Greetings everyone! This week we start a new series of hobby articles with a more general and ‘academic’ look at sculpting, resin casting and painting for hobbists of all ranks of expertise; the aim of this series is to be a referential resource of tutorials and techniques, that can be applied to any of your conversion projects, regardless of faction or game system. Lets start things off with all the tools of the trade!
I often mention the various tools I use for my conversions and in some articles I even add pictures of the specific gadgets needed (when they play a particularly important role in the sculpting process), but many readers might have missed or forgot those past references, so I decided to compile a fairly in depth list of all the basic-to-advanced tools with their general uses, costs and priority on a general ‘to buy list’ I would suggest to modellers that want to take their hobby to the next level.
Before we start, I would like to point out that I am not ‘sponsored’ by any online store or hobby supplies manufacturer, so what follows are just my own personal opinions and experiences with the assorted tools and materials; I will try to offer multiple suggestions/directions on where I found/bought individual tools and any alternative sellers I know of (model train shops, arts and crafts stores, ecc…).
Cleaning and assembly:
In this article series I will try to cover all the bases, since it is aimed at all modelers, including new hobbist that might have just gotten into modeling; with that in mind let us go over some tools for ‘cleaning and assembly’ that most readers probably already have/use (scroll down to the Sculpting section, if you find these too basic):
1. Cutting tools:
The most important/necessary is the ‘Exacto knife/Box cutter‘ (bottom of the picture), since you will be using this at the very least to remove plastic models from sprues, clean off flash and scrape mold lines. As you delve deeper into modeling and sculpting you will keep using this blade to chop up model limbs and cut plasticard into desired shapes (like I do for the plastic cores of my sculpted Orgoth blades). I would advise getting a proper ‘heavy duty’ model from any hardware/home improvement store, rather than hobby/art shops, because tools from gaming brands tend to be significantly more expensive (twice the cost) with a barely average quality; that said, don’t go buy the discounted ‘5 knives set’ for 3.99$ from a generic discount store, since those lack the mass and solidity you want in such a tools and might break up and hurt you when trying to cut into metal models.
The Hobby saw (top of the picture) is a tool you may or may not need, depending on the models you are working with: personally I use the saw when cutting thicker sections of metal models (trough the torso of a metal infantryman) or larger resin models (a limb/torso section of a colossal/gargantuan). The main advantage of a saw over other blades, is that it allows you to more neatly and precisely cut models, which is particularly important when trying to avoid damaging the sawed off parts of the model. Like before I would advise checking out a hardware store rather than a hobby shop, but be sure the saw blade you are purchasing is meant to cut metals (not just wood/plastic), or your saw blade will quickly loose its ‘teeth’ into your metal models.
The Hobby scalpel (middle tool in the picture) is not that essential; I personally use it exclusively to scrape mold lines from plastic models in tight spots I can’t easily reach with the previous blade; as such I would say it’s priority on your purchase list depends mainly on the models you will be cleaning (for example Convergence of Cyryss early plastics are famous for their annoying mold lines on gears and for them you might need this tool more than other factions). You can get this in the same shops as the previous tool and again I would suggest avoiding gaming brands and looking for some less known manufacturers (less mark-up on the price), most likely found into hobby train/RC car shops.
