Friday, October 12, 2007

An Examination of the Plastic "Mystique" and Myths

Well, they say if you never throw anything away, it will always come in handy some day. At least that's what I tell my Wife when she wants one of the storage units cleaned out. This particular "find" I had forgotten about, but I'm thrilled that I found it and can share it with you here.
Three years ago, when I first started thinking about getting back into the hobby and acquiring my AWI collection, I wanted to see 4 things: (1) Could I still paint anything that I would accept?, (2) Whether I accepted it or not, would the quality be acceptable among the figures I was seeing in shops and mags and on web sites?, (3) Would I be satisfied with the level of detail that I could achieve with plastics?, and (4) How seriously should I take all of the various "myths" that surrounded plastics, the so-called "secret formula's" and "special methods" and their overall durability. Therefore I decided to paint the two units shown as an extreme test. So extreme that I forgot about them! But, that actually serves my point here.
In the first picture you see an impending firefight between a British Fusilier battalion and a skirmishing unit of the "dreaded Colonial Rifleman". You know, the ones that won the War single handed by hiding and hitting at least 4 British with every deadly round fired? Well, here's the details, I even wrote them down!
The Continental Militia is made up of relatively newer ESCI, Accurate and IMEX figures; reasonably good plastic by our standards. Because the plastic was somewhat firmer and the figures better detailed, I spray primed them with a paint sold in automotive DIY stores for touching up vinyl tops and interiors; in other words, made for flexible vinyl surfaces. I then painted them with water-based craft paints from a local chain store (Michael's or Hobby Lobby, forget which), black-lined them with my Rapidiograph pen (really OSW here), and then topped them off after drying with my usual oil-based (Grumbacher or Windsor & Newton) washes made up of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna thinned with turpentine. When completely dry (a couple of days at least), I coated them with a brushed on coat of Mod Podge (thinned PVA), and when that was dry I sprayed them with plain old gloss Krylon. No real "magic" except for the vinyl primer and the PVA.
The British Fusilier battalion is, of course, made up of our old beloved "greasy" Airfix British Grenadiers, except for the officer, who is an Accurate figure with an Airfix head. These, because I was concerned about the plastic involved and the age of the figures already, were given a brush coat of Mod Podge, then a coat of brushed-on Liquitex acrylic as a primer. They were then painted with the same craft paints, black-lined in the same way, oil washed in the same way, coated with the same PVA, and sprayed with the same Krylon clear varnish. Of course, both units were washed in warm water and a grease-cutting dish soap before anything was done to get rid of any residual mold release agents.
After they were completed, I handled these figures myself at least once a week for about two months; just got them out of the box, set them up, moved them around, changed formation, etc. I then lent them to a friend who was gaming in the AWI period and let him use them for two large games before he returned them. After that they sat around my painting room in their box for several months before I mistakenly moved them to an outside storage building located in North Central Texas. That was roughly two and one-half years ago. During that time we have had an average of two ice storms a year, one really cold spell that saw a low of 14 degrees during a 12 day period of temps below freezing, one really hot summer with a recorded high of 107 degrees during a period of 16 days with temps over 100, and just the general "bizarreness" that is North Texas weather. And please bear in mind, these were all outside temps. During the worst cold spells I doubt that the temperature ever rose above freezing in my storage unit, and during the hottest periods, it was probably 5 to 10 degrees hotter by the end of the day in the confined building. These figures would have expanded, contracted, probably had condensation on them, and been exposed to extremes that few of us would ever subject our figures to. The result?
They are fine. The muskets are still flexible without paint flaking, there are no signs of deterioration in the plastic (and I actually bent some of the Airfix figures a little at the legs, half expecting at least one to snap), the gloss still looks good, basically they are "playable" today. In fact, and I find this interesting, I based these figures on high-quality coated artist's illustration board, a material that I have used for bases for years. And my base work is all oil-based and not inclined to shrinkage. However, either because of the weather extremes, dampness or the lack of figure weight to stabilize them, the bases have warped, as you can see in the last picture of the British. Since I am now using steel bases, and since I don't expect to subject the fine lads of M'Uedail to these same harsh conditions, I am confident that they will hold up even better. In fact, these have held up so well, and I am pleased enough with the paint jobs, that I may touch up and re-base the British with new standards as a converged or "special" Grenadier unit in the service of M'Uedails Irish Brigade or my Guards Brigade.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Well I'm obviously extremely cruel to my figures for one (have to work on that if I expect the lads to be loyal). The other conclusion that I choose to draw is that there really is no "one" right way to paint and keep plastic figures. If you're comfortable using Gesso or tube acrylic or PVA or "Fusion", or some hybrid combination of two or more of these, they will probably work. I do think that the "final" seal coat is important. I'm not sure it matters whether its brushed PVA, Pledge acrylic, artist's varnish, Krylon or whatever. I will probably continue to use a coat of Mod Podge, mainly because I already have it and I know it works, and then gloss my figures with Krylon. Until I actually see one flake off or break, I'm not going to worry about it. Heck, I can't count the number of times I've had to try and repair broken bayonets and muskets, or broken off wire javelins or lances, and touch up my metal troops over the years.
I would appreciate some critical feedback on the paint jobs, and not to stroke my ego. These were the first figures that I had painted since 1990 and I think they turned out fairly well. I honestly think I can do better now, and even better when I get back into a "rhythm", but only time will tell. I will, of course, post all updates here and on M'Uedails site.
Sir William


