The Cheap Gamer – Getting the most out of your hobby stuff – paints, brushes and tools!

One of the surprising things about the Cheap Gamer column is that I’ll often be telling you to spend money.  And why?  Well, spending a little money can often save you a heck of a lot in the long run, especially if they let you get more, better and longer term use out of your hobby kit.

Many of the tools you use to work with miniatures are expensive.  Good brushes are expensive (and regularly replacing cheap ones often more so).  Paints aren’t cheap either, especially if you have a fairly extensive range.  The minis themselves are often pretty dear, and if you screw up a mini by skimping too much on glues or bad paint stripping techniques, you’ll throw all that money away.

Here’s a selection of suggestions to help you get the very longest and best performance out of your hobby tools …. without breaking the bank.


Well, you probably have a fairly large paint range if you’ve been in the hobby for a while, and fairly often you’ll open up a paint pot and notice its either gone solid or turned into a sludgy mess.  How can we help avoid this?

There are two or three great tricks to preserving your paints.

  1. Add a glass bead to your paint pots!  It really lets you shake your paints to get a good consistency, and helps extend the paint’s life by a fairly significant margin.  Glass beads aren’t dear, and it really does make a big difference.  it addition, it tends to improve your painting, as it gives you paint with a better consistency that covers better too!
  2. Make sure you have some airbrush thinner on hand.  This is fantastic for a last ditch recovery of paints.  As long as they aren’t totally solid, you can often recover them by adding some airbrush thinner, letting is soak in for a while and then giving it a jolly good shake.  If the paint has fully set, this won’t work, but its amazing how many paints can be recovered this way.  Its anecdotal,  but I find a few drops of thinner in the paints seems to keep them liquid longer in the first place too.
  3. Think about minimizing the paints exposure to air.  If you have pop top pots instead of dropper bottles, you really need to minimise the exposure by keeping the pots shut when not in use.  And that means in between getting paint out of the pot and putting it on a palette, not whole painting sessions!  If you have the time and patience, you can buy dropper bottles very cheaply and actually transfer the paints over.  It’ll extend their life, and also allow you to mix recipes much more accurately (as well as being easier to load up airbrushes if you have one).


Aha, the joys of the brush!  We’ll be looking at picking brushes in  a different article, but any brush will have a longer lifespan (and so cost less in replacements) if we look after it.  What does that mean?

Well, we should never let paint dry on the brush.  Make sure you clean your brush regularly while painting with clean water.  Don’t put too much paint on the brush, so it dries in the bristles.  Don’t dip your brushes in too deep, as paint drying in the join under the metal holding the bristles in place is the main thing that ruins brushes.

Make sure you use your range of brushes appropriately.  Don’t use small brushes for covering large areas with paint, or you’ll get bored and careless, and end up ruining the brush.  Don’t, for the love of hobby, use a good brush for drybrushing! 

On the flip side of that, don’t get too precious with using brushes for particular tasks.  Is your brush bot holding a point any more?  Well, use it mixing paint or ladling it out, or for drybrushing.  You can get a lot more use out of a brush even after it can’t be used for the main reason you bought it!

Finally, it is really, really, really worth investing in some decent brush soap.  They aren’t dear, and being able to use brush soap to properly clean and condition your brushes can add weeks or months of life to a brush.  Brush soap is well worth investing a little extra in, and only a little will go a long way!

One very useful trick is to colour code your brushes with a little bit of coloured tape on the end of the brush.  Make sure any damaged brushes used for drybrushing or mixing are clearly labelled, so you don’t mix them up with good ones.  If you have one or two really good brushes you only want to use for your very top end painting, colour code them too, so you can clearly see on the end of the brush when its in your hand.  Doing this has saved me more than once when I’ve gone to use a brush and almost used a brand new windsor and newton series 7 for blobbing paint out of a pot!

Other Tools

Tools in general are harder to maintain.  You can’t easily sharpen the blades on a sprue cutter, for example – if they aren’t cutting well, you probably need to replace them.

Some tools you can maintain, though, and its generally worth spending a little more in terms of ongoing maintenance than having to replace them.  Airbrushes, for example.  Regularly cleaning the brush properly, using sonic cleaning devices, ensuring that paint is thinned properly so it doesn’t jam, it all helps make sure your expensive tool keeps running effectively and saves you time and money over the lifespan.  Its very easy to think “oh, I’m out of cleaner, but I’ll do one last spray and clean the airbrush out later.”  It really isn’t worth it!

