Once you’ve been painting miniatures for a while (and for some, almost as soon as they start painting!) you have the desire to start altering the miniatures before you paint them. In the world of miniatures, this is called converting. A great way to get some practice with conversions is by converting plastic miniatures. Plastic is much easier to cut than pewter, which means that converting plastics does not require very costly tools (like the dremels often used by experienced modelers) and can often be done with many fewer headaches. If you’re looking to gain more experience with conversions, or are considering your first conversion, I would recommend getting comfortable converting plastics before you try anything too ambitious in metal.
This article is aimed at someone who has probably not done much converting besides weapon swaps. I assume that you’re familiar with basic techniques such as pinning, but all of these techniques should be doable by beginning modelers.
Tools and materials
Because plastic conversions are relatively easy, I will only be using a few simple tools for this project.
- sharp hobby knife
- wire cutters
- pin vice
- drill bits
- sewing needle
- epoxy modeling putty (”green stuff” and “brown stuff”)
- brass wire/paperclips
For this article we will be converting plastic Space Marines from Games Workshop. They are some of the most common plastic miniatures in the gaming world, are easy to convert, and you will frequently see armies consisting of dozens of plastic marines, all in similar poses, so some conversion work to add variety is very useful. However, these techniques can, in principle, be applied to any plastic miniature, and many of them can be applied to metal miniatures as well (albeit with more work and tools such as saws and dremels).
We are going to start by reposing some of our Space Marines. Every single Space Marine seems to come with the same pose: legs spread, holding the gun across the chest. The main thing you control is the relative facing of the legs, torso, and head. In order to spice things up a bit, we’re going to reject this simple formula, and repose our marines as we see fit.
We’ll start by reposing the legs. Instead of the static “solid footing” pose most marines have, I want a marine which is upright and walking - of course the same techniques could be used to create other poses. In order to accomplish this, I begin by cutting apart my marine legs. I remove both feet, and then I remove both legs where they join to the pelvis. Then I smooth the areas where I have cut, so that I can reassemble them without rough patches where my knife cuts are visible:
The next step is to begin reattaching them. Before I attach anything else, I want to make sure the legs are positioned how I want them. I drill a hole in the top of each leg, cut a section of paper clip long enough to pass through the pelvis, bend, and enter the top of each leg, and then attach both legs to the paperclip. I have not yet attached the pelvis, because I want the freedom to bend the paperclip as I like to get the legs oriented in a natural gait before attaching the pelvis; the two-body problem is much simpler than the three-body problem.
Now that I have the legs in a reasonable pose, I have a problem: how do you attach the pelvis to the middle of the paperclip, with both legs in place? Simple: you cut a groove. I cut a slit from the base of the pelvis, deep enough so that I can slot the pelvis into place over the paperclip, between the two legs. Later I will cover this slit with modeling putty - I’ll be covering a smooth area on the underside of the miniature, so the replacement will be unnoticeable, even with my lackluster sculpting ability.
The next step is to attach the feet. This is rather simpler than the pelvis; I just need to pin them in place. One of the two feet will be the back foot, and in order to show that the marine is walking forward lifting his heel, I cut it in half, and reattach the halves at an angle, so that the toe will be firmly planted on the ground, and the heel will be raised. Don’t worry about gaps at this time; you can fix them later with modeling putty. Here is my fully assembled leg construction:
The only thing left to do is gap filling. The underside of the pelvis and gaps in the feet are simple to fix: we simply fill them with modeling putty, and smooth them over. The gaps between the legs and pelvis are a bit more complicated: we need to recreate the raised ridges of the articulated joins. This is the most complicated sculpting needed for this project, but it’s still relatively simple: start by filling the gap and creating a smooth surface where the texture will go, then impress grooves with the edge of your modeling knife, rolling it along the curved surface so the grooves have constant depth. The trickiest part is making sure the grooves are evenly spaced.
You can easily apply the same principles to arms, heads, and torsos. Of course with these plastic Space Marines, the torso and head are already separate pieces that can be assembled in many poses, but here is a reposed arm made to be holding a weapon outstretched rather than across the body:
I simply cut above and below the elbow, and then reassembled the pieces, using a pin, in the desired position. Again, the gaps are filled and the articulation is created with modeling putty.
Besides reposing miniatures and doing weapon swaps, the most common other use of conversions is adding or changing details. This can be anything from tabards to beards to elaborate scrollwork on armor. Again, for this article we will be aiming for rather simple results; in this case, I’m going to be converting a marine into a champion of Nurgle.
For this model I decided go for simple modifications, and to add interest with the paint scheme. One thing to keep in mind is that you can make a simple conversion really pop with freehand or other elaborate painting, or showcase a more complicated sculpt with a very simple paint job. Your conversions don’t always have to be tremendously detailed - sometimes simple is best. In order to assist with your sculpting, it’s nice to have a collection of sculpting tools. If you are really into sculpting, you can spend quite a while collecting and modifying your tools, but for this article we will only use a few simple tools: a hobby knife and an ordinary sewing needle. One of my favorite sculpting tools is a simple needle, secured in a pin vice to give it a nice handle. However, if you decide that you enjoy sculpting, one of the first things you will want to do is procure some better tools.
In order to take a generic chaos marine and turn him into a devotee of Nurgle, I have made two principal modifications (apart from reposing the legs as described in the previous section). First, his belly has been enlarged with modeling putty, as is common for devotees of Nurgle. This was a relatively simple modification, the primary change being to add bulk; the only detail I sculpted was some simple generic battle/corrosion damage. Of course, if you are confident in your sculpting skills, you can add more detail, such as hoses, insignia, and so forth. The second main modification was to his shoulder pad. In order to properly mark him as a devotee of Nurgle, I wanted a Nurgle insignia on one of his shoulders. I drilled three holes in a triangle into his shoulder pad to use as a guide (and also so that the insignia could be partially recessed), and then sculpted the insignia over them.
Putting it all together
This article showed you a few simple techniques that you could use to individualize your miniatures, especially plastic ones, by reposing them and adding details. In order to get the best mileage out of these techniques, remember that they can be combined in various ways to create unique poses. As a pair of final examples, I present two marines: a Templar, and a painted version of the Nurgle champion from above.
The Templar sports three modifications. First, instead of holding his bolter across his chest in the typical marine pose, I wanted him to be pointing it in the opposite direction, so I reposed his right arm. Second, since his left hand was now not needed to hold the bolter, I decided to give him one of the knives that comes with all the plastic marine sets. This was another simple conversion - I simply took one of the open hands designed to hold a bolter grip, and curled the fingers around the knife hilt. Finally, I decided to give him a unique helmet, so I carved down a beaked Space Marine helmet into something with a bit of a Templar feel. Three simple conversions, but together they turn a generic plastic marine into something that stands out.