Sculpting a Tabletop Gaming Figurine with Epoxy Modeling Clay
- James McMullen
With all the buzz surrounding the release of the new 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s been fun to get back into a hobby I last played in maybe Junior High School. I wish I still had some of my old painted figurines and stuff. . .but of course it’s even more fun to make your own from scratch.
Today we are making a custom figurine for my Gnomish Wizard Sigmund Delver, using sculptor’s epoxy putty. There are several different brands of this sort of thing available, typically found in Hobby shops and Art Supplies stores. This time I’ll be trying out Easy Sculpt from Castin’Craft, as I’ve never worked with it before.
There is a distinct working timeline with epoxy clays as the chemical reaction progresses. They start out pretty soft and a bit sticky, and they get firmer and firmer over the course of a few hours. You definitely need to make sure that you only mix up as much as you are going to use at a time, as any extra will go to waste. But there’s often an advantage to working in small batches, letting the first layers get firm before adding more as you build up your forms and add details. And of course, ALWAYS WEAR GLOVES WHEN WORKING WITH EPOXIES! You do not want this stuff touching your skin.
The figurine will start with a heavy wire armature to support the epoxy as it hardens up and cures. I have always preferred a heavy, stiff wire for armatures myself, trading off the ability to re-pose the figure as you go for the stability of a stout structure. This means that you have to get your pose figured out ahead of time, though. Start with a couple of bits of wire to form the legs and pelvic girdle, and the arms/shoulder area. You’ll also want a third piece of wire to twist up into the spine. These will be shaped into a 3-D stick figure of your character, making sure to include the proper bends at the major joints of knees, shoulders, and elbows.
You’ll also need something to act as a base. I’ve used a scrap of ¼” plywood, which allows me to drill holes to secure the wires right through the base for maximum strength at the vulnerable ankle area. I like to put a magnet in my bases as well, so that my figurines stay firmly in place on their shelves in transport. A flat-bottomed hole can be made with a brad-point bit to recess the magnet perfectly flush with the base.
After cleaning and twisting the bits of wire tightly together with pliers, I like to solder them into one solid, sturdy skeleton. Remember, if you want the solder to actually stick, you must make sure the wires don’t have any traces of oil or grease on them, including the oils from your skin. A little bit of advance planning in keeping things clean can save some frustration later.
The completed wire framework is plugged into the holes drilled to receive it and secured in place with a drop of glue. My Gnome character Sigmund is supposed to be shorter than human-sized characters, so one last quick check against these Age of Sigmar figurines to make sure I’m in the right ballpark before I go to all the work of sculpting.
There are two basic ways to generate the shapes: additive and subtractive. We’ll be using both methods, layering on the clay, carving away the excess to refine the shapes, and adding in details and smoothing as we progress. But regardless, the first step is to pack on globs of clay to tightly surround every bit of the armature. You don’t want any voids or looseness here at all. You’ll pack it in tight to fill every nook and cranny.
I find it an effective strategy at this stage to pack on a large amount of clay to start with, and then carve away the excess, padding out the wire skeleton a bit closer to the finished size, but not going for any great detail yet. It is often desirable to stop here and let the clay harden up a bit. You’ll still be able to carve it down with a sharp knife for a few hours to come if necessary.
You really don’t need a bunch of specialized tools for this kind of work. I have a few artist’s tools like palette knives, a ball-end prod, and a couple of spatulas and spoons, but I find I do much of the shaping work with things like popsicle sticks and toothpicks, not to mention my fingers. And a basic X-acto knife with a sharp point handles the carving part. Sometimes I’ll even carve the end of a stick to a specific shape to handle a particular task. You can make interesting textures by using a toothpick shaped into a miniature stamp.
As you refine your shapes, it is useful to add musculature, even if your figure will be draped with clothing and armor. Sculptors talk about “masses”, and you want to account for these masses to make sure that your clothing looks like it’s being worn by an actual body, and not just a shapeless, unrealistic sack. The thighs, buttocks, calves, pecs, and shoulders, all typically have pronounced, curved forms that cause your clothing to belly out in these areas, even if it is loose, or flowing. I even like to put in the belly button as a reference for height as it should be at pretty much the center of gravity.
