Monday, December 7, 2015

“See Your References for Exact Airplane”

I saw those words, with something of a disagreeable surprise, in Eduard’s sets of generic WWII USAAF and USN harness. Surprise because, having used their Luftwaffe sets, I expected there to be a general steer on which common types used which design. Disagreeable because I know my references pretty well and seat belts are not a subject they go into in their discussions of classic aircraft, well, at all.

I seemed to hear Captain Jack Sparrow, in a rum-induced grammatical phantasm, say in my ear “Well that is just so incredibly not helpful…”

See  my references… The photo below is a selection from my stack of P-51 references, not counting wedges of photos in other volumes, and including the pilot’s manual, TO-1. My Erection and Maintenance book (1944/1954), is the general engineering manual for the plane (no, it says nothing about maintaining an erection, and yes, the Wright Brothers wrote that joke…) Do you think any of these references says word one about the seat belts? Not even in the cockpit furnishings section at the very back of the manual are seat belts mentioned.

My nose is a bit out of joint here. You expect those who have access to the primary information to be able to manufacture the product would give a little – tell you which peg goes in which hole, at least, instead of making you guess. Maybe hobbyists who are serious enough to buy AM products have been demographically identified as latent rivet-counters whose book shelves are crammed with esoteric sources that provide all such information, so the firm can save five minutes and a microgram of printer toner by not telling you. Or maybe we’re funnier as we are…

Have you tried Googling “P-51 Mustang seat belts?” You get an eclectic mix, composed almost entirely of after-market model bits and macro cockpit photos, all of which are less than helpful because none of them really resemble the parts on the Eduard frets (does that say something about generic ideals and accuracy?), but nothing whatever about the real harness in the real plane. There are plenty of instrument panel photos out there, but nobody, it seems, ever considers the seat belts important enough to mention or depict. We modellers, of course, are obsessed with them, because they should be there, and firms like the aforementioned Eduard have made a good thing out of it.

I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of modellers who have all the data they need for this not to be a problem, but I thought after a lifetime of collecting that I had a pretty good suite of data on the type, good enough to answer most generic questions regarding detail, and it’s a rude surprise to find that it ain’t necessarily so.

How did I answer the question? I Googled a specific Eduard Mustang etched set and matched the belts on that fret to ones on the generic fret. That’s sort of going round by the back door, but it worked well enough to move the project along. I’m never really happy doing things this way, and tend to gibe at the necessity, but when the product has a shortfall it’s down to our individual cunning to make up for it. That doesn’t always mean Microstrip and superglue…

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Product Review: Tamiya White Putty

I don’t post negative reviews of things (well, except for Hobbycraft kits, and that’s okay, everybody rags on those!) so this is something of a departure. It must be very rare for the words “Tamiya” and “miscue” to appear in the same sentence, but they are about to here.

I came to try Tamiya White Putty for the simple expedient of the fact that my usual filler, Squadron White, is unobtainable in Australia at this time due to the local distributor no longer dealing with Squadron Products, and after twenty years of using that type it was a bad time to run out. It certainly highlights how used to a thing we can become, and while I am certainly willing to say that it is a matter of familiarity as to how much utility we get from a thing, there are also certain desirable and undesirable characteristics that go a long way to determining how suitable a product is.

Tamiya seem to have formulated an almost useless product. I hear howls of refute from modellers who are perfectly happy with it, and that’s fine, I can only report my own perceptions, attuned as they are to the Squadron product, and they are:

