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Painting 54mm Horses

A Step-by-Step Process

Ever since we posted the "ATKM techniques of painting toy soldiers" on our site, I've been asked how we prepare and paint our horses. After a long delay, that page is now here. I hope you find this step-by-stepper useful. Feel free to email with any questions or tips you have found useful.

-- Ken Cliffe

As you may know, the horses we offer with our cavalry and mounted officers are cast in plastic, and come separate from base and rider (both of which are metal). We made this choice to keep costs and therefore prices as low as possible, and to keep 54mm mounted figures en masse lightweight.

I'm working on a set of AWI Queen's Hussars here, but focus mostly on the horses. The first thing you need to do is wash them in dish or hand soap. This removes any oils used to release the pieces from the mold during casting. Always wash plastic figures before priming. This step isn't necessary for metal figures; they're never oiled in the casting process.

I have also inspected these for flash and plastic burrs. The easiest way to remove those is to hit them quickly with a flame from a cigarette lighter. The excess plastic melts quickly. Just be careful of nearby desirable parts, and don't burn yourself!

I also clean the metal bases of pieces that got into air vents in the mold. Flush cutters are ideal for that. If you're attaching your horses to our wood bases, some metal bases can be trimmed or filed on the sides to avoid a slight overhang.

Before you begin priming or painting, dry fit your riders on their horses. Sometimes riders' inner legs can do to be filed down to achieve a good fit. Their appearance won't be compromised; that side of the riders' legs disappears against the horse.

You may have noticed that our plastic horses don't come with reins molded on. You can use them as is, or attach reins with the metal ones we provide -- the long metal strips with pins at the ends.

Each horse needs holes created where the reins will be mounted. I use a Dremel tool with a fine drill bit to drill a hole at a horse's bit (at each corner of its mouth). You could accomplish the same by pushing a high-gauge nail or a sewing needle into the same spots. Just don't go all the way through the horse's head!

Assemble the horses to their bases. I haven't found any pinning necessary here. A pool of superglue is squeezed into the hoof indentations on each base. The horse is stood in them, and a rubber band wrapped around everything to hold things in place until the glue dries. A bead of water added at each hoof speeds drying. In my experience, the plastic of these horses bonds very well to metal; my cavalry sees a lot of use in ATKM demo games at conventions.

Ignore the reins shown in this picture. These were from a previous process we recommended, which has been replaced by our metal reins.

Priming horses. I cheat when I prime horses. I coat them thoroughly with camo spray paint from DIY stores. I like khaki. It's a light foundation for subsequent washes, and is perfectly matte. This makes for great brown horses. If you want one or more to be gray, prime them white instead. Believe it or not, a khaki undercoat works fine for black horses!

Again, ignore the type of reins shown here.

I recommend priming the metal reins black before attaching them to their horses. That makes them easier to paint later, along with the rest of the halter and brifle.

Bend each rein at the middle into a "U" shape, with the pins pointing inward. The reins can also be bent downward as if they droop somewhat.

Dry fit a metal rein on each horse and bend the metal until you get it to sit naturally. I like reins to fall just shy of the saddle so they won't interfere with a rider's positioning later. Once you like the position of a rein, apply a bead of superglue at each pinhole and at spots where the reins contact the horse's body, which creates extra stability.
For the "prancing" horse, I have found it useful to cut a notch in the mane where it meets the saddle. The metal rein can then fit in that notch and be out of the rider's way. I use a scalpel to make the cut, but an Xacto knife works just as well. Just cut carefully and away from your hands!

Painting a horse is a matter of washes. The first is for the animal's overall color. In this case I went with a dark brown like Delta Ceramcoat's "Dark Burnt Umber." Get it all over everything. I tend to use three different body colors for cavalry units, really dark brown and two lighter shades. If a bugler needs a gray horse, I paint white over white primer, and follow up with a wash like Cadet Gray.

