Painting a toy gun to serve as a steampunk prop is probably one of most common projects for people who are new to steampunk (and plenty who aren't new.) But I've been seeing a lot of photos around the internet of steampunk guns with paint jobs that are...well, half-assed. I see a lot of what I assume are guns that were taken outside and coated with one color of spray paint, or that were broken down and different components were spray painted a couple of colors. That can be a good starting point, but I don't think it makes for a very attractive finished object.
So that's why I wanted to write up this tutorial, because I realize people just may not know how to make their guns look cooler. Of course, painting guns is not my primary type of crafting. It's been over a year since I painted anything, but I did do several guns when I first got into steampunk, and I think I got pretty good at it. I also benefited from attending a gun painting panel led by my friends in Airship Isabella, so I have to shout out to them. I also don't get into more heavy-duty modding that involves cutting, reshaping, or adding to the gun. I stick with painting and then maybe gluing some stuff to it.
Why are we taking the gun apart anyway? To paint more easily. There are places you won't be able to paint with the gun still assembled, places that will show.
Step Two: Sand off any raised writing. That includes the company logo and safety warnings. It's easiest to use a dremel-type tool with sanding attachment. Or you can sand it by hand, which will take longer. If you really don't want to sand it, you can plan to cover those parts with something that you will glue on later.
Step Three: Clean the gun. Your sanding has left a lot of debris on the gun, plus there is always oil from the hands of anyone who's played with it. Even brand new guns usually have some sort of oil or coating on their surface from the factory. These things will all prevent paint from sticking to the gun, so you have to get rid of them. Remove the dust and debris first with a swiffer cloth or wet cloth. Then you want to clean the surface of the gun with rubbing alcohol to get rid of any oil or coatings. Let the gun dry to insure all the alcohol has evaporated before painting.
Step Four: Spray with primer. Don't skip this step! Lay all your gun pieces (except pieces that are purely internal) flat in an outdoors area. Spray with primer lightly, avoiding any drips or pooling by keeping your coats light. Better to do a couple of thin coats than one thick one. I use regular spray paint primer in black. I prefer black because if the surface paint wears away anywhere, it looks more natural for black to show through. Also when you can glimpse the inside of the gun, like down the barrel, black looks appropriate. I've heard that some people use the "Fusion" brand of spray paint because it is supposed to bond permanently with plastic, but I prefer primer. It creates a better surface for painting, and gets away from the shiny plastic texture.
Rub n' Buff. It's a wax-based finish that comes in a bunch of metallic colors. I like the look of it as a base coat because it creates a metallic finish that is shiny but not plastic-shiny. You can apply Rub n' Buff with your finger or with a brush. For large areas or fine detail a brush is probably the easiest, although you will probably ruin your brush because it doesn't just wash out. Use a stiff, cheap brush.
You can also use acrylic paint. My husband prefers acrylics because they are easier to paint fine detail with, are cheap, and come in a lot of different colors. Acrylics will take several coats to cover evenly. But so far we haven't noticed acrylics being any less durable than other choices, so long as you seal them at the end. On this gun I use acrylics for the brown wood color and the metallic green.
Now, what colors to paint everything? Obviously this is where your artistic vision comes in. I tend to choose colors as I go, deciding on what I want the largest parts to be and then deciding on each section as I come to it. I recommend you think about what each part of the gun would be made out of and then paint it accordingly. Materials that might be used in a steampunk gun include: brass, copper, steel, iron, wood, glass, sci-fi glowy power sources and gold or silver inlay. So, get all your parts painted with a base color.
Step 6: Add detail painting.
Unless you're a really great artist, this will probably be really simple. But if you are handy with a brush, you can really embellish at this point by adding decorative flourishes. For me, this step involved taking a very fine brush and painting back the black into all the crevices to make the details pop. If you are careful in your base coat, you can leave the deep crevices black by not getting any paint in them, but that went out the window pretty quickly for me. I found it easier to paint them black again than avoid them entirely.
You don't have to have a wildly steady hand for this. Get black acrylic paint into the crevice, and then wipe off the excess from the surface. It sometimes leaves a blackish smear, but that adds to the general aging we are going to do next. It's ok if the black line isn't perfect, either. What we are going for is an aged, imperfect look. That's what gives the weapon reality and provides some suspension of disbelief so people can wonder where you got the awesome gun instead of just saying, "Oh, it's a spray-painted super soaker."
You can also add secondary layers of color to certain areas. I painted some lines of darker brown over my brown areas to hopefully create a wood-grain effect.
Step 7: Touch up any mistakes or sloppy edges. Make sure you look at it from all angles so you don't miss any areas. You want to get all your details clean and neat before we move on the next step: messing them up.
This is not an overly complicated step. I use Rub n' Buff in "Spanish Copper" for my dirt. It doesn't actually look copper. It's a dark brown with very slight metallic sheen. But it's the perfect color, and more importantly the perfect texture for dirt. Smear it on your fingers and get to dirty-ing. The technique takes a little practice. Don't apply too much or when it's too wet or you'll just get smears of paint, which is not what we want. Rub it into your finger first and the very lightly apply it along edges and in crevices. I usually apply with one finger and then smear and rub it in with another finger. This is not precision work, as it should look organic.
I also experimented a bit with the Rub n' Buff in "Patina" which is a greenish blue the color of aged copper. Since I had a lot of coppery parts of this gun I added touches of the patina. It's pretty subtle, but I think it worked ok. One of these days I may try doing a heavily patina-ed piece.
Step 9: Spray with sealant. Once you are happy with all your painting, take your gun parts back outside and add a layer of spray sealant. What you use is somewhat up to your taste. For a lot of things I use an crystal clear acrylic spray with UV protection. It offers good protection. But for guns sometimes you don't want the gloss that comes from a gloss clear coat. It can make the gun look plastic-y again, which is what we've been trying to avoid. On the other hand a matte coat can take away all the shine. So in this case I used a satin product. You definitely want to use something to protect your gun to keep any of your paint from rubbing or chipping away.
Step 10: Reassemble. One of the trickier steps. Reference your photos and take things a piece at a time. Sometimes thick coats of paint can interfere with the function of the gun. I've mostly found that it makes the action work a little less smoothly, but it's possible you might need to sand some paint away in areas that won't show to improve the movement. On the other hand, you might not care if your gun works.
Step 11: Add any embellishments with glue. This is an optional step. You certainly don't have to add anything to your gun, but some guns seem to call out for SOMETHING in certain places. On this one, I definitely wanted to add something to the flat area where the Nerf logo used to be. What you add just depends on what you have handy. Gears, gauges, filigree, vacuum tubes, go wild! For these kinds of things (metal and plastic), the best glue in my opinion is E6000.
Here's a different gun, this one painted by my husband. We have very different crafting personalities. He is about precision and painstaking detail work. I am about "close enough" and spreading the dirt around. He didn't let me dirty up this gun because he spent too much time getting all the fine details perfect. Almost all of the paint on this gun is acrylic, except for a couple of areas of hammered spray paint (that we weren't too happy with.) It's traveled with us to several events, so I don't see acrylic being any less durable than other paints.
This just goes to show that there isn't any one right way to paint a gun, so long as you are willing to put in the time and effort to make your gun as realistic looking as you can.