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Military Miniatures - Converting Commercial Figures

( Originally Published Mid 1950's )

Converting is a term used in the military miniature fraternity to describe the revamping of an inexpensive commercial figure into a fine detailed example of a particular person or soldier of a regiment with all the correct equipment and uniform colors. Not only military miniature hobbyists, but all persons interested in the creative hobbies have converted inexpensive commercial items to improve their appearance and increase their use. In some cases this period of conversion is just a stepping stone for the hobbyist on his way to the creating of his own original figures, and in other cases the collector becomes so proficient in the conversion of commercial figures that he devotes his entire collection to superb little masterpieces which he has rebuilt from inexpensive toy soldier sets.

To explain just why a person becomes a military miniature enthusiast is impossible because there are many underlying reasons that draw people to these brightly colored little figures. It may be memory of playing with toy soldiers as a child, it may be caused by a visit to a historic battlefield or museum, or interest may be aroused by a motion picture, a television show or maybe the reading of a historical novel. The miniature fan's original interest may have been aroused through contact with collectors who had already found the hobby to be a source of fun and relaxation. No matter how the collector first noted little soldiers, the experience was not unlike a boy-discovers-girls episode. First he notices they are around, the more he sees them the more interesting and desirable they become; casual contacts and curiosity develop into enthusiasm, and all of a sudden POW! he's in love. Sometimes the first choice is the right one and he is happy for the remainder of his days; maybe the first choice wasn't what he expected, so he either tries to change the original or he attempts an entirely different type. But once the bug has bit, it's rare indeed for the victim to give up all interest. Usually he keeps on until he has found what he is looking for. True, there are those who develop a liking for a variety of types, but this often leads to confusion and great expense, which the average person would rather avoid.

Department stores, hobby stores and miniature dealers carry sets of toy soldiers that are very inexpensive. The painting of the usual inexpensive set of soldiers is, in most cases, a gaudy business. Although the color may be correct, it is only natural in order to keep the selling price down that too much effort can't be put into careful painting of details. In order to cover the figures with one quick coat, a heavy enamel paint is used, which naturally covers up some of the details of the casting underneath. In most cases, if you remove the heavy coat of paint you will find that the figures have been cast in superbly de-tailed molds. These soldiers, just as they come from the box, are interesting in themselves, and there are many collectors who have built up collections numbering in the thousands (from these inexpensive soldiers), which represent nearly all the armies of the world. This type of soldier is also favored by the war-game enthusiast who likes to do a little shooting with his game. The larger percentage of military miniature collectors had their first experience with soldiers of this type. The natural trend of a person after obtaining a few miniatures is to become interested in research and discussion of military costume and history, which leads him to haunt libraries, book and print shops in quest of information about his new avocation. As his knowledge increases and the traditions and parts of the various uniforms become more familiar to him, the mass-painted toy soldiers lose a certain amount of their appeal and he plans ways to improve their appearance, which leads him into the fascinating field of converting.

Each portion of a military uniform has a reason for being there and many times the reason is steeped in history and tradition. The proper placement and painting of these various parts of the uniform naturally add a great deal to the figure as well as a great pride and satisfaction for the hobbyist in his creating ability. In many cases, the casting under the heavy coat of paint is sufficiently detailed to give you an opportunity to create an interesting and life-like miniature just by removing the original paint and repainting the figure carefully in proper details and colors, without making any changes or additions in the original casting. Any good paint and varnish remover which may be purchased at a paint or hardware store is in most cases excellent for removing the paint from metal soldiers. It would be well to select a non-inflammable mixture and pay strict attention to any warnings that are printed on the container in reference to ventilation and handling of the liquid. Put plenty of newspaper on the table where you are going to work because paint remover will spot anything it comes in contact with, and be sure there is nothing nearby that may be damaged by accidentally splashing the solution on it. Pour sufficient paint remover to cover the figure or figures into a container and place the figures in it. Give the paint remover a chance to work on the paint for a few minutes and then, while the figures remain in the solution, brush over the figures with an ordinary inexpensive paint brush until most of the paint has been removed. Then take the figure from the solution and finish cleaning the paint out of the details with a stiffer brush (such as an old tooth brush) dipped into the solution. Wash any remaining paint remover from the figure with soap and water and then proceed with the painting of the figure as explained in the chapter on painting.

