Miniatures and 3D prints for role-playing games, tabletops or board games become really great when they are colored. In this guide, you’ll learn how to pain 3D printed miniatures for cheap. You’ll also learn important painting techniques.
A 3D printer is a perfect complement for anyone playing tabletops, role-playing games like Pathfinder or DSA, or board games like Descent, Gloomhaven or Zombicide. On the internet, there are numerous sites with miniature templates that you can print. These range from inserts (so that you can sort characters, cards or tokens better), obstacles and treasure chests, almost all monsters from the Dungeons & Dragons universe, among others.
But since most 3D printers only print in one color, you still need to do some work afterwards. In this guide, you’ll learn how to paint 3D printed miniatures as well as retail ones. This guide is for beginners or anyone who would like to try the hobby. We also give tips on colors and accessories, which can often also be conjured up from the 3D printer.
What Can You 3D Print?
There is a wide selection of 3D models that you can print. These include obstacles, buildings, vehicles, monster figures, spare parts, practical accessories such as sorting boxes or dice towers, among others. A good place to start looking for things to 3D print is Thingiverse. At the site, simply enter the name of the game whose miniatures you wish to print and click through the results.
The Shapeways marketplace is also a great place to go, especially for pen & paper role players. For example, Miguel Zavala has over 1800 monsters from the Dungeon & Dragons universe available there for free.
Heroforge has awesome and customizable models that look really good, especially with an SLA printer.
In addition to the projects of individuals, there are now also some exciting services related to 3D printing and tabletops. Heroforge is right at the forefront. There, you can assemble your own figures from different elements and then have them printed or downloaded as an STL file.
Prices start at around $8 per figure. However, you get completely custom heroes with great detail. This is worthwhile, for example, for all game groups who want to play their heroes longer. A less flexible alternative is Desktop Hero 3D, where the STL files are free.
If you want to go further, check out Dragonlock. This is a complete dungeon crawler, the individual parts of which you get from the 3D printer. In addition to the normal walls, there are also traps or statues or even components that take an LED to illuminate a torch on the wall. If you want to build atmospheric dungeons at home, you should definitely take a look at the system. There’s a free starter kit to try out .
Other companies, such as D&D owners (Wizards of the Coast) are a little more revealing. As long as the artists follow the rules of the Open Gaming License and the guidelines for fan content, the company has no problems with the characters being printed.
What does that mean for private individuals? Anyone who downloads and prints products that are not available for sale should be on the safe side. However, if you want to upgrade your Warhammer army cheaply, you will probably run into problems if you want to play in tournaments at the latest.
SLA or FDM: Which Technology to Use?
If you don’t have a 3D printer and are looking at buying one, you have to decide whether to go for an FDM printer or an SLA printer. FDM devices work with filament on a spool that is heated and then printed in layers onto a plate. On the other hand, with SLA, you use a resin that the printer illuminates selectively.
Both 3D printing technologies have their advantages and disadvantages.
With FDM, the filaments are relatively cheap and easy to process. However, you usually don’t get any fine details.
On the other hand, print from SLA printers look almost as if they were printed by a commercial manufacturer. However, you have to treat them specially and clean the tank regularly. (Read our guide on how to post process resin 3D prints). Still, the great quality makes it interesting for those who want really good models.
On the same note, with SLA printers, you have to print the figures with a base on which they stand. Unlike FDM, SLA prints cannot simply be glued.
You need a few things to paint 3D printed miniatures. Paints and brushes are absolutely necessary. Then, we have things like a wet palette and a holder for the figures that are useful.
For paints and brushes, don’t be too stingy. Use products from manufacturers who specialize in miniatures. Examples of these include Games Workshop (Citadel), Vallejo, Reaper or Army Painter. Each offers their own colors and brushes.
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More on colors below.
The wet palette is helpful in ensuring the colors do not dry out when painting. There are ready-made pallets you can buy. Alternatively, you can simply build yourself. All you need is a lid (e.g., from an ice cream cone), paper towels and parchment paper. Wet the kitchen roll and place it under the parchment paper. You can then dab the colors onto the baking paper and mix them there or pick them up with a brush.
