Let’s get pedantic for a moment, just so we can say we did: to paint a miniature, you technically really only need five things: a brush, paint, water, a model, and time. For any given painting project, these are the undisputed champions, the real MVP’s, and you can’t work without them.
If you want your painting process to be faster, or easier, or just more organized, you’ll need to expand your miniature painting kit to include a few more tools. There are lots of lists like this one available, with typical advice for things like brush types, brands, or specific paints, so I’ve left those out. In my experience, those are highly subjective decisions best left to each individual painter.
I’ve been painting miniatures for more than ten years, and these are the eight absolutely indispensable tools I use in every project. Any painter, at any skill level, will benefit from adding the tools listed below to their miniature painting kit.
Note that I’m not personally affiliated with any of the brands that sell the tools I list below, but Master the Dungeon may be supported by affiliate links throughout the article.
1. Swatch Book
As a rule, you should always test your paint colors before applying them to a miniature. It’s called swatching, and you should train yourself to do it in an organized manner so your painting process is more efficient and precise.
See, when paint dries, it’s extremely common for the color you wind up with to be slightly different than the color you saw inside the bottle. Oxidation, concentration of pigments, and other factors are all a natural part of how paint does what it does, so this shouldn’t frighten you. It’s just best to know what you’re working with before you begin working. Paint, once it’s on your miniature, is hard to remove, after all.
Hands down, the most universally useful and most interesting tool in my kit is my swatch book. Or, as I call it, my magic painting book.
It’s a journal with thick, paint-friendly pages (in a neutral brown) I bought from d20 Collective. I use it to swatch every single color of paint I acquire. Each one gets 2-3 quick coats in its own 1″ square, and a label (seen here in my near-arcane handwriting). For metallics, I quickly squidge on a square of matte black paint before swatching, similar to how I would undercoat metallics with black on a mini. Fluorescents, yellows, oranges, certain technical paints, and washes are applied over a white square.
When I’m deciding on a color scheme for a painting project, I use the pages of my magic painting book instead of rifling through rows and boxes of paints…a monumental timesaver. I’m always 100% certain that the colors I choose will dry to the colors I want.
My magic painting book is also where I keep records of color schemes, combinations, and homespun shades of paint I mix myself. For a painter like me, who often shifts focus from one project to another, it’s valuable to know exactly what colors I need, or my weird one-off recipes, when I swing back around to a work already in progress.
Easier, too, to carry the book to my FLGS or gaming conventions when I’m shopping for refills or new colors, than to haul around a bag of paint. A great icebreaker, if you need one.
2. Sticky Tack
You’ll find throughout the course of your various mini painting projects that you’ll often need your model, a bottle, or a brush securely attached to a surface. Dropping any of these things is a no-no! But tape isn’t exactly exact, and glue is, well, permanent.
Sticky Tack, the same stuff your elementary school teacher used to put construction paper turkeys on the wall, is the solution. It’s cost-effective, likely available at your local pharmacy or grocery store, and one package can last you – and I’m not kidding – a year or more.
This reusable gummy adhesive is useful for lots of things:
- Priming your miniatures
- Keeping your mini from falling off its painting handle
- Preventing wash spills
- Masking a painted area of a model
- Displaying reference images in your workspace
- Sticking your brushes in place when not in use
- Positioning parts of a model before committing to glue
- Tacking small parts (a space marine head, for example) to the end of a brush handle for precision painting
- Cleaning up stray bits of flock or sand from basing projects
3. Painting Handle
Designed to hold your miniatures while you paint them, a painting handle primarily ensures that you don’t accidentally touch a model, which almost always results in rubbed-off paint or paint from your fingers making its way onto your pristine blends.
Using a handle (like the one I use, Citadel’s version) has three main benefits for any miniature painter:
1. Keeps hand-and-finger oils off your miniature and out of your paint
2. Provides a secure and mobile surface for priming
3. An ergonomic grip (which, believe me, makes it easier to paint for longer periods of time)
Painting handles usually have a spring-loaded clamp that holds a miniature firmly in place; however, they only work for base sizes up to 50mm. No worries: you can use a little Sticky Tack, like mentioned above, to attach larger models to the same handle (as in the photo).
4. Hair Dryer
The process of painting a miniature consists largely of waiting for layer after layer, after layer, after layer…
…After layer, after layer of paint to dry.
Why not significantly speed up your painting and cut down on all that waiting?
A hair dryer is a miniature painter’s best friend. Acrylic paints are water-based, and they dry when the water in their emulsion evaporates. Heated air moving around your model greatly increases the rate of that evaporation. Simple stuff.
Most types of dryers have at least two settings – high/low and cool/hot – which allow you to use them to safely dry thin coats of paint on plastic, resin, and metal miniatures. Too much heat can warp your mini, though, so keep the hair dryer at least 8″ away. And be careful you don’t blast your minis across the room; start low.
I use a Revlon Compact + Folding Handle Travel Dryer, and like that it’s small and easy to store, and allows me to alternate between warm and cool temps with the press of a button.
5. Archival Ink Pens
Painting purists might scoff at this suggestion, but I’ll double down: it’s perfectly acceptable to use things other than paint-and-brush to execute your creative vision.
