Sunday, December 7, 2014

“All Kit Decals Suck”

That’s not me speaking, but a comment from a fellow modeller on a message board. While there is obviously some truth in the sentiment, it set me thinking – do all kit decals suck?

Hmmm. Good question, really, and everyone’s experience is going to be unique. I have probably over 500 sheets of aftermarket decals in my collection, so you would think my answer would have been wholehearted agreement, but the fact is I have not used all that many of them. The Hobby Boss Fw 190 D-9 which I completed recently in Hans Ulrich Rudel’s markings constitutes my first AM scheme in a long while, and my Airfix Mustang continues the trend.

Kit decals recently almost hung me out to dry, to be sure. I built Hasegawa’s excellent 1:32nd scale Fw 190 A-8 in Hans Dortenmann’s markings for the D-Day period, and as with all German aircraft, with their infinitely variable lack of standard, once you have committed to a paint scheme you really need to follow through with the right markings, and in this instance the kit decals, despite looking fine, refused to separate from the backing, and encouragement caused them to break up. They were somewhat out of register also. Obtaining insignia, stencil data and individual markings from AM sheets would have cost me around $60, which is more than I gave for the kit, and I was ready to put the model back on the shelf until a fellow modeller came to the rescue, having the same kit and planning to use AM for it. I shall forever be in his debt! More about that build later when I do a retrospective review, but the anecdote has more or less established that even the biggest firms can have crappy decals at times.

Many folks have very little good to say about Tamiya’s decals, though for myself I have yet to have a seriously negative experience with them. Indeed, I have been lucky enough to pick up both Tamiya and Hasegawa editions containing Cartograf-printed decals, and you can’t ask for better than that. Sometimes AM is not the be-all and end-all, though. I have Eagle Strike’s RAF Roundels set and while they function fine, they grip so tight to the surface they display every imperfection so they look like pebble-dash paving. When I did my Spitfire at the beginning of this year, I used Hasegawa’s decals preferentially – they were that bit thicker and came up with a smooth finish. Likewise, I used Aztek’s Hinomarus on an Arii Raiden I built about two years ago, and though they went down nicely they did not snug into all the surface detail, so my hopes of accenting all the rivets and lines crossing the insignia was thwarted, no matter how much solution I used. And again, on my recent Mustang, I used EagleStrike’s markings, and this time they refused to draw into the surface at all – where the upper wing insignia crossed an aileron jack I had to cut the decal to get it to settle.

I remember a Spitfre from an Eastern European firm I built as a kid, I had never seen decals disintegrate when wetted before – there was no carrier film! Recently I expected Zvezda’s decals to be a real fight on their T-72, but they were actually a breeze. I remember Airfix decals from the 70s that might have been thickish and the wrong colours but they never failed to free off from the paper and could be guided into place with a junior modeller’s forefinger, then actually stick down to a matt surface. That sounds like decals created with a specific marketplace and skill-level in mind!

Twenty, twenty-five, years ago, Monogram still made some of the best-loved kits on the market and I remember mentioning to a hobby shop proprietor that while I loved the mouldings, the decals were probably the poorest I had ever seen and would always replace them with AMs. His reply has always stuck in my mind: ‘That’s what all serious modellers do.”

What about Academy and Hobbycraft? Grey-box edition for the latter, forget it, black-box edition, they raised their game. I guess they took criticisms onboard! The Korean guys? Well, I’ve had kits where the decals simply did not work, end of story, and others where they worked, but grudgingly. The memory of that has kept me from being anything but wary ever since, and when I compare it to the faultless application and cooperative nature of the Superscales I used on Rudel’s bird not long ago, I can see why that chap on the forum would have said what he said. Do we really need the kind of heartache we get from substandard decals?

We can certainly do without it, but the fact remains, not every kit decal sheet is that bad. Of the kits in my display case, those with AMs or other combinations of decals to get the subject and effect I wanted are in fact outnumbered by those featuring kit-supplied markings by several to one. So I guess you could say that it’s all about the individual experience as to how down you are on what you get right out of the box. There is no denying that sometimes they are very poor indeed, but, at least in my own experience, this has been more the exception than the rule. That said, as this was written I was laying the decals onto a Tamiya Corsair (see a few posts back) and they almost made a liar of me, with their shatter-prone nature. They were very thin and featured true whites, and reacted to solvents well enough, but that did not make them usable. I switched to an old Aeromaster sheet, which behaved very well and allowed me to finish the project with some minimal reworking, so hey, what do I know? Maybe enough kit decals really do suck to make the header line a truism after all!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

New Tool Airfix: Rebirth of a Classic Brand

The last Airfix kit I built was four or five years ago, their 1:72nd scale Lunar Module, a classic tool from about 1969, tying in with the Moon program when it was happening. The quality was not great by today’s standards and I struggled manfully with fiddly bits, trying to apply a reasonable generic paintjob (the exact details were different on every LM) and to wrap the legs and lower stage in gold foil for a realistic effect. The end result was not bad but it was not an experience I’d want to repeat.

But since the 2008 collapse of Britain’s one-time flag-carrier in the hobby, the company has been reincarnated under a new, ambitious and highly competent management and technical team, and in many ways Airfix has been reborn as a competitive company in the 21st century. The firm is on its own 60th anniversary this year, and for those of us who grew up with Airfix as far back as the 60s, it is nothing short of a delight to see the brand resurge. They went through some teething troubles, to be sure, but even before the crash they had shown they could deliver competitive detail and fit, with their Spitfire Mk. 24 and Seafire FR. 47 kits in 48th scale.

