Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Product Look: Skullduggery interactive kits

These are amazing: imagine a kit in which you need to cast the parts before assembling them!

The Skullduggery firm has perfected a system of non-toxic casting media in which kids can learn about a subject while building a display model more or less from scratch: they have fish, butterflies and of course the ever-popular dinosaurs.

When one associates injection plastic and rotation-moulded vinyl with dinosaurs as the medium of choice, or solid-cast resin as the third option, to find open-moulded plaster in use is at first an odd selection, but plaster can copy extremely fine detail and it’s non-toxic for junior use.

The idea is that kids pour pre-mixed casting medium into provided plastic moulds, demould the plaster parts, paint them and assemble them, a somewhat greater involvement than conventional kits offer, prolonging the educational experience without the intricacies of a conventional build-up. The kits even include paint, brushes, glue and mounting magnets, so the finished object is all ready for display.

In a way, this is kit building which incorporates scratchbuilding, and the basic principles of casting are made available to young builders at an age when it’ll become second nature and very probably serve them well in more ambitious projects in the years to come.

There’s only one drawback from the standpoint of the adult builder: though the boxes are beautifully illustrated with photographs of perfectly reassembled museum-display skeletons, the kit actually builds a two-dimensional dinosaur, a ‘panel mount’ in museum terms, in which the bones are seen in profile against a rock matrix. There’s nothing wrong with this and it certainly simplifies things for the younger builder, but it’s not quite the stand-up-and-roar display the box seems to promise.

The products are sold in the livery of the old Collins Eyewitness Guide books, a wonderful range of teaching volumes which assembled information on a plethora of subjects, illustrated with photographs of actual objects and artefacts. I remember their dinosaurs volume being the first I ever read, so it’s rather fitting that I encounter the range through their T. rex.

Here are some useful links – check them out, if you have kids these will provide fun, insight, education and practice for building! You’ll probably find them in Museum shops far and wide, and here in Aus at the Australian Geographic shops



Monday, October 5, 2009

Product Review: Experts’ Choice Custom Decal Papers

Custom decals: there was a time the thought used to turn modellers green with envy, or shuddering with foreboding at the thousand things that might go wrong, but in the age of the digital revolution it’s no longer a big deal. All you need to be is computer savvy, and a bit adventurous.

Unless you have very deep pockets, you will not be making decals equivalent to the silkscreened commercial product, but you can finagle things to get close. The Alps printers that deliver an opaque white ink make commercial image quality possible, and are used by the ‘garage’ firms, but for those of us with shallower bank accounts there are clear and white decal paper stocks from a variety of manufacturers.

I first began experimenting with custom decals for my F-116 SF scratchbuild project a few years ago, and refined the techniques at the electronic level. Basically, designing the decals is as simple – or as complex – as driving the software, so that’s the first hurdle. If you can drive your graphics package well enough to make the designs you need, half the battle is won. The fictional F-116 needed stencil data and I had intended to raid a SuperScale sheet for black data from the F-15E, but it didn’t seem to fit. I needed stencils which told a technical story all over the hull, Caution - APU Exhaust, Do Not Operate if Vent Port Obstructed, Ensure Grounding Provisions, Jacking Point, and so forth, dozens of them, all over the aircraft where maintenance placards would logically be located. I did some experiments in Page Plus Professional V.10 and found that 1- to 2-point lettering was still distinctly legible and a reasonable approximation of the lettering of an aircraft 72 times larger.

The aircraft required colour decals as well, organizational flashes and the triangular national insignia of a service which does not exist. My sister made them in about ten minutes flat, in the same program, and we were ready to rock.

The media I chose was the decal papers from the Experts’ Choice range (a name which tends to engender trust!). I mail ordered their clear decal film for laser printers, item #123 (for the all black data) and their white film for inkjet printers, item #120, for the insignia which featured a white area. Luckily the insignia’s straight-edge shape lent itself to cutting free of the sheet with a razor knife.

The clear film worked remarkably well. I did a number of test shots on paper and when I was happy with the design work I rolled a sheet of decal material. The stencil data was made as easily as that, and was brushed over with MicroScale Liquid Decal Film to seal the toner down. I cut the designs close using small scissors and they went on readily, reacting well to MicroScale DecalSet and DecalSol. Here is a photo of another decal sheet with all-black markings on clear film for a variety of SF scratchbuild projects: the WASP Arrowhead received the top set, which is why they’re missing from the sheet!

The F-116 had a long white text legend down each side of the cockpit and to do this I changed tactics slightly. I had looked at the possibility of using MicroScale white lettering but did not trust my ability to line them up and space them correctly. I settled for a sheet of small white rubdown decals by Letraset, and applied them to the clear decal film. I brushed liquid film over them, cut them out and applied the legends as single units.

If the colour decals had behaved as well as these, my job would have been a lot easier. I was building the model on a deadline at the finish and I did a number of ‘ghosters,’ modelling sessions which run right through the night, at least partially because the colour decals simply would not behave. They would not free off their backing without a very long time soaking in very hot water and a lot of coaxing with soft brushes and solvent. This meant that the majority disintegrated before they were willing to move: it was a good job I made up several sets of decals on the one sheet, I certainly worked through a lot of them to get four insignia and two flashes to take. I spoke to the company and the only suggestion they could come up with was that it was a freak incompatibility between the paper and (both) of my colour printers.

Here’s the finished F-116, showing the black stencil data, white rubdown decals, plus colour insignia and ‘danger’ flashes. The white stripes were done with Microscale Trimfilm.

To be fair, I have seen ‘garage’ decal firms with a high profile and a good reputation put a caveat on their work, drawing the user’s attention to the fact they are not commercially manufactured decals and don’t behave the same way, so it may be more common than many might prefer to admit that custom decals are a hit-or-miss proposal.

The Experts’ Choice packs contain three sheets each of US letter-size paper and, at less than $2 per sheet, are excellent value. If your printers and their inks are fully compatible then you can have all kinds of decaling adventures, creating the markings of your dreams: clear sheets for solid printing to overlie a painted backing of the necessary colour, white sheets where white is a necessary element of a complex design and you are confident you can cleanly cut away every scrap of white surrounding the graphic. You can fudge this by being clever, such as by edging the design with a digital equivalent of the background colour so the trim doesn’t need to be exact for the decal edges to essentially vanish into the surface.

Custom decals are fun and open a new world of marking options, limited only by your graphics package and your skills (and the luck of the draw when it comes to compatibility, and that’s the only real downside). Otherwise, these are excellent products and highly recommended. You can find them at: