Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Feel Like Building A Model… NOT Painting It!

Have you ever had the feeling that one part of your artistic creativity is in conflict with another? There have been occasions when I had a spare hour or two and found myself staring at the projects underway and realising that every single one was at some point which obliged me to set up my airbrush and start pushing various colours through to spot-paint detail parts, which means far more cleaning of the airbrush and its jars, and far more mixing of paint, than actual painting.

There are times when you just want to build. One problem with aircraft, much as I love them, is that you’re pretty much obliged to paint that wretched cockpit first. Struggle with tiny details, drybrush the controls, put on decals perhaps, create instrument lenses with blobs of Clear Parts Cement, and suchlike. And frankly, there are times you don’t want to be bothered with all that, but just get to the engineering of the piece, tidying up the parts and bringing them together just so, then perhaps doctoring the joint lines with whatever technique you prefer.

Perhaps that’s one of the drawcards of armour modelling. Unless you have a perverse desire to open hatches all the time, the inside of a tank is a mystery to the viewer and can be conveniently ignored, which means most of a tank can be built before you need to start painting, and that’s attractive. Building the barrel and turret, mounting suspension swing arms and other lower hull details, dressing the upper hull with hatches, grills, any number of parts that can go on before you need to paint anything… Then join the hull, do some joint work if needed, and you’re into masking the locators for tools and such, masking the mating ring of the turret and all the axles. Oh yes, there’s lots to do before you need put down the first colour. The Academy M981 above falls into this category: I just wanted to enjoy building, and a relatively complex, multi-part armoured vehicle fit the bill to a T. I put it together months ago, and when a slot comes up in my painting schedule it'll finally see it's three-colour camouflage.

Right now I have 20 models in progress, at some stage or other. I could be mottling the camo of that Tamiya Me 262, or I could be prepping for the natural metal finish of that F-84 Thunderjet. But over the last week or so I’ve been wash-and-drybrush detailing three armour kits. The time comes when you have to paint what you’ve built and production line modelling is a way of getting through them. Base colour, camo pattern, fade coat, oil filter weathering, pinwash, drybrush profiling, decals, dust coat…

I’ll get back to aircraft shortly, I have at least seven to finish in the next two months or so, but you know, when the fiddly details have got me at my wits’ end, I’ll take a break from being an artist, and be an engineer again for a few relaxing sessions. One thing I’m certain of: whatever I build on that day, the odds are it’ll have tracks under it!

Hoping you all had a wonderful festive season and that the New Year brings everything you could hope for!

Cheers, Mike/Thunderbolt379

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What’s in a Stash...?

The Immortal Bard certainly did not have plastic modelling in mind when he coined the line so freely paraphrased for the title above, but it makes for an interesting question.

The modeller’s stash... The “styrene ceiling” that has been collecting dust in the attic since you moved into that house not long after you were married (out of sight, out of mind, at least for one’s other half if said half is less than tolerant of the hobby), or the pile of boxes jammed onto the top shelf in the hall closet, or the packing case in the basement. Or the tea chests in the shed. A shed can be a good thing, for more than powertools and a place for sawing timber.

A modeller’s kit stash however represents changing interests and availability over time -- I mean, how long has that collection been amassing for? We buy kits at a far faster rate than we can build them, and many of us pride ourselves on the stature of our collection. The oldest kits in my stash (meaning the date of my acquiring them, not their date of manufacture or reissue) probably date from the late 80s/early 90s, I had quite a few older Hasegawas from the 1980s that I traded off to a dealer about that time, along with an unfinished Revell Cutty Sark dating from about 1975. But even the oldest parts of my stash have probably spent no more than 20 years in my care. So in 20 years, where have trends in the market and variations of interest taken me? A burgeoning interest in armour, the odd ship here and there, a major emphasis on larger scales, dinosaurs when they were in vogue, even a few space and SF subjects. (A few? I’ll build all those AMT Star Trek kits eventually...)

What about the role of eBay? I recently passed the 5th anniversary of my first tremulous venture into online bargain-hunting, and in those five years my stash has grown faster than ever before, with kits I never imagined I would snag for reasons of cost alone. But good quality kits at genuine savings are a daily event on eBay, and gradually many gaps in my collection were filled in. All of what you see here are eBay transactions.

