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How to Improve Your Hobby Building Skills

In a rush of excitement, you rip open your brand new model kit. While thrown back at first by the sheer number of tiny pieces, you smash it all together with glue, slap paint everywhere you can, and plunk it on the table top. But at some point, you realize that you are unhappy with how it looks, especially compared to your buddies models.

How to improve your hobby building skills

If you are new getting into the hobby, or a long timer gamer wanting to improve the look of your army, then you understand the frustration of trying to figure out what to work on. Or comprehend all these terms thrown about by veteran hobbyists. This is why I put together this list of ways to improve your hobby skills.

I’ve created the series From Beginner to Happy to get you to the point of being happy with your hobby skills. While this won’t be an exhaustive guide to all the hobby basics, I made an overview of topics you can work on to bring your models from 3-color minimum, so something you are happy to share with others.

Note: if you want to download this guide for later reading, fill in the form and I will send you the link.  Not only does this free eBook contain the topics here, but also the articles on improving your painting and showcasing skills as well.

To get this done, I’ve broken the guide down into three sections: Building, Painting, and Showcasing. Each section will help you improve on different elements so feel free to pick and choose where you want to focus. I would suggest grabbing one topic from each section and start working on that before moving on to the next.

Improve Your Hobby Building Skills

The model is your canvas. It’s also a game piece, or perhaps, a display piece. But to improve your painted miniature, you need to improve your built miniature. This is why it is important to focus on building a better model before you can paint a better model.

So take a look through each of the suggestions, grab one you need to work on first, and focus on improving that one thing.

1. Prepare Your Mini

Making the canvas, or in this case, your mini from the start is the best way to improve the finish. What I mean by preparing your mini is simply getting each of the bits ready for paint.

Get it off the sprue

This starts with getting each part off the sprue – the plastic frame all the bits come on. While it can be tempting just to snap or twist parts off, the plastic can easily tear and ruin the piece you need.

Instead, use flush clippers like these Xuron ones pictured below and make a clean cut as close as possible to your bit.

improving your hobby building skills by using flush cutters

A flush cutter, or sprue clipper, is a tiny set of scissors with a flat edge. To cut out the bits, press the flat side against the part you want to keep as it creates a relatively smooth cut line. The remaining plastic will need to be removed with a hobby knife.

Get rid of those mold lines

Yes, cleaning mold lines are a pain. And tedious. And awful. None of us like cleaning mold lines. But if you miss them, they have a tendency to show up on the finished model in the worst way.

So take some time and clean up where the piece was attached to the sprue with an X-Acto blade and then scrape the edge along the mold line to get rid of it.

Notice, I said scrape, not cut.

Improving your hobby skills by scraping mold lines

Keep the blade perpendicular to the part and slide it along the parting line. The sharp blade will catch the raised plastic on the mold line and scrape it away.

Other hobbyists have pointed out that they like using Games Workshop’s Mouldline Remover Tool. It doesn’t have a sharp point or blade which makes it safer to use, especially around children. It uses the same principle of scraping off the extra plastic.

Fill the gap

Even on the newest kits parts don’t always join together as a perfect fit. Small gaps in armor plates or robes can be as unsightly as mold lines.

If it’s a small gap, start with some Liquid Green Stuff and paint it in. Apply a bit more than you need to fill the hole. Once the green stuff is dry, you can scrape off the extra and smooth it down. For larger gaps, use regular green stuff or Milliput and stuff into the gap. You can then smooth it down with some sculpting tools.

Wash up

If you are building a resin model, make sure you wash all the parts with soapy water. They spray the molds with a non-stick agent before adding the resin. This helps it from sticking to the mold but also prevents the paint from sticking. So a nice bath can clean it all away.

Keep it separated

You don’t always need to glue the whole model together before painting. On large or dynamic models, pieces can overlap making it hard to get your paintbrush into position.

So instead, leave the pieces separate and cover the glue joint with sticky tack. This keeps paint off of it, making for a better bond once you finish painting and glue it together.

Some hobbyists have taken this to the extreme and paint every bit separately before gluing anything together. I’m not sure how they make it fit together, but it works for them.

2. Use the Right Glue

When I first got started in building miniatures, it was scale aircraft, and I was trying to use those awful foil tubes of plastic cement. My first Warhammer miniatures were put through the horror of this glue as well. Except for my metal minis, which I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t hold together.

Know the difference between super glue, plastic cement, and white glue

This is a simple example of the importance of using the right glue. While there are a ton of glues in the world, we focus on three in our hobby: plastic glue, super glue, and white glue.

