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A beginners' guide to building model airplanes

Everything you need to know to build plastic model aircraft kits
Building model airplanes and military aircraft, like any other plastic model, takes a combination of skills and techniques. None are particularly difficult by themselves but mastering them will make every model you finish better than the last.

Picking your first kit: 
  • Make sure the model aircraft kit is all plastic. Avoid kits with photo-etched or white metal and cast resin parts.
  • Pick a subject that is all or mostly one color. Painting with spray cans is a good way to learn how to paint model airplanes, and a monochromatic finish minimizes masking.
  • Late-World War II U.S. Navy or Marine Corps aircraft or British Cold-War fighters because many were painted in high-speed silver are good choices.

We’ll use the night fighter version of Airfix’s 1/48 scale Boulton Paul Defiant because it is all-plastic and painted black.

You’ll also need basic tools:
  • a pair of sprue or side cutters
  • a pack of sanding sticks in various grits
  • liquid cement
  • a hobby knife with replacement No. 11 blades
  • fine-tipped tweezers
  • a couple of good-quality paintbrushes

Removing plastic model parts from the parts tree (sprue) and parts cleanup

To remove plastic model parts from the parts trees, place the flat side of the cutter against the needed piece and gently squeeze the jaws closed through the attachment point. Remove parts as you need them to avoid losing avoid losing them and to keep track of similar items.
Remove remnants of the attachment point on plastic model parts with a sanding stick. All it takes is a few gentle strokes to smooth the surface. Using a finer-grit sanding stick will take care of scratches.
Hold small model airplane parts in place with tweezers as you apply cement. The cement works by dissolving the plastic along the joint and welding the surfaces together. 
Occasionally, a little plastic can flow between the mold halves during manufacturing, producing a thin film that is known as flash (top). Slice it away with a sharp No. 11 blade. Be careful and go slowly to avoid cutting too deeply into the part or slipping and cutting yourself.

Pre-painting parts for model airplane kits

The instructions for model airplane kits often provide color information for painting details as you go. Airfix uses numbers without any boxes around them that refer to the Humbrol range of colors.
Tamiya acrylic paint was used for this military aircraft, so I mixed a little dark gray (XF-24) with cockpit green (XF-71) for a base coat. Some Tamiya thinner in the mix helped the paint flow.
After wetting the bristles of a No. 2 paintbrush with Tamiya acrylic thinner to prevent paint drying in the brush, I dipped it in the paint and began painting the model plane interior parts. Apply the paint in a few long strokes.
The slightly thin paint may not completely cover the first time. But wait until the first coat is dry before applying a second.
Black is used for many of the parts in this model aircraft kit, including the turret interior and instrument panel, which I painted with the No. 2 brush …
… and small details such as the controls and boxes along the walls. Use a No. 0 brush for more control when painting small surfaces.
To punch up the model airplane’s cockpit detail, mix a wash of burnt umber artist oil — you only need a little paint and odorless turpentine. The important thing is to thoroughly mix the paint and thinner with the goal of something akin to colored thinner.

Using a No. 2 brush, flow the wash into the cockpit detail; the thin color naturally wants to settle into aircraft model’s recesses. As it dries, the brown wash outlines raised details and deepens shadows.

Then choose or mix lighter shades of the basic green and black — in this case cockpit green with a drop of white added for the interior surfaces, and dark gray for the black. After picking a little up on a stiff, flat brush, drag the bristles repeatedly across scrap paper or paper towel until almost nothing comes off on the sheet.
Called dry-brushing, lightly dragging the brush across the parts leaves just enough paint on raised edges and ridges to highlight the detail. Combined with the washes, the effect pops details.

Applying decals to a plastic model airplane kit’s instrument panel


Airfix provides a decal to detail the dials on the painted instrument panel. If your model aircraft kit does the same, carefully cut around the decal with fine, sharp scissors.

After dipping the model plane panel decal in warm water for a few seconds, place it on a paper towel to let the water activate the adhesive. Don’t leave the decal in the water too long or the marking may float off or the adhesive may become too diluted to be effective.
While the decal soaks, brush the model airplane kit’s instrument panel with Micro Scale Micro Set setting solution. It helps the decal will settle over and around molded detail.

When the decal moves freely on the backing paper, place it in position on the model plane part, hold it in place with a cotton swab, and gently slide the paper out from under the film. Do not use your finger to slide or hold the decal as it will likely stick to your skin better than the model.

Once you are sure the model plane decal’s location is spot-on, use a wet brush or cotton swab to gently press the film into the detail.
Finally, apply Microscale Micro Sol. This mild solvent softens the decal film and helps it conform to detail on the aircraft model’s surface. The decal may wrinkle as the solvent works, but don’t touch it. It should flatten as dries.

Building your model plane

Paint interferes with plastic cement, so remove it from your plastic model joining surfaces. For example, drag the edge of a No. 11 blade held perpendicular to the surface across the gluing surfaces on the cockpit wall and the corresponding areas on the floor.
After pushing the cockpit’s rear wall into the slot on the floor, flow liquid cement into the joint. Doing it from underneath minimizes the damage the glue might do to surrounding paint. 
To join the model plane fuselage halves, hold them together and flow liquid cement into the joint an inch or two at a time. Rubber bands or small clamps will keep the parts together and seams tight.
After the glue has dried, check the model airplane’s seams. You may find areas where the fuselage halves were mismatched, causing a step. Smooth them with progressively finer sanding sticks.
To ensure a solid joint for the wings of your aircraft models, apply liquid cement from a container equipped with a metal tube. This thicker glue will flow through the joints as pressure is administered.
Wooden clothes pins make useful clamps to apply gentle pressure to plastic model plane wings as the glue sets. You can flip the parts of the clothes pins over to get a different shape.