Most of the lower priced sets of toy soldiers offered today are made in foreign countries, with Great Britain no doubt being the most prominent in the field. It is understandable, then, that most of the soldiers in these inexpensive sets are of foreign troops, much to the bewilderment of the novice collector who has his heart set on troops of the United States. However, an important fact that the newcomer to the hobby overlooks is that uniforms of various countries, even of the United States, are similar during any particular period of history, and with a little effort and research the collector can convert many of the figures depicting foreign troops into those of the United States. The uniforms of the United States have been just as picturesque and colorful as those of any country in the world, with coats, jackets and trousers of almost every color and description topped with hats, caps and helmets, including tricorne, tarbucket, spiked helmet, bearskin, kepi, turban, chapeau, sun helmet and many, many others; so that with a little research and ingenuity the collector can select any number of metal figures of foreign armies and convert them to those of the United States.

The important tools you will need for conversion operations are a jeweler's saw or a razor saw, a sharp modeler's knife, a small soldering iron and some small files. These tools are, naturally, in addition to your paints and brushes. You may use an ordinary hack saw if you like, but the jeweler or razor saw has a much thinner blade and you do not lose as much metal when making cuts in the figures. After research has been completed, it is possible that you may find an inexpensive casting that is in the position you desire and in some cases only a little filing on the headgear or maybe the addition of some small details will suffice to prepare the casting for painting in the period and regiment you desire. Many figures in the inexpensive sets have movable arms which, because of the manner in which they are fastened to the body, make a very unsightly joint, which you will want to eliminate in order to give your finished figure a smooth professional look. There are several ways of covering this joint; the easiest method is to cement the arm into position with liquid solder, and then filling in with the liquid solder until the joint is smooth. When using liquid solder, which may be purchased in most hardware stores and hobby stores, follow the directions carefully and allow the material enough time to dry before painting. Liquid solder as well as any of the well known fast-drying cements will make a good solid joint if directions are followed and sufficient time is allowed for the cement to set before painting or touching the parts being cemented. Liquid solder has a heavier body than cements, which is why the liquid solder may also be used as a filler around the joints. However, many collectors prefer the cement for holding the parts together, and make a filler, which be-comes very hard and holds well, by mixing cement and molding powder or plaster of paris into a paste and filling in around the joints. Both methods when properly used give satisfactory results. Keep in mind that any liquid will shrink slightly as it drys, so build up the filler slightly above the joints being filled and you can trim off the excess when it has dried.

Texture and detail are the two important things you are seeking beside accuracy of uniform, and both liquid solder or a mixture of molding powder and cement will help you gain satisfactory results with a little patience and practice. Feathers and furs play an important part in uniforms of many regiments. The big bearskins of the British Guards and Napoleon's Grenadiers, along with the feathers of the Scotch bonnets and the plumes worn by the regiments of many countries, including the United States, all have a particular texture that can be reproduced on miniatures, which needless to say will add a great deal to the finished figure. A surprisingly realistic fur effect can be obtained by covering the portion of the figure that is to represent fur with a coat of liquid solder or the mixture of cement and molding powder, give it a few moments to stiffen and then with a tooth pick pull the mixture out from the figure in tiny peaks. When the portion of the figure has been covered with a rough furry texture, allow the mixture to dry completely before painting. Feather plumes and beards, mustaches and even hair can be built up in this manner. The application of a thin layer of cement before placing the mixture on the figure will give it greater holding power; however, you will find that the detail added will hold up very well after it has been painted. The same materials may also be used to add many other details found on uniforms, such as hat cords, epaulets, lace, frogs, aiguillettes, sashes, insignia and many other fine details in much the same manner as you would decorate a cake. Naturally, the placement of small details requires a degree of skill and patience, which will come to you with practice once you know how to go about it; and here is how you go about it. If you are a medical man and have access to a hypodermic needle, you have a very fine tool for decorating by just filling the needle with one of the above mixtures and pressing it onto the figure in the desired designs. Since hypodermic needles are not available to everyone, many hobby stores carry a tool known as a glue or cement gun which is a syringe type apparatus having a small opening; and this tool will do a satisfactory job. However, many collectors prefer to make their own decorators, because they are inexpensive, easy to make, and have the advantage that after use you can throw them away and make another when you need it. The best material to use in making a decorator is either heavy wax paper or heavy aluminum foil. You may use parchment paper or any other heavy paper if you like, but wax paper or aluminum is far more satisfactory for the job, with the aluminum foil being the best for the task at hand. There is no set size; however, a square of paper or foil about five or six inches square will make a convenient size decorator that is small and easy to hold. First fold the material in half diagonally (point to point) ; then take one of the corners on the folded edge and bring it up to the point on the open side of the triangle and press flat; next take the opposite corner on the folded edge and bring the paper or foil up and around the first folds. This will form the cone into which you will place the decorating material. Press the edges between your fingers, and the cone will open with a straight top on the front of the cone and a high peaked top to the back; place the decorating material in the cone, fold the peaked side over the front, and roll the cone down toward the point as you would a tube of tooth paste. Punch a very tiny pin hole in the point of the cone and, as you wind the cone down, a very fine beading of material will be ejected. Some collectors prefer to punch the tiny hole before filling the cone; this is, however, something you must decide for yourself after trials. Don't expect perfect results with your first trial; it will take practice to control the flow of material and it will be well for you to practice on a piece of metal or glass before trying it on a miniature. Beside the materials described above for raised decorating, there are a number of plastic materials offered by various hobby and handicraft stores. In the event you are using oil colors to paint your miniatures, you may also apply heavy oil pigments to your figures by this method. Needless to say, experimenting is an exciting and important part of the hobby, and a constant search for new materials and methods will add much to your enjoyment.

