The other night, I was at my usual Tuesday haunt, Out Of The Box, and I noticed one of our ex-Press Gangers chatting to a new player next to the paint racks. Being the helpful person that I am, and being a little bored from having finished my game a while ago, I sauntered on over and offered my services as a local painter guy to help him get started. He was on a budget so he didn’t want to blow a lot of cash getting started, so I tried to help get him set up with the bare minimum, but it was tricky. Let’s face it, while miniature painting and gaming might not be that expensive as far as entertainment goes when you factor in the massive number of hours of enjoyment you can get out of painting your miniatures and playing with your wardollies, when you’re paying a good chunk of that up front, it can get a little expensive, and there is a reason why miniature gamers tend to be middle-class types with a bit of disposable income.
Chatting with another friend later that night, we came up with a challenge. Is it possible to get started in the hobby of miniature painting for less than $50 (Canadian)? He was skeptical, but I thought it might be possible, so let’s see what we can do…
Before we start going to the store, there is stuff that you will need that you probably have kicking around at home. You will need dish soap and a stiff brush for washing the mold release off your miniatures, because paint unsurprisingly doesn’t stick well to the residue from the non-stick coating applied to the mold so they could pop the miniature out in the factory. A cup for paint water is easy to find, and you probably have a pair of side cutters in the toolbox that you can use for sprue-clipping if necessary. Plenty of basing techniques involve things you find around the house or on the ground outside and just a bit of creativity. Any piece of plastic can be a serve as a regular palette, and a wet palette is really easy to make with stuff you can find in your kitchen.
What miniature should I buy?
First, you’re going to need a miniature. Now, if you’re just interested in the joy of painting and maybe having something to represent your D&D character, you can save some money by going for the generic fantasy miniatures as opposed to gaming pieces. Gaming pieces from companies like Privateer Press or Games Workshop, tend to cost a little more than most fantasy miniatures, as they generally have to factor the cost of game development, playtesting, managing organized play, and, if it’s a popular IP like Star Wars, licensing fees. On the other hand, for a company like Reaper, which isn’t writing rules on how to play with their miniatures, there less overhead which can help reduce costs. Compare the cost of a Batman figure to a generic metal mini and you will see what I mean.
When it comes to cheap, decent-quality generic fantasy miniatures, there are two lines that I would recommend. First is Reaper Bones, which, with their wildly successful kickstarters, were pioneers in low-cost miniature production. They have a huge line, so odds are you will be able to find a miniature that is an exact match for your D&D character. They are made from a unique material which is very durable and through some arcane magic, manages to hold paint without needing to be primed (though some people get better results by priming them anyways). I started out with the first Bones kickstarter, which got me an absolutely insane amount of miniatures for something like $100 USD. At less than $5 apiece (or mere cents a pop if you get in on a kickstarter), the price is definitely right for our budget challenge.
Next up is the Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures line from WizKids, which are the official D&D minis, if that means something to you. While I haven’t personally had the chance to crack one of these open and slap on some paint, from my ogling at them in the FLGS, I can say that they look like good quality resin miniatures, with enough detail to keep a beginner painter happy. Again, they are less than $5 for a blister pack, which usually includes two or three miniatures, and come with exciting and unique names like Male Elf Ranger.
Finally, if you want to splurge a little and your FLGS carries Games Workshop products, they may have their “Getting Started with…” magazines for a tenner, which comes bagged with either a Stormcast Eternal or some sort of Space Marine. The magazine has enough hobby content to keep you occupied on the bus or can, and while they may not be useful for your D&D campaign and you may have to sell a kidney to afford a full 40K army, if you’re on board with their aesthetic, GW’s injection-molded plastic miniatures are top notch.
So, after dropping $5 on a miniature, my degree in economics tells me that we are left with $45 remaining to spend on brushes, paints, and other hobby supplies. While this may not be what my FLGS owner wants to hear, if you are on a budget, I would advise you to look beyond the hobby supplies rack at the place you bought your miniatures for some of these supplies. A lot of the time, you can get better value on basic supplies like brushes, knives and the like from big-box craft stores, Wal-Mart, or even dollar stores. Don’t believe me? Well, feel free to go to your local Games Workshop and pick up your official Citadel-brand hobby knife for the low, low price of $36, or just spend four bucks at Staples or Wal-Mart. Don’t cheap out on paint though — craft paint, while useful for things like terrain and bases, is not what you want and you will have to bite the bullet and pay for quality acrylic paints from someone like Vallejo, P3, or Army Painter.
