Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A Dip on the Saxon Shore

As I mentioned before, the latest project at my local club is the Dark Ages of fifth century A.D. Britain. This seems to be a very popular period at present. There are some fine miniatures available at very reasonable prices and the attraction of the period has been reinvigorated by a host of different media, principally Gripping Beast’s very interesting set of rules, SAGA, and several films and books over the last few years (Beowulf, Game of Thrones, Outlander, etc.).

So, I should be excited, eager and enthusiastic about painting my first war band of 50 Saxons from 450A.D. Well, I should be ... but things for me worked out slightly differently.

It’s not the first time I’ve tried this period. In the dim and distant past, better known as the 1980s, I tried building a WRG 6th edition Dark Age Irish army. It was a truly dark experience for me. The 25mm figures I used were pretty dreadful. When painted they looked like a diseased, filthy, under-nourished rabble – in other words, quite accurate, but not attractive. I have bitter memories of painstakingly replacing their spindly swords with flattened wire swords, which periodically fell off during their tabletop battles. Grim, dark memories ...

Worse still was the history. Glimpsed dimly through the shadows of fifteen centuries, all I got was a few dramatic images from the fragmentary chroniclers. Welsh cavalry pounding a rainy North British hillside at the battle of Catraeth ... ravens gnawing on the severed head of a Scots-Irish chieftain at the battle of Strathcarron ... lines of incomplete poetry about a rain of spear points visciously coursing into the flesh of an enemy. All vivid and colourful. But nothing at all about where they were fighting, how many were fighting, and how they got there. As far as a wargame went, you could sort of make it up. And we did.

It was fun for as long as it lasted (and as long as the flattened wire swords remained glued into the drilled holes in the figures' hands). But in the end, finding out about the period was just very hard work.

So I was more than slightly pessimistic when the idea of Dark Age warfare was suggested again. Would it be better the second time around?

“Quicker to a field of blood, Than to a wedding”

I’d bought the 28mm figures for the Saxons from Gripping Beat about two years ago. (And yes, that is the normal painting schedule at Roundwood Towers). They are fine, strong figures, made with good quality metal. They’re also a very reasonable price when you purchase in bulk. I’d like to say that preparing them was a simple easy process, but I’d be lying slightly. The problem I found was that the figures are cast open-handed, which gives you a lot of options but is a real fiddle when you’re gluing the weapons to the figures.

I replaced the cast white metal spears which come with the figures with wire ones for strength, and made the best effort I could in fixing the weapons into the open hands of the figures. I started supergluing the weapons to the hands, but I was unhappy with the result. I resorted to epoxy resin after first gently “closing” the open hands of the figures with a pair of pliers so that the weapons would fit snugly.

The whole process was a bit of a palaver and took a few hours. I resisted temptation to throw the whole lot in the rubbish bin several times.

Once the weapons were glued into the hands of the figures, things got better. I based the figures on 3mm depth MDF round discs (or hexagons for “Big Men”) with a quick coating of PVA, sand and gravel on their bases.

I scraped the excess glue and sand on while the glue was setting.

I primed the figures with Halfords car primer, which holds paint really well and is as cheap as chips. I then had a war band, ready for painting. Although it was about then that some of my problems really started ...

The (slightly dubious) Joys of Dipping

As I was reticent about the whole project from the start, I’d already decided to try and get the figures painted as quickly as possible and on the table. Seduced by the lure of “painting and army in a weekend”, some spectacular videos on YouTube and some fine painting on other blogs, I decided to use Army Painter Strong Tone dip for the figures.

It felt liberating, at least at first. I perked up as I raced through painting the first 30 figures. Without shading or highlighting, the whole process of painting the figures was speeded considerably. I felt like I was going back in time. The years fell away. This was how we painted in the early and mid 1980s – flat, solid colours on (pretty hideous) club wargames armies which numbered in the several hundreds.

Non-metallic metals? Counter-shading? Four or five different paints and shading for a figure’s face. Don’t make me laugh! For several hours, I was in heaven. This was Old School painting, and I loved it.

Of course, I was telling myself that the Army Painter dip would make everything perfectly shaded. By now, those of you still reading will have a face frozen in a rictus of horror or will be laughing uncontrollably. I think you know what comes next.

The dip is pretty easy to apply. I painted it on, as very ably shown by Pat Lowringer of SoCal Warhammer in this great video. It certainly does the job of staining the figures, covering them all in a deep gloss shade. The hands and faces are easily visible, and it does a great job on the metallic in toning them down.

But, as you can see, what I was left with was a dark, grungy force, coated in a thick gloss varnish. While the Army Painter Strong Tone dip did its job, it isn’t a miracle worker. I probably chose the wrong colours for the base coats on the figures, and will need to do a little highlighting to lighten up the figures.

Matt varnishing, which I did last night, did help slightly.

The overall look is of a standard, ordinary, distinctly-average set of figures – OK when seen from a distance, but not great close-up. But then, what did I expect after spending next to no time on them?


On the whole, I’m pretty happy – I had a lot of fun painted the figures in fast, simple block colours, although my hopes were unrealistically high for how the dip would look on the figures. On the plus side, I’ve now got a load of (slightly uninspiring) figures painted, we can start playing a few games at my local club. And there’s still chance to add a few highlights, some fancy banners and shield transfers on the figures I've done, and to try something a little different with the the next 30 figures for the war band.

I’ll see if I can smarten up the next lot of Saxons for next time. Wish me luck!


