Nuclear Snail: What I Learned in 5 Years

Nuclear Snail’s Mega Update Summary 2020

This is a mega update on everything I’ve learned since I’ve started my channel regarding the topic of distressing and weathering. I will also answer all of your frequently asked questions.


  1. Some of these techniques can be dangerous so please use caution. You are responsible for your own actions. Don’t do anything that you think might hurt you. Everything is at your own risk.
  2. I will be showing some products I bought. These were not sponsored or discounted for me. I will tell you what kind of product it is & you can use the general name to find one in your country.

My General Philosophy of Distressing

You can skip this section if you understand this already but a lot of people obviously don’t, which is why this comes up again and again. The question I get all the time is “How to distress X.” 

X is usually a very specific kind of item, like a metal airsoft gun, a leather jacket, a fake leather jacket, a type of fabric, etc. I get where this is coming from.

People are afraid to make a mistake & sure, a couple of things that can go wrong. But for the most part, the way I deal with almost anything is my universal formula, which can be modified for your specific item or material. (We will touch on some special cases later.)

Nuclear Snail’s Universal Formula

  • Mechanical Abrasion (ie general distressing using abrasives)
  • Paint
  • Dust
  • “Fat” on fabric, or “Buffing” on hard surfaces (ie adding character to high-contact areas)

What is Mechanical Distressing?

Mechanical distressing is using mechanical abrasion to damage the surface or top layer. You will usually apply some sort of mechanical distressing using these tools:

  • Serrated knives
  • Various types of rasps
  • Sanding grid
  • Sandpaper
  • Abrasive pad
  • Wire brush
  • The Shredder
  • Concrete floor

I also use this thing called a power file. Only use it if you’re 100% comfortable with it because it is dangerous. This is actually not designed by the manufacturer to work on fabric, so you are responsible for your own actions.

It’s just like a regular file but it’s motorized. It’s essentially a mini belt sander. (Never ever ever use a full-size belt sander to work with fabrics at all.) 

The power file is very fast & I use it for a lot of things, but especially leather. It’s been a long time since I dragged a leather jacket behind a car (if you saw my funny video from years ago).

For leather, you can also use sandpaper in a manual hand sander, or a sanding screen.

In previous video, I used chemicals like alcohol and acetone with a rag to remove the dye, but I don’t anymore. I usually just go to town on leather with this power file. 

Mechanical abrasion is step number one & the one you will be using most of the time. You can solve most of your problems with it.

How to Use Paint to Distress

A lot of people will stress out about what kind of paint to use. These days, I use mostly acrylic. It is less toxic than other kinds of paint, it is cheap & it will stick to metal surfaces. You can also find acrylic spray paint. 

You can spray a coat & let it dry, & then spray another coat in another color and then then sand through the coats with sandpaper for some cool effects.

My favorite paint is fabric paint. I don’t use fabric spray paint. It usually comes in tubes or bottles and it can be either thick or liquidy. 

I already made a how-to video about using it on shirts. It’s called stencil and a post-apocalyptic shirt making of. So follow that video for clothing, especially clothing worn next to your skin. 

Fabric paint sticks really well to fabric but will also stick to non-fabrics. in fact, if you look at these armor parts I’m working on, there is fabric paint. 

It will not be 100% abrasion-resistant but it will stick well enough. You don’t want it to be 100% abrasion-resistant because you want to be able to use abrasives on edges & remove some of the paint.

Avoid Technical Perfection

In dealing with paints or mechanical distressing, we need to keep the big picture in mind. 

Sure, you should always avoid technical mistakes like making something look like it was obviously painted with a brush. But no one ever will notice that your painted distressing effect is not sticking 100%. 

This is why I like using fabric paint for non-fabrics. It will stick well enough and it will flake off in a couple places as you wear your costume, enhancing the post-apocalyptic distressed aesthetic. And you can always do a touch up (which I never do).

So don’t stress too much about technical perfection. This can be especially good advice for people coming from a cosplay or model making background where your paint jobs needs to be pristine and stick really well. None of that perfectionism applies to post-apocalyptic distressing. Do not stress about it. Just do it!

How to Use Dust

In my first video, I talked about getting dirt from a construction site, chucking it on your stuff and then fixing it with clear spray paint. I do it in a much more efficient way now. 

Now, I use film dust, also known as theater dust. You can search for it online & find some in your country. 

It is really fine dust which will stick much better than dirt from a construction site. But if you like using coarse sand, that’s up to you.

So a great way to apply that dust is what’s called a pesticide duster. Obviously, you want to use it only for dust, not pesticide.

My process is still the same – you spray your clear spray paint onto your object and then you just squeeze this a couple times to shoot the dust. 

The pesticide duster is a really simple design made by many manufacturers & is easy to use. You add some dust inside the rubber bulb and when you squeeze, a mixture of air and dust come out.

