Getting That Gritty Star Wars Look

If there’s one thing I could point to that makes the Star Wars aesthetic so unique is its gritty, lived-in quality. So, as a photographer of Star Wars toys, it should come as no surprise that I’ve started to experiment with achieving that look myself.

I’m certainly not the only photographer to weather my toys. So this isn’t anything new – just new to me. As a collector, a bit of a purist, and someone with a touch of anxiety and OCD, I used to shudder at the thought of scuffing up my action figures, especially permanently! Sure, it could help with a particular photo, but what if I don’t want that same look next time? Did I just “ruin” my figure?

I’ll admit that I haven’t conquered this anxiety completely, but I have finally started giving a choice few of my toys that gritty Star Wars look. My first test subjects: The fantastic line of Star Wars spaceships from Hotwheels that I recently wrote about.

While I think they’re a great way to achieve good starship photography, their major limitation is their lack of detail, despite a pretty good sculpt. Since I was attempting photorealism, I found it difficult to light and shoot them in a satisfactory way. 

Not quite the “hunk of junk” we’re used to…

I’d heard that shoe polish can be effective for weathering toys, and that it wasn’t as permanent as something like paint. Two birds, one stone.

Method 1: Shoe Polish Paste

I tried two types of shoe polish, both found at the grocery store for less than $5 a piece. The first was a paste, which typically comes in a little round tin can. I found this a bit tiresome to use; it was a bit flaky and it left a thin residue, coating the ship rather than staining it. On the plus side, this actually helped it settle into the various crevices, bringing out the details.

Method 2: Liquid Shoe Polish

The second method I tried, and the one I preferred most, was liquid shoe polish. I used an old makeup brush to “paint” it onto the ship, then wiped away the excess. I then used a blue Sharpie to paint in the blue dome of an Astromech droid.

I tried paying special attention to certain areas, like around the engines and guns, and on the wings. The X-Wing was my first test subject, and I went a bit heavier than I intended, but I’m extremely happy with the result, especially once I got the ship in front of my lens!

In the end, I was so happy with the results that I weathered all of the ships currently in my collection. In addition to the X-Wing, my favorite result was the Millennium Falcon, which absolutely needs that gritty Star Wars look.

“Punch it!”

All in all, I’m extremely happy with how this experiment went, and have already begun trying it out on other toys, like some of my Black Series Star Wars figures. I think I’ll still be anxious about doing permanent alterations, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Have you ever weathered your toys? What method did you use, and what were the results? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

-James

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Weathered and ready for action!

12 Comments

  1. Wow, great effects, James! I’ll remember liquid shoe polish! Although I must say I have the same issues with permanently weathering my toys as you do. So for now, I use graphite and/or charcoal (from pencils) – it is more dusty but if you first rub it on your fingers and then touch your toys it gives a nice ‘smear.’ I usually appply this method when I build something from wood or paper. I yet have to try it with plastics.

  2. Molly A. Selan

    Totally love the liquid shoe polish look! You were very brave – not sure if I can do that just yet… I’m still a little uncomfortable with my minifigs bouncing against each other in my little containers.

  3. The best part about shoe polish is that you can actually wash it off if you need to. 😀 I’ve been doing this since I saw a custom ML First Ten Years Iron Man custom on IG. I tried it and have had great success. Mega Construx figures look excellent weathered this way. I feel this is probably THE most reliable weathering tool for toys. using silver spraypaint as a drybrush is good when applied along with the shoe polish to achieve newer looking dings.

    • Yes! The ability to wash it off is what initially drew me to shoe polish. If I didn’t like the result or changed my mind, no harm no foul. I love that silver spray paint idea, I’ll have to give that a try sometime!

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