Friday, 9 September 2011

Figure Sculpting: Armatures, Dollies and Wire…

In my previous two figure sculpting articles I have covered some references and also a look at scale and proportion in figures. This time I am going to start getting down to the nitty gritty…

Wire ArmatureHasslefree Miniatures Armature

When you actually start to sculpt figures, at whatever scale, you soon realise that you can’t simply form your clay, putty or wax (I will call it putty from here on in - for simplicity) into the human form and expect it to stay that way. The putty generally will sag from it’s own weight, or as you hold the figure and try to work on it you will push it out of shape, and in the end you’ll spend more time trying to fix these problems that you actually will sculpting.

So how do you get around this, simply put, you need to have a skeleton inside your figure. This can be made in several way, and again is often dependent on the scale you are working to. For larger figures, up to life size (or bigger) I have seen sculptors weld a tubular frame that can either be screwed to the floor or, more commonly, a baseboard of some kind. For figures of the 1/6th to 1/12th kind of scales most sculptors use wire bent a twisted into the pose they are looking for and then usually supported with an armature stand (A board that has a vertical rod at one side and a movable horizontal bar that is fixed to the wire armature and must be removed when the sculpture is finished).

My Sculpting StandFigure Armature and Stand

For the scales that I normally work at (i.e. wargaming figure scales) there are several options and I shall be looking at those in a little more depth. There are pros and cons to each of these methods and we shall look at them as we go along.

The cheapest and most readily available method is simply to use wire to make your own armature.

Before we go any further with the wire armature, we should really discuss the actual wire that I use. There are a huge variety of different types of wire, from the basic copper electrical wire though florists wire and right up to stainless steel. All of these wires have different properties and some are definitely better than others for the job we are doing. You need a wire that is reasonably strong, will bend easily without being to brittle and, preferably, will solder easily. Copper electrical wire will solder very well, but is generally too soft and bends too easily, also if you bend it in the same place to often it is quite brittle and will snap. Florists wire is a fairly hard wire that bends and holds it's position very well. It is however very brittle, and so with too much adjustment is also prone to snapping. 

For larger scale sculpts, aluminium wire up to around 3mm diameter is very useful, as it is easily twisted and bent into position and hold the shape well. I have a roll of 1mm stainless steel wire that is used in welding. It is very nice stuff to work with, although it can be a little rigid at times. Also it tends to resist soldering and is quite expensive.

My personal favourite is brass wire. It is strong enough for armatures, bends and holds a shape well and is easy to solder. However, getting hold of brass wire can be a bit tricky. It is not really used for anything outside of the jewellery industry and buy a reel of it can be very expensive. Most wire is sold by weight and a kilo of extra hard brass wire (should be a good few years supply for a professional figure sculptor), 0.9mm diameter (S.W.G. 20guage) is around £60. It is also not that easy to find local suppliers of brass wire. I usually use a company called Ormiston Wire Ltd. which is based in Isleworth in Middlesex (UK), and so you also have to add on the shipping cost.

Getting back to the armature, it is very important to measure the proportions, even at this stage, to make sure they will work correctly for the figure you are sculpting. This is where a figure scale template really comes in useful. You can rest your wire armature against the template and see how the proportions work against a figure of the scale that you are working to. There are a couple of figure templates available online for download (as reviewed in my Scale and Proportion article), a recent addition comes from the Massive Voodoo blog where Mati has drawn up some very nice templates, all you need to do is print it out at the correct scale for your project. If you find reducing or enlarging the template to the correct scale a little challenging then, of course you can always try one of my own laser cut templates which comes with a whole range of scales from 6mm (1/300) up to 90mm. You can find the info about those here!

Wire pushed into cork, ready to make an armature.Putty used to hold the wire joints.

When making a wire armature, generally the simplest way to go is to twist some thinner wire around your main wire frame, so as to hold it together. At this point for simplicity, you could encase the points where the wires meet with modeling putty wait for it to dry and proceed with the sculpt. This will work , and I have used this method myself, however, even the strongest sculpting putties, such as Milliput or A+B  don’t grip the round wire very well and it tends to move if you manipulate it too much.

Putty filling out the torso.Armature trimmed and ready for posing.

A far better system is to solder the wire together. Unlike soldering electrical wire, it is very difficult to solder armatures with a standard electric soldering iron. For this job, a butane gas torch is far better. There are several different versions available, and they can be found in shops that sell cooking utensils as well as your normal tool supplier (they are used to caramelize sugar apparently). I have tried the pencil torch type and I find that they run out of gas far too quickly, or at least tend to loose their gas between uses. My torch of preference is actually the cheapest one I have found. The design is very simple, to fill it with gas you simply open the top and insert a disposable gas lighter. It is a small portable torch that fits nicely into my toolbox. It generates plenty of heat and is ideal for soldering armatures together.

