Are you wondering about the best practices for using primer on your scale models and miniatures? I’ll tell you from experience that a good paint job requires a primed surface. This is true whether you’re painting plastic, pewter, or resin models. For scratch-built terrain using cardboard, or other porous surface will need you to prime the entire surface.
In this article, I’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions about priming models, and guide you through the nuances for that first primer coat you need for a durable, great looking paint job.
What is Primer, and What Does It Do?
Let’s start at the top.
Have you ever tried painting a miniature figure or model, only to have the paint refuse to stick? It’s frustrating. One way to ensure that your paint will adhere properly is to use a primer. Primer coats are easy to apply, and single thin coat can make all the difference!
Primer is a type of liquid medium that helps prepare surfaces for painting. It can be used on a variety of materials, including plastic, metal, and wood. In the case of miniatures and models, primer provides a smooth surface for the paint to grip onto.
This is especially true for an uneven surface like those of bare metal DND miniatures. It also helps to prevent chipping and flaking. In the case of very porous surfaces, like paper or cardboard, it will make your first coat or base coat stick.
How Long Should You Wait Before Painting After Applying Primer to a Miniature?
When you’re working on a miniature painting project, the first step is to apply primer to your model. This will help the paint to adhere better and create a more even finish. But how long should you wait before painting after applying primer?
It all depends on what type of primer you’re using. You should always check the label for drying time recommendations. For example, Vallejo Surface Primer requires at least 15-30 minutes to dry. You can speed up drying with a hair dryer or by working in a less humid environment. In general, you’ll find that aerosol spray primers dry faster than airbrushed surface primers.
Of course, how long primer takes to dry depends on the ambient conditions. Are you priming in cool temperatures or in high humidity?
High humidity and cooler temperatures will slow down the dry speed of any primer coat. Even your paint coats will take longer to dry.
So it’s always best to test a small area first before proceeding with your project. By following these tips, you can be sure that your primer will be fully dry and ready for painting in no time!
What Happens If You Paint Models Without Primer?
A regular paint will not stick well to a surface without a primer. There’s a reason primer exist in so many varieties across all these industries, including the modeling hobby sector. Paint without primer causes premature failure in products.
Even a high quality paint will have a hard time sticking to objects. Sure, there are paint and primer combination sprays or self-priming paint brands you can buy.
But from the testing I performed, only a few will work well for the miniature hobbyist. Some of these specialized primer/paint sprays will obscure fine detail on a model’s surface.
For best results in my experience, you’ll want to apply a separate primer, allow it to dry, then apply a second coat or continue painting with your regular paint. If you’re really impatient, there are fast drying primer formulations.
But, if you’re careful and only apply thin layers at in each coat, you won’t need to wait long at all, i.e., no more than an hour for most water based primers).
How Do You Know When Primer is Dry Enough to Start Painting?
This is a very good question that I get a lot. The ability to paint after priming depends on the primer type and the painting process you’re going to use. For the miniature painter working on tabletop gaming miniatures, scale models, e.g., plastic kits, or even 3D prints will not need to wait that long.
You can tell that your primer coat is completely dry when it goes from a shiny, wet appearance to a flat finish. As most primers have a matte appearance when dry, you can be certain that your first top coat of paint will stick fine.
Paint peeling only usually happens when you’re trying to paint over an unprimed or poorly primed surface.
For those who aren’t sure, give yourself a primer drying time of at least 1 hour, or simply leave your model in a dry and clean place overnight.
For my work, I leave my models inside a hobby spray booth to dry. This keeps dust or any random debris from settling on the still-wet surface, ruining the smooth finish I’m looking for.
What is the Best Way to Dry Primer Faster?
To get your primer dry quicker, there are three easy things you can do.
- Use a hair dryer
- Provide more air flow to your work area
- Reduce the amount of primer you use
First, you can use a hair dryer. Any old hair dryer you have around the house or an inexpensive, affordable blow dryer will work great for this.
I bought this affordable hair dryer just for this purpose, to help me get paint and primer to dry faster. It’s lasted almost 10 years and I don’t see it break down anytime soon. Just make sure you’re using the lowest heat setting.
Second, prime your models where this is plenty of air flow around you. Air conditioning helps or even a fan nearby. Of course, this goes along with working in a place with less humidity.
The humidity of certain seasons of the year where I live makes a noticeable impact on how long it takes for me to finish a project. And this is simply because it takes way longer for primer and paint to dry.
Finally, you can speed up how long it takes for your primer to dry by using less primer. Indeed, the less primer you use, the quicker it will dry, so it’s best to apply thin coats if you’re looking for a fast drying time.
