Saturday, July 31, 2010

In-Box Review: Fantastic Plastic's Retooled “Beta-1”

Resin is an almost ubiquitous medium these days, used by professionals and enthusiasts alike, and often the line between them blurs away to nothing as skills grow and shoestring operations are replaced by full-on limited-production model firms. They're not just 'garage kits' now, they have in fact become a force to be reckoned with.

Fantastic Plastic is one of the success stories of the modern limited-run marketplace, specialising in science fiction, 'realspace' and 'paper' aeroplanes, with high quality kits patterned by master craftsmen and featuring the highest quality resin moulding and casting technology. These kits aren't cheap but they certainly deliver unusual subject matter.

It's not only Moebius and Polar Lights that resurrect classic subjects and recreate lost lines. Fantastic Plastic has had dozens of subjects through its catalogue in the last few years, and they recently released an eagerly awaited kit that brings to life an old 'what if' subject, a mid-Cold War design by the old Hawk company based on theoretical studies by Convair for a nuclear-propulsion bomber, presumably to replace the B-52 sometime around the end of the 1960s. Little could military planners have dreamed in those days that the B-52 would still be in service well into the 21st century.

Nuclear propulsion was a 1950s technological darling, something which worked on paper and was kicked around by 'backroom boys' but never saw the prototyping shop to the best of aviation historians' knowledge. The idea was that nuclear energy created heat which was passed to ingested air to create a ramjet effect without consuming liquid fuel, thus allowing an aircraft to remain in flight for long periods, indeed for as long as crew fatigue parameters would allow, and a whole slew of designs came along from major aircraft firms in the late 1950s.

Kit company Hawk cashed in on the public fascination with this extremely sci-fi concept and designed their “XAB-1,” the B-1 of an earlier era, as the flagship guardian of the West, intended to cruise for long periods on nuclear deterrent patrol, ready to head for targets in Russia if the world ever tipped into DEFCON-1... It's interesting to look back on how this nightmare scenario generated business for lots of people, and the kit industry's perpetual association with militaria is a prime example.

Hawk's original kit was injection moulded at 1:188th scale, and has become a collector's item. Rare unbuilt examples change hands at fabulous prices, a 1964 example is going at auction as I write this, they have become investment properties that one could never afford to build. Fantastic Plastic comes to the rescue with a fully retooled kit in pressure-cast resin, mastered by Scott Lowther and cast by Masterpiece Models, enlarged to 1:144th scale and featuring finely recessed panel lines in the modern style. The kits has a pencil-slim fuselage 17” long, landing gear which may be built deployed or retracted, waterslide decals by Jbot, and features photographic instructions. There is no cockpit detail, no detail in the wheelwells, and a few inconsistencies and flash in the resin to be cleaned up, but these are minor considerations. The original featured red plastic exhaust flames, a juvenile gimmick which has been dropped in this entirely serious 'take' on the subject, while the original's two 'parasite fighters' are also included as superb single-piece resin castings.

The kit comes packaged in a sturdy white card box, whose lid is decorated with a printed colour label featuring digital artwork combing the model with a realistic sky and CGI exhaust efflux, something of a Fantastic Plastic trademark. Inside, the largest castings, such as the one-piece wing and the right and left halves of the fore and aft fuselage sections, are loose in the box, the rest of the 45 parts being collected in a ziplock bag. Many parts are supplied with their pour-stubs already cleaned up.

The hollow-cast parts have alignment pegs and holes, allowing them to be snapped together exactly the same way as injection moulded parts, but curiously some of the pegs and holes don't match up, such as instances of opposing pegs. One needs to do some trimming of pegs and drilling of holes as part of the clean-up phase, but the good news is that the resin, while completely rigid, is soft to cut and works very readily. Go gently and adjustments should take almost no time at all.

There is no clear part for the cockpit canopy, and in so small a scale the model gets away with this. I have long harboured an interest in scratchbuilding this beast in 1:72nd scale, she would be a monster 34” long and 22” in span, and would definitely have a cockpit interior and clear parts. The interesting thing is that the layout of the super-streamlined nose virtually forbids a side-by-side pilot crew configuration, which is widely known (now) to be the only workable one for long duration flight.

