Dying Cotton Balls for Wargaming Smoke

by | May 20, 2013 | How To

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In my previous post on making flame markers for knocked out tanks I used Woodland Scenics clump foliage fall mix to make pretty good looking flames.  I felt that they really needed some smoke to cap them off.

Dying Cotton Balls for Wargaming Smoke

Bruning Modern Tank 2

A tank burning on the battlefield

Smoke rising from a modern battlefield varies between dirty, black, thick and oily and dirty, black and wispy, depending on what the fuel is that is burning.  Nasty looking stuff either way and difficult as hell to capture with a static model, which would explain the number of different ways of representing it on the wargaming table, most involving painting up some soft material.  My question was why paint if the material can just inherently be the color?  The flame markers I made from the pre-colored clump foliage came out pretty well, why not use some pre-colored material to add some smoke?

I chose Rit dye because it is available in pretty much every grocery store I have been in in the ‘States.  It runs about $3 per box, which will not break the bank.  I picked up both brown and black.  The oily smoke I’ve seen has been such a dark brown as to be nearly indistinguishable from black.  So my initial intention was to dye the cotton as dark a brown as possible.  However, the dark brown dye is not dark and nasty enough on its own, so some black is needed.  For most of us, a box of each will be a lifetime supply.


Danger of Using Dye

Dye for Cotton Ball Smoke

Dye for Cotton Ball Smoke

Normally I don’t bother with warnings about not poking yourself with Xacto knives etc., but dying isn’t in the normal box of tricks of wargamers, so here are a few things to keep in mind.  Care to guess what will happen to your clothing if you splash dye on it?  That’s right, you’ll instantly acquire a set of work clothes because it does not wash out.  It is dye after all…  It will also stain wood working surfaces, and probably anything else that is porous.

Why am I not just using normal hobby paints or inks?  Because dye is specifically formulated to color clothing fibers and I want my smoke to _be_ a dark, nasty brown/black and not be painted a nasty brown/black.  If I want to add other effects to my smoke, I can always paint them on later.

How to Use Dye with Cotton Balls

The Rit website, not surprisingly, has a guide to get the most out of their dye.  Of course, their instructions tell you how to dye three yards of cloth, not a half dozen or so cotton balls.  Here are the instructions for such a small batch of dye.

  1. Do not obey the instructions on how to open the box.  If you open it as they tell you you will not have a box left to store your leftover dye.  Open one end of the box and don’t tear it along the edge where they tell you to.
    Suitable Container to Dye Cotton Balls

    Suitable Container to Dye Cotton Balls

  2. Get a small container to mix up your dye.  I used a small plastic container that I got from the grocery store when I picked up some prepared food.  The container should hold more than a cup (~240 ml) of liquid with room to spare.
  3. Boil some water.  The optimal temperature is around 140ºF (60ºC), but I only know water at three temperatures:  frozen, tap, and boiling.  So put the kettle on and boiled some water, made myself a cup of tea (Tippy Assam with a dollop of honey if you want to know), and then assumed that the water had cooled down to 140º.
  4. Put one-quarter teaspoon (~5 ml) of dye into your container, add a pinch of black dye into your container (~1-3 ml) then add about one-quarter cup (~60 ml) of the hot water.  Re-read the part I wrote about the danger of using dye, then stir.
  5. Once all the dye has dissolved, add the remaining three-quarters cup (~180 ml) of water.
  6. Drop in your cotton balls.  I used seven in this example.  This number was scientifically chosen as the most I could steal from my wife’s makeup supply without getting caught.  Given that you could compress the balls and they would probably dye just as well, you could probably back up the truck and squeeze many more into this small batch of dye.  It is not necessary that the cotton balls remain fully immersed, but do make sure that they at least get a good dunking.
  7. Let everything sit for an hour.  Set the dye someplace out of the way, and I mean really out of the way.  You don’t want anybody to accidentally tip the dye, and The Wife will not be pleased under any circumstances should she get dye on herself.
  8. IN THE SINK, pluck the cotton balls out of the dye bath.  (Have I mentioned enough times to be careful not to splash yet?  No?)  Be careful not to splash when you do this.  See the danger of using dye section above for why.
    Cotton Ball Dying Rinsing Container

    Cotton Ball Dying Rinsing Container

  9. Rinse the cotton balls in warm water until the water runs clear.  I had an old metal wire colander since my college days that would have been perfect but it seems to have disappeared (a SWMBO purge?), so I used the plastic mesh bag that held a bunch of oranges and turns out to be perfect.
  10. Rinse the cotton balls in cold water until the water runs clear (or, since it will run clear from the first instant, just a short period of time).
  11. Gently wash the cotton balls in a bath of warm water with just a drop of laundry detergent.  Be warned, this has the side effect of dispelling the magic spell cast at the cotton ball factory and your cotton balls will lose their independence and become a cotton blob.  It can be teased apart if you are careful, or you may want to wash them one at a time.
  12. Rinse the cotton balls in cool water.
  13. Set the cotton balls out to dry, and have a beer.  Actually you’d better get a bunch of beer.  See below for comments on drying.
  14. Inspect your work.


Drying your Dyed Cotton Balls

Dyed Dried Cotton Balls

Dried, dyed cotton balls.  Yes they look like – nevermind.

How hard can drying dyed cotton balls be?  If you have all week it’s no problem – well, actually it might be.  My dyed cotton balls took better than two days to dry out.  The most effective way I found was to put the cotton balls on a paper towel and let the paper towel wick the moisture out of them.  I tried direct sunlight, a fan and even the microwave.  The paper towel wicking the water out worked best.

WARNING:  Just because you’ve made it to the drying stage doesn’t mean that your dyed cotton balls can no longer ruin your life!  I put the wet, dyed cotton balls on a piece of wood to dry and they stained the wood.  When I put them on the paper towel to dry some of the color leached out into the paper towel.  So don’t lay them directly onto your brand new kitchen counter.  You have been warned.

Making Smoke with the Dyed Cotton Balls

Flame Marker with Dyed Cotton Smoke

Flame Marker with Dyed Cotton Smoke

Now that your cotton balls are the right color, it is just a matter of shaping them as you will.  The techinques generally used on the internet involve teasing the ball into another shape.  For wispy smoke, involves using a small coin as a base (a penny in the US) to which a cotton ball is glued, then the top of the ball is carefully tugged into a wisp of smoke.  If you’d like to add flames you can go ahead and paint those on.  I think my technique is better. (Ego on the internet?  No way!)

The dyed cotton balls will be much more dense than they were out of the package, but this doesn’t affect what you can do with them.  It will take a bit more effort, but just take your time and tease the wisps out and the results will be smashing.  (Yeah baby!)

Personally, I’m going to be adding a smoke effect to the clump-foliage flame markers I made last week.  In fact, the first attempt turned out so well I could not help but post a photo to the right.

Dying cotton balls is an easy project to do.  Just watch out with the dye because – okay, okay.  I’ve said it enough times…

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