Small_butane_torchTwo Butane torches.Torch with disposable lighter refill.

A lot of sculptors use a cork as the basic tool for holding their sculpt. They are light, cheap and the wire armature can be pushed into the cork very easily. Alternatively, a few sculptors have developed their own clamps and grips to hold the figures while they are working on them. I use my own clamps that are made from a length 20mm diameter dowel with an M6 machine screw and wing nut.

One of My Armature Clamps.

So now we have everything ready, lets put our wire armature together.

Brass wire ready for making an armature.Checking the proportions of the armature before soldering.

Make a small loop by bending over one piece of wire and pushing either end into a cork, this will be your figures legs. Then make a second larger loop and also push it into the cork, this will be the arms. Finally push a straight piece of wire down in the middle of the cork, resting against the other two, this will act as the spine and neck of your figure.

When soldering it is very important to clean the wire of any grease or other deposits before attempting to actually solder the joint. This doesn't involve physically cleaning the wire yourself (unless it is particularly dirty), but is does mean that you will need to use a flux. Flux is a chemical paste that you apply to the joint just before you apply the heat. The flux once heated cleans the metal and also stops any oxides forming on the surface. The solder will find it difficult to bond to a dirty or oxide covered metal, so the flux is fairly essential. 

Once the joint is fluxed, then apply heat with the torch, this only takes a few seconds, then touch the solder to the joint. It will melt and run into the joint. Remove the heat, and wait a few seconds. The solder will set and you have an armature ready to sculpt over.

Here is a small video to demonstrate just how easy the soldering process is...

An alternative to wire armatures is to use a "dollie"! There is no official name for these things, and I have seen different manufacturers call them different things, however the companies that I have worked with have called them dollies, so that is what I will go with here. Dollies are pre-made semi-finished figures that can be bent into a chosen pose and then worked on with sculpting putties to finish them off.


They weren't generally available and you either had to make your own and have them cast, or have a company supply you with them for their sculpts. I initially received my first supply of dollies from a couple of companies that I did some work for. That has changed a lot now. Several companies that I can think of off the top of my head supply them now, Reaper Miniatures do three or four, Ebob Miniatures, Hasslefree Miniatures and Amazon Miniatures.

Reaper Miniatures ArmatureReaper Miniatures ArmatureReaper Miniatures ArmatureReaper Miniatures Armature

A figure I sculpted using one of the above Reaper armatures.

Ebob Miniatures Armature.

There are also several companies supplying dollies that are pre-posed, these include Tabletop Warfare and Bronze Age Miniatures.

Bronze Age Miniatures ArmatureBronze Age Miniatures Armature

Tabletop Warfare ArmatureTabletop Warfare Armature

There are both advantages and disadvantages to using dollies. For a novice sculptor dollies can help get over problems with proportion and standardising size across a range of figures. However, many professional sculptors prefer wire armatures as they are less restrictive with the pose. Limbs can break off of the dollies quite easily, especially if bent to much from the original position. 

I often find that if I am using a dollie I will snip off the cast arms, drill into the shoulder and glue some wire in. This compromise between using a dollie and a wire armature gives me the versatility of posing that I prefer, but still saves on a lot of the bulking out work that needs to be done with a wire armature.

The final alternative to a wire armature is the brass etched armature. You will have to excuse the lack of information here as I have had some difficulty tracking down much in the way of detail. Masquerade Miniatures in Germany used to produce some of these, but I can't find them listed on the website any more. There is also a Bulgarian company OKB Grigorov that lists some human and a horse set, although they seem to be limited to 1/72 scale.  

Masquerade Miniatures Brass ArmatureMasquerade Miniatures Brass ArmatureOKB Grigorov Brass ArmatureOKB Grigorov Brass Horse Armature

As I have not used any of these brass etched armatures I can’t really comment on how well they work. I am trying to get hold of some at the moment, and will post my comments if I do.

Seven or eight years ago I started the process of designing a set of brass etched armatures but the project was sidelined. I have recently started to look at them again. I am presently pricing having them manufactured.

As with all aspects of figure sculpting, there are as many different ways of doing things as there are sculptors! I hope I have given some insight into some of the possibilities when it comes to armatures. Please let me know if you have a different technique! I would be happy to return to the subject in the future with alternative methods.


  1. You make it all look so simple, I'd like to give this a day!!

  2. A very interesting article!
    As a Bulgarian I had no idea that my country even had its share in the miniature-making business.

  3. I have managed to order a set of the OKB Grigorov brass armatures from a webshop in the Czech Republic.

    I will post a review of them when they arrive...


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