the compartments on foam sheets.

Foam comp comboLeft: Elements of the figure or paint job can be damaged if portions protrude from the compartment, even on plastic figures.
Right: You can add a pocket of bubblewrap for cushioning if the compartment is too big, or to protect the paint from damage caused by rubbing against the foam.

Pluck: Pluck foam is produced as a sheet/layer, but the foam is cut into a grid pattern, and is secured only to the bottom of the sheet. The squares are usually 5mm to a half inch or so in size. You can create exactly the size of compartments you need for the miniatures you will be transporting by pulling out pieces of the foam. This is helpful if you have a war band or similar set of figures that you are transporting to multiple events. You may need to get additional foam sheets if you transport varying sizes and shapes of figures to different events. As with compartment foam, you will need to be able to buy foam layers in the same size as your case, or vice versa.

Solid: The ultimate in customization. This is a block of solid foam of whatever measurement you acquire. You carve into it to create the perfect shape to cradle your figure(s). This is a good method for shipping large figures with protruding parts, like a dragon. 

Foam bwrapOne option to secure miniatures is to individually wrap them in bubblewrap or use various types of foam. 

Bubblewrap

Just as when you pack china, you can wrap bubblewrap around a figure to protect it. Bubblewrap works best on single figures. As the bubblewrap is wrapped around the figure, it may bend thin parts like a staff or sword which are held away from the main body of the miniature. Most metal miniatures can withstand a trip or two with some bending or compression, but you may risk stress fractures if you travel with them often. The pressure of the bubblewrap cocoon may be too much for small fragile resin pieces and similar. 

To use bubblewrap, you also need to use tape, and you should plan to have some available to you at both ends of the trip. I find that shiny style tape sticks to the bubblewrap, which bursts the bubbles so you only get one or two trips out of the bubble wrap. I instead use a medical tape that has a different glue. Magic tape also works, though not quite as well. I can reuse tape and bubblewrap for multiple trips. I can also cut out strips of medical tape and put them on the inside of my carrier so I don’t have to bring a whole roll or scissors. Whichever kind of tape I use, if I’m carrying multiple figures I often write an identifier on the tape so I can find the figure I’m looking for without having to unwrap all of them.

3M Durapore Surgical Cloth Tape 2x10 yds 72849 1604007132This is the kind of medical tape I use with bubblewrap.

Bubblewrap is also a feasible option to transport numbers of plastic figures. All you need to do to preserve paint jobs on light weight plastic figures is keep them from rubbing against one another. You can lay down a layer of bubble wrap, space figures out on it, then add another layer, and so on. You can do this in any size container, from a smaller food storage container to a small bin. It’s more cumbersome to pack and unpack than foam or magnets, but probably the least expensive option.

Poster Tack

Poster tack is a malleable putty. Its original use was to attach posters to walls without damaging the paint. You knead the tack with your fingers to warm it up and get it a little more sticky, and then apply it. When you remove it, it peels easily away from solid materials. If some sticks on the surface, you can usually pull it up by dabbing the remainder with a ball of the tack. Blu Tack is a very popular brand, but there are lots of options. I recommend testing the one you try before travel, as some work much better than others. You can test it by attaching an unpainted heavy miniature to a surface, turning it upside down, and shaking it. You could also knock your hand lightly against the figure. If the figure falls off, try another brand.

People use poster tack to attach figures to a flat shelf that slides into a carrying case, or to the bottom of a bin or similar. Poster tack is not strong or sticky enough to attach a miniature with a bottom that is flat to a flat surface. However, you can instead pile it up along the edges of the base/plinth to hold a piece in place. It will generally attach something like a slotta base to a flat surface well, but I would still recommend using additional tack on the base edges. I tend to like to be extra secure and use mounting tape or magnets to secure the base to the shelf surface, and then also put tack around the edges of the base.

JarsI’ve also used poster tack and mounting tape to secure single fragile figures into ad hoc transport systems like the above.

