Monday, 3 January 2011

Plastic VS Metal- Model Musings from the Smurf

Original berzerker left, new berzerker right (Painted by Muskie)
Its no secret that GW concentrate heavily upon releasing fantastic plastic kits for us all to enjoy with each new army release. Indeed plastic kits have become such a staple part of our modeling lives that is now entirely possible to create a complete army just out of plastic.

In this post I would like to explore my own experiences with plastic model kits and ask myself; 'are they as good as they obviously seem to be?'

Plastic Kits: The past

The first plastic kits released by GW were done a little before my time so I don't actually remember/know what the first true plastic kit was. The first kit I ever bought was plastic and consisted of the £5 box of khorne berzerkers one of which is represented in the picture above. They were all absolutely identical but for only £5 my parents couldn't complain. As a result, the original plastic kits were therefore quite bulky and analogous and so  I would like to skip that era and focus on the release of 3rd edition 40k.

Look at the green bases!

3rd edition 40k saw the release of a seminal multi-part plastic kit, the space marine tactical squad. Within this box you received 10 plastic marines with separate heads, legs, torsos and arms! There was even a command frame for sergeants and heavy weapon troopers. Suddenly you could buy a whole squad in a box, command and all, without having to buy several different metal blisters and have odd guys left over.   

The benefits of this kit were enormous in almost all aspects. It was cost effective, originally retailing at £10. It was a modelers dream, with a seemingly limitless combination of poses. It was functional, being made of plastic meant that the figures were less likely to break, were lighter and could be placed into awkward terrain more easily. It was also designed with the intention to be upgraded with other kits so that devastators and assault marines could also be made. In short, the tactical squad revolutionised the way that we now collect and build our armies. 

Following on from that success, other releases received plastic kits too. The ork boyz kit has a particular place in my heart as it was the first kit to make orks appealing to me and began the orks ascent to gaming greatness. The strategy was also applied to warhammer as well and over the years it became staple to field a majority of plastic core troops and implement them with metal elites and support.

Plastic Kits: the Present

Currently, GW seems to be executing a policy of releasing as many plastic kit choices as they can afford each year for each major release. Due to the new technology they recently acquired (the ins and outs of which I know nothing about), the kits have become smaller in overall spru  size (optimizing packaging and therefore shelve space) but more compact in overall detail. Modern plastic kits are literally bursting with extra details and add-ons, which all lead to improved modeling customisation. The future can only improve this trend with more and more full units becoming plastic with metal being reserved for characters (although there are a number of plastic character models already).

Is the move towards plastic model kits a good one?

The advantages with plastic kits are obvious and I brushed over a number of them when I described the tactical squad above. However, there is one downside that I only recently realised.

When looking through my old White Dwarf mags I noticed that the models back then were so much better. Not in all cases obviously (I'm looking at you Naggash), but on the whole each model had more character. It dawned on me that each metal model had previously been sculpted with a pose and purpose in mind and so a great deal of effort had been afforded to each individual guy. The plastic kits are obviously pose-able but we, the consumer, pose them ourselves leading to some fairly dubious models at times. As a result, plastic models never seem as complete as metal models and never quite as individual. Yes, the kits have loads of detail and extra bits but these tend to be fairly minor in context. For example, the old metal chaos marines were all truly unique and allowed for some really characterful units.

Unfortunately the flip side to this was that everyone with a chaos army ended up with squads containing the same guy thus foiling the uniqueness of the unit on a complete army scale.


It seems plastic kits have altered our hobby world forever. They provide us with quality and convienience, which we now expect for each new army released. However, I feel they have also taken something away from the character of the individual model. Plastic armies look great altogether but individual guys are bland and boring.

Perhaps the greatest benefit a plastic kit can give us in this new age of hobby is a firm base to create our own individuals with green stuff and a strong bitz box. The power of the internet and hobby blogging in particular has opened the gates of our hobby to a new world of DIY sculpting and painting. Armed with a solid plastic base and boundless information, perhaps the sky really is the limit to our modeling success.


