Friday, December 30, 2011

Kit Review: Tamiya #35156 M1A1 (ODS) MBT

What is there to say about this kit that hasn’t been said before? Probably nothing. But it’s a good one and deserves to be revisited. It’s commonly available and while the accuracy brigade are quick to point out the many flaws (more in the nature of omissions than flaws, really) it builds with typical Tamiya ease straight from the box and the finished model captures the stance and feel of the Abrams.

The M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank is one of a handful of vehicles that seem to have reached a plateau in the development of armour. No new MBT has been designed in America in 33 years, there has been no need because the M1 is largely invulnerable to other tanks, is invariably lethal to them, and after three decades in service is as much an institution as the M16 rifle (which has been around for five). In that time model companies have produced a lot of kits, some better than others, some more buildable than others, but not a single one is 100% accurate, not even Dragon with its patented slide-mould technology. Experts have done the work for the modeller having an attack of AMS (Advanced Modeller Syndrome), you can compare several of the top kits at Vodnik’s site, while a complete list of necessary modifications to accurise any particular kit, assembled by those highly versed in the m1’s anatomy and evolution, can be found here as a downloadable .pdf. On the basis of that .pdf, there are a great many details I overlooked, but I’m not quite so afflicted with AMS that I am up to putting 1:35th scale split-pins and retaining chains on bolts. I can’t build an Abrams without doing at least some superdetailing, and I have done more on this one than previously, around 18 physical additions, plus AM decals and every finishing trick I can think of.

This kit was a retooling of Tamiya’s early-production M1 of 1982, produced about a decade later to reflect vehicles used during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Basically it is an early generic M1A1, identified as such by the 120mm main gun, revised MRS, main sight, ammo blowout panels and crosswind sensor, smoke grenade stowage boxes, long turret stowage bins, and of course the “bustle rack” for crew gear stowage. The only hull modifications are the NBC environment panel on the port flank (which is missing an important detail) and the cutaway rear panels of the skirt armour.

Assembly is largely based on the 1982 original and the kit falls together as well as it ever did, the only hitch being a tiny mismatch in the upper hull to rear hull joint line, which calls for a bit of finesse and maybe a lick of filler. It’s largely up to you how much superdetailing you want to do, some details are easier than others. Drilling out the solid-moulded towing lugs fore and aft is a no-brainer, and adding missing bolt heads from slivers of styrene rod is another easy one. Relocating the portside grab handle on the forward hull about a scale foot forward to its proper location is another easy one. I also floored the bustle rack with Voyager's photoetched wire mesh part, a distinct improvement on the vinyl mesh supplied in the kit.

Tamiya missed a host of details. The “Z-springs” that tension the hinged forward mudguards are still absent and are easily made from bent spring steel wire. On the NBC panel, a triangular fillet is needed, with a hole drilled to represent the crew heater drain; likewise, the cabin heater intake is missing from the port flank hull and can be made up from a few small pieces of plasticard. On the starboard flank, under the edge of the turret, the bilge pump outlet is missing (only Trumpeter seem to have nailed this detail), and it can be scratched from card and brass tube. A bracket was missed from the hinges of the rear engine bay doors, and some plates and lift lugs too, all easily scratched from cardstock and wire.

A major criticism is the running gear (above), as the return rollers and idler axle detail are entirely spurious. I had been going to rebuild it all, including the track tensioning piston on each side, but realised that it would be wasted effort. This tank has side skirts and not one item I just mentioned is ever going to be seen, so why bother? The T-156 track is not accurate, the guidehorns should be between links rather than centred on them, but, that said, Tamiya’s T-156 track is the most accuarate in any kit, whether vinyl or styrene (according to Vodnik), and the only replacement set is both very expensive and of the dreaded individual link variety, so I was very happy to overlook this point (as discussed in my previous post).

Assembly was largely trouble-free and the most fiddly and frustrating jobs were late in the process. The barrel of the 7.62mm MG was snapped on the sprue, as was one of the tow cables, and they required very delicate repair with cya, and the antennas are fully scratched. The shorter mast I always make from .015” wire, but the heavier, taller mast I make by scraping .035” rod thinner toward one end, then bending it and CA’ing it into place. The tiedown is usually a plaited bungee chord, and for that I used spandex thread (EZ-line, rather simpler than unpicking elastane thread from a pair of nylons, like I did last time I built an Abrams!), twisted repeatedly, and this took three attempts and a large part of an afternoon. Tying knots with tweezers is my least favourite thing (barring L&L tracks…), but it makes a pretty realistic tie-down. The plastic balls on then ends of the masts are made by dipping the tip repeatedly into paint, and the flexible spring-type mounting at the base of the big mast was done with strips of tape, painted metallic. Trumpeter moulded this part properly, and Academy did so, on other subjects; I doubt their Abrams kits feature them as they were cloned from Tamiya’s.

I used Echelon decals which went on without a hitch (but for one which flicked away from the scissors and vanished) and my only criticism is that they are rather glossy. For that reason I held off on a final round of Mig pigments as I’ll see if I can source a decent clear flat to take the shine off the decals first. One task in pigments that came out very nicely was the burned metal on the transom above the exhaust vents (below), accomplished in seconds with two shades, Vietnam Dust and Black Smoke.

To this day Tamiya provide only tiny scraps of clear plastic for the periscopes, a great let down. I replaced them with styrene inserts and painted them all gold to suggest the prismatic tone of the real deal, but I was not very happy with the way they turned out. I would prefer to look for an aftermarket substitute in future.

