Friday, July 31, 2009

Hasegawa Bf 109 K-4: Soft-Masking the Camouflage

The Hasegawa K-4 has certainly been gestating a long time, what with professional commitments and a month’s jury service, but she’s on the last lap now. I just completed the paintwork and for the first time I’ve tried the technique of soft-masking.

The late-war German camouflage patterns were a simplified, time-saving exercise. Gone were the masked, hard-edge patterns from the early war years, replaced with free-handed patterns on the horizontal surfaces and ever more complex freehand disruptive schemes on the fuselage sides. The challenge here is to reproduce that scheme with smooth graduations between the colours at a resolution which is a fair scale representation of the feather of the original sprayguns. There are many approaches, and while you can change down to a fineline tip and needle on your airbrush, and adjust the thinning ratio of the paint and the pressure delivery to the AB, these techniques take a lot of mastering. Soft-masking leaves the paint operation alone and addresses the problem directly on the model.

The idea is to mask the camo but support the masks clear of the surface by around an eighth of an inch, so that the cloud of paint passing the edge lands on the surface in a tight but still diffuse edge, creating a resolution often difficult by regular means. The first step is to prepare the paint scheme:

I sprayed the underside LM 76 first, and when that was thoroughly dry I masked the edges of the flying surfaces, including the wavy-edge demarcation at the leading edge, using Tamiya tape. The card masks are photographed with the model at this stage.

I masked the sides of the fuselage to protect the 76 and the RLM 75 grey topside colour was then sprayed on the horizontal surfaces and left to harden. Then I cut rectangles from white 120-gsm cardstock large enough to cover each area of the grey to be protected. The card pieces were laid onto the wings and tail, fuselage and nose, and the shape was roughly drawn on in pencil, then cut out with small scissors. At this point it's worth noting that Hasegawa "kicked" the grey/green pattern on the left wing: reverse them, grey areas for green areas, to get the historically correct pattern. I kept the positive and negative area masks for the fuselage sides as I was pretty sure I would need both.

Above: The card masks were attached loosely to the model with rolled out strips of blu-tac (the same stuff as you use to put up posters) and then extra bits of tape were used to link them together where necessary. With the fuselage sides masked I went on to spray the 75 on the upper parts:

The three masks crossing the fuselage crest were made on the fly, matching with the horizontal masks already in place:

Lastly the RLM 83 green was sprayed overall, and when dry the masks were carefully removed.

The blu-tac develops considerable grab, so it’s important to remove it carefully. The mask crossing the canopy was so firmly attached that it pulled the canopy right off, so it will be reattached in the final round of work. A soft eraser removes some slight residue remaining on the paint. From this point I touched up as necessary, including applying the negative masks to protect the camo on the upper parts of the fuselage, so I could touch up over some overspray darkening the 76,

then I removed those masks once more, revealing the virtually complete paintjob:

The definition between the colours could have been softer, I thought, to be more clearly soft-masked rather than hard-masked, but overall I’m very pleased with the result. While labour-intensive, it was a lot less traumatic than trying for fineline airbrush effects can often be.

Now, onto the small details and the decals!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Warning — Rant: After-Market Parts and the Cynicism of Gilding the Lilly

I have Revell’s classic 1:48th scale Grumman Cougar on the shelf. It’s the only time that this subject has been done in this scale. The copyright of the edition is 1985 but the kit engineering is a good twenty years earlier. It has raised surface detail, including the so-popular rivets of the time, not much going on inside the intakes, and a single piece cockpit insert combining pilot, seat, floor, panel and detail behind the seat (which, to be fair, is more than many got in those days). It ohh-soo needs a resin cockpit, and resin wheel well inserts, and some of those Seamless Suckers to back the intakes, not to mention weighted tires and maybe a crystal clear vacform hood that can be posed open, a set of vinyl masks, and of course a wide selection of marking options released by the decal guys.

Where are they?

