When working with fine or coarse sand as well as pigments I often had the problem that the traditional PVA and water method did not quite yield the results I was after: A natural, matt look that does not require painting and preserves colour variations in the sand, so that drybrushing is not necessary.
It follows a series of tests of this product on a number of finer and coarser sands as well as experiments to depict ripples on a dune.
What is it?
The Gravel and Sand fixer is a water-clear liquid, with alcohol being the solvent for the glue. Unfortunately there is no further information on the bottle, so it remains a mystery what exactly is in it.
The content smells faintly of rubbing alcohol and I would suggest to not inhale deeply with your nose over the bottle. However, the smell does not fill the whole room when working with it and I did not encounter a headache or irritation of my eyes, which can happen when working with more aggressive solvents for an extended period of time. If you want to be super careful work close to an open window or wear a respirator, but I don’t think this is necessary.
The liquid is as thin as water and if applied to sand it is absorbed immediately. This also implies that a syringe or pipette is the perfect tool to apply the fixer, but a brush works well, too. Clean your device every couple of minutes with water, so that the glue does not solidify and blocks it up. The fixer can also be sprayed through an airbrush, which works well and does not destroy it if you clean it immediately after use with airbrush cleaner.
Does it work?
In short: Yes, it works like a spell. You simply apply sand where you want it, in the thickness you want it, shape it if necessary and then apply the liquid. Let dry. Boom, done!
After application the sand seems to change its colour, as it darkens, but this will revert to its original look after the fixer is fully cured.
I feel after drying there is a slight difference in colour, but not as much as would be the case with PVA. The result is also very matt and this is in my opinion quite an advantage when compared to PVA. Finally, the thickness of the application was in some sections about 2-3mm and the fixer penetrated and fixed all of it. With PVA one often has to apply it multiple times to fix everything in place.
All patches hold up to rubbing and scrubbing, even a fingernail can not easily dig into the sand. The two last patches on the right, that is the coarse sand and the pebbles do not hold up too well to vigorous scrubbing and will become loose. Here PVA or any other glue will perform better.
What about even finer pigment powders? The fixer performs also very well when applied to those.
The final result might be a bit darker than before application, but the fine texture has been preserved and a nice matt finish could be achieved.
Lines in the sand
Finally I got a bit adventurous and tried my hand at a sand ripples effect common on the slopes of sand dunes. I put some fine deco sand and light pigment powder on a piece of scrap styrene and, using a ball tip tool, inscribed fine lines in the sand. I did repeat this until a reasonably deep line had formed and carefully dropped the fixer on.
As you can see with the very fine sand it is difficult to not have artifacts caused by the droplets themselves, so the best way to avoid this might be to not let the drops fall onto the sand, but rather get so close that they are directly absorbed, beginning on the corners and applying more glue to the already wet areas until the entire piece is covered.
After an hour or so I did spray the piece with some light sand spray paint and applied a red-brown wash to bring out the lines a bit more. I could see this working well as an alternative to sculpting the lines and then applying sand, if shallow lines are the goal. If one sculpts the lines first in clay or polyfiller, the top layer of sand could be fixed with this product to preserve the rounded slopes the sand naturally forms.
The sand dune pictured below uses the latter technique and was a first attempt at using the gravel fixer to achieve such an effect. While I am not entirely happy with the shape of the ripples I would say that this method is very promising and worthwhile of further investigation.
My attempt to airbrush the fixer on produced mixed results. For the fine sand one cannot come too close or the airflow will blow it all away, but when spraying from a distance the fixer only affects some parts of the sand and forms little clumps. With coarser, heavier sand or as a top coat on already fixed sand to prevent it from rubbing off, it will work very well, however.
At 14.99 NZ Dollars for 100ml the Sand and Gravel fixer is not cheap, but especially for basing and small dioramas it will last for a while. For bigger terrain pieces you can surely end up using half a bottle for a piece (the sand dune measuring approx. 30cm by 20cm can be covered nicely with half a bottle). I would say this is still reasonable, especially if you have only some soil showing through were the matt finish is important. At other places PVA will suffice.
The AK Interactive Gravel and Sand Fixer is a good product that is not a must buy, but comes in very handy when a matt, natural finish is important and a convenient product, that does not require premixing, is required. The ability to topcoat pieces with an airbrush is an added bonus.
The main advantage lies in the properties of the fixer, that is being absorbed quickly in the sand and fixing it in its current shape. While this is possible with PVA, it is more tedious and requires much more time.
I would thus recommend the fixer to people who work a lot with dry pigments, soils and sand, where preserving the colour and texture is important. At 14.99 NZ Dollars the product is cheap enough to give it a go and I think you won’t regret it.