How-to: Tools of minifig customization – Confessions of a customizer (Part II)

In our first guest post from Jasbrick, we learned about how to get started with minifig customization. Now, let’s hear what he has to say about the tools of the trade.

Now that you have a concept and have gone as far as you can by conventional means it is time to bring in the tools. The range of customisation techniques mean that even with limited tools you can get some pretty impressive results without breaking the bank.

Painting and re-colouring

RAF 100th Steamsuit SquadronI use painting to add details or re-colour parts that would not otherwise be possible.

For example the following minifig fits the steampunk genre with its almost rust / bronze coloured metallic effect which would have been impossible with the original bright white Buzz Lightyear original scheme.

Those of you who have everything you need but with parts that are not quite in the colour you want have two options: Dyeing or Painting.

Dyeing using vinyl dyes works well with parts that you want to change completely, but is limited in colours available and achieving a particular tone can be tricky.

Painting can offer more flexibility in colour choice and coverage, however the biggest downside is that painting plastic is difficult. I see examples every day of great custom concepts that are ruined by the quality of the painting. As painting is a favourite technique of mine I will go into much more detail on this and how to avoid creating a dull, streaked and unconvincing paintjob.

The key tools you need for painting are shown in the image below:

Painting Equipment

  1. Spray undercoat (essential for smooth painting on a plastic surface);
  2. Games Workshop Foundation paints (high opacity paints that give a good coverage with a single coat;
  3. Games Workshop Normal paints (good range and availability);
  4. Privateer Press P3 paints (slightly better quality than GW paint in my opinion, smaller range of colours and poor availability);
  5. Vallejo Paint (Excellent range of paints that also has colour range that is named after military colour schemes e.g. Lluftwaffe Blue);
  6. My device for holding helmets / heads for painting;
  7. Games Workshop brushes of various sizes.

The most crucial of all is the spray primer, as painting a smooth coat onto plastic is virtually impossible without it. Spray primer covers the part with a very thin layer of paint which is much more likely to bond with the plastic and not scratch off easily. Subsequent coats of paint adhere to this base and settle without streaks or chipping. So if you want a minifig helmet to be a nice shade of dark blue to match your plan for a Judge Dredd figure then you need to spray it before applying the perfect paint colour.

Your choice of paints is also important and I suggest you experiment with different types before applying to a Lego part. Characteristics like price, coverage, mixing, drying time, finish and colour choice all need to be considered. I personally use the Games Workshop model paint range as they score highly on all of the above criteria (except price). Games Workshop also have a great range of inks for washing and foundation paints for good coverage. Other good ranges are Vallejo and Privateer Press P3. All of these sell starter sets which contain a good selection of paints and brushes to get you started.

With paint brushes it is not just about size but how you use them that counts… You will need to have good quality model brushes in three main sizes: fine detail, standard and basecoat. Working out the right brush for the job is essential as a small brush will not cover a large area as smoothly as a basecoat brush. As with most things brush control improves with practice and it is advisable to test your new skills on something less precious than your rare minifig part. The following is an example of fine brush work:

Luchador: British Bulldog

This wrestler’s mask was painted freehand with a fine detail brush in multiple layers.

Jasbrick Joker V2

The joker here has face details that were painted on freehand and the hair which was primed and then painted with a dark green colour using a basecoat brush.

Painting detailed designs requires not only brush control but paint control as well. Another obvious problem in some custom work is the thickness of paint application and poor layering. Experience in handling paint can be shortcut by the use of a tool known as a Wet Palette. These are so easy to put together and it is definitely going to improve your paintwork. Quite simply all you need is a small tray, about the size of an 8 x 16 brick, and some absorbent cloth or paper towel. Put the cloth in the tray and then add water to it until the cloth is completely damp… That is it, now all you need to do is transfer your paint to the wet palette before painting on the part. The damp cloth waters down the paint slightly, keeps the paint from drying and also allows you to mix with more control.

There are a whole host of tutorials on the internet for how to create a wet palette and how to paint, however I hope to bring more Lego-specific tutorials to you in the near future.

An important part of painting is the final finish. Paint applied properly will be more resilient than you think possible. However, to seal the deal you can use a varnish to protect your work. Varnishes can be matt or gloss, with the latter being particularly useful for returning a shine comparable to pure unadulterated plastic.

8 comments on “How-to: Tools of minifig customization – Confessions of a customizer (Part II)

  1. daemon23

    I’m a hobbyist mini painter and thought I might recommend some alternatives.

    First off, you can find good brushes at just about any art store, don’t think you need to go with the GW/Privateer brushes, though those may give you a good idea on what the various bristle lengths and shapes do for you and guide your future decisions. Something to know that I didn’t: sizes range from large (10) to small (0) to tiny (000, or 3/0, and below), but they are only relative for the manufacturer and sometimes just the line of brushes. One line’s 0 size is not necessarily the same size as another’s.