2. Hand drill:
In my articles I often mention ‘pinning’ limbs onto models or ‘brass-rodding’ units with bendy pole weapons and I have used the same old hand drill for more than 15 years. You could also get an electric hobby drill (aka Dremmel), but personally I prefer the old school manual drill, since it gives you greater control (less likely to drill all the way trough or mess up the area around the pin hole), in spite of the fact it is more time consuming and tiring (you will get a cramp in your hand if you try to brass-rod an entire unit of metal IFP in one sitting). The model in the picture is a very old GW tool (I think it was the first hand drill model offered by GW, long ago when there wasn’t much alternative offers on the market), so the version currently sold by GW looks a bit different (fancier looking grip, more expensive, less ‘options’). As I mentioned before GW is the ‘Apple’ of the modelling market, meaning anything with their brand on it will automatically be at least 50% more expensive than a ‘brand-less’ counterpart, so I would suggest checking out other arts and crafts stores and model train/ships shops; if possible I’d advise buying this tool in person (not online), so you can try out how the tool feels in your hand (there are a few different designs and shapes for the grip, more or less comfortable for different people) and especially to make sure the hand drill you are buying has interchangeable ‘grips’ for drill heads of different sizes. In the picture you can see how that looks on my version: basically the top can screwed off, to take out the metal bit (lets call it ‘adaptor’) that holds the actual drill bit. My drill model came with 2 adaptors with 4 different holes, that allowed me to buy separately new drill heads of different diameters (just make sure they fit in the adaptors’ holes).
3. Pliers and Pincers:
I set up the tools in the picture based on how useful/necessary they are, going from left to right:
Flat pliers: I use this specifically to straighten the 1mm thick brass wire I use for pinning and to firmly grasp the pins, when I am setting/pushing them into the pin holes (it is a tight fit so you do need to apply some force in a carefully measured manner, or you will end up bending the brass rod or damaging the surfaces around the pin hole.
Cutting pliers/Pincers: Another essential tool I use to cut plastic model bits off sprues and to cut the brass wire/rods I need for my pins.
Rounded pliers: For the most part you might need these when bending metal wires into desired curves and curls (for example years ago I sculpted some Nurgle models with their guts sticking out and I used this tool to shape metal wires into wriggly intestines before setting them into the model’s bellies and sculpting the rotting flesh around the opening…).
Mini pliers: Not quite an essential tool, since I use these mainly to pick up and neatly place very small objects, like for example gluing small rivets and bolts (1mm or less in size).
The first 2 types of pliers are fairly common generic working tools and are likely part of every household’s tool box, but if you don’t have them already, you can get all these tools in any hardware store for a cheap price (as mentioned before, avoid gaming brands for these tools, since those are more expensive for no benefit).
4. Files and sanding tools:
This batch of utensils is not really that essential, since you can get work done fine without any of them, but depending on the materials you are working with (metal and resin models in particular) they can make your life easier…
‘Heavy duty’ files: The 2 big files with red handles have a pretty rough grit and I use them when I want to grind down a larger piece of metal or resin (for example, if I wanted to shorten the barrel of a metal extreme Destroyer, I would use one of these files to sand off 4-5 mm off the front of the cannon quickly and then use the finer grit files/sand paper to smooth over the roughly ground area). The main advantage of this approach to just cutting or sawing off is that you have more control and is a more gradual process (you grind off the first 1-2 mm of material, see how it looks and keep going as needed; if you just chop off a bit and then notice you went too far, it is already too late…). Another use of these rough grit grinding tools is to ‘score’ the contact surface of metal model parts (you make a smooth surface rougher, so that the super glue can get a better hold). You can buy these in any hardware store (gaming shops don’t carry files of such large size and grit).
Modeling files: The 5 smaller files with green handles are a set I bought in a model train shop. I use these mainly to clean mold lines in sensitive areas and to smooth over areas I previously sanded with the rougher grit tools.
Fine grit sand paper(sponge): The blocky sponge looking thing on the left of the picture is actually a very fine grit ‘sanding sponge’; basically it is just sanding paper in a shape that allows you to hold it more easily. Personally I use this to lightly brush over the resin bits I cast (like my resin cast Orgoth blades) to smooth over any nicks and scratches left by previous files. I found it in the ‘wall paints’ section of a local hardware store.
And finally we get to the section most of my readers are actually interested into: sculpting tools!
