“… I am the leaden army that conquers the world: I am type!”
The 25 or 26 soldiers of lead are of course the lead print letters of the alphabet in a printer’s case.
The 25 or 26 soldiers of lead also remind me of Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Steadfast Tin Soldier, where the source of metal is an old tin spoon, melted down to make almost 25 soldiers, including one incomplete soldier with one leg and a complicated love life.
“Prowl the car boot sales, you can probably pick pint mugs up for around 50p” is Iain Dickie’s advice in sourcing old pewter mugs to melt down for soldier metal in Wargaming on a Budget (Pen & Sword, 2010).
Iain Dickie talks wisely about the dangers and safety measures around melting and moulding lead on the kitchen stove or table, where food is prepared.
The classic book War Games (1962) by Donald Featherstone, ex-wartime tank sergeant and peacetime physiotherapist, had a short section on how to make your own model figures in plaster of Paris moulds.
“One part of printer’s type, which can usually be obtained from the local printer, who usually has a considerable surplus of cuttings and small pieces“, Donald Featherstone says.
These scraps of lead from printers as a source of lead was obviously from the pre-computer days when Fleet Street and local printers still used lead type faces. Vanished world …
I remember when this technology change happened in the 1980s, when suddenly loads of printers’ type trays were on the market. Not sure if they were UPPER CASE or lower cases.
At first sight these trays looked good display frames for figures but were quite shallow and without a glass cover, you’d be forever dusting. Another manly household chore to add to “slaving over a hot stove” as Donald Featherstone mentions below.
As well as metal mould figures, there are other materials to use in making your own figures for use in board games, wargaming and role playing games.
Polymer clay (Fimo in the UK and Europe, Sculpey in the USA) is oven baked, coloured or paintable, mouldable and easy to carve.
Part 1: Playing with Cake Mould soldiers
I have been experimenting with making different figures, firstly using silicon moulds and secondly freestyle Fimo or freehand.
One silicon cake mould obtained through Ebay and Etsy yielded a flat generic sort of “toy soldier guardsman“. This can be converted into many other figures with a little sculpting, cutting, painting and extra Fimo pieces or accessories.
I’m new to polymer clay and found it gets a bit clumsy with warmth from fingers (so pop in in the fridge for a minute or two sometimes). I also found it pays to bake them flat, as adding back packs too early can lead to cracking or bending if they don’t lay flat on a baking tray / baking paper.
Carving hats or changes of headgear allows figures to be converted from the standard guardsman to represent different periods such these American Civil War type figure or Russian looking figure.
Back views show additional backpacks, water bottles etc to give a rounded feel to what are otherwise flat backed figures.
I’m also quite new to acrylic paints, having grown up with enamel model paints. Enamel paints proved far too stinky for use in a shared household / kitchen table crafting space (without a crafting room), so low odour Revell Gloss Acrylics from my local hobby store have proved a good alternative and far more family friendly.
I do find these acrylics dry quickly but remain ever so slightly tacky for a while especially on Fimo / Polymer clay, so attracting dust!
Not yet decided on whether to varnish or not and if so, how.
Part 2: Freestyle or Freesculpted Fimo – Frustrating First Attempts
The first family gift of Fimo this year was off white or flesh coloured. Playing with this trial pack to make figures led to some frustrating disasters and other figures that are more promising.
Experiment and practice will no doubt help my next attempts at free sculpting.
Polymer clay gets a little droopy or saggy with warmth, so my first attempt to free sculpt this flag bearer figure is far clumsier and more cracked than I wished.
I reinforced the figure around a cocktail stick skewer or internal splint before baking upright but this probably led to more cracking!
Smaller Freesculpt Polymer Clay figures
First attempts with smaller free sculpt figures suffered more similar stockiness of figure than desired, again from finger warmth and sagginess. However with paint, some interesting figures developed.
No particular period figures were in mind when playing around with these first attempts.
Mounted or based on scalpel cut sliver circles of wine bottle cork to be painted or flocked.
Pin or shaved matchstick / cocktail stick weapons to be added.
Other slightly smaller figures sometimes suggest sometimes redcoats, sometimes more modern soldiers, maybe a red beret paratrooper or airborne brigade; this is what emerges whilst free sculpting.
Not always sure what these figures are or will turn out to be. A bit of fun and a learning process.
On the plus side, polymer clay (Fimo) figures are amazingly light and very versatile. They are also pleasing to create and pretty cheap, although not as cheap as pound store figure conversions.
