Tips on Working with Plastic for Miniatures and Models

Plastic is a material often used for miniatures and models. Learn some techniques for how to work with plastic, including heat embossing and simple heat welding using recycled or household materials.

  • 01 of 07

    Ways to Use Plastic for Models and Miniatures

    glass topped counter

    Plastic is a great material beloved of many modelers. For car and airplane model enthusiasts, it is the main material for the hobby. It can be shaped and finished in a number of ways and lends itself to miniatures with detailed molded parts. In some scales, mainly for model trains, sheets of molded styrene are the main building material as they can be made with exact details.

    There are a number of ways you can work with plastic without needing specialized tools. Try some of the techniques and projects below, many of which use recycled plastic packaging as a base to get to know the material.

  • 02 of 07

    Types of Plastic

    Sheet of V groove white styrene for model building from Evergreen Scale Models
    Photo copyright 2009 Lesley Shepherd, Licensed to About.com Inc.

    The types of plastic most useful to miniaturists and modelers are thermoplastics. These are the plastics which can be molded by vacuum forming, blow or injection molding, and which can be softened by heat:

    • Acrylic (Polymethyl methacrylate), or PMMA, is often found as sheets or rods, and widely found as material for clear plastic handles, pen caps, and other items which can be recycled into miniatures.
    • Polycarbonate (Lexan and other trademarked types).
    • Polypropylene (recycling # 5) used for sheets for storing items like trading cards, plastic drinking straws, and bottle caps. This plastic has a high melting point.
    • Polystyrene; expanded polystyrene foams are often carved for miniatures while regular clear styrene may be used as a clear packaging for products like CDs. Styrene is identified by the recycling # 6. Sheet Styrene is a often used to model buildings for model railroads, as well as architectural models.
  • 03 of 07

    What Glues Should You Use for Plastics?

    Plastic weld glues for tight bonds in a range of plastics for models and miniatures
    Photo Copyright 2011 Lesley Shepherd

    When you work with plastics to assemble miniatures or models, you need to know the type of plastic and the particular type of glue that works best with it. Using the wrong type of glue can craze or fog the finish of the plastic. If you aren't sure of the plastic type, you can test a scrap of the material with your chosen plastic glue or acetone (nail polish remover) to see if the plastic becomes tacky. If it does, your glue will probably bond the pieces together.

  • 04 of 07

    Simple Method To Heat Bend Sheet Acrylic or Plexiglass

    Round the top corners of the dollhouse display case using a file and sandpaper.
    Photo © 2012 Lesley Shepherd

    You don't need elaborate tools to make simple bends in sheet acrylic or plexiglass to shape some model parts. Heat bending is a technique which can be used to bend acrylic or plexiglass into curves or straight angles for a range of miniatures and models. The method shown here lends itself to making gentle curves for curved top display cases or dollhouse pastry and baking display cases.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Finish Plastic Models and Miniatures

    Plastic mold lines on a doll's leg cleaned up with a modelling tool and micro mesh sanding pads.
    Photo © 2011 Lesley Shepherd

    Many items made from cast plastic suffer from obvious lines where the sections of the mold were joined together. You can improve a lot of plastic miniatures (dolls, model horse, model cars) by carefully cleaning away these 'flash' lines on the seams.

    You can also improve your miniatures by using the correct materials to restore a gloss finish after sanding or shaping plastic. After you've sanded a piece of plastic or acrylic to shape, you may need to restore the 'clear' finish of your miniature.

    This is where two techniques come in handy. Automotive sanding pads like the micro mesh sanding pads can smooth out scratches and restore a shine, or return a plastic model to a particular finish. A second technique, brushing on a coat of clear acrylic floor polish to fill in any scratches, might work as well.

  • 06 of 07

    Easy Way to Emboss Plastic for "Etched Glass" Effects

    Recycled packaging plastic embossed to make faux 'etched' glass for miniatures and models.
    Photo © 2013 Lesley Shepherd

    Some common packaging materials are easily given an interesting new finish that lends itself to scale models and miniatures. Using an iron, a teflon ironing cloth or baking parchment, and a simple metal stencil, you can etch or emboss rigid sheet plastic packaging so it resembles etched glass in several scales.The finished product can be used for dollhouse windows or dishes, or other purposes where an etched glass or embossed design on thin material is needed.

  • 07 of 07

    Bend Plastic Figures

    Sitting and standing plastic skeletons. The standing skeleton has been reshaped to hold items.
    Photo ©2008 Lesley Shepherd, Licensed to About.com Inc.

    Simple plastic bending techniques are often needed to restore balance on collectible figures or model horses. The same technique will allow you to bend plastic figures into more useful poses. No special materials are needed, but you do need to take care of shaping and cooling the plastic so it holds the correct position for your model.