Overall paintwork was Testor Model Master Acryl #4812 US Army/Marines Gulf War Sand, a non-FS shade originally mixed from available supplies in-theatre. It went on very well indeed, though my surface prep could have been better, I found myself respraying some spots around the front end when masking took the paint straight off. The tracks, as detailed in a separate post, were done with mainly Tamiya Acrylics.

The finished model looks the part and has enough extra detail to satisfy my desire for accuracy without breaking the bank re my bench hours, or my pocketbook. I could go on, but… Who looks under a tank model to know if the hull bottom is accurate? To be fair, the next Abrams I build will be Trumpeter’s HA and one of the Dragon offerings with all kinds of fine detail, including non-slip texturing moulded in: I ignored the necessity this time as there were some –A1s in Desert Storm which had not received the coating when they went to the Persian Gulf, so I can claim at least some accuracy. I’m happy with the model, my first Gulf War armour, and feel this kit, despite its age and legacy of parts from 1982, captures the design well enough to provide a solid basis for superdetailing, while avoiding the fit and assembly issues reported of at least some of the kits which offer superior detail right out of the box.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tracks: A Six-Part Process

It’s been the proverbial age since I last posted, what with completing my PhD, working, and a recent trip to the UK for a conference, but I’m at last back on the bench and have something work talking about.

Tank tracks are an area I’ve discussed on a few occasions, mainly to grumble about link & length and how I detest them. This time I’d like to talk about the finishing techniques that are applicable to all sorts of track approaches.

Building Tamiya’s 1:35 M1A1 (ODS) is a straightforward experience and I superdetailed with 17 corrected or missing detail items (it seems I can’t build an Abrams without adding as many missing details as I can, though I’m nowhere near a full amplification, according to the experts…) The vinyl T-156 tracks are the most accurate of kit offerings but still not correct (the guide horns are centred on the links, when they should straddle the gap between links), but I did not feel like spending the $$ for an AM set, especially as they would be L&L, which I loathe.

Never mind, I can live with the discrepancy. What about making that grey vinyl look like steel that’s been run across a desert?

It turned out to be a six-step process, starting with a base colour (above). I looked at photos of M1s in service and noted the general colour of their tracks, which of course reflects the terrain. I mixed Tamiya Acrylics Buff (XF-57) with NATO Brown (XF-68) and Dark Sea Grey (XF-54) at a ratio of 20:3:3, and coated both sides of the tracks. I tape or pin the tracks to a length of card to control them as I’m doing this.

Step 2 (also above) was the really boring one – paint the track pads and blocks into flat black (XF-1) individually. I used a small, flat sable brush and for once the Tamiya paints behaved themselves reasonably well coming off a brush. The effect does not have to be precise by any means, real tracks are so coated with filth that the point where rubber meets steel is rarely obvious to the naked eye, so I used a near-drybrushing technique across the raised areas, then blocked them in.

An oil wash was the third phase, van Dyke brown suspended in enamel thinner run into all detail areas on both sides, a fairly quick process that created some depth. It’s subtle, but it’s visible above.

The fourth step, also above, was to overspray the tracks with well-thinned Buff (one part paint to three parts thinner, which is 600% over-spec for Tamiya) to simulate dust ground into everything, and which toned down the starkness of the fresh black to a grey-beige which looks pretty good against many service photos.

The job was nearly done by this point. Drybrushing with silver to create bare metal wear on the guidehorns and some external link ends came next, and a light wash here and there of bright rust to add visual interest. Step 6 was MiG Gulf War Sand pigment powder, but that technically would go on overall when everything else on the beast was done, and in the shot above is added to just one part of the right-hand track to demonstrate how it settles into declivities. I called it done at this point and set the tracks aside for later.

Tracks are not difficult to make look good, but it does take a little thought beforehand, and the patience to work through the process when it gets a bit tedious!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Product Review: Model Master Acryl Paints

The quest for less-obnoxious spray painting is never over, and while I have had great pleasure with the Tamiya acrylics range they just don’t have matches for many of the standard shades in use, whether German RLM shades or modern US Federal Standard colours. What few they do purport to match are actually very wide of the mark (for instance, their equivalents to RLM 02 grey, RLM 70 schwartzgrun, or British Sky are not satisfactory and require mixing to improve.)

The Pollyscale acrylic range is hard to find in Australia, and Humbrol acrylics are not imported, nor are Revell Aqueus. But recently, distributors have begun to bring in the Model Master Acryl range, and these are definitely worth a look. Colours are matched by precise industrial techniques, same as for the old standard MM enamels range, and the paints are supplied in the same old fashioned bottle. Some people have criticised the bottle design as hard to stir, favouring the Tamiya broad-neck type, but I have never had an issue, perhaps because I cut my teeth stirring paint in Humbrol tinlets, after which, it’s fair to say, anything is an improvement.

Obviously, my base for comparison is the Tamiya range, and on that footing, I can make the following observations:

Model Master Acryls are a virtually odourless formulation, there is no ester-smell on opening the jars. Though it seems they separate into phases when standing, a shake seems to do most of the work, they need very little stirring and recombine fully. I have sprayed light and dark shades and they seem to have equivalent covering ability. Thinning is an issue in point, these paints seem to demand 25%, compared to 50% for Tamiya, meaning you use proportionally more paint from each bottle in any given job. Any more than 25% and spatter begins to develop, which if controlled through flow rates and brush motion sets down in a somewhat pebbly fashion, drying with excess gloss. The finish seems to be somewhat harder, more durable, than that of Tamiya paints, and it can be said that the paints go on and lie down differently, though I would be hard pressed to actually describe how. They certainly dry quickly, from a wet, almost pebbly application to a dry, satiny coat in a few minutes.

