Sunday, November 17, 2013

Preparation and Simple Conversion of Plastic Figures

I have had people ask for some more information about how I prepare plastic figures for painting, and someone asked for some pointers on simple conversions. So in this post, I'll go into more detail on these topics, covering preparation up to priming the figures. I will also do a simple conversion: doing a head swap to get a helmet, changing the weapon to a mace, and adding a coif of mail.

The figure I picked is from the Airfix Robin Hood set that I think will make a good cleric figure. The figure has an axe and no helmet. I will convert the axe to a mace and swap the figure's head with one of the other Robin Hood figures that has a helmet. I will add a coif of mail draping under the helmet down to the shoulders. This will also strengthen the attachment of the head to the figure.

I like to leave the figures on sprues as long as possible because it makes it easier to handle them, especially if you are preparing a batch of figures. I wait to remove them from the sprue until after priming them if possible, although for mounted figures I might detach and mount the riders on the mounts before priming.

These photos show the materials and tools I use for the preparation and conversion steps. In the first photo, an Exacto hobby knive, single edge razor knife and a pin vise (a tiny hand drill) are on the bottom row. The glue shown here is a 20 minute 2 part epoxy glue, which is good for large batches where you need more working time. I will actually use a 5 minute epoxy glue for this single figure, but its label is gone. Not pictured are electrical pliers that have a cutter that I used to cut the piano wire.

Required materials
Required materials

The second photo shows the tools and materials for the conversion. The blue and yellow cylinders are the 2 parts of "green stuff", an epoxy putty that is widely used with miniatures. I have a bunch of carving and shaping tools for use with epoxy putty but for this post I just used a toothpick and an Exacto knife. The green stuff is not really required for simple projects, but if you do a lot of projects with miniatures you will find the "green stuff" to be very useful.

Optional materials
Optional materials

Buying the putty in tubes is far more cost effective than buying the overpriced little strips. Another problem with the strips is that storing the blue and yellow parts together results in a crumbly strip of cured green stuff that must be cut away, wasting some of the putty. You can also buy a variety of 2 part epoxy putties at the hardware store. I have tried several over the years, and many of them have their uses.

Here are the steps for the preparation of the figure:

  1. Wash figures with dish soap
  2. Remove flash
  3. Convert/ assemble figures as needed
  4. Coat figures with white glue (only required for soft flexible figures)
  5. Prime the figures

The first step is to use dish soap to wash the figures. I use an old toothbrush for this. Then go over the figures with a sharp knife and cut off as much flash as possible. This is difficult with the Airfix figures which are very soft and flexible and are sometimes cast with a lot of flash. Just remember these are dirt cheap if you get irritated.

The figure had a sword, so I carefully scraped the sword off. I used a knife and cut off the heads. I use the pin vise to drill a hole vertically through the head, down into the torso of the figure. I cut a short length of piano wire and pushed it into the head and then pushed the head onto the wire. This will give us good strength as well as let us experiment with rotating the head and bending the neck.

In order to achieve a good bond between parts, you either need a large flat surface for gluing, or as in this case, you need to pin the parts together. I mixed up a very small batch of the 5 minute epoxy and applied it with a toothpick. Be careful not to get big globs on the figure. Glue the bottom part of the wire into the neck and torso of the model, then put some glue on the top of the wire and on the bottom of the head, being careful not to make a big blob.

Pinning the head
Pinning the new head on the figure

Next I worked on the chainmail coif. I shaped the coif and then after it started to cure, I used the toothpick point to rough up the putty and suggest mail. The putty takes a long time to cure, and after it stiffens there is a stage where it is hard to move it around but the surface remains malleable. That is when I worked on the texture. I did it in two steps because it is easier to work on small volumes at a time. I worked on the part of the coif hanging down from the helmet, and after that set up I added the part that goes round the front of the neck.

Mail coif
Progress on the mail coif

For the mace, I shaped a simple mace head from a small amount of putty. I built up the mace head in two steps, the first giving a foundation and then I finished the shape. It was difficult to carve and shape because of the flexibility of the plastic so the mace head was very simple.

If you don't have green stuff, you could use a bit of epoxy glue and build up the neck. Let it cure until it no longer flows and then push it into place. I sometimes use the epoxy as a fillter, but it is harder to control and not as nice to work with as putty. If you are doing a lot of miniatures projects I urge you to get some green putty and try your hand at something like this.

Now that the figure is assembled it is time to prepare it for painting. A beat-up old brush is used to apply diluted white glue prior to priming -- but this step is only required for rubbery, flexible figures. Figures made of more modern plastics do not need this step. I pour some glue out on the tile I use for a pallet and get the brush very wet. I do this in two coats. Use water from a jar to keep the white glue from being too thick. If you are not careful you might get a blob of glue, so I dry the brush and remove excess. After the first coat dries, give it a second thin coat. Make sure you wash out the brush after applying glue with it.

After the white glue dries, I prime the figures with slightly thinned acrylic gesso. Again use two thin coats instead of a thick coat. After the second coat I might touch up thin spots, but three coats do not seem to be necessary.

The prepared figure
The prepared figure, the head donor, unmodified figures (and Friar Tuck looking rather portly)

The flexibility of the plastic makes it hard to work on thin parts, but thicker pieces are easier to carve. The more modern plastics used in Zvezda etc. are very easy to carve and shape. The lack of strength of thin parts is another problem since it is not possible to form a strong joint with a small, flexible region. The head swap and mail coif parts of this project were very easy, and use a similar technique to working on a metal figure. The mace was more frustrating due to the flexibility of the plastic shaft, and the weakness of the hand. If this had been a metal figure, I probably would have formed a mace using a sewing pin or a piece of music wire and epoxied it into the hand and it would have been easy to form a more intricate mace head. But the plastic hand is so small and flexible that I did not think I could form a strong joint and used the existing axe shaft instead.

In my opinion, the low cost and easy availability of these figures more than outweigh the difficulty of working with plastic. Online or at the hobby shop, less than $10 US will get you 40 of the Robin Hood figures. The nicer Zvezda figures are a little more expensive but are still an outstanding value compared to metal figures.

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