Introducing Flexible Plastic Figures

Flexible Plastic Figures Introducing Flexible Plastic
Our new casting technique and material for figures

The new Desert Rats infantry and gun crew figures are pioneers – they are the first figure range to introduce a new casting technique and material we have been developing.

Over the years we have produced infantry figures in various materials, each of which has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. In order to see how the new flexible plastic compares, let’s start by looking at the older materials.

 

Metal

Even before there was wargaming, toy soldiers have been cast in ‘white metal’ - a catch-all term for various alloys including lead, tin and a variety of other metals like copper and bismuth, which have fairly low melting points. These metals used to be cheap, but in recent years the price for the most useful, especially tin, has been steadily rising, making it less of an attractive option.

 Metal figures are centrifugally cast in circular vulcanised rubber moulds. The circular moulds are spun in a casting machine. Molten metal is poured into a central feed and the spinning action forces it through the mould cavities.

Metal figure

Pros:

  • Decent detail
  • Because the mould is flexible, it can peel around the figure, allowing ‘undercuts’ - areas of detail around the sides of the figure.
  • Fairly quick. Once the rubber moulds are properly prepared, they can be ‘run’ over and over in a fairly continuous rotation, producing hundreds of figures per day. Care and skill is still needed to keep the moulds from wearing out or being damaged.

Cons:

  • Heavy. No problem with a single small figure, but it adds up with a whole army.
  • Somewhat fragile. Rifles, bayonets etc, can easily get bent, and the weight of the models also makes it more likely for paint to chip or scratch if they are dropped or handled carelessly.)

Hard plastic sprue
Metal figure

Hard Plastic

Injection-moulded plastic is what most of our newer vehicle kits are made from, as well as some of our major infantry ranges. Our vehicle models are designed used 3D CAD software, which is used with a computer-controlled cutting tool to produce the rigid steel ‘tool’ - the mould into which the liquid plastic is injected. CAD design process is ideal for straight-line models like vehicles, and in recent years 3D sculpting software has also allowed the design of ‘organic’ forms like human figures as well. However, the computer-controlled cutting of metal ‘tools’ is much better suited to  straight-line shapes. Our infantry sprues have been prepared using an older manual process, which gives a much better result but is slow and even more expensive.

Pros:
  • Easy to transport
  • Resilient - because they’re light, if you drop them it’s no big deal.
  • Very quick to produce. ‘Running’ the tool is a mostly automated process, producing hundreds of sprues per hour.

Cons:

  • Cheap to produce each sprue, but expensive and time-consuming to set up in the first place. Each ‘tool’ - costs many thousands of dollars to produce.
  • No undercuts at all - because the mould is rigid and so is the plastic, they have to be smooth on the sides to allow the sprues to slide out of the tool. So each figure has to be very carefully posed to avoid unsightly loss of detail on the sides. This gets harder the more gear the figures have. We can alleviate this by building special sliding parts into the tool, but that’s expensive, and it takes up a lot of space on sprues; we use it our vehicle models to get detail on the sides pieces, to keep the number of parts down, but it’s not practical for infantry figures there is simply not enough space on frames.
Sliding core

Resin Soviet Staff Team
Resin

We have done a small number of figures in resin, such as the Soviet artillery staff team (above). Two-part epoxy resin works by mixing two chemicals together, then pour the liquid into a flexible mould. A vacuum chamber is then used to suck out any air bubbles. The two parts go through a chemical reaction and become a solid resin.

Pros:

  • Light
  • Good detail

Cons:

  • A little more fragile than plastic.
  • Slow. Casting figures in this way requires care and skill, and each mould can only produce a few casts per day.

Flexible Plastic

The new figures are made of a flexible ABS plastic, and combine most of the good points of the other materials.

Like with hard plastic, the casting process involves injecting the plastic into a rigid mould. The moulds themselves are not machined in the same way, but cast - it’s faster and cheaper. Unlike the hard plastic, the material itself is slightly flexible after it cures, so small undercuts are possible - not as much as with metal or resin in a soft mould, but more than with hard plastic.

The tough new plastic is almost unbreakable – you could drop a rulebook on them and they will bounce straight back.

Flexible Plastic Figures

Preparation

Like all figures, there will sometimes be a small raised line where the two halves of the mould fit together. To make the models look their best before painting, you will want to clean these off. The easiest way is to carefully trim off any visible mould lines using a sharp hobby knife.

For advanced modellers who like doing conversions, head swaps etc, you can slice, drill or otherwise cut up the flexible plastic just as you would with hard plastic.

The flexible plastic can sometimes be bent in the packaging — gun barrels and other thin parts are prone to this. If any of your models have bent parts, you can dip them in hot water for a few seconds to straighten them out. The parts have a ‘memory’, and will usually instantly spring back to straight as soon as they contact the water. If not, just heat the part gently in the water, then straighten it out with your fingers for a few seconds while it cools.

Gluing

We recommended using superglue (aka cyanoacrylate) to flexible plastic figures. Plastic cement, which works by chemically softening the hard polystyrene plastic, will not work (the new figures are an ABS plastic, which does not react chemically with the plastic cement). Superglue gives a strong bond with the flexible plastic, whether you are gluing the figures to their base, doing minor conversions, or attaching parts to other materials (eg. glue crew figures into vehicles, whether they are hard plastic, resin or metal).

Preparation
Straightening bent parts
Painting

When it comes to painting, there is no real difference from older figures. The surface of the plastic accepts paint very well, and is resistant to scratching and chipping. We still recommend using a primer—whatever acrylic primer and paint you normally use - whether that’s Colours of War or any other brand - you should have no problems.

Painting flexible plastic
Right: We recommend using a good primer, but this figure was simply brush-painted with Colours Of War Black, and the resulting surface is tough, durable and suitable for painting over.
Painting flexible plastic Painting flexible plastic

The future

We expect flexible plastic to be the future of new figure ranges. We’re very happy with the figures we have previously released in hard plastic (tank commanders, British Rifles, US Airborne and Rifles, German Panzergrenadiers, and Soviet Strelkovy etc.) so those will not be going anywhere.

For some specialised ranges, which will only expect to produce in small numbers, we’ll still make metal figures.

But flexible plastic will be our standard material for infantry and gun crew. The biggest benefit is the cost - we can produce flexible plastic figures almost 40% cheaper than metal equivalent, and this will be reflected in the price, which is surely good news for everyone!