Random gloss patches have been reported by others but I have yet to encounter this phenomenon with these paints; in any case, if using topcoats, it’s neither here nor there. Another general criticism is their tendency to tip-dry, blocking the airbrush, which I have encountered when spraying a fairly large amount of paint in one session (doing the template technique on a set of tank wheels, for instance), however under normal circumstances this does not seem to be a bother (nor is it affected by increasing the thinning ratio). I image it will become more of an issue in warmer weather.

One last point, these paints are entirely appropriate for applying with a brush, something Tamiya paints really do not like to do. After many years of struggling with touch-ups in the Japanese range, I can now dip a brush and have the paints go on the way enamels do, rather than the frustrating wipe-on, wipe-off effect of the others.

At this point I have used only four paints from this range. I am thinning with Tamiya thinner which is completely compatible, and cleaning up with water, between airbrush strip-and-clean sessions using Tamiya thinner and a Paasche brush set (invaluable, the best buy I ever made for ensuring the airbrush remains fully serviceable at all times.) I will be expanding my range and applications, and expect to be trying their gull, ghost and compass greys in due course.

I would recommend Model Master Acryls to anyone painting indoors and who is interested in their health. The range is very large (it takes three pages at the Testor website to present them all), and as acrylics they can be mail-ordered by air from the US or elsewhere. See the range at:
I’m happy with their performance so far, and will continue to acquire shades, but I will be using them in concert with the Tamiya range which, though it may be just familiarity with these paints over so many years, seem to be a tiny bit more user-friendly in the way they go on when sprayed.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Simplifying Soft Masking

Back when I started this blog, one of my most-viewed early posts was about detailing Hasegawa’s Bf 109 K-4, and one of the techniques I explored was soft-masking, cutting card masks for the camouflage and applying them clear of the surface by an eighth of an inch to hopefully create soft-edged demarcations.

I have been putting together Hasegawa’s Bf 109 F-2 in markings for Operation Barbarossa, and when coming to soft-mask the camo this time an interesting twist struck me.

I had not particularly thought about the masking until I got to the relevant stage, then I compared the pattern on the K-4 to the one on Werner Molders’ aircraft to see if the same masks would serve, at least for the wings and tail, but the pattern, being hand-applied on the original aircraft, was different enough to warrant a new set of masks being cut.

Rather than a process of trial and error, holding pieces of card to the model and trimming them until they looked about right, and in the absence of a 1:48th scale reference drawing, I pulled another unbuilt 109 from my stash and laid the wing, tail and fuselage parts onto a sheet of light card, ran a pencil around them and abruptly had my profile plans. From that point it was an easy matter to copy the camouflage from the kit plans onto the sketch and outline the segments to be cut out. It doesn’t even have to be very exact.

The virtue is that you can pre-design cutaways to fit around the wings or to run under the tail surfaces, or long tapers to shield the sides of the fuselage, helping reduce tape usage. And, if you’re careful with the cutting out, you’ll have a negative mask as well, which you can lay over the opposite tonal area to touch up overspray if needed.

On this model I’m using Model Master Acryl paints (well, on three models simultaneously, in fact), so look for a review of these paints in the near future.

My too-full schedule has been cleared somewhat lately, so look for new posts rather more often.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Not Retiring Enamels After All

Real life has been in the way bigtime, it’s been three months, to the day, since I had a chance to post, but finally I have the time and something important to look at.

Last year I posted a speculative point that acrylic paint technology had almost reached the point that it was worth retiring enamels altogether, for their toxicity and stink. How many of us spray outside to keep the fumes from offending the family? And mortgage our health in any case, as unless we can afford a proper industrial respirator, we’re going to breathe in at least something of the atomised hydrocarbons or whatever other noxious fumes our airbrushes emit.

I have spent most of the last year studiously avoiding enamels, my last enamel job is awaiting completion, and that last camo shade will probably go on with acrylic anyway, just like the topcoat. But where metallics are concerned, acrylics are just not up to snuff yet.

Reviews of the original Tamiya range many years ago reported a granular effect from their silver, and though their paints are now better made, more finely ground or whatever, that granularity is still with us. Add in difficult conditions of temperature and humidity and you can have a mess.

I recently set out to do the natural metal parts of a whole line of Phantoms, and Tamiya acrylics only wanted to spatter and dry like pebbledash paving. Next I gave the Talon brand another go, but I don’t think I’ve encountered a more unfriendly and delicate formulation. I ended up with five sets of tail fins to sand clean for the second time, as the ‘gradual build up of mist coats’ technique was gradually building up little more than … pebbledash pavements.

In frustration (and as I had an hour with the family out) I pulled out an ancient bottle of Model Master Chrome Silver. There was a tiny bit of sludge at the bottom and I was about to bin it, but decided to give it a go anyway. Tamiya X-20 enamel thinner reconstituted it perfectly and it went onto the engine areas of five Phantoms without a hitch, and without the spatter effect that has had me convinced lately my airbrush’s #3 needle needs replacing.

I should have just sprayed everything in enamel and given the Talon a miss, then the whole job would be done. After masking I can do the darker shade in acrylic, Tamiya Aluminium and Gunmetal are far less temperamental than their Chrome Silver, but for the bright base it turns out there really was no alternative. I’m not saying the Talon paints aren’t excellent, but they’re a technique that takes practice, and a patient hand, and I hope one day to have the chance to find my feet with it.

For now, I find myself thinking again about that fumehood setup and respirator for the hobby workshop ("mancave," is a common term for it, but that's sexist, there are plenty of great female talents in the hobby) that's out there on the horizon. Enamels really do flow on so beautifully… It’s a pity they’re poison.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Balancing Time

How often do you hear the phrase “real life got in the way?” The plastic modelling hobby can be a time consuming one, you’ll usually read in FSM’s Workbench Reviews how many hours building a particular kit consumed, and those numbers are sometimes quite high. Then there are competition builders who are known to invest thousands of hours in a single project.