  • Tamiya putty comes liquid from the tube. This in itself is not a bad thing, thinning putty is an old trick, but you don’t always want a thinned putty. Being a liquid, it is subject to capillary action, and I have observed on three occasions that the putty actively resists entering small spaces, which is the precise opposite of what it should be doing.
  • Tamiya putty dries rock hard. The amount of elbow grease needed to cut it back is so excessive I fear parts will come adrift, and if you leave it overnight you’re in for the sanding job from hell. The options are to use a harder grade of wet-or-dry paper, but now you’ll start scouring into the surrounding plastic and need to somehow repair the surface, perhaps a sanding and polishing series. After dressing a simple gap? I don’t think so.
  • Tamiya putty chemically etches plastic. Static effects and its natural stickiness draw it all over the job and it seems no amount of sanding will entirely remove its signature from plastic it has touched.
  • Tamiya putty shrinks. Filling the motorisation holes in an old tank hull bottom – and we’re talking holes really only a few millimetres wide – took six applications because each time it dried it shrank into a pronounced pit. This is frustrating to say the least, and the rubdown required to deal with the agglomeration of putty that inevitably collects around the job after that many applications was not appreciated.
 I am writing this review in a break between sanding sessions on a new project, because my fingers are sore. As I said earlier, it may simply be that I am too used to the Squadron product, and that other folks may level similar criticisms at that one, but to me, Tamiya have seriously miscued on all the important, desirable characteristics of a plastic filler putty. If I could get a tube of Squadron White without paying about $25 shipping to get it sent from overseas, I would bin the Tamiya in a heartbeat. As it is I must persevere; I have put two projects back on the shelf because the precise nature of their filling tasks are ones I have no intention of attempting with this putty.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Finishing Product: Australian Airbrush Company Acrylic Cleaning Fluid

There are go-to products that we all use: that favourite putty, that special file, one’s favourite brand of paint. Well, there are products that serve behind the scenes of the modelling art, and I discovered one of them when sending my faithful Paasche off for some maintenance at an interstate company.

Australian Airbrush Company, of Georges Hall, NSW, has been around for 22 years and airbrushes is what they are all about, sales and service, parts, paints, the works, and it so happens that amongst their products is a cleaning fluid designed for stripping acrylic residues out of an airbrush.

The purple-blue fluid comes in a small, handy bottle and makes up with water at a ratio of 1 part fluid to five parts water, and the solution, once prepared in a small container, such as a spare airbrush jar with cap, remains potent for quite a while.

I have cleaned my Paasche with this fluid many times now, and it seems to do an almost miraculous job. I dip my cleaning brushes directly in the fluid and ream the interior workings gently, while the paint nozzle can lie for a while in the solution. The nozzle, being brass, should not be left in the solution too long as the ammonia will etch the metal, but a few minutes seems to be plenty to loosen paint residue, which brushes then remove easily.

Cleaning is a straight forward operation and results in visible bright metal surfaces, which are rinsed with a passing of water through the reassembled airbrush to prevent etching, and the airbrush is ready for action again at once.

This really has become a go-to product on my bench and I don’t see me ever being without it. I recommend this product highly, and you can order it online at:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Order of Priority

You’ve seen those photos, brilliantly finished tank models with L&L treads that are assembled before painting, clad perfectly around the wheels at the structural stage. When queried, the builder casually remarks that he “always” completes the model structurally before starting the painting process, and those perfect rubber rims on the roadwheels of said tank he “just paints where they are.” I’m not saying there aren’t masters who can do just that, but for myself I find it impossible, and the very idea reawakens long-subsided memories of childhood disasters with large paintbrushes and small parts.

So, how do you prefer to do it?

When I was a young styrene cadet, I had a strict order of priority in my mind, that building came before painting, and I took poorly to the suggestion in model instructions that small parts should be painted before assembly. It just would not compute at that age, and it took until I was a little older to start to see the sense of it. And older again before I realised that leaving the parts on their trees created the perfect handling system for items that were way too small to manipulate reliably. This means that today, I can have many parts for a model, say aircraft interior parts, landing gear, prop blades and so forth (that’s an Airfix Spitfire XIX happening in the header pic), airbrushed before they ever come off the tree. A little cleanup with file and knife as necessary, use masking solution to protect mating surfaces, and on with the paint – it works like a charm.