Applying black paint back onto a nearly-finished miniature is nerve-wracking and can feel imprecise. Often you’ll need to darken small details after a majority of your miniature is painted (like when you paint metallics, which need a black undercoat). It’s easier, faster, and less messy to use archival quality ink pens.
Archival ink is designed to be resistant to weathering, fading, and running, and is acid-free, which makes it different from ink inside Sharpies or other pens (which I decidedly do not recommend for miniature painting). I suggest always having two types of pens handy, both in black.
Sakura Pigma Micron Pen .005
Micron Pens come in many sizes, but this is the one I reach for when I need to make extremely small corrections, or add fine lines or details to a miniature. The nib is almost infinitesimally tiny, which means you can ink at a scale that’s appropriate for 28-32mm model, and it’s easy to get into small recesses to create shadow.
The nibs of standard Micron pens are rigid and blunt, so use them with a light hand on your painted surfaces to avoid scraping away layers. Also, the surface should be 100% dry before attempting; be patient and save yourself a lot of unnecessary cleanup.
Sakura Pigma Brush Pen
These pens have, you guessed it, a flexible brush tip. They work just how you’d expect, and are much more useful in paint-like techniques than a standard Micron tip. They’re easier to use than a brush with black paint since there is zero chance you’ll apply too much at once or experience drippage.
Note, though, that these inks dry to a glossy finish. Not a problem if you’re finishing your miniatures with a matte varnish, a step you shouldn’t skip anyway, or covering the blacked out area with more paint.
Use black brush pens to create thin shadows, outline areas of a model, draw in tight details, apply eyeliner on a miniature’s face, or my favorite, fill in areas that will be painted with metallics (and skip the messy, scary black paint altogether).
6. Wet Palette
Talk about a true game-changer. If, like most painters, you’re used to mixing paints on a dry palette or the back of your hand, then you’re also used to your perfectly thinned paints gradually drying out while you’re still working. Annoying, to be sure, and expensive in the long run – all that paint wasted.
How wet palettes work
A wet palette allows your water-based acrylic paints to be reused over and over again after you mix or thin them by keeping the paint moist. Most wet palettes are comprised of:
1. An airtight container
2. A slightly damp sponge
3. Palette paper
The water in the sponge at the bottom of the container evaporates up through specially designed palette paper, which is usually more porous (but more durable) than normal paper. That moisture keeps your acrylics from drying out and improves how they flow into and out of your brush.
Popping the lid onto your wet palette virtually eliminates drying between sessions, and can keep your paints fresh and ready for use for days…even weeks. This is crucial to preserve custom paint mixes you create yourself, and extends the lifespan of your bottles and pots of paint, since you’ll be required to open and close them fewer times while simultaneously using less product overall.
My recommendation is the Army Painter Wet Palette, which comes with a built-in dry palette (useful for mixing inks and washes) and is kept tightly closed with an elastic band when not in use. The sponge is also antimicrobial, which prevents molding.
You’ll need a toothbrush to wash and prepare your miniatures. Opt for one with medium to soft bristles, or save your cash by repurposing an old one. This basic tool does other useful things in everyday miniature painting situations, as well.
Uses for a toothbrush in painting minis include:
- scrubbing dried paint from bottles and pots
- flecking, a technique where thinned paint or ink is sprayed across the surface of a mini using the toothbrush bristles and your thumb
- stippling things like stone, skin, or fur
- drybrushing large areas quickly, as with terrain painting
- mixing colors or washes
- applying grass tufts (hint: use the bottom end)
- removing stripped paint from old miniatures
8. Wood Glue
No miniature is perfect right out of its box or sprue. As a miniature painter, you’ll regularly encounter the need for a material that can help easily fill cracks, gaps, and even full-on fissures. There are dozens of different kinds of gap fillers on the market, like Liquid Greenstuff, Plastic Putty, and various kinds of fluid gap filling mediums. They all work differently, and with varying results. You could invest in one of these pricey single-use products as a solution and go the trial-and-error route…
Or you could pick up a bottle of Elmer’s wood glue and call it a day. It does all the things those products purport to do, and does them for a fraction of the cost.
Wood glue is different from cyanoacrylate (superglues) or PVA (white) glues. The most common type is made from aliphatic resin, but if you choose a different brand, check the label to be sure you understand what material you’re actually working with. And experiment to find the version you like best.
Elmer’s wood glue is yellow in color and thicker than it’s traditional white counterpart. It sinks into gaps and self-levels, and dries quickly to a hard, sandable finish without much shrinkage. For gap filling on metals, plastic, resins, even corkboard and 3d printed model parts, you can’t go wrong. As a bonus, wood glue is easy to clean up if you use too much, and requires far fewer applications to completely fill in gaps.
There are essentials like brushes and paints that every hobby painter truly needs to have in their arsenal. As you level up in your craft, though, you’ll likely find that you need additional tools to make your painting quicker, less messy, and thoroughly more enjoyable. Tools like swatch books, archival ink pens, and the others described above are easy and affordable ways to explore new processes and techniques and streamline your flow. Once you’ve assembled your own kit of essential tools, all that’s left is the fun part of painting gaming minis: practice, practice, practice.
About the Author
Jay Pike is a writer and artist living in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter, IG, and in any MMORPG at @snuuurch.