In this article I’m going to talk about the first step in painting or building great miniatures. Like a house it starts with a good foundation and for a miniature figure painter that’s your workbench! The nicer your workstation is the better your figures will be and the faster they will get painted! So lets take a little tour of This Old Workbench and talk about some of the tools and materials that can help to make your particular workstation more productive. Let me start by saying that I’m lucky enough at this time to have a garage were my workbench is permanently located, a luxury that many of you may not have, but this was not always so, I started out on the kitchen table on a news paper with only the kitchen light to paint by. The first lesson I learned and the most important was light, you need good strong light and lots of it! Good light will make painting easier, faster, and better! Not to mention that too little light will cause you to strain your eyes, possibly causing irreparable damage! Most hardware / home improvement stores sell inexpensive ($10 to $15 dollars) mechanical arm lamps. They usually take 60 to 100 watt bulbs and have a base that will clamp easily to any table / desk that you’d care to use. I use two one on each side of me. This will eliminate the dark shadows from a one-sided lamp source. My workbench top is painted white so as to reflect light back up toward the figures, since this is bounce light (reflected) it will be very soft and also help eliminate shadows. You can do the same thing even if you are working on a desk or table. Get a piece of cheap 1/8 inch Luan (plywood), cardboard, or something similar about 2 feet by 3 foot and paint it white. It can the replace the newspaper you use to protect the table now, with the advantage of being able to cut on it.
Next you’ll need some tools. Now like I said I enjoy a permanent workbench and a collection of tools and materials that is probably more than most of you will ever need, but everybody should have a basic set of tools to work with. I’m constantly amazed when I see people trying to do a good paint job bent over a coffee table with no light and dull kitchen knife. I’ll start with some basic stuff that anyone working with miniatures should have and later well get into some fancy stuff.
Probably the most used and first tool you’ll need is a hobby knife (X-Acto Knife). They come in several handle styles and dozens of blade types. I use two a # 22 round (curved) blade with the large grip #5 handle and a # 11 straight blade in the thinner pen style #1 handle. Along with these you’ll need some jewelers files. By the way did I mention that you’d be miles ahead if you buy good quality tools from the beginning? They do a better job, last longer, and wont let you down at that critical moment. You will also find that should you have a problem stores will stand behind quality tools and laugh when you bring back the discount stuff. Anyway you can buy files one at a time or as a set. You’ll probably want a half round, round, flat, and three sided (triangle) so you might just want to get a set, as you’ll save money. For doing the bases and such get a large flat mill or bastard file 10 to 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide.
Next some tweezers to hold that broken gun barrel while you glue it. You can probably steal some from the medicine chest but I recommend some large hobby or industrial type. There two basic types of tweezers, the type we are all familiar with that operate with finger pressure to hold the two ends together, but I’ve found another kind that operate opposite. Your finger pressure opens them, when you release pressure they will hold parts firmly with no assistance from you. That way you don’t have to worry about keeping up finger pressure while trying to maneuver a part into position. They can also be used to hold pieces on your workbench like a little mini vice. Along the same line as tweezers are hemostats, you know those long thin nosed pliers like things you see on M.A.S.H. and all the other TV doctor shows. They also make great mini vices as they can be locked in place. Get a pair of regular pliers, to help you get that stubborn paint jar open, (always wondered why they call one pliers a pair?) and small pair of needle nose pliers should pretty much take care of the grabbing type tools.
My workbench has several sizes of wire cutters for clipping type jobs such as antennas, gun barrels, etc. Here again a good set is best, the cheap ones often don’t close all the way or are misaligned resulting in botched cuts. A good pair of scissors for cutting flags, Basing materials, etc. will also come in handy. So far all the cutting type tools I’ve mentioned cut on the principle of a sharp wedge dividing the material, but this also has the effect of distorting both sides of the finished cut. This would not work well if you needed a clean cut like in grafting different heads or torsos when customizing figures. For jobs like this you need a hobby saw. This is a fine tooth saw with a blade about 8 inches long hand 1 1/2 inches wide. It cuts by removing a thin slice of material with its teeth, and will not distort the figure. It also works well on wood and other scenic materials.
