Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Plastics vs Metals

I've been at this painting lark long enough, I think, to begin to appreciate the merits of both. Some of it was definitely driven home this past week finishing off both some metal Battlefront 15mms and some plastic ones from the Open Fire box.

The obvious downside of metals is price - certainly in 28mm, metals kick in around the £1.50 a figure mark, whereas plastics by the box work out under £1 a figure (we're talking foot here - 40 Russians in plastic from Warlord = £28, or 57 Russians from PSC for £18.50, or 31 for £14 or so from Wargames Factory  - big range in prices there!). In 15mm the PSC US Infantry box is 145 figures for £18.50, the BF metal US Infantry box 122 figures for £35 (and the Forged In Battle metal US company mega deal or the equivalent from Command Decision or Peter Pig are all about the same price).

Having said that, it does look as though certain manufacturers are placing a bit of a premium on their plastics - compare the PSC and Warlord/Bolt Action Russians.

Economies of scale favour plastic - after the one-off five figure sum for preparing the mould (and tying up Renedra's production line!), the unit cost is pretty low, so if you can reliably guarantee a big enough run, plastics are cheaper. Which of course means that generally the target for plastics has to be popular ranges.

Conversely, the tooling cost for metal is considerably less to get started, hence it's possible to knock up small runs of more obscure things (you try finding a German tank killer squad in plastic, for example!).

However, the bigger issue, if you can afford either, is that the moulding process places certain restrictions on what you can and can't do with plastics. This means, pretty instantly, as soon as you want to get clever with your figure poses, your figures become multi-part, or wind up (like one of the Open Fire PaK40 crew I was painting yesterday) with an undesirable moulding artefact that isn't really part of the figure and makes painting harder. But… given the design process usually starts with three-ups (or CAD, more and more), you can get finer detail on plastics, which I think is more of a benefit in 28mm than 15mm.

Of course, as soon as you go multi-part, one of the advantages of plastics starts to wear away, depending on what value you put on your time: I know how long it took me to assemble 72 horse archers for my Parthians...

With well-sculpted metals, though, the world is your oyster. But the sculpting is the key - if, for example, you look at some reviews of BF metals, some are really awful, with no depth. Contrast with the (fairly recent, IIRC) BF British I just painted, which have just the right amount of slightly exaggerated depth (you do, I think, need to overdo it a bit in 15mm) to allow ink-shading to work.

My choice?

15mm? Metals. Apart from anything else, assembling multipart 15mms is a pain, and in general I find the detail on the metal ranges I choose better that (say) the BF plastics. I may revisit this if/when I get to look at some PSC plastics. For vehicles? Plastic: those really are much cheaper in plastic than lumps of white-metal or resin.

28mm? Torn. To pay for? Plastics. To paint? Tossup. To prepare? Metals, unless someone's getting overly clever with multipart metal figures, then I find plastics easier to glue. My limit's fixing on a shield and wire spear - any more and I'll go for plastic.


  1. I've seen some truly 'orrible low-detail plastics -- the 'Mechs in the BattleTech 25th Anniversary Boxed Set, for example. When I first met plastics in the 1980s, they were all like that. The option is now there to be better, but clearly not everyone takes it.

  2. A great article. My personal preference is for Metal because I think it is the most versatile and durable option but its hard to deny the benefits of cost that come with the availability of plastic options. Whatever their relative merits I just feel it's great to have a choice.

  3. Should learn spelling some day... so here it goes again

    I've been with metals in 25-28mm all my life and with plastics & metal in 20mm. Still I like metals the most ...BUT... I'll be dealing with some Perry's 8th Army in the very-very near future, so I'll let you know how my experience goes

  4. I'm with plastics all the way in 28mm. Given that I only am only presently interested in 'platoon level' or 'small company' games, I can make every figure in a platoon unique. In metal you are lucky if you can make get each man in a squad as a different figure, in most you'll have two poses of each per squad at best.

    You can of course convert metals, but the process is far simpler and less time consuming with plastic. Plastics are of course lighter to carry about and in the occasional 'dropped box' scenario, plastics tend to survive better.

    I find putting together multi-pose plastics far less time-consuming even than just gluing spears and shields on metals, which if you haven't done a thorough job of cleaning them, can take a long while.

    Anatomically plastics are usually better too, with a realistic weapon thickness. Some metals look more like over-weight re-enactors carrying fence posts than real soldiers.

    What do metals offer? 2-3 times the cost and of course 'heft' apparently, whatever that is... I guessing that's the sound a wargamer makes when he lifts his toolbox of metal figures up onto the table... I could be wrong. ;-)

  5. Plastics are much, much easier to store (chuck 'em in a shoe box) and carry around.

    1. That's why I have 30+ mostly plastic Saxons to repair :D

  6. I see the advantages to both. My most recent experience with plastics was Wargames Factory 28mm Zulus. Multi-part, not terribly well detailed, but they assembled without too much swearing. I found they accept the cheap hobby store acrylic paints just fine (around 60 cents a 2 fl. oz bottle) which saves on the expensive miniatures paints. They look good en-masse. Like John says above, they are easier to transport.

  7. As far as assembly goes - yes multi-part plastics take some sticking together, but time for time I have frequently spent just as long cleaning up metals.

    Castings always have some flash and other extra bits that need filing. Also I always find shields really don't want to stay stuck on.

    And I have had some really horrible experiences with horses - in one case it took me so long to clean up the mess between their legs that I haven't touched them since. Plastic riders and horses do tend to stay together much better, without some very strange gaps.

  8. Plastics for availability and portability; metals for heft and presence. Note that I mention neither assembly (I am building a War of Spanish Succession Imperialist Army using multi-bit Wargames factory figures) nor painting. Generally it is the style of figure that determines how easily and well it paints up (oh, and my eyesight).

    My metal armies are a few Ancient (actually Late Dark Ages) in 15mm metals; Napoleonics mostly 25/28mm metals (French, British, Austrina, Russian), but I've begun some plastic 20/25mm armies as well (Prussian, and probably Saxon). The rest are 20/25mm plastics, except that I do have a few metal WW2 Russians and metal WW2 German cavalry.

  9. I started experimenting with plastics this year with both the Normans from Conquest Games, and most of the models from Fireforge Games Crusader range, The quality is far superior to anything I remember buying back in the 90's. I used to be heavily biased against using plastics because of the soft materials and lack of depth in many castings. This has completely changed in the last few years.

  10. I'll add another twopennethworth if I may. One of the things I definitely don't like about plastics is the fragility of the material. The 'sticky out bits' seem to be very prone to damage so broken spears & gun barrels seem to be common. Sometimes this can be fixed with poly cement but the join is never very strong and the join is often messy looking. On my metal models such items rarely break and if they bend I just bend them back. Metal may be old fashioned but it has its merits.

    1. Your choices are:
      Metal: spear comes unstuck, leaving annoying blob of superglue in hand that makes it hard to reattach.
      Plastic: spear breaks, requiring you to drill out the hand and stick in a metal one.

  11. I have to disagree with regard to time - my experience with BF tanks versus PSC tanks is that I spend just as long cleaning up BF metal+resin tanks (filing off mould lines, trying to make it fight, unbending barrels, replacing broken parts, etc) as I would building a PSC multi-part tank kit. That probably speaks for BF's QA more than anything else though.


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