Updated: Oct 7, 2020
One of the reasons I started this blog was to share with the hobby community my love for vintage miniatures and wargames. When I stumbled across this interesting piece of hobby history, I felt it would make an excellent article.
Back in the late 1960s, there were far fewer options than we have today for buying miniatures. The popularity of Napoleonic gaming spawned a desire to push into lower scales, so more troops could be on the field and mass battles could be gloriously recreated. That is where a wargamer and hobbyist named Andy Callan came in.
Mr. Callan wrote an article about the use of an everyday object to create mass amounts of small 3mm elements for mass battle wargaming. The object he was describing? A plastic hair roller!
I was just as flabbergasted at this ancient hobby wizardry! How!? So I read the article and many Google searches later I had my answer. Before I begin the tutorial, I suggest giving the original article from the late 60's a read. I have it on .pdf, you can access and download it here.
I want to stress that I give all the credit for this technique to those that have come before, I am not reinventing the wheel here. My aim to have you experience this super cool way of making your own toy soldiers. It also needs to be said that this method is archaic, as there are many fine producers of small scale miniatures out there today. My favorites being The Little Corporal, Baccus, Pendraken, and Alternative Armies. Please check them out!
A final note on this project. The proper type of curlers are very hard to find these days. They would have been readily available back then, but now they are vintage items found only in specialty stores and on eBay. I urge you to experiment, and if you come up with a cool way to use this technique on modern hair curlers, let me know!
On to the tutorial!
These are the only "how-to" images from the article, and I inferred a bit from them as I want along. Please see each photo for detail.
So with these two photos, I set out to recreate this for myself. I wanted to make some American Civil War Union Infantry and Cavalry. I also thought it would be perfect for Dark Ages gaming so I made some Viking Bondi.
To start you will need the following:
Plastic hair curlers of the proper type
A sharp hobby blade
Very sharp snips or scissors
bases and basing materials
paint and brushes
well lit working area
paper if you will be making flags or banners
I also used the bristles from a plastic broom and some plastic 1mm rod, but those are only necessary if you want to make spearmen with shields.
The first thing you want to do is plan beforehand what types of troops you will be building. Infantry or cavalry? Both? Construction is similar for both and requires only a little cutting. You don't want to do more than three ranks deep for infantry, after that the natural curve of the roller causes the plastic to warp out of shape on the base.
Following the article posted, cut the roller into strips, like shown. You want to trim it so the infantry stands are about 10-15 "troops" wide, and three deep.
For cavalry, you will want maybe 10 wide and one row deep, two of these to a base. Feel free to do what makes you happy and to suit whatever rules you are using.
After cutting them, it helps to mount the raw strips onto a spool or holder with some poster putty. I find this makes handling them easier before priming and gluing on the base.
When making the cavalry there is the extra step of cutting out a single strip to make the riders. Just cut them out like so and superglue onto the horses.
If you are making spearmen or shields, then you will want to do the next step. Make a small dot of superglue on a surface, and cut yourself some thin rods of plastic from a broom or hairbrush. They should be the same as a cat's whisker.
Carefully cut this with your snips and glue it onto the infantry strips. You want to glue more than you will be using, and cut it to size after it dries.
The next step will be to make the shields. Take some 1mm plastic rod, and cut it into thin slices, and then apply with some glue using tweezers. It takes patience and lots of cursing.
When the glue dries, trim your spears to shape and attach the shields. You are now ready to prime and paint!
Before we paint, I want to show you an indispensable tool to work in this scale. They are cheaply found online and I suggest a pair for anyone with aging eyes like myself.
Use a water-based brush-on primer. I use Black 2.0 from Culture Hustle but Vallejo or GW brush on primer would be just fine. Prime up your stands of troops and let dry. As they are drying, paint your bases a neutral brown.
While the troops are drying, use some PVA glue and paint your bases with them, and then dip into all-purpose flocking. You want a fine grain of flock so it isn't too tall. It looks good with some ballast mixed in. Let it dry. Time for a cup of tea or coffee!
When the bases and the troops are dry, you can begin painting. I am crazy so I glue my minis to the bases and then paint. I don't suggest that route, so painting them on the holders is fine. Dab some super glue on the feet and push down onto the flocking. They will stick just fine.
I used some strips of corrugated cardboard for holders. It works great and is cheap or free and can be cut to size. Poster putty will hold them on tight.
Using your chosen colors, you want to apply multiple thin layers to your models. Less is more when painting at this scale. You want to give the illusion of detail because there isn't any! So pick three or four colors to apply and go for it.
In this case, I used a dark blue for the coats, light blue for the pants and brown for the horses. Apply in layers and don't worry about highlighting, you won't do that except for on the caps.
Next up we paint the horses a flat brown, and the heads a flesh color. The heads are a neat process. Paint them completely flesh, then let them dry.
When dry, we are going to take our very sharp snips and cut off about a .5mm slice off the top of the head. It is ok if these cuts are not consistent, it actually adds to the overall effect.
We will be painting black onto this cut, and it magically becomes caps! It works the same for helmets.
Paint the tops and sides of the head black. You can highlight this with a neutral grey drybrush, and then paint in any fine detail. The blaze on the horse's forehead, tails, and carefully painted jacket piping and gloves. Go wild! You can be as detailed or not as you like.
Keep in mind the strength of painting like this is to make MASSES of troops. You are meant to look at them from 4-6 feet away, so the overall effect of uniformity is what you are going for.
Give them a quick brush on matte or gloss varnish, and you are done! I added a flag to some of my ACW Cavalry, this helps to identify the stands on the gaming table and looks spiffy. It is just painted printer paper.
Here they are all finished. You can see the level of detail can vary. I went a little overboard with the Vikings, but I wanted to show what is possible with this simple project. I urge you to give it a try if you can get ahold of the materials. Please drop me a comment and let me know how you liked this article! Have fun!