Tools of the Trade: Hobby Glues

Before paint even touches your miniature, chances are good that you’ll need to do some assembly first, even if that just means attaching a single-part model to its base. Assembly can be a bit of an overlooked step, but it’s the foundation for everything you’ll do afterwards and it’s important to make sure you have the right tools for the job at hand. This is certainly true for the glue that will hold your models together – each type works in particular ways and using the wrong glue for the material you’re working with is a recipe for problems. Here, we’re going to go over the different glues that we sell here at Sentry Box for building your miniatures and models, to help you select the right one for your project. While there are many available, they fit into a couple broad categories. Let’s dive in!

Plastic Cement

Plastic cements are a bit unusual in that they are work with a very specific material – polystyrene. When someone refers to “plastic miniatures”, this is almost always what they’re talking about (technically, there are several other materials for miniatures that are, in fact, types of plastic, but that’s a topic for another day. I’ll follow the common parlance here so when I say plastic, I’m referring to polystyrene). You’ll find this material all over, including most Games Workshop miniatures nowadays and almost every scale model kit you’ll find in a hobby shop. If you clipped the parts of your model off a big, rectangular sprue, you’re (almost certainly) working with polystyrene.

These types of glues work because they’re actually a solvent for polystyrene. When applied, they temporarily break down and slightly dissolve the plastic. When two pieces have the cement applied and are pressed together, as the cement cures the two pieces fuse together as the plastic hardens again. Of course, because the cement needs to be able to break down the material before it can harden and fuse, the cement won’t work on any other material that it isn’t able to dissolve – hence, they only work on the polystyrene they’ve been formulated for.

This has several advantages, chief among them being the strength of the bond. Since the plastic parts have been fused together (think of it a little bit like welding metal) the join between them is pretty much just as strong as the surrounding plastic. If you drop or otherwise damage the model, the join between parts isn’t especially likely to break. Once cured, the parts often can’t be separated again without physically cutting them apart.

You also get a bit more working time when building – since the dissolving and bonding process takes at least a minute or two, you have some time after the glue starts to “grab” but before the position of the parts starts to set. This means you can apply the cement and bring the parts together, then have a bit of time to get the position just right. The trade-off here is that it can slow down your assembly a little if you’re working with multiple parts in close proximity, since you’ll need to give the first joins enough time to set before adding more to avoid creating a sticky, wobbly pile of parts.

Because cement-type glues actually dissolve the plastic slightly, it is a bit more important to make sure you don’t get them in places you don’t want them. As with all glues, you’ll want to be careful of how much you apply, so that you don’t have excess cement oozing out of a join and getting on nearby surfaces of the model. If you get cement somewhere you don’t want it, your first instinct is probably to try and wipe it away – wait! The softened plastic will likely be damaged in the attempt. Best to just let the cement evaporate and the plastic to re-harden to minimize any marring of the surface or loss of detail.

Here at Sentry Box, we have several different options for plastic cement. Mostly, they vary depending on how thick the liquid cement is and how you apply it to your model:

Testors

testorsgoo

The classic Testors “goo in a tube” has been around forever. It’s the thickest of the plastic cements we carry, and also the least expensive. However, this stuff can be a bit infamous in the hands of a beginner – its gooey consistency, squeeze tube and wide nozzle means that trying to apply it right from the tube is a recipe for too much glue everywhere on your nice new model. The best approach is to put a little dab onto a scrap of cardboard or similar, and use a toothpick to precisely apply a small amount right where you need it. Because it’s so thick, it takes longer to set and dry – this gives you a long working time, but each join will take longer to cure (another good reason to use just a small amount).

Citadel Plastic Cement

citadelcement

Games Workshop’s offering as part of their Citadel range is a moderately thick cement in a bottle with a metal needle applicator. Compared to Testors, this makes it much easier to control how much glue you’re applying right from the bottle, and lets you place the correct amount quite precisely. Since there’s no need to actually open the top of the container, it’s also much less likely to spill than with the cap-brush applicator of Tamiya cements. This makes it handy to use and probably the most beginner-friendly. The biggest downside, as with a lot of Games Workshop products, is price. While hardly a massive investment, you are paying a bit more and getting a bit less glue in the bottle than with other brands. Still, not a bad option by any stretch.