Mounting Tape

Mounting tape is a strong double-sided tape with a thin layer of foam in the middle. My experience is with the 3M brand, which I have found widely available in anything from pharmacies to hardware stores. It comes in a few different widths. It is intended for attaching pictures to walls and similar. It adheres much more firmly than poster tack. In fact, it adheres so firmly that I usually pack a dull blade tool when I use it so I can pry the miniature up off of the surface. It is much more likely to damage a surface than poster tack, so should only be applied to unpainted areas like the bottoms of figure bases. It works best when adhering a flat surface to a flat surface, so it’s not a great option for slotta bases. When I transport particularly fragile or heavy pieces I use a combination of mounting tape and poster tack. Mounting tape is single use so you will need to bring some along, and scissors or a hobby knife to cut new pieces for the return trip.

A00e35e4 7085 4d97 9d00 4553d97dc86c 8074cfc3e670a4e34319cd2cf51f0cf8The mounting tape I use.

Magnetization

Magnetization is an increasingly popular option. People use a metal sheet in their case and attach a tiny rare earth magnet to the bottom of the base of each figure. The magnets are generally small enough to fit in the open areas of a slotta base. If you have a plinth or flat base you’ll need to drill or carve out space to glue the magnet. Options vary from commercially available carrying cases to homemade solutions that use storage bins and cookie sheets. The magnet system is very handy for armies as you can just pull off figures as you need them and then drop them back on. Many people transporting display miniatures also use magnets, but usually reinforce them by securing poster tack around the edges of bases. I’m told by some who use the system that the small powerful magnets are strong enough to work even if the shelf is turned upside down. I would very thoroughly test that for myself with unpainted figures over a cushion before I felt comfortable to do it with painted figures, however.

Hardware

If you’re handy and willing to take a little time, using hardware is a very secure option. With this method you put a screw through your shelf. You have a wing nut or stop nut in the bottom of the base or plinth, and then screw the base of the miniature onto the screw in your shelf. 

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Outer Case Options

There are a myriad of options for the outer case, from homemade to commercially available. Often your choice of outer case commits you to using a particular inner method for securing the miniatures. You may not be able to easily switch between foam compartment sheets and metal trays with magnets, for example.

Small Plastic Box
This is a great option for transporting small numbers of miniatures secured in plastic wrap. I like to use hard plastic pencil boxes. I place these at the bottom of my carryon knapsack. Plastic containers are light weight and available in an array of sizes.

Larger Plastic Box – Stackable
Larger plastic containers are a good option for game players transporting locally or by car. You can attach a metal sheet to the bottom of a bin and use magnets on your figures. Stackable style boxes allow you to bring only the figures you need to each event.

Small Briefcase or Portable Tool Case
Hard sided cases are an option to transport a moderate amount of figures. You can fill them with bubble wrapped figures, or customize them with foam. If you’re handy, you can build in compartments.

Briefcase comboExample of a small metal case customized with compartments.

Jar
On a few occasions where I have been transporting one fragile miniature by car, I’ve secured it to the top of a jar lid and then screwed the jar shut. I pack it into the car in such a way that it can’t get tipped over. If a miniature is well secured it’s possible this method could work in carry-on luggage, but you’d need to feel confident that the miniature would stay secured if tipped over or turned upside down.

Dedicated Miniature Case
There are a lot of options available, including quite a few that on Amazon. The most common seem to use foam trays or metal shelves, but there are also cases that use waffle or pluck foam. These cases come in a variety of sizes, to suit the needs of game players and display painters alike. If you are purchasing one to use in plane flight, ensure that the measurements do not exceed those permitted on planes. In particular, if you are at all likely to travel in a regional jet, the Tablewar small size is about the largest case that will fit under the seat or in the overhead compartment. You would be required to plane-side check anything larger and it would get literally tossed into the luggage compartment. At the bottom of this article you will find links to some of the commercially available options. The biggest downside to these is that they can be pretty expensive. I have found the clear front window of the Tablewar case I use to be very helpful at the airport. A surprising number of security agents know what miniatures are or at least recognize that these are fragile works of art. 

Tablewar closedThe clear door allows airport security to see what is inside, and allows you to check up on your figures.

Homemade Wooden Miniature Case
Some of the modern cases like the Tablewar are likely inspired by wooden custom crafted cases that were popular some years back. These were usually made with a front door panel that swung open on hinges, and accommodated one or possibly two removable shelves. Sometimes the shelves were fitted with rare earth magnets so you could attach washers or similar to the bottom of the figures. Similar to the metal sheet shelf system, but the opposite for which object was metal and which was magnetized. I found a few cases of this type in a search, but none were in stock, so I’m not including them in my links below. I mention the option for those who are handy and would like to explore making their own case.