It’s probably all too easy to think that the method that works for us is the “only” one, and an eye-opener when we realise how differently other people do the same things. Approaches to L&L tracks is a case in point, with the shaping to the running gear being part of assembly, and the completed track being so fragile that it takes poorly to being removed and painted separately from the rest of the model. This inherent difficulty is one of the factors that has kept me from giving them a genuine go so far; I can get my head around fully articulated tracks (if not afford them) and vinyls I do not find repugnant, but plastic L&Ls do not, as yet, “compute” for me. If I can’t paint the tracks, wheels and hull in separate condition, my technique fails and I visualise paint splattered everywhere as my sausage-fingers, iffy dexterity and failing eyesight try to obtain decent coverage from paints applied with tiny brushes to difficult-to-reach crannies. The very idea of it is enough to make me say no … just no.

But those L&Ls do assemble so well on many models. I’m currently looking at Alan’s Flampanzer II and trying to imagine doing the L&Ls. Can I get them to assemble solidly enough in top and bottom runs to be separated off vertically so that everything can be painted individually, then bring it all together again and close up the tracks seamlessly? The great Tony Greenland would say no, plastic shrinks subtly on contact with cement and if removed they will never fit exactly the same way a second time. So … how?

I always paint and assemble aircraft landing gear off the model and getting a plane up on her feet is one of the last jobs I do during final assembly. I know others who like to get the gear on during painting so she’ll stand up for herself. There is no right or wrong, it’s all about what works for the individual, but surely there are limits to that – elements that are dictated by practicality in miniature engineering as surely as in the full size original?

At the other end of the scale there are also modellers who have found a way to paint the exterior finish before assembly. This I find fully as difficult to get my head around as painting roadwheels after assembly… Surely the penalty of dressing joint lines and then repairing the paintjob over the seams doubles the work? It doubles the number of paint load-ups, at least? Again, techniques are infinite and whatever “computes” for us is the right one.

Maybe it comes down to how creative we are with our engineering – how fiddly we can be, our mental tolerance for whatver the manufacturer thought was a good idea, and our dexterity and ability to think ahead, all very personal attributes that conspire to give us rather different ways of tackling the same problems. To paraphrase Taoism, “there are many different paths to the top of the mountain – but they all lead to a finished model.”

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Taking a New Technique for a Spin

It’s been a busy year of work and home commitments and this blog has been sadly neglected since February, but better late than never, so here’s something fresh from the workbench.

Okay, it’s not a new technique as such, but the first time I’ve given it a go. I’ve built about thirty armour kits to date and the art of weathering is one that offers endless variation and endless possibility, but I have always belonged to the “less is more” school, in which subtlety is the charm. One day I’ll have the skills to stipple mud onto my tanks and make it look good, but not just yet, so an intermediary stage was to try for a patina of dirt on the underside and running gear that suggested either heavy road grime or worn and dried mud in a fairly even finish over, well, everything.

The trick was to spray the dirt, of course. I have seen many photos of excellent models in which the running gear is the colour of the environment rather than of its materials or paintjob, and I was eager to give it a go, so when cranking out a Tamiya Pz. IIIL recently I decided the time had come. The markings are for a unit in Russia in ’43, end of the good weather, so summer camo with rust, dirt and wear.

The logic of the thing was simple enough – complete a normal paintjob as it would have been laid down by factory and field workshops, and then paint the dirt over it. Working in my usual Tamiya Acrylics, I started with dunkelgelb (XF-60) and lightened it with 25% XF-2 White for a scale-modified base overall. Next I added the green (XF-61) lightened to the same degree with XF-60, and performed the “squiggle” pattern. I did not bother changing down to the fine tip and need this time, I simply pushed the thinning ratio out a bit and cranked the pressure up some, and it flowed quite happily at this resolution.

