Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Tools of the Trade: Essential Modeling Supplies

Many tools help make this hobby an even more enjoyable one!

This is a modified version of something we wrote for volume 3 of the digital magazine 28. 

The miniature hobby is continually defined by the release of new, exciting miniatures, and most of our budget goes towards purchasing new plastic models to fuel our obsession for converting tiny warriors. An often overlooked, but incredibly important, aspect of this hobby is the tools used to build, convert, and paint these models. Over the years, we have discovered that purposely investing in quality tools can dramatically aid in the creative process and remove a lot of frustration and headaches. In this post, we wanted to talk about some of the most helpful tools we use and why they are important. The article will be split into two sections, the first talking about the tools used to build and convert models, and the second part talking about painting.

Converting and assembling

Hobby knife:

The most important tool for this hobby is, without a doubt, a good knife with disposable blades. It is essential for removing mold-lines and excess plastic from pieces after they are removed from the sprue. While there are many types and brands, we have come to prefer the X-acto #1 Precision Knife, equipped with the #11 Classic Fine Point Blade. The #11 blade has a fine point that is excellent for delicate detail work, and the spine has a flat surface that is good for removing mold lines, eschewing the need for buying a separate mold-line removal tool. There are many types and styles of blades, so it is worth experimenting with different blades to find one that works well for you.

An X-acto Precision Knife with size #11 blade.

It is very important that the blades of the hobby knife are removable. The blades get noticeably duller with continued use (particularly with metal models, but also with plastic and resin), making it wise to change them frequently, often between individual models. You would be amazed at the difference a new blade can make when trimming models, drastically lessening the amount of force and effort needed to cut off mold-lines. Although it might not seem critical, you want the tip of the blade to be intact and straight. After continued use, the tip can break off or bend slightly. This imperfection often causes unintentional scratches on the models you are working on.

As mentioned earlier, the back of the blade can be used to scrape mold-lines off models, rather than cutting them off. To do this, just make smooth, broad strokes with the back of the blade across the piece you are working on, applying constant pressure across the entire surface. Since the back of the blade is dull, it slowly removes material in a uniform fashion, which can be very difficult to achieve using the sharp side of the blade.


Plastic glue/Cement

The second most important element for building and converting miniatures is having good glue. Since most Games Workshop models are plastic, it is essential to have plastic glue. Our favorite, by a large margin, is Tamiya Extra Thin Cement. While most glues require you to apply the adhesive to the individual parts before fitting them together, this plastic cement has a water-like consistency and relies on capillary action to be applied. You simply touch the brush (contained in the lid of the glue bottle) to the seam you want to bond and the cement is sucked in. This is fantastic because it allows you to dry-fit models together and apply the glue without ever “disassembling” the model. This dramatically reduces assembly errors, like the glue setting before you push two pieces together fully.

A Primaris Space Marine next to Cyanoacrylate super glue and Tamiya Extra Thin Cement. 

Cyanoacrylate super glue

Not every model is made of plastic, so it is good to have a cyanoacrylate glue (super glue) in your collection. There are many good brands and options available, so it would behoove you to try a few and see what you like best. Ultimately, we have found most are quite similar and get the job done, but we would suggest you prioritize finding one that has a convenient bottle that holds its shape and is not easily clogged. If we would have to recommend a brand, the one we tend to use is Krazy glue (a North American brand). It creates a strong bond and quickly sets on plastic, metal, and resin. The glue is contained in a small plastic bottle with a long snout for applying the glue. It makes it easy to apply small amounts, and being that the bottle is plastic, it always maintains its shape (making it easier to always add glue consistently). It has a small thumbtack to close the bottle, and the entire bottle then fits inside a hard plastic sheath. This keeps the bottle upright and prevents it from being crushed or otherwise damaged.