Plastic Glue

While I switched from the tube of plastic glue to the awesome Testors Model Master, it acts just the same as many other brands of plastic glue: chemically melt the plastic. When you press two pieces together, they become physically intertwined as the plastic melts and reforms before curing solid.

This allows for some adjustment while it cures but provides a super strong bond between the pieces once dry. So you can dab a bit of glue on each shoulder, attach the arms, and move them around a bit to make sure the weapon fits correctly in the model’s hands.

Plastic glue can be used to fill small gaps in models

Plastic glue is also great for covering small gaps in plastic bits. Add a tiny amount of extra glue to the gap and let is sit for a moment. You can then smear the glue and the melted plastic around to fill the gap. Once the glue dries, scrape off any extra.

But remember, this glue only works on plastic-to-plastic joints. And only certain types of plastic. So for everything else…

Super Glue aka Cyanoacrylate

Super glue sticks to just about everything (including your fingers) which makes it a must have for hobby work. It also dries quickly so that assembly is often faster with super glue. Use it to assemble metal or resin bits or when you add a pin to hold the model together.

I’ve also noticed that not everyone likes to use plastic glue as they want to be able to snap off bits later. Instead, they use super glue to attach the model which doesn’t provide the melted adhesion.

Either way, be extra careful with super glue as it is a somewhat dangerous chemical and rather easy to get everywhere with the tin tubes it comes in.

White Glue aka Polyvinyl Acetate aka Elmer’s Glue

The final glue I will talk about is PVA, better known as white glue. Often used in school crafts, this glue is water based which makes it easy to clean up.

I reserve white glue to bases and scenery as the lower cost means it will go a lot further. I will lay down a thick layer onto the base and then dip it into a tin of sand. Once dry, I take a watered down mix of glue and apply over the sand to provide a sealant layer.

You’re Probably Using Too Much Glue

No matter which glue you are using, you are probably using more glue than you need. The extra glue will seep out of the seam and can ruin other details. One way to prevent this is to use glue applicators with fine tips (why I like the Testors Model Masters) or put the glue onto a palette and use a toothpick to apply it where you need it.

If you end with too much glue on the mini, dab the extra away with a paper towel – just be careful where you set it down, I have more than one paper towel glued to my desk.

3. Use the Right Tool

There is a saying: right tool, right job. If you use the right tool for a job, it is much easier to get it done, and done well. This remains true for our hobby. While this set of tips does include buying new equipment, not all of them are expensive, and you may not need many of them depending on what you are working on.

Flush cutters and X-Acto blades

I have mentioned the first two tools already: flush cutters and X-Acto blades. These are indispensable when it comes to building models. But you don’t need fancy brand name ones.

Bits Bashing Tools for Custom Miniatures

As I mention in my post on X-Acto blades, I buy non-brand blades and also recommend box cutters as alternatives. The key is to keep a sharp blade and once it starts to dull, switch it out – the few pennies are worth a clean, safe cut.

Jeweler’s files

Another tool that comes in super handy for large models is a set of jeweler’s files or needle files. These are usually sold in a set of different shapes that have rows of little teeth that, when you drag it along a surface, scrape off a layer.

The rectangular one is great for smoothing down large seams or squaring up joints – especially on vehicles where there are lots of flat surfaces. The other shapes can get into other angles or spaces if you need to get rid of the odd mold line.

Pin vice and drill bits

For pinning models or creating gun barrels, a hand vice and micro drill bits are needed. Just make sure the hand vice can hold the smallest bits you need.

When drilling out a barrel, find a size that is a bit smaller than you think you will want and put it into the hand vice. Using your hobby knife, mark where the center should be and press the tip into the plastic. This gives the drill bit something to grip when it gets started.

After drilling the hole, if you need it slightly bigger, insert the hobby blade and twirl it a bit to widen the hole – trying to re-drill with a bigger bit will often split the plastic.

Oh, and don’t push too hard while drilling, the tiny bits have a habit of snapping if you do.

Cutting mat

As you start to do more building, especially if you start kitbashing or scratch building models, you will want something to protect your desk from knife marks and drill bits – especially if you work on the kitchen table!

A cutting mat has a hard plastic bottom and a rubbery top. The top is made out of a self-healing material, meaning that as you cut into it, it will press back together.

Another benefit of using a cutting mat is that you can cut against it rather into your thumb. By knowing your work surface is safe from errant blade attacks, feel free to take advantage of that and cut towards it when separating parts.

You can grab this one from Amazon for only $7.

4. Kit Bashing and Conversions

Moving out of the nuts and bolts of building, I want to suggest you add kitbashing to your set of skills. Yes, GW and other companies are putting out amazing kits. But when you want a character to look a certain way or hold certain weapons, you need to learn to kit bashing (or bits bash, conversion, or scratch build).