I have not really had a chance to build any of the new era kits so far, though I have stockpiled over a dozen in my stash. So, just recently, I took the opportunity to try my hand at one of the best-reviewed of their new-tool 72s, their P-51 Mustang (#A01004), and I am more than a little impressed. The level of detail I feel is pretty comparable to the big guys out there, and while there is always going to be divided opinion over their engraved panel lines, I feel they have reached a point of restraint at which the effect is entirely acceptable. They could go a bit finer again, sure, but they have come a long way. (About two years ago I was tempted to try their Sea Harrier kit, and the yawning chasms put me off, I sold the kit on without really getting started. Oddly, when I was younger, I did not really mind the infamous engraved detail of the old Matchbox kits, but when it raises its head in other contexts you can see how extreme it really is.)

The Mustang features cockpit detail, wheelwell detail, convincing tread on the tires, choice of canopies (Inglewood or Dallas hoods), gunsight glass, droptanks… There is little more you could ask for in this scale. It’s not all roses, however, the instrument panel is a decal, not a terribly convincing one, and the control stick is one of those tiny parts attached by two sprue gates, which, though it may be necessary for moulding reasons (even so, Hobby Boss can do it with one gate), is the kiss of death for removing the part. Cut one gate, the part snaps due to torsion against the other anchor point. I built the plane without a joystick – and the radio mast went the same way for the same reason but I was able to scratch a new one from stripstock.

Parts fit is excellent, with only a minor lick of filler needed in a few places. The plastic reacts well with solvents, and accepts paint beautifully.

I’ve had a yen to do a camouflaged Mustang for a long while, so used AM decals (I’ve had a run of bad luck with kit decals this year and feel drawn to AMs in general). I used Eagle Strike IP7204, 357th Fighter Group Pt. 3, and did G4-C, mount of Captain Leonard Carson in November, 1944. The aircraft features RAF Dark Green over US Neutral Gray, one of those planes painted not from US paint stocks but British supplies. I used Tamiya XF-81 and MM Acryl 4757. The white ID bands were sprayed in XF-2 and masked, then the airframe was pre-shaded in XF-69 and the main colours applied. Microscale Satin was the clear coat used to seal the paint, then Florey washes accented the engraved detail and were sealed with another coat of satin.

The decals were of mixed quality – they freed readily from their backing and were beautifully printed, but had no intention of setting into surface detail and Micro Sol was essentially ineffective. This was bad news re the red and yellow checkers of the 357th’s nose band, and I ended up cutting away the parts of the decals meant to wrap around the chin intake and completing the pattern in paint. This is curious, as the sheet instructions recommend and endorse Microscale chemistry, even reprinting the well-known Microscale directions to the letter.

Final assembly and detail painting went smoothly enough, though the landing gear was a problem. The scale-thickness of the landing legs meant they were very fragile, and though the legs slot into keyed receivers the outer bay doors did not slot equally into the wing lower surface, the net result of which was a toed-in look. The gear units as a whole are acceptable, but when you know a Mustang’s legs are vertical it does grate a bit. I know what to look out for next time.  After my usual round of finishing techniques were applied, the model looked very nice on the shelf; it was not a difficult build, indeed most of the issues I had were with the decals, not the kit. In future I would do my best to paint the spinner cone rather than wrap on a decal, though other brands may lie down more tightly – this is also my first time using Eagle Strike decals, incidentally, and they may call for a stronger setting solution. (Odd, once again, as Aeromaster, which is the sister line and presumably shares identical manufacture specifics, reacts well to Microscale chemistry…)

Will I repeat this process? Well, I ordered up two more Airfix Mustangs before I was finished this one, and I can see me adding one or two to each year’s build list. (I used Eduard etched harness on this one but I might skip that in future, or at least I'll need to be mentally ready to tackle that aspect, as working with etch at 1:72nd scale, and having it come out looking decent, is no mean feat!)

At last, an inexpensive but well-detailed kit (if not quite an A+ on its report card), nicely accurate and easy to build, that will serve as the basis for so many of those decals that have been filed away for years! I can see a large part of my 1:72nd scale Mustang fleet being Airfix in origin, something I would not have expected in years gone by. Highly recommended!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

An Oldie but a Goodie

We live in a pre-packaged age, an age of immediacy. Labour-saving devices are expected, we whine if we don’t get them. The hobby is no different, speed and ease are virtues – I have certainly grumbled enough about kits that presented more of a challenge than I had the stomach for at any particular moment.

The painting mask is one of those modern conveniences, a go-to product that cuts the elbow grease (well, wear on eyesight, patience and dexterity) that old-fashioned masking called for. I posted not too far back on the thought that traditional masking was a dying art; I still do it from time to time, but if a pre-cut set is available for a model I’ll probably buy it, just to streamline the procedure.

But, and this is the big but, what if that process goes wrong?

I recently found myself in that situation, the mask set went on fine but the paint had so little adhesion to the canopy that it simply flaked off as the masks were removed. Much grumbling and cussing ensued, of course, and scratching of head and thinking back. Did I want to remove the paint, clean the transparencies and completely re-mask by hand, then paint again? A Stuka? You’d have to be joking! So… what?

I remembered a technique I read about when I was a kid and had in fact used in the ‘80s, experimentally. Frustrated with daggy-looking canopy struts and realising my dexterity with a brush was not going to improve, I had tried the “decal method.”

The theory is simple enough, paint a piece of decal paper with the inside colour, then the outside colour, cut with a razor knife to the required width and apply as per normal… this was before the day of mask sets or commercial clear film (well, Microscale was doing it, but that hallowed firm had not yet quite become the daily resource for me it would later).

