Wargaming Tradecraft: Spray Priming Your Minis


Spray Priming Your Minis

A very important aspect of painting your minis is priming them. What we want to avoid is the photo on the right. The left half is primed properly, but the right is his fate a few moments later, blasted straight on from a can of primer spray paint that was too close, oh the misery. Look at all the primer pooling and settling into all the little bits of detail, destroying any hope this poor little Gretchin could get a decent paint job. Even a master artist is going to have a tough time of making him look alright when all the physical detail just runs together.

Now, lets see how you can avoid causing catastrophe from the very beginning - because trust me, there's a lot that can go wrong before you even start painting and you're better off stripping your models and starting over than trying to make due with a sub-par base coat. Most of the problems you'll want to avoid are human error or quickly catchable if you know what to look for.

I've already talked about paint on primer called Gesso. There are still situations where this is a better option than spray on primer and it is available in white, black or clear. I've already killed a Gretchin, no need to beat a horse too - hop over to that post and take a look (This is also the aerosol-free, eco-friendly route)

A quick word on priming, in case you're not aware, we do this because you'll learn paint applies to different surfaces in different ways. When we use Games Workshop (previously Citadel) paints, they're what is known as "acrylic" or water-based. These paints clean up better/easier and dry faster than oil-based paints, but the surface you paint on needs to be prepared.

  • A rough surface usually provides the best adhesion for paint, but you don't want it to be noticeably rough since a primer should mimic the surface it's put on.
  • When paint dries on a glossy or smooth surfaces, it will usually peel and flake off easily. (metal, plastic, glass, other paint, etc)
  • Some surfaces may be slightly porous, absorbing the paint applied to them. (paper, cloth, wood, etc)
  • Paints, gels and varnishes all dry differently and you'll find some brands are thicker or smoother, which can be a real pain to paint on top of.
Primer is the great equalizer, allowing us to paint on any surface however we see fit.

Ideally a primer should stick to the surface it's applied to, mimic the surface it covers, not obscuring any detail, while providing a good surface to paint on.

I'm using the model on the left to demonstrate the right way to prime. In theory, once it's covered in primer, while all the detail will still be visible the model will be a new colour (usually white or black) with a dull paintable surface instead of the somewhat shiny/smooth metal of the model.


Speaking of things that ruin a model's paintable surface, you'll want to make sure the model is clean. They're usually fine as they come from the manufacturer, but once we get our grubby little hands all over them, they start to get greasy, oily and dirty. These are all things that will cause primer (and paint even after you've primed any time you handle the model with unclean hands) to come right off the model. You should always have clean hands while modelling and avoid snacks that will dirty you up, but if you have to, use dish soap to clean your minis before priming them.


Primer from Krylon
There are a bunch of different primers out there and it really comes down to personal choice on what you want to use. Each brand usually creates a different surface, so it depends on what you like painting on - some will be too smooth and others too rough, so search until you find the one that's juuuust right. This search could be costly and you'll want to test new primers on older/used models you don't care too much for, but finding "your" primer brand is something that will stay with you.

The important thing is that it's PRIMER, not just spray paint. If you're not buying a product from a hobby store specifically designed for prepping miniatures, make sure the packaging says "Primer". Regular spray paints either won't stick to all surfaces (and need primer first) or won't create a nice surface to paint over. Misleading packaging aside, primers should always be something that preps a surface for more paint.

My product of choice is Krylon - Indoor / Outdoor Primer. You can find it at hardware stores like Canadian Tire... or, uh, the equivalent in your country. (or perhaps online) I keep cans of white and black around depending on what I'm going to be painting.

One massive benefit to going the hardware store route, rather than buying hobby store primer, is I find the quality is not only better, but the price will be cut in half.


First off, primer must be stored usually at room temperature. (unless room temp. for you is god-awful-hot or zomg-cold) Packaging will usually tell you what conditions to store the primer in. If you don't follow these directions, the chemicals in the primer can change as it sits and since these are pressurized containers, small paint explosions can occur. (this one's for you buddy ;)

The instructions should also tell you the best weather for actually doing the priming. To say "normal" weather is best, is difficult, considering that you could be reading this from anywhere in the world. Extreme temperatures and conditions are usually bad - too hot, cold, dry, wet, etc. Since priming inside is a terrible option as you don't want to be inhaling those fumes, this is another example of when using gesso and painting on the primer yourself may be your only option.

