Medieval Armies DBA Page

15mm Figure Conversions and Modifications

By David Kuijt

What's New | Materials and Techniques | Case Studies

Introduction

This page shows some simple (and not-so-simple) figure conversions techniques, with examples. I hope it will be useful to other gamers. If you (the reader) have any other ideas, suggestions, or techniques, I'd love to hear them. Contact me at kuijt@umiacs.umd.edu.

To keep things simple I've organized this into two sections. The first section is an overview of some materials and techniques. The second section is organized by figure or stand, and contains case studies with a more detailed discussion of what I did, and why, on a particular set of figures. Both sections are profusely illustrated with links to images of actual 15mm figures. To keep loading time down most of the images are not thumbnailed.

Materials and Techniques

Tools

An exacto knife (or similar razor/craft knife) is the most important tool you can have. (Always use eye protection -- I've been hit in the nose by a bit of broken blade, and it could easily have been an eyeball). I use two of them -- one with a #11 blade (very sharply pointed) for detail work and one with a broader, curved blade (less likely to break and stronger) for heavier work. They are very useful for flash removal, 15mm surgery, scraping tasks, precise cuts and holes, and so on. When I want to change the shape of a figure's nose, a #11 exacto blade is what I use.

Gap-filling super glue (cyano-acrylate glue) is my glue of choice. Be careful with this stuff -- the fumes aren't fun, and you can glue your fingers together in an instant. However, the gap-filling variety is much thicker and less prone to run than the standard stuff, and makes a better seal between irregular shapes (a carved hand and a wire spear, for example). I also use this stuff to glue figs to their bases -- they are quite secure, but can be removed for rebasing by slipping the stronger exacto blade into the glue joint. I keep a small jar of acetone around in case of a gluing accident, but I haven't needed it yet. Gap-filling superglue can also be used for minor build-up tasks, like adding a small beard to a figure, or changing the folds of his clothing (often necessary after clipping off a bow-sheath, for example). It takes a couple of applications, and I'm sure other materials would work better, but I don't have them, and this works fine. When it dries completely it is quite rigid, like hard plastic, and can be trimmed with the trusty #11 exacto knife.

Files. I've got a cheap set of needle files and a couple of larger files for removing flash on the bottom of bases. Good to have around, although mostly I remove flash with the exacto knives.

Electrician's tools. I've got a small array of tweezers, pliers, and wire snips. Again, these are sometimes useful, but not crucial.

Dental tools. The next time you are in for a root canal, ask your dentist if you can have some of his old tools. Dental tools wear out and break, and many of the broken ones are still useful for poking, prodding, and scraping 15mm miniatures. Certainly not necessary, and I wouldn't spend $8 a tool to buy them, but nice enough if you can con them out of your dentist. Your dentist throws them away, after all.

Minor shaping and bending

Don't be afraid to mess with your figures. Although pewter doesn't bend as easily as the old lead figures did, you can still bend an arm to put a weapon in a different position, adding some variety to a stand. Start off carefully, and experiment on figs that aren't precious, but it is easy.

Anyone who has misidentified a costume detail as flash will already know that it is easy to scrape off minor details of costume. Done deliberately, rather than by accident, small modifications can add variety to a stand. With care, and steady hands, it is possible to remove the beard from a bearded figure, cut away a bow case, or scrape off a weapon baldric. On the two Pecheneg light horse shown, I scraped the beard off the one on the left, leaving him just a moustache. The one on the right is unmodified.

With a little more practice, it is possible to carve additional details -- add a belt, introduce some fabric folds in a smooth area, or something. I do most of my work with the #11 exacto knife previously mentioned, but the needle files are very useful here too.

As a simple example, I ended up with two artilleryman figures holding ramrods, and only one bombard for them to service. I converted the ramrod into a boar-spear by squishing the puffy end with smooth-face pliers until it was the right thickness, then trimming and carving the flat bulk down to a spear-head shape. Took 15 minutes. (image)

Amputation and Major Surgery

The next step after minor shaping is 15mm surgeon! Armed with glue, files, and exacto knife, it is possible to swap heads or torsos on miniature figurines. If you're doing major surgery (torso swapping, for example) a jeweller's saw is useful as well.

