Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Three Dimensional Canvas Concept

Beginners sometimes look at the sophisticated armour finishes of the masters – say the so-called “Spanish school” of weathering – and wonder how they will ever get there. I certainly did. I think my first exposure to the technicalities of armour finishing was a “Showcase” spread in FineScale Modeler, an issue from 1989, featuring Francois Verlinden’s build of Tamiya’s original short-turret M1 Abrams from 1982. He built it with a simple diorama base, of course, and threw in some figures and a map table, the vehicle was depicted on a firing range as I recall. But what struck me the most was his discussion of finishing techniques – concepts such as capillary effect drawing washes around 3D detail, and drybrushing to profile edges in complimentary colours suggesting light catching the vertexes, or bare metal.

That was a long time ago, and a suite of skills develops naturally, but those were the fundamental techniques that have formed the core of my skill base to this day. In working up a Tamiya Sherman (their original tooling from the early 80s, 35-122, the old classic) I was struck by, not just what a simple and satisfying build it was, but what a “canvas” it presented for the artistic side of the hobby.

The kit went together without arguments, as you expect from Tamiya of pretty much any vintage, but when it came time to hit the paint shop, it became clear there were two complete paintjobs to be done. The first was entirely by airbrush, starting with a basecoat of Tamiya XF-62 Olive Drab, lightened for scale effect with the addition of 20% XF-60 Dark Yellow. This was then treated with fade and shade coats, the latter being XF-62 darkened with a little black to create the shadows on the underside and under the sponsons, and the former being the base mix plus white and thinned to a greater degree than normal so as to be clouded on in areas where the sun would likely have faded the paint.
With this phase complete the model was set aside for several months while other projects were underway, the reason being that I did not fancy the old Tamiya decal sheet. I invested in Archer rubdown decals for the national insignia and the irony is that when I came to use them I could not get the hang of applying rubdowns to a three dimensional surface, and ended up using the kit decals anyway, which, as it happened, worked perfectly. But that’s another story…

The second entire paintjob was applied in oils. This constitutes oil wash in brown, black, ochre, white and orange to create streaking where the rain has caused rust to mark the surface in vertical lines, dirt has liquified and run downward, and pale streaks have appeared due to who-knows-what. This was extensive, over almost the whole surface – areas were pre-wetted with Testors airbrush thinner, a technique recommended by “Panzer” Mroshko, one of the greats of the field. Whenever streaking work dried with tidemarks, the panel concerned, even if it was the entire flank of the vehicle, was rewetted with thinner to eliminate the “edges.” The markings selected were for a tank involved in the Battle of Berlin in April 1945, so it was likely to have battled through a lot of wet weather after the terrible winter of ’44-’45. Photographs of the vehicle in question show an advanced case of filth, and the idea was to reproduce the feel, if not the exact detail, of that.

After the streaking operation came the drybrushing – a mixed pale green was used to profile all edges, making them stand out to the eye. Then came the chipping, dark brown for old rust at the head of those streaks, plus brown and black for spots of dirt all over the vehicle. The final round of drybrushing was bare metal silver, the only enamel paint on the model.

It may have been the separation in time that created the feel, but it seemed like two distinct painting tasks, two different suites of skills brought to bare; when one was over it was set aside in favour of the other. Oil was drybrushed over the decals to match the rust streaks, making it seem the markings were painted on and the rusting process applied equally to all painted areas of the hull. Very little was done with powder pigments, just some carbon black and rust under the tail end.

When the model was well along in this process it seemed, in comparison to the relatively bland basic paintjob, to have come alive, taken on character, and it was no exaggeration to say that the model, once the basic scheme is down, becomes a three-dimensional canvas upon which the artist replaces the engineer, and the skills one learned with brushes long ago return to the fore.

This was a very satisfying project, and I can say with certainty that I will build a couple more of these kits, despite their age. There are a great many Sherman kits these days, engineered to far higher standard (and a far greater cost), but this certainly looks like a Sherman, and the overall pleasure of the process was exemplary.

With the exception of the tracks, that is… The old vinyls had plenty of details but were simply too long. When test-fitted, they flopped badly, so the only option was to shorten them. Many will be throwing up their hands and saying “aftermarket is better!” and they’d be right, but this is a T54E1 track and the only company that makes this one I believe is Bronco, and reviewers point out that their track does not fit the Tamiya sprockets unless the latter are widened with shims at the assembly stage. I was not about to buy AM sprockets as well, unless I absolutely had to (assuming they are also made), so first I tried slicing out two links carefully with a fresh blade and rejoining the tracks with superglue and thread. The thread probably handled most of the tension, being introduced through drill holes and the knots themselves glued hard. The finished tension it’s sure evocative of American “live track” and with the flaky, damaged paint touched up, the eye did not pick the intervention.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Breaking Your Dragon Virginity – Take Two

Several years ago I posted a piece on my first Dragon kit, an Imperial (?) or 39/45 Series StuG III/F.8. I thought I was really going to break it that time, but after a fair bit of work that kit was part of a batch sold on…

I have in fact built some early Dragon kits reissued by Zvezda, their T-72B w/ERA and BTR-70 in Afghanistan trim, so I suppose I’ve not been a Dragon virgin in many years, but for a more sophisticated, more up-to-date outing, and perhaps one actually in a Dragon box, I have so far no real track record.