Miniatures from the lower priced sets, for economy reasons, often have belts and straps painted on the figures, and much of the detail that extends away from the main figures, such as horses' reins, hat cords on Hussars, etc., is of necessity cast heavy and tight against the miniature. Substantial improvement can be made to the figures by filing away these heavy details and replacing them with details that are smaller and more in scale with the figure and not cast tight against the figure. The stranded wire from ordinary electric light cord is excellent for details of this type, and after you have stripped away the insulation and untwisted the strands of wire, you can take any number of strands and retwist them to the thickness you desire. Special effect for details such as aiguillettes may be obtained by plaiting a few strands into a cord. Tassels are easily formed by tying a knot in a number of wire strands and fanning out the ends, which may then be trimmed with an ordinary pair of scissors or shears. Small gauge brass, copper, phosphorous bronze or soft iron wire can be used with good results for horse reins and for straps on scabbards, sabretasches and other equipment. The wire may be made flat by hammering it on a smooth metal surface. If you wish you may soften the wire by holding it over a low flame until it is red hot before hammering; however, be careful that you don't let it get too hot or the wire will disintegrate. Hammering will have a tendency to harden the wire again and, should it be-come too stiff to serve your purpose, you may remove the temper by carefully reheating it after you have flattened it. Phosphorous bronze wire, which you may obtain from most hardware and hobby stores, is by far the best wire for adding details. It works easily and if you are soldered. The small gauge round wire can be used also not only solders well but does not transport the heat along the entire wire as readily as many other metals do. This makes it easier to solder one end of the wire, without a previous solder joint on the other end becoming unsoldered. The small gauge round wire can be used also to form small rings which, when properly placed in conjunction with the wire straps, add a great deal to the effect; tiny spurs, stirrups, and many other details will suggest themselves once you study the figure to be converted. In attaching the various wire detail to the figure, it will simplify your work to first drill a tiny hole in the figure so that the wire can be inserted, giving it a solid foundation to hold to, in addition to the cement. A variety of small drills and a pin vise will take care of this operation with little effort.

Another material important in the conversion of commercial figures is a thin piece of metal to make belts, shoulder straps, saddle blankets, coats and capes, hat brims and cap visors, as well as glove gauntlets and many other parts of the uniform and equipment. The almost universal source of supply for thin workable metal among experienced figure makers is old shaving cream and tooth paste tubes that have been smoothed out and the printing removed. The metal from tubes is easy to cut to size and shape, is easily attached to the basic figure and will hold its shape after being formed on the miniature. A variety of hat types, as well as caps and helmets, can be formed by filing away brims on the headgear of the original figure and rebuilding the crown with either filler material, solder, or plastic metal to the desired shape, and then making the brim or visor from thin metal which may be bent into position to form tricorne, chapeau, campaign, or any other type of headgear. The way to make belts and slings is obvious, since it is only a matter of cutting strips of the metal to the desired width and attaching them in the proper places. To make longer tails on a coat or collars and lapels: first file a flat indentation (as deep as the metal is thick) into the figure at the point where the extension is to be attached. Cut the metal to the desired size and shape and cement or solder the extension into the flat indentation you have filed into the figure. This will give a smooth joint and make the addition look like a part of the original casting after you have filled any cracks and painted the figure. The free end of the extension may be swung away from the figure in a very realistic manner.