I imagine most modellers go through a ‘flesh-out-the-stash’ phase, when the allure of bargains allays the fear of unwarranted luxury expense coming back to bite one when there are bills to be met. But, sometime down the track, there are indeed those whose tastes and interests change so drastically over the years that they realise the investment their stash represents by offering them for sale, either piecemeal through eBay as a seller, or by moving the whole lot to a trader. Trading in collections was a brisk business before the current economic downturn, and resulted in more great bargains for buyers further down the line, as individual kits moved from Stash A to Stash B and profit accrued for the facilitator. Hopefully things will recover and this system will become profitable again. That’s business, and everybody comes out of it happy. I would certainly never have afforded a great many kits in my stash any other way.

One day I’ll have a dedicated modelling room, like you see in the pages of FSM, with a properly-lit workbench, bookcases for reference materials, drawers and cabinets for every last tool and accessory supply I could need, paint racks for the hundreds of shades I have in stock, and of course a spraybooth and silent compressor, and a permanent photographic area for recording my work in progress. Display cases for the finished product, of course, go without saying. And I would hope that an entire wall in this room would be shelving for my stash, from floor to ceiling, the whole thing brought together in one place rather than in the cardboard cartons it presently occupies: it would look like a well-stocked hobby shop and the great thing is, it’s all already paid for! Here’s one of two small rooms my packaged stash occupies: have I mentioned lately how much I appreciate the support and interest of my better half?

I’m not preening here, I know there are modellers out there with much more extensive stashes than mine, in size, in quality, by any reasonable form of measurement, and the stash is what it’s all about. What interests the modeller, how your interests change over time, and how you dip into that stash as the years go by to build that special item at long last -- these questions are the mystique of having the collection. Some folks ask me why I don’t sell the lot at once if they’re worth money, and ‘do something with it.’ I answer them that I am doing something with it: I’m enjoying being a collector!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Great Phantom Showdown

I love Phantoms. I’ve always loved them, ever since I was a kid and the F-4 was the real-life big kid on the block. I remember a McDonnell-Douglas add on the back cover of an aviation magazine from the late 1970s that praised the Phantom as “The Warbird of the Free World.” That magazine is still somewhere in my collection, if I ever get a chance to look through the old stash I’ll probably find infinite anecdotes. I also remember reading an article on the development of the F-4, it was probably in an old Aeroplane Monthly or Aviation News, that said the military brass thought the plane they were being offered in 1958 was downright ugly, “a great jagged juggernaut, massive as a WWII bomber, clumsy as a goose with its downswept tails…” That’s a verbatim quote, the words stuck in my memory thirty years ago. I shook my head as a young teen to read that: to me the F-4 was a beautiful aircraft, and I still think so today. Heck, my sister in law was a USAF crew chief and the F-4E was her plane.

Modellers tend to agree that the F-4 is, or was, a special plane. 5257 of them, in 13 major variants, not counting recon subtypes, and the markings of at least 15 services, gives enormous scope for variety, and model companies were not slow to recognise this. Early Phantoms were like any early kits, they left a lot to be desired, but by the late 1980s moulding technology was up to the challenge of creating really well-fitting kits, and the firms had recognised that modellers wanted models that not only looked good, they were as close to accurate as possible. At that point the challenge was on.

Hasegawa and Fujimi, two of the Shizuoka City giants, went at it head to head in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, a direct challenge for the market dollar on the subjects the model building public most wanted. They each delivered F-14 Tomcats by the bushel, they both fielded squadrons of A-4 Skyhawks, and Fujimi offered up all the major marks of A-7 Corsair as well. But it was in the area of the F-4 Phantom II that perhaps their greatest race occurred.

By the early 1990s Hasegawa had released all the major variants in 1:72nd scale, and most of them in 1:48th as well, while Fujimi concentrated mostly on 1:72, with a few forays into larger material. Historically, Hasegawa won the battle, their product was more accurate, their packaging slicker, their decals better quality, and the market was willing to wear the fact their product was also correspondingly more expensive. But that’s not to say Fujimi’s product doesn’t have a lot going for it.

