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Airbrushing 1/72 Aircraft
or "Some Thoughts About Painting Teeny-Tiny Model Airplanes"

Lee Rous
IPMS USA 29017

Call me a glutton for punishment, but 1/72 ranks right up there with 1/48 as my favorite scale to build. There are attractions and there are challenges. The attraction is that I can actually finish a project in a couple of weeks without getting bogged down in superdetailing every rivet and cockpit instrument face. There is a wide variety of kits available in this scale, and like 1/48, the quality of the products are getting better and better.

But then, it’s so-o-o little. How could one ever get that German mottle camouflage on a 5-inch long BF109 to look even close to decent? And heaven forbid if your tastes run into French WWII 3 or 4 color camouflage schemes.

Here are a few pointers for those of you wanting to take the plunge. I make no pretense about being a master modeler, or these steps being THE way to achieve modeling fame. Indeed, I am continually looking for ways to improve my skills.

  1. When working in 1/72, I’m always thinking about how things look in scale. For example, my 1/4-inch overspray which wasn’t supposed to go on the adjacent panel is would actually be a 1 foot overspray on the real thing. Hardly acceptable. The same goes for unfilled seams and slips of the hobby knife, as well as any items you may want to add on to the model (e.g., antenna wiring).

  2. When I paint 1/72, especially aircraft having intricate camouflage schemes, I always use my Helping Hands. No, I don’t mean that I let my 5-year-old son hold the model while I let rip with the airbrush. I’m talking about the tool that consists of a base; a bar mounted on the base, and either two or three alligator clips attached to the bar. This allows me to mount the model and position it at just about any angle. While building the Aoshima Ta 152, for example, I firmly planted a small diameter wooden dowel at front end of the fuselage where the spinner shaft was to be inserted. I then clipped to the dowel to one of the alligator clips. A second clip was attached to the kit’s tail wheel, which was molded as part of the fuselage. Doing this allows me to concentrate on where I’m putting my paint spray, not painting and holding the model steady. I’ve found that it’s just about impossible to get the kind of control you need to airbrush in 1/72 scale if you have to hold the model in one hand and the airbrush in the other. In the US, you can find this device in a Micromark catalogue or at a Radio Shack.

  3. Good equipment helps. I use an Iwata HPc airbrush that I love. Having gone through a Badger 150, Paasche VL, and Testors (Aztek), I can say undoubtedly that the Iwata is the finest airbrush I have used. It allows for airbrushing of very fine detail in the hand of a skilled modeler.

  4. When painting fine details and outlining camouflage demarcation lines, thin the paint down more than usual. I usually use Testors Model Master enamels and mix them about 50/50 with thinner. And speaking of thinner, I highly recommend a product called Oil Painting Medium 1 (OPM). It’s made by Grumbacher and is a combination of several ingredients including D-Limonene, turpentine, and poppy seed oil. It significantly slows down paint drying time, which means that you can work longer without the paint drying on your airbrush needle and clogging things up. Although described as producing a matte finish, I’ve found that it produces a somewhat glossy appearance. Expect drying time to be substantially increased over paint mixed with regular mineral spirits. When painting broader areas where fine detail is not so critical, I will mix OPM 50/50 with regular paint thinner. This speeds up drying time but still results in improved paint flow.

  5. When airbrushing very fine detail, I work very close to the model, usually between and inch. On my Iwata, I usually remove the airbrush tip so that the needle is exposed (watch out, it’s very sharp!). That way I can get really close to the surface if I need to. Having the tip of the needle exposed also makes it easy to periodically wipe the off built up paint on the exposed part of the needle with a Q-tip moistened in thinner.

  6. The right air pressure is another important ingredient. With the paint thinned more than usual, I find that I can airbrush at about 10psi, perhaps a little less. The nice thing about brushing at such a low pressure is that it really limits overspray.

  7. Lighting, too, is important. I use a combination light/magnifier on an adjustable arm that can be positioned within about a foot of the model’s surface. Try to adjust the light so that it’s reflecting directly on the part of the model you’re painting. That way you can tell if you’re getting enough (or too much) paint where you want it.

  8. Last but not least, BE PATIENT. This kind of detail work is not something that should be done when you are tired, hungry, anxious or frustrated. Of course that’s good advice for just about any modeling project!

Text Copyright  1998 by Lee Rouse
Page created on 17 August, 1998
This page last updated on 18 May, 2001

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