A little goes a long way. What I do now is put my items in a large bin for dusting. Whatever dust doesn’t stick, I brush out and return to my dust container for re-use. The dust is not expensive & it’s a great investment.

Use a Respirator!

again do not breathe it in using mask do it outside in a well ventilated area and this just dissipates the dust Nicely so I do my dusting like this and by the way this film or theater dust

And important point and it makes common sense – use a respirator when working with dust, as well as spray paint, or anytime you are generating dust when using mechanical abrasion techniques, such as on fabric. 

Make sure your respirator has a good filter. I’m not a health expert or occupational hazard expert but just get as high of a grade filter as you can bear and make sure you get a good seal. Beards might make creating a seal more challenging, so adjust your straps if needed.

How to Simulate Grease or Oily Residue

To simulate the grease that will accumulate over time on costumes, I use leather fat or grease [also known as leather tallow, balm or basalm]. it’s beeswax-based & used as a leather conditioner. 

I usually don’t put it on pants because pants get washed, and I don’t know whether or not this will hold in the washing machine, but it works great for everything else.

It creates a shimmer that is not easy to replicate with dried paint. You will find that it’s a great final layer after the dusting on high-contact areas.

Buffing Hard Surfaces

To simulate wear on high contact areas on metals and other hard surfaces, use fine sandpaper or abrasive cloth. These are available for a hardware store.

If your hard surface item is just covered in dust, then it will look like it was just sitting in a bunker collecting dust forever. But you want a costume that will look like it was worn & lived-in for a long time in the wasteland, with all the fighting, falling over and celebrating.

Buffing & fat add an additional layer of realism.  Not only was your costume destroyed & covered in dust, but it’s also being used while it’s covered in dust.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to Distress a Metal Airsoft Gun

You can use mechanical abrasion & then add some dust and paint, so the same usual formula. One thing you must do in this case is stuff the barrel & mask off any other relevant parts that might allow the paint & dust to get into the inside parts. Otherwise you might affect the functionality of the gun.

How to Distress Fake or Faux Leather

First, let me tell you that fake leather is such a horrible material that I don’t even consider it to exist. It is the worst.

It will tear really easily (in a bad way). It is unpredictable & may disintegrate on its own sometimes after distressing or fall apart at the convention.

It’s uncertain what mechanical or chemical abrasion will do to it. Unlike leather, which has many layers, fake leather is just plastic all the way through.

We can obviously experiment with it & gently start with some mechanical abrasion & see what it does. Other than that, paint & dusting. Go very lightly with mechanical abrasion.

If you can avoid using fake leather, then do so. You will not be happy with it most of the time.

How to Add Wear to Elbows & Knees

This is what I mean by high contact areas. It’s not such a good idea to distress everything to the same degree.

For instance, if you are distressing a t-shirt, do a lot more to the neckline & the cuffs. These areas wear out a lot.

Think about how it would be used in everyday life or in combat and apply more distressing to those areas. If using mechanical abrasion, we’ll end up some threads hanging off. Then, if you go over that with paint, dust & fat, it will look well-worn.

If you go over it with an abrasive in the opposite direction, then you can have some fresh threads hanging off. This is not a good idea most of the time, but it can work well & tell a story when used sparingly.

For tips on how to distress clothes that are worn directly on your skin, please see my video about stencil-making & shirts.

To summarize here, I usually don’t do any fat or dust – just mechanical distressing and then apply some fabric paint. Apply the paint in layers without strokes.

How to Distress Delicate Parts

Gently. Either no mechanical distressing or just gentle mechanical distressing in high-stress areas. Paint is your friend.

This reminds me of advice I gave for distressing a leotard for a post-apocalyptic circus performer. It’s a very gentle fabric you don’t want to rip because it will just disintegrate. Just use paint.

I’m also not a fan of using a lot of structural mechanical distressing on pants. You want to avoid ripping holes in the crotch area, for obvious reasons. This is why I will usually use more paint than mechanical distressing.

I will use some mechanical distressing on pockets & areas that will be less prone to holes enlarging & prematurely ending your clothes’ usability.

How to Weather Visors or Glasses

The question is: how do you weather a mirror lens, or a visor for a mask without obstructing your vision?

Now the way I do this is to weather the outer edges of the lens, while keeping the center clear. In the middle it’s still clear (I can see through) & on the edges there’s a lot of weathering and paint, especially dust.

This actually makes absolute sense because no matter how much stuff flies around and sticks to your glasses, you will be wiping them in the middle to still be able to see.

Another method is to add some scratches all over, even to the parts that you look through, you will still maintain most of your vision.

I’ve never tried it, but a third way is to use one-way reflective foil.

A fourth method is to use mesh, like on airsoft eye protection. Just be careful, because the mesh will not stop all the fragments of airsoft pellets if you play airosft with them.

