High elf ship

This blog may well take on something of a nautical air in 2017. Last year I shared some renders of various vessels that I’d been playing around with in Blender. These were all 1:600 scale since I felt that was a good size to let me get enough details in. After a few Shapeways experiments I decided that this was a little too large – when I wanted to make some big ships they were going to start getting seriously expensive!

I’ve therefore re-worked a few of my designs into 1:900 scale to see whether I can retain a reasonable amount of detail in this more cost effective size. This was slightly more work than just shrinking the original designs since I had to respect design rules such as minimum wall thickness, but fortunately it wasn’t too much effort to work with my saved Blender files.


It also occurred to me that I could also try printing some sea bases in the low cost ‘strong white flexible’ material that Shapeways offer. This material has a rough finish that is unsuitable for high quality miniatures, but I thought it could work nicely for drybrushing a base.

This is the smallest of the Elven vessels that I have planned, mounting a single bolt thrower in the bows and a magical obelisk at the stern. The miniature is about an inch long, so it’s fairly dimunitive! I elected to print the ship as a single piece, but if I want to go down the casting route in future it would need to be in two pieces (hull and sail).


I’m really happy with the way the details printed in the high def acrylate material (I’ve learnt that this is actually an Envisiontec machine, though apparently not their highest quality). And I’m pleased to report that the sea base experiment was very successful. So there will be more to come!

At the moment I’m not too sure what I’ll do with these ships – I’m enjoying the happy memories of Man O’ War that working on them is bringing back. I know Ganesha has a set of naval rules (Galleys & Galleons) with a fantasy supplement (Fayre Winds & Foul Tides) that it might be worth me getting hold of, as I really like their approach to rules writing.



Small Ox Miniatures: what’s in the box?

Ok, you’ve ordered your exquisitely crafted Small Ox Miniatures from Shapeways, what happens next?

Shapeways will print your order and ship it out to you via UPS. Recently I’ve been getting miniatures in my hand less than a week after placing the order, but it is possible that you’ll have to wait a little longer if there is a lot of demand on the printers.

Inside your (overly large) cardboard box you’ll find plenty of padding, and packages like this:


The amount of packaging would have you believe we’re dealing with extremely fragile pieces here, but actually the miniatures are made of a reasonably flexible plastic and are quite robust.

Inside the bubble wrap your miniatures will look something like this:


The price of the miniatures is determined by amount of material they use, but there is also a fixed charge per part. By connecting the miniatures together in this way, the ‘per part’ cost is only incurred once which makes them as inexpensive as possible.*

You can see that due to the thinness of the connecting plastic it has warped a bit, illustrating the flexibility. Doesn’t matter anyway – we don’t want that bit!

Here are super close ups of one of the miniatures (this is 15 mm scale, so  very small):


You can see that the material is pretty smooth right out of the packet. The front side of the miniatures is smoother and less glossy than the back because of the way the miniatures are oriented during printing.

Shapeways add some supports as part of the printing process. The little nubs you can see mostly on the back and underside of the miniatures are the remnants of these.

To get your miniatures ready for painting, simply cut the connecting plastic with clippers. A sharp scalpel will make short work of the remnants of the supports.

You can paint the miniature as it is, although I would recommend giving it a gentle scrub in warm soapy water before doing so, just in case there is anything on the surface that is going to prevent the paint from sticking.

Because I’m a tad obsessive I like to remove the relatively light print lines with sandpaper. I’ve found that 400 or 800 grit is good for this, but do be gentle with it! And of course be careful not to accidently remove any details.

After sanding I glue the miniature to a penny with superglue, and we’re ready to get painting!

The black plastic looks a bit scuffed up after sanding. Don’t worry, this will paint up really nicely!


Like this!



* On the subject of price, for customers outside the US Shapeways recalculate the price on a monthly basis to reflect the prevailing exchange rate with the dollar. The plunge in the pound over the last few months has been bad news for those of us in the UK!

3d printing for miniatures

3d printing – it’s the future, right? We’ll all be printing our miniatures at home in a year or so and GW will be out of business.

Well, let’s see…

I’ve been playing around with digital sculpting and 3d printing for over a year now, so I thought it would be useful to share some of my experiences. In this post I’ll focus on the various materials and printers I’ve tried. Be warned: this article will be text heavy and probably of limited interest to most miniature enthusiasts!

