Good miniatures and 3D prints for role-playing games, tabletops, or board games only become great when painted. This article will show you what you need to get started cheaply and explain some important painting techniques.
A 3D printer can be a great addition for people who play tabletops, role-playing games, or board games. This is because you can find many templates for suitable prints on the Internet. These templates can make things like inlays for better sorting of figures, cards, or tokens. You can also find templates for obstacles and treasure chests. Plus, you can find templates for almost all monsters from the Dungeons & Dragons universe.
However, because most 3D printers only produce one color, you should paint them yourself after the fact. We’ll teach you how to paint miniatures, whether they come from shops or 3D printers, in this article. We’re primarily focused on novices and anyone who wants to have a go at it. We also provide suggestions for colors and accessories – which can often be achieved with items you already have lying around your 3D printer.
If you’re looking for a 3D printer, we recommend looking at our top 10: The best 3D printers for filament and resin in comparison. Here, we show which devices were the most convincing in the individual tests. And for those who prefer spraying to brushing, we recommend our article “Inexpensive Airbrush Systems for Beginners: What Matters.
What can you print?
3D modeling is a broad term that refers to creating three-dimensional models from 2D pictures or movies. Obstacles, structures, and automobiles are just a few things that may be created using 3D modeling. Monster figures and spare components are also available. You can also find practical accessories, like sorting boxes or dice towers. A good first place to start is Thingiverse; here, you can type in the name of the game and click-through results. The Shapeways marketplace is also a great place to start, especially for all pen & paper roleplayers. Miguel Zavala, for example, makes over 1800 monsters from the Dungeon & Dragons universe available there. Completely free of charge.
Heroforge has great and customizable models that look great, especially with an S.L.A. printer.
However, there are now some exciting services around 3D printing and tabletops in addition to individual projects. At the forefront of this is Heroforge. There, you can assemble your figures from umpteen different elements and then have them printed or download them as STL files. The price starts at around 8 dollars per figure, but you get completely custom heroes with great details. This is worthwhile, for example, for all game groups that want to play their heroes for a longer time. A not quite as flexible alternative is Desktop Hero 3D, but the STL files are free there.
If you want to go even further, you should look into Dragonlock. This is a complete dungeon crawler whose individual parts you get from the 3D printer. In addition to the normal walls, there are also traps or statues, for example, or even components that hold an LED to illuminate a torch on the wall, for example. If you want to build atmospheric dungeons at home, you should look into the system. A free starter kit is available to try out yourself.
A note on legality: Even if a model is free to download from Thingiverse or another site, it doesn’t mean that it is free of copyright claims. Games Workshop, the company behind Warhammer, often takes legal action against people who publish copies of their figures without permission. Other companies, such as D&D owners Wizards of the Coast, are a bit more permissive. As long as the artists follow the rules of the Open Gaming License and the guidelines on fan content, they have no problems with the figures, according to a spokesperson for the company.
If you want to print products not for sale, like Warhammer army upgrades, you should be careful. You might have problems trying to print things and then sell them later.
SLA or FDM: Which technology to use?
If you don’t have a 3D printer yet and are thinking about buying one, you must decide whether you want an FDM printer or an SLA printer. FDM devices work with filament on a spool, heated, and printed in layers on a plate. On the other hand, SLA uses a resin that the printer spotlights.
Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. FDM has a great advantage in that the filaments are relatively cheap and easy to process. On the other hand, you usually don’t get any fine details. On the other hand, figures from the SLA printer look almost as if a commercial manufacturer had printed them. However, this requires special post-treatment and regular cleaning of the tank. The great quality makes it interesting for anyone who wants really good models. But the important point is that you should then definitely print the figures with a base on which they stand. SLA, unlike FDM, is not easy to glue or paint.
A few things are needed for painting. Unnecessary are paints and brushes; useful things like a wet palette and a holder for the figures. You should not be too thrifty with paints and brushes and go directly to the products of manufacturers who specialize in miniatures. Games Workshop (Citadel), Vallejo, Reaper, or Army Painter. Each offers its paints and has brushes on offer—more on paints below.