As this particular character is a Gnome, he has a short and stumpy set of proportions. A normal human type character would have longer legs in proportion, though elbow joints would still align with the bellybutton. I prefer to leave the head off until the very last step, as the face seems to take me as much time to shape just right as the entire rest of the body combined.
Fabric can be added as very thin layers of clay to make folds, or you can press simulated folds and wrinkles into the clay directly. Here I’ve used a combination of these techniques, adding extras like sleeves and collars, and blending them into the existing masses with a smoothing tool.
You can add details and textures by pressing them into the clay. The cuffs on the sleeves were made simply by pushing in the blunt end of my palette knife around the edge, and the seam line for the soles of the boots, the tunic overlap, and where the sleeves meet the tunic were made similarly. The repeating pattern of his braided leather belt was done with a ball-end prod tool.
Here also you can see the masses and the roughed-in details of the face and head, with eye-sockets, nose, cheek bones, jaw, and the beginnings of a magnificent handlebar moustache. Sigmund himself is bald, but if you were going to add hair to your own character, you would want to make sure to add it on top of the modelled skull to make sure that you get the masses correct. Sigmund’s hands are still just stubs that end at the wrists, as these fragile details will need to be added at the very last.
Our stalwart hero is a Wizard, and every Wizard, of course, needs a Wizard’s Staff. Sigmund’s is made from half of one of those fancy-end toothpicks. I formed the delicate little fingers around the post first before joining them all together at the wrist. The toothpick is also securely glued to the base to provide added structure in case someone tries to grab the figurine by the staff to move it around the map.
All the final little details are in place now: ears and moustache, belt buckle, mystic pendant, eyebrows, even his sack of treasures. Small parts are little threads of clay placed with tweezers and gently tapped in place.
We’ll let all of this harden up and cure now for a couple of days before we paint, to make sure that there’s no chemical incompatibilities between our epoxy clay surface and the paint. The wooden parts of the base and the staff will get a couple of coats of shellac as a primer coat to seal them.
With the epoxy clay completely hardened, we can now carefully drill a hole through his closed fist for the thong Sigmund will be using to sling his Sack Of Treasure over his shoulder. I am using a pin vise, a special tool that lets you use tiny little drillbits by hand.
The thong is made from a scrap of old nylgut banjo string. Fishing line or sewing thread or fine wire could also be used for this sort of thing, but if you play a stringed instrument, you’ll always have a steady supply of old strings to use for projects. One thing to note, nylon monofilament doesn’t take paint very well, so hopefully you are satisfied with the color you already have--otherwise use something else.
Last of all, I’ve fastened the sack in place with a drop of CA glue. In some cases it might be worth leaving off some of your details until after you’ve painted, to make it easier to work into all the complicated areas cleanly. If you were to do this, a few tiny pins can be drilled in to reinforce the joint as well as precisely locating these parts.
Anyways, for Sigmund here, the next step is to paint him up!
The first step for any figurine painting is to use a primer coat. This initial coat of paint not only serves as a bonding layer for the more delicate and detailed finish coats above, but also can help you do a final check of the overall shape and detailing. A thin coat of a single colour will show up any pits, crevices, or roughness that needs to be taken care of before you go to the next steps.
You can choose a black or white primer, or even a specific colour if you want to influence the final shading of your figurine. I usually prefer a black or a dark grey myself, as I like the way it helps to bring out the shadows in the recesses.
I use modelmaker’s paints like Tamiya, Citadel, and Army Painter’s for my figurines. It’s always important to remember to put on many thin coats rather than one or two thick ones. You don’t want to obscure your details with big blobs of paint. After your base layers, you can go back with your details, using metallics and washes to bring out all the little subtleties. I decided to leave the wooden staff natural wood colour.
I typically use a texture paint to finish off the bases, though I’ve also experimented with the glue-and-sand or crumbled cork, or even the model scenery artificial grass. There’s lots of room to trick out your finished figurine with details. And after all the layers have dried thoroughly, you’ll want to topcoat your carefully painted miniature with a couple of coats of a clear spray varnish to guard against wear and tear from handling.