Monday 6 July 2015

The Helpful Hobby Guide : Sculpting tools

It will come as no surprise if I tell you I am not much of a sculptor...
However, part of our hobby involves using putty at one stage or the other (unless you're a plastic-only kind of modellist) to simply fill gaps, repair damaged detailsor even add new ones for conversions.
In all those circumstances, you have to learn by trying. learning from other people's experience though is allowing shortcuts though.
Though many painting techniques are covered in magasines and all, I've always felt that you don't get much sculpting tips or tricks and that basic techniques aren't as well known as they are for painting.

The aim of this post is is no way to tell anyone what to use as I'm clearly out of my jurisdiction here but it's aimed to share with you what I use and learn from your tips and advice, critics and comments.

The tool below is the first sculpting tool I got when I started pushing putty back in 2000. You can see it's not the most precise of tools. I think when I got it it had already been used for dentistry or something has it was clearly not brand new. It did what it had though and I quickly switched from Milliput to Green Stuff (I won't go too far on the subject of putties as it clearly exceeds my very limited knowledge of the only 2 I use).

The first steps after mere gap filling were conversions attempts on Inquisitor model released the year after (2001 IIRC).
I was quite happy with these (and still am) but the process was painful to say the least. I learnt saliva was my best friend and that I had fingerprints...
I'll probably finish those in a not too distant future for the fun of it (and because I want to test my skills on other scales).

Callidus assassin and underhove ganger based on the repentia sisters, squat based on a 40k ogryn.
The obvious way to go to refine my work from that point was to get more tools in more shapes and that's exactly what I did (some of those are recent additions though). The second from bottom is probably the one I use most to place the big shapes with the 3rd from bottom a close second for teh same purpose. 
For a time I was using the flat ones you can see to blend the layers of putty into the base but it often proved a messy process...

That was until I discovered rubber brushes aka clay shapers. I first bought the 3 below but didn't really know what shapes or stiffness I was looking for... now I know I could probably use all 3 shapes in at least 2 different sizes and all 3 stiffness but so far I've always managed to do without. Maybe it's an investment I should consider to up my game.
I find those essential know, the black bladed one is the harder of the 3and is perfect to flatten a joint when I'm filling gaps, its stiffness also means you can sculpt in the fresh putty and get good prints.
The round grey one is perfect to flatten organic shapes when I don't want to leave traces or when I'm blending body parts like necks or muscles and so on.
the flat white one is the softer of the free and is the one I use to really smooth the surfaces by caressing the putty gently with a lot of saliva.

Files, they are of course (or should be) in every modellist's toolbox. They're used for preparation to remove mouldlines from metal miniatures and smooth parts where they've been cut. Putty parts can be filed but from my experience, thogh milliput can be easily filed, Greenstuff is totally not appropriate for that, the former can be worked by addition AND substraction of material but not the latter.

Sandpaper... comes in different grades, I have to admit I only ever use fine grain as most of the time it's only meant to really remove any thing that files couldn't. As for filing, it's not the best option with greenstuff unless you're making a bluer (hence harder) mix and using super fine grain.

The modellist knife below is my favourite tool. I use it for everything, from cutting bits off the sprue to removing flashes or cutting bits of putty and scenery. To me it's of the utmost importance you find one that suits your hand and you feel comfortable with. The security lock can be handy at times though I have to admit I forget to use it pretty much all the time...

Microsurgery scalpels as you can see below are a sort of tool I only got to know recently and only got to use even more recently. they're shaped as dentist tools but they end in razor sharp blades. Their main advantage is that they cut like hell but are very thin. that means you can cut pieces of cured putty in weird places in a very precise manner and you can therefore make very sharp edges in green stuff which can otherwise prove quite tricky.

There's one REALLY dangerous thing about them : their shape feels so much like a dentist tool or a brush you'll want to lick them as you would do for any other tool... WRONG IDEA !

And just like if normal tools were not enough, I found a very nice tutorial (I can't find anymore unfortunately) which showed how to make oneself cool sculpting tools from sprues.You cannot get cheaper than this and you can get a fresh new tool in seconds once you know what shapes you like. To make lines in a surface (to make hair and brands) or to smooth particular shapes, I haven't found easier than this really. Those do wear off quite rapidly but a clean cut with a blade and they're good as new (only a tad shorter).

Those below are my favourite shapes :

And seeing as we are dealing with self made tools, here's another favourite I use for many purposes : a simple sewing needle cut and glued in place in an old brush :

So here we are, that was just a quick review of my tools just to get your ideas and to see what you're using on your side !


  1. As far as the sculpting with GS goes, I find that I'm not that inclined to try and get better at it. Filling gaps & a bit of minor reshaping is about as much as I want to try. I feel like I've got my hands full trying to practice my painting & kitbashing skills. It's a bit too far out of my ability range I think. I can't even draw, let alone sculpt (my 9 year old can draw better than me!!!), which is why I choose to play with 3-D toys....the hard work has already been done for me :)

    I'm impressed with the talent that some people possess with it. You're obviously on the right track with the sculpting gig there JB, the conversions I've seen you complete are testament enough to your skills. I'll remain happy enough sitting on the sidelines, seeing what creation's you & others sculpt & convert.

    Enough of me & my issues ;/

    That Squat based on the 40k Ogryn looks great JB! When did you do him? I don't remember seeing him before, am I correct in thinking this is his first appearance in front of the camera?

    Cheers JB.

    1. Cheers mate, in all honesty, I never decided I wante dto improve my sculpting as like you I prefer to use what's already done by more capable hands than mine, That said, it naturally comes that you sometimes ahve more that just a gap to fill and that sculpting a belt would help conceal a rough joint. Hair and all also come easily as things you can improve and you quickly realise you're overdoing things.
      I think the most important thing is that you have to take your time to do things right which is exactly why paiting will always remain my main focus as I do not have the patience to sculpt whole parts. Thanks for the kind words anyway ;)

      You're right indeed about the Inquisitor models, I've only shown a couple of unpainted examples some time ago and I would really like to work again on that scale in the future, the scale is also a little more forgiving sculpting wise so that may be a good way to work a bit on that. I was really into it when it was released but switched pretty rapidly to 28mm before letting all this aside.

      So much projects still, I need a couple more lives !

  2. This was a very helpful and informative post, i always wondered why i never threw away blown out old paintbrushes, and now I know - I was waiting for you to show me the way... merci!

    1. Those and sprue bits are really helpful indeed, bever throw anything away, there's a second life for everything.

  3. The Microsurgery scalpels where did you find them??

    1. They were a gift in a Trade with a very nice member. I'll bring a few to give to those who want some at BOYL.

  4. Thank you for this informative post. I have always wanted to sculpt ... heck, I even bought some sculpting tools and books ... but somehow I never got started. Maybe I'm too afraid that my sculpts would all end up looking like Gumbo, the cartoon character.

    1. I think the fear for result is understandable but I'm pretty sure you were just as good at painting as at modelling with play-doh when you were a kid. For me, it's the fact sculpting requires a lot more patience and time that scares me from getting further than mere conversion and gap filling but in due time, I'll probably dive in and have a go with something forgiving.

  5. Yes! This is the sort of post I have been after. DIY Sprue-shapers are a fantastic idea - reckon I will be giving the micro surgery blades a miss however!

    1. the sprue shapers are just really useful and tailor made !


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