The wet palette is enormously helpful so that the colors do not dry out while painting. There are ready-made palettes, but these can also be built easily. You only need a lid, such as ice cream, kitchen roll, and baking paper. Put the kitchen roll under the baking paper. Then you can dab the colors on the baking paper and mix them there or pick them up on the brush.
The second optional but the very good accessory is a holder for the figures. This can also be purchased ready-made or printed. Under the search term “Miniature Painting Handle,” you can find numerous templates on Thingiverse that adapt to different sized figures. We have had very good experiences with this handle. Alternatively, you can stick the figures with double-sided adhesive tape on a yogurt pot.
Before painting, you need colors. Here you can completely draw from the full. Different paint companies make different colors. But these colors can be mixed. If you want to try this, get a set of starter colors first to see how it looks. Then you can expand this collection as you wish. The more you paint, the sooner preferences form, and you notice which colors you use more often.
None of the major miniature paint manufacturers are really bad when it comes to quality. The Citadel paints may cover a bit better, but you can make up for that with multiple layers with other suppliers. We find the design of the Citadel paint pots enormously convenient. It’s easy to get to the paint, and thanks to the little nose in the pot, you can shake it up quickly and easily.
Miniature paints are available from different manufacturers, and these colors can all be mixed.
If you buy bottles from Vallejo or Army Painter, you should also add a package of mixing balls to your shopping basket. These are small steel balls with a diameter of a few millimeters. These are tossed into the bottles with the paints, making them easier to mix. This is especially important if the colors are left to stand for a long time. If you don’t shake them properly, the paint particles can settle to the bottom. Since each vial usually lasts months or years, investing in the small mixing balls makes sense.
Lastly, a note: A very good resource for anyone new to painting figures is Diced’s YouTube channel. The creator Denis explains very well in this playlist the
The first step in preparing miniatures is to clean them. You can do this by washing them in lukewarm soapy water. Then use a file or side cutter to remove any burrs.
Before painting, a layer of primer paint is applied. This ensures that the next colors hold well and cover solidly. You have several options for priming: You can apply the paint by hand, use an airbrush, or spray-on ready-made primer. However, manual priming should be placed at the back of the list, as inexperienced users can quickly apply too much color. Airbrushing is a subject in itself, which we will look at in more detail in the article Inexpensive airbrush systems for beginners: What matters. First of all, priming works great, but you have to get to grips with the airbrush properly.
The simplest method is primers in spray cans.
These paints are not cheap, but they provide good results quickly. The author likes Citadel’s 500 ml primers because the paint adheres well, does not cover up details, and is easy to apply.
There’s not much to consider when choosing a primer. Ideally, you should use a color that you will use a lot on the model later. But that’s optional; after all, you’ll be painting over it later anyway. You can do relatively little wrong with a white or light gray primer; these are a good base for all kinds of other colors.
Priming the models is simple: Ideally, you stick the figures on a cardboard box with double-sided adhesive tape and place another cardboard box behind it as a catch-all for the colors. Then shake the can until you hear the ball rattling inside, which can take a few minutes. You should test whether the paint is fine enough by spraying it briefly on one part of the cardboard.
Short sprays of the figures from a distance of 10 to 20 cm are then done. Do not switch to continuous fire here; spray briefly, wait, and continue. If you prime too thickly, you won’t see any details later. Ideally, there should be a light film on the models after spraying, through which you can even see the details a little better. Less is more here; in case of doubt, you can also prime in two or three passes. The paint dries comparatively quickly; after about 5 to 10 minutes, you can continue. Since the paint stinks quite a bit, you should go to a dry, well-ventilated place for priming.
After priming, the first colors are applied. Of course, everyone is free to choose how he paints his miniatures. However, it has proven useful to start with the largest surfaces. Is the chest made of wood? Perfect, then perhaps the first coat of brown is a good way to go. That way, you work your way from one surface to the next.
