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How Miniatures Get Made (An Ode to tiny little toys!)

I love those “How Stuff Gets Made” shows. I enjoy the elements of craftsmanship and engineering they show off. We too often take craftsmanship for granted in the products we use and consume. This is one of those times, so although it might seem like a “little thing,” I want to devote some words to how miniatures get made.

How Miniatures Get Made

Before we get going, we need to acknowledge how darned cool minis are. Miniatures (and their cousins action figures, etc.) are an iconic part of nerd culture. From old school pewter minis, Micro Machines, or Kenner Boba Fett action figures of yesteryear to Marvel Legends, Heroclix, and Star Wars X-Wing minis of today, us nerds love us some small things to play with (not a euphemism).

And while all miniatures are lovely, we’ll be focusing on how the D&D and Pathfinder prepainted miniatures from Wizkids get made.

First, there is the sculpting. When thinking about how miniatures get made, it’s important to recognize the artistry that goes into turning a two dimensional character mockup into a little 3D thing of beauty. Sculptors are undeniably artisans and craftsmen.

Back in the day the sculpting was certainly more tactile as it was physically created out of clay or whatever. But today it is so much more efficient to do the work digitally. After all, it’s easier for a freelance sculptor to email a file than it is to FedEx a figure. (For more on sculpting, check out our interview with well-known miniatures sculptor Bobby Jackson.)

Wizkids uses a program called ZBrush to create digital models of all the cool Heroclix us nerds love, as well as the cool Pathfinder Battles minis that we use in our tabletop roleplaying games. They work in relationship with the art directors at Paizo, who give them feedback on if that goblin arm might be a smudge too long or that elf bowman might have ears with not quite the correct point.

Based on this back and forth collaboration, the digital sculptor can get it looking just perfect in ZBrush. Then the bonus is once the figure looks just right, it can be re-posed in ZBrush to maybe create two orcs, one with a bow and one with a falcion for example.

Next, the digital sculpts are then turned into molds. We don’t yet live in a world where it is economically or practically feasible to 3D print thousands of miniatures for mass consumption. Molds are still needed, which is to say forms that the plastic or whatever material the mini is made out of can be poured into.

And molds are an expensive upfront cost that is outlaid before any revenue from sales comes back in. Think about it this way: let’s say the mold is $1,000 while the actual cost of the plastic for the mini is a nickel. You need to get back a lot of nickels that make back your initial $1,000 investment.

The next step is manufacturing. This is pretty basic stuff, namely a factory in China where the cost can be kept down to a nickel and not the quarter that it would take to manufacture elsewhere. But also factor in boat time here.

But let’s not skip over painting, as most of us aren’t the kind of nerds who want to paint our own miniatures. Most want something ready for game play. And the painting process is where the real magic happens.

But think about what painting involves, namely that these figure are about an inch high, yet have incredibly detailed painting themes. And in many ways, you can think of each of those little minis as “hand painted.” Specifically, the process isn’t fully automated and doesn’t involve billion dollar robots like those that would machine-build an iPhone. Sure, there is some of that, but it’s also a combination of some clever masking techniques.

So a little template covers up the parts you don’t want painted and leaves open the places you want painted. Then some painting elements are old school Henry Ford assembly-lined by humans who sprays a minuscule among of paint to get it crisp with no over-sprays. After they are painted they receive a “wash,” which is a dark inky-like paint that settles into the folds and crevices, giving the figure an appearance of more depth.

It is remarkable that miniatures can get made and then sold to you for only about $4.

Now a quick sidebar about the quality, which is due largely to Erik Mona, the Publisher at Paizo. Although there are a variety of minis on the market, the best in class for fantasy gaming is the Pathfinder Battles line by Wizkids. These minis have been coming out since 2012, and Erik Mona (who is a confessed miniatures nerd) has bent over backwards the past few years to ensure that quality control is of a high standard. The proof is the latest Crown of Fangs line, where an area like painting the eyes has gone from a tiny blob of paint to a precise shape with a visible eyebrow. Remarkable.

Then the miniatures come to you. Wizkids has a clever business strategy that allows a full line of miniatures to be produced. Remember when we talked about the $1,000 mold? Well, you’d never get enough nickels back on some obscure D&D monster or character that wouldn’t be purchased individually in high quantities. But if you bundle that with highly popular figures, you can diffuse the cost across the line and make it financially possible.

So Wizkids sells blind boosters of four figures. So you don’t know what you’ll get, other than the likelihood of one of the more popular figures, plus an opportunity of one of the rarer ones. The side benefit is it makes you feel like a kid to open boxes, trying and get the figure you want.

So that’s how miniatures get made, in short. Hopefully this brings an appreciation both of the craftsmanship as well as the manufacturing logistics involved. But more than that, I hope this encourages you to go to your local FLGS and buy a couple minis. They really are cool.


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