Sprue Clippers/nippers:

Since most plastic models are found unassembled on plastic sprues or runners, it is essential to have good clippers to remove each piece. Without one, you need to cut the pieces off directly with a blade, which can easily lead to damaging them, typically by tearing the plastic. While you can get cheap clippers from any hardware store, spending a little extra money to get one designed specifically for miniatures is worth the investment. We primarily use Tamiya 74035 Sharp Pointed Side Cutter. The blades are very thin, allowing you to easily access even tightly packed plastic sprues and clip extremely closely to the plastic piece in question, without tearing the plastic. This substantially reduces the cleanup time on plastic models because you have less of the connecting sprue to trim away.

A Tamiya Sharp Pointed Side Cutter (top) and a Craftsman Diagonal Cutting Pliers (bottom).

It is important to note that the Tamiya Sharp Pointed Side Cutter, and many similar clippers designed for the miniature hobbyist, are strictly for plastic (and resin). If you attempt to cut metal (for pinning or cleaning up a metal model), it will likely deform the blades of the clipper. Because of this, it is a good idea to have cheaper, hardware clippers for dealing with metal. Currently we use a simple Craftsman Diagonal Cutting Pliers. We primarily use it for cutting straight pins for pinning models together (See the section on pin vices below to learn more about pinning).


Another important tool for preparing models is sand paper. While not always required for plastic, it is essential for metal models. After removing mold lines, or any other excess piece of metal/plastic from a model, sanding the area ensures that the surface is smooth and consistent (something that is very difficult to achieve with a knife alone, particularly with metal). This sort of touch-up requires sandpaper with a high grit number (and therefore very fine/small abrading particles), preferably 600 or higher. While sheets of sandpaper are very useful because you can fold them in various shapes to access different parts of a model, recently we have started to use Tamiya Sanding Sponges for more routine sanding. They are a very simple product, just different grit sandpaper (going up to 1500 grit) attached to a thin sponge. The sponge provides additional support when sanding and prevents it from quickly deteriorating and tearing. They come in large squares, which can be cut down into small pieces for ease of use. It is worth noting that files can often be used for a similar effect, though we prefer to use a combination of a hobby knife and sandpaper, because of the added level of control and subtlety.

Tamiya sanding sponges.

Pin vise:

As we have become more and more experienced modelers, we have come to make extensive use of pinning in our models. The process of pinning entails drilling a hole into two parts that are to be joined, and inserting a "pin" to strengthen the connection. This imparts extra stability that glue alone could not provide. Without pinning, many models’ joints are too fragile and break off during even careful gaming. It can also be very useful to repair the hafts or pommels of weapons. We commonly use stainless steel dress pins with a diameter of 1/16’’. Pins of this diameter work well for most applications on models, whether it is pinning on an arm or replacing the shaft of a spear. We prefer using pins over paper clips because they are more uniform in shape and diameter and tend to not be electroplated (which can flake off after being cut, and create a less sturdy connection).

A Tamiya Fine Pin Vise D with a selection of drill bits.

Razor saw:

Although a hobby knife allows you to cut and splice pieces together, if you want to produce fine, straight cuts and remove and reuse miniscule pieces of plastic from a part, a fine razor saw is essential. Razor saws like JLC Libor Kopeček Universal Razor blade saw or Tamiya fine craft saws are incredibly useful because the saw blades are only around 0.15mm thick, resulting in an incredibly fine cut that removes very little plastic material from the piece that is being cut. This is extremely helpful for doing delicate conversions, like down-sizing Games Workshop firearms or removing details without damaging any of the pieces. We cannot stress how useful it is to be able to cut things precisely and consistently.

A JLC Libor Kopeček Universal Razor blade.

Sculpting tools:

Due to space limitations, this section is relatively brief. If you are interested in reading more about sculpting, we would encourage you to read the article we wrote in volume 2 of 28: An Introduction to Sculpting.