It worked sort of okay at the time, I guess (I remember decal adhesion being a big issue), but I never did it extensively, my most ambitious use of it being the gridded canopy supports of the Revell 1:32nd scale Bell X-1, about twenty years ago, which I finished with pre-printed black decal strips from a Queensland firm call PJ’s, if memory serves. The need for the technique receded into the dusty attic of my memory with the coming of dye-cut masks and I never thought about it again. But faced with the failure of the modern method (I’m unsure why, maybe finger grease got on the canopy as it was being masked and resulted in a barrier to paint adhesion), the old trick resurfaced in my memory.

After moving house I could not find my clear decal film, so mail ordered some from interstate, Microscale’s TF-0 Clear Trimfilm. This is the good stuff, from the big brand. I sprayed RLM 02 for the interior and RLM 70 for the exterior (Model Master Acryls), then brushed Liquid Decal Film overall (it levels perfectly, brush strokes are virtually nonexistent), and used my Chopper II plastic guillotine to cut super-fine strips. Then, with an air of experimentation, I went through the decal process.

Well, blow me down if it didn’t actually work!

Okay, the strips were perhaps a fraction wider than they should have been, but we are talking about fractions of a millimetre, translating into maybe a scale centimetre, and it would take a near-terminal rivet counter to complain about that. I did a test strip on a piece of plastic and it went on fine, then fell off with zero-adhesion, which caused some anxious moments, but MicroSol solution got it to lie down properly and it stuck thereafter. So, emboldened, I tackled the job and in a relatively short time had a completed section.

The strips are absolutely clean and sharp, and create the necessary pattern in a way that is pleasing to the eye. Certainly where straight lines are concerned, the technique seems to be a winner, to the extent that I would consider going with it from scratch, depending on the subject.

Of course, sealing the strips is another matter – spraying my usual satin would diminish the transparency of the canopy, and dipping in Future would create a gloss on the struts that did not match the rest of the aircraft. If they are not sealed it may well be a case of them drying out and simply flaking off in time, so there is a compromise of some sort to be made. I’ll observe them over time and see how they behave: certainly unsealed Trimfilm strips used on another model about seven years ago are in poor shape now and demanding a rework.

The truth is, some strips grabbed tight, others did not, subsequent handling knocked off one or two which had to be replaced, so the process was not without frustration. Also a number of strips broke up after soaking, so at least two coats of Liquid Decal Film are indicated.

Was it perfect? No, nothing is. Does it pass muster? Yes, and that’s probably the biggest factor.  We have become very particular about the details of our models, competing with ourselves for ever-greater refinement, and we take poorly when anything gets in the way of that; it’s good to know, however, that some of the traditional fixes still work.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Down Goes Another Shelf Queen

I seem to be having a good year for moving along projects that have been hanging around half done. Five or six years ago I started a Tamiya Corsair with the intention of doing a Salvadorean bird from the “100 Hours War” of 1969, and all was looking good when I ran into a snag with the wings. The wing fold mechanism is perfect if you want to build her with the wings up, but building down, the issue of eliminating a highly visible gap is a challenge, and Tamiya’s engineering, while strong, is deceptive, in that you better have that alignment just so when you lock up the main anchoring parts, or you’ll have anchored it in the wrong place.

Guess what? Yup. I got the left wing fine, the right wing had a noticeable gap, and by the time I realised what was happening, the superglue was like a rock. What to do?

Well, I put it back in its box for a few years, isn’t that what you usually do? I took it out and pondered the problem a few times, and the last time I got the wing a bit straighter with much pushing and pulling and clamping and superglue, but it was still not right – no matter how close I got it, the torsion effect meant the glue would never hold and the gap would open up once more.

Could I tolerate a Tamiya kit with a shonky wing joint? Hmm … not really. I even considered punching a hole through the wing at that point and calling it battle-damaged, a nice flak burst through the trouble spot would disguise it fine. I recently decided to have one more fiddle with it and found the right wing to be loose anyway. I wiggled it a bit, developed some play on it and at last just snapped the damned thing away. The left wing snapped off too in the handling, but it glued directly back on fine.

A piece of the inner bulkhead of the wing stub snapped clean away too, and that seemed to fix the alignment problem, as the wing then snugged up to the mating line fine. Certainly on the top of the wing: I made the concession that a less perfect mate-up on the underside was acceptable. I also decided to build fresh for the Salvadorean plane, and go with a standard WWII midnight blue, using the famous VF-84 scheme in the kit, for two reasons – the dark blue scheme requires much less handling and would better obscure the joint, hopefully, than the four tone camo; and it would be far less work to do. The plane had basically been waiting to crest the hill and run to the finish for years, it was even all masked up. So, the quicker the better.

I offered up the errant wing with superglue and it mated acceptably. A small piece of plastic had snapped away from the skin on the top surface, so this was very carefully filled and sanded, then it was on with other prep. For instance, the Salvadorean bird had not carried long range tanks so the model was built clean, to do VF-84 in early 1945 she would need the twin tanks under the inner wings. I located the holes by the minor visible blemishes in the plastic of the outer skin, drilled them through and opened them up with files. Another element of WWII configuration was the radio-fit, which required the mast behind the cockpit, deleted in the 60s with the advent of more powerful radios, and this also was added after the fact.

Then I tackled the paintwork, the orange-yellow cowl ring, interior green over the canopy, and so forth. This is very straightforward, and I tried the kit decals. They were thin and opaque, with true whites, but shatter-prone, which caused some cussing. More than cussing, I aborted after a couple of major decals and sorted through my stash to find the same unit’s markings (VF-84, USS Bunker Hill, February 1945) on an early Aeromaster sheet, and used those. It required some fine tuning, removal of a bad one in a prominent place, respraying and clear coating, indeed more work than I anticipated, but challenge seems to be the spice of the hobby, and it was okay in the end.