Just the freeing feeling of taking bits from one kit and putting it to work on another can release new levels of creativity and enjoyment into your hobby. This can translate into better-painted miniatures as well since you have become more invested in the creation of this new character.

Kit Bashing

At the simplest level, and where I would suggest you start, kit bashing is taking two kits and mixing up the bits. Taking a helmet from the command squad and putting it on your devastator sergeant is a great start. You have now made something new and now yours.

Traitor Guard Veteran Squad

Some hobbyists really get into the conversion aspect and create characters, teams, or whole armies based off elaborate kit bashing. You can go as far as you want to get the look you desire or limit it to the simplest of swaps. But I do recommend that you give it a go as it starts to open up all sorts of options.

Conversion

The next step up from simple bit swaps is converting the bits used on the model. This may include using bits from different kits such as using fantasy bits on 40k models, but it could also mean cutting the hand off, turning it slightly, and re-glueing it back into place.

Joe B Mentor Legion Dreadnought

I go deeper into this style of customization in another post using a dreadnought as an example. While some of these changes require some green stuff, it isn’t much more than filling gaps as I don’t yet consider myself a sculptor. Instead, I focus on cutting off army badges from other kits, reposing the model, and adding parts of bits to build up something new.

Sculpting

On the end of the conversion spectrum, is those who sculpt up brand new parts or even whole miniatures. I’m not going to touch how to do that here, but it is something that is very possible for you to get to by starting with small additions to a model such as new army badges or battle damage.

To get more tips on sculpting, check out the article by Mr. Pink on how to improve your sculpting skills. In this miniseries, he talks about putties and tools and how to get the most out of them. He then goes onto giving a set of helpful advice for anybody looking to do work with green stuff.

Scratch building

For vehicles, the term scratch building is used to talk about using plastic sheets and rods. Companies like Plastruct sell all sorts of thicknesses of plastic sheets, including textures, as well as rods, tubes, I-beams, and other shaped sticks of plastic. By cutting them apart and gluing them back together, you can create all sorts of neat stuff. Just take a look at Klaus’ work for what is possible.

5. Composition

This ties into conversion a bit, but even if you build the stock kit, you need to think about how the figure is posed. Composition is the artist term for how well is it balanced, how does it flow, does it give a sense of motion.

Consider where the model is looking or what it is doing in its frozen moment of time. Does the weapons, arms, and legs all create a scene that makes sense? Try getting up and getting into the pose yourself. Where do your toes point? Which way does your hand rotate? Try to bring that back into the model to get more natural poses.

Improving your hobby building skills by reposing miniatures

You can give the miniature a lot of character just by how it is posed. Stoic leaders can be straight legged and looking over the battlefield. Acrobatic warriors, on the other hand, would look silly in this pose.

Test different looks

So grab some sticky tack and press bits into place before gluing it together. See if the pose is what you want to achieve. If not, then find new bits or think about what would need to change to make it look like you want.

WIP INQ28 Techno-Barbarian Conversion

If sticky tack isn’t enough, use a tiny amount of super glue to one edge of the joint. It should be able to be broken off once you are happy with all the adjustments and re-glue it with a stronger bond.

Modify the bits

If you need to adjust the bits to get the look you want, start by cutting at the joints. You might be able to just cut the outside joint, bend the plastic, and fill in the gap. This works well for minor adjustments, but bigger bends or rotating bits will require you to cut off the piece and reconnect with a pin. See the conversion article above for some tips on that.

Wrap Up

I know this was an epic post on how to improve your hobby building skills, with lots to do. It may be a bit overwhelming for beginners and perhaps common sense to vets. But to each I say:

For the beginner: pick a single topic from above and work on improving it for your next build. Focusing on improving one thing at a time not only helps you achieve results but prevents burn out from the frustration of it working out.

For the vet: it is always a good idea to review how you do the ‘basics.’ The way I look at them may be a bit different than how you learned them and can provide a new perspective on how you could improve or do something different. None of us are done learning, so if you aren’t happy with how your models look, think about why that is and practice until you improve.

But don’t look at this list as the only way to do your hobby. It is more of a guideline to build upon. Make it yours and improve where you need.

If you do have some suggestions on things I missed that you think hobbyists should work on, leave them in the comments below. Otherwise, let me know some of the things you are working to improve.

You can find the other parts of this series here:

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This 31-page free eBook will help you go from beginner to happy with tips on building your model, to improving your painting, to taking the best possible picture of it.

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