Converting Polystyrene Figures

Polystyrene is the hard plastic that is used to make model kits of tanks and aircraft, is used in vacuum forming things like yoghurt pots, and is expanded into a hard foam for use in packaging. Polythene is the softer more bendy plastic used for many toy soldiers, as well as washing-up bowls and thin plastic bags. One major difference between the two plastics is that polystyrene can be glued very effectively, whereas polythene resists all attempts to glue it.

Some manufacturers have started to mould figures in polystyrene for wargaming. These figures are lighter and cheaper than white metal or pewter figures, and are much easier to convert. The plastic also takes paint much better than metal, and seldom needs undercoating, and so painting the figures is easier. The surface detail tends to be less sharp than on metal figures, and in order to get the figures out of a rigid two-piece metal mould, the polystyrene figures can not have any undercuts on them anywhere, which limits the poses and detailing that the sculptor can give them.

Here we see some of the Games Workshop figures for their The Lord of the Rings skirmish game. The figures are sold as representing the Riders of Rohan. These are fictional soldiers, based on a mix of Romano-British, Saxon, and Viking styles. I wanted to be able to use them in historical games, rather than just fantasy, so I wanted to convert them into more realistic dark-age warriors.

I wanted fewer archers and more spearmen and swordsmen, so I converted some of the archers. Fantastic crests were cut off the helmets with nail clippers, and the suggestions of greaves on the lower legs were trimmed away with a scalpel. I also carved away a lot of the detail suggesting fancy vambraces and (leather?) breastplates. It was easy to cut away the bow from an archer's hand when it was extended like this, and I kept the trimmed-off bows for converting some polystyrene skeletons I have into archers. The hand holding the bow was closed, so this was easy to glue into a white metal shield with superglue. The one you see here is by Wargames Foundry and I already had it in my spares box, but you could make a flat round shield very easily out of plastic card, and drill a hole into it for the hand to fit in, then add a boss made of putty.

This pose was also easy to add a sword to. The sword was trimmed off another figure, who was in turn rearmed with some other weapon. I wanted most of the men to have spears, as this was the main weapon of the dark ages, and so I had a fair few spare swords. I just prepared the sides of the hand by flattening them slightly with a tiny trim with a scalpel, and then glued on the sword pommel to one side of the hand, and the blade and quillons to the other.

I didn't want the round bases that the figures came with, and so I made my own bases. These were squares of thick card, with self-adhesive magnetic sheet stuck to the bottom, and a thin bit of flat polystyrene cut from a yoghurt pot lid stuck with UHU universal adhesive to the top. This was to make it easy to glue the figure on firmly. The bottom slotta-base bar on the figure was then glued to the polystyrene sheet with one of the many runny liquid solvents sold in model shops for gluing polystyrene together. I think the one I was using might have been called Plastic Weld. You can see little bits of scrap polystyrene either side of the slotta-base bar used to reinforce it. Polystyrene figures are so light, that these magnetic bases will stick the figures fairly safely to the inside of a biscuit tin. 25mm scale metal figures are far too heavy for this storage method.

In this conversion, an archer becomes a spearman. His bow and arrow are cut away, and this time I have bothered to carve off the quiver from his back too. A hole is drilled through one hand with a pin vice, and through this hole is threaded a spear made from a long quilting pin. To make the spear I cut the glass bead head off the pin with pliers, and then hammered the point into a spearhead with a hammer and anvil (I have a little cobblers' last which I use as an anvil).

This figure's right arm was not in a position convenient for a spearman, so I cut most of his arm off the figure entirely, and reattached it lower down and the other way round. This left a gap that needed to be filled. For this, I used the ever-useful Milliput two-part epoxy putty. Note too that in order to give my figures more variety I made other trims such as in this case trimming the edge of the flowing cape on one figure, to give the cape a different shape. One bothers to do this when modelling, but I'm not sure how often I appreciate the results on the table top during a game.