Where do they get them? We all have “real” lives (as if the hobby that brings us satisfaction and bolsters us against the trials and pitfalls of “real” life is any less real) and we need to share our time among our commitments. So much for work, so much for family (plus commuting, eating, sleeping…) All of these come before the hobby. I strongly suspect many of us use hobby hours as “get your head straight” time -- way to shut out the clamour and put things back in perspective.

But there’s a balance at work there as well. You can become so involved in a particular train of thought or endeavour that it’s hard to switch tracks to the hobby more, so when you find you have some time available you can’t mentally make the switch and use it productively. I currently have a grand total of 29 models in various stages of completion, some of which have been shelf-queens for many years, but can I find the ability to jump tracks, now Australia’s five-day long weekend has arrived? It isn’t easy. My brain is stuck on my PhD, and while that’s a good thing, I would really like to complete one or maybe two models over this national holiday, as well as re-tally field data and tabulate results. It goes a way to explaining why it’s been three weeks since I posted here…

I was once chatting with a friend about the long list of scratchbuild subjects I would like to do, and he asked “how long do you plan on living?” Meaning, it can take years to finish a single ambitious project, as I well know. My answer was “several hundred years,” which fits my cosmological outlook, certainly at this point in life, and tends to validate still collecting kits when the stash is on its way toward 1100. This year will see my largest completion output ever … but it’s not easy getting my head out of professional space and back into hobby-land.

Maybe you just have to have priorities!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I’m Stunned

I could say I’m disgusted, bemused or distressed, just the same. Even na├»ve… I read on a net forum last night that there was never a business agreement between Tamiya and Academy…

I flipped through an Academy catalogue in the early 90s and nodded with a certain boredom at the time as I recognised item after item as being Tamiya, 1:350 battleships, tanks I’d already built… I assumed, and of course that’s always a bad thing. It may be something to do with the Western mindset that can’t comprehend thieving on this scale, that twenty years later it comes as an amazement.

The discrepancy I noticed and wrote up last time but one is symptomatic, perhaps. Was it a change instituted to get around some aspect of copyright? Or some mysterious feature added in? Who knows, the only thing for certain is that copyright in Asia, certainly in the late 1980s, was so nebulous a thing that one major company could establish itself by stealing the product line from another. That’s cut-throat…

My respect for Academy just went down a notch, but hopefully their business practice had more integrity once they were up and running. Mr Tamiya must have had some deep discussions with his legal team at the time, but I doubt he ever stooped to stealing back from Academy. (Personally I’m amazed he ever reboxed Italeri and Monogram, the Tamiya name is associated with another class of product.)

The knock-off product certainly was not pantographed, there is none of the characteristic softness. My guess is that laser inferometery was up to the job, and Tamiya sprues were scanned into a 3D model and output through a CAD/CAM process to cut new moulds. This process was in use in the early 90s in film-making, to translate a sculpted miniature into a 3D model, so in industrial terms it might have been around as early as ’87… Switching out the part numbers and rearranging the plan drawings might have instituted just enough difference for them to call it a new kit.

I guess the collector can only shrug and accept a good deal when it comes along. The Academy knock-offs were not much cheaper than their identical cousins, but you can pick them up on eBay for a decent price these days, a fair few dollars less than originals. That StuG is ready for paint, but it will always carry a mental tang, for me, that the Tamiya original does not, and it’s all about the notion of legitimacy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Close to Home

Last week the news could talk about little else than the disaster in Japan but the novelty seems to have worn off, they’re back to the staples of politics, crime and celebrity hijinx. Now you need to dig online to find that the radiation levels in Miyagi are now 100, 000 times the normal background levels, and that fallout has been detected in the environment as far away as Michigan. But it seems an impending British royal wedding is far more important than keeping people informed as to how bad the situation is – or constitutes a diversion from it.

Okay, off the soapbox and back to regular programming – but it was brought home to me sharply today when I dropped by my LHS for some Tamiya paint. I had used up my NATO Black and needed another coat on the tires for three tanks, including the StuG IV featured in my last post, and am down to a drop of German Dark Yellow also, but could only source the black. The chap on the counter checked the chain’s other store to see if they could have the yellow sent down for me, but it was sold out there also. Why? Japan…

One doesn’t normally think of the hobby supply chain being as time-sensitive as this. One imagines a container-load of stuff comes from a particular ‘industry of origin’ in to a particular distributor and is shared out around the country maybe two or three times a year, but a fortnight after a disaster in the country of origin supply is in a serious pinch here in Australia, and that makes you do a double-take.

Where would we be without our plastics-derived materials science? Quite apart from the health concerns, that microscopic particles of plastic migrate through our bodies and come to rest within our very living cells (and we plastic modellers must be more at risk of this than other parts of the community that have less intimate relationships with plastic than ours, which include solvent chemistry and sanding and other means of breaking it down into ever finer parts…), we seem to be highly dependent on plastic for our amusement. How many of us willingly grab a piece of natural wood and get to work building a replica? Well, that’s another stream of the hobby, isn’t it…? How many of us set up our lathe and milling machine and start knocking out working steam locomotives? That’s another part of the hobby. too. How many would tackle a wooden ship kit that costs a year’s savings? I’m not saying that any of these things is outside the hobby, I’m saying our stream is plastic modelling and as such is plastics-dependent. Interrupt the supply and we’ll feel it.