Something to keep in mind is that in movies, distressed eye wear, or even glowing eyes effects, although they may look great on film, they are not necessarily practical in real life in any way.

How to Weather Metal with Shiny Coatings

All I’m going to say is: use mechanical abrasion. You can use sandpaper for this.

How to Distress Plastics

I would use the same universal formula here: mechanical abrasion, paint & dust. But there is one bonus method to plastics, depending on what kind of plastic.

You can possibly use some chemical compounds that react with the plastic to distress it. For example, acetone will dissolve ABS plastic. You might achieve some cool effects by spraying acetone on it and then dusting all over it.

Of course make sure to wear a mask.

Certain chemicals will react with certain types of plastics & this can make things complicated. This is the reason I believe it is better to use the universal formula. It saves me a lot of time and headache.

I don’t have to go refer to a table of plastic types, what kinds of chemicals to use, or what kind of paint to use. I can just do the same process for almost everything and I’m done fast while you’re researching how to distress plastic with technical perfection. Plus I can avoid the potentially dangerous lab experiments.

How to Make Duct Tape Look Old & Worn without Making It Brittle

I’m not sure what kind of duct tape becomes brittle or how you distress it, but I’d skip mechanical abrasion almost entirely to not compromise its structure & then I would use paint.

How to Distress Nylon

A viewer asked if I ever use a heat gun to distress nylon. For instance, to create burns, or to melt the frayed threads after shredding or cutting.

Well, whenever I have a nylon or a similar material, I will usually start with my power file, serrated knife, or other mechanical distressing method. I will then either leave the threads hanging or I will apply some paint.

I sometimes use my lighter to burn it up. A heat gun might work better since it may be safer & more controllable.

If you are actually going for burnt effect, I have a video about hammer distressing. This plus some paint will create a burnt-looking effect for fabric without actually setting your stuff on fire, which is a horrible idea.

How to Distress Fabrics that Don’t Respond to the Usual Techniques

There are fabrics that are found on military gear & ammo pouches like rip-stop & stretchy fabrics that are hard to break. You can use paint & dirt on those materials.

If it’s hard to get a good look on stretchy fabric because unpainted parts are exposed once stretched, simply stretch it first and then paint it. But you shouldn’t worry too much about imperfections! If it’s not a fabric that would distress in reality, then why stress about it?

For durable fabrics, use more aggressive mechanical abrasion with a saw rasp. Then add paint. If you still don’t like it, up your paint game using more layers & more colors (being careful to choose colors that go well together).

I’ve done this many time on my military pants. I use mostly paint, with some mechanical abrasion here & there.

How to Wash a Distressed Garment

If I have a garment that is worn next to the skin & I plan to wash it regularly, I will only use fabric paint. I want to keep it soft & not overdo the amount of paint on it. Otherwise, it will get stiff and uncomfortable to wear.

If you put a garment like that into the washing machine, it will come out almost the same as it went in. If you want to be extra careful, just wash it by hand or use a delicate washing cycle.

How to Paint Rubber

So far I have just applied the same methods to rubber. There are some specialized rubber paints out there if you want to say, change a green rubber gas mask to red.

I now have advice from Callum to use Plasti Dip, which is a sort of a rubber polymer spray paint. It creates a coat of rubber around an entire piece, such as a gas mask (both sides should be coated).

It’s what cosplayers use to cover EVA foam before painting. Of course, it will not hold 100% either, but people say it works. I’ve never tried it myself but it seems you can coat rubber with it. There’s plenty of info out there on this product.

How to Make Sweat Stains

To make permanent sweat stains, use very diluted fabric paint. I would not go with black (assuming you have a light color top). I would go with something like tan.

You can also try a tea stain, but it seems like a lot more hassle than fabric paint.

How to Distress Fur

If you want a more tribal hunter-type look, here’s what to do.

First of all, for moral reasons, I don’t use anything except second-hand fur & I prefer to use fake or faux fur. (You can find fake fur on the old model of the German parka jacket on the inside of the hoods.)

The usual universal formula will get you a long way, so use paint. I do not recommend setting it on fire. It will smell and be bad in five different kinds of ways, so just the standard painting method tips to make it look dirty.

Ways to NOT Distress Stuff!

  • Don’t set yourself on fire.
  • Don’t use organic oils (olive oil, sesame oil, etc). They will go rancid.
  • Don’t use mineral oil.
  • Don’t use motor oil, especially if it has been used. It has a lot of toxic stuff in it.
  • Don’t use organic powders. They will get moldy.

DO use beeswax-based grease.

DO wear old clothing & shoes when weathering (thanks to Kleiner Thorn from Rad Roach Gear).

Join Dmitri Zaitsev of Nuclear Snail Studios on Facebook in his group, Nuclear Snail Community. Also, if you are a regular viewer, please support Dmitri on his Patreon to keep his channel going & to allow him to continue to develop & give you more tips from his experience.

Hail the Snail!

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