The Tungsten Powder Experiment

A few days ago, I was looking for ways to weigh down the bases of my plastic Tyranid Genestealer models. The main problem with them (and some of the other Tyranid models, such as the Hormagaunts) was that the base size wasn’t in proportion to the size of the figure. As a result, these models have a tendency to faceplant on angled surfaces, or be knocked over easily because their center of gravity is too high and too far away from the center of the base for optimum stability. So, the bases needed to be weighted somehow.

The nice thing about Games Workshop slottabases is that they’re hollow on the bottom, and that concavity is handy for filling with something heavy. The unslotted versions are very easy to weigh down–all you have to do is glue something like an US penny to the underside. The slotted version that my Genestealers came with, however, has walls that partition the concavity into three areas, so you’d have to saw the penny into odd-sized bits to fit within these “compartments”.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do with my time than spending an hour defacing US Government property with a hacksaw and a vise just to keep my little plastic army men from falling over. My second instinct was to buy some small lead shot in the #9 to #12 range, and use cyanoacrylate gel to fix the shot into place.

After 20 minutes of consulting with Professor Google, I came to the conclusion that spending $50 for a giant sack of lead shot was something of a non-starter, as I only needed a small amount. So, I switched the focus of the search to “lead powder”. I mean, some chemistry lab somewhere would sell the stuff, right? Shortly after I had that idea, however, I realized that lead powder is a fairly nasty substance that I don’t particularly want to breathe in or get all over my fingers.

Fortunately, one of the hits was for tungsten powder, which is quite a bit less toxic, and is used by golf club makers to adjust the weight of golf clubs. I ordered an 8-ounce can of the stuff from Golfsmith, which was on sale for about $16 at the time, and it just arrived today.

Now for some observations. I was extremely pleased to see how finely ground this stuff was. I was expecting to see a pile of coarsely ground and snaggly metal crumbs that looked like iron filings, but this stuff is extremely fine and smooth, in a very dark gray color with just a hint of metallic shine:

The next step was to try it out and see how it worked. I decided to make a paste using a small amount of PVA glue as the binder, so I scrounged up some empty cap to use as a mixing palette, some of my Elmer’s craft glue, and one of my sculpting spatulas:

I squeezed out a blob of PVA glue about the size of a penny into the cap, then spooned in a spatula’s worth of tungsten powder to start the mix. Initially, the mix will be very fluid, like pancake syrup. This is okay, as we want to focus on getting a good initial emulsion first.

Once the mix is an uniform shade of dark grey, add another spatula’s worth of tungsten powder and continue mixing until it thickens to about the consistency of a sticky cookie dough, which is almost where we want it. Next, scrape the blob off the spatula and drop it into the jar of tungsten powder. Give it a good roll around, like you’re coating a sugar cookie. The objective here is to get as much metal into the mix as possible, and to give the glue a bit of time to thicken nicely.

Remove the blob from the jar after the initial sugar-coating, then roll and knead it with your fingers to expose more sticky bits. When the blob feels sticky again, give it another roll around in the powder jar. Repeat until the blob is of an uniform, rubbery, ever-so-slightly tacky consistency like Silly Putty, and it no longer sticks to your fingers in little separate bits and pieces. This is exactly the consistency we want for the next step.

Tear the blob into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. The bigger of the two goes into the larger concavity in the slottabase, and the smaller one goes in the second concavity. Squish them into place with a clay shaper, sculpting tool, or spatula, making sure the blobs are packed into the slottabase as tightly as possible. This is what you should end up with:

The reason I chose to use PVA as the binder is because it is a naturally flexible and nontoxic substance that dries relatively quickly, and goofs are very easy to clean up before the mix solidifies, and if it dries on your fingers, it’s in a rubbery form that’s easy to just peel off. The PVA-based putty is also very clean and easy to work with. I can’t say the same about stinky 2-part liquid epoxies or cyanoacrylate glue, and I didn’t want to use sculpting putty because I wanted the binder to be a viscous liquid rather than a resinous solid.

Next, I compared a weighted and non-weighted figure to see what kind of stability improvement I could expect. I was pleased to find that the tungsten putty mix lends a significant amount of stability and a little bit of extra heft to the weighted figure, making it much more difficult to knock down or accidentally displace than the unweighted figure.

At $19.99 USD for an 8-ounce quantity, this stuff is not cheap. However, the amount in the jar seems like a lifetime supply considering how little of it was actually used in the process, so I think I can safely do all of the slottabases in my collection and still have plenty of the stuff left over.

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