Convert or Be Darned to Heck #4: Starting Small


I'm a fiend for miniatures conversions. Very little passes over my painting desk without having been tweaked or outright twisted. I'd like to share a little of that magic with you.

I'm a fiend for miniatures conversions. Very little passes over my painting desk without having been tweaked or outright twisted. I'd like to share a little of that magic with you.

In the basing articles up 'til now, I've been concerned with telling a story. I think having some sort of background in mind adds immensely to a given figure, and conversions (no matter how minor) really help add character and life to a piece. Plus I like tentacles. I love tentacles.

The most basic conversion I like to perform is minor posture tweaking on metal miniatures. There's not much to this, so no pictures: all I do is separate parts that don't belong together. If the sculptor had to join the sword and the helmet for integrity during casting, I'll cut 'em apart, trying to leave as much detail intact as I can (and re-sculpting what I can't, but more on that later). If the sculpt is a little more complex, and the staff is just a little too close to the wizard's knee, I'll pry them apart as much as looks good.

This is really, really minor stuff, but I see miniatures without these changes all the time. Go on, take the plunge. The figure is yours now: cut free the lump of metal joining the raised-up foot to the base. Bend the horns to make them look more imposing. Curve the wings so the dragon looks like it's landing.

Be careful as you try this, but give it a shot. The pewter used by most companies these days are pretty forgiving as long as there's not too much repositioning, and the small changes make a great difference.

Of course, those changes aren't as sexy as outright conversions, so let's start on that. Project number one: the classic weapon swap. If you're using figures in RPGs (which I how I got started), you might have found a character with an appropriate look but the wrong weapon. No problem. Let's use Dim Pete as an example.

Dim Pete is a member of my Mordheim gang, the Purple Pizzles. As such, he needed a ridiculous weapon. He got a mace. Boring. So in his off hand, he needed something a little more interesting. I was looking at all the plastic skaven tails and dreaming of tentacles when it occurred to me the tails looked like big (in scale terms) earthworms. And Dim Pete had an open mouth. Aha.

(This sort of aha is really the essence of conversions. For me, it's finding something really, really inappropriate, something that'll make people doubt my faculties. For other folks, it might be a good idea for a new weapon style, a dynamic pose, inspiration from artwork, or an attempt to make a faithful character representation. Find your eureka.)

The Mordheim miniatures are plastic kits, but the weapon swap technique is more or less the same for plastic or metal. For our purposes, I'll pretend the figure was already assembled with the mace in his right hand and an axe in his left.

To begin with, I cut the axe off just above and just below the left hand. I used a sharp knife, which is usually sufficient for plastic or thin metal. A jeweler's saw with a very fine blade would also have worked nicely. After removing as much of the axe as I could, I smoothed the area down. (Small files and fine sandpaper work well for this on metal; a razor is appropriate for plastic.)

Ideally, the new weapon would fit directly into the hand. If you think this is the case, I'd recommend completely drilling out the handle left in the hand, dry-fitting the new weapon to ensure a good fit and an appropriate position, and gluing in place.

Usually, though, this just won't work (particularly if you're dealing with a two-part worm). In that case, I usually drill a very small hole through the hand, and glue into place a pin made of thin-gauge wire, brass rod, a paper clip, a straight pin, or whatever other material would be thin and strong enough for my purposes. I'm careful to center the hole in the original handle (the one left in the hand).

With this in place, I carefully drill a matching hole in the center of each piece - in this case, each worm-half. I then dry-fit the pieces, and if everything looks good, glue it all together.

There's a possibility the handle cross-sections won't match. On something like a sword, it's possible to cover the join completely by attaching the hilt directly to a piece of the original handle. If it's not possible to do in the course of the conversion, time to cover the join. To continue the handle in a natural-looking way, I usually add on a tiny ring of epoxy putty and smooth it carefully into place, making a little slope between the original handle and the new one.

Another possibility is covering the area in another way. In this case, I tried to use dirt. I glued a little sand into the area to make the worm look appropriately fresh. The effect didn't quite come off, and the join is a little awkward. I'll chalk it up to experience, and be more careful the next time I put a giant worm into a figure's hand.

A head swap works more or less the same way, but is a bit more intimidating. Still, with carefully selected figures, this is just as easy. Say you're just as tired as Gamerchick is of female figures sculpted without any clothing. (See, this miniatures stuff relates to everything else on We're all geeks here.) One solution? Removing the bikini-barbarian-babe's head and attaching it to an appropriate suit of armor.

Actually, make it an effete, crossbow-wielding gentleman, the Marksman. I don't have any head-swapped female figs. So much for my politics.

I began by removing the head from the first body. It's usually particularly easy to do with armored figures, since there's typically little detail joining the head to the body. I had a readily available head from the Mordheim set, but the process is much the same if you're removing the head from another mini: cut carefully, using the most precise tools you have. Try not to destroy any important detail, and don't cut yourself. Again, jeweler's saws are great on both counts.

I drilled a hole into the "neck" of the body figure, and set a thick pin into that. Once that had dried, I drilled a hole in the head and dry-fit the pieces. A piece of thick wire works well as a pin in this case, so that it can be moved a little to change the position of the head. Once everything looked good, I glued the head into place, being careful to sight along the crossbow.

However, I had a problem. The original figure had long hair connecting the head to the body. Fortunately, the new head had a sort of a do-rag under his hat, which made things easy to modify. Using a very little bit of epoxy putty, I joined the two pieces together with some long hair. I figured it made him look particularly effete.
(Speaking as a long-haired non-effete individual who sometimes shoots crossbows, I'm aware of the danger of stereotypes. Fight the power.)

Once this had dried, I added the additional detail of the crossbow. I'll leave that until next time.

I really hope that you spend some time on this topic. I've figured out painting, but except for adding to miniatures I can't do much in the way of conversions. It's pretty easy to sit there with a copy of a magazine or a book and follow some of the painting tips, but I never feel the conversion tips show or explain enough for me to feel confident. One more question, how do you glue a metal bit to a plastic mini? I have some skeleton figures that I can't get to work because the weapons are metal while the body is plastic. Games Workshop minis, in case that's important.

This one's been in the pipes for a while -- more to come in the future, after that Master's is finished. ;)

One thing to remember is just jumping in. I've got a project underway that's making me do some work, which I might plug in a future article. Go for it, even if you know it's going to end up ugly. :)

As far as gluing metal to plastic goes, a hobby cyanoacrylate glue like Zap-A-Gap works well. I've had really lousy luck with regular superglues (which are also CA glues), and liquid epoxy doesn't stick well to some kinds of plastic.

I wish I could afford figs and stuff.

All the same, I'm still interested in this topic - but some pictures of your conversions in progress would make this a LOT easier for those of us who are fig-neophytes.


Starhawk, you might have some luck picking up old mini lots on eBay or one of the trading boards. Back in the pre-eBay days I could sometimes get my hands on a few dozen minis for a couple bucks -- not current stuff, certainly, but lots of fun anyway. :)

I forgot to post my URL. Here 'tis:

I'll try and get those example pics to the proper authorities. . . .

Salvatore, thanks for putting those pictures in.

Everybody else, my fault for getting them in late. :)

You're welcome. :)