Ideally, a thin bead of glue will be squeezed out of the joint as the plastic model parts are pushed together. You want this because it fills the gap as it hardens; removing it is easy with sanding sticks. However, be sure to rock the sanding stick over the leading edge to preserve the airfoil shape.

The seam may still be visible in places on your model airplane’s fuselage. The seam may still be visible in places on your model airplane’s fuselage. Fill these gaps with superglue. First, apply a little to the problem seams.
Then flow a little superglue accelerator (sometimes called kicker) over the seam, taking care not to touch the brush directly to the glue. The superglue will set instantly.
Sand the glue flush with the surrounding surface within a few minutes and your model airplane should have a smooth surface with no hint of the joint. Repeat the process if the seam remains.
Restore partially eliminated panels lines on your model airplanes by placing tape along the line to serve as a guide and then drag a fine razor saw gently along the tape’s edge. A few passes will remove just enough plastic to produce a consistent line across the seam.
In this model aircraft kit, sink marks mar the landing gear legs. Fill them with Deluxe Materials Perfect Plastic Putty, sanding it flush after the putty hardens.
After attaching the wings, glue the horizontal stabilizers with their separate elevators onto the rear model airplane’s fuselage. Check and double-check your alignment here to ensure they match.

Painting your plastic model airplane kit

In preparation for painting, mask you model plane cockpit openings with pieces of masking tape carefully placed along the edges of the openings and pressed into the holes.
Take small triangles of Tamiya tape and place them into the corners of model aircraft clear parts panes with a hobby knife. Gradually fill the pane with small sections of tape until it is entirely masked.
Mask the model airplane clear part’s interior with large sections of tape burnished into place to protect from overspray. Tamiya masking tape is thinner than masking tape you might find at the hardware store and conforms better around details.
Before using a spray can, vigorously shake it for a minute or two. Then you can spray the model plane, starting the flow of paint off the model …
… and go over the plastic model in smooth, even passes ending each one off the model. Starting or stopping the flow of paint on the model can produce splatters.
Try to spray the model in three passes waiting a few minutes between each. The first won’t entirely cover the model but provides bite for subsequent layers to hang on to. The second one should cover, and the third will even everything out and produce a smooth surface.
Attach the model airplane kit’s masked clear parts to cardboard to serve as a handle during painting. Go slowly to avoid flooding the parts and having paint bleed under the tape.
Unfortunately, no matter how clean the environment, dust particles and stray hairs seem to end up in wet paint.
These blemishes are usually easy to remove with the gentle application of 1000-grit sandpaper. If you sand through the paint and reveal bare plastic, simply respray the affected areas.
Otherwise, use progressively finer sanding pads to smooth the paint on your aircraft models — they often come in sets that include these grits: 3200, 3600, 4000, 6000, 8000, and 12000. Start with the coarsest and by the time you reach the last, the surface should be glass smooth.

Decals, washes, and finishing model aircraft kits

Decals adhere best to smooth surfaces and gloss paint. To remove water from under large markings, roll a cotton swab from the center out. Don’t drag it across the decal or the marking may move. If you need to move a decal, work water under the edge with a paintbrush until it floats.
Normally washes are darker than the surrounding color, so black presents a problem. Mix light gray artist oil with Turpenoid and flow it into panel lines on your model plane. Touch the tip of a fine paintbrush loaded with wash to a line and the wash should be drawn into it by capillary action.
The wash also works to highlight the detail on parts like the landing gear legs and wells.
Don’t panic if you color outside the lines. Take a cotton pad damp with Turpenoid and draw it gently back across the surface. It should remove excess wash from the surface and leave it in the recessed detail of the model plane.
Go carefully to be sure the thinner doesn’t lift the paint off the model airplane’s painted surface. Tamiya spray cans are lacquers, so the Turpenoid shouldn’t affect the finish. Avoid using the same paint for a wash you used for the finish; never use an enamel wash on enamel paint, but enamel over acrylics is usually fine.
Finally, for a more realistic finish and to tie the decals and paint together, spray your model airplane with Tamiya Flat Clear using the same three-step process you did for the black.
Hand-paint details like the wheels — Tamiya Flat Aluminum (XF-16) worked perfectly — and tires. For the latter, Tamiya Rubber Black (XF-85) did the trick on this military aircraft, but a dark gray would have worked; straight black is always too stark for tires.
The Defiant's propeller has yellow tips. After assembling the propeller and spinner and spraying them gloss black with the rest of the airframe parts, hand-paint the tips. Use two coats for color density.
Scrape paint from the mounting pins and holes for the model plane landing gear and glue the legs and struts in place. Check their alignment with reference photos and one another.
To remove the tape from the clear parts, placed the tip of a No. 11 blade under the edge of the mask and gently lifted it straight up. Grip the lifted edge with tweezers and pull the section away. Never force the knife under the tape or you risk scratching the model plane’s clear plastic.
Use clear part cement to attach clear parts. Some will likely squeeze out of the joint, but you can remove it with a little water on a paintbrush.
For model plane light lenses and the oleo on the landing gear legs, use a Molotow chrome pen. The shiny fluid flows easily onto the surfaces and dries quickly.
Weathering adds realism to a model. A silver Prismacolor pencil makes convincing chips in the paint around engine access panels, the edge of the propeller blades, and wing leading edges.
In addition, powdered gray and light brown artist pastels were brushed on for staining from the exhausts. Sweep them back along the fuselage in the direction of airflow. Be careful handling the model plane going forward as the pastels are easily removed with fingers. The exhausts were hand-painted with Tamiya dark iron (XF-84) before installation.

A version of this story appeared in Modeling Aircraft.
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