Painting Britains

In the course of repairs, and a total repaint in one case, I’ve been working on achieving the Britains painting style. A few things have helped along the way.

Firstly, London Bridge, the company casting replacement parts for Britains figures, has some great painting advice. They recommend Humbrol paints, many of which match Britains colors and come in gloss. Picking up a good selection of Humbrol glosses is the first step.

Colors are just the start, though. To really match the style of a Britains, it’s helpful to understand how they were painted and which colors were put down in what order.

Videos of the Britains factory during the 1950’s show women painting hundreds of figures in a batch after they were spray undercoated. It’s fascinating to look at the strokes of paint and think that someone nearly 100 years ago worked on this very figure. You can’t be too sad the job went away though – fumes, eye strain, repetitive motion, tedium after your 2,000th Life Guard – its amazing the figures are painted as well as they are!

So to really reproduce the style of a Britains you’ve got to paint it as if you were painting 10,000 of them. That means fairly thick coats of paint and that details are really just one swipe of paint. I can’t imagine these painters were going back over their work and touching things up. You get one pass and it’s on to the next one.

It helps to study examples of what you’re trying to reproduce as well. That can tell you a lot about which colors were put down in what order. Look at your classic Guard infantry. There’s usually flesh color on the face and underneath the lip of the bearskin. We can deduce that the flesh color was one big swipe, encompassing the face and a portion of the headgear. The black for the bearskin came after since there’s still flesh on the underside – they weren’t too concerned about tidying up the overpainted flesh.

This sort of reverse engineering can be done on most figures. Here’s an example where I didn’t get it quite right, although I’m not unhappy with the overall result.

I foolishly stripped the original paint off this Belgian cavalry officer (set 190) and had the bare metal figure sitting around for years. I recently repainted him, starting with a white spray for an undercoat.

The jacket and saddle are dark blue. Photos of original figures show that the light blue pants weren’t painted all the way around the figure as I did, they’re mostly just painted on the sides and much of the underlying dark blue remains.

Nice and tidy, but doesn’t really match what was originally done.

Other paint work has been more straightforward – for horse legs is either just painting gloss black over an undercoat or working to match the brown. White has been tricky – even using Humbrol’s ivory which better matches the Britains white it’s still a little too much. It helps to cut the ivory with some tan to better match an aged, worn white.

The best paint to me, though, remains the original factory paint. Other than replacing missing parts, I haven’t repainted any figures or done any touching up. The dings, scratches and wear marks are what make these figures unique and interesting!

Some Johillco repairs

So that eBay lot of “Britains” figures turned out to be one or two Britains and a bunch of Johillco figures, a copycat company started by a former Britains employee. That’s my mistake, I’m not good enough yet at recognizing Britains from knockoffs in photos.

The Johillco guys aren’t bad figures and I’m not one to turn down a toy soldier in need so I built some new legs for the horses and reattached heads where needed. Here’s some mid-surgery shots.

I’m not sure about the figure below. Maybe it’s another Britains knockoff, but doesn’t seem to be Britains or Johillco. With Britains, the presence of a mustache and painted reins on the horse shows its pre-war. So this figure is probably pretty old and I didn’t have any other similar figures to model new legs. For now, he’s in the repair drawer until I can find out more.

40mm Britains-style figure

While Little Wars should be properly played with 54mm figures, the solid figures I can cast are impervious to toy cannon-fired projectiles. So here’s my attempt at making a metal figure large enough for the H.G. Wells aesthetic but light enough to actually fall down under cannon fire.

I think the generic British uniform circa 1900 should be serviceable for a wide variety of units. I’ll paint on some of the uniform details as is the case with vintage Britains figures.

The peg in place of the head will hold a rubber plug, both leaving much of the chest hollow and allowing for a variety of separately-cast plug heads. We’ll see how this casts, paints up and, hopefully, falls over.

Casting history and a new project

Every so often I’ll read through the Little Wars book by H.G. Wells. An area library had a copy of it that I checked out frequently as a kid, along with The Art of the Toy Soldier which had beautiful photos of Britains and other antique figures.

That fostered an urge to do a proper Little Wars game – lots of metal figures and the Britains 4.7 naval guns that fire wood or metal projectiles. While the old Britains figures can be had online, it seems irresponsible to bash around pieces of history. And new Britains-style figures are outrageously expensive.

So I’ll be giving more thought how to make this happen. In the meantime, I found an interesting video of production at the Britains factory.

There’s a few shots of workers actually casting figures. You can see them pour metal from the mold – that was William Britain’s hollow casting method. Rather than a heavy and expensive solid figure, you got a skin of metal that captures all the exterior detail. Workers would pour in the metal and pour out the liquid core before it could harden solid.

That left holes in the final casting which you can find on Britains figures – there are two in the back legs of a mounted officer that I have.

From my limited research on the topic, you need metal molds for the hollow casting method.

What I want to find are some antique Britains molds. There must be some floating around, right?