There’s an echoing void. I can sand back the detail and rescribe the bird, sure, and I could use Panther accessories (assuming they’ve been produced for the newer Trumpeter Panther), and piece together my markings from generic sheets, masks and careful paintwork. Yes, that’s a valid approach, and nothing a modeller wouldn’t have to do if the AM industry was less active than it is. My point is just that: the AM industry is volatile in its ability to churn out product, but the choice of product and how it is marketed seem to play -- cynically -- only to certain parts of the hobby.

The pics above are the collection of AMs I put together for a single project. I know what you’re thinking – for a bloke who complains about AMs, I seem to have a lot of them. And I’m not really complaining, just having a bit of a whinge… I mean, where would we be without companies like Eduard, Legends, Verlinden, Mig Productions, Coree and the like? It could be said Francios Verlinden started the AM industry thirty years ago, giving modellers things they really wanted (to make up for the shortfalls in commercial kits between affordable practicality and actual accuracy). That was a great thing, and transformed the hobby, allowing more modellers to build truly spectacular models without needing to evolve the skills of a master machinist with infinite time and resources to do so.

The market proved to be an accommodating one, and the quality race was on: the kit companies raised their own game, in one generation injection molded plastic has gone from often clunky to often breathtaking, and the resin and photoetch guys have kept pace, not simply providing alternatives but striving to correct and outdo their plastic counterparts.

Yet there comes a point when this process becomes cynical.

Tasca burst on the injection mold scene in 2003 with a Panzer II in 1:35th scale, and reviewers ran out of superlatives... Not just accuracy of outline and a high parts count, with individual molding of detail parts for maximum accuracy and realism, but a fineness of detail resolution never seen before (and probably nowhere else even now), such as butterfly bolts (wingnuts) rendered in actual, crisp detail though the parts were less than 1mm in size. The model featured working plastic torsion bar suspension, something done elsewhere since (AFV Club’s Tiger I, IIRC, featured the same), but which at the time was a jaw-dropper. Surely no finer or more ambitious plastic engineering had ever been attempted, and what more could a modeller ask for? Especially at the comparably high price the kit commanded (and still does).

Well, after-markets. You have to have a photoetched detail set to make it better... Or so say the guys who make them, and have the gall to offer an expensive fret of etched metal because the reviewers who raved about the kit were obviously wrong to praise it so highly. Hey, scrape away that incredible styrene molding, stick on some of our metal, then it’ll really be accurate!

You see the same thing with aircraft. The finest kits are the ones for which ‘updates’ are offered, or corrections, kits which already feature some of the best components on the market and build into pretty darn good models just as they are, while older, or more affordable, kits that could really do with a helping hand, are pretty much ignored. True Details produced a host of fine parts for a wide variety of subjects many years ago, but their productivity has been much lower in recent times, and that could be symptomatic of the same thing: the marketplace that must have its AMs doesn’t buy cheapy kits and oldies to start with, and we can expect the AM companies to have done painstaking market research to properly target their products.

It is as it is. If you want to make an expensive kit even more expensive then they’re ready and willing to take your money -- that’s the nature of a commercial enterprise. And it’s true that there are modern kits which do indeed fall down on the job: Trumpeter’s new 1:32nd scale Grumman Bearcat faired pretty well in it’s review in the pages of FineScale Modeler, but others were not so kind to it, one English magazine’s build-up feature laid bare the bones of that particular skeleton and after that I lost my enthusiasm for scraping together the asking price. Maybe with a comprehensive AM set to fix the problems it might be worth the effort, if such a set could correct the engineering deficiencies of, for instance, the wingfolds (perfect if depicting them folded, but the fit is hopeless for the extended configuration, which is, after all, the most likely form in which most buyers would choose to depict the aircraft).

I guess the point I’m making is simply this: while I acknowledge that the top end of the market is a legitimate place to play to, it would be nice if the AM guys aimed a bit lower at times too. Not necessarily that old Cougar, she’s a rarity these days, of course she is (to tell the truth it’s an awful kit by modern standards, and in the cold light of day I don’t think it’s actually worth saving!), and any product must have a big enough potential market to justify its existence. But bits and pieces to trick out kits that actually need it would be nice. (And yes, Eduard and others have gone round and dilligently produced PE sets for, e.g., thirty-year old Tamiya armour, which blunts my argument somewhat, even if the sets are often more expensive than prices at which you can pick up the kits!)