Back at the time of Desert Storm (“Gulf War I” for those who don’t remember that Iran and Iraq had been at war for ten years previously, referred to in the international media for that entire period as “the Gulf War”) it was discussed in the pages of FineScale Modeler and elsewhere that an international oil crisis would impact the hobby by changing the cost structures of manufacturing plastic. As it happens, this did not trickle down into any serious impediment to the hobby, but it illustrates the same sort of dependency.

But where can we go without plastics or resins? Could any of us seriously set about building, say, a tank model, from wood? It’s not impossible, and would be a most interesting challenge… It would certainly foster one’s carpentry skills, and oblige one to be a craftsman in the old sense of the word, a machinist and tradesman. Building intricate, working models was something tradesmen used to do, and many of them are still found in museums. Engineers’ models for ship yards are a perfect example of precision scale modelling of a sort the world sees too little of today.

I wonder… A wooden Sherman or Tiger…? Lathed wheels, carved turret, lathed barrel, and so forth, and a hull planed from timber (the welded-hull M3A4 Sherman would be a prime candidate, or either main variant of the Tiger, with its milled slab armour). Fill the wood grain with woodstop or some homebrew filler of dope and a fine powder medium. Detail would be difficult, that’s for sure. Metal, probably... And those tracks would be rather obliged to be cast link by link, probably in whitemetal, pinned together and end up workable... And paint? Even our non-toxic mainstays are derived from plastic! (Which is worse for us, plastic or solvent fumes?) It’s all an interesting idea but is it really possible to obtain the realism and ease we expect in any other medium? Perhaps not.

I'm sure every one of us hopes and prays that Japan will get solidly on top of its shocking problems in the near future, and this will be wonderful for every imaginable human reason; certainly the road back for them will be neither swift nor simple. But, we may acknowledge with a certain chagrin, there are also the entirely unique needs of the hobby community, which has come to depend on Japan’s prolific engineering and commercial output to a considerable degree. In subtle ways, we’re already missing them.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Kits That Build Themselves (Almost)

Late in 2009 I built Tamiya’s old StuG IV kit (35087) and was delighted with the easy-build characteristics of the 1970s approach to kit engineering. Dragon sophistication had not come into the world, but Dragon over-complexity had also yet to appear, and notions like slide moulding were a technical phantasm. As I’ve mentioned on occasion, while the armour kits of the 70s leave a lot to be desired by modern standards, they also had the virtue of buildability, and before the advent of Dragon, Tamiya’s only real competitiors were Esci/ERTL and odd offerings from Heller, plus the 1:32nd scale range from Monogram and the 1:40th scale series from Revell.

I recently found the urge to build another Tamiya StuG IV, this time the Academy issue of 1987 (from the period when a batch of older Tamiya kits fleshed out their range for market impact before their own product really got rolling). The factory example photographed for the box shows a very attractive fall ’44 ‘Ambush’ scheme complete with blowing leaves, but the markings (for what appears to be the Grossdeutschland Division, going by the helmet motif) are not included. Academy scanned Tamiya’s plans, rearranged the drawings and renumbered the parts, rather a pointless exercise if it was meant to disguise the origins of the kit, all of which rendered the plans confusing in places. I built from Tamiya plans, and referred to the Academy plans merely for part numbers on the rare occasions I couldn’t recognise them instantly.

This is a very simple kit, but its 217 components would have been an impressive total in the 70s. What strikes me about it is how easy the build is. This example fell together in about four sittings, even wasting time I doubt I spent more than five hours from go before I was encountering the need for paint. The moulds were showing their age, some parts needed extra filing and fiddling to get them to line up, some separation lines were pretty heavy, especially in the suspension, but these issues were par for the course in the 70s anyway, and compared to the Dragon StuG III F/8 I’ve had underway since last year, this one built in a blink. The indie-link Ostketten on that one put me off every time I think about them.

One unusual thing, there is a gap about .060” wide between the idler axle components. The rooting of the parts, moulded onto the transom, is supposed to fit against the outer axle parts which are cast with the main tub, but the parts sit back, with a pronounced cutaway. This element does not appear on the original Tamiya kit, I just checked the one in my display case and it’s not there. So did Academy retool and introduce this change for some bizarre reason? The parts do not look soft and ‘blobby’ as they would if they had been three-dimensionally traced with a pantograph. I have Academy’s issue of the Panzer IV H with stand-off armour, originally Tamiya 35057, and this difference does not appear in the transom plate of this essentially identical kit (identical as far as these components are concerned, certainly). Whatever, that left me with gaps where none should be and axle roots that don’t look convincing.

Given that it’s not the easiest part of the vehicle to see, I decided a perfect fix was not required, and sufficed to shim the gap with a sliver of 4.8mm tubing to create a mechanical illusion of completeness. A proper fix would have been to shim it with sheet plastic and carve the plastic to match the structures adjoining, and this would have been possible before assembly, but that much knife and file work when there are finished structures in close proximity seemed like asking for trouble. This is a simple build, I want it finished, not living on my bench. Filling in the slots behind the axle mounts with strip plastic was also a simple enough process, and created the impression once again of mechanical detail, barely-seen.

Modelling is meant to be about fun, and the simplicity of the engineering lends itself to prompt assembly while the age of the moulds inescapably exercises the skill muscles to compensate. In that much, it’s a good mix. The artistic muscles come next: I’ve never done an ‘Ambush’ scheme before, and have not dialled the airbrush down for tight soft-edge freehand spraying in two or three years. Maybe it’s time to give that technique a whirl again.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Lust for Lustre

I’ve had Hasegawa’s 1:72 N1K1 Kyofu “Rex” fighter seaplane (AP 35/#51335) in my stash for over ten years, and looked at it many times, thinking how great it would be to do something clever with that two-tone finish. The last time I ever finished anything in hinomarus, it was an Airfix Zero and I was a kid, so this is functionally the first Japanese aircraft for my collection. It certainly won’t be the last. But what convinced me to have a go at it at this time (I began it back in January) was the chance to try out the Microscale Satin clear topcoat again.

