A few years ago I posted a quick and dirty tutorial on how to transform malformed, cheap, Dollar-Store packs of insect toys into table-worthy miniatures. Since then I have refined my process, as well as found even cheaper materials to use for greater effect. Here is the update, in case you’re gaming on the kind of budget that makes a street hobo look like a sultan.
1) Pick Your Battles
The packs I purchased came with a variety of insects, but for this go-around I stuck to ants and spiders. The first thing you’ll want to do is separate the toys with high potential from those with too many limb/body deformations. The yellow ant above is borderline, since sticking all its limbs into a base might make it look like its knees (exoskeleton patella?) weren’t bashed in by the mob. I’m more inclined to pass it over in favor of better-formed pieces, since each insect represents about a 5-cent investment at this point.
Rule of thumb: if the plastic insect could suddenly, magically talk and its first words are likely to be “Kill…Me…” then toss it and save yourself some effort.
In the past I’ve tried both acrylic and spray-paint, to varying degrees of success. But over the years of painting on toy plastics I’ve learned a valuable lesson: acrylic doesn’t rub off if the spray-painting is done right.
The picture above is a collection of brushed insects, which eventually rub off or chip if a coat of spray-paint isn’t applied first. With later iterations I’ve relied more and more on gloss black spray-paint for my only coat of paint, aside from the red of the black widow’s hourglass, or joints on the brown spiders. This saves a tremendous amount of time and money since there’s no need for a clear coat, and you don’t have to break out the expensive miniature paints.
Warning: Apply the black gloss from a considerable distance. If you’ve used spray-paint before use the arm-length rule, and make several passes between drying/re-positioning. The gloss will give the insects more of a wet shine, which is creepy, and they won’t lose detail if the gloss layers are thin enough. If you see any drips whatsoever, you’re doing it wrong.
3) Use Extruded Polystyrene for Everything
I’ve recently fallen in love with a super-cheap, easy-to-bond foam called Extruded Polystyrene. It’s rigid. It’s durable. And for around 10-bucks you get a 4-foot by 8-foot slab that’s 1-inch thick (perfect for 1-inch grids) and easy to cut. I prefer a long bread knife since it doesn’t wrinkle the cut as much, but an exacto or box-cutter works fine too. You can also use the score-and-snap method, and scrap pieces from larger projects make great chunks of rock for figures to stands. Later I’ll post some of the castles I’ve built out of this stuff, but for now we’ll focus on miniature stands.
Take a 1.5-inch square, hack the corners off, give it some irregularities for charm, and glue the insect’s legs into the base. My only word of warning is that hot-glue works best with polystyrene. Two pieces of pink foam, once bonded, will not become un-stuck unless you rip the whole thing apart. However, once my larger glue-gun reaches maximum heat, it will sometimes melt through the hardy foam. To prevent this apply the glue to the insect’s leg first, count to ten to let it cool, then socket the leg. Paint the foam black, sponge on some grey, and you’ve got a rock stand.
4) Accent The Joints, Or Nothing At All
My last piece of advice for the final painting is this: Use sharp lines and accent the joints with bands of color. You’ll notice the featured (cover) image has insects with solid dry-brushing down the legs. The cheap plastic, however, has a gradual bend. This does not flatter the miniature, or make the legs look jointed. To overcome this I’ve taken to painting bands and stripes where the joints should be.
You can also vary which legs you glue into the stands. A few front legs left loose on the spiders and it looks like they’re lunging. Let a few legs on the ants dangle and they look like they were caught mid-stride.
If you can forgive the odd leg-bend here or there, the upshot is that you can crank out armies of these suckers for almost nothing in a very short time. With paint, foam, and toys taken together the build price came to about 10-cents per critter. Not bad for making the players wish they’d purchases a can of Raid at the potion shop.
Of course, the favored enemy of every player-character will forever after be insects. But that’s a bridge we’ll cross (and burn) when we come to it.