Wargaming Tradecraft: Varnishing Your Models


Varnishing Your Models

Horror stories of varnish gone bad
found on DakkaDakka
I should start by saying my adventures with varnishing has never worked out. My idea of the perfect varnish was something completely clear. Not matte, not gloss, not in between (Satin) - but exactly as you painted it. This doesn't exist.

Matte is what I'm interested in, because I don't want shiny glossy models. I've tried a number of spray on varnishes, mostly matte, some satin and they've always ruined my models. Some ended up looking gloss anyways, others dulled out the colours to boring flat tones. Sometimes dust would get picked up from the air or inside the bottle (even in non-dusty areas) and cover my figures in a rough horrible texture. In the case of my 3D Dungeons and Dragons game board, a satin spray varnish even frosted the clear levels.


What's the big deal?

Varnish protects your models. As you handle them, drop them and as they bounce around in whatever transportation you've arranged for them, they'll be subject to much abuse. Paint will slowly rub off down to your primer or scratch off completely showing bare metal / plastic. When you've painstakingly blended areas, repainting usually means the entire section of the model rather than just what's scraped off. Raised areas, corners, and wherever you pick the models up are the most in danger.

Types of Varnish

So, we introduce Varnish - it's a (not really) clear, hard top coat that protects paint. You'll usually find it in Matte, (flat, not shiny) Gloss (shiny) or in between. (referred to as Satin) There's also specialty types such as highly reflective, (like safety signs) glow in the dark, frost, (intending to make clear things translucent) etc. Glosses are pretty standard (shiny is shiny) and Satins seem to only have a little variation, (not quite gloss) but every brand seems to have their own opinion of what "matte" should look like. (and it usually sucks)

Gloss is Stronger

It's worth noting that Gloss tends to be a stronger varnish and some companies will suggest that even if you want a matte finish, you should first apply a layer of gloss varnish for protection.

Paint on Gloss

Art or hobby stores usually carry a paint on gloss with their acrylic (water based) paints. This way, after the mini is done, even if you've already varnished it matte, you can go back and make blood, water, ooze, etc.. shiny again.

Always Test

As I stated above... the wrong varnish WILL DESTROY YOUR MINIATURES.

So, a while ago I picked up a brush on varnish from a local art store and only recently started using it. I figured if spray varnishes fail so hard, maybe I'll have better luck with professional stuff. I did. I tested it on a few of my models and have proceeded to protect all of my old Eldar. This stuff also held up to my fingernail scratch test. "What's that?" you ask? I scratched at them with my fingernail to see how easily paint would scrape off after the protective layer. Edges and corners aren't as strong as flat areas, but they still hold up pretty well.

Matte Varnish from Liquitex

The product is a Matte Varnish from Liquitex: http://www.liquitex.com/archivalpermanentvarnish/
(Or "Archival Permanent Varnish")

I use a number of their products - the gels - to create texture for bases and other types of terrain or liquid effects.
It's actually more of a Satin than Matte as there's a slight sheen afterward, but only barely. You need to stir the product first to mix up the varnish. (shaking froths the surface, though seems to do the job) Not stirring creates a glossier finish. I usually hold it upside down and gently draw circles in the air... like a tornado. If you screw up, don't mix it and it ends up dries glossy, simply add another layer of matte varnish, gently mixed, once the first is dry.

The colours stay strong and vibrant, which is key.

The varnish is pretty self leveling, meaning you don't have to worry about streaking. Once it starts drying though, you shouldn't play with it anymore. Anything will streak during it's drying stage. If you feel it needs another coat, wait for it to dry before applying a second coat.

How much to use?

If you apply too much in a single layer, the colours will dull or the varnish will dry in foggy beads.

To avoid this, don't paint it on too thick and watch the recesses for white patches and bubbles - it should go on clear. If areas look white, it's too thick - either spread out the varnish or use another brush or cloth to pull away / soak up the extra.


from a dollar store or a travel kit
I tried using this in an airbrush and it worked perfectly. I didn't thin it down at all, and it worked fine at 45psi. Two thin coats and I was happy. If you are looking at getting an airbrush for basing, terrain and varnish, you could use a cheap one.

Spray Bottle (Airbrushing Plan B)

It's true, not everyone (probably most) don't have access to an airbrush. While painting this varnish on with a brush is fine in most cases, maybe you have a lot of models to do, some terrain or you're working with pigments.

Make sure that it's spraying a mist, not a stream. Also, hold the bottle as far away from the model as you can, so the model is only being covered by a thin layer of varnish. You may need to add some water or alcohol to the varnish to thin it, helping it to atomize. (mist)

Recognize this'll be messy, getting varnish all over. Put down some newspaper before spraying.


Since pigments are a powder, you'll always lose some of it when the powder is diluted in a liquid. The trick is finding the best method to seal them.

I've found that if you're brushing the varnish on, mix it into some water (50:50) and dab it on, so you're not brushing the powder away from where it's sitting. The airbrush seems ideal, but a spray bottle might not be too bad... in my spray bottle test it went on a little thick, so I'm thinking I either need to add some water, or have the model even farther away. (Instead of holding it at arms length, setting it somewhere and spraying from afar)

As you can see above, everything will change how the pigments look. Recessed areas seem to survive ok, while raised ones are often affected.

Effects of Varnishing a Model with Liquitex

The "before" (left) is more than a few steps behind,
but you can tell that the varnished model (right) has
not lost any quality at all.
Highlights and dry-brushes can look a little "chalky" sometimes rather than smooth. While a wash will usually correct this and blend the chalky parts, I've found the varnish will also smooth out some of these areas and other places where your colour transition is a little rough. (I believe this is a side effect of the varnish not being _perfectly_ clear) This is a good thing, unless you want your brush strokes super obvious.

A huge benefit is the final sheen on your model will be roughly equal all around. As you've painted with different paints, brands and ages of such, or used paint thinners, water, drying and / or blending mediums, all your paints will have different qualities to their colour, vibrancy and sheen. The varnish will create a uniform look to all of this.

Also, it's not usually a good idea to highlight metallics with non-metallics and vice-versa, but I have done so from time to time. An added benefit is that the varnish even causes the metallics with non-metallics to look like they belong together.

When using pigments (powder) I varnished with an airbrush and they seemed to be fine. If you're careful, I imagine you could paint the varnish over the pigments as well.

Paint on Gloss

As I mentioned above, if you have areas that should be glossy such as blood, water, ooze, etc.. just buy some paint on gloss varnish from an art / hobby store and paint it on the areas in question after varnishing your model matte.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice article, though I did get more of my prefered matte spray, I will be taking some of the ideas from this post into consideration in my work. *thumbs up*


Please keep all comments civil and language appropriate for a child-safe environment.