Can You Paint Over Tacky Primer?
If the primer remains tacky, the primer won’t be completely dry (see above about how to know when primer is completely dry).
Tacky primer is often a result of a poorly mixed or old aerosol spray primer. When the solvent and primer mixture inside the can doesn’t dissolve together in solution, you’ll notice that primer sit on a surface without drying properly. It will look fairly glossy, and have a tacky or sticky feel when you touch it with your finger.
Unfortunately, if you see this happen on a miniature, there isn’t much you can do other than stripping the surface and starting from the bare metal surface, or plastic, whatever. You can then re prime the surface with a fresh can of primer and proceed as normal.
Of course, this is the reason why I do not recommend using old cans of spray primer or working with them in suboptimal conditions, e.g., a humid or cold day, that could disrupt how well the aerosol mixture functions in the can.
Water based primer will not form this tacky surface. It’s not a risk, as the primer dries, water evaporates and leaves behind a great surface for paint to stick.
For the hobbyist looking to paint miniatures with the least amount of effort, you should use a water based primer and water based paints as much as possible.
If you’re interested in using oil based paints for miniatures and models, you can still use a water based primer. See how I painted this 50mm scale tank model from A to Z with oil paints.
How Many Coats of Paint Do You Need After Primer?
Well, you got your primer applied and dry, and now you’re wondering what’s next. For most projects, I find that two coats of paint for your base coat color and you’re all set.
The reason I say two coats of paint is that this is often the least amount of coverage you’ll want to have a smooth layer of color on your model. Of course, depending on the paint type, e.g., is it a highly pigmented paint, such as Citadel base paints, or Reaper HD paint?, you may need more layers of paint on your model to get an even, smooth coat of paint.
Also note that a dark color primer may show through overlying hobby paint colors easier than light primer colors. So how many coats of layers after your primer depends on what colors you are using in your project.
I know the worst culprit for this, for example, is trying to paint yellow paint over a black or dark-colored primer. I write about this problem in this tutorial, and share a few trick for painting yellow and other bright, warm colors.
What is the Most Useful Color Primer for Painting Miniatures and Scale Models?
When in doubt, always choose a dark colored primer. The reason I say this is because a dark color, even black primers, help you paint quicker. You don’t need to worry about painting shadows or recessed parts of the model that your brush has a hard time reaching.
With a dark primer, you can simply focus your attention on the miniature that is visible to you and others. Check out why zenithal highlighting and shading is so effective for speed painting miniatures.
For those looking for more depth and detail in their miniatures while painting, I do suggest trying a brighter primer. A white or neutral gray primer will reveal where natural shadows and highlights fall on your miniature before you apply paint.
This added contrast from the base layer of primer can go a long way toward improving the overall finish of your paint job. For competitive miniature painters, I know that white primer is often chosen for this purpose.
Ultimately, it’s up to you what color primer you use for painting miniatures. Experiment with different colors and see what works best for you. There are even colored primers from specific miniature game brands to speed up your work when painting your favorite miniature army, e.g., Citadel colored spray primer and paints.
What is the Best Primer for Miniatures, 3D Prints, and Scale Model Kits?
This is such a hard question to answer. It depends. You can see a full review of my recommended primers for all sorts of miniature and scale model work. Or check out this overview of primers that work great for 3D printed models.
In general, I suggest using any spray-on primer you can find. This could be a rattle can primer, e.g., aerosol type, or an airbrush ready primer.
A spray application gives you the best results because it is the easiest to apply in thin, smooth and even layers over an entire model’s surface. You’ll have less worry about pooling and clumping.
If you don’t have an airbrush and work primarily indoors without good ventilation, you can use brush-on primers.
In short, for those just getting started or on a budget, I recommend using a rattle can primer. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a hobby brand, such as Citadel or Army Painter. As long as you can apply a thin, even coat reliably over your miniatures, that primer should work well.
Whatever primer you choose, make sure to test it out on a scrap piece of plastic or metal before applying it to your model. This will help you get a feel for how the primer goes on and dries, and whether or not it works well with your paint.
Final Wrap Up
If you’re looking to get have paint stick on your miniatures, model kits, or whatever your hobby project, a solid primer coat will make everything go smoother. Spray painting, regular brush painting all starts with a good foundation.
I hope you found this overview and advice to frequently asked questions useful for working with your models.
If you have feedback, other tips and tricks you found helpful, I’d love to know about it. Leave a comment below!
Happy miniature painting!