Glues can be very frustrating for beginners and old timers as well. When I was a kid there was only two types wood and plastic, Epoxies were space age and not many people used them. So when it came to gluing any other type of material a so so job was all we could expect! Nowadays there’s a rainbow range of glues available to everyone. Quick setting cyanoacrylate super glues are a must, and there is a wide variety available. They now come with varying set up speeds and in different densities. I like the thicker ” gap filling” type, It doesn’t run as much and helps to fill the gaps in figures that have multiple parts to put together. In addition to the different types of super glues made they also make what’s called an accelerator, a liquid that can be sprayed onto the piece you are super gluing and will cause the super glue to instantly setup. These super glues work well for most miniatures applications small parts accessories, etc., but when you get to the larger parts or any thing that might be subject to any stress you might want to use a epoxy. This is usually a two part mix with varying set up times usually 5 -30 minutes. Epoxies form a much more durable bond unlike super glues that are sort of brittle. A small bottle of wood glue will come in handy for gluing flocking to bases or any of those jobs involving wood, cardboard, etc. Likewise a tube of plastic glue can come in handy. Last issue I talked about mounting your figures on nails with a hot glue gun to make priming and painting easier. One of these little gems should be high on your priority list they make handling figures much easier. If you use the hot glue and nails method you will also need a piece of Styrofoam or wood with appropriate holes drilled in it for the nails. Lately I’ve also been using some of the modeler’s putty’s that are available at most hobby shops. They are very useful in filling holes, mold lines, etc., and can also be used to sculpt additional parts and accessories on your figures.
I’ve also found that little plastic cups (the type your doctor serves pills in) come in very handy to mix up washes, etc. They come in various sizes usually 1-4 ounces. Ask your friendly nurse for a couple, and while you are at it get a large hypodermic needle and plunger or two if you can! They work well for adding a couple drops of one color to another when mixing paint or inks, or getting just the right amount of water into that wash.
The last thing I’m going to mention is a Dremel. It’s a motorized hobby tool much like a drill motor. It can hold many different types of tips (called bits) drills, grinders, saws, router bits, buffers, and more, its one of the handiest tools on my bench. I took a length of thin steel rod and with a couple of bends made a paint stirrer I then punched a hole in a spare paint bottle top insert the rod up through it and into the dremel. Add a little water, screw the cap onto that almost dry bottle of paint, hold the bottle with a rag in one hand and with the other hand holding the dremel work the stirrer around the inside of the bottle. The dremel should be set to low, but even at that speed a couple of minutes of this is better than 30 minutes with a stick! It works great! The picture at left is close to the right size the rod should be at least 1\8 inch thick or it will wobble. Take care and ALWAYS wrap the bottle as one will break occasionally break! I have one stirrer and several different size paint tops. With the cost of a jar of paint nowadays the number of paints you save with this will pay for the dremel in the long run. Plus you now have a dremel that you will wonder how you got along with out.
Last but not least should be reference books, something that will give you some idea of the look of the troops or figures your painting. Like I mentioned before I painted my first German tanks black because of lack of information. Nowadays there are many good books on almost all period’s to choose from. There’s nothing worse than proudly bringing out those great looking new troops and the first thing that someone says is ” Hey those lapels are the wrong color for 1815″ or ” Your flags got to many stars on it”.
Now I don’t expect that your going to run out and buy all this stuff or that you even need all that I’ve mentioned but now that you have some idea of what you might need you can slowly start to pick different pieces up. I’m always surprised at the places I find some of my stuff. A lot of my tools and materials came from garage sales and so on, I also found a guy at the local swap meet that sells all sorts of reconditioned small hand tools cheap. So even if you don’t need a particular piece at that moment pick it up, next week you’ll be glad you did!