The stencil data came from the kit sheet and went on fine, though the wing walks were also absent from the Aeromaster sheet and I omitted them as the kit items shattered immediately and I was right out of patience as far as masking and spraying them was concerned. Maybe one day in the future… Similarly, the pattern of tape sealing the panels around the fuel tank ahead of the cockpit was also not on the AM sheet and suffered the same exclusion for the same reason.

I did some exhaust stains on the underside in ruddy earth tones pigment, and allowed some natural metal chips and scratches to gather around the radiators, then used a graphite pencil to create paint loss at panel lines around the cockpit and access hatches, though I don’t see it showing up in photographs – I may have to be more aggressive with that.

This is my first Corsair in 1:48th scale, though I did the same subject in 1:72nd scale back in the 1980s as part of my early romance with the bent-wing bird from Vought. The kit was, in the end, more complicated and challenging than I anticipated, as Tamiya has such a shake’n’bake reputation, and the reviews of this kit were so glowing when it first came out. I’ll build it again, for sure, but be more cautious in a few places.

Monday, November 3, 2014

But is it Art?

Many years ago I had a good friend who was a student of many things, and at the time had aspirations to be an artist (she has ended up a professional photographer, so she knew what she was doing!). I appreciated what she was doing very much but she was quite dismissive of the plastic hobby. To her, kits were not art because the kit company had “done it all” for the builder already. Building from scratch, sure, but kits? No way, she said. Not art.

I tried explaining that if you give the same kit to ten different modellers and ask them to produce it in the same scheme you’ll get ten different results, whether down to skill in building, interpretations of the material, or due to variations in techniques and the modeller’s “eye” for the project – in other words, artistic input – but alas this argument fell on deaf ears.

I have often wondered where the line falls on this question. Where does it start, or stop, being art? To me, a model is a three-dimensional canvas, a primed model is a blank sheet, ready for me to create upon it a structure in paints and pigments which hopefully will convey the impression of the real thing. What about earlier, during construction? Is it artistic to fill and sand seams just so, is it artistic to assemble the parts to a high degree of precision, or is that merely technical competence (as I heard an art lecturer once dismiss the paintings of Canaletto)?

My personal feeling is that we are engineers while we are building, and become artists the moment we pick up the airbrush. There are few who would deny that it is an artistic pursuit when faced with the battery of brushes, paints, mixing trays and so forth entailed in doing a complex job on, say, fully weathered armour. And to deliver a sharp, precise paintjob on an aircraft, weathered or otherwise, is at least as much an art as what the custom car guys do, surely?

Okay, I’m biased, when I see a soft-edge camo job I both respect the skill of the painter and delight in the sense of realism it creates, perhaps as a result of still remembering the frustration of being a junior modeller smearing thick paint onto models by brush and despairing of ever making them look the way they did in magazines. Air painting changed all that, and the skill is one that is never completely learned, there will always be a new trick or technique to explore to refine the appearance of a model, closer and closer to some impossible ideal.

Is this an artistic aspiration? I think it is, not simply a desire to be a better engineer, a better technician, though it is those things also. Unless entering contests, we are rarely in the comparative stakes with our peers, and build thus very much for our selves, our satisfaction is all about our own standards, and they are notoriously difficult to measure up to. This is precisely the same mechanism for an artist working in 2D, so at that level the distinction has blurred completely. One might say that a military paint technician is not an artist because he is “colouring-in” a vehicle to a specification given to him, and though he may do so to a high standard of precision, there is no creativity in the process. We, however, then proceed to paint on the dirt, dust, rust, chips and scratches that the vehicle accumulates in the course of its duty, and these, while varying relatively predictably with the environment, are a much more flexible suite of events than the vehicle’s passage through the spray bay could ever be. Therein lies the art, I think, making a visually pleasing interpretation of a set of physical laws and effects.

Some might still quibble and say the physical laws we are emulating reduce creativity to a negligible level, but consider the results of a beginner and the long road he or she must trek to reach a level which his or her own eye will accept as realistic – this is a process, a learning curve, filled with successes and failures, frustrations and inspirations, highs and lows. If nothing else, the emotional process and fascination with what we do can easily be associated with artistic creativity (though, to be fair, a hot-rodder also goes through most or all of the same phases while developing the skills to turn out a masterpiece of automotive custom-engineering, which begs the question, is that art too? It might be!)

I doubt a question like this actually has an answer, a bottom line, but it’s certainly fodder for conjecture. I’ve seen models finished to the standard of fine art, but also “art” which is an insult to the wall it’s daubed on, so who knows? I just know that to me, the plastic kit hobby is an art form, and a very rewarding one

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Laying the Shelf Queen

We all have projects which we start with enthusiasm and then, for one reason or another, go cold on. Maybe we’ve done the subject matter too often, or we’re getting a bit jaded with the scale, or perhaps the kit turns out to be more of a challenge than we wanted to tackle, there are many reasons why a kit is put back in its box half-completed, and then languishes, perhaps for many years.

There must be very few modellers who completely finish one project before starting another. I can say that at this point in time, I have some 35 projects at one stage or another, and some have been lingering in hobby limbo for a long time. Grandest of these “shelf queens” would have to be the Zvezda (ex-Dragon) T-72B with ERA, which I bought on special from Squadron Mailorder in the 1990s.

Early Dragon is over-complex, with too many fiddly parts, this is a theme I have visited on a number of occasions, and while the hobby community has squared up to the Dragon challenge over the last 25 years or more, these kits can sometimes be made that extra bit more complicated for reasons that have nothing to do with the original moulds.

