Wargaming with 20mm Soft Plastic Figures











The first major obstacle to wargaming with plastic figures, apart from a perception that playing with plastic soldiers isn't "real" wargaming, is that paint will simply not stick to them for very long. This problem is actually deceptively easy to overcome.

First wash down the figures with warm water and a little dish washing liquid, to get rid of the residual grease that is left over from the manufacturing process.

Second remove the "flash" (those little pieces of plastic that sometimes surround the figures, often between the figure and the sprue) with a very sharp knife. Please note, you will have to cut the flash off, rather than trying to scrape it off, as scraping simply makes the matter worse. Also note the knife can't differentiate between plastic and flesh, so be careful!

Then apply an undercoat of either black acrylic (my personal favorite, not the least reason being that it aids my preferred painting technique), or PVA...

Undiluted PVA (which is a white, all purpose/wood glue - I believe it's called "Unibond" in the UK and "Elmers Glue" in the States), can be used as primer for each figure to which the paint will adhere more redily. Paint on with an old brush a coat of of PVA, leaving a heavy-ish coat on parts which are prone to a little more knocking about than the rest of the figure (such as weapons), while trying to prevent the accumulation of excess on areas that are finely detailed, like the face. Brush off the excess while the glue is still wet, as you can loose a lot of detail if you just plonk it on and leave it to dry. The PVA goes on as a white blobby mess, but don't worry, it dries clear, and paint will stick to it really well.

Both the PVA and the black acrylic shrink on drying, not so much sticking to the figure, as enveloping it it a pliable covering to which the paint will have no problem adhering.

Then paint as normal. Generally the figures are reasonably detailed, so they can look quite good if you want to go to the extra effort.

There are a number of different ways to add a final varnish to your completed paint work. You can finish with PVA, much in the same way as before. The result is a quite "silky" finish to your figure - not quite gloss, but then not matt either. I find the PVA is far more effective in keeping the paint job intact than spray on varnish. The PVA encases the paint with a flexible covering whereas the varnish, in my experience, starts to flake away (and the underlying paint with it) on the parts of the figure that are more prone to being knocked about.

Stan's SlavesOne trick with the PVA finish that was shown to me by Stan Walker, is to add a little black acrylic paint to the PVA before applying it to the figure. As the PVA is drying, the paint sort of sinks to the bottom, accumulating in the creases and folds of the figures' clothing. Gives quite a "swarthy" look to the whole thing, and is quite an effective, quick, and easy way to shade your figures. Be careful not to use too much black however, or you'll end up with a very dark figure indeed.

Another method, which I am just starting to experiment with, is a Kiwi version of the remarkable Min Wax. Namely Cabots Interior Varnish Stain, which has produced some quite remakable results. The finish is a little more glossy than the PVA, but it seems to be harder and adds a little stiffness to your plastic. Or is that a little lead to their pencil's...? Anyway, click here to learn a bit more about it.

Other People's Tips

What follows is a collection of tips on how to paint plastics sent to me by visitors to this site. If you've got anything to add, please let me know.

Liquitex Undercoat

(February 2003)

Sean McCambridge from the Ireland passes on this promising tip...


Like other wargamers, I've been put off buying soft plastic figures in the past because of the difficulty in painting. I've tried PVA and not been too impressed. I found it too, peeled off. Quite by chance I tried some paint I'd had for a while in my paint box. It's called Liquitex, Concentrated Artist Colour, Medium Viscosity Acrylic. It's made by Binney & Smith and comes in small plastic bottles, in a variety of colours. I found it in an Art Shop in Dublin. Though the manufacturers are from USA.

After cleaning the figures as recommended, I'd paint this on with a brush. (Do not dilute) When dry, it forms a skin like a rubber suit around the figure which you can paint with acrylics in your own manner. It is almost impossible to flake this paint off the figures and even spears and rifle barrels can be bent double. I've only used black and grey but assume the other colours would have the same qualities. I've tried stretching strips of the paint when it's dry, and found it stretches to about twice its length before splitting.

I hope this is of use to other gamers. I recommend this paint as an undercoat.


Sean McCambridge

Thanks Sean. I'll keep an eye out for it.

Glue as Undercoat

(March, 2002)

Here's a tip from Alberto Zumárraga in Spain on how to keep your paint on your plastics...

One of the problems we all face with polytene figures, and I think the most frustrating one, is finding out that after a careful work of painting, all your effort vanishes when the paint peels off. Politene is a plastic where nearly nothing sticks well so the solution is to give it an undercoat where the paint could adhere well.

But why should the undercoat adhere to the plastic? In fact it does not. What we try to do, with diluted PVA glue for instance, is giving a "skin" to the plastic, and then paint onto the skin. The thicker the skin the stronger against use, but that means in the case of PVA losing details, and to get a good finishing, several time consuming coats.

The tip I give is to use a spray glue or varnish to get that same effect. I have used several kinds of products, but the one you use must have two caracteristics, being flexible, basical[?], and being sticky. You can give several coats to get a thicker skin.

