Thursday, April 26, 2012

How to Sculpt Miniatures 1: Best tools for sculpting miniatures

This How to Sculpt Miniatures series is my attempt to demystify the idea of sculpting your own miniatures. It seems that more and more people are taking cracks at it these days as the means of production are getting so very cheap. Whether you take it on the old fashioned way, with rubber and resin and lots of painstaking sculpting, or via the Quick N Dirty route of 3D CAD/Printing, the Internet has offered the instructions and made cheap the tools required to make your own models. This has lead to third-party miniature companies growing like mushrooms, increasing the diversity of 28mm scale models out there to a degree that was never previously imagined.

Still, no matter how many head-swap bits are retailed, there is going to come a time when you have an awesome idea for a miniature, and there might not be a compatible, ready-made bit. You're going to have to make it yourself. I speak from experience when I say this is a daunting prospect. I am not a Sculptor. I was not professionally trained, and I dropped out of Art after the tenth grade on the belief that I wasn't talented enough to continue. Anything I know about sculpting, I learned by doing, and I learned it trying to make better models. All I can tell you is what I have learned, but it is my hope that through some simple articles, I might be able to impart all the basic knowledge you need to get started at sculpting. After  that, it's all up to how much you practice :)

I wasn't sure whether to start this series with Tools or Materials, but I've elected to go with Tools. In this article, I'm going to give examples of the kinds of tools I use along with photos of each one.

UPDATE: I've just polished off the video versions of these tutorials, and you'll find the first video, all about tools, below. The video is best consumed as an illustration to this article, so I'd still recommend reviewing both. ENJOY!

Sculpting miniatures becomes much easier once you have some proper tools to work with, but that isn't to say that you should head out to your local art shop and buy up every sculpting tool they have on hand. I have been rather disappointed to find that the majority of the tools in my local art shops are for sculpting clay, and they are nowhere near fine enough for the kind of work you want to do when sculpting miniatures.

Here is a look at all the tools that I currently have in my sculpting toolbox:
...however, anyone who shows you that many tools is clearly trying to make up for something. Though I have all of those tools, the reality is that I keep the following tools in a separate pencil case, and they are my go-to tools of choice:

If the Tyranids actually showed up, and we had to flee this planet in a hurry, I could pare that essential set down to the following:
And, we're I forced to evacuate my interstellar refuge ship when it got overrun with genestealers, and I could only take a single tool into my escape pod with me, I would choose this one:
All this is meant to illustrate that, no matter what I tell you and what tools I recommend to use for various projects, your own preference and style will eventually narrow things down to one or two tools that you absolutely can't do without. For me, the tool I can't do without is this spoon one. Unfortunately, I can't give you the full name for it because I never bought it; I swiped it from Brother Pink way back in the day when he was working clay and I was making my start with epoxy putty. When forced to research it last year when I was hoping to buy one for someone else, I discovered that it is a dental tool called an "elevator" or some such nonsense. The set of wax-cutting tools I bought off eBay for cheap came with something similar...
...but it's just not the same. I've kept my eye open for this tool in surplus stores stocking dental tools, but I've still been unable to find another one.

Though these are the tools I rely on, the reality is that you can sculpt with anything. I once heard a story of someone whose favourite sculpting tool was a Howling Banshee power sword. Over the years, Hydra has gifted me several tools that were everyday household items taped to the end of old paintbrushes. For example, he uses two nails, filed down to different levels, in a way very similar to how I use my ball burnishers.
He also fond of making his Tyranids even gribblier by giving them multiple eyes, and one time he brought me an empty pen casing because it's flared-out end was the perfect thing for stamping these eyes. As I result, I now collect the ends of pens and pencils in different diameters for stamping things like eyes.
Another thing to know about sculpting tools is that you should always be on the lookout for your next favourite tool. Upon his most recent visit to Canada, Hydra was preaching the wonders of the silicon/rubber clay shapers. He was so taken with them, and so adamant that I should use them, that when he left the country, he left behind one of his shapers, and it has very quickly become one of my favourite tools.
The soft, smooth end of the tool makes it perfect for sculpting fleshy bits on the Haemonculus Coven Grotesques and Wracks as you can slowly work in indentations without leaving any sharp lines from a metal tool. The shaper is also great for smoothing areas as it is part firm and part pliant, meaning no annoying lines or marks like you sometimes get from metal tools.

So, though we've been over how sculpting tools are all a matter of personal taste, if you wanted my recommendation for a good place to start, I would suggest a cheap (likely Made in China) set of wax carving tools, like the following ones I got for super cheap off eBay:
That set includes all kinds of clones of tools that are sold individually elsewhere, like, for example, the Games Workshop Sculpting Tool:

In fact, I'm not even sure that is a GW sculpting tool. It may be a much cheaper version of the same tool that I procured from a sculpture supply place here in Toronto. The GW tool is a good tool, so if you've already got one, that's great; however, I just wanted to demonstrate that you can get all 12 of those tools online for about the same price as the single GW one. The metal work on them is a little rough, but not in a way that is going to significantly mar your sculpting.