Wood boxIf you’re handy, you could build your own case. The sliding shelf on this is fitted with magnets. It is more common now to use a metal shelf and attach the magnets to the figure. (Apologies for the lower quality photos, we still haven’t unpacked everything after renovations I couldn’t find this case to take new photos.)

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Personal Recommendations and Reviews

Before I list specific products, I want to be very clear. Seeing a product listed here is neither a review nor a recommendation. I have only used a few of these products. It’s also important to note that I only travel with small numbers of display figures, I have not use any army transport method. I strongly encourage you to do additional research before you spend a lot of money on a transport case. There are some review articles online, and probably some YouTube videos, but I would recommend crowd sourcing opinions if you can. Go on a large miniature discussion group related to miniatures or the specific games you play and ask for opinions. You can find these on Facebook, Discord, or sometimes official or fan forums for the games you play. A number of these cases are sold on Amazon, so you can read reviews there, as well.

I do have one piece of advice about reviews and recommendations, however. Don’t just look for a yay/nay or number rating. Actually read reasons why people love or hate something. I have more than once bought something based on negative reviews where the reviewer has detailed their opinions. They might hate X, Y, and Z. I think about their opinions and consider that I won’t be using the product in X fashion, I actually like Y, and maybe Z is just a question of personal taste, like what colour something is. When I read reviews I care less about a rating number than the details of what people do and don’t like about something.

My preferred method to transport figures is to wrap them in bubblewrap and put them into hard plastic pencil boxes. I stash these at the bottom of my carry-on backpack. Since that has many important items in it, I am far less likely to forget it somewhere. I have the smallest size Tablewar case and the wooden case pictured above. These are heavier, and a second item to keep track of. I have a few times left them at a restaurant or similar in the airport only to realize a few minutes later and go rushing back. The Tablewar case has a lot of great features and flexibility and I like the clear plastic window. I can check on the figures more easily and most of the time I find that airport security recognizes the items are fragile. They have wanted to swab the interior of my cases on multiple occasions, but have not touched the actual figures.

Tablewar also makes larger cases for transporting armies. The small case I have is the largest one that will fit in the overhead of a regional jet. The small size case comes with two shelves, so you could use it for units of gaming scale figures.

Foam bwrapI’m including this photo again since I’m discussing my opinion of these specific transport solutions.

I have not used either of my foam container options for travel, I’ve just used them for around the house storage. The compartment style works pretty well, but I have found that I’ve had damage to the paint from contact with the foam. I can also hear some of the figures rattling around when I move the case. If I added bubblewrap pockets it would likely take care of both issues without impacting the ability to access the figures quickly in game play. I’ve been using the bubblewrap pockets for metal figures kept in that case and they’ve been held in place pretty well.

I keep the figures I painted when I wrote the Learn to Paint kits in the waffle foam case. Every time I open it up the smaller and thinner figures have shifted around. It’s not a big deal with these Bones plastic miniatures that are just stored in my home, but I would have qualms about using it for travel.

I encourage people to share their experiences and recommendations in the comments!

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Commercial Transport Options

Below are links to commercially available miniature carrying case options. If you have a recommendation for a site to add to the list, please let me know!

Some of these or other options may be available on Amazon if you prefer to purchase through that. I found plenty of hits on US Amazon with the search term ‘miniature case’.

Tablewar

Felderr

Sabol Designs

A-Case (or Army Case)

The Combat Company

Battle Foam

Casematix

KR Cases

These are some review/suggestion articles related to carrying cases:

Tangible Day – Top 10 Great Miniature Transport Bags and Cases

Miniature Storage – Complete List of Miniature Storage Cases for Every Gamer

Nerd Bear – top 10 Best Miniature Carrying Cases (2021)

Tabletop Bellhop – The Best Ways to Sort, Store, and Protect Gaming Miniatures
– Includes a suggestion of egg crates for cheap and easy local transportation.