This is my third build with it and my technique seems to be holding good. The photo on the side of the box shows a very clean, glossy finish, which compliments Koike Shigeo’s always-superb box art, if contradicting it in a few places, and I felt it was a great candidate for a satin finish. The paints used by the Imperial Japanese forces weathered very fast, Japanese subjects are the holy grail of aircraft weathering techniques for many, but this one was going to be clean and tidy. I just wanted to see how the whole clear coating business worked one more time.

The kit has only 37 parts (nine more build the handling trolley and there’s an optional boarding ladder), the fit is great, there were very few fiddles. Eduard make a canopy mask set for this subject in 1:48th scale, for Tamiya’s kit, but not for this one, so I masked the one-piece canopy with multiple tiny strips of tape, the old-fashioned way. There are several thin struts in the canopy and I masked these out completely, to be done with strips of painted decal, another technique I’ve not used in probably 15 or 20 years. (It worked so-so, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the willingness of the painted strips to part from their backing, or adhere to the plastic…)

Hasegawa paint callouts use the Gunze range, so I pulled out the plans for the Tamiya version and used their paint recommendations instead, a mixed green for the cockpit plus XF-11 JN Green and XF-12 JN Grey for the overall scheme. The box side pic shows a soft demarcation but at 1:72 that might be pushing things, and I hard-masked with tape. It’s worth noting, the red warning band on the float was supplied as a decal but I sprayed it in XF-7, slightly warmed with XF-3, as before coming to the decals I was sure the result would be much better that way. Would it? On reflection I’m not sure, but I am glad I didn’t fight with a decal that large, all the same. The paints went on smoothly, with no arguments, but very dull indeed, and I was really looking forward to how the lustre would bring the paints alive.

Alive is the word! I know the sheen may be a bit bright for authenticity, assuming the box photo was also way too bright, but the model has depth and dimension instead of a dull green that almost soaks up light. Perhaps that was the point of camouflage, but a model must also be decorative, and the lustre creates visual interest.

It’s also a wonderful base for decaling, Hasegawa’s decals went down very well indeed, the Microscale system pulled them tightly into the engraved lines with only a single application of setting solution, I don’t think I could have asked for better. The white-rimmed insignia for the fuselage were supplied in two forms, a single image or a nested white and red disc, and I used the latter as the single-image type were out of register. Even two nested decals still pulled into the detail with enough room for panel wash to partially catch. The whites were cream yellow on the sheet, though, which translated over dark green to a shade closely matching the JN Grey, but against the JN Green they “look” white enough to do. The decals cured overnight and were then gently washed in plain water to lift away the residue of decal adhesive.

I used Promodeller Dark Dirt weathering wash to accent the panel lines on grey areas only, as it became invisible against the green, and the panel lines, once the lustre comes up, are very distinct on the dark surface without augmentation anyway. With the panel wash done, I applied another coat of satin to seal it all, and was at liberty to unmask the engine and canopy, pending prop and struts.

A little rust on the handling trolley, paint and mount the exhausts, add some carbon staining with MiG pigments and an antenna wire from EZ-Line, paint the pitot in metallic silver, and I could call this one done. It doesn’t sit up square in the ‘dockwagen,’ it might take a shim or two, and although a solid plastic counterweight is supplied to nest inside the front part of the float the centre of gravity is still far enough back for the model to be unstable if the vertical guide marks of the float are aligned with the structural guides of the trolley.

This was a quick, fun build with which to get a bit more experience with the suite of techniques I’m using on aircraft these days, especially clearcoating, something I have only recently been feeling my way with. I’m reasonably happy with the result, it’s not perfect but then I’ve not often worked in this scale in many years either, and look forward very much to building it’s bigger brother from Tamiya: perhaps my weathering techniques will be up to making her look worn and weary by then!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Doing It (Not So) Tough

I had thought that I would be calling this “Doing It Tough,” but in the end it wasn’t that hard. I bought Italeri’s M110 SP Howitzer (#291) on sale from Squadron probably 12 years ago, certainly not less than ten, and had a go at a few parts many years ago. It ended up back in the stash because I had nowhere to store a finished model at that time.

I seem to be enjoying a run of completions on old projects lately, and there are a few more to come. This one took a fair bit of effort but nothing out of the ordinary, and a few concessions to the kit’s failings as well as acknowledging my own skills and where they were either not adequate or where I was unwilling to invest the time, eyesight and elbow-grease to achieve that extra standard of realism that is the grail of the hobby.

Italeri comes in for some flak, and not without reason, but that doesn’t mean all their kits can be pigeonholed easily. In recent years their packaging and breadth of subject matter have been impressive, as have their claims to realism and accuracy. Older kits suffer the same maladies no matter what company one considers, and, as with Hobbycraft and early Dragon, Italeri’s kits are best assessed on a one by one basis. Verlinden produced a conversion set (#423) to build the early (short barrel) A1 or late (long barrel) A2, plus stowage boxes, to be mounted on the recoil spade, that Italeri did not include.

The M110 is dated 1996, but the molds may perhaps be older. Certainly the chassis is in common with the M107 which appeared in a couple of editions from the same firm in the 90s. The parts breakdown is fairly normal, though the large number of small parts can be off-putting for some. Here and there were structures that were never going to work, such as the shell trays on the recoil spade bearers: there is insufficient room between their swivel points and the rear of the hull to fit them in their standard orientation.