This type of wax carving set will, honestly, do you, but if you have a few more bucks (which is likely as those sets run about $15US max), and you're willing to shell out for three more tools, I'd recommend two different sizes of double-ended ball burnishers (also called embossing tools), and a smaller one of these new-fangled silicon clay shapers. The toolkit would wind up looking a bit like this...
...and it shouldn't run you much more than $30US.

Which, I think, pretty much sums things up as far as tools are concerned. I hope this has been useful, and if there is anything I did not cover in enough detail or something you have questions about, please feel free to ask.

In my next "How to Sculpt Miniatures" article, I'm planning to focus on the materials: things like epoxies or polymer clays and how to get the most out of them/make them last longer and respond better to your influence.

Next: How To Sculpt Miniatures 2: How to Use Epoxy Putty, Greenstuff, Apoxie Sculpt


  1. Mr Pink, I'd like to pick your brain; why is it more fun to model (sculpt) than it is to paint?

  2. Nice. How about other things like Vaseline? Not a tool you hold in your hand, but.... =D

    Can't wait for more.

  3. Anonymous, that's a damn good question, and I'm not sure I have a suitable response. I'm a passable painter, but it has never gotten me as excited as the creation of wholly new creatures/ideas. That being said, painting and I have sort of rekindled our flame of late, so I'd like to get some more of my Nids painted up if I find the time.

    Long story short, to each his own. I love modeling/sculpting more than painting, but Moloch, for example, is bigger into painting than modeling, I believe.

    As for Vaseline, I don't use it myself, but I know what you're getting at, and I'll definitely be touching on that in my next article.

    1. im making a board game and im sculpting the pieces myself using your tips and others as well.

  4. The tool I use the most is the ball point thingy, followed by the dentist pick looking things. I still need to expand my arsenal so I shall look for some of those tools mentioned here.

  5. Like I said, KrewL, the cheapest place to get a set of tools is, likely, eBay. From your description of the tools you uses, it sounds like you're hurting for a broad, flat tool for spreading putty around (like the spoon on I use, which you should be able to find a clone of in cheapo wax carving kits like the one I showed).

  6. These are excellent posts Lord Pink!
    I've started to get into sculpting a little more recently with the dawn of my Ad-Mech army, and I wish I'd done so sooner.
    I'd really started to get 40k fatigue, but the creation of my own, unique models has really put a boot up my backside again!

    Thanks for the tips on some of these tools; so far everything I've done has been using the GW tool, a wedge shaped clay shaper (amazing for cloth) and a pot of Nivea hand cream.
    Oh, and recently a severed pen end for stamping lenses.

    I will now be looking to purchase myself a proper tool set.

  7. Dusty! I'm elated to hear that these articles have inspired you out of your 40K fatigue. I can certainly empathize with the idea that models you converted yourself are more motivating.

    I don't supposed you'd be willing to post a photo of your amazing-for-cloth, wedge clay shaper.

  8. Of course!

    Egads! I had no idea I'd damaged my desk so much.

  9. I started using clay shapers recently myself. As far as I'm concerned those bad boys are worth their weight in gold. Most of the issues I had with green stuff sculpting dissapeared when I picked up my first wedge shaped one. The things I can do with the other shapes I've picked up since are just icing on the cake!

  10. They are pretty damn hot, Outremer. I actually need to find more time to do more sculpting so I can endeavour to get even more out of them.

  11. I've got to admit, Pinky, when you brought up the explosion of sculptors and sculpting resources at the start, I was a wee bit disappointed that it was all about 3rd party GW bit sellers. But given your interests and audience I can't grumble too much. ;)

    I'll grumble more about the fact that I haven't visited enough to notice these How To Sculpt articles before now. Sincere apologies! They're very well written, displayed and explained. I did a lot of nodding along as I read them. Would you mind if I added them to the lists at Mini Sculpture?

    Also, I can offer a wee bit of info. Your favourite 'elevator' tool is a Beale wax carver. The GW tool is in the shape of a LeCron. (And any similar rough-edged tool from a 12-pack can't be as bad as the playmobil-style thing GW sells these days. A little sanding and polishing will help the former, at least!) Take a look at this Mini Sculpture topic for more:

  12. There's a surgical instrument called a Freer elevator. I'm pretty sure your favorite instrument is a Freer elevator. We use them to "elevate" finger nails for removal.

    1. Oh amazing! I just googled it, and it looks about right, but the problem is that I've encountered a number of tools like this over the years that are almost identical. However, none of them had the pleasant, rounded spoon end that mine has. All the others seem to be shoddy copies :(

      However, if you've found one, and it's working for you, then more power to you!

  13. Nice video! And this post is very helpful and thank you for explaining the use of each sculpture supply tools, looking for next video. Thank you for sharing. I'm so happy.

    1. Thank you! I've been meaning to make more videos for a while now since I actually shot all of these about four years ago, then released them in chunks. The issue is it takes a PILE of work to put them together :P