Varnish, Miniatures and You

This guide has been updated 23/06/2015

If you are spending many hours painting miniatures then protecting your paint work is part of the painting process. Plastic miniatures hold up well to repeat handling but metal and resin miniatures can often scratch or chip. To counter this unwanted damage many of us coat our figures in a protective layer of varnish.

What I have come to notice is that many hobbyists do not understand the qualities of the product they are using, or how to get the best use out of them. There are three types of varnish that most people are familiar with, gloss, satin and matt. The names reflect the finish left by the product but do not otherwise offer any information.

What most do not realise is that the more gloss a varnish is the stronger the layer of protection it offers. Matt varnish alone offers almost no additional protection to your models. This is where you must understand the applications of all three varnish products to not just protect your figures but to get the desired results.

Now most of us want our models to look the best we can make them. A gloss coated miniature looks out of place on the table and pales next to one with a more matt finish. So if you want to protect your miniatures and have them matt you need to use both products.

The Gloss Effect

I use two different gloss varnish products depending on what I am trying to do; both of them are water based.

The first is Vallejo 70.510 Gloss Varnish. I usually use this for final touches on miniatures that I have already applied a satin or matt varnish to, typically for gem stones and lenses. This is usually painted on by hand but I also use this through my airbrush when I need to protect a paint layer part way through a paint job.

The second product I use is Wilco’s quick dry, diamond hard, clear, gloss floor varnish, yes it’s a mouthful but the best way to describe the product. I use this on finished miniatures to protect them from harmful hands and use on the battlefield. This water based gloss varnish takes about 40 minutes to an hour to dry and can easily be applied with a brush. Now it does take a few coats to make sure that your miniature is well protected. I tend to coat the whole miniature once and then put on extra coats onto areas I feel will be handled or in danger of wear or chipping. Usually a single coat on plastics, two on resins and three on metals, you can add more and I have done up to 5 thin coats on some pointy bits I feared would chip, at five coats your miniature is next to bullet proof and will only be damaged if it takes a tumble off a table or gets stood on.

If you are looking to pick up some yourself or a similar product make sure that it is clear, extra tough and non-yellowing.

Matting It down

Matt varnish being the complete opposite to gloss is really only for its finish. Vallejo 70.520 is what I use but I do so rarely, that’s because matt varnish can be a bugger and frost your models or just go wrong much more easily than satin or gloss.

Don’t use Vallejo’s matt varnish it is rubbish. I picked up some Galeria Matt Varnish after it was recommended to me by a friend and it is awesome. Be sure to shake well before use as the matt part of the varnish will sink to the bottom of the bottle if you have not used it in a while. I plan to try some of their satin when my supply has run out but this one is so good I might just stick with it and not bother.

So how do I apply a matt effect to my models if I don’t use matt varnish? I just use satin instead.

So What’s This About Satin?

Satin is the middle ground between gloss and matt, you might say it’s a semi-gloss varnish. That being said I have used several different brands of the stuff and the strength of the gloss effect varies quiet considerably even within a single brand.

My personal favourite and the one I recommend to everyone is Vallejo 70.522 Satin Varnish. Hands down this stuff is the best I’ve used. The finish is almost matt with a slight sheen to it; it’s what I use on all of my own figures. I recommend you use it through an airbrush and for best results used it on a miniature that is already gloss coated. It seems to work better at taking the shine down from gloss that it does bringing it up from matt.

Airbrushing Varnish

There are several guides on the internet about what to use and how to do it already. Problem is that they all reference a product that is no longer available and were written a million years ago by old school modellers.

Now I have only used the Vallejo products mentioned above with my airbrush and it took me a while to figure out how to get the best results. As they are water based I cut the product with distilled water at 2 varnish 1 water. Now the epic secret that I couldn’t find anywhere on the internet was this; spray at a low pressure (14-15 PSI) close to the model and almost soak your miniature in it, but be sure to not let it pool too much.

If you set the pressure to high the varnish will dry in the air and will look fuzzy or frosted on the model. As with all things I suggest you try this on a test mini first!

Aerosol Varnish

I have used a few of these and the more I use them the more disappointed I am. It is easier and more convenient than using the airbrush, and you can get good results with some brands like Testors and when they work they do look great.

As mentioned previously there can be a degree of difference with some of these. The Vallejo Aerosol Satin is gloss, yeah it sounds stupid but it is so shiny it puts actual gloss varnishes to shame.

If you use the Army Painter Matt Varnish I recommend you stand it in some warm (read: not hot) water to warm the can up.The different this makes is crazy, without it the product does not work, frosts, cracks, and is generally a pain in the butt. It’s still not as good as the airbrush but its not bad. This may hold true for some of the other brands but I have not tested any others.

For me I find that if you are just doing table top quality stuff you can get away with it but on anything you have spent any time on it’s just not worth it. If the varnish cracks, frosts, or takes 40 minutes to think about drying (looking at you Vallejo Aerosols) you will only be annoyed by it and wished you used the airbrush.

If you are serious about your hobby and paint allot of figures get yourself and airbrush and compressor. If you are willing to put some time into it and improve your painting game you won’t regret it.