The next step was to fade the camo, for which I thinned XF-57 Buff  at 20:1, creating a mist-coat which I built up gradually on the top surfaces until I felt it looked right, just enough to suggest faded paint. In the same timeframe I got the running gear ready, with the tyres prepped with XF069 NATO Black, then both sides of the wheels stencil-panted with dunkelgelb and the outer faces of the outer wheels treated with green to continue the effect. Microscale Flat was used to enliven the finish at this point with its low lustre. After that point, the fun really began, because it was time for the dirt.

I mixed equal parts XF-10 Brown, XF-60 Dark Yellow and XF-64 Red Brown and took it out to a 20:1 ratio once again, then slowly built up the mist effect on the belly plates, swing arms and behind the roadwheels, under the bow and stern (overlapping the camo), and then misted over the roadwheels, drives and idlers (the latter two less so as they are higher up). It took considerable courage to hose dirt onto the finished camo, but I quickly saw that it was following the general logic of the shade-and-fade philosophy, just taking it a step further, so I ran with it and in the end was happy. Maybe the red component should not have been there, there was too much warmth in the colour for Russian earth, and in future I’ll keep it strictly to the brown range, but the principle seems to have proven out.

After that it was a standard oil wash, drybrush and pigment process, with decals sandwiched between layers of flat. I got silvering all the same and even though the decals otherwise behaved very well, I might restrict myself to rubdown decals in future.

The end result is a good one, I think, I’m certainly pleased with the visual effect, and eager to try the technique again. I have Zvezda’s (ex-Dragon) Pz. IIIF on order, which should be an excellent subject to give a panzer grey finish a whirl, and I’ll come back to the “sprayed grime” technique for that one too.

I’ll hopefully evolve the full suite of skills over time. I now have ten models finished toward my “History of the Panzercorps” display, with easily over a hundred to go, so I have every opportunity to experiment ahead of me.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why Do We Persist?

I have written on a fair few occasions about what constitutes a good kit or a poor one, and speculated on where the line falls between reasonable expectations of the tooling company on the part of the modeller, and vice versa – reasonable expectation on the part of the firm of the skills and competence of the hobbyist.

I was recently inspired to build an early Bf 109, and Hobbycraft’s -D model was the affordable choice, as the Classic Airframes kit is off the Beaufort Scale when it comes to prices (you’ll easily see $80, even $90 US, on eBay, these days). I knew Hobbycraft would call for some ingenuity and extra elbowgrease, and I accepted this as the price of building on the cheap (not that you can’t be suckered into spending as much on one of these as for a Tamegawa -E or later, if you are simply unaware of what’s worth what.) I was not surprised when starting this one to be promptly drilling out, grinding back, chocking up and so forth. What I did not expect was that it would be at literally every step and involve virtually every part.

Hobbycraft has often been called a mixed bag – some kits are good and some are not, almost as if different engineers worked to fill their boxes at different times. While the Avia S-199 I built a few years back was good enough to bring me back to the brand, I would have to say their Bf 109 D is not one of their better outings. In fact the expression “an exercise in polishing a turd” probably sums up this build.

Maybe I’m being ungracious, but is it too much to expect that when a detail part is meant to fit a curved surface that it should be correspondingly curved, instead of flat? That the elevator trim wheels in the cockpit should have a hole into which their peg goes, instead of another peg? Or that the angle braces under the tail plane should be the right length, or that their locater holes should be in the right place so that they support the planes at zero degrees dihedral, instead of about ten degrees up? Or, for that matter, that there should be some way to tell which way round they go, given that they are subtly different from end to end? Or that the canopy should be the same width as the fuselage? Or the exhausts be more than triangular lumps of plastic? Or that the forward engine cowling actually be the same length and width as the aperture it fills?

