Best Primers for Miniature Painting

Right off the bat, my favorite primer for miniatures is Stynlyrez Surface Primer.  It’s awesome and I love it with every part of my body.  Even my pinky toes.

It can be brushed on, but I use it through an airbrush.  The main image for this article is of two minis I had just primed and highlighted.  Stynlrez black primer, and Vallejo model air white over that.

The Spartan looking bro with the shield is metal, the Ghostly looking guy with the staff is a citadel plastic model.  I used the same primer on both and applied it with my Badger Patriot 105 airbrush (all about that baby here).  No problems!

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 can be applied with spray cans, brushes, or airbrushes.  Each application method has it’s own benefits and draw backs.

My First Primers–Rattle Cans and Brush-On

Rattle Can Primers

Rustoleum 2X Primer in Black and White.  Simple, effective, and very inexpensive!  These are typically called rattle cans and are just the basic primers that you can find in any hardware store.

Some drawbacks with these:

They’re a bit messy and you typically want to be either outside or in a very well-ventilated area. It’s not the smoothest application sometimes.  It’s less accurate, so if you’re adding a highlight coat with a rattle can it’s not as easy.

I’ve also tried the Citadel Spray Cans.  I mean, it’s good, but it’s expensive for what it is.  I got a can just because it came in the exact color I needed for my Stormcast Eternals.

My advice:  Try Rustoleum primers first.  If you’re looking to step it up, try Army Painter cans, or Citadel Chaos Black.

Brush On Primers

Vallejo Surface Primer OR Stynlrez Surface Primer.

If you’re not feeling the spray cans and prefer to brush on, I started with the Vallejo but then switched to Stynlrez based on a friend’s recommendation.  It’s hard to quantify exactly why I love the Stynlrez so much.

The best way I can express it is that it is thinner, and seems to just shrink perfectly on the models.  I shoot it through my airbrush right out of the bottle.  Friggin love this stuff.  The Vallejo is good too, but I had to thin that down a bit to use it.

If you’re brushing it on, which is totally fine and what I used to do, either works great.  I’m still leaning Stynlrez though.  I LOVE Vallejo paints (especially their Metal Color Paint which is FANTASTIC! These ones… not the little dropper ones) but for primer I’m a Stynlrez guy.

Airbrush Primer

Stynlrez Surface Primer.  Fight me.

It’s just my favorite and that’s that.  Yes, Vallejo is fine too, but I have both and I use Stynlrez.  To me that’s the real test, what do you use if you can use either?  Again, I use it right out of the bottle.  No thinning, no nothing.

Pour it in the airbrush cup and go.  Adheres really well, thin coats that shrink down onto the miniature preserving details, and dries quickly.  No flaking or chipping.

Vallejo has pretty much the same end result if I’m honest, it just requires me to thin it.  If you have Vallejo already, my formula was:

  • 2 drops of Airbrush Thinner
  • 10-12 drops of Vallejo Surface Primer
  • 1 Drop Flow Improver.

Mix it up and you’re set.

I’ve talked a lot about my airbrush, because, well… I love it! It was a real gamechanger for me. Makes for super quick priming and the finished product is another level.

If you’re considering getting an airbrush, check out my article on priming with an airbrush. I share all my secrets and my complete setup.

Quick Start Priming

When you’re ready to prime, here are some quick tips for getting great results:

  1. Prep your model or miniature before priming.  A quick and gentle cleaning with a toothbrush and mild soap can make a big difference.  Many figures are made in casts.  When they come out, a release agent is used to make the process easier.  If the miniature still has this release agent on it, the primer and paint won’t bond well to the surface.
  2. With spray cans or airbrushes, don’t get too close to the miniature.  It can lead to splattering or “spider-webbing” when the pressure of the spray starts pushing the wet primer on the surface. Start the spray away from the miniature and then spray over it in short bursts from at least 6 inches away.
  3. Thin coats!  Don’t apply big thick coats on the miniature.  It will kill the small detail on it and make it look like a turd.  Ask me how I know this… 🙂
  4. Let it dry completely.  Don’t be in a rush to paint over it.  Give it at least 30 minutes to an hour to dry depending on conditions.
  5. Weather can be an issue if you’re using a rattle can, but it’s not a huge deal.  Just be aware if you’re out in freezing cold, or crazy humidity, your results might be crappy.
  6. White tends to look chalky.  This is a general statement and I found it to be the case when I primed Storm Troopers with my Rustoleum rattle cans. It is what it is.  I don’t have this problem with the airbrush, but rattle cans yes.

What Color Primer Should I Use On My Miniatures or Models?

While primers come in a whole range of colors, we’re going to talk about the big three:  Black, White, and Grey.  These are by far the most commonly used colors of primer and each has some advantages.

  1. Black Primer:  This is the color I have used most often.  It’s a great base and the thinking is that if anything is exposed it will just look like a shadow.  It’s a lot less noticeable if you miss anything.  Disadvantages are that with everything primed black, it’s hard to see the details.  You’ll strain to see what exactly you’re painting at times.  Another drawback is it’s much harder to get a bright vibrant color on top of black. Red, for example, might take a lot of layers before you get the full color.
  2. White:  My current favorite color to paint on top of.  Often times I’ll prime black, then highlight in white.  If you start with pure white, bright colors will be much easier than black.  White also makes it tough to see details and surface volumes.  In rattle cans and even surface primers you brush or airbrush on, white can be very chalky.  Pro Tip on white in general, if you find you’re having trouble, look into White Acrylic Ink.
  3. Grey Primer:  The middle option.  Grey is obviously the halfway point between black and white, and it actually does a good job for priming.  Colors you paint on top won’t be quite as bright as white primer, and any empty spots will be more noticeable than black primer.  You’re also not going to have as deep of a shadow as black.
  4. A Mix of Black, Grey, and White:  This is basically a Zenithal Priming in which you start with black primer, and then once that is dry, you hit it from the top with a brighter color:  Grey, white or both.  You can achieve really good highlighting with this technique.  You can also mix in say grey with some black, to get a more subtle highlight on top of a black base prime.

The Best Primer Binds Well to the Miniature Material

The type of material the miniature is made out of will affect the type of primer you want to use.

As I mentioned above, I use the same primers on metal and plastic.  Other options exist and lets go through that a bit:

Enamel based primers are good for metal and resin miniatures because they harden into a thicker, more protective barrier than polyurethane primers. Enamel based primers come in aerosol cans, which provide their own pros and cons (discussed further later).

Recommended: Tamiya Surface Primer and Testors Enamel Primer are both enamel-based primers great for use on metal miniatures.

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 fusing 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 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.

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.

Preview Product Rating Price
Vallejo Thinner Medium, 17 ml Vallejo Thinner Medium, 17 ml $9.75

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.

Brush on

There are plenty of situations in which you are unable to spray primer. Spraying primer requires a dedicated and well-ventilated spraying station.

If you are at a convention, in a small apartment, or the weather is too cold or too humid to spray outside, you may need to apply primer with a paintbrush.

Some hobbyists actually prefer the brush-on method, but it requires a lot more skill and patience than spray methods. Applying it this way will always result in thicker layers. Use a flat-headed brush and take your time.

Recommended: This versatile Vallejo primer can be brushed on or airbrushed.

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 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.

Last update on 2020-10-20 at 17:08 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API