But I like the Quickboost approach best: replacement parts for an ever-growing range of items, with superior detail at an affordable price, and so light-weight they mail for free from many companies... Yeah, now there’s my idea of an AM outfit!

Rant over, normal services will be resumed as of the next post!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why do so many companies have trouble with tracks?

Tracks... All armoured vehicles over a certain weight have them. They come in endless styles, narrow ones, broad ones, cleated tracks, padded tracks, live track, dead track... Amtracks with ‘swimming grousers,’ Shermans with ‘snow grousers,’ Panzers with Ostketten. The fascination with modelling tanks brought with it the challenge of companies producing realistic tracks, and most modellers would say they’ve never really acheived 100% accuracy no matter what approach they’ve taken.

There are traditional flexible vinyl tracks, single-piece, to be joined around the running gear, and they do a generally good job. In the early 1970s they tended to be poorly detailed and possibly undetailed on one side, though today molding technology and computerised machining of the molds means they can be highly detailed both sides. The ones above are from Tamiya’s 1:35th scale King Tiger, Ardennes. The drawback is that the relative stiffness of the vinyl means the tracks don’t develop a sag between the return rollers, or lie along the top of large diameter wheels, like real tracks do.

Then there are individual-link or link-and-length tracks, which call for cleanup and assembly. For some modellers these are the best, though for others they are a nightmare whose tedious nature more than forgives the lack of sag in the vinyls. Above are the indie links made by Academy to compliment their issue of the early Tamiya Panzer IV-derived tanks (all the models on the box are of Tamiya origin). And below are ModelKasten’s set for the above-mentioned King Tiger.

If sag is your thing, Trumpeter got ambitious a few years ago and produced superbly machined link-and-length tracks for their KV-1 series of kits in which the sag over the return rollers was molded right in, and even the most die-hard anti-L&L builder must feel tempted by these amazing pieces of injection work:

Then come the workable tracks from AM companies, whitemetal, plastic or resin with wire pivots taking the place of the real track bolts, and which will hang, sag and roll like real (dead) track -- for a price.

Dragon came up with Magic Tracks, a soft styrene type in which the links click-fit and will hold their shape until you can hit them with liquid cement, lending themselvs to being shaped to any configuration of suspension. This is a neat idea and probably the most innovative.

Vehicles with skirts tend to make that perfect hang and sag of the return length superfluous though: you can’t see it, so why sweat blood on it? And tight tracks don’t sag anyway. But tightness raises the question of why some companies don’t seem to be able to get it right in the most profound sense.

I’m talking about early Trumpeter. I was really attracted to the Chinese Type 89 tank Destroyer, and was building along quite satisfactorily -- until I came to the tracks. They were half an inch too short (below) to link up around the running gear, and no amount of coaxing was going to change that: snapping off the portside idler wheel convinced me to give up. I tried heat treatment, stretching them by heating them with a hair drier, and hanging them with weights, but after half a dozen exhaustive treatments, using all the heat my hands could tolerate, one track had grown about one link’s worth, as the vinyl shrank again upon cooling. I was fed up and shelved the project. That late-mold Tamiya StuG III I reviewed last time was both a pleasure and a relief to build instead.

Of course I didn’t give up entirely. The Type 89 shares the same chassis with the 122mm MBRL and the Type 83 SP artillery, I have them all, and all I would need is a single extra length of track to complete them. Cut out a few links and splice them in with superglue and thread as necessary, and suddenly the tracks will go round the running gear and meet as they should. I emailed Trumpeter, seeking to buy a spare length of track, got a reply asking me to forward photographs of the parts involved ... Then nothing. Hey, I tried, but their aftermarket support at this point is as dodgy as their English, which is curious given their truly ambitious products and their dedicated assault on the affluent end of the Western marketplace. Their more modern products are of higher quality, I would certainly hope the tracks are the right length given the price they charge for their new armour.

