A Guide to Priming Tabletop Miniatures

If you are new to painting minis, you might be wondering how, or even if, you need to prime your tabletop miniatures. This article covers both why you should and the simplest way to do it.

Over my years of painting armies of miniatures, I have talked to many others who have skipped this step and gone straight to layering colors of paint straight onto their minis. They just haven’t been happy with the results that they got from not using a primer first. I will explain why this is throughout this page.

Why you should prime your minis

The most popular brands of miniature paint that you find in your friendly local game shop are acrylic paints. Acrylic paint has a harder time sticking to metal and plastic surfaces on its own than some other types of paint.

Primers are designed to stick to uncoated surfaces and provide a surface that your other paint will stick to much better.

If you were to look at the surface of your mini under a powerful microscope, with and without primer on it, you would see that the surface without paint is much smoother than the surface with a primer on it.

This slight roughening of the surface creates more surface area for the paint layers to stick to and bond with much better than over smooth paint.

My friend James didn’t coat one of his models early in his hobby life. He tipped the model over and it chipped a small bit of paint. He tried to clean it up by pulling on a bit that was sticking out. As he pulled, a great big piece of paint came off of the model, the paint job was completely ruined.

He ended up stripping the rest of the model and starting over. I have never had an experience like this one, probably because I have always primed my models.

Primer also establishes the base color for the rest of your paint job. When you paint over primer, bright color layers will be brighter over white primer than they will be over black primer. The reverse is true for painting dark layers. There are definite advantages to both priming dark and light that I will go over below.

Best Primers for Tabletop Miniatures

Rattle can Primers

  • Citadel by Games Workshop is a staple for many people. It is readily available in most game stores or by following the link. It is available in a variety of colors.
  • The Army Painter Is another common brand of primer. They make several colored primers that exactly match their paint from the rest of their line. This is a solid option, especially for beginners who are still working on their coverage as they build up layers.
  • A good budget-friendly primer option is Krylon Primer. It isn’t specifically created for or marketed for miniatures, but it is made to adhere to plastic. Use light passes on your model just like you would with the other brands.

Airbrush Primers

More and more I find myself priming with my airbrush rather than with a rattle can, I have tried several brands of airbrush ready primers, these are my favorites

Here a short video I made showing you how to prime several miniatures in one session

What color should you use to prime your miniatures

For the beginning painter, I strongly recommend priming with a dark primer. Yes, this will mean that you will need to use more layers to achieve bright colors but it will be worth it.

When I started out I was like many new painters and I had a hard time making sure that I had complete coverage. I was a bit nervous about overlapping paint when I had two colors next to each other.

The result was that instead of them overlapping a bit I had small gaps where the primer showed through. They didn’t look too bad on the tabletop but when I tried to take pictures of them, these blemishes were front and center because I was using light color primers, generally light gray or white. Had I used a dark gray or black primer they would have looked more like shadow areas.

Two minis side by side. The one on the left is un-primed. The one on the right is primed.

You can see the model that we will be using for this tutorial, a rebel captain from Fantasy Flight Games; Star Wars Legion game line.

The parts have been dry fit together to check fit and then the model was primed black. Another approach is to use a primer that is the same color as the majority of your model.

Primer comes is a lot of colors. Miniature paint companies like Army Painter and Citadel have primers that match the most commonly used colors in their paint lines.

This is a great approach for beginner painters because if you leave a small gap it will match the majority of your model and be less noticeable.

This model has been primed in a light gray

The exception to this suggestion is if you plan to primarily paint your model in light colors. It takes a lot of layers to get yellow to show up evenly over a black base. A stormtrooper for example will be very difficult to paint if you start with a black primer.

This model has been primed in a mid gray in preparation for paint

This stormtrooper has been primed with much lighter paint in order to make it easier to get complete coverage when painting it white.

How much does primer cost?

The primers that are formulated specifically for miniatures will give good even coverage on your models. These primers can be fairly expensive though. Some of the brands can be over $20 U.S. per can.

A budget option that you can consider is a trip to your local hardware store. Some brands that you can find there are formulated specifically for priming plastic.

These primers can give even coverage and work quite well. Just make sure that you get one that has been developed for use on plastic.

Two different colors of primer in spray cans

Priming with a rattle can vs an airbrush

Since primer is readily available in both pressurized rattle cans and for airbrushes, you may be wondering which is better. The answer is that they are both good in the right situation.

