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!