And what about Dragon? That other Chinese company often considered to have eclipsed Tamiya as king of 1:35th scale? Early Dragon is beset by far too many microscopic parts which vanish into the carpet, and by the sort of over-thought engineering that has Dragon airplane models glide into waist bins beside the benches of grown modellers sobbing with frustration at their sheer unfriendliness and inaccuracy of fit. This is the antithesis of Tamiya’s philosophy, and while Tamiya’s earlier products may not be acceptably accurate or sufficiently detailed for today’s more mature taste, you can mostly rely on them to build well. “Buildability” was Mr. Tamiya’s watchword, and is sure to have contributed to the company’s historic success.

My only experience with early Dragon is in the reboxing of their classic Russian armour models when the molds were obtained by Zvezda. Their BTR-70 built fine, only a few grab handles needed to be replaced with brass because they broke before I could remove them from the sprue (because the parts were finer than their sprue attachments!) But their T-72 is another matter. It may be Zvezda’s plastic: the link and length tracks are brittle and the plastic really does not like to react with superglue (a bit like Chinese plastic in that respect). Thus trying to piece those tracks together promised to be an exercise in frustration. The Zvezda T-72B with Explosive Reactive Armour is easily the most detailed tank model I have ever built, and it sits unfinished in its box because there is no way I’ll mess around with that job, and the only AM T-72 tracks I can locate are far more expensive than the kit was. My prayer, thrown to the gods of styrene, is that AFV Club will finally produce high quality vinyl replacements in their expanding range of sell-alone tracks.

Which brings me back to my lament, why can’t companies with all the expertise and the million-dollar computer-assisted design and manufacture, get the tracks right? Properly detailed, that fit the sprockets exactly, articulate with eachother, and take a realistic paintjob? If it has to be link-and-length, then the plastic had better respond well to glue, you certainly can’t stitch them together. And if they’re vinyl then is it too much to ask that they be the right length?

These criticisms don’t apply to modern Tamiya products, modern Dragon, or, as far as I know, current Trumpeter or Revell-Germany. But they can all be criticised for their sometimes exorbitant prices. I know, I know -- I want it all ways, tracks that fit and an affordable price. I’m just out of touch with reality...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Kit Review: Tamiya StuG III/G

Tamiya’s retool program began in the 90s with their reworking of the Tiger I Ausf E (35146), rectifying many of the criticisms of their old version (35055). The new generation tooling was more precise, there was better engineering, more options, and greater accuracy and detail fidelity. Many of their early kits were withdrawn by that time, one of which was their Sturmgeschutz III Ausf G. I had no idea there was such a kit until finding a diorama built around it in an early-90s issue of FineScale Modeler. This vehicle is a significant one, at the end of the Second World War it was by far the most numerous armoured vehicle available to the Germans, as the turretless self-propelled assault guns were much quicker and easier to build than actual tanks.

The retool of the StuG (35197) is an excellent piece of plastic engineering. It pretty much fell together, it was possible to finish the suspension and lower hull details in one evening session, build up the gun and mantlet at the same time, and in no time be moving on to the wheels.

There are plenty of options in this kit. It is supplied with brackets and rails to mount a suite of stand-off armour (included); there are triple smoke grenade launchers for the forward hull to model an Ausf G early production type (they were deleted at the end of 1943 as unneeded); twin radio antenna mounts in case you want to build a command version, which featured extra radio equipment in the starboard side superstructure; the loader’s and commander’s hatches can be posed open, though there is no interior detail and the sponsons are open, a throwback to earlier generations of tooling; the MG-34 shield can be assembled folded down or raised with the gun mounted; an alternate barrel is provided for the 105mm howitzer to build the Sturmhaubitzer 42 variant; and two figures are included, plus a small dog, creating a vignette of a crew in an off-duty moment which is a pleasant reminder of the humanity of the crews who manned these machines of war. The kit provides markings for three vehicles, the 303rd StuG Brigade, Wermacht, Norway, 1943, in overall dark yellow; the 237th StuG Brigade, Wermacht, Russia, 1943, in dark yellow with red-brown disruptive stripes; and a StuH 42, “55” of an unknown unit in Italy, 1944, in overall dark yellow. I used a set of Echelons on mine as I fancied a green mottle camo job.

