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Article updated: 2017.05.15

A varnish is a kind of medium that contains no pigment. When applied, it gives a transparent layer after drying.

Varnish can change the look of the colours under it based on how transparent it will become, and can also change the reflectivity. If you add several layers of varnish, it increases the chance of changing the colours and it will also become more and more opaque. Some varnish can get "old", and after a few years or decades it can change in transparency or reflectivity (become yellow), and can crack.

Varnish types by sheen level

  • Matte varnish: In several cases a product sold as matte varnish will still be slighty glossy, so try them before application.
  • Satin shine varnish: Somewhere between matte and glossy.
  • Gloss varnish: It will give a glossy finish. Unless you prefer glossy looking miniatures, I recommend buying pots instead of sprays, so you can brush the glossy varnish on the parts that need to be glossy. Some say gloss varnish gives a better protection than matte varnish.

Ultra-Violet protection

Some varnishes offer UV protection to prevent fading of colours on your miniature due to sunlight. Unless you intend to display them in a gaming store, or store them in plain sunlight, you probably won't need it.

Differences between matte varnish and gloss varnish

As some people in the hobby use gloss varnish for better protection (and then adding matte varnish if you want to avoid the glossy look), I've asked the the chemist of the Pentacolor company about the kinds of varnishes. He said that while there should be no significant difference in most high quality, professional varnishes, there is still more acrylic medium in a same amount of fluid in a gloss varnish, and this is what gives protection. The amount of matting agent differs between different makes, and this can cause different results. So if you really want to make a lasting varnish, he recommended gloss varnish.

There is another adventage of applying gloss varnish, then a layer of matte varnish to remove the shine, as when you see the miniature starts to shine, it means it needs another layer of matte varnish over the worn-out one.

Applying varnish

Before you apply varnish, make sure the paint is totally dry. Otherwise the paint can get mixed with the varnish and it can change the colour of the affected area, like a glaze.

If you appy matte varnish over gloss varnish, wait for the gloss varnish to dry before you apply the matte one, because mixing the two can make the top look somewhat shiny.

  • Varnishing by brush: You can varnish the whole miniature or apply it on the spots that need varnish. Take care that a varnish might pool in recesses if it's not spread evenly. If it pools, after drying it won't be transparent, just translucent or white. Check your miniatures during the drying of the varnish, and spread it with your brush if the layer looks too thick. Depending on the varnish you use, you could thin it to get an even cover. Always read the instructions as some products are intended to be thinned before use.
  • Varnishing by airbrush: The application is similar to spray varnish. Thinning depends on the product.
  • Spray varnish: Spraying the varnish will give an even spread. However it's hard to apply spray on chosen spots if they are small. You might need a few run with the spray but avoid too much varnish as it could pool. To prevent health problems, always use spray varnish in a well ventillated area, preferably outdoors.

Cold environment: In cold air, even a matte varnish can dry into a somewhat glossy look. To avoid this, the heated lamp method is a good solution.

Frosting

A matte varnish consists of a liquid solvent and solid matting agents. If the solvent and the matting agent gets separated, the matting agent particles will remain visible.

Preventing frosting

  • Humid environment: While drying, put the miniature in a dry environment. If there is too much moisture in the air, it can make the matte varnish look frosty. If you don't have a dry environment, put the miniature somewhere warm - for example under a table lamp with a classical light bulb that gives heat. Keep it there for at least 5-10 minutes, it will give it enough time for the varnish to not look frosty.
  • Absorbent materials: If the coated material is absorbent, it can also cause a frosty look, because a the liquid medium of the varnish gets into the material, leaving the solid parts (the matting agent) outside. Before varnishing, cover them with a sealant layer.
  • Brushing / airbrushing: You can mix the varnish with an acrylic or polyurethane medium. This can prevent frosting with some products.

Repairing frosting

If the varnish comes off frosty after drying, give the model another layer of varnish. The liquid varnish will encapsulate the solid material that gives the frosty look, and hopefully it will dry without frosting.