I remember an article in FineScale Modeler many years ago by master modeller Cookie Sewell, describing building a Dragon T-72, and it seemed to go together without undue difficulty. Perhaps it was because the moulds were newer in those days, but I think a key factor in the difficulty of building the Zvezda edition is the plastic used.

This Russian firm acquired the moulds for the Russian/Soviet subjects tooled by Dragon in its early days and rereleased them under its own branding, sometimes with a few additions, new markings and packaging, but the plastic used to mould the contents leaves a lot to be desired. This is a plastic that does not really react with superglue, and is not all that enthusiastic with liquid cements either. It’ll stick in the end but when it comes to the sort of small parts Dragon excelled at, with minimal positive location devices in the engineering, you find yourself in a situation where the baseline of “superglue and prayer,” as I call it, has decidedly fallen on deaf ears.

I started the kit in the late 90s (around 2000 at the very latest) and it progressed through various stages of completion until I encountered the issue of the tracks. They are Dragon’s link and length, but the question of how to assemble them when the brittle black plastic reacts so poorly to glue that the slightest stress causes failure, essentially reboxed the project for a long, long time. I eventually decided to transplant the vinyls from a Tamiya T-72 and replace them from a parts stockist later, and while the Tamiya track does not exactly fit the Dragon sprockets, it’s close enough to do.

I finally finished the model with Tamiya Acrylics in Russian “woodland” camouflage, using XF-81 RAF Green (2) for the dark green component, XF-59 Desert Yellow, lightened with 10% white, for the tan, and XF-69 NATO Black for the black. I faded it with a 5% solution of XF-57 Buff and did a standard fade/shade/wash/drybrush/pigments job. The spare track links were airbrushed the same mixed grey-brown as the tracks, but were vigorously scrubbed with pencil graphite powder to create a dull metal sheen.

The decals I was very unsure of, but those in Zvezda’s edition of the Dragon BTR-70, which I blogged about some years ago, had behaved well, so I tested an unnecessary decal and found it to be fine. The sheet is four sets of white stencil-style numbers, two each in two sizes, so you can compose your own three-digit operational numbers. That means applying every digit separately, but the white is fully opaque, the decals separate from the backing in less than thirty seconds in cold water, and with three applications of Micro Sol they pull down over the corrugations of the stowage bins well enough. I’ll keep the rest of the sheet, you never know when these numbers may come in handy.

The tow cables I’m not at all sure about, they look highly “iffy” for matching up with the rear hull, and there are of course no positive location devices (what a surprise.) I might see what Eurekea XXL have available for Russian armour. Maybe that’s a cop-out on the very last chore, but this grand old shelf queen has succumbed at last and it’s time to move on.

The model looks pretty good on the shelf, but an expert eye would notice it’s missing various bits. Some of its lights are absent, for instance. That is because no amount of glue will make them stick, certainly not strongly enough to survive painting and handling. The snorkel unit mounted behind the rearmost stowage bin has no positive location devices and I lost count of the number of times it simply fell off during handling. Both of the fuel drums fell off the same way.

In the end, can I say the model was worth all the effort? It’s one of the most detailed tanks I’ve ever built, and the contemporary Russian camo looks good, but it’s one of those models you daren’t breathe on in case something falls off again. It’s a challenge and I’m glad to say that although it slowed me down for about 16 years, it didn’t beat me in the end – in fact I don’t think I have ever “binned” a project. But would I do it again? A Dragon original, in a cooperative plastic, perhaps, but Zvezda I would have to think carefully about.

My next oldest shelf queen is probably a Hobbycraft F-86E to be converted to an FJ-2 Fury prototype. It would be nice to see that box disappear from my shelves as well!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Kit Review: Hobby Boss Fw 190 D-9

It’s not often you get to sample the wares of a company for the first time, and I have just finished my first Hobby Boss kit, their Fw 190 D-9 in 1:48th scale. To say I am impressed is an understatement. Maybe their earlier kits were more simplified or less accurate, but the state of their art has now equalled the big guys from Shizuoka City, certainly in terms of engineering.

When opening the box of a new kit, one makes an unconscious survey of the contents, making a lightning-fast checklist of what’s there and what isn’t, and this one checked the boxes with ease. Attractive packaging, colour markings guide, no flash, optional parts, engraved detail (of course, that’s standard these days), clear instructions, marking options, individually bagged sprues for zero scratching, crystal clear canopy… Then details peculiar to the subject, such as the engine accessory area visible through the open gear bays of the liquid-cooled Focke-Wulfs. Parts fit is exemplary, and the sprue gates are the best I have ever seen, not just very small, denoting high moulding pressures, but offset from the plane of the part edge so that the plastic scar left from cleanup is not even on the external face of the part!

This model built willingly and cleanly. It is true that Hobby Boss have essentially copied Trimaster’s parts layout from 25 years ago in some respects, especially the sliding canopy mechanism, but it is also true that they have made it work, while Trimaster failed comprehensively. This kit has a canopy that both slides on call and fits precisely and snugly against the windscreen the rest of the time, pretty fair engineering in this scale!

I did not use the kit decals, they looked a bit dodgy with a spotty, irregular appearance in their carrier film, the only real negative I can bring to mind (that and the landing gear suspension being moulded in the fully extended position, as is so often the case, giving the model a stance perhaps a shade too high at the nose). The instrument panel is a decal (rather than raised details, another quibble) and I used this okay, but from the beginning it had been my intention to use aftermarket markings, specifically Superscale 48-1163 to build Rudel’s bird when he was Geschwaderkommodore of SG-2. I had originally planned to use an Italeri (ex-Trimaster) D-9 for this project but stalled because that kit does not feature the ground attack hardware needed for the subject – the Hobby Boss kit does.