Shapeways frosted extreme detail

FXD: difficult to see!

Frosted extreme detail (FXD) prints are created using a multijet modelling process. Basically the object is built up by depositing layers of molten plastic. Each layer hardens and is cured by UV light before the next layer is deposited. There is a wax support material that is removed at the end of the build process by melting it in an oven. Shapeways then clean the print before shipping it out.


Good points about FXD are that it is very precise – you can model a weapon with a properly sharp point or edge if you want to. And unlike other print technologies, there is no need for manual removal of support structures, so no risk of the part being damaged.

Each layer is only 16 microns in height (0.016 mm), so the stepping in the z-axis (vertical direction) is minimal. I don’t know what the resolution in the horizontal plane is, but it definitely doesn’t seem to be as good. This means that for a miniature you want it to be printed the right way up to get the best result.

Unfortunately Shapeways will orient the miniature as they wish in order to maximise the number of parts they can fit on the build tray. Combined with surface roughness that occurs where the support wax contacts the part, this leads to a lack of consistency. I have printed the same miniature twice and had markedly different results.

It is possible to clean up FXD prints to a standard that allows for high quality painting. I have had success with 400 grit sandpaper, but of course you do have to be very careful not to obliterate details. When cleaning the material the transparency of FXD is a pain, as it makes it very easy to miss rough areas and stepping lines that only become apparent when the painting has started.

Shapeways black high definition acrylate

dragon_maiden7Recently Shapeways have started offering the snappily titled black high definition acrylate (B-HDA). At the time of writing this is a maker only material, so it’s not possible for anyone other than the model owner to order a print.

B-HDA is a direct light projection (DLP) technology. The part is built one layer at a time by projecting cross sections of the design onto a bath of liquid resin, causing it to cure where the light hits it. This approach requires that support structures are created as the part is built to prevent it collapsing under it’s own weight.

Overall I have found this material to be a significant improvement over FXD for miniatures. The z axis resolution is given as 50 microns rather than 16, so I had expected to find a noticeable reduction in detail. In practice this doesn’t seem to be the case and even some very fine details I have included on my models have been reproduced. However, it is apparent that sharp edges are not quite as tight as FXD (though still very good).

The material is a bit softer and more flexible than FXD (which is somewhat brittle). I believe that this is how Shapeways are able to achieve a reduction in print artefacts despite the apparent lower resolution of the process. It seems that the material ‘relaxes’ a little as the piece is created, smoothing the surface. Because the material is also opaque, it’s significantly easier to clean up for painting. I generally use 800 grit. You probably could paint straight onto it, but I’m quite fastidious about surface prep!

Reproducibility seems to be better with this material, but at this point I don’t have enough B-HDA prints to say this with total confidence.

The major downside is those support structures. Shapeways are fairly good at working out where to place them but not perfect. For some models I’ve actually resorted to building my own support structures in to the .stl file when I found I was getting repeated failures in the same spot. Shapeways don’t offer the option to remove the supports yourself, so you just have to hope that whoever does it doesn’t mangle the miniature too badly! (To be fair, they have been pretty good with this in my experience but I’d still like to do it myself – presumably this could reduce the cost of production too.)

Formlabs Form 1+ and Form 2

I have also explored the possibility of buying my own printer. This would greatly speed up the design process, since I could test a design in a matter of hours rather than weeks – it’s so frustrating to receive a new print and immediately realise that something needs to be fixed!

There are plenty of desktop printers available for a few hundred quid, but they generally seem to be of the fused deposition modelling (FDM) type. From the research I’ve done, these printers are nowhere near good enough for producing miniatures.

Currently there are a few DLP printers available to the home user, but the cost is an order of magnitude higher. The Form 2 printer seems to be the best on the market in this group, but it will set you back three grand. And the resin is more than a hundred quid a bottle. And the build platform needs to be replaced every two bottles…

I have procured test prints of my miniatures on the Form 1+and Form 2 printers from a couple of UK based companies using 3d hubs. The minimum step height of these printers is 25 micron but I would say that the results are not quite as good as B-HDA from Shapeways (but still very good). I suspect that the difference lies in the resin. I have tried the black and the grey resin – they’re both more brittle than B-HDA (particularly the grey) and it seems to result in more visible stepping.