I will be building this kit shortly as a review for a major magazine, so look for retrospective comments on Fantastic Plastic's Beta-1 in about a month's time. For now, the kit can be purchased for US$105 from Fantastic Plastic's online store, check it out at:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fascination With “Type”

Sometimes, without consciously meaning to, we find ourselves on a single-type production line. It can happen for a variety of reasons, and plain fascination with a particular subject matter is probably the single most significant. The hobby is about entertainment, education and general knowledge come decidedly second, so when a hobbyist finds him or herself focussing on a particular subject it's probably because there's an abiding interest.

It might be that you're a fan of MOPAR muscle, and you're on your tenth 1:25th scale Chrysler Corp F-body pro-streeter in a row. Maybe you're an armour fan who belongs to the "panzers only" club because they're colourful. Maybe your thing is vintage biplanes and between them Roden and classic Aurora have occupied your bench time for the last two years.

Of course, it can creep up on you. I recently found myself building four Fw 190 fighters at the same time sort of. One was started four years ago, brought to the painting stage and almost forgotten, back in its box. One was a quick build to work with some AM decals, another was a long-delayed foray into building a leading manufacturer's offering with all the bells and whistles. The last was a chance to work in 1:32nd scale for the first time in twenty years, and only the fourth time ever, on the assumption that there will shortly be somewhere to store and display a model that size.

However it worked out, there are four German WWII fighters on my bench at the same time, which will mostly be in the same RLM 74/75/76 scheme, and that's a plus to production-line building. You can get at least two of them ready for the paintshop at the same time and do both from the same mixing and cleaning cycle, which reduces work and economises on air if you're not using a compressor.

Does it risk boredom? Seeing a long line of the same subject ahead of you can either whet your appetite for completion, as each finished build fuels the next, or dull it completely when some other fascinating body shape and colour scheme comes along to compete with the same-old same-old. I think I'll stagger things, do a 1:72 and the 1:48 together, tackle the 1:32 on its own due to sheer volume, and the last 1:72 separately by default as it has a slightly different scheme. It'll take months to work through them, but I have every expectation that each finished plane will more than inspire me to press on with the next.

I suppose the three Phantoms I have underway also count as a fascination with type. Look for posts in future picking up the theme of the great Hasegawa/Fujimi Phantom Showdown, as both these brands are on the bench and will be reviewed together.

PS: I'm now using Picassa for my image loads, click them and you'll get a larger version from now on.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recently Completed: Trumpeter SA-2 -- Finishing That Shelf-Sitter

After a long and particularly busy hiatus (involving submission of a PhD thesis, beginning a new job and continuing with past endeavours), I find the itch to resume blogging about my favourite pass-time, and going by the traffic World in Miniature has been generating, fresh posts will probably be most welcome!

In the last few months I've been very busy on the hobby bench, working on a round dozen projects. The trouble with spreading yourself so thin is that no particular project moves along very quickly even though you seem to be working as many hours. The great thing about having some older, unfinished projects is that you can get them off the bench with comparatively minimal work, and that was the case with Trumpeter's SA-2 Guideline missile kit.

I began this item probably two years ago, and did almost all the construction at the time. I was very happy with the fit, the cylindrical missile parts lined up very nicely and joints were dressed with the old superglue and adzing technique, always the best and quickest way. The alignment of the sixteen fins were more problematical, a right-angle jig would be a great help, as I doubt I got any of them at exactly 90 degrees. Still, 89 is close enough to satisfy the eye from most angles.

The thing that stopped me at the time was “Russian Green.” What shade is it? I have an old tin of Humbrol Russian Armour Green, which is no longer in the range, and I'm hoarding it. Besides, these days I try to paint in acrylics whenever I can, especially for armour subjects as it's not only far less toxic (and fairer to the family where the stink is concerned), it also lends itself perfectly to oil wash weathering afterward.

I did some research online, found my way to chat boards and such, and found that there were actually several shades of camouflage green in simultaneous use in the Soviet military, and any of them would be used in any particular context on the basis of what supplies were available. One common shade has been calculated to a Federal Standard value of 34098, and given that 34097 is a standard US shade, available in model paint ranges, I decided this was close enough for me. Tamiya XF-58 matches FS 34097, so that became my launcher shade.