By the time construction was done I could already tell it was going to be one of the standout models of my 48th scale collection, easily as good as the Hasegawas and Tamiyas that predominate. All I had to do was pull off a decent paintjob and do the decals justice, and fortunately the process came together without too much drama. I had airbrush trouble along the way and spent time and gas bottle pressure on a great deal of cleaning as I mixed tiny quantities of paint and chased the demarcations and mottle effects back and forth, but at last had an acceptable coverage and the process of clearcoats, panel line accents and decals went very much as expected.

I’m more than pleased with this kit, and will be picking up some more examples. I find myself quite sold on Hobby Boss, suddenly my favourite of the newer brands, with something that bit more precise and professional, even more ambitious, than their Trumpeter progenitor. They have frequent genuinely new releases, are tackling unusual subjects that have been ignored by others, and their quality speaks for itself. I know their research has not kept pace with their technical skills, their F3H Demon kits are let down by a number of inaccuracies, as is their new F-84F, whose cockpit and wheel wells are far enough wide of the mark for after market replacements to be in the works almost before the kit hit the market.

That said, it’s probably a case of evaluating each kit on its own merits. I already have four or five more Hobby Boss kits in my stash and like the looks of what’s in the boxes. I’m looking forward to using Aztec’s decals for Amazonian Mirages on their Mirage III kit, and to putting some AW Seahawks into my FAA lineup, and finally adding the elusive Demon to my USN collection. Hobby Boss is a vigorous and ambitious company – their new 1:16th scale Tiger tank is evidence enough of that – and we may expect even greater things in future from this technically superb company.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Old Classics In Demand

Many companies give their old properties a new release from time to time – think of Revell’s 1980s “History Makers” edition of classic kits from the 50s and 60s, and they’ve appeared more than once since. Sometimes they are kits with special appeal such as unique subjects, and Airfix recently rereleased their “Angel Interceptor” from the 1967 TV series Captain Scarlet in this way.

To say the kit had a sitting marketplace is an understatement. Airfix could barely keep it on their shelves, and availability was intermittent on a number of occasions. It’s an old classic, to be sure, released to coincide with the series, but, unlike the tie-ins Aifix had tooled for the earlier programs Fireball XL5 and Stingray, this one had an appeal that left it in the range as regular stock after the primary marketing phase of the program was over, indeed the last time I was aware of it in the Airfix catalogue was about 1982. Since then it has appeared once or twice, one time modified as a snap-tight edition, and the model still carries some features from this reworking.

It’s not a unique subject. Imai in Japan did the same plane, though the two kits are a world apart in terms of proportion and approach. It’s a typical 1960s Airfix kit with no cockpit whatever, dodgy proportions against the “real,” thing, and raised surface detailing. So why should it have been so popular with the modelling community?

Airfix turned it out in their new sharp-looking red box edition, with quality plans and painting guide, excellent decals, and of course used Roy Cross’s classic box art, so all this was in line with the reborn Airfix’s branding and expected quality. The kit itself remains old and simple but a tie-in with a program which has become a cult classic, so it would have to be the special appeal of that cult status. There are a great many modellers devoted to the worlds of the late Gerry Anderson, and they must have fallen on this kit like the proverbial “seagull on a hot chip,” as we say in Australia. An AM cockpit set was produced for it in resin, and any modeller worth his salt can change raised to engraved panel work without undue cussing. A few modifications and the kit builds a pretty satisfying representation of the craft as seen on screen.

A few days ago Airfix announced the edition was being discontinued, and that remaining stock was being sold off at a special offer price. The item went OOS literally overnight as modellers stocked up, more than one bought a carton of them, ten or more, to have against the day when the urge to build one comes along. While it’s true that a great many of these will change hands on eBay for years to come, it’s also true that the demand was so remarkable, the kit’s status was immediately changed to pending by Airfix – maybe they rethought the wisdom of axing an item which is so popular, even if its target marketplace is a comparatively narrow one.

This reflects the trend to rework old classics. Consider last year’s Round 2 edition of the MPC/Airfix Eagle Transporter from Space: 1999, in new packaging, with celebrity endorsements and improvements in the form of modern, state of the art decals. There is a great deal of traction left in old kits if the will is there to exploit them, to bring them up to date in whatever ways are economically feasible, and to celebrate their subject matter once again.

For myself, I still need two more Angels!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Breaking Your Trimaster Virginity

Trimaster! 25 years ago it was a name to strike awe into the hearts of aircraft modellers. It was a company whose product was to be approached in an attitude of genuflection, because it embodied a quality never seen before. Well – I’m not sure if that was really the case, ‘Tamigawa’ were pretty sophisticated in the late 80s, and recessed panel lines were not unknown, if still comparatively rare.

Trimaster burst upon the scene with a flock, a veritable schwarm of German WWII subjects that captured the attention of the specialist market, focussing on the Fw 190 in many of its variants, but not ignoring the Me 262 in many of its own, and even the Me 163 rocket plane. The company had a high production value, a quality which in the end may have been its downfall, as Trimaster closed its doors eventually. Its moulds have had considerably longer life, though, being issued in large volume by Dragon, and in a later incarnation boxed by Italeri.

It was one of these latter that tempted me to “break my Trimaster virginity,” with the Ta 152 H-1, one of the last and most derived variants of the Fw 190 airframe, perhaps Kurt Tank’s ‘ninth symphony,’ a fighter so advanced that it was almost unmanageable by the barely-trained pilots left by the time it was delivered. Nevertheless, it is remembered for the extraordinary technical achievement it was.

