Tutorial: How to prepare soft plastic miniatures

by David

Hi all,

David here. In this little tutorial I will give you a glimpse into my approach of preparing soft plastic figures for painting.

I bet that most people who have tried this before will agree that this can be super frustrating. When I was just starting out painting 1/72 figs, I read a lot of "tips" online on how to deal with this and/or short-cut the clean-up, including putting the mini in the freezer, which would harden the plastic such that the normal techniques would work. To be honest: at least for me, none of these "secret tips" really worked. Ultimately, the only thing for me that really worked is the following approach. Much of this comes from practice and the good old "trial and error" approach. But: to give kudos where they're due, I learned very much from my friend and constant source of inspiration, Udo Spreng, who I consider the best 1/72 painter I know. In fact, he is the reason that I paint 1/72 minis almost exclusively, these days. If you want to check out his work or say "Hi" to him, visit him on his Facebook site.

A note on scale

I will be using 1/72 minis as examples (of course). Not only is this "my scale", but much that's on the market in that scale is made of soft plastic. However, what I write down here should be true and useful for soft plastic minis of all scales (e.g. board game minis), even though I guess that some imperfections such as imperfect castings or mold lines are likely to be less problematic and the steps to take care of them are likely to be easier in larger scales.

What you need

 

  1. a soft plastic figure to prepare (maybe a couple of figures, in case something goes wrong...)
  2. magnifying glasses (not necessary, but recommended)
  3. a clipper
  4. a scalpell with a new (!) blade
  5. scissors
  6. a new (!) shaving blade
  7. glue primer (not necessary, but recommended)
  8. paint primer

A warning

This tutorial includes handling knives, blades and scalpels, which can be dangerous. As with all things involving sharp things, be careful and do not cut yourself! Using them and this guide safely is your responsibility.

Definitions

Before I start, I want to introduce four bits of nomenclature to make sure we're on the same page when I am talking about the issues that will arise when preparing soft plastic minis for painting.

Incomplete casting: by this I mean that some parts of the mini are not casted as they should be because during the casting, the plastic material did not fill the whole mold. You see this issue mainly with thin pieces protruding from the main body of the mini, such as guns, bayonets, swords, spears etc:

A Confederate infantryman (Italeri), the hat has been cast incompletely

Undercuts: those can be real trouble. What I mean by "undercut" is the presence of plastic material where actually there should be a hole. This occurs because the molds cannot be constructed with the hole at the right place without making it impossible to remove the figure from the mold. See the example in the following picture:

A modern US infantryman (Revell), the space between the arm and the rifle should be empty, cleaning this up would require major work including some resculpting.

Mold lines: all of us know them, they occur on every material: they are the usually fine lines that arise during casting where the two parts of the casting mold meet. They can be really nasty for many 1/72 soft-plastic figures. First, because the figures are so small, which makes the mold lines rather large in relation to the size of the mini. Second, because of the soft plastic material, which does not allow you to use the same tools and techniques you would use with resin, metal or hard plastic. Third: they are often found in extremely unfortunate places - see the example below.

An Australian WWII soldier (Airfix). Here you see the mold line running along the whole side of the figure; and smack through the face (in addition, the cast is a bit distorted). This will be almost impossible to clean up.

Flash: flash is basically an extended mold line, where some casting material was squeezed through a thin slit between the molds, such that a thin sheet of plastic forms, usually between such as arms and body (see the following pic). Flash is not a big proble and it is easily removed - however, since flash, the main problem then is likely to be to remove the mold line. Again, an example:

A Ratman from Caesar's fantasy line.
A lot of flash along the arm and club, as well as at the knee.

Step 0: Select your miniature

Besides the obvious considerations that go into selecting a particular mini based on taste and what you want to portray, I strongly suggest you put some considerations into minimizing the hassle. Check for three things when picking a mini (corresponding to the imperfections defined above):

  • pick a mini that is complete (does not suffeer from "incomplete casting")
  • unless you want to spend a lot of time and effort to remove superfluous material and re-sculpt from scratch, pick a mini without undercuts.
  • pick a mini with the smallest amount of mold lines, and check whether existing mold lines run along parts that make them (almost) impossible to remove without destroying important parts of the mini.

In addition, when you play around with different soft plastic figures, you will notice that different companies use different materials, with some using softer and others slightly harder materials. My suggestion is to check out different makers to see which ones you like best and which you find easier to prepare. I like the rather hard material that Italeri uses for their more recent sets very much, but also find the ultra-soft material ESCI used for their sets relatively easy to work with (ESCI sadly is no more and their stuff long oop, but you can still get your hands on some sets via the Web - or maybe you still have them stashed somewhere in that little toy-soldier box from your childhood days).