Tamiya Plastic Cement

tamiyacement

Thinner than the previous two products discussed, Tamiya cement comes in a little square glass bottle and is applied using a small brush attached to the cap. This makes precise application of the right amount of glue pretty easy, but does create the possibility of jostling the bottle while you have the cap off and spilling it. The nice thin film of glue left by the brush creates a good balance of working time and speed of assembly. It’s also rather inexpensive and a single bottle will go a long way.

Tamiya Extra Thin

tamiyaextrathin

In a shocking twist, Tamiya Extra Thin is… an even more liquid version of Tamiya’s cement. Same square bottle and brush applicator, although it is a little bit more expensive. What sets this glue apart is that it’s so thin, it will easily wick in between parts that are already held together. This is really handy since you can get two parts lined up how you want them, then apply the glue while already holding them in position. You don’t need to be too precise with this, since the thin glue will evaporate off the surface quite quickly without causing too much of a problem on the surfaces right next to the join (provided you’re not applying too much at once). This is one of my favorites and a really useful glue to have around.

Superglue

Unlike plastic cements, superglue (also known as cyanoacrylate or CA glue) creates a purely mechanical bond. It doesn’t chemically interact the the material being glued, but is essentially just a sticky thing that hardens in between the pieces. This means that it will work on just about any material – this makes it pretty much mandatory on any models not made of polystyrene. Metal, polyurethane or polyester resin (think Warmachine or Flames of War miniatures, respectively) and other formulations of plastic like those commonly used for D&D miniatures all go together best with superglue. Even polystyrene too will go together using superglue, although the join will not be as strong as when using plastic cement (this can even be a bit of an advantage sometimes, since removing a glued part from a model is much easier if it was put there with superglue, and a dropped model might simply break along a glued part line rather than in some other place that would be harder to fix). Superglue is quite happy to bond almost anything, up to and including your own skin.

Yeah, there’s the most obvious downside to using superglue – the glue that will bond anything will bond anything. In fact, because it reacts with moisture as it cures, your own sweat will make it bond your skin faster than the model parts you want it to stick to. Careful application and use is key to avoiding this. Use less than you think you need to and always be mindful of where you’ve applied glue and where it’s flowing as you’re putting parts together. Try to work neatly in general and clean off any liquid glue or residue on the bottle cap or nozzle, since superglue can also have an annoying tendency to glue its own container shut. Finally, be aware that superglue can give off (mostly odorless) fumes that can irritate your eyes. They’re not especially noxious, but can be a problem when working in an area with poor ventilation. As you might expect, superglue is really not suitable for younger hobbyists to use on their own.

There is one other big factor on top of its nigh-universal application: speed. A superglue join will start to set in seconds, so you can bond parts together really quickly and keep working and adding parts with little worry of previously assembled sections shifting. This can make for a really convenient assembly process and is the key reason I like using superglue for just about everything. Keep in mind however that this can be a bit of a double-edged sword, since working time is very short and fiddly parts can choose to “freeze” at an inconvenient moment just before you can get them right where they should be. As is good practice no matter what kind of glue you’re using, dry-fit parts first so you know just how they should go together before putting superglue into the equation.

OK, but what’s the difference between the superglue we sell for models and the little tubes you find in all sorts of other shops for home repairs? Mostly quantity and how it’s applied. While chemically quite similar, common superglues usually come in tiny little tubes for small repair jobs, not in amounts for building an army of miniatures. They most often have an applicator with a tip that must be pressed against the surface you’re trying to apply glue to, which is incredibly inconvenient when trying to precisely apply some to a really small and probably fragile model part. It will certainly stick your miniatures together, but there is a reason that hobby superglue is sold as its own separate thing.

The range of superglues we have here in store are all from a company called BSI. They have several different formulas that differ based on how thick they are, and each is available in two different sizes. They also have a couple of auxiliary products that aren’t glues themselves, but can be handy for getting the most out of your superglue.

