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Painting 54mm Toy Soldiers

A Step-by-Step Process

In the few years that ATKM has been in business, we’ve been trying to usher in a resurgence of interest in 54mm wargaming. A lot of guys seem to like the size, charm and eye candy of the figures, but they’re accustomed to smaller figures – half the size and smaller. So one of the most common questions I get is what painting techniques do I use on 54s? My answer is universally the same ones I’d use on 28s, but that’s rather general.

So I decided to create this log of my painting process for a single unit of figures. I chose a battalion of War of 1812 Baltimore militia. In particular because I had already painted some sample figures for business purposes and needed to round out a complete unit for use in “ATKM” wargames. But I also chose them because those few fully painted figures could be used as “final examples” throughout the process. 

The following series of images and words illustrates the various steps I take in preparing and painting toy soldiers. Everyone uses slightly different approaches. Mine have evolved over years in an effort to achieve a particular look in the least amount of time. Feel free to shoot me any questions you have.

-- Ken Cliffe

Here are the figures all cleaned, assembled and based. Cleaning involved some flush cutters to remove excess metal from vents in the mold. An emery board for sanding down burrs and mold lines, and a wood file for making sure the undersides of bases were smooth. I also used a round needle file to get into tight places that needed a little tidying up, or where some flash might have lurked.

Since our War of 1812 figures come with separate heads, they need to be attached. I use superglue, but 5-minute epoxe would work too. I test-fit a head first. If that looks good and the head-plug doesn’t need trimming, I knead up some green stuff or plumber’s putty and drop a small ball in the neck hole. Then I drop a bead of superglue in the hole and quickly insert the head. The putty and glue super-activate together and create a hands-free bond almost immediately.


There are sometimes gaps left at the neck where the neck-hole is bigger than the head-plug. Most times these can be filled with some white/Elmers/PVA glue applied with a fine-pointed tool like a tooth pick. The glue self-levels into the cracks and seals them. When a gap is too wide for a couple of glue applications to work well, I knead up some putty and use the same tool to push it into the crack. Wetting the tool with water keeps it from sticking to the putty. I sometimes apply some white glue over the putty, just to create a smooth finish.

A pet peeve of mine is seeing the line of a figure’s metal base on its larger stand. To avoid that, I draw a big, fat bead of white glue around the base where it meets the wood. (We at ATKM use 3mm-thick Litko bases for all our figures). I let that dry and then do it again. That usually creates a gradated transition from metal to wood that will disappear altogether when the base is later painted and flocked.
Priming. Here you see the figures primed. I have experimented with a lot of different primers, mostly sprays. First off, I like white because it makes paints applied later pop. No shades lost due to a dark undercoat. Most recently I have experimented with brush-on gesso, the material used by fine-art painters to prep their canvases. It works great on miniatures. Paint it on thick and it shrinks up right to the metal, making for a solid surface that resist the fingernail test. (It doesn’t scratch off unless you really try.) Dried gesso also has “teeth.” Paint bonds to its slightly porous surface for a smooth finish. Gesso also comes in gray and black for lovers of those undercoat covers. If you’re a spray-primer fan, I recommend Rustoleum Clean Metal Primer. It has the best coverage and most resilience of all spray paints that I've tried.

The painting has begun! I always start with the largest area first, which is almost always the figures’ jackets. In this case it’s “Dolphin Gray” as a base coat for what will be blue jackets. As you can see, I use craftstore acrylics. Delta Ceramcoat is my favorite brand. It has the best coverage and is still affordable. This light blue-gray color will make for highlights when I apply a dark-blue wash to the coats. You can see the size of the brush I used here, and I just slop it on everything near the coats. Don’t worry about painting inside the lines at this early stage.

Here are the figures after a Midnight Blue wash over their coats. A wash is a combination of paint and water applied to run into the low areas of the figures, making them dark while high areas remain lighter. There’s no way to communicate the ratio of paint-to-water to use in a wash. You just have to find your happy place through trial and error. I recommend mixing each brushload separately on a plate or mixing tray. Don’t try to create a whole bottle of wash. It’ll almost universally come out too thin and runny. I used the same brush as shown previously.

Now I’ve started the next largest areas, the figures’ trousers. I want a mix of trouser colors for these militia troops, so have applied a few different base shades, from white to light tan (Sandstone) to light gray (Drizzle Gray). These will be the basis for appropriate washes to create yet more highlights and lowlights.

A pair of pics show the figures’ trousers getting washed. Here you can see the results. In each case, the wash color is considerably darker than the base coat.

Here you see each of the color dollops I used, and the areas where water and paint were mixed to get the right consistency. Notice my fancy tulip-dish paint palette. Real men paint with tulip palettes!

A couple steps have been taken here. With the large areas (trousers and jackets) finished, I follow with my next usual step, which is to paint outward from the core of the figure. That means moving to the extremities and gear. Before we get to hands and head, we need to paint collar and cuffs, in this case red. I like Delta Ceramcoat Tomato Spice for its good coverage over even dark colors like Midnight Blue. I don’t especially wash or highlight collars and cuffs; they tend to themselves with a single coat.

Otherwise, I have painted all straps and gear black. This is a faux black undercoat that will be the basis for blacklining to come. This technique lets me get the best of white priming and its bright colors combined with black priming and its foundation for line work. A little black paint applied beyond the edges of belts and gear is okay; all the better to create outlines later. Now’s also the time to paint shoes. I just hit them with black and cover bases as well to get a foundation for flocking techniques to come.