Too late for my first attempts, I rediscovered on the Vintage Wargaming blog a version of the long remembered article about Fimo figures with some helpful hints like building and baking sections (legs etc) as you go to prevent stocky figure / sagging problems.
The silicon cake mould figures I featured on my blog sometimes seem so much easier than these free sculpts for slightly larger quantities.
Buying plastic or metal figures sometimes seems easier. However Donald Featherstone in his 1962 book War Games, before many figures were easily available, celebrated the mancraft and boycraft of DIY making your own figures, terrain and rules (page 21):
“There is a great deal of satisfaction in making one’s own armies, either in their entirety or by conversions.” (Page 21)
“Part of the fun of being a war gamer lies in the making of one’s own soldiers as distinct from purchasing figures of different sizes obtainable from makers in various parts of the world.” (Page 18, War Games)
I will post more pictures as I experiment with other variations on these basic mould figures and other materials.
I think Stuart Asquith (editor of a modelling or games magazines my Dad used to bring home for me in the 1980s) summed it up well when he finished his article part two:
“Note: There are no units, there are no morale rules.”
“If you want to shell out around £30 for a set of rules, then feel free, but you know, you really don’t have to – don’t worry about phases or factors, go back to simple enjoyment.”
Wise words indeed.
Stuart Asquith and Donald Featherstone both wrote short simple books on Solo Gaming. They have simple dice ideas setting up a quick solo game for random deployment of forces on both sides, delayed reinforcements etc which make solo games far more unpredictable … and more frustrating, fun or silly.
A growing vintage / nostalgia trend?
I’ve noticed whilst looking at games blogs and articles (in pursuit of vintage Peter Laing 15mm figures) that there is a growing vintage / nostalgia trend back to simple and silly enjoyable games including in the back garden, back to vintage airfix and http://vintagewargaming.blogspot.co.uk, back to my 1960s Featherstone books and 60s vintage plastic figures etc.
I think this is probably a reaction to the hobby games world getting too serious; After all it is “playing with toy soldiers” or the “tiny men” as they are known in my household.
Now that you could buy almost anything, any figures and rules etc for any period off the shelf, preassembled, painted if you have the cash (I think the same exists for model railways and scenery etc now too), maybe this is why there is this a “back to basics”.
Prince August and other home cast metal figures are fun to make in their easy to use moulds. Filing off metal flash has never been much fun.
However for simplicity I have been experimenting with some Silicon cake mould soldier figures using Fimo (safe, easy to use and sculpt / convert and paint) polymer clay (Sculpey in the USA) for a bit of fun. The mould was found online through Ebay and Etsy.
I’m sketching out how many variations of this basic cake decoration Fimo figure I can make with paint and a scalpel!
Having sketched out some different ideas in my notebook, inspired by different figures in toy soldier collecting and uniform books, I set out to mould and sculpt my first cake soldier miniatures for gaming.
Here are some rough toy soldier gloss paint early drafts.
Roughly about an inch high, they are incredibly lightweight and are painted quickly in suitably toy soldier gloss acrylic.
I still haven’t quite worked out what to do with the face finish. Simple eyes and heroic manly moustache are currently put on using illustrator’s fine point lightproof pigment pens. Not yet found the right gloss flesh acrylic.
With more practice the newest figures are getting thinner but if made too thin, I find that delicate items like rifles can fall off.
A little flock on damp gloss painted helmets and bases works well. A suggestion of camouflage! A little flock on bases also works wonders.
When the rifle fell off a green army soldier basic version, a conversion idea sprang to mind. This Ancient Warrior is equipped with a Fimo red cloak, a shiny thumbtack shield pushed through the arm gap. and the rifle carved away to be resolved by stout cocktail stick spear glued on.
Red Troops. Other variations include redcoats of different eras from tricornes to more 19th century field service helmets.
Blue Troops. As part of my wider imagi-nations games, the figures are not too specifically historically based. Some of these figures may suggest Union infantry of the American Civil War.
All ashore? Others with some hat remodelling and haversacks may suggest Victorian sailors or landing parties for colonial campaigns.
Using toy model boats (a junk shop find, handmade in Cornwall) works well for that toy soldier feel.
Backpacks or haversacks from coloured or painted Fimo easily get round the “flats” feel of these silicon mould figures, originally designed for sugar craft cake decoration or card making.
A variety of gloss paint or Fimo polymer clay base colour suggests modern infantry of different nations, habitats and camouflage.
Using different colour Fimo pressed into legs or head sections gives some interesting effects. Maybe a paratroop beret?
