The best hobby tools for getting started with miniatures

a squad of Warhammer 40k Necromunda gangers painted by @under_construction_painting
Image credit: @under_construction_painting on Instagram (Image credit: under_construction_painting on Instagram)

Getting started with miniatures can be daunting, and finding the best hobby tools is just one more potential landmine. With Warhammer 40,000: Darktide and Marvel’s Midnight Suns crashing the early holiday festivities, you or a friend might be tempted to get into some of the excellent associated miniatures games, like Warhammer 40,000 Kill Team—which we recommended in our 2022 Holiday Gift Guide—or the fantastic Marvel Crisis Protocol (opens in new tab) from Atomic Mass Games. 

But where do you start when you’re brand new to one of the most venerable nerd hobbies? Which hobby tools are essential, and which are a waste of limited starter budgets? I’ve got the plastic skinny on everything you’ll need for fielding your very own teams of miniatures, whether they’re dedicated heroes of the Imperium of Man, members of the X-Men, or just awesome sci-fi operators straight out of Rainbow Six: Siege (opens in new tab).

The best hobby tools for getting started with miniatures

I've broken down our recommendations by category, so you know what you’ll need for each step—from box to gaming table.  

Assembling your miniatures 

Before you can get to painting, you’ve got to put together your new plastic friends, and with some luck and the right tools, you might even assemble your brave space GI Joes with both a left and right arm. 

Self-healing cutting mat (opens in new tab)

Self-healing cutting mat (opens in new tab) - $9 -  Not messing up your work surface
Self-healing cutting mats sound like weird science fiction technology, but basically they prevent you from cutting the table you’re working on, and they don’t fall apart when you cut them. Essential and inexpensive for every hobbyist.

Flush cutters (opens in new tab)

Flush cutters (opens in new tab), aka "hobby scissors" — $9 — Cutting your bits off the sprue

Effective, comfy to hold, and agile enough to snip the most stubborn pieces free, these flush cutters prove you don’t need to buy an expensive tool to get the job done. I grabbed a couple pairs just in case I can’t find one, or if I have a friend over to do hobby stuff with.

Comfy hobby knife (opens in new tab)

Comfy hobby knife (opens in new tab) — $7 — Cleaning up mold lines and stuff

The little bits left behind on your miniature parts after they come off the sprue will ruin a good paint job, and a sharp hobby knife will clean them up for you. This one is perfect because it’s bigger and thus easier to hold, has a nice cushioned grip, and will take generic blades—critical since the sharper your blade is the better it works, and they get dull fast—so make sure you buy generic blades (opens in new tab) and not overpriced ones. 

Tamiya Extra Thin plastic cement (opens in new tab)

Tamiya Extra Thin plastic cement (opens in new tab) — $26 for two pack — Making your parts glue together

Once you’ve glued your hands together for the hundredth time, you will know the pain of miniature assembly when you’re clumsy like me. Or you can be smart, and avoid the issue entirely by working with plastic cement instead. Tamiya Extra Thin is the gold standard for plastic, and unlike cyanoacrylate super glues, it essentially ‘welds’ the plastic together while not sticking to your hands at all.

Important note: Tamiya is plastic cement, so it only works on plastic miniatures, so if yours are metal or resin you’re stuck with normal super glues. 

Cross lock ‘reverse’ tweezers (opens in new tab)

Cross lock ‘reverse’ tweezers (opens in new tab) — $6 — Holding troublesome parts in place

These are an amazing little piece of underrated technology that can make assembling annoying parts a breeze. Unlike normal tweezers where applying pressure closes them, these are held closed automatically, and open when you squeeze on them. As a result, you can close them on a tiny part to stick it to something else, or leave it on the table like a teensy vise—perfect for ‘arming’ your space marines.

Painting your miniatures

Paint is its own huge topic, and I'm going to stay out of the debate for the most part, since everyone has their preferences between the big ones—Citadel, Vallejo, Army Painter, and Scale75. But there are a ton of other things you need to turn your mini-canvases into mini-warriors. 

Hobby Holder (opens in new tab)

Hobby Holder (opens in new tab) — $20-30 — For holding your miniature while you paint it

This is by far my favorite way to hold a model. The grip is reversible so you can hold it however you want, and it has an optional ergonomic handle if you prefer a larger grip surface. Best of all, the little cap you secure the miniature to is just the standard screw-top bottle cap you find on everything from soda bottles to cleaning products, so you’ve got an endless supply of them for free.

ZEM Kolinsky Sable brush set (opens in new tab)

ZEM Kolinsky Sable brush set (opens in new tab) — $23 — Reasonably nice brushes to paint with

The difference between a bad brush and a good brush is huge, but when you’re new it’s not wise to invest in expensive brushes that you’ll ruin with beginner habits. Synthetic brushes tend to curl and quickly lose their point, but with this brush set you get non-synthetic brushes for a very reasonable price. Just make sure you take care of them with proper brush cleaning and maintenance (opens in new tab) anyways. 

