2021 | Battle-Tested (Best) Primers for Miniature Painting

Different Primers for Miniature Painting

While it’s not completely essential to prime your miniatures, I’ve primed every model I’ve ever painted.  It’s an easy and effective way of getting off to a good start. 

Primer will give the coats of paint something to stick to and keep paint from separating off the model after it’s done.

So with that said, here’s my personal insight when it comes to priming miniatures and models.

Key Takeaways

  • Prime all your miniatures.  Metal, Resin, Pewter, or anything else.  The one exception might be Reaper Bones Black, but I prime those too.
  • Not all primers are created equally.  I’ve had more success with certain airbrush primers, and certain spray cans are better than others.
  • Best Overall Surface Primer for Miniatures is Stynylrez Surface Primer. It’s awesome and I love it.  I use an airbrush to apply.
  • Best Spray Can Primer for Miniatures is Citadel Chaos Black primer.  It’s pricey, but it is the best I’ve tried and one can lasts a long time.
  • Best Value Spray Can Primer for Miniatures is Rustoleum 2X Primer in Black and/or White. These are available in many places online or locally and get the job done. Nothing fancy.
  • Best Primer for Metal Miniatures is again, Stynylrez Surface Primer.  I’ve used it on multiple pewter minis and it works perfectly.

If you are just starting and looking for your best options, I’m going to lay out my primer on primers (see what I did there?).

What are the best primers for miniature painting? The best primers apply a very thin, even coat that provides a surface that the paint can stick to without filling in the crevices that create the figure’s details. Primers made by Stynylrez, Vallejo, Citadel and Pro Acryl are all created specifically for miniatures and models. Airbrush and Spray cans are the most efficient methods of application, followed by paint brushes.

Let’s talk about the best in class Primers:

Best Overall Primer – Stynylrez Surface Primer

Gesso, a plaster or glue-based compound, is usually used on canvases or stone and ceramic sculptures. This is another option because it also forms a hard shell around the figure.

It also creates a roughly textured surface that acrylic paint bonds to easily. It can only be applied by a brush-on method, however, which is less effective than spray-on methods.

Recommended: Liquitex Gray Gesso is inexpensive, resilient to scratches, and stretches as it dries, creating a very smooth and pleasant work surface.

What Does Primer Do?

Novice miniature painters may underestimate the importance of a primer.

Why spend the time and energy covering the miniature with primer when it is just going to be covered by subsequent layers of acrylic paint?

As anyone foolish enough to apply paint directly to a miniature will soon find out, primer offers several functions that are crucial for the long-term condition of the miniature’s paint job.

Primer:

  • provides a surface to which paint can bind.
  • smooths out small scratches.
  • provides an undertone of color.

Primer Provides a Surface to Which Acrylic Paint Can Bind

Miniatures are usually made from metal, pewter, resin, or plastic. Acrylic paints do not bind well to these materials.

If you were to paint the miniatures directly without primer, you would find that the paint easily chips or flakes off the figure.

Primer, however, bonds well to these materials, providing a uniform layer that the subsequent layers of acrylic paint can adhere to securely.

Ideally then, the primer coat surface won’t be too smooth, since paint will adhere better to a rough surface.

The primer, therefore, must cover thinly and evenly, bonding securely to the miniature material and providing a textured surface for the paint.

Clean the Miniature Well Before Applying Primer

Because primer’s main function is to bind well to the miniature, it’s important that the surface of the miniature is cleaned well before the application of the primer.

Miniatures are formed in a mold. The negative space of the mold is filled with either liquid metal, resin, or plastic.

These are allowed to cool and harden, forming the miniature. The mold, however, must be removed from around the figure. To enable this to happen easily, the mold is first coated with a mold-release lubricant.

This lubricant acts like non-stick spray on a skillet, ensuring that the miniature doesn’t stick to the mold.

The result, however, is that every figure produced is covered by a thin, invisible coating of lubricant.

This lube does allow the miniature to be ejected easily from the mold, but it inhibits the application of paints, primers, and glues.

The first step in miniature painting, therefore, is always to wash the figures. This can be done with simple soap and water but must never be skipped.

