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How to Get Started Painting Miniatures for Tabletop RPGs

Part I: Selection, Preparation, and Washing

What you will need to get started

One of the things that is hard to miss at any Dungeons and Dragons game is the miniatures (sometimes called a "mini"). They play an important role in most styles of gameplay. If you have read “How to Get Started Playing Dungeons and Dragons,” I alluded to miniatures as "miniature figurines used to mark one's place on the map or battle grid." There is a variety of prepainted miniatures available for purchase or capable painters willing to paint one of your choice. Many players view buying and painting their first mini as a milestone in the hobby. Finding the perfect miniature for their character and painting it themselves is a source of great pride and the figurine itself becomes a memento of those good times with your friends.

When selecting that first miniature it is tempting to find a really awesome PC mini with many pieces and tons of intricate details. I would recommend finding a larger, simple miniature. Take, for example a bear, wolf, or horse; simple design, but it offers a wide array of palette options. A giant may be a good choice, however, it may take longer to paint. The task of painting a mini can be daunting; many beginner painters might get frustrated with eyes, faces, and skin tones.

 Open the miniature and save the backer card. Keep this backer card in an archive, later it will help determine sculptors and brands to look for when out miniature shopping. Are there any parts that look like they don't belong? The two most common flaws in cast miniatures are “mold lines” and “flashing.”

Mold lines are caused by material seeping between the two halves of the mold during casting. They must be removed before painting or the mini will have odd-looking ridges that do not match the geometric aesthetic of the sculpt. Mold lines can be removed with files or the exacto-knife. Be careful if you are working with nonmetal miniatures; it is very easy to remove detail along with the mold lines.

Mold Lines: In This Case, Less Is More

Markings like the one on the left can ruin a good paint job, to the right we see it has been filed down.

The other most common flaw is flashing, or extra spindles of material attached to the figure. These are bits of metal on the tip of a sword, at the end of a robe, or hanging off the base. When a miniature is cast, the mold must have vent holes for the displaced air to escape. Sometimes is the mold is overfilled (it's better to overfill than underfill), material flows into these vent holes and hardens; this creates flashing. It is easy to remove and even easier to spot than mold lines. Most flashing can be removed by hand or perhaps a sprue cutter if it's hard to get to. Be sure to smooth the articulation point with a file when the flashing is removed.

Flashing: Not Just for Weirdos in Trench Coats

Michelangelo said of his masterpiece: "I just removed the stone that didn't look like 'David'."

The last step is to stand the mini upright. Does it wobble or is it stable? If it wobbles, is it a balancing problem or is the bottom of the base not flat. Most miniatures are filled from the base to the top so a lot of extra material gathers at the bottom of the base and can lead to flashing. This causes a lumpy, uneven bottom on the base. If this is has occurred, consider filing the bottom of the base to flatten it.

Now is the time to stand the miniature upright, straighten swords, and adjust the angle of the model to the base. Does everything look natural from all sides? If so, we are ready to wash the figure.

It is best to wash any model before painting or gluing it. When a model is cast, many times they use a mold release agent (talc powder) to help prevent the model sticking to the mold. Residue can be removed with dish soap, hot water, and a soft bristle toothbrush. Get a plastic dish or bowl and place the miniature in there to wash it. Small pieces from the model may fall into the drain if you wash directly in the sink. Always use a soft bristle brush, a more coarse brush may damage the detail of the miniature. If you are painting a resin or plastic mini, use warm water instead, hot water may cause it to warp or melt. Thoroughly scrub the miniature, getting in all the ridges and grooves. This will also remove any fine particles left by filing and scraping. Run water over the mini to rinse it, and rinse it well.

Some metal miniatures may have a slight golden tint to them that can't be removed. What happened was that the metal was a little too hot when it was poured and it burned the mold release agent, causing the surface to tint gold or even light brown. Primer will hide this.

Let the miniature dry completely. If the miniature isn't completely dry when it's primed, bubbles and curling will appear. This means water was trapped under the primer and evaporated. The miniature will look like it is covered in fuzz. This can also occur if one uses an aerosol primer on a very humid day. If time is limited one can use a hair dryer to speed things up but use the lower heat settings for non metal miniatures to prevent damage to the figure. I find the best way is to let them dry naturally overnight on a old towel. Congratulations! The mini is now ready to be glued and primed, which we will cover in the next article, “How to Get Started Painting Miniatures for Tabletop RPGs: Part II Planning, Gluing, and Priming.”

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