Given Trimaster’s reputation, I expected big things. I got an unusual subject with engraved detail and fair parts fit… And that was about it. I say fair fit, but in many cases it was sloppy, and betrayed poor engineering appreciation for the realities of building. An instrument panel attached by a couple of millimetres of its edge would be impossible without superglue, and is barely practical even so. Sprue gates on the thin ends of parts, such as the pitot tube, anticipate a rare dexterity on the part of the modeller to even free the parts intact from the tree, let alone clean them up. The sliding canopy was conceptually good but engineered to tolerances too coarse for it to actually work, leaving you with a canopy which neither slides nor actually fits against the windscreen. The various parts of the main gear bay lined up so poorly that major filing and sanding was required for the wing to close at all, and with so much forcing happening it is unsurprising that the upper wing halves did not snug down accurately enough to avoid “overbite” at the tips, one way or another.

Add to that Italeri’s often vague instructions and indifferent decals, and you have a recipe for a lot of work to get a decent result. I ended up leaving some parts off – two oblique braces in the gear bay, to be added from the outside after main assembly, for instance – the plans gave few clues as to how they fit. Likewise, the aft-most antenna under the fuselage had no locator hole and the plans made no mention of opening one until it was essentially too late. Okay, I could have taken a needle and drill to the centreline of a perfectly mated, flushed and painted fuselage and made a hole, but at what risk? Likewise, the two short indicators that rose through the wings to tell the pilot the gear was locked down had no locator holes either, when finally examined in close detail, and were left off for the same reason. The main gear struts were moulded with the shock absorber in the fully extended – unloaded – position, giving the aircraft a distinctly nose-high attitude, though if they had been moulded compressed the moraine antenna on the underside would have barely cleared the ground. A small brace piece in the tailwheel assembly had no attachment points, and the plans gave few hints… The exhausts were moulded to be attached from the inside, but fitted so curiously, on long mounting lugs, that they would have resided entirely inside the compartment, while in reality they should be entirely outside.

I made a series of modifications and simplifications (alright, omissions) to get the job done. The exhausts I replaced with the Quickboost parts for Tamiya’s Fw 190 D-9, which needed some modification and clever use of styrene stripstock to mount them, but looked a lot better (although the resin of the parts is so fine on the open exhaust throats that it in fact broke away in many places, almost nullifying the object of improving a defect.) I added Eduard etched harness in the cockpit, a basic improvement that is pretty much second nature these days, then did my best to wrestle the beast into submission.

This finally involved replacing many decals with generic insignia, swastikas and data from an Aeromaster sheet, using the H-1 data and individual aircraft codes from the Italeri sheet but omitting the wing walk dashed lines as it appeared the decals were silvering badly, and, as I had seen the same subject depicted minus these markings, I felt justified in leaving them out. The same with the loading chart data on the outside of the gear bay doors – the decal as supplied is too large to fit and the subject is sometimes seen without them. The red flashes marking the trim tabs were far too large for the tabs on all tail surfaces so these were painted red by hand. In the end I did not rig the main radio antenna wire either; after a long process of soft masking and spraying the three-tone scheme and DOR bands, and wrestling with panel accents in lines which were inconsistent across the airframe and thus sometimes unable to hold a wash, I just wanted it finished. The landing gear reduced me to that state I call “superglue and prayer,” and, while it worked, it was a close thing. The next day, the  model was in the display case.

I certainly hope Trimaster lifted their game as they went. Perhaps this was one of their earlier efforts, part of a learning curve. I have at least 16 other kits which trace their origins to Trimaster in one incarnation or another, and I do not look forward to a fight like this again. In contrast, Hobby Boss has virtually copied their engineering in some aspects for their D- and C-series 190s, but tightened the tolerances until it works correctly. Not quite shake and bake kits, but close, and definitely playing the big guys from Shizuoka City at their own game.

I’ll have a review of Hobby Boss’s D-9 at a later date, and it will be written in light of my experiences on this current model, as a bench mark for the changes a quarter of a century makes in the state of this particular art and science. At the end of the day, I have a Ta 152 which looks good among its brethren in the case, the paintjob is attractive, and in many cases I can justify my choices at a research level rather than one of slack modelling, and that’s a good note to close on.

What Price Detail?

First of all, an apology: this post was written months ago and it simply slipped my mind that I had not posted it! Life has been both busy and fraught and even on the brightest side I have been more concerned with building models than blogging about them. Nevertheless, this blog is alive and well and here are two posts on the same day to make up for the long silence! So, without further ado:

We usually think of detail, and detail accuracy, as being rather the holy grail of the hobby. How faithful has a manufacturer been to the original subject? Have the fine details been captured? How well? Surely a kit that captures details others have missed must be a good one, and when there are many of them, it must be the preferred starting point.

That was my perhaps na├»ve outlook when I started Trumpeter’s old (2000 or so) kit of the M1A1HA tank. I used Vodnik’s site to compare the major brands and how well they had captured the fine details, and in almost every instance Trumpeter was well ahead, featuring a wealth of small details that I have in the past scratchbuilt onto Tamiya M1s to “complete the picture.” Some of them are details I have never attempted, such as the sides of the lower hull with their intricate bolt detail and what appear to be laminations of plate. The Trumpeter offering featured many moulded-in items the others do not, and the lower price was an added incentive.

The fact is, the lower price should also have been a warning, because this was perhaps the least friendly armour kit I’ve built in a while. I can safely say it fought me at every step, there are elements that were never going to line up, and for all its vaunted details, there were elements which were missed or improperly represented, so if accuracy was the goal there was still building to do on top of the battle royal that was the price of the details to start with.

