I get asked a lot about what tools I use so I thought I would take some time to talk about what’s in my toolbox. I’m going to cover the things I use in just about every project, while giving you more detail on how and why I use them.
A few things to keep in mind. Someone starting out may see this list and become overwhelmed but a lot of these items are more helpful than necessary. I’ve been slowly collecting and adding to my tools for a few years now, and by no means do you need every item here.
At the most basic level of custom action figures, the only things you 100% will need from this list are:
- Hobby knife with a replaceable blade
- Small paint brush for detail and a larger brush for base coats
The other thing to keep in mind is these are the tools I use because they help me work the way I like to work. No two customisers’ tool boxes will be the same because there are lots of different ways to do the same thing. I encourage you to explore and figure out what works for you.
For me brushes are mainly broken down into three different types. Brushes for detail, washes, and dry brushing.
The first type of brush is the detail brush. I use these anytime I’m painting base colours, highlights or shading, really anything by hand. For detail brushes I really like Winsor and Newton Series 7 brushes. I have three different sizes 00, 1 and 3. The size of the brush depends on what you are painting but these sizes seem to cover most of what I do. If you don’t have an airbrush you will probably need at least one larger detail brush.
These are not cheap brushes but a good brush is worth every penny and with proper care will last a long time.
For wash brushes I like to use large round point brushes that can hold a lot of wash. Sometimes I’ll use a detail brush if I need the wash in a very small area. You can just use any sort of cheap brush for this as long as the size is right.
For dry brushing you want to use cheap brushes because the technique will fray and trash the brush. I have a few different sizes of brushes I use for dry brushing depending on how small the area is I’m trying to target.
The last kind of brushes I use are for cleaning. For cleaning general residue or mould residue with water and soap I just use an old tooth brush. For brushing dust off parts after sanding or before painting I use one of my girlfriend’s old makeup brushes.
If you don’t have a girlfriend refer to my how to get a girlfriend tutorial.
Sculpting tools come in just about every shape, size and material so there is a lot of personal preference with them. These are the tools I like using.
You can get all of these tools from a local art store, Amazon, ebay or the cheapest place is Aliexpress but shipping can take along time from China.
On the left side of the image are the metal sculpting tools. I mostly use these for sculpting hard shapes or etching but you always end up finding uses for sculpting tools with odd shapes.
The next set of tools are probably my most used sculpting tools. They are called clay shapers and they have a soft, medium or firm flexible tip that come in a few shapes. When I use these I normally have a cup of water and I wet the tips to help keep the clay to sticking to them. I highly recommend picking some of these up in different sizes and shapes.
The last thing I use a lot for sculpting is just regular tooth picks. This is something I picked up from one of the guys that sculpts for Sideshow. These are nice right out of the pack but one thing I sometimes do is use an exacto knife to cut the tips into a shape I need for whatever I’m sculpting.
Cheap and disposable so you don’t have to worry about cleaning them! The mint flavoured tooth picks work best.
These are the three types glues I keep available. Each glue is a different thickness depending on what I need the glue to do.
The thinnest glue I use is the Tamiya extra thin. This is amazing if I need glue to flow into a space and not pool on a surface. One warning with this glue is it can sometimes react badly with certain plastics so you should test it out before using them. The other thing is you don’t want to apply this over an area that you have painted or it will dissolve the painted area.
The glue I use for 80% of my gluing is a medium thickness glue called Loctite Super Glue Professional Liquid. This stuff is amazing and I’ve never had it react badly to any plastics and it can be applied over paint to help with paint rub on problem areas. I can’t recommend this glue enough.
The last glue I use is Loctite Ultra Gel Control. This is a super thick glue that will stay exactly where you put it and it wont flow into crevasses. Again, I’ve never had this react with any plastics.
The most important tool on this list is probably the hobby knife with a replaceable blade. I use it at basically every stage of a custom figure. I even considered adding it in the sculpting section because of how much I use it to cut away clay to form hard edge sculpts or to cut into already dried clay.
You can get a hobby knife in basically every shape and size so you should go to your local hobby, art, or hardware store and see what they have. I personally like the mid sized round handles with the rubber grips. Again, it just comes down to personal choice.
Because of how often you will use your knife I recommend not getting the cheapest one available and to look for a knife with a good solid metal clamp for the blade. I also recommend is getting one of the little blade holders so you have a good safe way to store new and used blades. Mine has been custom modded with orange nail polish so I stop “losing it” all the time on my desk.
The other knife I use is a mini box cutter with retractable blades that can snap off. It can be helpful for bigger cuts but isn’t a replacement for the hobby knife.
Sometimes you need to cut through large pieces of plastic or wood and in those cases I use a Razor saw. These can’t be used to cut metal as they are basically just miniaturised wood cutting saws that have very small teeth. The blades come in different depths and thickness’s and the saw I bought came with a few different blade options.
Sand Paper and Files
Sanding is without question the worst part of doing customs, but it’s also one of the most important parts of a paint rub free action figure.
The two abrasives I use most are files and wet/dry sand paper. I almost exclusively use sand paper on joints but the files come in handy for odd shapes and crevasses.