Chemical effects

There are some chemicals that can discolour, change the gloss or soften the varnish. Try to keep them away from the finished miniature.

  • Water: In polymer varnishes, 10-15 minutes in water can cause fogging, if the water is hot, it can cause gloss loss.
  • Vinegar
  • Oil
  • Alcohol
  • Isopropanol: It may remove the polymer varnish in 1 hour of soaking.
  • Cleaning detergents

Layers to protect previous work

You can use a layer of varnish on your miniature to protect the paints you've painted on it. If you make a mistake on the new layer, it can help you remove the new paint.

  • Acrylic paints: As you can wash the new paint off with water or alcohol that won't affect any dried layer, you don't really need the varnish.
  • Oil-based paints: As you can only wash with a thinner, and it will solve any oil-based paint it touches, it might be useful to use a layer of varnish.

Waterslide decals

Some modellers recommend a layer of gloss varnish under waterslide decals.

For further information, see: How to apply waterslide decals on miniatures - Miniature hobby guide

Acrylic or polyurethane mediums as varnish

Acrylic mediums are also transparent, and also give a layer of protection to your miniatures after it dries. However, there are varnishes that can be removed from your miniature if it gets discoloured or starts to crack due to age, and you won't be able to remove an acrylic medium layer.

An acrylic medium can be diluted with water, but you could achieve faster drying with alcohol. After the acrylic medium dries, it becomes a solid resin layer that can be washed with water to clean it.

Polyurethane mediums are similar, but somewhat stronger than acrylic mediums.

Removing varnish from your miniatures

Sometimes the varnish gets discoloured, accumulates scratches or gets contaminated. It depends on the layers you've used if you can remove it.

If you use a polymer varnish with the intent of removing it in the future, you can apply a layer of acrylic medium (or any varnish that is not solved by alkaline), to act as an isolating layer. This way there will be an additional protective layer on the miniature under the polymer layer that can be removed if you wish.

  • Acrylic medium: It won't come off.
  • Polyurethane medium: It won't come off.
  • Polymer varnish: It can be solved with alkaline solvents (like ammonia). Try to get clear ammonia without any additional extras (fragrance, soap). Always use protective equipment (respirator, gloves, googles) and work in a well-ventillated ares (preferably outdoors).

Finishing seal / Top coat

After you finish painting your models, sometimes it's worth adding a finishing seal to protect it. A plastic model painted with acrylic paint could last forever even without a finishing seal, if it's just standing on a display stand. Some varnish could change the look of the colours, and even if it's not apparent after drying, it can change with the age of the varnish in a few decades.

However, if you already have some good (preferably removable) varnish at home that you really trust, you could just varnish everything.

  • Metal miniatures: Finishing seal will prevent paint chipping ott.
  • Gaming miniatures: Finishing seal will protect them during rough handling.
  • Miniatures with transfers: Finishing seal over the transfers will protect them from curling. I've heard that a glossy varnish under the transfer will help to stick it better to oil based enamels.
  • Display cabinet miniatures: Use finishing seal at your own risk, unless its removable.

Applying varnish

When you apply a layer of varnish, make sure it's even everywhere, and it doesn't pool in recesses. If needed, spread it with a wet brush or remove excess with a dry brush. If you put too much varnish on the miniature, it can create a thick layer that covers the detail. If you use highlight to show edges, it won't be that much of a problem. However, pooling can also cause the loss of transparency.

The effects of applying too much varnish on miniaturesThe effects of applying too much varnish on miniatures

On the photo above you can see what can happen if you apply too much varnish. I didn't thin the varnish because mounted miniatures get heavy use in our games as they are not glued on their mounts, and I thought it will get them more protection. I regret now this decision.

If you click on the image to enlarge it, it will be more apparent that the varnish created a layer of transparent plastic over every miniature, creating an even surface instead of the original, textured one. Also, I lost the face of the front miniature because of pooling. In the end I've repainted it to look like some mutant, or someone with a horrifying battle damage to his face.

