Action Figure Customizing 101

This was originally written in the last week of 2005, but I recently found the text AND photos again, and I thought it would be nice to have this back on the website. 15 years later, I think this holds up pretty well as a starter guide, but definitely do some more web searching for all the advances in action figure customization that have been learned by the customizing community at large! Enjoy!

The first part to making custom figures is to decide what figure you’re going to make. Since I’ve never made an animated-style figure before, I decided to begin with a simple character design.

“Animated-style,” by the way, refers to the style made famous by Bruce Timm, when he designed characters for Warner Bros. Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. This style was continued into the other Batman cartoons, The Adventures of Batman & Robin, and The New Batman Adventures, as well as the later series Superman: The Animated Series, Batman: Beyond, Justice League, and, most recently, Justice League: Unlimited. To a lesser extent, similar designs are used in the Kids WB!/Cartoon Network cartoon series Static Shock, which has had guest appearances by members of the Justice League and Batman casts.
So, as far as superhero costume designs go, they don’t get much simpler than the outfit worn by the X-Men’s Cyclops, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Cyke had pretty much straight blue spandex, with yellow trunks, gloves, and cuffed boots, that plastic, yellow visor with a red lens, and a red belt, with a yellow-and-black “X” logo design. His mouth and nose were visible, while the rest of his head was covered in the blue spandex.

So, the first thing you’ll need when making a custom action figure is what’s known as a “base” figure. This is the figure that you start with, to turn into another figure. Since the Animated-style figures are all pretty close to the same in sculpt and build, there’s not much difference in whom you select. Sure, some figures are thinner than others, but otherwise, they’re all essentially the same. When you’re selecting figures that are essentially all the same, it’s the minor details that are important. For Cyclops’ base figure, I opted to use the Justice League Unlimited Red Tornado figure. I used Red Tornado for one simple reason: Like Cyclops, he has boot cuffs.

The first thing I had to do was remove Red Tornado’s cape. It was attached to his shoulders by two plugs that I needed to cut with my X-Acto knife. And so, I did.

This left stubs of cape remaining on Tornado’s shoulders. I cut off the stubs with my X-Acto knife, which left a couple of holes. To solve this problem, I filled the holes in with Sculpey. 

There’s actually a bit of debate over what product is best to use for re-sculpting figures. Some people swear by Super Sculpey. Others will only use Epoxy putty. Some folk claim that Milliput is the best. 

Personally, I use Sculpey III. I read on some customizing board that it was all this one random dude used, and when I went to Michael’s, there it was. So I bought it, tried it, and I’ve been using it ever since. But you should experiment and find what works best for you!

Next, I needed to sculpt Cyclops’ visor. I used the same sculpey that I did for the shoulders. When i got to this stage, I noticed that Red Tornado was a better choice than I had initially thought – Tornado’s got little knob-things over his ears, just like Cyke’s visor has. This extra bit of detail was an added bonus.

The arrow design in Red Tornado’s head was also lightly engraved in place, so I had to fill those lines in with sculpey, as well.

Next, I noticed that Tornado wasn’t wearing a belt. Cyclops did, however. For this, I went to one of my new favorite customizing materials: Electrical tape. Rather than try and sculpt a perfectly even belt out of Sculpey, I used a straight-edge (in this case, a geometry triangle) and my X-Acto knife to cut a thin piece of electrical tape, and wrapped it around Tornado’s waist. I placed the tape in such a way that it connected at his side, right over the seam where the two halves of the torso connected, where it would be the least-noticeable.

The next part of the process is to heat the Sculpey. Some clays will harden on their own if left out overnight, but Sculpey won’t. You’ve got to bake that stuff. Or boil it. Both methods run the risk of seriously melting the plastic that makes up the figure (actually, boiling is pretty safe, and it cleans the figure off, too. But it would also remove the electrical tape, in which case you’d want to do that part afterwards).

Make note that different types of clays will take different methods to harden. Read their directions, carefully, before attempting anything.

Since I only had a small area of Sculpey to work with, I felt it was safe to use a lighter to heat up and harden the Sculpey. Direct flame can certainly get pretty hot.

And, as you can see in the image, here, it worked. So well, in fact, that it burned part of the visor, and the sculpey bubbled a bit. No matter – A bit of sanding, and it was good to go. Now that the figure is all sculpted properly, next comes the paint.

I began with a thin coat of blue paint. And I mean thin. If you look closely at this photo, you can still see the “T” logo on the figure’s chest.

If there’s one thing I learned in my 7th grade wood shop class, it’s that thin coats of paint are better than thick ones. My teacher explained that 5 thin coats will always be superior than one thick one. So, the less paint you apply to a figure at a time, the better it will hold, and the less-noticeable your brushstrokes will be. There won’t be any drips on the figure, and if any paint chips off, it’ll only take a tiny bit of paint to touch up, and won’t leave any “craters.”

I noticed at this point that the sculpey on the shoulders wasn’t as smooth as I would’ve liked, so I sanded them back down. This brings up another point: Some people will tell you that you should invest in some primer, and I can’t say I disagree with them. Primer is a coating (usually off-white or grey) that will let you see the figure in a very neutral way. There will be no coloring distorting your view, and you can see the figure’s sculpt for what it really is. This was a fairly simple project, so I decided to skip the primer. Your mileage may vary.

So, now I’ve sanded down the shoulders, and re-painted the blue. I also ran a coat of white paint over where I was planning to paint yellow. Yellow is one of those colors that necessitates several coats, especially when covering a bright color like blue or red. This is actually another argument in favor of the use of primer, particularly the lighter shades that are closer to white: All colors painted over primer will come out pure, and lighter colors like yellow will be easier to work with.

At this point, I went to bed. This let the paint cure overnight, and it meant I wasn’t working while tired, so I’d be less likely to make mistakes. After I woke up the next morning, I added the last few colors:

I should probably mention at this point that I use acrylic paints. Typically, I’ll use either Folkart or Apple Barrel brand paints, though that’s not for any particular reason. They just happen to be the brands my local Michael’s stocks.

Thinking I was close to being done, I jokingly put the figure in the Justice League Green Lantern’s box.

Unfortunately, I accidentally dropped Cyke’s face right on some blue paint after this shot, so I had to repaint him, slightly. That was actually a bit of a blessing in disguise, because I feel he looks a little bit sharper, now.

Noticing that I couldn’t get the “X” on his belt very even with paint, I decided to cut a small piece of electrical tape, and paint a yellow box inside it. I then drew the “X” logo with an Ultra Fine-tip Sharpie marker. It ended up looking to be about the same quality in the photos, but it looks much better in real life, I promise you.

And here he is packaged:

So, now you’ve got a pretty brief tutorial on how to make your own figures. Of course, this is just a simple, quick-start guide. There are other techniques out there!