The 3D Printed Alternative to Traditional Tabletop Miniatures

I was thinking about sculpting miniatures for tabletop war games, as an opportunity for freelance work, and I made a list of all of the companies launching new games or miniatures on Kickstarter. There were dozens of successfully funded projects, and the money raised was significant–it looks like tabletop war gaming is booming.

But along the way I discovered that the companies producing these games and miniatures are not paying very much for the original sculpts used to mass-produce the figures. Maybe it is the high-cost of traditional tooling for injection-molding or spin casting that makes the business model so lean, or maybe something else… For the producer, the sculpt is just one of the expenses, along with molding, painting a sample for marketing, etc. ( They pay about as much for the custom paint job as for the sculpt!)
This kind of blows my mind, because the sculpture is the whole product! Without the sculpt, there is nothing to produce.

If you want to freelance for a miniature company, you will be offered only $350-$400 for all rights to your work, and your native ZBrush file… No royalties, just that small amount of cash. If you spent a whole week on a miniature, you would be working for slave wages….

So I had to sit down and rethink… clearly there is a demand for tabletop miniatures, but the traditional approach is not going to work for me. I can’t see how it works for anyone!

When a traditional company wants to manufacture a mini, they will use a high-resolution DLP 3D printer to build a master copy, that they will cut up and prepare for molding. Whether the miniature is manufactured with spin-casting or injection molding, the customer will have to clean up the parts ( seams, flashing, sprue marks) and assemble the final product like a tiny model kit.

But there is an alternative to the traditional model. With Shapeways, an artist has access to the same high-resolution 3D printer used to print the master copy. Instead of making a mold of that master, you can sell those 3D prints directly. An artist maintains all of the control of their copyrights, and has a product that is superior to what can be molded. There is no need to cut it up into pieces. With 3D printing, you don’t worry about undercuts, or assembly, or seams.

The customer will still do a little bit of cleanup. There is a support scaffolding that is generated when the sculpture is printed, that has to be removed, but this is easily accomplished with a few minutes with an exact-o knife. Most of this support is cleaned-off by Shapeways.


The same DLP 3D printer that is used to make the final product, as is used to create the “master” copy in the traditional process.

Shapeways calls their black resin “BHDA” for Black High Definition Acrylate. I think they could come up with something catchier like “Dark Matter”.. But whatever you call it, this is clearly the way forward for producing a line of miniatures as an independent artist.

I’ve done a few pieces as tests, so that I can confirm the quality for myself. I will be adding more to my Shapeways shop as I move forward. Now I just have to let people know about them (marketing…)

Resolution Independence

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If you are familiar with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, you know that vector artwork is scalable to any size, from business card to billboard, and it will look good. A raster or pixel-based image will not look good if you try to print or display it larger than it was created for.

Similarly, most 3D models are created with a level of detail appropriate for the intended output; different models for animating, higher resolution for rendering, even higher (billions of polygons) for 3D printing…

Animation:Master’s splines are very similar to Illustrator’s curves. You can create a very detailed model without a lot of polygons (actually A:M doesn’t use polygons at all). The splines connect to form a network called “patches”. Because the model is light, there is usually no need to use a proxy model when animating.

Because the geometry is spline-based, you can view it at any scale and it still looks good. It is resolution independent, so you can render it at any size. Technology continues to evolve, and what is considered high-definition today may seem low-res in a few years. However, the models that you create in Animation:Master today will still be good no matter what future display requirements might be.

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