The second optional but very good accessory is a holder for the figures. You can also buy this ready-made or print it out. When you search “Miniature Painting Handle” on Thingiverse, you will find numerous templates that adapt to figures of different sizes. We have had very good experiences with this handle.
Alternatively, you can stick the figures on a yoghurt cup with double-sided adhesive tape.
Before painting, you need colors. Here, you can go crazy with the colors as much as you would like. There is nothing wrong with applying paints from different manufacturers to a model since acrylic paints are “compatible” with one another.
However, we recommend getting a starter set with a wide selection of base colors and shades. You can then expand this collection as you wish. The more you paint, the more you develop preferences and you notice which colors you use more often.
When it comes to quality, none of the major manufacturers of miniature paints are really bad. The Citadel paints may have a little better coverage but this can be compensated for by layering with other suppliers. Personally, we find the design of the Citadel paint pots practical. The color is easy to access and thanks to the small nose in the pot, you can shake up the color quickly and easily.
If you buy bottles, for example from Vallejo or Army Painter, you should also get a packet of mixing balls. These are small steel balls that are a few millimeters in diameter.
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The balls are thrown into the bottles with the paints, after which they can be mixed much more easily. This is especially important if you leave the colors for a longer period of time. If you don’t shake properly, the color particles can settle on the floor.
Since each of the vials typically lasts for months or years, investing in the small mixing balls makes sense.
Last note: A very good resource for anyone new to character painting is Diced’s YouTube channel. In the playlist below, the maker Denis explains the first steps for painting figures very well. He also shows different techniques in individual videos.
Another important step is preparing the miniatures. This is done in the first step by cleaning, preferably in lukewarm soapy water. Any burrs are then removed, either with a file or side cutters.
Before painting comes the primer coat of paint. This ensures that the next colors hold well and cover solidly. There are several options for priming: you can apply the paint by hand, use an airbrush or spray on the finished primer.
However, manual priming should be put aside, as inexperienced people can quickly apply too much paint. On the other hand, airbrushing is a topic in itself. We’ve written more about it in our guide: The Best Airbrush for Miniatures. Generally, priming works great with airbrushing, but you have to really deal with the airbrush.
The simplest method is to use primers in spray cans. These aren’t exactly cheap though. However, they deliver good results quickly and are easy to use. We love the Citadel 500ml primers. The paint adheres well, does not cover any details and is easy to apply.
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When choosing a primer, you don’t really have to pay much attention to it. Ideally, you should use a color that you will later use a lot on the model. But that’s optional since you’ll paint over it later anyway. You can’t go wrong with a white or slightly gray primer. These are a good base for all sorts of other colors.
Priming miniature models is simple; simply stick the figures on a piece of cardboard with double-sided adhesive tape and place another piece of cardboard behind it to collect the paint. After this, shake the can until you hear the ball rattle in it. This could take a few minutes. Finally, test whether the paint is fine enough by spraying it briefly on one area of the box.
Start priming the figures with short sprays from a distance of about 10 to 20 cm. Do not spray continuously. Rather, spray briefly, wait and then continue. If you prime too thick, you won’t see any details later.
Ideally, after spraying, there should be a light film on the models, through which you can even see the details a little better. Less is more here. If in doubt you can also prime in two or three passes. The paint dries comparatively quickly (after about 5 to 10 minutes). Since the paint is quite smelly, you should do the work in dry, well-ventilated place.
After priming, start applying the first colors. Of course, you can paint the miniatures however you like. However, it is good practice to start with the largest areas first. For example, is the chest is made of wood? Perfect, then maybe a first serve with brown is a good way.
This is how you work your way from one area to the next.
When changing colors, it is important to wash and dry the respective brush really well. Ensure the brush does not have any old color.
Which brush you choose is a personal preference. We prefer smaller brushes, which although it means we have to paint a little longer, we have better color control. The following applies here: Just try it out, over time you will get a feeling of which brush fits when.