Still, that alone was not enough to get me to pull the box off the shelf and get to it. As I'm sure I've mentioned in some previous post, I use a commercial compressed gas cylinder to power my airbrush, and I recently had a negative experience: for the first time in 15 years, I had a defective cylinder. I picked it up and seemingly overnight the fill had dropped from 15 bars to 10. I thought I had maybe failed to safety the main tap correctly, and heaved a sigh of frustration, but the next time I came to it the reading was 8, and I knew I'd safetied it properly that time. I talked to the company and they agreed to exchange it (they checked it and my gauges and the tank was definitely leaking). There was a weekend in the way, however, so I did some spraying and tried to use up whatever air I had available. The SA-2 was one of the kits that got some long-overdue attention.

I sprayed the launcher's six subassemblies with a good coat of XF-58, then I could do the standard armour weathering techniques I've developed. The big idea with this kit is that the launcher and missile are, literally, two different kits. In Soviet markings the installation is typical of the air defence settup found in North Vietnam, and this offers interesting finishing possibilities. The launcher stood in the tropical heat, dust and rain of Vietnam for years, and despite maintenance it would suffer the extremes of climate. Naturally, it would display rust and dust, and general dirt, just like any piece of heavy equipment. The missile, however, would not, being transported to the launcher site, loaded and fired long before weathering could set in. Also, the missiles themselves probably received more protection from the elements than the launchers.

So, I pursued them as separate projects. The missile was a painting experiment also. The pale grey shade used on the missiles seems to have no Western equivalent, so I mixed it. It was not the flat camo of the launcher, but either gloss or semigloss. I've had problems spraying gloss, and was not convinced the missiles were full gloss anyway, so I mixed 50% X-2 Gloss White with 30% XF-2 Flat White and 20% XF-66 Flat Light Grey. On reflection the finish is not quite bright enough and the shade not quite light enough, next time I build one I'll raise the gloss white to 60% and drop the grey to 10%, which should be a better mix. Nevertheless, I'm happy with this one, the grey certainly looks pale against the launcher green. Weathering was kept to a minimum, a thin black oil pinwash around raised details and recessed panel lines simply to make the structures visually 'pop.'

The missile is covered with stencil decals, more than forty of them. Many of them group adjacent Russian data placards, and they can be fiddly: I mangled only one decal in the process, and decided for ease to separate out elements from one or two others, which both extended the time involved and simplified getting a correct positioning. I was still decalling as I wrote the first draft of this post.

Speaking of decals, Trumpeter's printer, Cartograf, in Italy, have done a remarkable job on them. I don't think I have ever seen kit decals snug down into the surface so tight, and with carrier film that literally vanished against the lustre of my paint mix. The dried decal transparent areas are faintly lighter than the background, that's the only thing that gives them away. Placement instructions could have been more explicit, though. There is one interesting gaff, one of the red stripe markings that circles the body, just back of the juncture to the nose, is incorrect. Under a magnifying glass you can see that, instead of Russian stencil data, it says in English “NO PHOTO SORRY” – presumably a notation from the research team during creation of the decal sheet which, as it was not in Chinese, accidentally made its way through quality checking all the way to manufacture. Having omitted this one, I used a few bits of stripping from it to help repair the mid-body wrap-around decal that I mangled somewhat.

Final details involved spraying a grey-black mix to simulate the scorching of the rocket efflux on the blast deflector, brush-painting inside the rocket motor with a dark metallic enamel, fitting a few tiny parts on the launcher, including a few that fell/broke off during handling, then I could get some MiG “Vietnam Earth” pigment onto the launcher. This is good stuff! I can't wait to apply it to some Vietnam-era US armour.

Mating the two stages was an interesting job. A snug fit to start with, the paint on the alignment runners made it extra-snug, so I worked the boost stage carefully onto its guide, then slipped the upper stage onto its own guide and glued them together actually on the ramp.

It's the only kit I've built in many years which uses every last part and decal: there are no alternatives provided. However, three small decals, 8, 9 and 15, don't appear in the instructions: 8 and 9 are the starboard side counterparts of 7 and 10 and go at the base of the small aft fins on the second stage. 15 I haven't spotted anywhere.

All in all, this was a very pleasing model that built well and looks sharp on the shelf. I'm not sure if it's still in production but examples change hands on eBay for reasonably attractive prices these days. As a companion to Revell's re-released Nike Hercules missile, a similar vintage and role of weapon, and in fairly close scales too, it makes a most interesting display of Cold War technology.

PS: Yes, a part fell off the launcher and was not reattached before I did the photos, a sharp eye will spot the absence in the photos above. So, sue me...