    There are a number of other paint choices out there. GW/Citadel makes decent quality paints, and their metallics are better than any others right now. P3 is really good quality for the most part, but be wary of their metallics as they had manufacturing problems early and some of these bad pots of paint are still out there. Vallejo has a few lines: Model Color, Game Color, and Model Air. Game Color was made to match the colors from GW from a decade ago, and has slightly different characteristics from the Model Color line. Model Air is designed for airbrushing, but could be used with a small brush as well. Reaper (out of Texas) has Pro Series and Master Series paints; Master Series are quite good and has many colors not found in GW, P3, or Vallejo lines. Coat d’Arms and Army Painter also make lines of mini paints; the former was the original supplier for GW/Citadel, and the latter is new and I haven’t heard anything about them.

    Personally, I’ve found that no one company is the best at everything, but I do favor P3; the only problem I have with their selection is it is missing colors I want. Vallejo is very good quality, and would be my second choice, but random colors of theirs seem to have poor quality issues; their greens and bone are especially bad for no apparent reason. Reaper Master Series is pretty close to tied with Vallejo, though some of their colors are less vibrant, but that might be what you want. GW used to be pretty mediocre for a while (especially with the hard plastic hex-shaped bottles with the screw-top lids) but have improved, and like I said, their metallics are the best I’ve seen. I don’t have much experience with the newer GW products, but I’ve read they’re about to double the number of colors in the line sometime this year.

  2. Catsy

    Great stuff from start to finish, Jas. I would also strongly recommend taking a look at this discussion on Geoshift’s photostream. People keep adding questions and answers to it over time and at this point there’s a lot of good information there.

    I’m assuming you chose the rock parts for your jig in order to make it easy and comfortable to grip. That makes sense. But it’s not an especially common pair of parts and not one I’d personally care to get paint on. My usual jig base consists of a 4×4 plate with a 2×2 round brick. What I attach to it depends on what I’m painting–usually some kind of bar sticking out of the 2×2 round brick with a stud attached to the end, like the now-common #61184; that’s great for heads, helmets, and single weapons where you can stick the pommel or bottom of the pistol grip into the hollow stud.

    For spray painting arms and weapons I have a six-inch length of 3mm styrene rod that I stick into the 2×2 round brick; it looks kind of like a tree with a bunch of yellow hands and U-clips attached to it. For torsos and legs I just use a long 1×16 brick.

    Bravo for putting this article together. It’s really great to see the customization community starting to get some visibility and respect, and I can’t think of anyone better to write about it.

  3. JasBrick

    Very useful additions guys…

    daemon23, GW is my preference due to availability and colour range but P3 is definitely closing fast on both those counts, and the P3 paints are closer to GW’s foundation paints when it comes to coverage. I would definitely recommend that you use what you find to be the most fitting for your own style.

    Catsy, thanks my friend. The Geoshift info is interesting indeed.

    I use the boulder piece (and quite a few other secret jig designs) as it gives me far superior control over the piece being painted. When attempting fine detail it helps to be 100% confident that the piece will move in your hand exactly as expected and with no risk of being dropped or slipping.

    Hopefully if you guys keep up the interest level in these articles we can move onto some more advanced subjects. Thanks for the positivity guys!

  4. Catsy

    Regarding paints, I usually prefer Vallejo (VGC and VMC) but I also have some GW and even cheap craft paints. Sometimes these come in handy and fill a niche, but I really like the increased pigment and smoothness of most of the Vallejo colors. Their dropper bottles are also superior to the old GW cheap flip-top caps in nearly every respect.

    Ultimately though, your examples nicely demonstrate that which brand of paint you choose is far less important than good technique and tools.

  5. JasBrick

    One important thing that I forgot to mention above is:

    “Don’t get carried away” or putting it another way “Sometimes less is more”

    What I mean by this is that just because you can paint something or have found a new technique that you like don’t abuse it. I try hard to avoid using the same technique too often if possible, with the result being that I have to add more and more techniques to my range.

    With painting I see a lot of people using inks on everything, in some cases to the detriment of the finished piece, and camo schemes, blood stains, battle damage. I am a great advocate of allowing people to do what they like rather than what people tell them to do… however please try a little variety.

    I have fallen into a huge number of pitfalls during my time as a customiser, so if I could give you one piece of advice that I would have benefited from myself it would be “Sometimes less is more”.

  6. daemon23

    I too prefer the dropper bottles to paint pots, especially for consistently mixing colors on the fly. Empty nalgene or gutta dropper bottles are less than a buck a pop, so pick up a bunch for paints and decant the pots into them. Mixing beads in the bottles helps a bit, too; I use clear plastic beads, but if you want to get fancy, Reaper sells (or used to sell) metal mixing beads (and includes one in each of their paints).

Comments are closed.