When sculpting, lubricating your hands and sculpting tools is very important because all two-part modeling putties have a sticky characteristic when mixed. While this is helpful, making the putty stick better to what you are sculpting on, it also causes problems because it sticks to your fingers, sculpting tools, and almost anything it touches. Thankfully, you can solve this issue by applying a lubricant to both your hands and tools, creating a barrier between your tools/hands and the putty itself. While water works nicely for this in many cases (like with green stuff), it is not suitable for some putties, because they begin to dissolve and lose rigidity (Milliput and Apoxie Sculpt). Hand lotion (Nivea creme, vaseline, petroleum jelly, etc.) works very well as a lubricant, because it is slow to dry and affords a long working time.

Nivea creme is great for preventing modeling putty from sticking to your tools.

Colour Shapers

Green stuff is a two part modeling putty that can be used for all manner of tasks, from simple things like filling gaps, to sculpting entire models. Using it can be very intimidating; it has taken us many years to get even somewhat proficient with the material. While there is no substitute for practicing with the material, various tools can make the process a lot easier. The most important of them are Color/clay shapers. These tools are essentially paint brushes with the bristles replaced with a silicone head of various sizes and shapes. They are tremendously helpful for creating smooth surfaces and seamless transitions between the putty and actual model.

Royal Sovereign Colour Shapers: Top: Angle chisel point; Bottom: Taper point.

After identifying an area to greenstuff, apply a liberal amount of the putty to the surface. In a single motion, forcefully drag the color shaper over the greenstuff and over the area you wish to fill. This should evenly fill the area. Any excess greenstuff can be removed via X-acto knife.

After applying an excess amount of greenstuff to the area you want to fill/reshape, you can simply use the colour shapers to flatten out the putty in one uniform motion, easily creating a smooth surface and transition with the model. The greenstuff is much less prone to sticking to the material of the shapers than an X-acto knife or your fingers. Despite this, I always make sure to wet the tip of the shapers before touching greenstuff. The colour shapers come in various shapes and sizes, but I have found that taper points, angle chisels, and flat chisels work the best for my purposes (sizes ranging from from 0-6).


Another element that can go a long way towards improving your modeling potential and results is working in an area with sufficient lighting. Although it may seem like an extravagance, good lighting makes a tremendous difference. Once you invest in a high quality, natural light, you will never want to go back, and it is difficult to work effectively on models without it.

For years, we used a Daylight Triple Bright Lamp, but recently switched to an updated model that replaces the tube bulbs with LEDs (Lumi Task Lamp). Both produce a soft, natural white light that does not distort color or cast strong shadows. It easily illuminates even the largest hobby desk, and is mounted on a highly posable retractable arm, which allows it to be adjusted to best suit any task. The upgrade from traditional bulbs to LEDs does not make a huge difference in day-to-day use, but they have a much longer lifespan, removing the need to change burnt out bulbs (something that happens quite frequently on the Triple Bright Lamp). A good light also helps substantially when taking photos of your models.


Brass tubing

We spend a lot of time converting more realistic firearms, often scaling down 40k weapons substantially. Doing this is difficult, but made easier by having brass tubing of various sizes. This tubing is rigid and uniform, perfect for creating gun barrels and other elements of a firearm. Albion Alloys sells excellent sets of “slide fit” tubing, that consists of tubing of decreasing diameters that interlock with one another. Interlocking tubing gives you a lot more options when using the brass because each works in conjunction with one another. The tubing can be a little challenging to work with, but we have found that putting a pin or drill bit inside the tubing before cutting it prevents the tubing from being crushed.

Various sizes of brass tubing, many far thinner than the barrels of Games Workshop firearms.

A note on Games Workshop tools:

We would suggest avoiding Games Workshop’s tools, as they are overpriced, and generally inferior to those of other companies that specialize in scale models, like Tamiya. Games Workshop’s mold line remover, while well made, is cumbersome and does not allow you to reach small areas, something that the back of a hobby knife will have no problem with. Their pin vise is also, in our minds, somewhat out of touch with the scale of the miniature hobby. This is admittedly foreshadowed by the tool’s name, the Citadel Drill. Instead of being equipped to drill fine holes, its smallest bit size is 1.0mm (far larger than what we typically work with). Furthermore, it cannot hold anything larger than 2.0mm, making a device like Tamyia’s Fine Pin Vise, which can range from 0.1-3.2mm, a better investment.