Rattle cans are great for when you are priming a lot of miniatures at once. If you assembled a few boxes of minions for your army and need to prime them all, use a rattle can. For an extended session, it is hard to beat the raw efficiency of this method.

I keep an old piece of plywood in my garage specifically for large priming sessions. I get it out and lay it on top of my garbage can. Then I bring out all of the models that I need to prime. I line them up evenly and have at them. You can see this method clearly in the video at the top of this article.

Clean up for a rattle can includes tipping it upside down and spraying until it sprays clear. Put the cap back on and put it away.

Airbrush priming is great when you have bad weather, too hot, cold or raining etc. It is also good for very controlled applications for techniques such as Zenithal Priming. I use my airbrush to prime mostly when I am doing small batches.

The clean up for an airbrush takes much longer than it does for a rattle can. It involves taking the airbrush apart to clean all of the small working parts, but in the right situations, it is totally worth it.

Tips for beginner mini painters

Apply primer in light even layers

Applying your primer in short bursts will help you to avoid building up too much primer. Also, if you give it a few minutes in between applying layers the tacky surface will help the next light layer to stick, resulting in using less primer overall.

Don’t Hold the can too close to your miniatures

A common mistake made by new painters is holding the can too close to your models. You should have between 9 and 12 inches (20 – 30 cm) between the spray can and your model.

This distance allows enough space for the paint to properly atomize and separate before landing on your model. When the can is too close to the model the paint builds up very rapidly leading to runny paint that fills in all of the fine detail that is on your model.

Don’t put on too much paint

It doesn’t take very much primer to achieve the benefits of priming. Thin layers will allow the model’s details to come through.  you don’t need a thick glossy layer of paint from the primer can.

If your model looks even more like plastic after you painted it than it did when it was bare plastic, you have way too much paint on it. All you need is enough to allow your acrylic paint to stick to it.

Move the can side to side don’t pivot

When you move the can from side to side you maintain a relatively constant distance from your model(s) that you are priming. This ensures that the amount of paint will be uniform and not build up in the center of your spray arc.

Start spraying the paint before the nozzle is aimed at the model.

Doing this will help in two ways.

  1. If there is any dried paint buildup on the nozzle, it usually breaks free when you first start spraying. If the paint can is pointed next to your model rather than directly at it, it won’t get chunks of paint stuck onto the surface of your model.
  2. Second, it allows you to bring the flow of paint spray across the model quickly. Applying the paint in short bursts like this will help you to avoid getting too much on the model at a time.

What are the ideal conditions for priming miniatures

When you are priming outdoors the temperature and humidity play a part in how well the primer will adhere to the model. Basically, if you are comfortable the conditions should be fairly good.

I say fairly good because some people are more used to extreme conditions that others. here are a few tips for getting the best results when it comes to the weather.

NEVER prime in the rain.

NEVER prime in the rain. In case I forgot to say it if it is raining outside DON’T prime your models outside. Even if you are under an eve and no water is falling directly onto your model. When it rains the humidity skyrockets, the increased humidity will directly affect the ability of the paint to stick to your model.

Ideally you want it to be a nice moderate temperature

If possible, wait until it is warm to prime your models. Cold weather will drop the pressure of your can of primer and may make it spray unevenly. The cold will also make your paint take longer to set up and cure.

The other extreme is hot dry weather. When the weather is too hot you run into the opposite problem, the paint can dry before it gets to your model and not stick or give a very rough sandpaper-like texture.

However, if you take proper precautions, you can prime in either very hot or cold weather. Read my article about priming in winter weather here.

Be mindful of what is behind your model

When paint comes out of a pressurized paint can it will fly for several feet before stopping. If you are a couple of feet away from your house because you ignored my subtle advice to avoid priming your model in the rain, you may end up with a patch of primer all over the side of your home, or your landlord’s house.

I like to make sure that there are several feet of space between my model and anything behind it. Better yet, I will use some cardboard from an old box to act as a backstop behind the model to catch most of the overspray from the paint can.

Advanced Priming Techniques

Because the color of the primer affects the final look of your paint there are some ways to take advantage of it and make that work for you rather than against you. Zenithal priming is a technique that uses more than one color of primer to pre-shade and highlight your models when you follow with nice thin layers of paint. You can read a nice article that I wrote on the subject by clicking on the link in the paragraph.

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