Construction was generally straight forward, the dark green plastic reacted well to glue and worked well when I dressed the long seams of the barrel with adzed superglue and filler. There were many small, fiddly parts around the gun cradle and tail end, and the instructions were not terribly clear, the illustrations drawn rather small and difficult to see, so that things that should have been obvious were mysteries almost to the finish.

That said, the model went together in an entirely normal fashion. The gun swivel dropped in the same way as a tank turret but the tolerances were very close, even with the surfaces masked to preserve plastic-to-plastic sliding contact they needed filing a bit to get them to seat properly after painting. The small parts, handles and projections, were quite fragile, one had to be repaired twice.

The installation of the drive wheels was not engineered in a foolproof way and I ended up with one frozen in position. That’s no biggie, it’s not as if the tracks are ever going to roll, but having them mobile during track installation eases things. The tracks themselves were well-detailed both sides and took paint well. Italeri tracks are often criticised for lacking detail and being too stiff, but these were quite acceptable, though of course, like any vinyls, are never going to lie down along the top of the roadwheels like the tracks on the real thing. Perhaps someone makes a replacement set for this chassis, but buying tracks that cost more than the kit tends to stick in my craw.

The paintjob was all acrylic, Tamiya XF-62 Olive Drab, with shade and fade coats as per standard, then black and brown oil pinwash and enamel drybrushing in lightened olive and bare metal silver. Orange enamel was pinwashed here and there for bright rust, and MiG Europe Dust pigment was liberally applied last of all.

Italeri made a number of concessions to simplicity, such as molding in the hydraulic and electrical cables around the gun cradle as solid, raised detail, and not all of them are there either. I had considered using fine wire to replace the kit details, but after reviewing every reference picture I could find on the web, as well as some taken for me at a US exhibit, I decided not to. I either would not know where to begin, or where to stop, and in the absence of a Dremmel the idea of carving away all that raised detail added up to (probably) just sore fingers and a mess.

Decals are another area of contention. The Italeri decals are quite matt, and provide markings for four countries, all over standard Olive Drab, but the stern plate of the vehicle is a very cramped place to put markings. Either the model crowds the details too much or the decals are too big, because there was no way the German markings would ever fit into the space available. I used the US marking option and even they barely fitted.

But on the whole, the model had few surprises and was well within my capabilities to produce a decent, if simplified here and there, rendition of this important piece of Western allied artillery from the Cold War to recent times. Examples change hands on eBay for sometimes steeper prices these days, less perhaps because it’s a particularly great kit than because it may be the only kit. I would love to see Tamiya, Dragon or Trumpeter tackle this subject matter!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It’s Good To Finish

The Italeri Corsair is done, which unless I am mistaken constitutes my first finished Italeri kit ever. In some ways it was excellent, in some ways a PITA. The wing alignment defeated me long ago, but now it was nothing to break a sweat about. All the same, this kit had a way of fighting me right to the finish.

Such as… Why are the holes for the drop tank pegs too small, so you have to file them out after the paintjob has been so carefully applied? The pitot tube was moulded with the wing, and there was no way it was going to survive the years. .020” microrod to the rescue, and a little superglue. Same with that row of antennas around the fuselage, it might make sense to fit them before painting but the handling that comes from that point onward is still enough to do for them. They were finagled back into place with CA at the finish, and one which disintegrated before it could even be installed with replaced with 7mm of .020” rod. The original was a blade antenna, this one is rod. Tough.

The canopy masked nicely, but I could have wished it unmasked a bit cleaner. What is it with clear plastic and its ability to gather scratches?

The gear bays were masked after main painting and sprayed with a homebrew interior green (Tamiya XF3 and XF5 at 3:2, works every time), then overspray was touched up on the hull (yes, there was overspray no matter how much masking I used… Like this: )

The tires were brush painted in NATO black, the rim is moulded high enough to guide the brush and inconsistencies are invisible against Dark Sea Blue. Another problem, the main gear seemed to want to sit a bit knock-kneed, so I cut a 50mm spacer bar from styrene strip and braced them apart while the gel CA set up overnight. Now they stand straight...

The gear bays were given a quick black oil wash, then I added a little MiG dust in them, and did the exhaust streaking with their Black Smoke and Vietnam Earth pigments; only the red earth shows up, as you might expect. Hmph – and why is it that you discover when you’re finished that you could use MiG pigments to take fingerprints, because they certainly only show up on the model as you’re putting the finishing touches to it!

One day I might get around to chipping paint with silver but for now I’m just happy to have the project somewhere I’m willing to call the finish line. It’s great to call a completion, file the unused decals and plans, bin the empty sprues and bags, and wipe down the bench ready for the next kit, it brings a sense of progress which few other moments do. This is my first completed Corsair in many years, but I’m sure it won’t be the last, the bent-wing bird is way too much fun to leave alone for long!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Old Decals Still Work

They do say there’s a finite lifespan to decals, and anyone who has opened a vintage kit can attest to how fragile, faded and yellowed they can become. But decal technology has come a long way and when firms like Microscale came along they used only the best. I have had aftermarket decals perish, but not the good stuff.

The latest milestone on the Italeri Corsair was getting the markings on. I had meant to do Guy Bordelon’s plane but Italeri got the famous blue (substituting for white to ‘tone down’ the visibility for a nightfighter unit during the Korean war) too vivid. I have Superscale’s better version but before I was able to locate them I decided to go with the standard marking option in the kit, VMF(N)-513. I had applied Microscale Satin over the Tamiya XF-17 paintwork, resulting in a nice, smooth lustre, and I began on the underside for caution’s sake. The kit decals were very thin, very fragile, and the whites were translucent… Not the best, but there are always options.