MiniWargamer said...


I think for any type of historical gaming these are quite nice. I even know what a Rapidograph pen is (having used them myself many ages ago). I have painted a lot of 15s and did not put the same level of detail on them you did with the ones shown here. My 25s from SSM and RSM have the same level of detail work done on them and I think that in OSW the black lining is what makes them stand out.

Bluebear Jeff said...

For those not in the US, the temperature extremes mentioned equate to a low of -10 C. and the low 40s for the highs.

I agree that the black lining makes a big difference and I really like the striking colors of the British unit.

-- Jeff

Snickering Corpses said...

Eventually, I'm going to be getting my own AWI figures organized up into units, as I've acquired a very large lot of them a month or two back, all Airfix, thas has brought me up to 136 of the Airfix British Grenadiers and over 300 of the Airfix Washington's Army. I just have to settle in and sort them all out into proper units. About 1/4 of them are already painted from the ones that I received. Maybe a dozen of my own were actually painted before I lost interest, back in the day, and got into WW2 instead.

Bill McHenry said...

Snickering Corpses,

Please contact me offline at, I have a proposed Airfix trade for you.


Ed Youngstrom said...


You are in Texas, but I don't believe you are part of the LSHM club.

I have proposed a state-wide "big battalion" game at MillenniumCon 2008. If you care to see the details, drop me a line at ed_youngstrom at yahoo dot com.


Fire at Will said...

Nice work Bill, I admit to being very cavalier in my preparation in the past and have seen figures lose their paint from around their ankles and muskets over the year. But it has been only a quick paint job to fix. I've not noticed the problem to the same extent in the last 20 years as I always now wash the figures first and modern acrylics adhere better than the old enamels.


Frankfurter said...

I like the craft, liquid acrylics, and find that Delta Cream Coat tends to have the colors i like under sensible labels ... like Raw Sienna rather "honeycomb golden whatever".
Recently, looking for yellow ochre, and Wal Mart doesn't carry Delta Cream Coat ( Hobby Lobby does) I had to settle for "School Bus Yellow".
In acrylics, the watchword is to be very careful in mixing colors, as they tend to muddy up rather than make a clear secondary or tertiary blend ....
I've got to try Mod Podge ... is that a commercial product, or can one mix it from Elmer's and the faucet??

Bill McHenry said...


I would definitely agree on the craft paints. I have used the Delta, the Apple and others. One advantage that they do have, even if mixing is difficult, is that they do much of the mixing for you. Hobby Lobby currently has about 4 or 5 racks of paint of all the brands that I've seen. In looking for a "true" red for my Irish, and a slightly darker crimson, I know I counted at least 10 different reds. Some were only subtly different, but are close to what you might get by mixing. And they are usually only about a half dollar US in my local store, which also puts them on sale at 40% off 3 or 4 times a year.

The Mod Podge is a commercial product, and is basically Elmer's or PVA mixed with liquid. However, they apparently use some medium other than just water, because the Mod Podge is available in either a gloss or matte finish. I have seen it available at WalMart, Michael's and Hobby Lobby, as well as at some independent shops. And its fairly inexpensive in large containers. It was originally developed for doing decoupage work and dries with a very durable surface.


Stokes Schwartz said...

Hi Bill,

Thank you so much for the Revell Prussians and Austrians, who arrived Friday afternoon. For a quick rundown of how I'll use them, drop by the Grand Duchy of Stollen blog sometime.

Best Regards,



First class blog

Bill McHenry said...


Thank you for the kind comment. Sadly, the Blog is badly out-of-date. I have had some health problems that have greatly slowed my painting progress, but hope to be updating it shortly. I admired your efforts as well, very nicely done!

Sir William