For example, I created a running crossbow skirmisher from a figure with javelin and shield. I clipped off his shield and javelin, carved the bulk of metal where his shield had been into a left arm, and glued on a crossbow taken from another figure. (skirmisher image) I made his quiver from a bit of balsa wood; easy enough to cut into shape and carve some simple details, then glue to his hip.

More drastic surgery is also possible. I wanted a mounted crossbowman firing his weapon from horseback; none of my figures would do. I took a spare foot crossbowman and a mounted crossbowman I didn't mind sacrificing. (The images are not the actual figures I modified, they are other examples of that figure pose. I don't cut up painted figures.)

After some careful work with a small jeweler's saw, I ended up with a foot crossbowman in breastplate and a firing mounted crossbow. I had to glue in a small spacer to get the appropriate torso length on the two figures, but they came out fine.

As a final example of the type of effort that is possible, I cut the torso of a horse-archer in two, then reglued it so he was firing backward (the "parting shot" made famous by the Parthians, and used by all horse archers). (image)

Thread

Simple thread is an easy and versatile way to make a number of improvements and modifications on your 15mm figures. The limitations of metal-casting technology make it difficult for figure-carvers to represent anything long and thin -- reins on horses or chariots, bowstrings, and so on. A little gap-filling superglue, sharp scissors or exacto knife, and simple household thread and you can supply what would have been impossible to cast.

Bowstrings are very easy. To represent bowstings on bows that have just loosed the arrow or where the figure is reloading, simple put a dot of gap-filling superglue on the two nock-points of the bow and hold a length of thread across both points until the glue set (15 seconds or so). After a further wait for the glue to get full strength (15 minutes or half an hour should do) you can trim the thread and you are done.

For drawn bowstrings you follow a similar process in two steps. Before starting, remember that drawn bows are more bent than undrawn ones -- bend the bow arms appropriately if necessary. Put a drop of gap-filling superglue on one nock of the bow (I usually do the bottom) and at the hand of the bowman. Hold the thread taut across both drops of glue until it sets. Leave the bowman for a while so the glue gets full strength (30 minutes). Now put a drop of gap-filling superglue on the top nock of the bow. Take the length of thread extending through the glued-down hand position and carefully pull it taut towards the top nock of the bow. Don't pull too hard, or you will break it loose at the hand. Hold the thread in the drop of liquid glue at the top nock until it dries enough to hold by itself (at least 15 seconds, maybe more since it is under pressure). With a little practice you will get a fairly sharp angle at the hand, exactly like a tautly-drawn bowstring. After the glue is fully dry, trim the excess at the nocks.

Here is a picture of some English Longbowmen with black thread bowstrings. The figure in the foreground is drawing a new arrow; the other three are ready to shoot. At some point I am going to experiment a little with little arrows for these guys -- it should be easy enough to make arrows out of brass wire or perhaps thread stiffened by soaking in clear nail polish.

I used the same method to create a string for an Essex 30-mina bolt-thrower. In this case the thread I had was not thick enough for the purpose, so I braided three strands of thread together to get a thicker cord for the bolt-thrower. I'm not entirely happy with this method -- next time I may try twisting three strands rather than braiding them, and soaking the resulting twisted thread in clear nail polish to keep it from untwisting. Note that the bolt is also an addition that wasn't part of the original miniature. It is a length of brass wire with one end flattened to a point.

I have also used thread to make halters for mules and draft animals, (image) and even the strands of a whip for a drover (image). I haven't bothered to replace cast horse reins with thread ones yet -- the cast ones drape well enough on the horse's neck. But I'll probably want to use threads to create reins for any biblical-period chariots I paint.

Dental Floss

Unwaxed dental floss is a wonderful material! Gap-filling superglue glues it within a second to almost any material. (In contrast, thread must be held in position for 15-30 seconds). It is cheap, plentifully available, and takes paint acceptably well.

The big advantage of dental floss is that it has some visual bulk and a flattish cross-section. Painted a light tan colour, I've used dental floss to simulate wicker on the sides of a German wagon. The woven wickerwork would be impossible to simulate realistically in lead, but is quite easily made with dental floss and wire. Another image.