Tamiya produces a photoetched fret, sold separately, for the engine intakes and exhaust assembly, though a cheaper one is made by Eduard (seen here) and does admirable service, even including a few extra parts.

There are very few fiddly bits on this model. Locating the ventilator, spare track retainer and radio mast mounts on the rear wall of the superstructure calls for use of a template part, you simply draw around a set of indents to create locator marks, then glue the pieces directly on without guides or pegs: that would have required slide-molding. You need to be aware that the main gun mounts to a pedestal inside the hull with a push-fit, so dry-fitting this part invites a permanent fit before you’re ready.

Beyond this, there is really very little to comment on, other than ease of assembly and alignment, the overall pleasing sit of the vehicle on its tracks (which are vinyl, with full double-sided detailing.) There are plenty of aftermarket options for this kit, from photoetched details, including a general PE set by Eduard, gun parts by CzechMaster, probably full PE stand-off protection by one of the AM companies to replace the too-thick and too-regular plastic parts, a zimmerit set made by Cavalier, decals by Bison, Echelon and others, Panzer III indie tracks by Dragon and replacement tracks for Panzer III series vehicles by ModelKasten and Friulmodelismo. You can indulge your taste for AMs as far as you like, but the basic kit builds a very nice, realistic model. There are tiny details you may wish to change depending on how much of a stickler you are, or how much you want to depict a specific point in the production run, such as fender brackets, and fasteners for the removable armour of the superstructure roof.

I finished mine in Tamiya acrylics, with oil wash weathering and Echelon decals as a StuG III early, with smoke grenade launchers but without stand-off armour, single antenna mast, and with hatches closed. There are endless other ways to build this kit, and I have two more in my stash. One day I hope to do one in zimmerit, with winter camo and stand-offs.

As a longtime fan of Tamiya I am delighted with their products new and old, and the sheer ease of construction and precision of engineering one encounters is always worth the price of opening the box. Yes, Dragon’s Ausf. III/G is that bit more accurate and consistent in its fine details; it’s that bit more expensive too, and you pay for what you get, as ever. This little kit is easily one of my favourites, and teamed with the Squadron Signal Sturmgeschutz III in Action and Sturmgeschutz III Walk Around volumes, I rapidly became knowledgeable of this historically important vehicle as I was building it.

Here are some online references for this vehicle:

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Very First Kit

Can you remember your first kit? Can you remember where and when it came to you, and what it was that drew you to the hobby in the first place?

I was five years old the first time I saw plastic kits and understood them for what they were. Airfix Series 1 bagged kits, in a window display at the newsagent at the end of my street. I remember my dad taking me to the shop on a Sunday morning and buying me an Airfix Tiger Moth. He built it for me as I watched, wrapt, and by the end of the day there was a bright yellow (it was molded in trainer yellow in those days) biplane for me. I was fascinated, and wanted more!

The following week was the same pattern, and the Airfix Bristol Fighter joined the Tiger Moth. And in the weeks after, each Sunday morning brought a new shape in plastic: the Westland Whirlwind was one, the Gloster Gladiator another, and the F-5A was the first jet in the collection, as well as the first kit where I was sufficiently inspired to try my own hand and help out on the building. I think the Me 262 was one of them also.

A child’s nimble brain is way ahead of his or her dexterity in relating the shapes and how they go together, and there is always a lot of frustration in getting from A to B -- A being the fresh kit and an idea in mind of what the product should look like, and B being the actual result. But I do remember my family never stinting their praise for my efforts, no matter how far I had to go to perfect the skills involved. As a child I was more interested in quantity than quality, and production-lined models through at an amazing speed, without giving a thought to accuracy or moving beyond the limitations of the kit, but these things developed automatically as the years went by.

I still have a fondness for that so-simple Airfix Tiger Moth, and Roy Cross’s classic box art. I have it in my stash (that's the box top of the current issue above), and one day I’ll do the best job on it I possibly can, including rigging and maybe score out the control surfaces and reposition them. There’s only so much you can do with 25 parts, but as with the generation of RAF pilots who began their flying career in De Havilland’s classic trainer, this aircraft, and this particular kit, will always mean the beginning of the road to me.