This is the mini I will be using as a running example for the tutorial. The mini I will be using is a French Knight from the 100 Years War from the extremely nice Zvezda set. I will actually not paint him as a French knight, but rather as Brun Waldendorp, the mayor of the Hanseatic City of Lübeck during the Siege of Helsingborg, 1369. Anyway, here's the mini I will be using:




Different than most other knights in the box, this mini only came once in the whole set, so I could not pic the best casting. But, that was really not necessary, as this one is already very nice out of the box, it is complete and has only few mold lines, and no flash to speak of. Moreover, the mini has only a very small piece of an undercut, which will greatly speed up the preparation process.

Frontside: almost no moldlines to see here; face is nice and clearly cast...

... but, o boy, look at that face and chin-neck-shoulder transition. This is a nasty, but little, undercut. Also the moldline along the sides of the mini, where the two parts of the mold connect, is nicely visible, here.


Finally, as is typical for Zvezda minis, the figure is cast from a relatively hard and forgivable plastic, which will make some of the steps easier. Besides the fact that I really like the pose and want to use the mini for a vignette, I picked a mini for this tutorial that is relatively easy to clean up on purpose, to hammer home the idea to take care in picking a complete mini without undercuts and manageable mold lines. I promise to prepare an example of a not-so-nice mini and show you how I deal with incompleteness and undercuts in a future article.

Step 1: Cut off the base (optional)

Depending on what you want to do with the mini, you might want to cut off the base. I usually do that, but depending on where you will put the mini (or if do not want the hassle of pinning the mini later), you might skip that. To cut off the base, carefully use your clippers to cut off the base to the left and right of the feet. Then, use your scalpel carefully to cut off the superfluous material in thin strips. Do that patiently and in multiple steps, getting closer to the feet with every cut.

Snip-snip, off with that base - first using the clippers for the larger chunks...

... then the scalpel in small steps to cut down to the soles of his feet. For good measure, I also cut off that wimpy plastic standard.

Step 2: Deal with undercuts

Ideally, you avoid this step by making a wise selection in Step 0. But if you can't, you need to deal with existing undercuts. Depending on the size of the "problem", this will be a lot of effort, which will include a serious amount of cutting away material and, most likely, some re-sculpting of stuff covered by the superfluous pieces of plastic. Our mini does have that "tiny" undercut problem on the mini's right face, chin and neck portion, which is what I tackled next.

Started to chop away the superfluous plastic under the chin, removing the block of with a brand-new, sharp scalpel blade ...

... I continue to cut away, very carefully, cut by thin cut, the plastic under his chin...


... almost done; just a little bit of cleaning up to do.



A little trick for the finish: Once you have cut away all the superflous plastic, the area you've been working on is likely to be rough. What I like to do, then, is prime the area with soft plastic primer (see below) and then use a toothpick to cover the rough spots with a little bit of super-glue. I do that a couple of times, each time letting the previous layer dry, until the area is as nice and smooth as possible without covering detail.


After the super-glue treatment.


Step 3: Remove flash and mold lines

If your figure has flash, just carefully cut it away with a sharp scalpel down to the mold line. This should be a quick task and you should be able to focus on the remaining mold lines in a few minutes. This mini didn't have flash, so we can jump right to the next step.


If you don't have undercuts, removing mold lines will be by far the most time-consuming task in preparing a soft plastic mini. It is not uncommon for me to spend 2 hours (or more) cleaning up and preparing a single soft plastic 1/72 figure before I am happy with it. The main problem with mold lines in soft plastic is that you can't use the same techniques you are used to when preparing hard plastic, metal or resin figures. For those materials what you would do is carefully scraping the material by putting the knife-blade perpendicular to the surface. Or you would use a file/sandpaper to carefully file away the mold line (for more info on these techniques, check Roman's excellent tutorial on preparing plastic figures).

The problem: If you used that same, trusted techniques on a soft plastic figure, you would not remove the mold line. Instead the knife blade will "jump" over the surface and not really cut into the material. At best, the knife or file would create ripples in the plastic, leaving tiny flakes or strands of soft plastic standing out:

An alternative way to deal with mold lines or other small imperfections in hard plastic (polystyrene) figures is to use polystyrene cement, which dissolves the plastic. However, because none of the normal glues we tend to have around (cyano/super glue, PVA glue, plastic cement) dissolves the soft plastic, this also is not a solution. In fact, if you attempt to glue a soft plastic figure, you're often pretty much screwed as the normal glues tend not to bond well with the surface (I might deal with that in that future instalment on removing undercuts/resculpting if there is interest).

Instead, I found that the only effective way to treat mold lines in soft plastic is to cut them away, very carefully, by holding the blade horizontally to the surface and to slice the blade along the surface of the mini:

On the blade, there was a thin mold line (I picked ths one as the technique can be shown best at the blade, but I used the same technique elsewhere at the mini)...
  
... you can see the tiny flake of plastic a little to the left of the razor blade. Also note that I cut the original razor blade in half and chopped off bits at the sides for better handling.