5. Metal sculpting tools:
The very first ‘proper’ sculpting tool I bought more than 20 years ago was the ‘classic’ GW’s Metal sculpting tool with a scalpel-like tip on one end and a flat round tip on the other; in time I expanded my tool collection…
Metal tools are hard, inflexible and durable, so I generally use them for the ‘early stages’ of the sculpting process, most often to press down a small ball/rope of fresh modeling putty on a model. I often put down a very small drop of superglue on the surface I plan to cover with green stuff, so that the fresh putty will stick to that spot, but that often causes some of the glue to get squeezed out and stick to the tool. Whenever that happens just take one of your hobby knives and scrape off the superglue from the metal tool before continuing work, otherwise the tool tips will be rough and scratch the putty surface instead of flattening/smoothing it (on a metal tool that is no problem, while on plastic or silicone tools it would quickly ruin the tool, so if you also use superglue in your sculpting, always use metal tools in its vicinity).
I am an almost pathological hoarder, so during my years of sculpting I acquired a couple of more extensive sculpting tool sets, but it wasn’t really necessary, since out of the 20+ metal tools I own, I still keep using that old GW metal tool the most; occasionally I might pick one or two other metal tools, for their different shape or curve of the tips, but that is less than 10% of the cases. Keeping that in mind, I would say that even advanced sculptors do not really need a full 10 pieces set of professional metal tools, but can easily get by with the one classic metal sculpting tool with a ‘knife-like’ and a ‘flat spoon-like’ tips on either end. Most hobby shops and online stores dealing with miniature gaming should have some single metal tools on offer, otherwise you can always get the one from GW (yes it is overpriced, but since it is a single tool that you need, it is an acceptable option, if you can’t find other offers near you…).
6. Stylus Tools:
This tool is basically just a handle with a ‘needle on either side that ends in a small metal ball of different diameters, used mainly to press consistent round holes/depressions into fresh sculpting putty; for example I use the stylus most often to sculpt chainmail, the holes in my Doom reaver masks or the eye sockets of the screaming skulls on my custom Fell blades. The tools in sets offer you a range of different ball-points going from 0.5 mm to 3+ mm, but from personal experience I would say that in practice you need a 0.5 , 0.8 and 1 mm points the most, since the majority of your sculpting will be on small-to-large based models, making the bigger points in the sets kind of useless (unless you plan on sculpting huge scale models); that is why I feel getting one stylus with a 0.5 or 0.8 ball point on one end and a 1 mm tip on the other is more than enough for most budding sculptors (caveat: if you plan to sculpt/convert Nurgle-like models, you might want a multiple pieces set of styluses, since that is the only case where you actually want to use a wider range of ball points to sculpt the assorted rotting wounds and boils on the plagued models). I got my first sculpting stylus from an arts and crafts store in the ‘knitting section’ (used for some traditional knitted lace) and noticed some larger scale styluses in the cooking tools section (used for cake decorations and such), so you should be able to find these in a varied assortment of stores…
7. Silicone sculpting tools:
Often enough I get asked ‘how did I manage to get such a smooth and neat finish to my green stuff work’ and these silicone tipped tools are the biggest contributor (lubricating my tools and years of practice being the other two factors). As I mentioned, the early stages of sculpting are always done with hard edged tools (first metal sculpting tools and then Ghetto plastic tools for the detail work) to properly ‘push around’ the fresh putty into the desired rough shape, however the hard edges of those tools always leave behind faint lines, dents and scratches on the green stuff’s surface and that is where the soft tipped utensils come into play. While the putty is still soft I go back and re-touch all the exposed surfaces to gently prune out any imperfections and better define the edges and curves of my sculpting work; emphasis on the word ‘gently’, since we already set what the sculpted details should look like, now we just have to ‘polish them to the best of our ability’ and with some patience and a lot of practice you should be able to add sculpted details that, once painted over, will merge seamlessly with the original model.
I first found out about these silicone tools 5-6 years ago while checking out a larger art supply store in Austria (during a road trip), got a few to try out and pretty much fell in love with them. Unfortunately none of the stores local to me carried any of these and I have had some problems finding them online (since back then I did not know what they are classified as), but in the past few years the online hobby stores grew larger and more accessible so I finally managed to get myself a few sets of these tools of different sizes and ‘hardness’.