Speaking of hobby knives, you will need one for trimming mold lines, so grab that aforementioned $4 knife. If your miniature is multi-part, get some super glue at the dollar store for about $2 to put it together, which brings us up to $11
Moving on to brushes, you’re going to need three of them to start. A #2ish round for most of your work, a #0 round for details, and a flat brush in size 4ish for things like slapping paint on large areas, applying washes, and dry-brushing. Go to an art store or a craft store for these; we’re trying to get you in for cheap, not pay GW prices for brushes that, let’s face it, you’re probably going to ruin. $5 will get you that #0 round, and if you get lucky, you can find a value package that has the rest of what you need and more for something like $7. They won’t be the same quality as $30 Kolinsky sables, but they will do for now while you’re just getting in and not sure if you will even like this hobby or not.
After spending $5 on a miniature, $12 on brushes, and $6 on other supplies, we’re up to $23, leaving us with $27 to spend on paints. At a little under $5 for less than 20 mL, these paints are expensive, but given the tiny amount we use on a typical miniature, tend to last for a long time. Still, getting enough colours to get started is a significant up-front investment and is going to eat up most of our $50.
There are two ways we can go about this. We can buy them all individually, and will probably be able to afford about six colours, which is plenty for a first miniature. Or, we could get a paint set which has the colours we need. A Privateer Press Paint Set has an MSRP of $17.99 USD (about $22 CAD), comes with six full-size pots, and you can get them in about a dozen different combinations — one for the studio scheme of every faction in their line. These are top quality paints, though my one minor quibble is that they come in paint pots instead of dropper bottles, and not great paint pots at that.
With $5 left, we have enough for one more pot of paint. Since you’re just starting out, you’re probably going to be using the base coat, wash, dry-brush technique, so you’re going to need some sort of wash or shade. All the big names in hobby paints make them, and GW’s washes, while at a slightly higher price point, are known colloquially as liquid talent for what they can do to your models.
And there we have it! For $50, you’ve got a miniature, a couple tools, some brushes, and some paints, which along with a couple things you probably already have around the house means you’re ready to rock and roll!
I’m sure people will immediately respond to this by claiming that I forgot about certain essentials, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. There are a few hobby basics on this list that didn’t quite make the cut and which you should consider when you go to spend your next $50. They are as follows:
- Primer. Most of the time, primer is a necessity. However, if you remember from earlier, we probably picked up either Bones, which don’t need to be primed, or Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures, which come pre-primed. You do get some primer in the GW start painting kits, otherwise, you can either grab some brush-on acrylic primer, or get a rattle-can of cheap primer from crappy tire. Either way, that’s about $5. As for colour, given the choice, I recommend white, but that’s an article for another time…
- Varnish. I may have cheated, because I feel that varnish is important if you are going to be handling your miniatures, and playing with them from time to time is something that the majority of people do. But it is generally the last step, and by the time you’re ready to apply it, you’ve probably figured out whether you like mini painting or not. A small bottle of Vallejo Matt Varnish will set you back another $5, but it will give your miniatures a +3 to saving throws against cheeto fingers.
- Master’s Brush Cleaner. This is a must-have for anyone who wants to take up this hobby, and doubly so if you are like me and like to invest in high-quality, expensive brushes. This will extend the life of your brushes and help you protect your investment. The only reason why it didn’t make the cut here is because we’re using cheap brushes, and for all I know, you might spend $50 only to find out you hate miniature painting and throw all your stuff away, in which case the longevity of your brushes is kind of a non-issue.
- Basing supplies. A lot of miniatures aren’t truly complete until they’re based, but for your first miniature, I’ll forgive you if you want to skip that step. As mentioned above, a lot of basing supplies are either cheap (white glue) or free (sand), though if you want to start adding things like vegetation, you may end up having to pick up some flock or tufts from the FLGS or a hobby store.
- A pin vise and drill bit. Pinning is a technique used while assembling metal miniatures, where small bits of brass rod or paper clips are inserted into holes drilled in the model at the connecting points, making the joints much stronger. However, given that we’re starting off with plastic miniatures that are easy to put together and may even be one-piece models, it’s not necessary yet.
- Green Stuff, or some other two-part epoxy modelling putty. You’re probably not ready to do much serious sculpting yet, and the minis that I recommended aren’t really known for having issues like the old Khador Gap, so it’s not probably needed right away.
Hopefully, what I’ve shown here is that you can dip your toe into miniature painting for $50, or not much more. With the countless hours of joy that miniature painting can provide, if you’re looking for a hobby and have even the slightest interest in working with your hands and getting that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that a completed mini can bring (or the fun times you will have playing wardollies and make-believe with a bunch of grown-ass men), $50 is a small price to pay for an introduction to what could be a lifelong passion.
Update: It was pointed out to me shortly after I shared this article that Reaper also produces a learn to paint kit for $39.99 USD, which as of this writing is $48.70 CAD, and thus makes the “challenge” completely trivial. Just spend $50 on that and a coffee; that’s probably easier.