Some years ago I purchased a bag of toy insects from the dollar store by my house. In part because I have the mind of a small child. But also because I harbored hopes that I could turn these tiny malformed bits of plastic into table-worthy miniatures. This is the tale.
Step 1) Mangle Some Grey Foam
In the past I’ve mentioned using interlocking foam tiles for wall and base material. The foam mat is firm enough to hold its shape, bonds with hot-glue, and is easily cut with an exacto blade. I used this as my foundation, socketing the insect legs into the foam and setting it with drops of hot-glue. This also helped to align the limbs. As you can see in the very first image, without a firm base the insects prefer to do a horrific boneless dance whenever they’re not being held in place.
The foam mat comes in 2′ x 2′ squares, usually for around 20 bucks for a 6-pack. For this project I used less than 6 inches of foam from my scrap-bin, which I cut into vague, rough rock-shapes.
Step 2) Prime and Paint Black
Because of the details in the ants’ antennae and mandibles, I chose to use a thin acrylic. The other bugs, being rather formless and sad where details are concerned, I primered and tarred black with great prejudice.
Except the cockroaches, whom I treated gently.
Just masking the garish neon colors was enough to give me hope to continue this project. Sort of.
Step 3) Dry Brush and Clear-coat
The real Step 3 involved whiskey, a beehive, and a crippling leg injury. But because I don’t want to encourage the recreation use of bee venom, I’ll skip to the dry-brushing.
If you’re unfamiliar with dry-brushing I suggest looking it up on Youtube. In short it involves dipping a broad brush in paint and rubbing the majority off on a towel, then jabbing at the model with the brush to get a light color-fade or shading effect.
Step 4) Reconsider Your Life Choices And Start Again
After looking at my new insect army I had two simultaneous realizations. Neither of which boded well for my insects.
1. I had purchased scorpions, centipedes, and cockroaches. However, SPIDERS have the most variants of stats in the books, of which I had none.
2. The lightweight foam I used was un-paintable. Crafters who use EVA foam online first coat it in plasti-dip. Otherwise the foam shrugs off most acrylics.
So it was back to the dollar store for more neon bugs.
Step 5) Use Gloss Black As A Time Saver
With later iterations I’ve relied more and more on gloss black spray-paint for my only coat, aside from the red of the black widow’s hourglass, or joints on the brown spiders. This saves a tremendous amount of time and money since there’s no need for a clear coat, and you don’t have to break out the expensive miniature paints.
Warning: Apply the black gloss from a considerable distance. If you’ve used spray-paint before use the arm-length rule, and make several passes between drying/re-positioning. The gloss will give the insects more of a wet shine, which is creepy, and they won’t lose detail if the gloss layers are thin enough. If you see any drips whatsoever, you’re doing it wrong.
Step 6) Use Extruded Polystyrene Instead Of Garage Foam
I’ve recently fallen in love with a super-cheap, easy-to-bond foam called Extruded Polystyrene. It’s rigid. It’s durable. And for around 10-bucks you get a 4-foot by 8-foot slab that’s 1-inch thick (perfect for 1-inch grids) and easy to cut. I prefer a long bread knife since it doesn’t wrinkle the cut as much, but an exacto or box-cutter works fine too.
Take a 1.5-inch square, hack the corners off, give it some irregularities for charm, and glue the insect’s legs into the base. My only word of warning is that hot-glue works best with polystyrene. Two pieces of pink foam, once bonded, will not become un-stuck unless you rip the whole thing apart. However, once my larger glue-gun reaches maximum heat, it will melt through the hardy foam. To prevent this apply the glue to the insect’s leg first, count to ten to let it cool, then socket the leg. Paint the foam black, sponge on some grey, and you’ve got a rock base.
Step 7) Accent The Joints, Or Nothing At All
My last piece of advice for the final painting is this: Use sharp lines and accent the joints with bands of color. You’ll notice the featured (cover) image has insects with solid dry-brushing down the legs. The cheap plastic, however, has a gradual bend. This does not flatter the miniature, or make the legs look jointed. To overcome this I’ve taken to painting bands and stripes where the joints should be.
If you’re not looking too closely, which is easy when facing a hoard of insects, you can almost pretend the limbs aren’t bendy pieces of plastic garbage hot-glued into wall insulation.
You can also vary which legs you glue into the stands. A few front legs left loose on the spiders and it looks like they’re lunging. Let a few legs on the ants dangle and they look like they were caught mid-stride.
If you can forgive the odd leg-bend here or there, the upshot is that you can crank out armies of these suckers for almost nothing in a very short time. With paint, foam, and toys, this build came to about 10-cents per critter. Not bad for making the players wish they’d purchased a can of Raid at the potion shop.
Of course, the favored enemy of every character will forever after be insects. But that’s a bridge we’ll burn when we come to it.