Sculpting Little Guys
By Bobby Jackson
I’m surprised at the volume of responses to my post about sculpting. Since there seems to be such interest I’ve written this article on what I know about the subject. I don’t claim to be the “be all end all” of miniature sculpture, I made my first little guy less than a year ago, but I haven’t had any complaints from the companies who have bought them so that should count for something. I hope this is helpful to you. I also hope that if you guys find cool tricks and techniques you will share them with me as I am always adding to my arsenal of sculptural skills. I will do my best with this thing, but I am an artsy fartsy sort and not a written communication guy. So here goes.
Epoxy putty is my chosen medium. It is durable, takes detail well, and is relatively easy to work with. The stuff I use is Kneadatite, which you can get from Ral-Partha or Sandra Garrity. I have tried every other type of putty I can find, because Kneadatite is so hard to come by, and none compare. This stuff has a curing time of about an hour so you have plenty of time to work it. The hardware store stuff is almost always quick cure useless garbage. Another advantage of Kneadatite is that is almost totally inert. You can lick it and lick your tools without worrying about brain damage (I use spit to keep my tools from sticking to my work), most of that hardware store stuff will kill you. My source for the chemical info on Kneadatite is Sandra Garrity who was involved in a study of the stuff for package labeling purposes. Kneadatite is not perfect however. It has a rubbery consistency before curing and is still rather flexible when fully cured. The hardware store stuff generally cures to rocklike hardness. An advantage of this flexibility is that if you sculpt a detail and don’t like it you can just slice it off with an X-acto knife. The chief disadvantage is that Kneadatite’s rubbery consistency gives it “memory”. What I mean is, that when you push on a piece of uncured putty with a tool the putty will spring back towards it’s original position a little bit. You need to push a little bit more than you would with clay or something like that. This also makes it tough to sculpt a sharp edge on an object. I usually sculpt a hard edged object a little oversize and then cut a sharp edge after it’s cured. Another cool characteristic of Kneadatite is that you can accelerate or retard it’s curing with heat and cold. For instance if you finally get that belt buckle just right and are ready to move on to another item of detail then stick the model under a heat lamp for about 5-10 minutes and it’s cured. On the other hand if you are halfway through texturing some little guy’s hair and the phone rings just stick it in the freezer and it will stay pliable for at least two hours. Maybe longer but I have not tested it. That’s the scoop on Kneadatite. other than to say that every other miniature sculptor I have met uses it and that seems like a pretty good endorsement to me.
A few of ya’ll said that you were using Sculpy or Fimo or something similar. That stuff is good but my opinion is not as good as epoxy putty for 25mm figures. I use Sculpy for larger work (I am building a large beast model for Armorcast Inc. to be cast in resin. It will be about 4″ tall and 6″ long, and I’m using Sculpy for that.) but I think it is too brittle for small work that is going to be touched and fondled. Because of the way rubber molds for metal miniature production are vulcanized you must use something more durable than Sculpy and after years of trial and error the industry settled on epoxy putty as the standard. But hey, if you are not making molds of your figures or are using RTV rubber at home use whatever sculpting medium flips your cookie.
The tools I use are:
Little steel spatulas and dental picks you can get from a hobby store.
An X-acto knife with #11 blades (Lots and lots of blades, always use a sharp blade. I spend more money on blades than on anything else.
Very fine sandpaper which I glue to little strips of stiff sheet plastic to make tiny emery board like things.
Tiny metal tubes, like electricians oilers, for pressing circles and stamping rivets. I also use brass tubing for pressing larger circles.
I also make my own tools by banging a piece of steel wire flat with a hammer and then grinding and buffing it to shape with a Dremel tool. I use little pin vises to hold them. These little pin-vises are available from Micro-Mark- I (800) 225-1066 for a free catalog. Micro-Mark has everything you need to build models, they are key. You don’t really need to make your own tools but sometimes there is a shape you need and can’t find and if you make your own you don’t have to fake it.
Brass wire, sheet and tubes. I use as much metal as I can in my figures because of the brutal treatment they get during the mold making process. If you are not making vulcanized rubber molds then all you really need is the wire. I use brass wire but I suppose you can use just about any kind of wire that is about .07mm and flexible enough to bend yet stiff enough to retain its shape.
Needle Nose Pliers, Wire Nippers, Razor Saw and Soldering Iron. Use these to work your brass. I also find a Dremel tool is helpful but not mandatory.