The stickier of them all, from my trials, is UHU contact glue in spray. It has two problems, the finish is rather coarse (grainy) and you can get some blobs of glue from time to time onto your pieces. Here you have to try the different glues available in your region, I think 3M has several. The coarse finish might not prove a huge problem compared with the advantages given, but that is a personal choice.

Other materials vary from plastic coating sprays, with a finish similar to a plastificated paper (but here the adherence is not so good), or different types of varnish, and here you will have to try brands to find one with flexible caracteristics. Acrilyc varnish tends to be stiff when dry so it is not suitable.

Keep in mind that the idea is to give a skin to the piece, and it is that skin itself that will keep arround the figure, and you need it not to crack. Once I got a varnish from a Spanish manufacturer called MIR, based on a natural compound, some kind of resin, that gave the best result for it was sticky, flexible and thin, but unfortunatelly I don`t remember the brand name and I have not seen it any more elsewhere, but I do imagine something similar must exist, you just have to find it. Other materials used where overcoat varnish for paintings, with very good results.

The last tip is to give, once the figure has been painted, a coat, or several, of varnish, matt or not, to protect the paint with another outer skin. This one also has to be flexible.

I do personally make all the process with the figures still on the tree, it is very easy to handle them this way, and when finished I retouch the unpainted union spots, but that also is your choice.


Dull Cote

(December, 2001)

A novel approach for an undercoat from Jeff Barnes...

What I've used for the first time - and have been extremely pleased with the results - is after giving the figures the detergent bath (and drying them!) to spray them with Dull Cote or some other non-gloss finish and almost immediately spraying it with the base coat (I use flat black). The Dull Cote and base coat bond as they dry, creating a great surface that won't crack. I paint as normal and then give a coat of Dull Cote, let it dry, and give another coat for good luck. I refused to paint plastic for 10 years until I found out about this neat procedure!

Jeff Barnes
Omaha, Nebraska


(November, 2001)

From Scott Brooks in the US

A Can of Plasti-Dip, taken by Scott Brooks.  I assume that's his car...A few months ago, someone posted a message about a product called PlastiDip on the DBLCHM e-group.  Well, I tried it myself (the clear spray-on in the can), and it works better than anything I've ever used.  Now, I just throw my gaming miniatures in a box, and I've yet to find a chipped part.  The finish is a rubbery, flat matte that is perfect for sealing.  I haven't tried it on a figure with just paint (all were sealed with a matt sealer first), so I'm not sure if I would apply it to a figure with nothing else - then again, it might work just fine.

I'm not sure if it's available outside the US - I couldn't find it my local retailers, so I had to order direct from the company. Their toll-free number is 1-800-969-5432. I'm trying to talk my hardware store here into stocking it - they carry the spray cans, but only in black, white, yellow, red, and blue.


Thanks Scott. Click here to have a look at some of his work. Outstanding!

Also, have a geeze at their home page - very nice.

Hard as Nails

This [cosmetic] tip came from Bill Gallo from California...

One way of treating the figures for painting and just standing up to wear and tear that I found helpful was a product called "Hard as Nails." It is a cosmetic product sold for strengthening the fingernails. I found that instead of enveloping the figure it actually altered its surface. giving it a slightly rougher texture (nice for paint adhesion) it also added some stiffness to them and was very gentle on the detail.

Game On,

Bill Gallo, Pacifica, California, USA

Artist's Gesso

I also got this from Michael Wong...

I find that artist's gesso works really well as a primer for plastic figures.

Gesso is used by artists to prep canvas prior to painting. The two brands I find readily available here in Hawaii (U.S.A) are Delta and Liquitex. Delta brand is cheaper and comes in smaller quantities then Liquitex gesso, both can be thinned and cleaned with water. Gesso sticks really well to plastic as well my flesh when dry, I need a scrub brush to get it off my fingers.

As for finishing I find Liquitex matt varnish, a water base varnish works well. I have also got good results using a wide variety of polyurethane products (like the Minwax mentioned), both water and oiled based, brush and spray.


Some Tips From Scott...

Scott MacPhee (the official miniatures painter for HaT. His work can be seen on his own site - MacPhee's Military Modeling Site) was kind enough to send me some tips on how he paints his (and HaT's) figures...

I start out by removing all flash and washing the figures in a liquid dishwashing detergent to remove the grease. I use wood glue to attach them to 6" wooden rulers I buy at a local crafts store for [US]$.29 each.

I use flat craft acrylics, usually Delta Ceramcoat ([US]$.89 at the craft store) or Apple Barrel Colors ([US]$.49). I start out with a black basecoat, which also acts as a seal.

After it dries I drybrush all the muskets with steel. I then paint all the white bits with a thick coat. The uniform gets a thin coat of a lighter shade then the actual color. This allows the indented parts to blend with the black, producing a shading effect. I do leave a black line underneath breaks in the uniform as a shading effect as well.

I use a burnt sienna color as a base for flesh, then go over later with Testor Model Master Acrylics Skin Tone Warm Tint coloring, leaving eyes, mouth, spaces between fingers, and the edges of the nose in the burnt sienna color. I do all the metal fittings and buttons last.