The art of painting miniatures is a huge topic, and one we cannot even scratch the surface in this article. Like with the previous section, looking at the tools for assembling and converting models, in this section we will touch briefly on most of the major types of paints used in the miniature hobby and how their properties affect their use. Before talking about the different types of paint, I think it is worthwhile to define the basic ingredients within a paint: Pigment, Binder, Solvent, and Additives.

Pigments are the solid substance that is dispersed throughout the paint that provides the colour and opacity.

Binders are resin polymers that hold the pigment particles in place and allow them to be evenly distributed throughout the mixture. They are the primary component of paints and aid in the paint adhering to whatever surface it is applied to. They also contribute to the flexibility, durability, and finish (matte, satin, gloss) of the paint.

Solvents are the medium where all of the other components are dispersed (pigment,binder, additives). The solvent is usually water or an organic solvent, whichever the other ingredients are able to dissolve into. The evaporation rate of the solvent is an important attribute of the paint, since evaporation of the solvent has to occur to allow the paint to solidify.

Additives are additional substances that are added in small amounts to affect the properties of the paint. There are many kinds, and they are rarely openly disclosed by miniature paint manufacturers; they can be things like flow control agents (improve flow), defoamers, emulsifiers, and texturizers (impart texture).

Water-based Acrylics:

As the name suggests, water-based acrylics use water as a solvent, while the pigment is suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion. They can be thinned with water, although many brands have proprietary thinners that improve their properties and prevent the pigment from separating when thinned too much (Lahmian medium- Citadel; Airbrush thinner or Flow improver- Vallejo). Acrylic paints are quite versatile, being good for both a brush and the airbrush, while also being non-toxic and essentially odorless. Water-based acrylic paints dry quite quickly. This can be nice, since you do not need to wait long between coats, but it can make blending and creating gradients difficult, when compared to other paints. All of these properties make water-based acrylics excellent for the miniature hobby. They are safe and easy to use, and have a huge diversity of quality brands and wide color ranges. All of Games Workhop’s Citadel paints are water-based acrylics. Vallejo, Scale 75, AMMO by Mig Jimenez, Warcolours, and Pro Acryl are also other good options, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

We use water-based acrylics almost exclusively for miniature painting, only using oils and enamels for weathering. We primarily use Vallejo acrylics, due to their convenient dropper bottles and their extensive range of historical and military colors, and Scale75 paints, due to their incredibly matte finish.

A selection of water-based acrylic paints. From left to right: Vallejo Model Air, Vallejo Model Color, Scale75, and Citadel Layer paint.

Alcohol-based Acrylics:

While not very common in the miniature gaming community, alcohol-based acrylic, such as Tamiya Acrylics, are very common in the scale modeling community. Instead of using water, they use alcohol as a solvent, which changes their properties significantly. Notably, their drying time is shorter than water-based acrylics (the solvent, alcohol, evaporates more rapidly than water), making them more difficult to use for brush painting. They are excellent for airbrushing, provided they are diluted with an appropriate thinner. While this can be water, it reduces their performance considerably, so I would recommend using the thinner design specifically for the paint in question. Importantly, due to the alcohol, they are not as safe as their water-based counterpart and have a strong smell. Due to this, it is important to work with them in a well-ventilated area, as well as using a respirator and gloves. As mentioned earlier, Tamiya Acrylics fall into this category, along with Mr. Hobby Aqueous Hobby Color paints.


