Learn About the Materials Used in Miniatures and Models

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When it comes to materials for miniatures and models, there’s no jack-of-all-trades. Each one has different properties that can make them suitable and ill-fitting depending on the usage and scenario.

In this post, you’ll learn about the characteristics of some of the commonly used materials for miniatures and models, along with their sample applications and what you need to keep in mind when using them.

Understanding the Role of Materials in Miniatures and Models

Before anything else, let’s look at the different characteristics and factors that you need to consider and how they play an important role in your projects.

1. Appearance

A material’s appearance, be it its texture, color, and thickness, contributes to the life-like aesthetics of miniatures. For example, wood veneers can easily be used to create rustic wood shingles while epoxy resin works great when used to replicate liquids. You’ll want to use materials that will help you achieve the look you want.

2. Durability and Lifespan

The materials you use will greatly affect your miniature’s lifespan. To give you an idea, dollhouses made from paper and cardboard aren’t exactly heirloom-quality, but they are cheap and light. Meanwhile, wood and metal miniatures are sturdier but are harder to work with.

3. Workability

When choosing materials for miniatures, choose something that you can easily work with given the tools that you have. Think about its strength, malleability, and weight. For example, there aren’t a lot of miniatures made from oak because it has poor workability. Sure, it’s tough and will certainly last for decades but it’s extremely hard to cut.

4. Availability and Price

Consider the price of the materials you plan to use and make sure that they’re within your budget. Make sure to add some extras just in case make you some mistakes during the creation and assembly. Also, they should be easily available to you without high shipping costs.

5. Safety and Eco-Friendliness

What you might think as a harmless hobby might actually cause health problems in the long run if you choose the wrong materials. For example, styrofoam is often used for miniatures and models because it’s smooth, lightweight, and water-resistant. However, it isn’t recyclable and is often burned to be disposed of. What’s more, it gives off toxic gases especially when exposed to high heat and moisture.

When buying MDF (medium density fiberboard) and composite wood, look for the NAF label to make that there’s “no added formaldehyde.” Opt for paint, wood sealers, and adhesives that have low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and lead-free.

Common Materials Used in Miniatures and Models

Now that you have a better understanding of what to look for when it comes to materials for miniatures and models, let’s get to know the most commonly used materials.

1. Wood

There are different types of wood to choose from when making miniatures.

Rolife miniature kits' pre-cut wooden sheet
Pre-cut wooden sheet
  • Craft Stripwood and Scale Lumber- These are fantastic for making windows, doors, scale furniture, and trims. You’ll find them in most craft shops. Robotime kits utilize high-grade strip wood made from basswood, a type of hardwood that is known for its fine and uniform wood grain. It’s lustrous, corrosion-resistant, and meets safety standards for VOC and formaldehyde emissions.
  • Baltic Birch Plywood and MDF- These materials should always be finished since they give off gasses. MDF is available in various sizes and thicknesses and is great for building walls, floors, and roofs. Plywood is stronger and lighter, making them a popular choice. Just make sure that it is primed before painting to ensure that the paint sticks well.
  • Balsawood- This is a great choice for beginners since it is strong and lightweight. However, it is also weak and soft so its use is limited to small miniatures and light projects.
  • Veneer Wood- Veneer wood has the natural look of solid wood but with fewer knots and veins, making them ideal for larger surfaces in modern dollhouses.
  • Luan Plywood- This material is easy to work with but requires more finishing work. It is often used in cheap dollhouse kits in a die-cut form assembled using the tab and slot construction method instead of screws and nails.

2. Plastic

Plastic is lightweight, reasonably durable, and easy to cut and modify. Most plastic miniatures use either polystyrene or PVC. Polystyrene sheets are also used for scale railroad models and tiny buildings.

Just be careful about off-gassing. Both polystyrene and PVC release VOCs that are harmful to the environment and can cause a multitude of health problems to humans.

Polypropylene is one of the safer plastics since it is stable and less likely to leach chemicals. In fact, though most of the Robotime kits are primarily wood, we sometimes include plastic parts made of BPA- and PVC-free polypropylene.

3. Metal

Some people love the weight and cold, smooth surface of metal miniatures. A high level of detail can be achieved depending on the mold used. Molten pewter is poured into the mold and allowed to cool before demolding. Pewter is often used for metal miniatures because this soft alloy can be buffed and polished to get a glossy finish.

When using metal for your miniatures, make sure that they are free of toxic heavy metals like cadmium and lead.

4. Paperclay and Polymer Clay

Paperclay and polymer clay are often used to create textured features such as miniature plaster stone walls, stucco, pargetting, stone tiles and walls, and landscaping with rocks and stones. You can also use these materials to create three-dimensional miniatures or sculptures such as graves for a Halloween-themed project.

While both are soft and malleable, the main difference between the two is that you need to bake or cure polymer clay for it to set. Meanwhile, paper clay doesn’t need curing and only requires a protective coat of sealant. That said, cured polymer clay is more durable and doesn’t shrink while hardening, unlike paper clay.

5. Resin

Resin models outshine plastic ones when it comes to details. It’s possible to create intricate details like rivets on train models and links on chain mail with resin. However, resin is a more labor-intensive and fragile material for miniatures compared to plastic. If you accidentally drop a resin model, it can result in chipping.

resin parts
Resin parts

Resin is also more environment-friendly than plastic. Biodegradable resins like eco-resin and silicone resin are your most non-toxic and safe options. While epoxy resin is the most popular type, especially when replicating liquids, its vapors can cause asthma and other respiratory problems.

6. Paper and Cardstock

Paper and cardstock are inexpensive and readily-available materials that you can use to create miniatures and models that don’t necessarily need to last for years. They can be easily shaped and painted to achieve your desired look.

You can use paper for wallpaper and miniature lining. With a bit of creativity, you can also use newspaper strips and glue to create a paper mache of the different components of your miniatures. Just make sure to apply a coating of protective sealant once you’re done painting them to make them stronger.

Bookboard and cardstock, on the other hand, trims and interior walls that won’t be bearing any weight.

Robotime products come with some paper materials that are required for the assembly process. Rest assured that these are created with paper chips made of non-toxic log pulp for your safety.

 

non-toxic cut paper
Non-toxic cut paper

Conclusion

There are many more types of materials that you’ll encounter on your journey as a miniature hobbyist. These are simply the most common materials for miniatures and models that you’ll encounter. Just make sure that you carefully consider each material’s characteristics when planning your project to stay on the right track.

If you don't want to worry about preparing the materials for starting your miniature project, Robotime offers various types of ready-to-assemble DIY miniature kits and models. Each kit comes with all the required pre-cut parts and tools, allowing you to embark easily on your miniature project journey.