I seal the paint with Woodland Scenics adhesive (I think someone else has shared this technique - it's highly effective) and then a spray of Testors matt finish. The result is a good looking figure that usually does not shed paint.

I got to be the official HaT painter by sending in the occassional conversion. After a year of that, they asked me if I'd like to join Eric Williamson as an official painter. Eric hasn't been doing much for them lately, although in my opinion his work is much better than mine.


Min Wax

John Leahy, a long time (and one might say hard core) plastic gamer from the States, suggested posting this technique that he say's works remarkably well on plasitcs. To quote John...

One of John's Dipped FiguresA new painting technique that I tried recently involves dipping or brushing your plastic figs with 'Minwax polyshades' polyurethane sealer and stain. It is AWESOME! Makes any ok paint job into an OUTSTANDING one! It really protects the fig too.


Click here for some further comments (and pictures) of John's Dips.

Click here to see how it's done (from Bob Beatie's site)...

And click here for the Kiwi equivalent.

Claudio's Tips

Now onto these tips from Claudio Berni (the webmaster for New Line Design, the makers of 20mm metal figures specifically designed to flesh out plastic 20mm armies). I am quite keen to try his basing idea...

Painting: undercoat with nitro-based spray primer for cars (NOT the filling-in type mind you! ;) fantastic grip on the plastic, very easy to apply and cheap. You can paint over with any water or solvent based color. I've been undercoating with PVA myself for years, and I can tell you this works way better, just try, you won't get back! :)

Basing: use PVA or superglue to position the figures on the base, then use bathroom tiles filler (like polyfilla) kind of stuff for disguise the plastic bases. It's cheap, though, relatively flexible, completely waterproof the bases, easy to apply and paint over and add weight to the elements which is also good.


Please click here for a much more in-depth look at how Claudio Wargames with 20mm Soft Plastic Figures.

Stripping Paint

Speaking of other peoples tips, here's one I had from Brent Regan, here in Christchurch. I've tried it out myself. Works best on acrylics (even with a PVA covering), but doesn't seem to work at all on enamel metalics.

Here's a hot tip (well it is if you don't already know it)

To remove paint from plastic figures soak them in brake fluid. The brake fluid strips the paint & leaves the plasti ouched. Cool eh...:-)


Woodland Scenic's

First up [like this was my first 'outsidd' tip] is this alternative to using PVA from Frank Chadwick picked up by Tony De Lyall off the Volley and Bayonet Discussion Group. I'll post it in it's entirety, to give it a bit of context. By the way, the chap he is speaking about is Tom Milmore of Milmore Models...

There are some beautiful 20mm and 54mm soft plastic soldiers available on the market, but the hang-up in using them has always been painting them. No matter what you do, the paint flakes off, particulalrly from swords and rifle barrels. I've read (and followed) tons of advice. Always wash the figures before painting. Use acrylic paints. Spray dullcoat on before painting to give a solid semi-flexible surface for the paint to adhere to.

All of these help prolong the life of the paint-job consdierably, but the basic paint job is still very delicate and transporting figures almost invariably causes some of the paint to flake off.

Last year at Historicon I talked with a fellow running a big Alamo game using painted soft plastic 54mm figures [Tom Milmore]. The paint job was very nice, and there wasn't a bit of paint missing, even from swords or gun barrels. "Gee," I said, "how do you do it?"

By way of reply he picked up an infantryman and bent the musket back double, then let it go back to its original shape. The paint didn't even crack. He stores his soft plastic soldiers in a shoe box, the way we used to as kids, and the paint still stays on. He told me the trick, but I didn't want to pass it on until I'd tried it myself. I did last weekend, and Son of a Gun! It works! And it doesn't require any wierd materials or industrial processes to make it work. On the off chance that someone on the list may be interested, here goes.

1) Prime the figure pretty much the way you normally would. You will get best results using a tough flexible primer. My source suggested latex exterior house paint. I'm too lazy for that and so used Krylon spray enamel instead.

2) Paint the figure and let it dry overnight.

3) Paint on the fixative. This is the "secret ingredient." Woodland Scenics liquid adhesive. Paint it on good and thick, and then stay with the figure for ten minutes or so. The adhesive is very watery at first, and will puddle up in folds and crevaces. It will dry clear except where it puddles, so just keep brushing it back out of the folds and low spots until it stops puddling.

That's it.

The adhesive is water-soluble, so you can use the same brushes and clean-up procedures as for your acrylic paints. A 16-oz bottle (which I gauge to be roughly a lifetime supply) cost me $5.00 at Jeffrey Allan.

Frank Chadwick

I havn't actually seen any of this stuff myself, but Tony has, and he recons that it is very similar to PVA, with perhaps a bit more solvent mixed in.

And Frank has since replied that artist's matte medium is essentially the same stuff as Woodland Scenics liquid adhesive, and should be available from an art supply store.

Thanks guy's keep the suggestions coming.

Ok, so now that we have the biggest problem for plastic figures sussed, it's onto the next thing...

Next - Cavalry

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