And here are some of the results. I have painted belts, haversacks, canteens and flesh tones. Notice how the belts and haversacks come close to covering the black foundation, but leave a line for contrast against neighboring colors. Wavering lies will be cleaned up later. Canteens have been given a base of Drizzle Gray that will get a wash to darken it up. Flesh has a base of Wild Rice that will also receive a wash for contrasting highs and lows. The final product begins to take shape at this point. Also here are the two detail brushes I use. I tend to like round, fine-point bristles for this kind of work. I’d tell you their size, but the numbers have been worn off.

Here we are with the canteens washed in Delta’s Liberty Blue, and skintones washed in Raw Sienna. The latter can look very orange when it goes on, but that shade mellows as the rest of the figures’ details are completed. When I wash skin, I also do hair with Sienna as a foundation for a subsequent darker wash. The wash technique used here is the same as for jackets and trousers, just applied with a smaller brush to keep the paint (mostly) within the lines. Slip-ups will be corrected with some final blacklining.

Once again, several small steps have been taken as we near completion. I washed the figures’ hair using three different shades of brown to get variety within the battalion. It’s hard to see but the canteen strap has been done in dark brown with black left on all sides. I have also painted the brim of the hat black. I stopped at the brim because the figures’ turbans need to be red, and having done the turbans first would have made the brims hard to get at. If there were no turban, I would have “cut in” with black all the way around the shakos. Muskets have also been given a base coat of black to create quick and easy blacklines when the muskets are painted fully in a subsequent step. Notice how I keep moving toward the outward extremes of the figures; hats and muskets (items in hand) are among the last to get painted, because they’re most accessible.

Here you see the muskets finished, with brown applied to the stocks, silver to the hardware, and white to the belts. I have left thin black lines between these areas for definition. The figures’ turbans and plumes are now painted as well. I used Bright Red as a base coat, which I’ll subsequently wash to get high and lowlights.

The soldiers’ turbans and plumes have been washed with Delta’s Cinnamon, offering some depth. The black on the figures’ shakos is also brushed in, allowing me to trim up the red parts with smooth lines. (Indeed, the black is still wet!) I have also put oversized black dots on all buttons as a base for silver to come.

Now we’re down to the final touches. In this shot, I’ve painted the buttons and the belt clasp on the figures’ chest silver. The black base applied under all these details really makes them pop. I have also added a little highlight to the figures’ haversacks – some streaks of Delta Sandstone on top of the Khaki that is their prevailing color. This approach is not drybrushing, but a more blatant way of creating texture. It works best for wargame figures and troops seen at a distance; it’s rather artificial when examined up close. The technique plays on the eye’s tendency to blend colors at a distance.

And now the last of the blacklining. When you’re done painting, some black lines look a little ragged and need to be evened out, while others still need to be created wholecloth. At this stage I use archiving pens, specifically Micron size 005 and 01. These are tiny nibs that apply an even flow of ink. (While they last anyway. I get about 3-4 units’ worth of lining out of a single pen before its dry or the nib is worn to nothing.) These pens are available in the scrapbook section of craft stores. As archiving pens, the ink won’t bleed when you varnish your figures.

The 01 pen is good for general purpose. I reserve 005 for necklines and eyes, where a fine point is needed. How to do eyes? Everyone has a preference, but I don’t give my troops whites. I draw a semicircle for the upper eyelid, add a pupil-dot below it, and an eyebrow arching above. Done. It’s easy to add whites, though. The best way I’ve found is just a tiny pin-prink of white paint next to a pupil. That’s enough to create the effect of an eyeball without getting the dreaded fried-egg or terrified look.

Now that the painting and blacklining is all done, it’s time to give the figures a protective coating so all that work stands up to handling. After a lot of experimentation, I have arrived at the following process: Dip each figure in Future floor polish, and then spray them with a clear matte spray paint. In fact, like George Costanza, I double-dip. Once into the Future, let that dry, and then again. I’ve poured my Future supply into a lidded plastic cup with a wide mouth. I hold the base of each figure and immerse him headfirst, and let the excess drain off. If I can’t get the legs in, I brush Future on them. The result is super shiny, but very protective. If you want the shiny-toy-soldier look, stop here!

And here’s the unit completely finished. Re-joining the 10 figures you’ve seen in these pics are the two soldiers and the officer and color bearer I had done previously as marketing samples. They’re now all matte-sprayed to take the shine off the Future varnish. I use Krylon Matte Sealer in multiple light coats, each allowed to dry before the next. It’s best to use the spray in the midday sun. Avoid high humidity or it can create a frosted effect!

For basing, I paint the edges of the bases black. Once that’s dry, I apply a heavy coat of brown paint to the topside of each base and dip it into a coffee can of flocking I keep. The can is a mix of railroad type flock, combined with sand and dried garden soil. I even have some fine asphalt debris in there from my roof! Any excess is shaken off. When that’s dry, I use a spray-bottle mix of white glue and water to wet the flock. When that dries the grit is rock hard.

I photograph my figures outside, ideally under cloudy skies or indirect sunlight. The wife’s digital camera has a pretty good macro effect, but every pic needs a little adjusting in Photoshop, whether for brightness, sharpness or color.


And that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this step-by-step discussion of how I paint 54mm figures. Let me know if you have any questions or if you have suggestions or tips of your own!

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