Now if any of you wanted to buy some of these tools for yourself there are a few things you should be aware of:
I (and most stores dealing with our hobby) call these Silicone (or Rubber) sculpting tools, but in art stores they are often called Silicone/Rubber clay shapers (or also Color shapers, since painters use them to ‘shape’ thickly layered oil paints on canvas). In arts and crafts stores they can also be showcased as Fimo sculpting tools or Sculpting brushes.
From what I have seen these tools have 5 differently shaped tips available: Cup chisel, Flat chisel, Angle chisel, Cup round and Taper point. Out of the mentioned tips, the one I personally have used most often so far was the Cup chisel, followed by the Flat chisel and the Taper point, so if for some reason you are limited in how much you can buy, I’d say Cup chisel and Taper point should be at the top of your priority list.
These tools usually come in four sizes: 10, 6, 2 and 0. In the picture above you can see ten size 0 tools (on the left), two size 2 (in the middle) and seven size 6 (to the right). For the purpose of sculpting miniatures you can limit yourself to size 2 and 0 (I use the size 6 tools mainly to do textured bases and colossal-sized models, where I can work on larger surfaces and need a larger ‘brush’).
The silicone/rubber of the tips also comes in three ‘firmness settings’: Soft (usually white or pale azure in color), Medium (generally of a light-medium gray color) and Firm/Hard (black or very dark gray in color). The hardness of the tip mainly influences the sharpness of the edges you want to shape: for organic shapes (like muscle of cloth) you generally want to use the softer silicone, while to achieve sharp edges (armor or hair/fur) you would prefer using the firmer rubber tips. The difference between the ‘Medium firmness’ and the other two settings is fairly subtle, so most stores generally stock only the Soft and Hard options. If you need to choose only one set to get, I would suggest getting the Medium (if available, otherwise get the Firm version); if you are not restrained to only one set I would then advise getting the 2 extreme settings (Hard and Soft).
So now that I laid out all the details of these marvelous tools, if you wanted to get some of these my suggested priority list would be:
A full five piece set of Firm/Hard size 0
At least a Cup chisel and a Taper point tool of Medium hardness in size 2 (or again the full five pieces Medium hardness set of Size 2)
Maybe another Soft Cup chisel and Taper point in size 6 (you really don’t need the full set of this size).
Besides these it is up to you weather you want to splurge and get multiple sets of varying sizes and hardness.
8. Ghetto Sculpting Tools:
Part of the reason I don’t use more of my metal sculpting tools is that in my first years in the hobby I realized that I could chop up the frames of GW plastic kits and whittle down those hard plastic sticks in any desired shape and point to craft my own disposable and easily replaceable sculpting tools. Granted, these are not as durable as professional metal tools, as they loose their edge with use in just 4-5 sittings, but then you whittle them a little more to sharpen the edges or just carve a new one in the same shape. In general I use these custom made tools to achieve specific impressions and keep them consistent across the model (particularly relevant when sculpting dragon scales-like patterns).
Besides carving hard plastic sticks, I also often use small plastic cylinders (the ones you usually get on brand new paint brushes to protect the bristles) to press circles of consistent diameters into green stuff or to turn them in mini-stamps to sculpt a repeatable detail (like I did for the rocked pods of my Katyusha and Judi conversions in the past).
There are other small objects like screw heads and assorted bolts you could also use if their shape fits your needs, so I would advise new hobbyists to keep an open mind and take a look around their house for random stuff that could be used as ghetto sculpting tools…
That covers all the essential hobby tools I can think of (for the model cleaning, assembly and converting side of things at least; I might discuss paint brushes, paints and other aspects in future articles f there is interest…), so to sum up this first article here is my ‘recommended’ list of tools any model converter should have:
I hope this article proves informative and thorough enough; if you have any questions, comments or suggestions for future articles in this series, check out the thread in the Muse on Minis forums ( -Linky- ).