I believe the files I use are technically Swiss files that come in different shapes like square, triangle, round, flat, etc. You wont remove huge amounts of material with these sorts of files because the teeth are very fine, but they are perfect for working with plastic and clay.
Again, they can be bought at most local art stores or online and come in all different sizes.
Sand paper comes in different grits that are measured in coarseness from 50 to over 3000. The higher the number the finer the grit and smoother your final sanding will be. Normally I start at the low grit and work my way up.
The grits I use are 120, 220, 400, 800, 2000. Most of the time I just use 220 followed by 400 and then let my primer fill in some of the finer details but its always good to have the other grits ready to go. I also tend to buy the more expensive Wet/Dry paper. It lasts longer and doesn’t fall apart as easily. You can also wet it to help prevent airborne dust.
A pin vise is basically a hand powered drill that tends to have smaller bit sizes. I do have a normal electric drill but a pin vise makes small, fine holes much easier to drill.
This is a super helpful tool especially for pinning things together which I do for a lot for my figures. The pin vise in the picture isn’t a particularly good one and some day I will replace it, but it does its job. It also came with all sorts of very fine drill bits. A very handy tool to have.
Digital Caliper and Ruler
The digital caliper is a new tool I just got and it’s been a massive help for measuring things. It tells you the distance between the two ends of the caliper on the digital screen, its one of those tools that I’m not sure how I lived without. This tool helped a ton for things like the lightning bolt sculpts on my Electro custom. Great tool and highly recommended.
Nothing to fancy with the ruler. I prefer metal rulers so you can use an exacto knife with it and not cut into it like a plastic ruler.
Having a screwdriver handy is always helpful. I just use a regular old multi-bit screwdriver.
The little screwdriver next to the multi-bit is what I use when I’m cracking open chests. It’s nice because the wedge tip and thin shaft make it easy to slide into your drilled chest hole before you pop it open.
Tweezers and Pliers
It’s actually a bit surprising how often I end up needing tweezers during all steps of a custom figure. Tweezers come in all different sizes but these three seem to cover everything I want in a tweezer. I have a reverse pressure tweezer that holds objects when released, a large curved tip tweezer, and a small pointed tweezer.
From positioning impossible to hold small pieces, to pulling little tiny hairs that seem to magically appear on your fresh painted figure, tweezers are great to have near by.
Just like tweezers, pliers come in every shape and size. They are also very helpful for all sorts of different things from twisting wire, to pulling off bits of action figure you glued to a table by mistake. You probably already have a bunch of these around the house, but if not just pick up a complete set of them. They will always be useful.
Flush Cutter and Wire Cutter
A flush cutter does exactly what its name says, it cuts things very close to the surface leaving very little material still attached to the object. Flush cutters are a very important tool for people cutting scale model parts off a sprue, but they are also very help for making custom action figures.
I suggested buying a decent pair of these as cheap flush cutters will be made of weak metal and will break easily. I’ve broken a few flush cutters in my day.
A set of heavy wire cutters can also be very helpful for thicker objects. Same thing goes with quality on these, a cheap cutter will eventually break.
If you want to become a hot shot Instagram hero you will 100% need something that you can take your pre-filtered photos against. I highly suggest a getting a cutting mat for this.
The bonus with getting a cutting mat is you can use it for its intended purpose as a surface to cut against. Having a rubber surface to work on saves the blade on your exacto knife and protects your table.
These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes but I suggest getting the biggest one that can fit on your work space.
I got a Tamiya cutting mat, and the only thing I don’t like about it is it has a plasticy/chemical smell when you bend it. It had a very very strong smell when I got it, I had to actually air it out outside.
Before I get into the heavy duty tools. I have some random stuff that I use for every project that I wanted to cover.
Cleaning brushes is very very important for the longevity of the brush hairs, but that also directly affects how your paints will be applied to your figure. I use two different types of cleaners.
The Master’s Brush Cleaner is my most used brush cleaner and I use it when I’m finished painting every time. It helps clean the brush but also helps you shape the tip into its normal position. This is a more mild cleaner too, it won’t irritate the skin or have any harsh chemical smells.
Now if I forget to clean a brush or have deep paint penetration on a brush, like after dry brushing, I use Winsor and Newton cleaner. This I use like a soak overnight and it does an amazing job at deep cleaning brushes.
The next items are paint masking materials. The first item is Tamiya masking tape. It might seem silly to by a more expensive branded masking tape but I really love this stuff however they made it. It sticks well, but more importantly, when you go to pull it off it wont pull up your paint with it. This comes in all sorts of widths.
The little red egg is straight up old school Silly Putty. I love this stuff. It’s great for masking and its also great for temporally sticking things together. The other great thing about Silly putty is it doesn’t leave residue on the surface like blue tack. New Silly Putty can leave an oily residue but it will eventually go away and it can be washed.
The last item is a back scratcher and you can use it to scratch your back. Mine has a green handle.
A lot of people like using the boiling water method to heat up plastic so you can deconstruct a figure, but I think a hair dryer is superior in just about every way. By the time you boil your water your hair dryer will have already heated up your figure and you won’t have a wet action figure dripping everywhere. It also lets you position the heat to the area you want it.