Primer Fills in Small Scratches and Imperfections

Traditionally, one of the main functions of primer is to fill in small scratches and imperfections in order to create a uniform surface onto which paint can be applied.

This function is sometimes helpful for miniatures because they can become scratched or dented from use and wear. It is more beneficial, however, to other applications, like automotive parts.

Miniatures by design are covered by intricate details created by small etches in the surface of the material. The higher quality the miniature, in fact, the more finely detailed and textured it will be.

A good primer, therefore, will coat these surfaces as thinly as possible, so as not to obscure the fine details of the figure.

Select a Thin Primer

Each layer of primer, paint, or varnish applied to the miniature adds a layer of thickness to the figure. It’s similar to adding an extra layer of clothing.

One shirt doesn’t seem very thick, but if you put on enough layers, they can add up to inhibit your movement.

Think of Joey wearing all of Chandler’s shirts on that one episode of Friends or the kid in the snowsuit in A Christmas Story.

This isn’t much of an issue on auto parts or large figures, but on miniatures, these layers can quickly obscure fine details.

For that reason, when painting miniatures, you want to use a primer that is as fine and thin as possible.

Automotive Primers Are Cheap but Thick

When shopping for primers, you’ll quickly notice that not only are there many varieties to choose from, but there is also a drastic difference in pricing and quantity.

There are many industrial primers that are cheap and packaged in large sizes and many niche primers marketed as miniature primers that come in small expensive packages.

As a general rule, you can find large cans of industrial or automotive primer for a lot cheaper than those packaged as being for miniatures.

While there often is a marked difference in the quality of the primer, depending on your specific needs, you might be able to get away with buying a cheaper primer.

Automotive primers tend to emphasize the filling-in-scratches aspect of the product. As such, they may apply in thicker layers or runoff of smooth surfaces and settle in cracks.

If you have a relatively large, oblique figure, you may be better off saving your money by using this cheaper primer.

Tangible Day reports good results using less expensive primers on terrain pieces.

Miniature-specific primers, on the other hand, are designed to spray a very fine mist that coats the figure with as thin a layer as possible to preserve the intricacies of the miniature’s design.

This is what you are paying for in the more expensive, yet smaller, spray cans. It can certainly be worth the cost if you are trying to achieve very detailed, high-quality work or are painting competitively.

Recommended: Krylon and Rust-Oleum both make cheap, widely available primers that work great on less detailed miniatures.

Primers Provide a Color Undertone

Even though the primer is designed to go underneath your paint, it is not clear in color. Primer has a color of its own which you can either fight to cover up or use to your advantage.

While the most common primer colors are white, black, and gray, you can find miniature-specific primer in just about any color.

Some hobbyists swear by white, and others refuse to prime with white. A few suggest gray is a happy compromise, while others condemn gray as the worst of both worlds.

The color primer you should use depends on your goals and preferences.

Recommended: If you can’t choose, Badger offers a 3 pack of white, black, and gray.

For More Vibrant Colors, Choose a White Primer

Light colors are less opaque than dark colors. This means that, in general, it will take more coats of a light color paint to cover a dark color than it will for a dark color to cover a light one.

The vision you have for the miniature needs to be taken into account when choosing a primer color because it will affect the end result (and the amount of paint and effort to achieve it).

A white primer, therefore, is better if you like bright, vibrant colors. The white undertone will not dampen the colors and you won’t have to apply as many layers trying to overcome the darkness.

Recommended: Vallejo’s white primer works well on a variety of surfaces including metal, resin, and plastic.

Black Primer is Good for Shading and Quick Painting

A black primer can be useful if you don’t want to spend a lot of time fussing over your miniature. The most difficult parts of a figure are the tiny crevices within the fine details of the model.

It can be tricky and time consuming to paint these valleys, especially if you need to apply multiple layers.

By priming with a black primer, on the other hand, these areas can be mostly left alone because the dark areas can act as shading. The pockets in the figure will simply appear darkly shadowed.

Instead of settling for the limitations of choosing either black or white primer (or the compromise of using gray), experts use advanced techniques like zenithal priming (I explain zenithal priming in detail here) or blackwashing.

Both techniques involve priming the entire miniature black to create shading, then applying white primer where lighter and brighter colors will be used.