  1. I think the metal/plastic balance in the citadel range at the moment is about right with most rank and file models being released in user built multi-part kits and characters and elite units in metal. I agree the quality of the plastic models has also improved hugely.

  2. I painted the Bezerkers, credit would have been nice.

  3. My apologies Muskie, It was the only image I could find on google. It won't happen again

  4. I think you've hit on something here. I love plastic and will go out of my way to use it instead of metal when possible. There's just something about plastic.

    I do agree with you that the plastic do look a bit less detailed and have slightly less character than their metal counterparts sometimes. I find myself wanting to sculpt or add a few extra details to them to get them on par with their metal counterparts most times.

    Ron, From the Warp

  5. Plastic is the only way forward.

    1. it's cheaper for GW to produce so higher profit margin.

    2. easier to produce.

    3. lighter in weight for shipment.

    In my humble opinion it's better to have plastic models.
    1.easier to put together the metal.
    2.more converting possibilities without having to use powertools.
    3. hardly needs pinning.
    4. they don't scatter all over the floor when you drop them but instead just bounce right back up on the table.
    5. the paint doens't chip that easily so I can make nice tutorial on how to chip paint on armour... lol (see blog)

  6. I don't like the plastic characters much (the orc warboss was very high up in the fail-scale and I don't like the SM commander much either) and I'd rather use metal instead. For troops I think plastic is much more convenient and cheaper of course. If someone wants to customise his plastic miniatures, he can treat them as a blank canvas and build more details with bitz of green stuff. The possibilities are endless really, if you are willing to put the time and effort in them :)

  7. I agree with the general point. It's down to us to think like the professional sculptors and do what they would do for us in the case of a metal mini.

    One other point I would make is that plastic models can seem more bare, and less solid as a piece. I imagine this is because the kits are kept as poseable as possible and so a lot of the filler detail - the extra elements on belts, the straps and fur etc. - is missing or doesn't bridge gaps so well.

    All in, I think plastic is a challenge to us to do better, to think deeply about pose and maybe to add mass with greenstuff.

  8. The Eldar rangers/pathfinders set is a perfect example, to me, of the bonuses and disadvantages of metal. At the moment you get five beautifully posed, characterful metal models that look like a cohesive combat unit and are an absolute pleasure to paint.

    Want a second squad of rangers or (even worse) to field a squad of ten? Why you'll need the exact same five guys again.

    Oh well.

  9. Ah, I remember the very first plastic box set - RTB01, the beaky marines, I still have them now.

    Plastic has revolutionised the way we build our armies but I do miss the all metal days. As you said, they have a lot more character than the plastic versions. Perhaps it's the mass production feel the plastic ones have. Maybe it's the fact that over the years, I've become sickened at seeing badly posed models, my included.

    It's ironic to think that I've gone from full metal armies to fully plastic one and now I'm going back to my metal roots, albeit with quite a bit of modification to make them unique.

    Makes me wonder what I'll be doing at the end of my third decade in the hobby!

  10. I like that you snuck in a Nagash bash. That sort of thing always brings a smile to my face.

  11. @ Warpaintguy:

    Yes, all else aside, plastic is an amazing thing for all the reasons you mentioned. However, there's a hidden cost associated with it in the form of a large start-up cost for the molds and actual production of the models.

    The chief reason for modeling companies to continue relatively low-volume (in terms of how many they sell) models in metal is because they're cheaper to run small numbers of them.

    Plastic is fantastic if you can sell a lot of the same model, but if there's parts or models that you're only going to sell a few of, the increased margin per model doesn't justify the start-up cost of the injection molding.

    Thus, a mix of metal and plastic is a strong strategy for the future. Cheers!

    Space Wolf Lars

  12. There are some extremely encouraging comments made by all of your here so thank you for the contributions. I think most people here feel that there is certainly room for metal models still in our armies.

    I think Fentible struck a nail with his comment about metal models though, you are forced on occasions to use duplicate models in a squad. I would like to refer to the legion of the damned though and say 'wow what a collection of beautiful and different metal models.' There are enough versions of a lotd marine to make a complete squad of individuals. If only the same level of commitment was given to all squads in metal (like the new incubi)

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