The varnish I used on the above sample was labeled matte varnish. It's probably this glossy because it's too much on the miniatures. The same varnish (Pentart Matte Varnish) usually gives at most silk shine.

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I've collected varnishes recommended by painters. I didn't use most of these, but I trust the opinion of others.

Acrylic medium (water soluable)

Although it's not a varnish, it can still provide protection to a painted miniature.

  • Recommended products
  • Games Workshop - Citadel Technical - Lahmian Medium
  • Liquitex - Matte Medium
  • Tamiya - Acrylic X-21 Flat Base: It is an mattening additive to Tamiya Color paints, but some recommend to use it.
  • Testors - Model Master - Flat Clear Acrylic

Acrylic mediumimage © Golden

Acrylic medium

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Buy Acrylic medium (GW-Citadel Lahmian Medium) from Element Games (UK)
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Matte varnish

A matte varnish is a varnish that gives a matte finish.

  • Recommended products
  • Army Painter - Anti Shine: It's transparent even when liquid, so it won't dry opaque even when it pools.
  • Daler Rowney - Soluable Matt Varnish: 4 part varnish, 1 part white spirit with airbrush
  • Galeria - Matt Varnish
  • Games Workshop - Matt Varnish
  • Rustoleum - Clear Coat Sealer
  • Tamiya - Color TS-80
  • Vallejo - Polyurethane Matt Varnish
  • Vallejo - Model Color - Matt Varnish: Some say that brushing it on can remove paint, so always spray / airbrush it.

Matte varnish - Aerosol Spray

  • Recommended products
  • Army Painter - Matt Varnish Spray: Some recommend to warm it in handwarm water before use to prevent cracking and frosting.
  • Krylon - Matte finish spray
  • Testors - Spray Laquer Dullcote

Matte varnish - Water-soluble

Matte varnish - Removable

  • Recommended products
  • GOLDEN - MSA Varnish (Matte): Mineral Spirit based.
  • Vallejo - Removable Acrylic Matt Varnish

Matte varnish - Removable & Water-soluble

  • Recommended products
  • GOLDEN - Polymer Varnish (Matte)

Matte varnishimage © Liquitex

Matte varnish

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Buy Matte varnish (Liquitex Matt Varnish) from Element Games (UK)
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Ammoniaimage © James Austin Co

Ammonia (to remove polymer varnish)

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Satin varnish

A satin varnish is a varnish that gives a satin finish, somewhere between matte and glossy.

Satin varnish - Aerosol Spray

  • Recommended products
  • Games Workshop - Citadel - Purity Seal Spray
  • Games Workshop - Citadel - Purity Seal Satin Spray
  • Army Painter - Aegis Suit Satin Varnish

Satin Varnishimage © Liquitex

Satin varnish

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Gloss varnish

A gloss varnish is a varnish that gives a gloss finish.

  • Recommended products
  • Games Workshop - Citadel Technical - 'Ardcoat
  • Krylon - Gloss Sealant
  • Liquitex - Gloss Varnish

Gloss varnishimage © Liquitex

Gloss varnish

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Plasti Dip

The Plasti Dip creates a layer of flexible and removable rubber on your miniatures. It's very effective in protecting the paint on your soft plastic miniatures, as the rigid paint could chip off from the flexible material during use. As the Plasti Dip is also flexible, it will bend with your miniature, and won't let the paint come off. You can use any colour of Plasti Dip as a primer, and transparent Plasti Dip as an overcoat.

Plasti Dip is produced by Pro Dip. It is sold in spray cans, but also in pots. For finishing seals, you should get the transparent version.

Plasti Dipimage © Pro Dip

Plasti Dip

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Varnishing - Sources & tutorials

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Do you have further thoughts about varnishing miniatures? What are your experiences with the mentioned methods and products? Tell your opinion in the comments!

 

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