Out came the big box which stores decals, most of them Superscale. The “Marines” title under the wing was sourced from sheet 72-20, and the non-backgrounded national insignia, with their separately printed red bars, from 72-12. These days, the range is way above a thousand sheets and still counting, and it must be over a decade since Krasel Industries announced they would no longer be reprinting their old releases. These two sheets date from the early 1970s and may have been printed no later than the mid-90s, so I had to wonder at first how they might perform.

They have been stored away from light and pressed firmly in their packets away from air, reasonably cool and always completely dry, and these conditions seem to be acceptable, because they worked fine. Superscales are incredibly thin and that makes them inherently fragile, these tore two or three times, but were coaxed into place with the standard Microscale system chemistry. The model was given a careful wash with a brush dipped in clean water and swabbed with a tissue to remove dried chemistry, which will otherwise show up instantly and indelibly as dull tidemarks under clear coats, then another coat of satin was applied to seal everything up.

Keep a thing twenty years and you’ll find a use, they say, and these decals replaced the kit items perfectly, reducing the somewhat translucent items to codes and serials. They do look slightly different, but not so much the casual glance would pick up the problem.

I’m glad these decals work so well after such a long time ‘on standby,’ as it were. My decal collection is considerable and I look forward to finally having the chance to use it properly, building many colourful and spectacular subjects in future.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Raiders of the Lost Paint Stand

Many years ago, about 2002 I think, I published a small article in FineScale Modeler about how to make your own painting stands. They have those fancy ones you can buy, with clamps and a rotating base, they adapt to any model, and sure, they’re great, but they cost mucho dollars. I proposed a simple solution, a purpose-made painting jig that will support a model while you’re spraying it. With aircraft, the idea is you paint the underside, then turn it over with the stand locating into the wheel wells, and go hands-off to paint the top.

Car modellers have long used the old standby of a bent coat hanger to support a car body while it’s being sprayed, the single most critical phase in car models. The finish on the paint is everything and getting that coat on just right means treating the job like the real thing. Armour is less demanding in this sense, as flat paints are much more forgiving: no matter how complex the scheme, the paints will be touch-dry in no time and you can adjust and move on.

Aircraft of multiple colours offer the chance to spray one shade, let it dry, then support the model by those areas while painting the next, but what about models which are largely or completely mono-tone? The axiom of “keeping a wet edge” to the spray coat becomes difficult to say the least, and that’s where a stand really comes in.

We probably all have ideas and solutions to this problem, and no particular approach is any righter (or wronger) than another. I have found that a handy way to do it is to glue together a few bits of styrene rod, strip and sheet to make a stand that supports the plane on three points, and it really couldn’t be easier.

The stand I made for the article all those years ago was designed for a 1:72 Corsair, and, working on the kit that has appeared in my last two posts, I had a need for it. Unfortunately I couldn’t find it, so had to make up another. Rather than duplicate the original design, I used the even simpler design for the 1:72 Phantom painting stand that I made in 2003 for another FSM feature project, and which I do still have to hand.

Two pieces of sheet plastic are tenon-jointed together to make a cruciform shape with the short axis equal to the track of the main gear wells, and the long arm reaching to the tail gear well. They are braced together with some 3.2mm angle stock, then three uprights are installed, the main well supports from 2mm square stock, braced with small angle, and the tail support made from strip stock laid onto each side of the sheet and another piece between them to create a solid column above the sheet. I cut the pieces in ten minutes and assembled them with liquid cement in less.

The great thing is, you can adapt this formula for any aircraft type in any scale, and if you know you’ll be building many of a particular type they can solve the hassle of how to hold a monocoloured bird while the paint is going on. For US Navy types between 1944 and 1958, with that iconic overall Dark Sea Blue scheme, it really simplifies things.

Oh, and yes, if you remember that article in FSM, it was the very same Corsair model appearing in it as I am just now coming to grips with!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Attitude: Resisting the Fiddly

Perhaps it’s the same phenomenon I was discussing last time, a mental blockage that keeps you from either seeing a solution or, just as importantly, implementing it.

I began building a Hasegawa Kyofu Rex seaplane a week or two back, a project I’ve wanted to do for ages and finally found an excuse to as another test subject for trying out those acrylic topcoats. The model fell together like a dream, there are only 37 parts in the plane and a few more in the handling trolly (the German would be dockwagon). The acrylics are all lined up and ready to go, the only obstacle was masking the canopy. Eduard make a set for this kit’s bigger brother, Tamiya’s 1:48 scale equivalent, but for the one-piece canopy of the little guy I was on my own.

Well, slivers of tape must be coaxed into place with fine tools, obviously. But it took me a week or so to commit to the task. I felt like Sgt. Pinback being told it was time to feed the alien, in Dark Star… “Ohhhhh, I don’t wanna do that… I have to do everything ‘round here…” Maybe it’s my deteriorating eyesight, or persistent memories of being frustrated by such tasks before, but it took resurrecting that Corsair a few days ago to get me to the job. Eduard makes Corsair masks but it would be weeks before I could get hold of them and they cost money, a few slivers of tape are immediate and essentially cost nothing.

So, the mind sees the necessity, the heart deals with the angst, and the hands and eyes do the job. A couple of hours work spread out through the whole day so there’s no chance to go stale on the task, and I had both canopies outlined. From there it’s easy enough to backfill the areas with tape. One concession to the approach is that it’s obliged to be a two-part finishing process: main struts will be painted, fine secondaries, simply too small or intersecting in complex ways with the others, will be slivers of decal, which will be made from clear sheet at the painting stage.

The pre-cut masks are so convenient you forget grass-roots techniques like these. I’ve not made slivers of decal for canopy struts in 15 years, so it’ll be an interesting experiment to see how they work – or don’t. If they don’t, I’ll figure out some other solution.