I broke that recently, with Dragon’s #6500, Brummbar Mid-Production w/Zimmerit. I have often observed that Dragon’s operating philosophy is never use one part if five will do, and this one is no exception, but construction was surprisingly straight forward. The notorious omissions and inaccuracies in the plans were not much in evidence, but the sheer complexity of what’s happening on paper means you can miss things. The driver’s periscope, for instance, can only be installed, pre-masked, from underneath, so, obviously, you need to have done this before installing the compartment to the main superstructure or the superstructure to the hull. If this was a Tamiya kit there would be a cartoon alongside the step with their sergeant-major character pointing at the parts and informing you of the assembly sequence…  Ah well, mine is shown with the periscope “in the down position,” right…

Moulding was crisp and sharp, plastic responded well to cements of various types, and as usual with Dragon kits, you get copious bits for your spares box. The decals were a nice surprise, very thin, quite matt in finish (obviating the need to mess about with clear coats if you prefer a flat finish straight from the airbrush), they freed off readily and snugged down over zimmerit with Microscale chemistry – pulling into the roughness even before the red label solution was applied. Some crosses were a tad out of register, though. You also get etched schurtzen, which, somewhat perversely, in this case might just end up applied to Stugs and the older Brummbar by Tamiya. Woven wire for the tow cables is another very nice touch, however instructions as to exactly how you’re meant to install the cable holders, when there is perhaps 1.5mm clearance under the intake assembly, a 1mm attachment hole for glue to grip on and the wire is spring steel that does not readily accept a kink, are another matter. After a great deal of fiddling and superglue I threw the cables back in the box – there is such a thing as overthinking the details.

On the downside, there were overcomplicated assembly sequences and extreme “fiddlyness” resulting in many parts being simply knocked off as one tried to pursue later assemblies. If they even had sturdier attachment points it would help, but at times Dragon seems to rely on “superglue and prayer” like some limited-run or amateur outfits, which is hardly reasonable. There are instances of pegs with no holes to go into… The jack block, for instance, and one of the tools. When Hobbycraft does this they come in for a tongue-lashing, and I see no reason why Dragon should be immune.

Overall, I think what took so long for me to finish this one were the etched parts (what a surprise) and of course the “Dragon Styrene” tracks… Much has been written about them and all of it is true. The material captures detail wonderfully, accepts paint beautifully and bonds tightly with superglue or other styrene cements, but… They’re too long. Almost everyone bemoaning DS tracks online says the same thing. It goes back to my post some years ago, why oh why do kit companies have such dire problems with tracks? If it’s not Trumpeter with their three-links-short tracks for the Type 89 family, it’s Tamiya’s inexplicably saggy yinyls for their Sherman… Perhaps the DS tracks are too long so you can distort them to create German dead-track sag – a nice theory, except their DS Sherman (live) tracks are way too long as well. The number of links on the Brummbar tracks was correct, 98 per side, but they are two or three links long to sit snugly (meaning a fresh, pre-stretched track, which incidentally is what is depicted in both the box art and the instructions). Of course, you don’t know any of this until you come to install them almost at the very end of the project, meaning everything is already painted and they’re joined up, so fancy rigging to force sag was not planned for from the get-go. Maybe I should be more cynical where tracks are concerned, expect problems, but for the price Dragon charges and its fancy-schmancy DS patented stuff, and the sweet detail they capture, you’re lulled by all the big-buck quality and actually expect them to just tension neatly into place.

No such luck. As I’ve said before, there’s a bone in my head that will not spend more for an accessory than for the kit itself, so Friuls were not an option. I’ll need to be a lot richer and have a lot more time on my hands before I go that road. Bronco’s and AFV Club’s styrene indie/workable tracks look good but are so fragile they fall apart if you breathe on them, and the fact is I have other projects to get on with, this one has had its fiddling time already. My solution was to cut the tracks apart, excise two or three links (two was plenty) and join them up again with superglue, plus drill through adjacent links and tightly bind them with black thread. I’ve done this before, on a project many years ago, so I know it works, I just hate the necessity of doing so; the fact is the DS material bonds so well that the track rejoined surprisingly well. It doesn’t cut so cleanly, so a sharp blade is recommended, and I hid the join up under the sponsons so the thread was unlikely to be seen by any who didn’t already know it was there. If you were so inclined, you could hide such a join with a dollop of mud. The real irony is that while the port side track needed shortening, the starboard was close enough to get by with and just ignore the slackness at the idler for the moment. If it gets to me, I’ll take out a link at a later date. In future I know to shorten the four-link mating tongues by two links, which will be much simpler and neater. Yes, I guess that means I’ll be building more Dragons and using more DS tracks…

The sprues for the individual spare track links did not seem to be in the box so I used links from an Academy set; they actually needed more cleanup than they got, it was not until I enlarged photographs that I saw the ejector pin marks… Blame eyesight for that one!

The model certainly looks good on the shelf, despite having shed bits of etch and been repaired several times as handling messed up over-fragile details. I used the sprayed-on road grime technique again and it has a convincing visual “feel” to my eye. It was a good kit to build, a challenge in its own way, but most kits are in one sense or another, and I’m very happy to say that my Dragon cherry has finally been popped.