The consistency of paint versus water in the wash is a matter of preference and experience. You just have to try it to find out what works well. Here's the blob of paint I squeezed, and the spot where it got blended with water off the brush.


For black horses, use a thin wash of black over the animal. The khaki undercoat darkens considerably, but is still apparent as highlights.

Next up are faces, legs, manes and tails. I apply a darker wash over each of these, careful not to get it on neighboring horseflesh. For a dark-brown horse, I wash the aforementioned with black.


I confess when I paint horses I like them to be present, but not a distraction from their riders, so I go with somewhat muted and blended colors. In this case, for horses with lighter shades of flesh, I wash their legs, faces, manes and tails with the darkest color I used on other horses in the set. That makes them all look cohesive as a group. You can see the effect in the background here.


I wash legs and faces to create the effect of different textures of hair on a horse's body. You may decide that's not necessary.

Socks, blazes, stars and other markings. It's easy to go crazy with these, but to my earlier point about trying to keep horses subdued, I go easy on them. They're done with a slightly diluted wash of white paint applied a little messily to emulate nature. The wash allows some of the underlying dark to show through, so the white hair isn't a stark, unnatural blob.


Don't make every horse the same with these. Do front legs on some horses, back on others, and leave some horses without any markings. Blazes can be thick or thin, long or short, or simply a spot. Google horse images to imitate what you like.

Now it's time to blacken all the gear on each horse. I default to black tack. The earlier step of priming the metal reins black really pays off here. All you have do now is touch up where other colors have gotten on them.

This is also when I paint hooves. I variously use a dark tan, muddy gray or dark color for these. Again, Google it!

Here's where I apply a base coat of paint to the saddle and all the gear, careful to come to the edges and stop to create the black line effect.


Also notice that the eyes are blackened in. I use a pen to do this, but a fine-tipped brush works too. How you do eyes is your call, but personally I haaaaate eyes done with a white to them. Horses don't have human eyes! Whites usually only show when a horse is panicked. If I highlight them at all, I might put a dot of white or light gray at the back-top of an eye to emulate light reflecting off it.


Notice the silver hardware on the tack.

We're almost done. I now come back with lighter shades over the gear to emulate highlights. A little goes a long way here. Be sure to leave the black and darker shades exposed under your highlights. You don't have to add this step, but I think it rounds out horses nicely.

Here's a fully painted horse with metal reins attached. I was painting this horse for a set of British 17th Light Dragoons, which is why the blanket looks different from that used for the Queen's Hussars.

Time to attach riders to horses. You can glue them straight on with a bead of superglue along a rider's tender areas.


I pin riders to horses for added durability. Drill a hole in each rider's underside with a Dremel or other drill. (Yes, snicker.) I insert floral wire about 16 gauge, glue it with superglue, and cut it to about 1/4-inch exposed. Lower a rider into place on a horse and eyeball his position from the side and front to see where he'll fit well. Once you have that spot, press the rider down so the exposed end of the wire makes a mark on the saddle. Now counter-drill on that spot.


It's wise to dry fit everything together to make sure it looks right. You may have to bend the wire slightly or drill another hole. Once that looks good, separate the parts, run a bead of glue on the pin and the rider's underside and inner thigh, and put everything together again. Don't worry if some glue is left exposed. It'll disappear after you spray-seal your troop.

Here are my results. I have left the bases black per the client's request, but now is when I would normally flock them in the same manner as in our painting toy soldiers tutorial.

Once again, this image shows a type of rein that we no longer offer. The metal ones you have are far easier to work with, and more durable. Promise!

Despite all the verbiage on this page, the process for prepping and painting horses really isn't complicated. Painting horses sort of bores me, so I've developed these techniques to get it done fast yet still look good (to my eye, anyway).

I hope this page is helpful!

Products on this website are for adult collectors. Products are cast in white metal and are not for children under the age of 14. Items also pose a choking hazard.


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