  1. Did you use the trick of leaving the dip a few minutes then pulling it off the highlights with a small brush and some white spirit?

    I've not used it, but several people swear by it.

  2. They're fine to me but then I've seen some of your other figures (beautiful), if you're happy with them then that's the main thing....

  3. I've had the same experience and verdict with the armypainter dips as you describe. Now I leave it well alone. Yet for gaming these figures look well enough, I just hate it when you have spend a lot of time just getting your army right and then your opponent turns up with unpainted or only basecoated figures.

  4. The figures look fine to me, they may be a little dark, but I don't suppose there were a lot of bright colours around back then. And like you said you got a nice sized force completed in a weekend, that in itself can't be bad!!

  5. Sidney,

    The dipping was fine, but you're absolutely right that your choice of base colours was incorrect. Mid to dark greens and drab browns just don't come out well. The top tip I found was to paint the figures in base colours that appear to be a little too bright, i.e. rich reds, golden yellow, linen, light browns, off white, etc.

    Don't give up with the dip. I think it's perfectly suited to these sort of small warband games.



  6. To be totally honest, and sorry to disagree with the rest of the comments todat, but your WWI figures look significantly much better than this gang... but it is true that you invested much more effort, and effort pays

  7. Being relatively new to the hobby I've often been tempted by the dip method but have often wondered if, like you, would find the process limiting. I have no doubt faced with a large army it has to be worth serious consideration but just dipping in and out of eras I'm happy just carrying on as I am.

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  9. First off I'll say your figures turned out fine and you shouldn't be afraid to set them on the table.:-)
    That said, I would really like to be positive on AP, but my experience has been a mixed baged resulting in equally mixed feelings.
    I've painted two armies using the dip method and on my first army(Trojans) with just using the dip didn't look good at all so I applied a highlight which did improve the results, but also added more time to the process.
    Still not satisfied with one highlight on my second army(EL Cid)I added two highlights which did look pretty good, but of course added even more time thus saving little time over my normal method of painting in the end.
    Also it seems AP drains the colour out of my miniatures which I don't like as I like my figures quite vibrant: Working with it stinks and is a sticky. Plus it shades areas more then I'd like or not enough which often isn't apparent until after the protective coat is added and this is even after I used a brush in applying the AP.
    Most projects I've gone back to painting my figures the normal way which is working fine, but sometimes I'd like a few areas more deeply shaded and for this I'll be looking at washes to help speed it along while still having control.
    Over all for me to get results I can live with from AP requires extensive highlighting which really adds to the time which for me any ways removes the whole point of using it. However, I'm not saying I won't use it any more which I probably will as it still saves a little time, but I will give it some thought before I do on each project that I think I might use it.
    Good luck and hope using lighter colours gives you the results your after.


  10. How I wish this AP would work like a miracle.. OK, they don't come close to your WWI stuff but they look perfectly fine for gaming and if you spend two evenings doing some highlights and a couple of transfers on the shields they would stand out more. Thanks for the post as well, I've tried AP but I'm just not good at it. Did not save me time and did not like the overall brown effect it had on the minis as a whole. You did a way better job, and 50 figs in a weekend in massive impressive for me.

  11. They look pretty good Sidney. I have not tried AP yet and I'm not sure if I will.

  12. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm really glad I've stumbled on a subject people have a lot of interesting views on. OK, Where to start….

    @Mike - good tip, Mike. I'd not heard of that. I'm going to persevere for another batch of figures this weekend and I shall give that a go. Thanks!

    @Angry - Thanks Fran. I think a lot of it is about how you feel when the figures on the table. In last night's game I was really pleased to be able t o put some figures out, but every time I saw mine I did wince slightly inside. I think they need a bit more work….perhaps not much, but certainly a bit.

    @Sander - I can certainly understand where you're coming from. A couple of guys at the club have also said "once was enough" with the dip system.

    @Ray - thanks mate. Yeah, I agree, they do look dark and flat. You're right that I imagine back in the fifth century you were lucky not to be wearing rags covered in farmyard muck, and bright colours would have been pretty rare. That being said, I think I need a few highlights on them, and probably re-do that bright green!

    @Matt - Wise words, Matt, very wise words indeed. I was trying to go for bright colours when I used the green….and you can see how badly that came out! I think the red was much better. I steered clear of the yellow base coat but I shall give that a go this weekend. I'm going to persevere with the dip (fingers crossed) at least one more time. Thanks so much for the comment.

    @Benito - I agree totally! I felt more than a little embarrassed posting the figures on the Blog. They really aren’t up to the standard of the Great War and 17th Century stuff. You put your finger on why - I spent hardly any time on them. But I thought it only fair to show everyone who I frequently screw up completely in getting colours wrong and in painting generally. I'm going to give it another go and take a bit more time and care next time!

    @Michael - your painting's wonderful, Michael. So unless you have a burning desire to start dipping, I think you're totally justified in carrying on as you are!

    @Christopher - thanks so much for the long comment Christopher. You're an awesome painter, so your views are certainly valued. I hear what you and Matt and the others are saying - it seems like a better choice of base colours and highlighting may be the way to go - with the additional time requirement.

    @MiniMike - How I wish I'd talked to you about this when we met at Crisis, mate!!! yes, I'm certainly going to add the transfers and standards, so that may help a bit. Good to know you've had similar "bad dipping days" :)

    @Rodger - Hi Rodger. That made me laugh. See, I'm actually putting people off using AP now!!

    Thanks again everyone for those comments. I shall certainly post the next batch and you can see if you think they're any better!


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