Oil paints have been used for hundreds of years, and are often associated with canvas painting, but are also very useful in miniature painting. Unlike acrylics, which use a resin binder, oil paints typically use linseed oil, which results in a long drying time. If using artist grade oil paints, it is helpful to put the paint on a piece of cardboard to drain the excess oil, speeding up the drying time. Recently, companies such as Abteilung 502 and AMMO by Mig Jimenez, have designed paints with the miniature hobbyist in mind, which contain less linseed oil and dry more rapidly. Because of their oil base, they need to be thinned in a spirit solvent, such as turpentine or white spirits. While the oil paints themselves are odorless and safe, the thinners are toxic and require caution. Some of this can be prevented by purchasing more expensive odorless thinners, which each paint line has. It is worth noting that oil paints are not suitable for the airbrush, and need to be thinned considerably to be used (which makes a single tube often last for years). After being applied, you can use a brush dipped in thinner to manipulate the paint, removing excess or blending the paint. This makes them excellent for creating gradients. Oil paints are used extensively in scale modeling, primarily for weathering techniques like creating washes, filters, and creating streaking effects. The aforementioned Abteilung 502 and AMMO by Mig Jimenez (Oilbrushers) are excellent oil paints, but more traditional artist oil paints, like Winsor & Newton and Daler Rowney, are also suitable.

A selection of Abteilung 502 oil paints.


Enamels paints typically use an alkyd binder and a petroleum-based solvent, and can therefore be classified as an oil paint. Therefore, like oil paints, they need to be thinned with white spirits or odorless thinner. It is worth noting that many enamel thinners can damage certain plastics if too much is applied, making the plastic become brittle. Unlike oil paints, enamels are inherently thin and can be airbrushed. Enamels have a long drying time because they need to cure (chemical process where the binder polymerizes, forming a durable, hard shell). This property makes them ideal for weathering, since they can easily be reactivated, even after they have dried, with the application of a little odorless thinner or white spirits, allowing you to blend the paint and remove mistakes. Enamels are toxic and have a strong odor, making good ventilation, and a respirator when airbrushing, a necessity. Companies like Humbrol and Tamiya have an extensive line of enamel paints. AMMO by Mig Jimenez specializes in enamel-based weathering products, which can be used much like oil paints.


Inks are a little different from the other paints we have described earlier, since there is not a definitive definition of an “ink,” different companies make products that vary substantially. Furthermore, many inks use liquid dyes rather than pigments to produce the colour, making them not really qualify as a paint. Ultimately, an ink is a liquid medium that has high colour saturation (or pigment density) and is thinner than traditional paints. This high pigment content allows you to dilute the ink substantially, without losing its intensity. This is useful for creating washes or mixing with other paints, thinning them without the need for water and thereby retaining the properties of the paint while increasing its saturation. For the same reason, they are also good for creating glazes, simply adding water until they are transparent. Many inks are also good for airbrushing because they are already thin enough to be used directly. Daler Rowney or Liquitex acrylic inks are great for this purpose. Due to their fine pigment size, they are really nice for achieving smooth zenithal highlights. Many are also transparent, which allows you to achieve interesting effects, since the underlying color will still be visible. It is worth noting that many inks dry with a glossy finish, which can be eliminated with a matte varnish or light coat of matte medium before continuing to paint. Scale75 Inktensity, Vallejo, Privateer Press P3, Daler Rowney, and Liquitex all make good inks.

Daler Rowney ink, next to a Games Workshop Shade and Contrast paint.

A note on Citadel Shades and Contrast paints:

Although not advertised as “inks,” Citadel shades have a lot of the same properties, including the low viscosity (thinness) and transparency. They are not as pigmented as traditional inks and have a number of additional additives to make them easy to use directly from the pot (provided they are well mixed). Being acrylic washes, they dry quickly and if you are not careful, can result in pooling and tidemarks. Additionally, if diluted too much with water, Citadel shades have a tendency to break down and result in uneven coats and spotting. Therefore, we would recommend you dilute shades with a dedicated medium like Lahmian Medium. Contrast paints are even more similar to traditional inks than Shades. Like Shades, they are thin and transparent, but unlike shades, they are extremely color saturated. This gives them most of the beneficial properties of inks: they can be diluted and maintain intensity, they work well for creating glazes, and can be airbrushed. Like the Shades, when heavily diluting Contrast paints, it is beneficial to use Contrast Medium (or Lahmian Medium), since it helps them maintain their base properties.