Consider the most basic comparison: both Hasegawa and Fujimi standardised on recessed panel lines in the late 1980s, and all their quality late-tool Phantoms have fine engraved detail throughout. Hasegawa had better cockpits, and arguably better selections of subject matter, with their multitudinous releases of common parts wrapped in different boxes, decals and painting instructions for every one-off special commemorative scheme that came along, as well as a wide range of standard schemes and squadron markings from around the world. But Hasegawa’s philosophy was to break down the parts in a way that yielded maximum utility between variants, which forced decisions such as separate fin cap parts, and a break in the fuselage just behind the intakes to facilitate different nose sections, the area in which most variety between marks was found. Fujimi tooled the fuselage and tail for each major variation complete and provided a varying tray-like part for the underside of the nose, plus separate scabbed-on parts for scanners, intakes and antennas. This means a Fujimi is a simpler build with fewer seams, and that’s attractive.

Hasegawa never got around to retooling the British Phantoms with wider engine bays to accommodate their Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans, but Fujimi did: their F-4K, F-4M, FG.1, FGR.2 and F.3 kits feature generally proper proportions and dimension for the British fleet, and in 1:72nd scale they’re the only game in town if you discount Hasegawa’s old-tool F-4K and M (which featured raised detail throughout), and Matchbox’s old FGR.2, which most serious modellers today will do on account of its way overscale recessed detail.

Various options are included in each brand’s product, deployed flaps, positionable surfaces, openable canopies, and different degrees of detail in wheelwells and afterburners, but the averagely-sighted person would have to look twice to decide which kit a model was built from. Given Fujimi’s essentially complete range of variants and their slightly lower shelf price (often much lower today on eBay, though in the early 1990s Fujimi was a notoriously expensive brand, certainly here in Australia), Hasegawa’s top spot is not universally secure and Fujimi have a great many fans for their late-tool product.

It is said that Fujimi have not released a genuinely new military aircraft product since their “war on Hasegawa” ran out of steam in the 90s, but there are a great many kits out there in circulation that are fun to build and for which there are oceans of aftermarket accessories, certainly piles of great decals, and unless one is peering into cockpits and wheel wells with a magnifying glass the differences cease to be apparent about 18 inches back, so it stands to reason both brands will continue to compete in the marketplace for the Phantom Phanatic’s modelling buck. Given Hasegawa’s agreement with Revell/Revell-Germany, and the lower price for which Revell can rebox Hasegawa’s toolings (hence the Revell items in the pics above), quality Phantoms are probably easier to get hold of than ever before.

I’ll be building 1:72nd scale F-4s from both stables during 2010, and will be retrospectively reviewing and comparing them right here at World in Miniature, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Product Review: Eduard Masks

There are all sorts of tools and supplies in the modelling hobby, and it’s a fair criticism to ask if the modern hobbyist is well-served or merely gadget-dependent. When we need to mask something we use tape, like any tradesman, plus cut paper and card sections for big areas, and we may also use a liquid latex masking medium, an aid brought over from the graphic arts.

I always masked my canopies with tiny slivers of tape, but there are some curved that just don’t want to be masked around. A three dimensional shape needs to be expressed in two dimensions, and that’s a hit or miss proposition unless you’re a spatial dynamics expert. Another trick is to spray the hull color on some clear decal film, cut fine strips and apply the canopy struts as decals, and there’s a lot to be said for that technique. There have been a few ideas over the years, including precut vinyl negative masks which are to be sprayed in the final colour and applied, but Eduard might have hit the best formula with their masking technology.

Eduard Masks are die-cut adhesive shapes matched to the intended kit at very fine resolution, and the principle of their use is dead easy: peel them off their waxed backing paper, stick them on, spray, peel off when done. If engineering firms go by the old “KISS principle,” (which stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid!), then they’ve probably hit the money. If the hundreds of sets in their range are anything to go by, modellers agree.

I’ve used four sets so far and have several more in hand. Though the principle is simple, it takes a fine hand and a keen eye to get them into place precisely. Without magnifying specs I’d have no hope, though that’s more a comment on my vision than the product. The masks seem to be a vinyl or paper material, and their adhesive is quite strong, they won’t move until you want them to, and then they come away without leaving a residue. They can be repositioned, though with care as they will crease and denature if handled roughly. They fully cover smaller panels and outline larger areas, which are then filled in with liquid or tape.

Once located to your satisfaction, spray the cockpit interior colour, then overcoat with the camo or framing colours, and when fully dry tease up a corner with the point of a knife and draw the masks away with tweezers. You might also want to hold the canopy down with a finger as you do so. The adhesive is strong enough to pull a clear part off if attached only with clear parts cement.