Recommended: Citadel’s black primer sprays evenly and smoothly, drying to a nice, hard finish.

A Colored Primer Might Be Enough by Itself

Many miniature paint brands offer primers in a wide selection of colors that can make your job easier. Often, they have names that evoke common uses for that color, such as bone.

The primer can often be used as both the primer and the base layer of paint.

If you are painting a skeleton, for example, starting with a bone-colored primer may provide 90% of the coverage you need.

Just a little bit of detailing with other paints would be all you need to quickly create a miniature skeleton army.

Recommended: Seriously, this primer by The Army Painter is called Skeleton Bone.

Application Types

The method by which you apply primer to your miniature can greatly affect the results.

While some hobbyists prefer certain methods over others, the goal is to apply the primer as evenly and as thinly as possible to create a good surface for paint to bind without obscuring the figure’s fine details.

Airbrush

Applying primer with an airbrush is the easiest way to apply very thin, even coats of primer and to prevent air bubbles.

Some primers are sold airbrush-ready, and can be sprayed through a standard size airbrush at around 25 to 30 psi.

If your airbrush nozzle is 0.3 millimeters or smaller or if you want to use a thicker, brush-on primer with an airbrush, you’ll need to thin the primer. The ideal consistency is that of whole milk.

You can thin primer with either water or airbrush thinner, at a ratio of 1 part water (or thinner) per 1 to 3 parts primer.

The technique is pretty much the same as thinning paint for an airbrush, which I explain in this article.

Recommended: The Vallejo Airbrush Thinner is very versatile. It can be used for thinning both primer and model paints, and act as a flow-improver.

Interested in airbrushing miniatures? Read: Best Airbrushes for Miniatures

Aerosol Spray Can

The next easiest application is aerosol spray cans of primer. These can either be miniature specific or general, industrial primers. The advantage of the latter is that they are cheaper and available in larger quantities.

Aerosol spray cans do not spray as thinly as an airbrush, and cheaper products can leave a grainy surface.

Unlike miniature-specific primers, however, industrial primers can be sanded down after drying, giving you the chance to smooth out the surface before painting.

Because of these downsides, aerosol spray can primers are best used for large set pieces and miniatures that do not have a lot of fine details as they can cover a lot more surface area much more cheaply.

The spray isn’t as fine as that of an airbrush, so it’s best to do several pieces at once to avoid wasting primer.

Recommended: Rust-Oleum’s automotive primer holds up well when sanding or smoothing and can be used on metal or resin miniatures.

Metal Miniature Challenges

Metal miniatures pose additional complications over plastic figures.

Unlike plastic models which are more flexible, metal miniatures are more prone to scratching and chipping and thus, require a tougher primer.

Enamel-based primers are good for metal miniatures because they stick better to the metal and dry into a harder surface than polyurethane primers do.

Enamel primers are available in aerosol spray cans, but not in an airbrush-ready formula.

Another alternative primer that works well on metal miniatures is gesso.

Gesso (here’s a quality gesso to try) is a glue- or plaster-based primer typically used on canvases or stone and ceramic sculptures.

It dries into a hard shell and has the added benefit of having a rougher texture to which paint can easily bind .

Other Considerations

Primers and paints should only be used in a well-ventilated area as the fumes can be toxic.

They also need to be stored properly (especially aerosol cans) to avoid bursting or leaking and be disposed of at appropriate collection sites.

When spraying primer, make sure you set up a backsplash to contain any overspray. This can be easily constructed from a recycled cardboard box.

You want to make sure the overspray doesn’t contaminate any people or property.                                 

For some great ideas for a do-it-yourself version and product recommendations, be sure to check out my article on spray booths.

If painting outdoors or in a garage, take care to only prime when weather conditions are favorable. Primer may not adhere properly if the temperature is too cold or the air is too humid.

After priming and painting, make sure to seal your work with a thin even layer of varnish. This will prevent moisture from interacting with the paint and destroying your beautiful work.

You can see which one I recommend here on my gear page.More helpful tips like this can be found right here, or you can pick up your copy of The Miniature Painting Level Up Guide today to have everything you need to know to start your hobby the right way and become more skilled with every painting job.

Last update on 2021-10-22 at 18:18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API