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