Citadel Contrast paints (opens in new tab)

Citadel Contrast paints (opens in new tab) — $7-12 each — Special paints that help with highlighting

Okay, so I said I wasn't going to wade into the paint debate, but contrast paints are worth a mention—and other brands like Army Painter Speed Paint (opens in new tab) function similarly if they’re your speed. Contrast paints flow over the surface of your miniature, settling in the low spots. As they dry, they naturally create lighter and darker areas as a natural highlight, which is pretty cool to see in action (opens in new tab) and they can also be a big time saver with methods like zenithal highlighting or slapchop (opens in new tab)

Makeup brushes (opens in new tab)

Makeup brushes (opens in new tab) — $6 — Cheap and effective brushes for dry brushing

One of the best techniques for beginners and speed painting, dry brushing (opens in new tab) is a technique that helps you quickly highlight your miniatures. However, dry brushing requires a larger brush, and is notoriously rough on them. Why destroy good brushes when you can get inexpensive brushes that will do the same work for you? 

Masters brush cleaner (opens in new tab)

Masters brush cleaner (opens in new tab) — $8 — For cleaning and conditioning your brushes

If you don’t take care of and clean your brushes properly (opens in new tab) you’re going to end up buying new ones all the time, and The Masters is the gold standard for cleaning and conditioning. Careful washing and cleaning with brush soap will help a lot, so don’t skimp on the boring-but-critical stuff. 

Upgrade picks for even better painting and assembly

Once you’ve gotten the basics down, you might have a bit in your budget for an upgrade. Or maybe you know somebody who would love a fancy addition to their own hobby tools? These upgrades aren’t essential, but the convenience might make you feel like they are once you’re used to them. 

Rotational paint mixer (opens in new tab)

Rotational paint mixer (opens in new tab) — $18 — Save your arm from mixing your paints

With just a few clicks and a wait for a package you can say goodbye to the days of shaking your paints around like maracas, and instead watch this rechargeable paint mixer spin the everloving hell out of them for you. It can even handle full-size Citadel paints, just make sure the top is totally closed so you don’t redecorate your walls and ceiling.

Tiny rare earth magnets (opens in new tab)

Tiny rare earth magnets (opens in new tab) — $8 — Magnetize your miniatures and prevent breaks

It’s a lot of work assembling and painting your miniatures up, and nothing is worse than having to redo your work because they got broken or ruined in transit. Getting some tiny rare earth magnets is the perfect solution, since you can glue them to the hollow underside of the base and then transport your miniatures in metal tins. If you want to be even fancier you can use whatever plastic bins you like and glue down some inexpensive sheet magnets (opens in new tab) inside them in place of metal. 

Brush drying and storage rack (opens in new tab)

Brush drying and storage rack (opens in new tab) — $20 — Rack for safely drying your paint brushes

Despite bad habits, paint brushes should never be stored or left to dry bristles up. The ferrule—the metal collar that attaches the handle to the brush hairs—accumulates paint in this position, which dries and causes the individual hairs of the brush to separate and detach, ruining the brush. With this rack, you can store brushes vertically with their bristles down so that any paint infused water will wick down and away from the ferrule without the tip of the brush being deformed by pressure.

LED arch lamp (opens in new tab)

LED arch lamp (opens in new tab) — $68 — An LED lamp that eliminates shadows for painting

Getting light from multiple angles is critical when painting, and arch-style lamps are the one-stop-shop for lighting setups. This arch lamp from Green Stuff World is the kind of ideal tool that will set anyone up for painting success.

Inexpensive hobby alternatives when you don’t have the funds

Sometimes you can’t quite afford the tools you need, especially after buying the latest and greatest box of shiny new miniatures you want to put together. Thankfully, the world is full of exceptionally clever people who are good at finding homemade workarounds. 

Make your own wet palette instead of buying one 

Wet palettes are a big cost saver, allowing you to keep paint on your palette from going dry quickly and allowing you to use the same paint mixes for multiple days. However, most wet palettes are also overengineered and unnecessarily expensive—opt for the basics and make your own instead so you can make your expensive miniature paint last a lot longer. 

Use medicine bottles as painting holders 

While painting holders are cool, they’re not totally necessary when something most people have in their house will do. Prescription pill bottles are plentiful, inexpensive, durable, and perfect for all your needs—so don’t overlook how useful they can be, especially paired with some cork from a wine bottle to pin miniatures. 

Make your own washes instead of buying them

Washes are an excellent and common tool when painting, allowing you to add layers of grime, oil, or other environmental tones, but they’re also pretty expensive. If you’re using them a lot, making your own terrain to use for your table, or just want to fine tune your wash colors, they’re relatively easy to make in large quantities.  

Give up and just make your own dang miniatures from trash

Maybe you have more creativity than money? Why not lean into that and bash together the most wildly imaginative things you can come up with, all from spare bits of trash and repurposed plastic. Scratch building can be even more rewarding than the most amazing miniature kit from big companies, since the end result is uniquely your own.

Philip Palmer

Phil is a contributor for PC Gamer, formerly of TechRadar Gaming. With four years of experience writing freelance for several publications, he's covered every genre imaginable. For 15 years he's done technical writing and IT documentation, and more recently traditional gaming content. He has a passion for the appeal of diversity, and the way different genres can be sandboxes for creativity and emergent storytelling. With thousands of hours in League of Legends, Overwatch, Minecraft, and countless survival, strategy, and RPG entries, he still finds time for offline hobbies in tabletop RPGs, wargaming, miniatures painting, and hockey.