Storing the primer wrong or painting in the wrong conditions can cause your primer to take longer or shorter to dry, (even drying as it flies through the air mid-burst) create a poor quality surface (such as being dusty, gritty or sandpapery) and do all sorts of other things you'd rather avoid getting all over your miniature. If you notice these signs, stop priming your models.

Where to Paint and on What

Outside, in a well ventilated area is the best place to do any priming. Priming inside will cause the paint to spray around, you'll inhale fumes, the whole place will reek of paint - it's not a fun time, and rather unhealthy.

There are a number of objects you can place your miniatures on and many people try and swear by different methods. When just sitting minis on a surface, you may also want to put some tape or sticky-tac under their bases so they don't fall over. Depending where you are, you'll want to make sure some newspaper is down and you're not spraying towards other objects, so you don't get paint all over the place.

  • A box
    • This is simple, and how I usually prime my minis these days. I use an old computer monitor box so it's wide enough to catch over spray and thin enough to store behind a couch. Also being thin and light, I can pick the box up and turn it to spray my minis from different angles.
  • Sculpting Wheel
    • Sculpting Wheel
    • These are the wheels used to work with clay and be able to turn your project while you do. Some are also raised up to be easier like in the photo.
  • Sticks and Wires
    • This can mean a paint mixing stick, popsicle stick, heavy wire, tooth pick, etc. The idea is you attach your mini to something that gives you a handle to hold on to and just spray at the mini in the air, being able to angle things any direction you want to. You'll need a surface to place the tacky stick on if you don't want to get paint everywhere.
    • There's a good tutorial over at A Gentleman's Ones on using a paint stick to prime.
  • Bags and Gloves
    • This is similar to mounting an item on a stick in that rather than spraying a miniature in place, you move the mini around. The difference being that you hold the mini yourself, keeping yourself clean by using gloves and/or a plastic bag.
    • Santa Cruz Warhammer recently posted a tutorial on using a plastic bag to prime.
  • Sprues
    • Some people like priming bits while they're on the sprue. Out of all the listed methods, this is the only one I'd actually say is flawed. The simple reason is that everything you prime is going to have 1-4 or more spots that isn't primed. It's also hard to clean mold lines off bits still on the sprue, so they're often left on by people who use this method.


In order to avoid destroying a model by over priming as I described above, when you actually begin spraying the primer on, keep the nozzle roughly a foot (12", 24cm - a ruler's distance) away. This ensures the paint will have spread out some and won't be travelling as quickly or with as much force as if closer to the nozzle. By using a gentler mist, the paint covers more area, does so evenly, and sits on the surface instead of pooling in cracks.

Once the nozzle is far enough away, you have to spray the paint. Don't just point the nozzle and press the button; this concentrates all the paint in one area. Aim off to the side of your mini, start spraying and make a single clean line from one side to the other to ensure a clean layer of paint. This you want to repeat from multiple angles around the mini so that you cover everywhere. Once this layer of paint is dry, you may have to lay the figure down so you can spray underneath legs, arms, weapons, etc.

Many people suggest using 2-3 very thin layers, thereby building the strength of your primer's colour with each layer. This is a great way for someone new to begin so you don't overdo things. Personally, I now use a single layer of a medium coating of paint.

Give your mini ample time to dry before handling it so you don't get finger prints on it or mark up the paint in other ways as it's drying. 

As a final step, you should always turn paint canisters upside down and blast them until paint stops coming out. (this will be very quick on decent quality brands) This cleans the paint out from the nozzle, preventing things from drying and clogging up.


A quick note here on stripping miniatures - as you get into different brands of primer, it may become harder to  strip the primer from minis. If you plan on repainting a figure, you want to be able to remove as much of the old paint and primer as possible, so small details aren't obscured from layering more paint over top. This may mean more scrubbing, repeated soaking and harsher stripping agents. I've found that darker primers are usually harder to remove than lighter ones. Since the whole point of primer is that it doesn't come off the surface you paint, some brands and colours/shades may be near impossible to fully strip, if at all.

When testing a new primer, you may want to take this into account, and attempt to strip something you've just primed. This is another reason I suggest testing primers on models you don't care too much for - just incase you can't strip them.


  1. For those interested, Krylon can be found at Walmart:)

  2. I once sprayed my figures outside when I was a kid and one of the neighbours thought I was a graffiti artist and threatened to call the police!


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