Masks are also supplied for other parts of the model, such as wheel rims and formation lights, and some armour sets have been produced to help with the fiendish job of painting the tires of tank wheels. Hopefully we will see this range continue to grow, as their utility is considerable. Can you re-use a set? I’ve not tried yet, but if you peel them off carefully and return them to their original positions on the backing sheet, it might be possible. Two uses would be good, as they do cost a few dollars, a nonreimbursable expense on the cost of doing a model which is far greater than that of the paint one uses, and often comparable to that of a selection of AM decals.

Probably the best tribute I can pay to the product is that when I decide a particular model is on my schedule, I check if Eduard have masks for it and order them up in plenty of time, just as I would order AM decals or resin bits or whatever, and that makes them a tool of choice for this particular finishing operation. I recommend them to any hobbyist with a steady hand and a magnifying glass.

Eduard Masks are available in hobby shops and through many online outlets, I always order mine from Squadron Mailorder, Carolton, Texas.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Acrylics or Enamels?

It has to be the biggest question in model painting today, beyond choice of brushes or airbrushes, beyond colour selection: which type of paint is best for your project?

There are modellers who have switched entirely to water-based acrylics for all spray work, for the health benefits: nontoxic paints are a major factor and not to be taken lightly. When you’re used to the light, sweet smell of acrylics and their water cleanup, to start spraying solvent-based paints and their spirit cleanup is a rude reminder of just how frequently and casually we poison ourselves with the things we invite into our environment. Got a spray booth with a ducted exhaust fan? Good for you, but most of us make do with an open window and sometimes it’s just not enough.

Like many modellers, I have both types of paint in stock. I first bought acrylics when tackling vinyl subjects in the early 90s, and I must say the Tamiya paints I bought have been extraordinarily long-lived. They’re still good over 15 years later, all they need is a stir. They haven’t made the old, large bottles in many years, possibly because people discovered the paint lasted remarkably well, and for the rate of usage a smaller quantity was just fine.

I have scores of Tamiya shades, plenty of useful colours, and my collection grows gradually. But I also have hundreds of enamels, the ubiquitous Humbrol range and Testor Model Master (which despite being superb quality, with an easy-stir jar and an enormous selection of specialty-matched shades, is getting hard to find in Australia, as Humbrol and Tamiya have grabbed the popularity). I have not brush painted a model in 30 years, but today when I spray enamels I do so outside, which is a nuisance. Acrylics I can use indoors with simple ventilation, which makes them easy and convenient. But what about detail painting by brush?

This is where the real applicability of the paints comes to the fore. Acrylics spray superbly but they don’t brush worth a damn. You can thin them a little and that helps, but the drying rate is like lightning and in one minute a brush is unusable -- clean it and start over. This may be a characteristic of the Tamiya range in particular, they are by far the most available here and I have sampled no others at this time (but I’ve heard others dry even faster…) By comparison, dipping a fine brush in enamel paint provides familiar flow and control, and one can concentrate on the finesse of the task rather than fighting the characteristics of the medium.

The same thing applies when airbrushing, though on a longer timescale. When used to the tip-drying characteristics of enamel, acrylics can bite you: you must keep the job moving when you’re working with the nontoxic paints, and when it’s done be sure you’re finished and clean the AB at once. This tends to lead to wasted paint, as when forgotten bits are noticed you need to mix more, and if using a syphon-bottle AB there is a minimum amount the airbrush will actually pick up from the jar. If working in enamels you have the extra working time to consider the job from all angles, turn the thing around again, look at it in different light, go 30 seconds or more and be sure the paint will still flow normally when you press the trigger.

My own impression is that enamels and acrylics will continue to share the marketplace. Enamals flow on so smoothly they are a joy to use, they are a ‘friendlier’ medium than acrylics, you can polish their finish just like automotive paints (which ironically have all been acrylics for the last 25 years at least), and the range of precision-matched shades is enormous. The major manufacturers must have churned out over a billion bottles and tinlets in the last 40 years, in fact probably far more, Humbrol alone used to produce 25 million tinlets a year in the 1980s, if I remember correctly, and that’s an awful lot of paint in collections out there. I personally have tins that date from that era and the contents still slosh.

But if acrylics were friendlier, dried slower, brushed better, and were available in hundreds more shades, precision-matched to historic sources, I would be using them more often. I have no wish to poison myself, and while the chemistry involved with acrylics is almost certainly not 100% harmless, it’s a significant improvement.