How to Keep Paint on Plastic Figures

by Matt Fritz

To Paint, or Not to Paint: A beautiful, detailed paint job is great and will impress everyone, but it isn't necessary. The opposing sides in the battle have to be easy to tell apart, which was the whole point of uniforms in the first place. Fortunately the figures are often molded in different colored plastics (blue for Union infantry, gray for Confederates) so you can use them right out of the box! The next step up is to simply color the figures yourself with spray paint. Serious hobbyists will want to do better. One speedy technique is to spray paint the figures the correct color based on their uniforms, then go back and paint in the flesh, and maybe a few other details. This works well for armies in simple uniforms - like WWII Germans in field gray. The final step in complexity is hand painting the whole figure. Even then it isn't necessary to paint EVERY detail. Paint as much or as little as you want. I often just paint over belts, straps, canteens, and other small details when I'm in a hurry.

Before you Paint

1. Clean - The figures must be cleaned with warm soapy water. This is to eliminate the slippery stuff they put on to get the figures out of the molds. You can do this in the sink but I like to put mine on the top rack of the dishwasher. The excessive heat from the drying cycle can melt plastic figures, so be sure to turn it off and let the figures air-dry.

2. Cut and Assemble - Most of the time the figures are attached to the sprue at the head and base. I cut them free at the head but leave them attached at the base. Then I cut away the frame of the sprue leaving four or five figures attached to each sprue stick. It's much easier to handle and paint a stick of figures than to pick them up individually so I leave them on their sprues whenever I can. This is a big time saver! Cavalry figures need to be cut off the sprue so you can glue the riders onto the horses. Often the figures will require some assembly. Glue them together using rubber cement. I like to use paper flags to make standard bearers for my command stands so I generally cut the flags off the standard-bearer figures. If there are no standard bearer figures I usually make my own by selecting some suitable figures, removing their weapons, cutting up a paper clip to make a flag pole, and gluing it into the figures hands. I suggest cutting a small hole in the base to hold the bottom of the flag; this will help keep it in place. Some people like to paint their figures before gluing them together. I like to assemble them first.


The Heart Break of Paint Flaking: Paint does not readily adhere to plastic figures. The paint will rapidly flake off of your figures; especially parts that are flexible like spears and rifles. I vividly remember painting my first bunch of figures - a platoon of WWII American infantry. After their first taste of combat I was horrified to see the paint was already beginning to flake. It broke my heart, and almost put me off painting for good. There are solutions. Keeping paint on plastics is like curing hiccups; there are 100 different remedies. Check out the Nick Grant's DBLCHM ( website for some other suggested methods and some good links. This prep work is essential if you don't want your paint job to be wasted. Don't skip it. You've been warned.

3. Krylon Fusion Paint: Bill Molyneaux told me about Krylon's Fusion paint (which is designed for use on plastic). It comes in sixteen colors. I tried using it as a primer and had excellent results. First I used it as a primer for some plastic trophies a gave out after a battle with the students. One of the students use the figure as a keychain and carried it in his pocket for a month. When he told me about this I asked to see the figure and there was NO paint flaking! The paint did wear off on some of the edges, but it didn't flake. Then I tried a test. I used it as primer and painted another figure. I bent the figures rifle back and forth about a hundred times, until it was about to fall off. Again, no paint flaking, just some wear at the point where the rifle was bent. Check out the picture. Bill has been using it for "speed painting," painting the whole figure the color of the main uniform, then going back and picking out some of the details like flesh, weapons, etc. From what I can see it goes on a bit thin, which hasn't been a problem when using it as a primer, but for speed painting you might need a heavy coat to get complete coverage or the color of the plastic will show through.

4. Paint - I paint my figures using cheap acrylic paint from the arts & crafts store. The brand I favor is Folk Art, which come in 2 oz bottles and only cost about $1. Folk Art paints are quite thick, and I normally thin them with water when painting so 2 oz will last a long time. I always seem to be in a hurry, so I paint a bunch of figures at the same time, assembly line style. Get some skin tone and paint all the flesh, then do the uniforms, weapons, packs, etc. If I'm really in a hurry I simply paint over some details, like belts and straps.

5. Sealing: I haven't been using a sealer since I started using Fusion Paint as a primer, but if your figures look too shiny spray them with Testor's Dull Cote. I love Testor's Dull Cote, even though it's expensive. It'll take the shine off of anyything.

6. Basing - Cut the figures off their sprues. I make my bases from Illustration Board, which is lightweight and cheap, but also sturdy. Generally I mount the figures two per stand. Infantry stands are 1.5" x 1" rectangles; cavalry are mounted on 1.5" square bases. I glue them to the bases using undiluted Elmer's glue. This is a good method because you can pull them off their bases later if you decide to use a different base size. I simply paint my bases green or brown rather than using static grass or flocking. When the figures are finished I print out paper flags and attach them to the standard bearers. You can find some great flags, and instructions on how to use them, at Ian Croxall's Warflag website (