This guide has been updated 16/08/2017
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.
Essentially the more glossy the varnish the stronger its protective qualities. 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.
Be very aware that using varnishes and other finishing products can change the colour and look of your miniatures. Those awesome models you see at high level painting events or found in the studios of some miniature manufactures have zero varnish on them. When you spend as long as I do looking at miniatures you notice the small changes in the colour and overall look that the varnish does. These never make the model look better (when applied as protective coats), so if you are painting models to the absolute of miniature perfection then varnish is something you want to avoid.
The Gloss Effect
I have used several gloss varnish products. My current favourite is Galeria Gloss Varnish which is made by Winsor & Newton. Very good product that can be applied directly with a brush or through an airbrush. I only thin this a tiny amount (5:1 varnish:thinner) when used in an airbrush and so far its been amazing.
I have previously used Vallejo 70.510 Gloss Varnish but feel this is an inferior product on all accounts when compared to Galeria.
The other more controversial product I used 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, – do not put it through an airbrush!
Now it does take a few coats to make sure that your miniature is well protected. i used to coat the entire model but have found that this varnish is not great for colour distortion so I recommend you only use it on spikes, edges, and other parts that get handled frequently or are likely to chip. Typically I use 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.
I have used Vallejo’s matt varnish in the past and do not like it at all. 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. Same deal as before, brush on or 5:1 in the airbrush. Airbrushing does work better than brushing it on.
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. That is probably the biggest bugbear with this stuff, finding one that’s just the right shade is tricky.
So far I have been pretty happy with the Vallejo one, though after the success of Galeria’s other products I will give theirs a go when my current supply has run out.
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 used the products mentioned above with my airbrush and they achieve very good results. My current varnish to thinner ratio is 5:1. I’m working at ~22 PSI and coating the figure so that the varnish goes on wet, so a little closer than the distance I would normally spray at.
If your spray from too far away the varnish can dry in the air before it hits the model and this can produce some unwanted results. As with all things I suggest you try this on a test mini first!
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. When they work they do look great, when they don’t they suck.
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, and it also takes about 3 weeks to dry.
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.