Cements of various types serve well for all purposes of conversion which is concerned mainly with the re-painting and the additions of details. However, as you advance into conversions that require major operations you will find that solder will be a more satisfactory bonding material, as well as a perfect medium for building up parts you wish to reshape. You may be one who is laboring under a fear of not being able to use a soldering iron, which is nonsense. You can master any tool by learning its capacities, following a few simple rules, and keeping in mind that skill comes only with practice. The best solder for miniature work is wire solder, which is about %2 of an inch in diameter and can be purchased wound on a variety of size spools. You should avoid the various core solders, such as acid and rosin core. Core solders have a tendency to leave a residue in and around the joints which will often cause corrosion. Solder is a combination of tin and lead and the most common mixture is 50% tin and 50% lead. There are other mixtures you can use that will melt faster because they have a larger proportion of tin in the mixture; you will, however, find these higher tin mixtures better for building up portions and filling than for joining parts, for, al-though the softer solder melts faster and makes a smooth joint, the joints will not stand as much stress as those made with regular solder. Some collectors spot solder the parts together with 50-50 solder, and then fill in with the solder having a higher tin content; while others spot solder the parts and fill with plastic metals or other filling compounds, which gives them the strength of a solder joint and the ease of filling and smoothing with a cold compound. In order that the soldered joint will hold, the metals being joined (at the point of contact) must be as hot as the molten solder; therefore you must select a soldering iron that will get hot enough to do the job. One of the greatest failings of the novice is to expect a big glob of half melted solder to hold pieces together. An important fact to remember is that you can't make good solder joints unless the parts to be joined are clean; so with a small file or emory cloth make the parts bright and free from all grease, dirt and paint. You will also need a small can of soldering paste. This is a compound that looks something like heavy grease, and you can apply a thin coating of it to the parts to be soldered with a small stick or stiff brush. Cleanliness is the watchword throughout the soldering operation and a clean bright point on your iron is important. Making the point of the iron bright is what is known as "tinning" the iron. If you have an iron that is dirty and pitted, you can rehabilitate it back into the society of respectable irons in this manner: first file all the pits out of the point; now plug the iron into an electrical outlet to heat; when the iron has heated dip the point into the can of soldering paste. If the paste gives a hiss, the iron is usually hot enough. Touch some wire solder to the point of the iron and then take a folded rag (plenty of folds so you don't burn yourself) and spread the solder over the point forming the tin; if the iron gets too hot the tinned surface will turn a dirty brown and should be wiped clean immediately. There are soldering irons that have thermostatic controls which maintain proper heat for the job at hand, and the investment in an iron of this type will more than repay you in ease of soldering. Even if you have a brand new iron, you must "tin" it before soldering in order to do good work. When you have finished using your iron, always allow it to cool slowly and be sure to wipe the point with the folded cloth to keep it tinned and in good condition.

Solder gets mighty hot so you won't be able to hold parts with your fingers while joining them; it is a good idea to place the figure in a small vise or clamp. The part to be joined to the main figure may be held with pliers or it may be held in place with thin wire, being sure that the wire holding the part does not come in contact with the solder. Since you will most likely be working with lead castings, you must work quickly so that you do not melt the parts being soldered, using the minimum amount of heat necessary to make the joint. There are several ways to keep down the temperature of the castings (away from the joints being made). One is to hold a big pair of pliers around the casting, and another is to wrap the figure (away from the joint remember hot lead and water don't mix) with a damp cloth. Most inexpensive military miniatures are hollow cast and naturally melt much faster than solid ones. You can overcome this a great deal by drilling a hole in the casting and stuffing it full of fine steel wool (0000 is fine) which will take up a great amount of the heat. Just close the hole with solder and leave the steel wool inside the finished figure. In the case of soldering arms, it is sometimes of advantage to file a small V channel around the section to be soldered so that plenty of solder can get next to the parts. In attaching flat pieces of metal, such as coat tails, you may "tin" the figure and the piece of metal (as you tinned the point of the iron) so that when the two parts are placed together and the iron is applied, the solder will melt and the two pieces will be joined. This is known as "sweat soldering". When making a simple solder joint just touch the solder against the point of the well tinned soldering iron and enough solder will adhere to the point of the iron to do the job. However, when building up a section or part of the figure, hold the coil of solder in one hand and melt it against the iron which is being held to the part being built up. Work quickly when building up portions so that the original casting isn't melted and do not worry about smoothing the excess with the iron; final shaping can be done with a model knife or small files. Follow these few simple rules and you will have more successful soldering: (1) Keep the work to be soldered clean and covered with a coat of soldering paste, or flux; (2) Keep soldering iron clean, well tinned and hot enough to melt the solder; (3) Work quickly.