Many would say this it is a good thing to be challenged, and I would agree. Certainly the construction sequence was different from what I’m used to, necessitated by the skirt armour being moulded in with the upper hull. This meant that the running gear and lower hull must be completed before the upper hull is mated, and this gave rise to the interesting process of, essentially, laying on the main paint scheme before the model was finished. When the top hull was snugged down over the lower and fixed in place, I simply touched up the camouflage scheme with a few spots through the airbrush and called it good. I make that process sound simple, but there was a great deal of filing and fiddling, of cutting with a razor saw and other adjustments to get the hull to join at all.

The proof of the model is in the viewing, I guess, and it sure looks like an Abrams. All that fancy detail behind the running gear is invisible, of course, and I still had to scratch a detail or two, and only realised after I was done that I’d missed one or two others that would have been easy to add at the right time. The doors of the main sight don’t fit, the lifting lugs on the rear hull should have been replaced with wire, the bustle rack and turret racks overall were warped and were a pain to get even as straight as they are… The rack outer face is sloping inward, which was not apparent until the tact board and stowage boxes were attached. I used these same parts on another model long ago and they behaved much better that time.

The decals, while quite glossy, were very thin and reacted well to Microscale chemistry, snugging down to the surface without complaint, and as such were one of the few elements of this kit that worked as intended. The non-slip texture moulded in is also excellent, but that’s about it for the compliments. The running gear is secured with central caps which did not fit the shafts they were meant to go over, neither in length nor width. I filed the axle stubs to get them into place but nothing would ever get them to sit down that extra couple of millimetres to where they actually looked like the real thing. As a matter of fact, almost no pin was ever the right size to enter a socket anywhere on this kit, including the main sockets that joined the hull, so it was always a matter of modifying and filing. It fought me to the bitter end, with the radio masts and tow cables, to the extent that I really did not care by then whether the details I was mounting were correct or not, so long as they were finished.

Trumpeter have come a long way since this kit, which was in their “middle era” of engineering. Today their new-tool products are world class, and their Hobby Boss subsidiary is right up there with Tamegawa in terms of crispness of moulding and accuracy of assembly. It all had to start somewhere, and this M1, while dated in its approach, was far from their first product even so. I look forward to a retool at some point, or even an M1 showing up in their 1:16th scale armour series, which would be majorly impressive.

This particular outing was an education in many ways, and I would have to say that I’m happy enough with the result. Tamiya Acrylics, Mig pigments, scratchbuilt radio masts and a steady hand on the decals, and she looks good in the line up with the others. Heck, for $7 direct from China, perhaps I really shouldn’t complain!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Building to a Theme

I’m sure I must have posted on this idea before, but sometimes you find yourself building to a theme. I found myself doing so earlier in the year, turning out a Hasegawa Bf 109 F in a North Africa scheme, then remembering that I had Gleed’s Spitfire V, also by Hasegawa, in common scale, on the shelf too and begging to be opened and finished from the mid-construction stage at which I’d left it, oh, a long time go.

No modeller worth his salt can ignore the siren song of such a notion, and before I knew it I was reassessing the older project, and imagining the two warbirds of the ’42-’43 period, contemporaries in the Mediterranean Theatre, displayed together. I doubt the pilots, Werner Shroer and Ian R. Gleed, ever met in action, but they were in-theatre in the last six months or so of the campaign before the collapse of the Axis endeavour on the continent of Africa in May 1943. It seemed just the right thing to do to build a second aircraft to compliment the first – place it in context, if you will.

The models themselves are superb, as you expect from one of the big guys from Shizuoka City, though the Messerschmitt’s tooling design calls for separate engine panels, presumably to allow for the production of change-out parts to cater to other sub-marks, and this allowed for some warpage of the forward fuselage and a lot of elbow-grease to correct the resulting inaccuracies of alignment. From the firewall back the parts matched up as perfectly as you could wish for, so it was likely simple warpage of the parts after demoulding that was to blame.

The Spitfire assembled beautifully, with only the characteristic fine mismatch on the underside at the rear of the wing subassembly to fill and sand, which seems endemic to all Spitfires the way intake seams are endemic to Phantoms, regardless of manufacturer. Other than these points, building was smooth and a pleasure, and I mixed the colours for both from Tamiya Acrylics, applied kit decals (the ones in the 109 were a special edition by Aeromaster) and used Microscale chemistry for decal set and cleaercoats. The roundels under the wings of the Spit were required to conform to various bumps and dips and took many applications of setting solution, plus attention with a blade, to lie down as well as they did, which is acceptable but not perfect. Flory (Promodeller) panel washes and MiG pigments finished the process for each, and I had my first foray into the African phase of WWII.

I like building to a theme. I have a Tamiya Jagdpangther under way, to be finished in the markings of the Ardennes offensive period/area, to compliment the King Tiger I finished six months ago, and have a Pz. IV for North Africa also underway. In a way, building to a theme allows more comprehensive justice to be done, reflecting one’s interests and the depth of research that is done, leading us on to new and fascinating projects.

Of course, themes can get out of hand… I have nine German single seat fighters underway at once, and am aiming to finish a bunch of them production line fashion, and there is something to be said for learning the requirements of certain periods and amassing the materials to do justice to them, but one’s collection shows the dearth of attention outside the theme – and begs for another theme to be addressed. What about US naval aviation? What about the British FAA? What about those vinyl sci fi figure kits? Perhaps things go in waves of interest, and that could also be a good thing. I can’t wait to get stuck into those magnificent 1:20th scale vinyl dinosaurs… One day!