It is important to wash out and dry the respective brush well; it should no longer carry old paint. Some people prefer smaller brushes when they paint. These brushes let you have more control over the color. The important thing is to try out different brushes and find the one that feels best for you. With time, you will feel which brush works best for which situation.
To make sure the color covers well, you should dilute the paint with water before applying it to the wet palette. Let it dry, and then check to see how well it covers. If it doesn’t look good, add another layer of paint. But don’t apply too much paint at once since it will be harder to control how it looks. Especially at the beginning, you might overpaint the details of the model. Therefore, it is better to apply three thin layers than one thick one. The colors change as they dry. Some seem weak and not very opaque at first but tighten up as soon as the paint dries.
Jewelry, weapons, rivets, eyes, or locks should go to such details when large areas are painted. If you have painted over the details a little too generously initially, you can also paint them again with the primer color to get a better hold afterward. Here, too, the rule is: work carefully and go over the same areas more often with less paint to get really good coverage.
The miniature is finished after the large and small areas are painted. However, it will look unfinished and flat. The next two techniques, shading and dry brushing make it look better.
Shading with Washes or Shade
This is where the real magic happens when painting miniatures. Shading is a great trick for giving a plastic appearance to previously rather flat figures. To do this, you need to use paints specially made for it. These are called Shade (Citadel), Wash (Vallejo), or Quickshade (Army Painter) paints, and they come in different colors. These paints run into the crevices and collect there, while the raised parts are painted less heavily. Once they dry, the impression of shadows, depressions, and raised areas is created.
When applying them, one should proceed with appropriate care. These colors are always darker than the actual main colors, and they should roughly match the main color. However, this does not mean that you have to purchase a matching shade for every color. Three or four different ones are usually quite enough. Solid all-rounders are Nuln Oil and Agrax Earthshade from the Citadel color series. They also give a somewhat worn look to the respective surfaces on which they are applied.
Another trick is dry brushing. This is, very roughly, the opposite of shading. You take a little paint on a bristle brush. Then you clean it almost completely so that there is only a minimal amount of paint left on the brush. Now you wave the brush over the figure or model. This way, the paint sticks to the elevations and gently highlights them. The method is perfect for chainmail, for example, to give it a silvery sheen that stands out over the depths through the shading.
The combination of shading and dry brushing helps almost any model achieve an impressive, three-dimensional look. The techniques are also quick to learn. The more you use them, the better you get and the truer the models look.
With basic colors, shading, and dry brushing, you have three solid techniques at the beginning, with which your first miniatures look good. However, this is by no means the end of the story. If you want to go deeper, you should look at the Youtube mentioned above playlist of Diced. In addition to the three techniques mentioned above, it also explains how to set hard edges, apply layers or design the figures’ bases.
Worth mentioning for those with large figure collections are Citadel’s Contrast Colors. These are specifically designed to get multiple figures “Battle Ready” quickly. To “officially” compete in Warhammer or Warhammer 40K, Games Workshop uses the phrase minimal level of paint. A figure should be painted with a base color and a tone, then the most important features, such as weapons or armor components, should be highlighted. Games Workshop has developed the Citadel Contrast colors to keep this simpler for large armies. These contain the base color and shading in one color in very simplified terms. Accordingly, one saves a work step without the figures looking worse. On the other hand, the contrast colors are more expensive.
3D printers and painting miniatures go together perfectly as a hobby. Painting is fun and, at least for the author, quite relaxing. In addition to the multitude of ready-made games and systems, 3D printer miniatures are a welcome addition.
Not only can you use them to design the obstacles on the battlefields of Warhammer or Freebooters Fate, but you also get useful additional material for normal role-playing games or board games like Settlers of Catan or Gloomhaven. And everything looks better when painted.
If you’re still looking for the right 3D printer, we recommend looking at our 3D printer theme world. Some websites compare printers. They are inexpensive and good. If you miss pen & paper role-playing games, you can find websites that explain how to play them with other people over the Internet.