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!