The flexibility, flat cross-section, and fast glue-up of dental floss made it perfect for 15mm turban-wrapping. Two or three times around the head (gluing every 1/3 rotation or so) makes a fine turban thickness. It isn't necessary to completely cover the underlying lead with the floss -- fabric has bunched areas and flat areas, so using the floss for the edges and folds is often enough when the intervening spaces are painted the same colour as the floss. Example of two dental-floss turbans. It would probably also make a fine wide baldric or sword-belt, in a pinch.

Brass Wire

Wire is very useful. Some gamers replace their too-thick cast pikes, lances, and spears with brass wire or piano wire. That's a bit too much work for me -- I only do that when I must, for example as a repair to a broken pike or lance.

Making an army for 15th century Grenada, I found myself in the common position of buying figures blind. The Essex MID84 Jinetes turn out to be nice enough figures, but appropriate only for non-moslem javelin-throwing jinetes, not for the moslem lance-users that appear in 14th and 15th century art. This meant the painful task of replacing tiny javelins with long lances. Here's an image of the figure with Javelins, and another image of the modified figure with a full-length Lance.

If you have a pin vise and an appropriate-width drillbit, it is possible to drill through the hand and insert the wire into the hole. I don't, so my technique involves trimming the old spear on both sides of the hand, then carefully cutting the hand open with an exacto knife and trimming metal away until the hand is open and can be wrapped around the new lance to help support the glue and give a broad gluing surface.

For the 30-mina bolt thrower I needed a bolt (naturally enough). A bit of brass wire worked very well. I cut it to length, tapped gently on one end with a hammer to flatten it, then filed the splayed end to a spearpoint. A little paint and I had a perfectly good ballista bolt. Here is a side view of the bolt thrower with bolt.

Brass wire is also very useful for miscellaneous creative projects. Two twisted sections of brass wire gave me the pintles for the hinges of the gate of my Orcish Palisade, and two more bent sections of wire became the hinges themselves. This allows me the luxury of a gate that opens and closes. Here is an image of the gate, although the mechanism is hidden by a pillar of the watchtower. A slightly better view of the gate-hinge mechanism is here.

Scratch-built Shields

In a quest for accurate figures, a couple of times I've found it necessary to make my own 15mm shields. It is fairly easy to add a shield to a 15mm figure, and quite easy to remove an old shield without damaging the figure. I've got a small pair of electrician's clippers that do most of the removal, assisted by my trusty exact knife in delicate areas. Once the shield is gone you need to flatten the surface of the figure's arm or shoulder to have as large a gluing surface as possible with the new shield.

For square shields I use some scrap metal figure bases (24 gauge, I believe). It cuts easily with tin snips, and costs almost nothing. It only takes a couple of minutes to produce a dozen shields. They aren't all identical in size, but cutting 16 shields will easily give you eight that you can use, and minor variations are fine. Some inaccuracy can be cleaned up with a metal file. Square shields | more square shields.

The most important thing in getting a realistic look to these shields, whether they are square (as above) or oval (as below), is that they need to be slightly curved. Totally flat shields look wrong and fake. Curving the shields is actually quite easy. You take a block of scrap wood (a cut-off piece of 2x4, for example), a big screwdriver, and a hammer. Put the block of wood on a rigid surface -- concrete floor or workbench, not a table (they bounce and are noisy). Lay the small shield on the wood. Hold the shaft of the big screwdriver (not the head) on the shield, and hit the shaft hard with the hammer. The hammer will drive the shaft of the screwdriver into the little shield, curving it against the semi-rigid surface of the wood. Don't do this with a piece of wood you like -- it'll get very beat up, and you throw it away afterwards. If you use a large screwdriver the hammer will not damage the shaft at all. Bang a couple of more times until you get a curve you like.