I have played with the free to download PreForm software that prepares a .stl file for printing on a Form printer. It’s very easy to use and gives full control over the placement of support structures. Unfortunately the setting that automatically generates supports places a lot of them (even on the lowest density setting) and they tend to be quite thick. This results in a lot of wasted expensive resin and makes it more difficult to clean up the print.

If I had my own printer I reckon I could get away with fewer, thinner supports for my miniatures but it’s not something you can really experiment with when someone else is doing the printing – understandably they’re worried about the print failing and prefer to stick to what the software says is needed.

Overall I think the Form printers have potential for miniatures, but I’m not prepared to gamble so much of my own money to find out!

Envisiontec perfactory

Envisiontec print on the left, B-HDA on the right

Envisiontec perfactory printers seem to be the best that is currently available for high detail. Through various nefarious means I have been able to obtain samples of a few of my 15 mm miniatures printed on one of these machines and they are indeed a wondrous sight to behold. In fact the prints are so good that they evoke feelings of inadequacy in this neophyte sculptor: you dare to print your nonsense on this tool of the Gods? Foolish mortal!

As far as I know these machines are also of the DLP type, but the witchcraft that Envisiontec possess makes them clearly superior to any of the other printers I have encountered. In fairness there are still some very slight print artefacts, and there are still supports that have to be removed but otherwise the print will be an almost perfect rendition of the digital file.

As I understand it, if the RCP30 resin is used the prints can be placed directly into black rubber moulds for metal casting, but this is not something that I have explored further.

It’s difficult to find out exactly what one of these machines costs without contacting Envisiontec’s sales department, but I’m fairly confident you’re looking at 5 figures.

If you’re interested in obtaining your own Envisiontec prints I recommend Timo Laumann in Germany or RN Estudio in Spain. I also got some quotes for prints from some UK companies. Let’s just say they were uncompetitive…

Cost of prints

It’s probably worth giving some idea of the cost per print on the various options I’ve discussed above. Obviously there are several variables – the size of the miniature and the exchange rate being the obvious ones.

Currently a print of my dragon maiden would cost me £14.22 in FXD. Shapeways also offer a slightly less detailed frosted ultra detail option in the same material. That would be £10.20, but it’s not worth bothering with in my opinion.

B-HDA is £9.39 for this miniature. But it should be noted that part of this cost is the flat rate of $5 per part, so even a tiny 15 mm miniature would end up being £6+. You can reduce the impact of this by making several miniatures into a single part using sprues, but this has to be done in the right way or the model will be rejected under Shapeways ‘no sprues’ rule!

The other notable expense when using Shapeways is the cost of shipping. The cheapest option is UPS at about £8 a time (Netherlands to UK), even for a tiny lightweight package.

Quotes for prints on a Formlabs printer vary a bit, but are generally a bit cheaper than using Shapeways (plus much cheaper shipping). I’ve calculated that if I had my own printer each miniature would cost around £1 in consumables but the upfront cost is obviously steep.

There’s a wider range in the Envisiontec quotes I had, but you’re probably going to be looking at somewhere in the region of £100 for a single 30mm miniature. Only to be contemplated if you’re serious about going down the casting route!


I hope this rather gargantuan post will be useful to somebody – I certainly struggled to find out a lot of this information since the pool of people out there trying to print miniatures seems to be quite small. And I’d rather not think about how much I’ve spent in total on my various experiments!

The technology is moving quite quickly, so this information may soon be out of date. But unless there is a big new development in 3d printing technology I don’t see the picture changing massively in the short to medium term. I think GW and the rest of the industry are safe enough with their current business model for the time being!


Dragon Maiden

dragon_maiden1dragon_maiden2dragon_maiden3dragon_maiden4dragon_maiden5dragon_maiden6After proving beyond doubt my total mastery of sculpting 15 mm miniatures ;), I decided it was time to have a go at a slightly larger scale. So here you have my first attempt at sculpting a 30 mm miniature.