A heat lamp. I made mine by buying one of those shop lamps with the clip on it and the metal dome shaped shade. I attached it to the top of a large coffee can that has the ends cut off. I cut a door in the side of the can large enough for my hand and put a 25 watt bulb in the lamp. I use this for accelerating the putty’s cure rate.
I also use pieces of putty to make tools. I make little stamps by pressing a piece of putty to an interesting pattern I find and letting it cure (spit on the putty first or your never get it off). Then I take the putty and attach a handle to it with another piece of putty and use it to stamp regular patterns into models I am making. For example, I rolled the knurled end of my X-acto knife over a piece of putty and have used this pattern for simulating patterned steel plates and padded armor.
Step by Step
The first thing I do is make a little stick man (or woman as the case may be) out of wire. I carefully measure the distance from crotch to shoulders on one piece of wire and position two other pieces at these intersections. I solder these in place. I measure the length of the arms and legs and snip off excess wire. Make sure to leave enough wire for the hands and head and also leave 1/2″ to 1″ below the level of the soles of the feet. I establish the location of the little guy’s joints and bend the stick man into the pose I want, making sure that the excess wire below the feet is vertical.
Then you need to secure your guy to a handle that will allow you to hold him while you work. You can stick the excess wire below the figures feet into a cork, or rubber eraser. I use two pieces of wood held together by a rubber band to pinch the figures feet as in a vise.
I put a thin layer of putty on the stick man. I put on this putty in order give putty I put on later better purchase. I also make little notes to myself on this layer of putty by marking the location and orientation of the joints. You can flesh this layer out a little if you want to remind yourself where the major muscles and pieces of clothing go.
I then begin building the figure in earnest. I usually start with the feet and work up. (I believe it is important to have established the proportions of the figure really well in that first layer of putty you apply because if you focus on one piece of the figure at a time like I do, and you don’t have the proportion of the whole figure mapped out, you will wind up with feet too big or head too small or something else silly like that.) I build the soles of the shoes, then the shoes and then the legs one at a time. I generally cure that well then start on the torso. After the torso I do the head and then the arms one at a time. I make sure I “finish” the piece as I go, putting in the folds- at the back of the knees of a figures trousers for example. Then I start adding details on. Details that lay on the surface of the figure like Jewelry or fringe or something can just be stuck on. If you have let the putty that you are sticking the detail onto cure, then you may want to dig a small hole in the cured putty and fill it with fresh putty. Then build the detail into this, fresh putty, and you will find it adheres better. If you are adding detail that sticks out from the figure, like a sword, then you should solder some wire onto your stickman to support it. The real trick here is knowing how to sculpt. If you can sculpt large figures then you can sculpt small ones.
The only other thing I can say is that building a repertoire of tricks is also important. Figure out how a particular shape is mad and add this to your arsenal.
Chain – Roll out a thin “snake” of putty that is about half the diameter of the chain you want. Position this where you want it on the figure and find a tool with a round end that is the size that you want for the holes in each link. Use this to poke holes down the length of the chain to simulate the links that are laying parallel to the surface your chain is laying on. Then take a sharp bladed spatula and push in the gaps between the links to more clearly define each link. Next roll out another “snake” that is the same diameter as one of the “walls” of the links you just made. Lay this “snake” on top of the first one and use a small pointed tool to poke it down into each hole that you made in the first snake. This will simulate the links that are perpendicular to the surface your chain is laying on.
Rivets – Position a tiny bead of putty where you want the rivet to go. Get a tiny tube that has an inside diameter that is the same as the rivet you are trying to create. Simply push the tube down on the bead of putty, mashing the excess putty out of the way. Then use your X-acto knife to remove the excess putty and voila, rivet.
There are lots of little techniques like this. The best way I have found discover to them is to get other people’s figures that have details you would like to reproduce. Then ponder that sucker and figure out what tools were used to create the shapes involved. For instance, buy a model that you think- has really cool eyes and try to reproduce those eyes in putty. Boy that is kind of obscure but I don’t know of a better way to explain it.
I hope this is helpful to ya’ll and that you won’t fault me for the scarcity of commas etc. I really enjoy talking about this stuff so feel free to E-Mail me with specific questions/suggestions. I hope I answered all the specific questions I have been asked already but if I missed something E-Mail me and I’ll answer it if I can.
If you want to see some of my work I am currently the only guy working on the “K-Force” line from Grenadier Models Inc.. If you see this stuff and have specific criticisms please send them on. I aim not a very sensitive person and am always trying to make better models.