Then there’s the cockpit, which apes Hasegawa’s assembly sequence, but the alignment of later parts depends on the accuracy of earlier ones, and the side walls do not even match the angle of the floor to rear wall part. The end result is a structure all over the shop in terms of geometry, and a great deal of filing and scraping to make the cockpit somehow fit into the fuselage. In the cockpit, it’s worth noting that the gunsight was attached to the sprue by the optical glass itself, which is a formula for disaster right out of the box. I’ll let the reader imagine what sort of hi-jinx that occasioned…

The radiator under the engine has no detail whatever, it is left to the modeller to scratch something to go into it, or buy the Airwaves detail set. Indeed some modellers buy an AM –E cockpit and drop it in, along with replacing the wheels with True Details substitutes. Decals are of course replaced with AMs, as “white box era” Hobbycraft decals are well known to be another heartache waiting to happen.

So I guess the question is, why do we do it to ourselves? Is it just a case of swapping economy for frustration? You get what you pay for, but if that is the sole deciding factor it must be noted that these frankly poor kits are out there on many a shelf at comparable prices to ones far better. There’s the challenge factor, certainly, the element of satisfaction that comes from actually succeeding in making a decent showing out of it; that should, ostensibly, be the object for every “engineer in miniature,” though frustration tends to make us not care so much about that factor when the company doesn’t meet us half way.

Meet us half way? I don’t think Hobbycraft even showed up on this one, from their poorly hand-drawn plans to their box art which does not match the painting instructions. It’s great to have a pre-war –D in my Messerschmitt lineup, but my next one will be a Hasegawa -G, not because of any specific predilection for the later models so much as simply in the name of mental health.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Quantity or Quality?

Quantity or quality – there’s something to be said for both, but the goal of many, I would venture to say most, serious modellers is to increase their skill level, to build quality, so does this conflict with the notion of quantity?

I find myself musing on this as 2014 becomes 2015 (Happy New Year all!). 2014 closed out with 13 completions for me, six of which you see above (yes, the last couple were officially done a few days into the new year, but I’ll not count the last smidgeon of work on them toward this year’s tally). I had meant to total 16 for last year, with two more armour kits in a high state of completion and a Mustang at the pre-painting stage, but there’s only so much you can do between work, family and other commitments, and hobbies always go on the back burner when there’s a buck to be made.

How ambitious am I this year? Including the three pending from last year plus a few that have not yet arrived from overseas, I’m looking at twenty, and I’m the first to say that may not be realistic. Still, to answer my own question more objectively, can I see any significant compromises in the past baker’s dozen that would suggest the tally got in the way of the art?

Well… not really. I explored new techniques, tried new and resurrected brands, finished some shelf queens, tackled difficult propositions like extensive use of etch (I’ve not blogged that project yet, so stay tuned…), completed a second “Tony Greenland tribute build,” worked in four scales… I felt crowded by the work at times, but at others was acutely aware that I was too laid back if I was serious about making inroads on my stash.

Making inroads on the stash is an important point. As I’ve discussed before, do we buy our collections to look at or to build? At last year’s building rate, my stash will not be exhausted in a hundred years, so there’s a clear impetus to build faster. But if that speed is won at the cost of either the quality we strive for or the pleasure, the satisfaction that comes from a well-done project, (or both!), then one is justified in asking quite what the point of it all might be.

We invest inordinate amounts of both time and money in this hobby, so we want the best return possible, and my instinct tells me we’re looking for a balance between quality and quantity. Yes, we want to work through that collection, we want them processed by the action of hand and eye, and proudly displayed, converting that wall of kit boxes to a wall of historic replicas, but those replicas must be of a standard we are happy to display, by the same token. Different modellers have different capacities, some are veritable production lines who crank out quality at remarkable rates, while others focus on one project at a time, savour the experience of building and painting, then reflect on it a while before selecting their next delectation. There is no right or wrong way to do it, only our personal calling and inspiration – and indeed aspiration.

So how many projects did you complete last year? And, even if they were not all your finest work ever, were you happy with some aspect of each and every one? Enjoyment is where the hobby lives, and we each find it in our own way.