Concept-wise there’s nothing particularly original here. Games Workshop have been starving me of High Elves recently (at the moment it’s starting to look doubtful they’ll ever return, but I live in hope) so I decided to make my own. As I usually do when I sculpt something, I spent a while with a pencil and paper sketching various designs for armour and so on. I rejected a few designs that I thought looked cool on the grounds that they probably wouldn’t print very well or look good when painted.

I was conscious that I needed to get better at anatomy. At 15 mm you can get away with a certain amount of fudging, especially with the distorted proportions I’ve been favouring. As the miniature gets bigger it becomes more difficult to hide this ineptitude, so I spent some time on google and bought a book (Anatomy for 3D Artists) to try and improve my knowledge. There is still a long way for me to go in this area though.

I wanted the scale to be similar to the Warhammer range. Happily I have hordes of these miniatures lying around, so some time with a ruler enabled me to get a rough idea of the proportions to use. The pose was deliberately kept very simple as I was already stretching myself with this project and I didn’t want to make it any more difficult than it needed to be.

blenderI roughed out the proportions in blender and spent a fair bit of time viewing the model from every angle until I was happy that the anatomy wasn’t too awful. I then went back and refined each element, and made decisions about how the hair and the cloak would flow. Hair is an interesting element – you can either sculpt individual strands, accepting that due to the limitations of the printer they will be thicker than you’d like, or you can just sculpt the general form of the hair and let the painter deal with it. Because of my experience painting this kind of featureless hair in various plastic kits I decided to go this way. But perversely I’ve gone the other way with my 15 mm miniatures and I’m quite happy with that too!


As usual, the miniature was printed at Shapeways. In this case I was able to evaluate the new high definition black acrylate material vs frosted extreme detail. My impressions are overall favourable, but I’ll probably write more about that in a future post.


There are one or two things I’d do differently next time. Because this was my first miniature in this scale I wasn’t totally sure how much I needed to exaggerate the details to get a good result. I think I did ok overall, but there are a couple of places where I didn’t get it quite right. The biggest disappointment was the eyes, which are too bulbous. For the 15 mm miniatures I’ve found that I need to make the eye protrude quite a lot to get it to print well, but here it’s overdone. I disguised it as well as I could with the paint, but it’s a source of irritation!

I elected to go with non metallic metal when painting as there are some interesting shapes and I wanted to explore the reflections. For the steel parts I used my tried and tested method of highlighting with cyan and shading with red added to the mix.

Overall I am quite pleased with how the miniature has turned out for a first effort at this scale and I’ve learnt a lot that will hopefully lead to better results in the future.

If you want, you can buy your own copy here.




Tiny heroes

heroesfrontheroessideheroes_rearI’ve been playing with digital sculpting on and off for a little over a year now, using blender for the actual sculpting and getting 3d prints from Shapeways. I intend to write more about what I’ve learnt in future posts, but for now I’d like to show off some of my first attempts at 15 mm fantasy sculpting.

After a few initial experiments I chose 15 mm as my preferred scale for a few reasons:

  1. I like painting very small miniatures, mostly because it’s quicker and I’m impatient.
  2. It’s about the smallest scale that is compatible with the resolution of Shapeways’ current printers – any smaller and the stepping artefacts start to obscure the details.
  3. Small miniatures are less expensive to print (but still not cheap)!

The miniatures are deliberately very ‘heroic’ in their proportions. In reality an average person’s head should be around 1/8 of their height. It seems that Games Workshop like to use about 1/6 for their Warhammer ranges. At this scale I’ve gone even further and the heads are about 1/3 of the miniature’s height. To my eye this gives the miniatures more impact and it makes them more enjoyable to paint.

I will happily admit that the concepts for these minis are not particularly original – sadly I’ve never had a particularly active imagination. Here you have a dwarf warrior, an elven mage, a demon hunter and a paladin: fairly well trodden fantasy tropes.

When I sculpted these miniatures I was entertaining vague thoughts of getting them cast along with some villains, so I designed them in such a way that I think they could be moulded as single pieces. I’ve since abandoned this idea though, largely because I found it was limiting my ability to sculpt what I wanted to. So my more recent stuff is definitely not going to be suitable for production but is a bit more dynamic. Hopefully I’ll be able to show some of that soon!