Before beginning to paint, it is wise to coat the model in a layer of primer. The primer coats the unpainted surface of the model, creating a unified surface for subsequent paint to adhere to. It is important that the primer coat is thin, so that it does not obscure detail, since you will be layering additional paint on the model. This makes an airbrush ideal for applying primer, since you can easily apply thin layers. If an airbrush is not available, rattle can or spray primers (aerosol-based) are also a good choice, since you can also achieve thin layers. It is important to spray models in short bursts, never getting too far from the model, lest the paint partially dry before reaching the model, resulting in grainy texture. We also recommend not using cheap automotive primers that were not designed with scale models in mind. These are typically formulated to be applied in a single coat, and will often obscure details. Citadel Model Primer is a good rattle can option that works well on both metal and plastic models and is available in a variety of colors that match their other paints. Tamiya Surface Primer Spray is legendary in the scale and Gundam model communities for its ability to produce incredibly thin coats of primer, preserving fine details like panel lines. The primer is lacquer-based, and is therefore incredibly durable, making it ideal for metal and plastic miniatures. Our favorite primer is Vallejo Surface primer. It is ideal for airbrushing if thinned slightly (with water or Vallejo’s airbrush thinner), creating durable thin coats of primer. The primer is also good for brush painting, but should be applied in a few layers. The bottles are large and relatively cheap, lasting for hundreds of models, particularly since it is not in an aerosol can, which often wastes paint.


Paint is nothing if you do not have a good brush to apply it to your miniatures. There are a huge number of different kinds of artist paint brushes, from Flat, to Fan, to Pointed Round. There are a few basic components of a brush: bristles, ferrule, and handle.

The Bristles are the hairs or filaments bundled up to make the brush to hold paint.

The Ferrule is the metal band that connects the bristles to the handle of the brush.

The Handle is the wooden or plastic rod allowing you to easily hold the brush.

The basic anatomy of a paint brush.

Brush care and maintenance

With proper care and handling, paint brushes can last for years. It might sound obvious, but you never let paint dry on a brush. Dried paint can damage the bristles and reduce their flexibility. Dried paint may also cause the bristles of a brush to split, ruining its point and drastically reducing the functionality. Additionally you should avoid getting paint on the ferrule of your paint brushes. Since the ferrule holds the bristles on the brush in place, any paint that gets trapped in the ferrule will eventually disrupt the bristles. Because of this, it is often a good idea to have a separate brush for mixing paint or removing it from a container. In addition to rinsing the paint off of a brush, there are a variety of brush soaps available that can be used to clean your brushes that can extend the life of your brushes substantially, Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver being a favorite of ours.

A note on buying quality tools:

We have stated often throughout this article that spending a little additional money on high quality tools can make the hobby process far easier and more enjoyable. You will have noticed by now that many of the tools on this list are made by Tamiya. This is not an accident, although it is worth noting that we are not sponsored by Tamiya in any way. They make excellent tools that were specifically created with the miniature hobbyist in mind. Importantly, they are also readily available at hobby shops and online vendors.


We hope this article has been a helpful one, giving you some new tools to try or paints to consider. We want to stress that we covered a wide array of topics and tools, and as a result were only able to touch briefly on each. There is a lot more to learn and would encourage you to try them yourselves, as it is a great way to learn and push your craft further! Ultimately, we think that investing in quality tools is never a mistake, and that it will save you time and frustration with your hobby projects. Finally, if you would like to learn more about tools, paint, and hobby techniques, I would encourage you to visit the blogs Damaged by Design and Tangible Day, which were invaluable for writing the painting section of this article.


  1. Very useful article, and I agree about Tamiya tools, they are all excellent and worth the extra money. Meng and Mr Hobby also make very good tools, though Meng are even more expensive again!

    1. I have not tried either of those companies, but have head good things! Meng makes some great scale model kits too.