Make sure you replace cutting blades and drill bits for tools like Dremels, which will save horrible hobby accidents.  A damaged drill bit can jump and ruin expensive plastic and resin models, and costs very little.  Spend a little, and save a lot in both time and money.

Invest in cutting mats to go on hobby desks and paint stations..  It’ll preserve the hobby area, and be a lot cheaper to replace every so often than the whole paint station or desk!

In general, just look after your tools and hobby area, and replace parts (like blades in hobby knives) pretty frequently.  Replaceable parts and cheap tools will cost less to replace than ruining expensive models over time.



Miniature Painting Tools

I got a new toy this week – a rather expensive Iwata HP-BH, with a tiny 0.2 needle for detail work.  Having tweeted excitedly, a rather arrogant individual decided to lecture me about how dual action airbrushes were too complex for painting minis, despite the fact I’ve happily been using an Iwata Neo and two cheaper dual actions for some time now, and that most of the articles and my research recommends duals.  It made me step back, though, and really think about the importance of our tools in what we do, and how the right tool for you is far more important than the RIGHT tool that everyone is shouting about … and also how the right tool for you isn’t the right tool for everybody.

Lets start with the main tool we use to apply paints to miniatures … brushes!  I had another interesting discussion this week about the best brushes.  Brushes have so many quirks!  There are probably 4 main factors in choice of brush – the material of the bristles, the shape of the bristles, the shape of the handle, and the length of a handle.  I don’t think anyone would argue that Kolinsky Sable is the best material for bristles – it maintains its shape really well, and responds really well to a maintenance regimes of good cleaning, brush soap and conditioner.  Artificial bristles can be pretty much as good, but don’t tend to last.  The shape is very important for some particular painting tasks – the round ended GW stippling brush is fabulous, as is the slanted Army Painter dry brush, for example – but the general brush shape is standard.  The length varies, though should always come to a fine point – the idea behind a tiny ultra detail brush isn’t that you can paint a finer line – its so your visibility of the tiny details isn’t obscured as you do so.  The shape of a handle can make a massive difference – I find the triangular feel of the Army Painter brushes really stable in my hand, though I find it difficult to paint curving lines as smoothly.  In terms of handle length, the length tends to determine the heft in your hand, and the balance, and is a very personal touch.  It doesn’t often make much difference in terms of general technique, as you’ll hold it close to the point for control, except for slapping paint on tanks with a larger brush.

Most longer term hobbyists will swear by one brand for their general purpose brushes, and pick up specialist brushes from a range of suppliers for individual techniques.  I use expensive Windsor & Newton Series 7 brushes for my absolute top quality models – commanders, painting contest entries and the like. Generally, I use Army Painter brushes for regimental work, GW stippling brushes, and the wonderful slanted army painter dry brushes and … even a Games & Gears Katana brush for freehand bits occasionally, though I really wouldn’t recommend the rest of their line.   Its the combination that works for me. Some use series 7s for everything, others like Rosemary & Co brushes (which aren’t far off W&N for quality but much cheaper), other swear by the round GW brushes where I use triangular Army Painter ones.  It is very much a matter of taste.

I’ve written a whole series about airbrushes, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here, except to say that it is really important to find a brush that works for you.  Some people love Iwatas (like me), while others love badgers, and others like simple cheap single action brushes.  Partly it depends on how you want to use the airbrush – if you just want to chuck down a simple one colour primer, a dual action probably is a bit much, though for really even coverage a single trigger can have some sputter on initial trigger pulls compared to a dual with separate airflow…. though the pain in maintaining and cleaning it has to be taken into account.  Its funny how individual taste with the various brands can go – I really like the Iwata trigger action, and definitely like the level of control with the duals.

Applying decals is another area where tools can matter.  While most decals can be applied using simple water and applying it onto paint, varnishing the area first and using dedicated transfer solutions to ensure smooth application can really make a difference!  I don’t use transfers much myself – I like folded insignia or pads, or airbrush stencils, but using a dedicated solution makes a heck of a difference.

In short, you can’t do a great piece of work with rubbish tools, generally.  Adequate tools can get great results, but won’t generally last as long.  And great tools aren’t cheap, but you can really guarantee consistent results.  I wish I could say they guarantee great results, but thats down to you!  So much of the final choice is down to what effects you want to try, and your personal ergonomics.  A tiny handed person isn’t going to get on with large brushes, while a larger chap is probably going to favour a little more heft to their brush.  Just accept that what works for you won’t work for everyone, and bear that in mind listening to their recommendations too.