Super Thin

blue

This formula of superglue really lives up to its name – it’s almost somehow thinner than water. This means that it’s useful for fixing down loose material that’s too small to glue individually, including stuff like basing material or terrain (one of my co-workers uses it to coat pieces of cork that he likes to use for rocks on bases). Unfortunately, this property also makes it really difficult to control. It has its uses, but Super Thin isn’t really suited for assembling models.

Gap Filling

purple

BSI calls its medium-viscosity superglue Gap Filling. Which it can do, but only if the gap in question is pretty small. I use this stuff on everything, even on polystyrene where I could use a purpose-made plastic cement. It’s thick enough to not flow too far from where you put it, but not so thick that you have the ketchup-bottle problem of waiting for the glue to flow out of the bottle (I’m using superglue ’cause I’m impatient!). It’s my go-to glue in almost any situation and one I definitely recommend.

Extra Thick

pink

A viable alternative to the Gap Filling type if you want a bit more control, Extra Thick is quite good at staying right where you apply it. Many prefer it specifically for that reason, although I find this thicker formula takes a moment or two longer to start flowing through the nozzle. Which one is best mostly comes down to personal preference.

Accelerator

accelerationyes

Super fast not quite fast enough for you? Occasionally everyone runs into that one stubborn join that just refuses to stay where you want it and set. This Accelerator comes in a little spray bottle and will cause any of the superglue formulas to flash to a solid instantly. The resulting join won’t be quite as strong, but when in a tricky spot it can be absolutely worth the trade-off. Unfortunately, the spray nozzle tends to spritz this stuff over the whole model and surrounding area, so keep that in mind and avoid using it on a model with paint already applied. Not a necessary tool but can make things a lot easier in specific situations.

Debonder

debonder

This is almost more safety equipment than hobby tool – while it will break down a superglue bond with little trouble, it will also happily dissolve paint and even most types of plastic, making it more useful if you get into a serious glue accident involving your own flesh rather than taking apart a model. If you’re trying to separate two pieces bonded with superglue, mechanical methods are usually easiest (translation: just BREAK IT OFF). Carefully pull or pry between the two parts, and since the glue bond will be a bit weaker than the actual material it should break along the join (you can also try putting the parts in a freezer for a little while to make the glue more brittle). I’m of the opinion that using the glue carefully in the first place is a better way to handle accidents than trying to use this on yourself.

Other Stuff

While these are a couple products that we don’t carry in-store, they’re worth mentioning as they can be useful when working with miniatures. Since they’re not specifically meant for that purpose, both are widely available at big-box retailers for much cheaper than we could sell them to you, but I’ve included them here for the sake of completeness.

Epoxy

As large metal miniatures become increasingly uncommon, the niche for using two-part epoxy glues (aka “5-Minute Epoxy”) has become even smaller – it doesn’t do a good job bonding to most plastics, and it’s messy, smelly and is slow to set when you’re trying to hold model parts in place. It’s key use is with large and heavy metal parts (think like dragon wings or similar) where superglue doesn’t have the needed strength. Even then, assembly techniques such as pinning make putting up with the hassles of epoxy usually unnecessary.

PVA Glue

Just plain, ordinary white glue. While you don’t want to use this to actually build your model, it’s an absolute champ when it comes to completing your model’s base or building and decorating terrain. It’s easy to use, non-toxic, easy to clean, dries clear, and is dirt cheap. Perfect for fixing down sand, rock chips, flock or static grass, and it can also be thinned down with water or mixed with paint. One thing to keep in mind: avoid the versions labelled “School Glue”, as they’re designed for easier clean-up and don’t bond as well. For a couple bucks, you’ll have a supply to last you through whole armies.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the world of glues, and perhaps learned something that will improve your modelling. Like many aspects of this great hobby, building your miniatures is an activity that rewards experimentation and finding out what techniques and materials work best for your own projects. If you’ve come across something new here, why not give it a try? Happy modelling and thanks for reading!

-Chris

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