Oval shields are just as simple. As the basis for the oval shields I took some 1.25" roofing nails. The heads are very close to the right size, and they vary slightly, so I could pick and choose some that would be good. To curve the nail heads I just banged them a couple of times with the hammer upside-down (hitting the point with the hammer and driving the head into the wood). This curves the nail head quite well. Clamping the shaft of the nail into a pair of vise-grips (you could hold it with pliers or a vise also) some quick work with a file gave the shield the rounded oval profile I desired; I then cut the nail-shaft off the back of the finished shield with a dremel tool. Oval shields.

Mustard Seeds

Mustard seeds? Yes, truly. These are brown (oriental) mustard seeds; easily-available yellow mustard seeds would be fine also (although less useful as turnips, as you will see).

In a search for 15mm stone cannonballs for my bombards, someone suggested that I use mustard seeds. They turn out to be perfect. I chose a small group of similar size and vaguely rounded shape, then glued them together in a pyramid shape with clear nail polish. It made them very sticky, but once dry they were quite securely bound together. A little grey paint and a wash of Payne's grey, and they were done. Bombard with Cannonballs.

That wasn't the end of it. I liked the colour of the mustard seeds when covered in clear nail polish -- lots of slight colour variation, very natural. They looked like little 15mm turnips. So later, when I bought a crude two-wheeled wagon I decided to make it a turnip wagon. A couple of layers of mustard seeds, all glued together and sealed with clear nail polish, and my turnip wagon was complete.

Case Studies

In the long run I'll expand the text associated with the individual examples below, and I'll be adding more cases off and on. Initially many of the examples below are also used to describe techniques in the section above. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.

Italian Spear

My first effort in shield-replacement. I wanted an oval shield, slightly curved, as is shown on the cover of the Osprey book on Italian Armies 1300-1500. I couldn't find any such shields, so I had to make my own. These shields are the heads of 1.25" roofing nails. I curved them by banging them upside down into a depression, then filed the result into an oval shape (doing things in that order ensured that I got the curve perpendicular to the long axis of the oval). A dremel tool sufficed to cut off the nail shaft; a little super glue and I had some Italian Spear.

Grenadine City Militia

As part of producing an army of Grenada in the 14th and 15th centuries, I needed two stands of militia spearmen. City militia of this period would use large square shields. I didn't have any, so I had to make my own. All the figures below have had their original shields removed and replaced with scratch-built ones. Most of them have also had dental-floss turbans added. See if you can spot the two figs that have "natural" turbans.

Grenadine Jinetes

Buying figures blind -- I hate it. I bought some Essex MID84 ("Ass. Ginetes") blind for my Grenadine light horse. Jinetes is the word used on the Iberian peninsula (Portugal, Spain, Grenada) for light cavalry. Although the figures were well done, they were nothing like what I expected. Grenadine jinetes are equipped with turbans, hoods, or head-and-neck cloths. They've got very long lances, and their shields have four tassels or ropes on the front. The MID84 figs have none of these things. They are equipped with a short javelin, bare heads, and shields that are the right shape but without tassels. The figures may be correct for very early Spanish jinetes (10-12th century), although I don't know that. But they aren't right for later Spanish jinetes either.

Well, blind buying is the mother of invention. To make some appropriate figures I've gone through a number of steps. Dental-floss turbans on everyone who doesn't have one, for one. I've taken some MID84 figures and replaced their short javelins with longer ones of brass wire. On many of the figures I've glued down tassels made of black thread or dental floss. I've also made some jinetes by taking RNO22 figures (with turban) and cutting away their bowcase and quiver, then adding a tasseled shield cut off a MID85 figure and then filed down to the typical adarga shape.

30-mina Bolt Shooter

A beautiful figure (Essex XEQ12), but made even nicer by the addition of a nasty-looking bolt (spear) made of brass wire, and a braided-rope cord (made of thread, of course).

Hussite Wagon

I had a good idea of the wagon I wanted from an image (15th century woodcut) in the Osprey book on German Armies 1300-1500. After searching around and talking to other gamers I bought my Hussite wagons from Irregular. They were pretty good, but made better by the addition of two slightly-modified toothpicks on each side to raise the running board and make it look more like the woodcut.

What's New

Top of Page

Page created: November 28, 1998.

The author may be contacted at kuijt@umiacs.umd.edu Please do not use any pictures or text from this page without permission.