To this figure I also added an arrow stuck in his shield. A tiny hole was drilled with a very fine drill bit into the shield, and into this I super-glued a length of artificial Christmas tree needle, to which I glued a couple of tiny bit of fletching made from either yoghurt pot lid plastic, or just stiff paper. The needle makes a very flexible shaft, which twangs back into line after being knocked, so I think it should last.

The figure here is without radical conversion. I haven't trimmed down the crest on his helmet much, and he retains the thick plastic spear. The Riders of Rohan have been sculpted with very pretty bronze-age style spearheads, with little holes in them. These are inaccurate for iron spearheads, and so I have filled in the little holes with Milliput. As with the other figures, the edges of his greaves have been trimmed away.

On the left you see the swordsman version of this figure. Carving away the spear with a very sharp scalpel wasn't very difficult, but then this left an area of his mail byrnie without any detail, so using my tungsten carbide spike, I poked the detail in, and added more round the side where the original figure had little. I poked the spike in at a bit of an angle, and dragged the hole sideways a bit, to suggest the texture of mail.

The angled lower rear edge of the figure's helmet is not historically accurate, but I decided to let that one go. Most of the helmets, once the more extravagant crests were snipped off, are historical enough. Hair styles we know varied during the period, and so my figures are from an area of Britain where for that while hair was worn long. Very few helmets indeed have been found from this period, and those are generally up-market helmets of nobles with rich burials, so I have a license to portray a slightly non-standard type.

I bought a box of Games Workshop 'Dryads'. These are tree-like monsters, and though not a player of GW games, I liked the figures so got them for use in other games. Annoyingly, the box contained enough arms and faces for twenty-one figures, but only enough torsos and legs for twelve. I decided to make the needed parts myself. Again I made my own bases, much as above.

Below, you see three converted tree-monsters. I took some steel wire, bent a loop into one end for a base, and bent the rest into a frame for the torso and legs. The wire runs up one leg, across the shoulders, and down the other side. With good old Milliput I fixed the loop of wire at the bottom to the square card base and waited for it to harden before carrying on. The legs and torsos were then built up with more Milliput, but not all at once. I would sculpt perhaps a third of the figure at a time, because trying to do it all at once would mean that working on one bit would muck up the previous bit which hadn't hardened yet. The arms and heads could just be stuck on (scoring the smooth plastic first helps) by pushing them onto the sticky putty, but a few fell off again after the putty cured, so I just glued them back on with either superglue or universal adhesive.

The monster on the left has had a few pieces of plastic aquarium plant added to him. The kneeling one in the middle has pieces of wire stuck in a fan-formation behind his head, because I had run out of back-of-head-fans from the box. He also has two big branches sticking out of his back, rather than the plastic kit's intended one. I removed all the corny skulls from the branches. I say “his” because these figures of mine look fairly masculine to me, in contrast to the very long-legged and busty body parts that come in the box. Why would a tree monster have breasts? Perhaps they are mammals that have evolved to look like trees, rather than trees that have evolved to walk. Anyway, I saw no need for all my dryads to be female, so I sculpted mine quite happily without breasts, with shorter less shapely legs, and coarser bark. I did this partly because it seemed easier.

Here are two more of them. The use of the epoxy resin putty means that heads and arms can be attached at angles that the basic kits did not allow. The figure on the left has a left arm angled weirdly (difficult to see, just trust me). Both these two have extra branches made simply with bits of wire sticking out of them. The one on the right has a back-of-head fan of twigs made out of a figure of a winged imp sitting in a branch that comes with the kit. I turned it round and trimmed it down and disguised it as branches.

Another two here. The one on the left is looking skyward in a very non-standard manner, and has an extra branch sticking out of its right thigh. The one on the right has weird tops to its legs that suggest the edge of a pelvis, or that the thighs are armoured with stiff surrounds of wood and bark. These were very easy to make. I just flattened an egg-shaped bit of putty, and wrapped the result around where the thigh should go, and left the top edges where they ended up.

If you are going to try sculpting figures out of Milliput, you could do a lot worse than start with some project like this, because it gives you a great deal of license for being imprecise. You do not have to model accurate human proportions, and things like feet can be almost any shape you want.