Let me start by saying you don’t have to seal (varnish) your miniatures. That’s a choice you can totally make. However, I would recommend that you always seal your painted miniatures and here’s why.
Also, I use the term seal when talking about spraying a protection layer on your miniatures, however, the term varnish is widely used as well. The terms are completely interchangeable and it’s just a matter of your locality on which you use.
Sealing (Varnishing) Your Miniatures
Sealing your miniatures is the last step in a process. The first step is priming your models; make sure you do that – seriously.
After you’ve primed your models you then paint them.
Now, some of us can spend hours and hours on a single figure. I’m a slow painter because I tend to be meticulous, plus I’m always trying some new technique and get slowed down in learning.
I’ve had some models, like my Chaos Knight, that have taken me well over 20 hours to complete. When you put that much time into something you want to protect it. If I got a scratch on that Knight because I didn’t seal it then I would probably cry.
So, a sealer is kind of like a layer of paint but a much sturdier layer of paint. A sealer creates a protective layer over the paint below it and bonds to it. Think of it like armor.
When you handle a miniature that has been sealed you are touching only the sealer. This means you won’t rub the paint off with use, which is probably the biggest reason to seal your models.
When you don’t seal your models, and you handle them routinely for games, then the paint will slowly wear thin and rub off over time. I don’t care how careful you are with your figures, the paint will wear off with handling, it’s only a matter of when.
Also, with a sealer being the outer layer on a miniature, it also means if it falls then it’s the sealer coat that takes the impact, not the paint. So, you instead will chip the sealer, or scratch the sealer instead of damaging the paint.
Another thing sealer will do is help prevent your paint from fading due to light. We’ve all seen faded paint on houses and cars, and it can occur as well with a miniature. Sealing the miniature won’t stop that entirely but it will help a lot.
Any Downsides to Sealing (Varnishing)?
Most paints you use for painting your models are very dull. They don’t really reflect light and things look the way you intended. Sealers can increase the shine on your models and have them reflect more light than if they weren’t sealed.
That is a reason that some showcase miniature painters won’t seal their models, and the only time I agree with the choice. People who paint competitively, or for showcasing, want their models to have no reflectiveness, and no matter how dull a sealer is, there will also be some shine to it.
Note: The shine of a sealer can actually enrich the colors, so you’ll see some painters choosing sealers with a slight shine for that reason. It’s not entirely a downside, only when not intended.
There are occasions when a spray sealer won’t go on right and creates a cloudy finish. I’ve had this happen once to me and it about destroyed me.
The reason for the cloudy finish, in most instances, is either that the can was not shaken enough, there’s an issue with the sealer itself, or the conditions weren’t right (see below).
A tip, if this happens to you (cloudy finish), do another layer of sealer over the cloudy one the next day. Give that first cloudy layer a good 24 hours to dry and seal over it, ideally with a more reliable sealer. The second layer of sealer will penetrate the first and reduce the cloudiness of it.
Best Matte Varnish for Miniatures
Something you’ll see a lot of painters talk about is finding the most dull of the matte sealers around. The reason being we want to limit the light reflections and have our figures look the way we painted them.
There’s a few spray sealers I’ve used over the years, and the one I recommend the most is Testors Dullcote. The Knight image above, and the Predator tank below, were sealed with Testors Dullcote.
You’ll notice a distinct lack of shine on those models; that’s the Testors Dullcote. That stuff is amazing. It’s also great if you have a model that’s shiny and you want to reduce the shine.
Finding Testors can be a bit tricky sometimes. Most chain art stores in the US carry it, like AC Moore and Michaels. Often you can also find it at hobby stores that carry model cars and trains. It’s a popular choice in the modeling hobby. Of course you can also snag it online too.
I have also used a matte sealer by Krylon with good success. It’s not as dull as Testors, but it’s still dull. The advantage of Krylon is it’s more readily available for most people and it’s cheaper. Other than online, you can usually find this at Walmart or any hardware store.
With both of those spray sealers I have never had an issue with a cloudy finish, so I can personally recommend them both to you.
Now, I’ve known some people to use Plaid sealer with good success. Kamui, another author here, has used it quite a bit and likes it.
Spray Conditions & Use
When you’re using a spray sealer, you want to do it in temperatures between 65 – 85 degrees Fahrenheit, or 18 – 29 Celsius. Also, you don’t want any humidity at all, or very minimal if no humidity isn’t possible.
Failure to meet those conditions can result in a cloudy finish, amongst other issues.
If you’re unable to spray seal in those proper conditions then you may want to consider a brush-on sealer, or an airbrush sealer.
You want to hold the spray can around 10″ from the miniature when you’re spraying it. If you get too close then you’ll build up the sealer too thick. Too far away and you’ll get a frosted look because the spray is drying before it reaches the model.
So, I find 10″ to be a good range to spray from.
Also, start your spraying off the miniature then drag it to the miniature, over it, past it, and then stop. Starting the spray off the model will help avoid buildup. Stopping the spray off the model is for the same reason.
This may also sound counter-intuitive, but make sure you get a good solid coat of sealer on the model. If you spray too lightly, and do too thin of a coat, then it will wear off easily. I always do two coats of sealer and I make sure each is a good solid coat and not too thin or spotty.
I do have a brush-on matte sealer on hand in case I need it. Most of the time I only use the brush-on sealer if I have to repair something later and I only want to seal that spot, not the entire model.
The brush-on sealer I use is by Delta Creative and I got it at Joann’s, a chain craft store in the US. It’s not as dull as either spray sealer mentioned above, but it’s not bad either. I wouldn’t use it on an entire model, but for spot sealing it works well.
I do also have a gloss brush-on sealer that I use when I want something to have a shine to it, like a gem, water, etc. The one I use for that is by Plaid, and I also got that at Joann’s.
So, it’s safe to say that you can safely get brush-on sealers at craft stores and they work well.
I haven’t gotten into airbrushing yet, so if anyone has recommendations for airbrush sealers then please let me know in the comments. You’ll be given credit.
You put hours into painting something you love, so why wouldn’t you protect it with a sealer?
Sure, you’ll hear some horror stories with sealers, but don’t let that put you off. Find a good sealer, like the ones suggested above, and make sure you seal in proper conditions. If you do that then you should never have an issue.
I’ve only had an issue once since I started painting in 2006. It was because the sealer I was using was very temperamental to humidity, and it was a bit humid that day.
It sucked, I was pissed off, but I learned a lesson and haven’t had a problem since.
What’s your recommendation on sealers for models?
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Why You Need to Seal (Varnish) Your Painted Miniatures for Gaming