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Figures Shown in this Post

There are a lot of figures in the pictures in this post, so it would take me forever to add purchase links for each one as I usually do. If there’s a particular figure you need more information on let me know in the comments and I’ll find you a link.

Cold Temperatures versus Miniature Paints

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Miniature paint doesn’t require a lot of special care and maintenance, but it can be damaged if exposed to freezing temperatures for an extended period of time. If you have paints in transit during a cold snap, or you’ve realized you had your paint stored in an unheated area like a garage, how can you tell if your paint is okay?

A little while ago I swatched out some of the colours from the Reaper Virtual Expo swag boxes. People were disappointed I didn’t have all the paints to swatch, so Sadie, the Reaper paints mixologist, packed up the rest to send them to me. She did that just before severe winter weather hit large areas of the United States. My package made it out of Reaper in time, but was trapped in UPS storage facilities and vehicles for days. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for scans of the first set of swatches.)

When my package  finally arrived, I thought I had better check the condition of all the paints. I let them sit and warm up for a few hours, and then tested all of them. I made a video of the testing process, so you can see how I checked and what a cold damaged paint looks like. I’m also including some pictures here in this post.

There were 14 paints total in my package. Two sets of six were packed in Reaper’s FastPalette packaging. This is a thin plastic tray inside of a thin card box. Then there were two sample paints that were loose in the box. (Everything was secured with air bubbles, I mean loose in the sense of not being in a blister or other packaging.)

IMG 0569Example of FastPalette packaging.

Out of those 14 paints, one of the loose sample paints is damaged and unusable, and the other 13 are fine. Pigments vary considerably, and there are some differences in the acrylic formulas used for various colours. So perhaps pigment or base made the difference, or perhaps the packaging of the boxed sets help insulate them. Whatever the cause, some paints are more sensitive than others. Having been exposed to weather cold enough to damage paint doesn’t mean that all exposed paints are automatically ruined.

In the video I open up the bottles of the two loose sample paints and dispense some paint onto an index card to examine. One of the paints acts as I would expect. You can see in the picture below that the other paint has been damaged. The pigment and some of the binder has curdled to a lumpy cottage cheese texture, which has completely separated from a runny fluid component. The problem bottle was shaken on a vortex mixer for some time prior to testing.

Frozen paint1 cr

I have had a previous experience with this. In one of the first learn to paint kits I bought, the tub of yellow paint was grainy and slightly curdled. It was not as extreme as the condition of the paint above, so there is some variation with this. I later learned that other people who bought that same set also had problems with the yellow paint. Likely it had gotten cold while in storage at the distributor warehouse that supplied my local game store. 

Frozen paint2 cr

So if you do have a damaged paint the issue might not be quite as obvious as this, but you should be able to see a notable difference in the texture and consistency of a damaged paint compared to a normal one.

EDIT TO ADD: To my knowledge there is no way to restore a paint damaged by freezing. You can’t add water or medium and stir everything back into suspension the way you usually can with a paint where the liquids and solids have separated after a long period of not being stirred. When paint freezes some of the components coagulate or congeal in a way that is a permanent structural or chemical change. If you experience this with a newly bought product, you can contact the retailer or the manufacturer and request a replacement.

In the video I just did a simple shake test on the other 12 bottles, but later I swatched them out. Six of the paints were metallics, and I was particularly concerned about those. In my years of doing paint maintenance (and not always being perfect about doing paint maintenance), I have found that metallic colours dry out and get ruined a lot more quickly than standard matte colours. So I was concerned they might be more easily damaged by cold, as well. All of the metallics in my shipment were fine.

Rve paints wet crSwatches straight from the bottle, still a little wet. The top six colours (one swatched twice) are the Reaper Virtual Expo Punk colours. The bottom six are the Cyber Metal colours.) These are photographs not the scans I did of swatches in my other post, so may not be as true to colour.

Rve paints dry crSwatches after drying for a few hours. Paint still looks normal and fine.

Frozen paint3 crUnaffected vs cold damaged paint after drying for a few hours. The ring on the paper shows how separated out the liquids were from the solids in the paint mix. 

I hope that helps give you a little more of an idea of what to look for if you’re concerned that you have paints that have been exposed to cold temperatures.

 

Snowflake photo by Egor Kamelev from Pexels

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.