Troops For Lazy Painters
Another Fimo base colour, working with red Fimo or polymer clay, avoids the need to paint the whole figure and speeds up production ready for gaming. En masse they look like red guards, enemies guarding a secret base in some James Bond movie.
These were inspired by a rare red Dimestore lead “podfoot” figure from the USA of ‘enemy troops’ made during the Korean War period. Still need to finish painting flesh and faces on these faceless hordes.
The original enemy troop podfoot figure in James Opie’s Collecting Toy Soldiers book gave me a design idea, sketched out in my note book. Some of the designs are paint designs for the pirated copies of pound store party bag soldiers (based on pirated Matchbox American WW2 troops).
These Fimo home-made Warriors match in size some simple “party bag toy soldiers” at 6 for 20p (search online!) that I first spotted as freebies in “Combat Mission 8 vehicle kits” in a local garage’s party toy gift section! This gives some useful extra poses to paint or convert, once you’ve trimmed their cheap pound store plastic flash off.
I will post pictures of these polymer clay figures and others as they progress and go into action using my hex grid version of the very simplest Donald Featherstone “Close Wars” appendix two page rules from Wargames (1962).
I hope you have enjoyed the “work in progress” pictures and that you are tempted to pick up some polymer clay, a paintbrush or scalpel and boycraft or mancraft some of your own figures.
Watch this blog space for more “Cakes of Death” polymer clay warriors …
Part of the joy of toy soldiers is scouting for the sort of cheap plastic toys in pound stores and toy shops that link back to my childhood – Cowboys and Indians, Knights and what Americans (after the Toy Story film) call “green army men”, pirated copies of various ‘army’ soldiers.
Pirate and buccaneer figures themselves were once a rarity, now more easily available. Perhaps they are a modern alternative to Cowboys and Indians, maybe nowadays a little more PC than playfully recreating Wild West-ern genocide?
I have enjoyed browsing through the wonderful Small Scale World blog as it celebrates many of these cheap plastic toys, mass produced and branded Hong Kong or now China. These were not ‘proper’ (i.e. expensive) Britain’s Deetail, Airfix or Matchbox figures. They were affordable, erratic of supply and of an odd mix of scales and nations.
Gaudily and roughly painted in low odour Revell Gloss Acrylics, which gives a slightly limited palette of bright colours, these blue and red troopers (pictured, not yet finished) are paint conversions of modern (American?) pound store troops.
They have been slightly Steampunked into the futuristic Victorian or Edwardian imagi-nations. Bronze or brass colours are used for weapons.
If redcoats had bazookas, flame guns or mine detectors …
This rough paint work can be seen on some of the more bashed, less expensive paint quality jobs for vintage “soldiers of tin” or “soldiers of lead“, some of which can be seen in my glass cabinet behind. Some of the cheapest finishes (glimpsed far right in cabinet) were simply painted gold. These for many were some of the basic troops that many men and boys would use to puzzle out or play out their versions of H.G. Wells’ Little Wars at floor or table level.
I was always pleased as a child or young solo gamer to recognise plastic figures in my toy soldier collection that featured or were photographed in gaming books and magazines. It somehow made me feel more connected to this mysterious adult world of rule books and expensive metal figures, figures way beyond my resources and pocket money. (Many of the rule books were also way beyond my maths ability, way of thinking and chosen style of simple gaming).
Thankfully many Donald Featherstone books from the local library, if not permanently booked out and borrowed, occasionally pictured affordable Airfix plastic figures, often interestingly converted or reused out of period. A real encouragement and a lifeline.
Another website I have enjoyed browsing is the Battling with Britain’s blog site, a great and cheerful improvisation with Britain’s Deetail figures that many will remember fondly. Expensive figures at the time though, but the innovative mix of figures and periods on this weblog are something I feel H.G. Wells would recognise or approve of in his Floor Games or Little Wars.
As a home cast maker of toy soldiers using old metal figure moulds, more modern Prince August moulds or more recently polymer clay / Fimo, I appreciate the fabulous range and colour of the South American figures at http://soldaditossudamericanos.blogspot.co.uk
Muddy green and grey are not my favourite colours, hence the more glossy or garish plastic troops above. Enjoying some of the above blogs, I realise how Garden wargaming has long seemed a way back to the imaginative but muddy, strangely out of scale ‘real plants and dirt’ of childhood garden games, crawling around on lawns, paths and among flowerbeds; that must be the subject of another blogpost.