Once you have mastered the soldering iron, your scope of conversion possibilities will have expanded tremendously. You will be able to perform major operations on individual figures and combine parts from several figures into one, with results that are impossible to obtain with cements. Before doing too much converting that requires removing and adding parts, you should get yourself a "Heck" box. This may be any sturdy box about the size of a cigar box. You place all the leftover parts from figures you have robbed to convert another figure, along with all the little bits of metal, chain, and doodads you will be picking up to use someday. The only trouble is that, usually, when the day comes around and the perfect use for the gadget has been found, it's a case of the col-lector searching high and low, either mumbling to him-self or screaming to high heaven, "WHERE THE HECK IS IT?" Needless to say, there are some collectors whose language is a little on the robust side and their names for these boxes are quite varied.

When you perform major operations in order to change the position of a figure, always keep in mind the limitations of movement in the various parts of the body as explained in the chapter on Anatomy and Drapery. In order to complete particular dioramas, you will probably want to change some castings into sitting, kneeling or a number of other positions. True the arms and legs of many figures can be bent into position by warming them and then slowly bending. However, this method often ends up with arms and legs looking very much like pieces of bent rubber hose, because the knees and elbows are curved rather than being sharply defined as they should be. A more realistic position change can be made by cutting the figure at the joint to be angled and then soldering or cementing it, after the member has been placed in the proper position. Another advantage of this method is that you do not hazard the possibility of breaking the part as you would in ordinary bending. For example: the case of an arm which you want to bend at the elbow. The elbow is a hinged joint that bends in one direction and when it is bent the back of the arm must still measure the same length, or you will have a deformed soldier on your hands. With a jeweler's or razor saw cut a wedge out of the inside of the arm directly in front of the elbow, leaving the metal joined at the elbow; the size of the wedge depends on how far you want to bend the arm. It is now only a matter of bending the arm until the cut edges meet and then soldering or cementing in place. In changing the positions of the leg, the operation is the same in reference to the knees. However, in the case of the hip, you will want to maintain the length of the upper leg; so cut from the back of the figure leaving the metal joined in front of the hip and bend the leg into position. Fill the hole left in the back and under the hip with filling compound or solder. These same methods may be used in changing the positions of horses and other animals. It is a good policy before cutting into a figure to study pictures of people or horses in the position you are trying to obtain, and it will even help to make rough sketches of the various positions you are going to make. Striking the pose yourself before a mirror will also help.

Heads may be cut from one figure and put on another and bodies may be cut at the waist and changed to an-other position. Should you find difficulty in soldering or cementing parts in place on hollow castings, cut a plug from soft wood which will fit snugly into each part and insert inside the respective parts. This will support the parts while you cement or solder them in place.

Although much of the foregoing has made reference to hollow cast figures, this doesn't mean there are not commercial figures cast solid. You will find some of the inexpensive figures cast solid, and all of the super de-tailed figures made by the well known figure makers are solid castings. Many of the figure makers of today were military miniature hobbyists and, knowing the likes and pitfalls of the collectors, have designed their products to give the collector figures and parts in the manner that suits their varied tastes. The hobby stores and military miniature dealers can today supply castings just as they come from the mold and the collector can finish the castings, and himself assemble and paint the figure, or he may buy the castings filed and assembled so that only painting remains. Some dealers even stock various parts such as heads, swords, and muskets for the collector who wants to obtain detailed parts of the proper period to complete his figures. Converting figures is without a doubt one of the most fascinating facets of the hobby and will add many happy hours to your hobby, as well as many new and exciting figures that are your very own creation.

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