I think basically any hair dryer will work. The only tricky thing I like doing is putting down a towel to make sure the hair dryer isn’t heating up the surface the figure is sitting on. The only time I’ve ever melted a figure (During my Cyclops custom) was when I didn’t put down a towel to absorb the heat and it turned my sink into a griddle.
My heavy duty Dremel! Dremels are amazing and there are a huge amount of things you can do with them. You are basically only limited by the tips you have and your imagination.
I use this guy mostly for removing large amounts of material from a figure and cutting. These come in all sorts of sizes and shapes so you can pick the one that works best for you. This dremel was fairly expensive but it has variable speeds, a powerful motor, lots of accessories and tips.
One thing to keep in mind with the a big dremel like this is you can’t really use them for fine detail. I would probably have a smaller one if I didn’t have the next tool I’m going to be talking about.
Dental Technician’s Handpiece
This is without a doubt the most unique tool I have, it’s my girlfriend’s Dental Technician’s Handpiece. This is basically a precision high speed dremel that’s used in making crowns and dentures for the dental industry.
These are basically two part units. The handpiece is the part you hold with your bits attached to the end. The large white foot control piece is the motor that sits on the floor and you control the speed of the bit with the foot pedal. This lets you control the speed of the bit on the fly, plus makes the part you have to hold extremely light.
The motor on these are a bit overkill for plastic as these can be used for metal and porcelain, but the foot control makes working with plastics a dream.
The bits for these are similar to the bits you would find on a dremel, but can be much much smaller. I have bits that are so small they look like needles. This lets you do all sorts of things that are impossible with a dremel.
I can’t tell you how much I love this tool. From shaving joints to sculpting with it, it’s just amazing. Now the one big big down side with these is they are super expensive and I wouldn’t have one if my girlfriend didn’t have it for work. You can sometimes get different versions of these used off ebay but that will still run you $600-700.
It’s easier just to date someone in the dental industry. Check out my “How to Date Someone in the Dental Industry So You Can Use Their Tools” tutorial.
Airbrush and Compressor
These are probably the tools I get asked about the most. Airbrushes are one of those things that everyone has a different opinion on which is the best one.
I went with an Iwata Eclipse HP-CS. It’s a mid tier airbrush with a medium sized cup that is described as a all-purpose airbrush. I do everything from priming large areas to small detailed highlights with it.
The Eclipse was recommend to me buy a ton of different people and its been a dream to work with for me. You really don’t want to get the cheapest airbrush because there is a massive difference between a cheap and mid level airbrush. Its not worth saving $50 just to have to buy a better airbrush in a few months when you reach the limits of the cheap airbrush.
The compressor is the expensive part of the airbrush combo. I have a Iwata Studio Smart Jet. Again, it’s not the cheapest compressor but is a good middle ground. The worst part about this compressor is it doesn’t have a regulator. Without a regulator it has to constantly run if you want anything less than 30 psi, which is sort of annoying.
I’ve never had a problem with it but I’m sure there are better ones maybe for less.
These are the airbrush accessories that I use.
The spray out pot helps contain fumes and eliminates over-spray when changing colors or cleaning your airbrush. You basically just spray the excess color/cleaner directly into the pot then dump it out. I also suggest getting paint all over the top of it and not washing it so people know you’re a serious airbrush pro.
The brushes and little gold nozzle reamer are for cleaning the little nooks that are impossible to clean inside your airbrush. A lot of people recommend getting an ultrasonic bath cleaner which I think I will get in the future.
I spray indoors because of where I live, so getting a good mask is very important. This is a RZ Mask and helps filter out things you aren’t suppose to breathe, and breathing is important.
Airbrush Spray Booth
Like I said, I have to spray indoors so having a spray booth is super important for me. Its basically a box with a fan in the back that helps control over spray and reduces the fumes flying around. This is probably a must have if you plan on spraying indoors.
The other nice thing about this spray booth is it can fold up so it doesn’t take up much room if you live in a small space like me.
This technically isn’t a tool but I thought it was weird not to include my workspace. So here it is!
I live downtown Toronto so space isn’t something I have a lot of. My tools need to be stored then brought out when I need them and I store most of my tools in the storage unit next to my desk.
You can also see my overhead light here with the magnifying glass. I dont use the magnifying glass but its very important to have a white neutral light so that painting isnt affected by the colour of your light.
Having my computer at my workspace is also very handy. I load up all my reference images on it and its not uncommon for me to have the whole screen covered in reference photos.
Its a little workspace but the benefit is you quickly determine what tools are important and you get rid of the rest. Part of me wishes I had big workstation that I could leave my airbrush or photo studio up but I make it work!
Well apparently I have a ton of tools. I never thought this article would be so long, but here we are ha. Like I said before, I’ve been collecting these tools for a few years now and by no means do you need every item here. I get a lot of questions about my tools and thought you guys would like to see them!
Thanks for checking out Action Figure Toronto and reading my tutorial, let me know what you think and if you have any questions feel free to ask. I don’t keep secrets!