Here again, it shows how important it is to select the "right" mini in Step 0. Because you have to cut along the surface, a moldline that runs along finely detailed parts of the mini such as the face, will likely end in you cutting off or mutilating important parts. Consider the next pic. The moldline runs right through the middle of the mini's face and in the attempt to remove it chances are that you're going to cut of parts of the nose or the lips. It's not that it will be completely impossible to avoid this kind of mutilation, but it will be a pain.

Look at this mess... No, not the colors (I "painted" this 1/76 Matchbox Japanese soldier when I was a kid, using permanent markers). Behold that monstrous mold line.


But even when mold lines are not along these super-painful areas, removing them takes a lot of concentration and a steady hand. The two most important pieces of advice I can give you here are (1) to use fresh blades and (2) to make use of different types of blades.

As for the former, you always should use new blades when you start on a new soft plastic mini project. In fact, and depending on how extensively you need to work on the mini, you might want to use more than one new blade on the mini - they need to be super-sharp. If you have the feeling that the blade gets dull, when it doesn't slide through the plastic like a hot knife through butter, change it for a new blade.

[Here, I would love to show you a pic of a dull blade,
but, alas, you can't really see the dullness,
you feel it though, when the blade "jumps" or
does not slide through the plastic without effort.]

As for different types of blades: make use of the variety of scalpel blades available. I personally use No 15 blades for surgical scalpel handles (you can get both, blades and the handle, at Ebay, for instance) for most tasks; they are rather small and have both a rounded part which helps with cutting in curved areas, and a straight part that can be used for cutting moldlines along longer and straighter pieces.



I also found it extremely helpful to use these old-school cheap single-use razor blades. Not only are they cheap alternatives to (straight-blade) scalpels; you can also use scissors to cut them to desired shapes and once you notice them getting dull, just cut off a part of the blade and you have a new, pristine and sharp blade.

The razor blades I use for removing mold lines along straight parts of the mini (like the sword blade, above). The nice thing is, you can break them in half (CAREFUL!!!) and cut away parts of the blades with a sturdy scissors or with the cutter.

In addition to that, there is very little extra advice I can give here, but to be very careful and pay a lot of attention. Make small cuts, wear magnifying glasses if you have them, and be patient. If you feel you're losing concentration, rest your eyes, fingers and brain in between; or take a longer rest and continue the next day. Doing this well requires a lot of time and patience (of course, depending on how well you chosen your mini in Step 0). Also, of course, practice helps a lot - so, before you dive into cutting up that super-nice and well-selected mini, practice with a couple of spare figures.

Step 4: Wash the mini

After all that handling, the mini surely is covered with a lot of grease from your fingers in addition to any residues from production. Since color tends not to stick well on the soft plastic anyway, I suggest you wash the mini in warm soapy water and to rinse it afterwards with warm clear water. I carefully dry the mini after rinsing with soft tissue paper, and let it dry completely before I prime the mini.

The mayor of Lübeck, taking a warm, soapy bath. During the bath, I gave him a nice, careful rub with the toothbrush.

Step 5: Prime the mini

This is actually two steps. The first is optional, but I like to do it: I bought some special primer for soft plastic materials, which I like to brush on the mini in one to three very thin layers. There are super-expensive ones on the market, but you will find cheaper alternatives on the web as well; I paid about 3 Euros. This stuff is actually meant to increase the surface adhesion of the soft plastic to be able to glue the material, but the primer will also increase the adhesion of the paint primer in the next step by slightly roughening up the surface. I also found that the primer removes some super small micro-imperfections that remained after mold line removal.

Using the primer for soft-plastic on the mini (be careful, this is nasty stuff... smells like the poison it is)

After this, the mini is ready for the actual color-priming. For that, I always use the normal rattle-can spray primers. I have not tried airbrush primers yet, but I guess they will work just as well. In priming, I use the normal 2k priming method explained by Roman in this classic and extremely useful tutorial. Here are pictures of the primed mini, ready for painting:

Front...

... back ...

And the angle to see the work one on the face. The detail that is missing due to the undercut will have to be dealt with by some little freehand-magic during the painting. But that's another story.

Some last words...

Well, gals and guys, that's it for now. Ah, almost. There is one final bit of advice. I spoke a lot about how much of a pain it can be to prepare a soft plastic figure and how much you need to concentrate to do it well. After doing this for some time now, however, I have really grown to like it and it gives me a strange bit of calm and satisfaction to slowly work my way through soft plastic mold lines. Maybe this little article will help you to find joy in it as well. In any way, if you need to work with soft plastic, do not let yourself discouraged if you make mistakes and if it takes very long. Pick your mini well, use new blades and be patient. It's worth it.

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have questions, or if you tried the approach and how it worked out for you. Next to sharing, commenting is also caring ;-)

So long! Talk to you soon.

Best,
David


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