This also applies to the thickness of the paint. Ideally, you should always dilute the colors in the wet palette with a little water. After that, simply apply and let it dry to see whether or how well the color covers the miniature. If it doesn’t fit, just paint a new layer over it.
This is also a matter of practice. Avoid applying layers that are too thick. This is especially at the beginning as you paint over the details of the model. It is better to have three thin coats than one thick one.
The colors change as the paint dries. Some colors may appear weak and not very opaque at first. However, they pick up as soon as the paint dries. The only thing that helps here is patience and time.
Now let’s talk about the details in your figurines or miniatures.
Jewellery, weapons, rivets, eyes or locks; these are the details you should work on when the large areas are painted. If you painted over the details a bit too generously at the beginning, you can paint them again with the primer color to get a better hold afterwards.
Like before, it is better to work carefully, like to go over the same areas more often with less color in order to get really good coverage.
Once the large and small areas have been painted, the miniature is basically complete. However, it probably looks flat and somehow still unfinished. The next two techniques, shading and dry brushing, will change that.
Shading with Washes or Shades
Shading is where the real magic happens when painting miniatures. This is a great trick that gives the previously rather flat figures a plastic appearance.
For shading, you need special, very heavily diluted paints. Depending on the manufacturer, these are called Shade (Citadel), Wash (Vallejo) or Quickshade (Army Painter). These colors run into the cracks and collect there, while the raised parts are painted less heavily. As they dry, they give the impression of shadows, indentations and raised areas.
You should be careful when applying shades. These colors are always darker than the actual main colors and should roughly match the main color. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to buy a matching shade for every color. Three or four different ones are usually enough.
Solid all-rounders are Nuln Oil and Agrax Earthshade from the Citadel paint series. The shades also give a slightly worn look to the particular surfaces they are applied to.
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Another trick on finishing painted 3D printed miniatures is dry brushing. This is roughly the opposite of shading.
Here, you take a little paint on a bristle brush. Then you make it almost completely clean again, so that there is only a minimal amount of paint left on the brush. After that, wave over the figure or the model. This allows the color to stick to the bumps and gently accentuates them.
This method is perfect for chain mail, for example, to give it a silvery sheen that pops over the shadows through the shading.
The combination of shading and dry brushing gives almost any model an impressive, three-dimensional impression. The techniques are also easy to learn. The more you use them, the better you get and the more real the models look.
With base colors, shading and dry brushing you have three solid techniques to start with that will make your first miniatures look good. However, this is far from the end.
If you want to dig deeper, check out the Diced YouTube playlist mentioned above. In addition to the three techniques mentioned, the playlist also covers how to set hard edges, apply layers or design the bases of the figures.
Worth mentioning, for those with large figure collections, are Citadel’s contrast paints. These are specifically designed to quickly get multiple characters battle ready. Games Workshop uses this term to describe how much armies should be painted in order to be “officially” allowed to compete in Warhammer or Warhammer 40K.
A character should be painted with a base color and shade. After that, the most important details, such as weapons or armor elements, should be highlighted. To make this easier for large armies, Games Workshop developed the Citadel Contrast colors. To put it simply, these include the base color and shade in one color. Accordingly, one saves a work step without the figures looking worse.
We find the colors exciting, especially when you want to quickly and fundamentally paint many models of the same type. We recommend this YouTube playlist from Warhammer TV , which explains how to paint various models with the Classic and Contrast methods – only with the Citadel paints, of course.
3D printers and painting miniatures go together perfectly as a hobby. Painting is fun and quite relaxing. In addition to the large number of finished games and systems, the miniatures from the 3D printer are a welcome addition.
Not only can you use it to design the obstacles on the battlefields of Warhammer or Freeboter’s Fate, you also get useful additional material for normal role-playing games or board games such as the settlers of Catan or Gloomhaven. And everything just looks better painted.
If you are still looking for the right 3D printer, read our guide on the best resin 3D printers for miniatures. If you prefer FDM machines, we have a guide on the best FDM 3D printers for miniatures, as well as the best filament for miniatures.