Weathering a Model Aircraft

Written by: roboguru

Picture of Weathering a Model Aircraft

Julian Beckett weathering a model aircraft for RCM&E Magazine.

Well, the YT International Bf 109 that I reviewed in RCM&E is clocking up the air miles, and it’s all jolly good fun, but the old girl’s simply got no soul. It’s almost like she fell out of a cornflake packet, all clean and fresh, which is a crying shame. What’s more, she’s desperately in need of someone in the office to take care of business, instead of looking like an aeronautical Marie Celeste! The problem, is that in recent years my aeromodelling diet had degenerated into a precession of shiny, homogenated ‘buy today fly tomorrow’ designs of one type or another. Then, along came the ‘109 and suddenly I found myself needing to put a bit more effort in. Some skills need to be reawakened...

I drew up a shortlist of things that would elevate this bird into my own personal ‘object d’art’, but we’re not talking about turning water into wine here. What I was after were a few simple changes to make the model a little more believable in my own eyes.

Step 1: Grubbin' Up

So, where to start? A little more interest in the cockpit would be great, I thought, especially when my clubmates are giving her the once-over in the pits. A bit of wear and tear to the exterior, and maybe a little extra surface detail here and there. Yes, that should do it. I could have gone further of course, but I wanted to keep things really simple and produce a practical finish that I’m not reluctant to take flying.

I particularly wanted to stay away from the airbrush this time - super low-tech, in fact! Arming myself with nothing more than a 2B pencil and a scrap of sandpaper, I set about dirtying up the exterior of the fuselage. It’s a simple trick. Rub the pencil on the sandpaper to create a pile of graphite dust, then dip your finger into it and rub the residue gently into panel lines and louvres, and in or around any areas you feel would get grubby - oil filler caps, service hatches etc. - anywhere that anyone would put their mitts. If you want a streaked effect to replicate oil runs and the like then simply wet your finger and wipe over the graphite - it’s simply amazing, giving a slightly metallic sheen at the same time. Try to imagine how the ingress of dirt and grime would be affected by airflow. If you overdo it then a simple pencil eraser or (even better) an artist’s putty rubber removes the offending splodge.

To add some highlights, get hold of a fine-nibbed silver paint pen from a stationer’s and hint at the edges of panel lines here and there. Don’t lavishly draw around every last detail - be a little ‘arty’. Tell yourself ‘less is more’ and you’ll wonder why you haven’t used this trick before.

Step 2: Office Bound

Picture of Office Bound

With this I was in full flow, all juiced up and ready to tackle the office! Now, the YT Bf 109 is sufficiently large that a simple tub can be dropped into place here, creating the effect of a full-depth cockpit. The only drawback is that you’ll have to reposition the elevator and rudder servos to make room for it. Contemplating such, a good surf of the internet scared me half to death. Why do aircraft cockpits look so flippin’ complicated? A rats nest of wiring, switches and dials. Clearly, I’d have to cut corners before my enthusiasm waned!

With this, I eyeballed the dimensions of the area to be removed from the fuselage and cut a neat hole with my trusty Dremel. The tub itself was fashioned from 1/16” balsa, laminated with ABS plastic sheet (to give an instant smooth surface for painting), then simply glued into place from inside the fuselage. Incidentally, the ABS came from a model railway shop - ask for Plasticard or styrene sheet if you fancy having a go. A simple seat and a new instrument panel were created in the same way, and given a coat of grey paint to blend in with the rest of the model.

I found a fantastic picture of the Bf 109’s instrument panel on the web, and after a little resizing on the computer it looked very convincing. Decoupage for R/C, no less! To heighten the effect I broke the panel into two sections, so there’s a slight 3D aspect to it. Boy, am I pleased with the result. And it saved hours of work! I could have gone mental and added all sorts of detail like a throttle quadrant, radio, gun sight, switches and loose bundles of wiring etc. but frankly you’d be hard pressed to see it all, so why bother?

Step 3: Where's Fritz?

Picture of Where's Fritz?

Something was still missing and although I tried raiding my lad’s toy box for a pilot, a Power Ranger didn’t really fit the bill and Buzz Lightyear would look a little out of place in an Axis bird of death... he wouldn’t fit, anyway! Crazy Frog (remember the annoying ring tone?) complete with flying helmet was very tempting, but this is a serious business. Something (someone) of around 1/6 scale was needed.

Best get online again, I thought, and this, as it turned out, was the answer. Check out Dragon Action Figures (or as I call ‘em, Action Men for Anoraks) and you’ll find a number of sources. These super-detailed figurines are exactly the right scale for our purposes and are very reasonably priced, starting at around twenty five quid. There are literally dozens to choose from, and the pilot figure I picked was complete with period flying outfit. The best bit, though, is that they’re very lightweight, and extremely easy to pose. You certainly don’t need to resort to hacking them about for a natural sitting position.

A length of pushrod snake outer became the basis of a joystick, with a section of heat-shrink to represent the hand grip and a red map pin in the top so Major Krauer (he’s actually modelled on a real pilot!) can ‘go for guns’. Actually, I did butcher his fingers a little so that he gripped the column in a more realistic manner, and I secured him to the seat base with a little Velcro. A simple balsa radio antenna and a Nichrome wire aerial give the cockpit area that final touch of authenticity.

Moving forward a little, you’ll see there’s a nice cowling to play with. Here, exhaust stubs were suitably sooted up with flat black enamel and then dry-brushed with silver and rusty brown to give a little depth. The cowling also has two very prominent channels for machine guns, and lengths of brass tubing do just fine in representing the muzzles, with judicious dirtying-up to give that cordite-scorched look. Moulded recesses for cooling holes were opened up, and panel edges touched in with the silver paint pen to finish things off.

Step 4: Wing Working

Picture of Wing Working

The wings are by far the largest part of the aeroplane to add a little life to, in fact I found these much more difficult to do than the fuselage. The ‘109s wings are Solartex covered, completely smooth, and devoid of any panel detail. A 3-view of the Messerschmitt downloaded from the internet gave me some pointers, and I eventually settled for hinting at the odd panel line and rivet with a mixture of black marker pen and silver paint pen highlights, scuffed with a finger whilst still wet to add a bit more interest. A strip of masking tape laid along the panel lines gives a nice edge to rub a bit of pencil lead into here and there, to break it up further. Mind you, it’s easy to overdo things and end up with something more toy-like than we started with. If you’re not comfortable at doing such detailing and don’t want to cock it all up, then my advice is to practice on something less important, or leave well alone!

The biggest visual impact you can add is to dry-brush some silver enamel onto the leading edges, representing wear from the airflow and debris damage from the prop. A chunk of sponge or foam rubber, dipped into the paint and then dabbed almost dry on a piece of kitchen tissue, gives a nice mottled effect for this. You could add extra surface detail, too (some marques of ‘109 had 20mm cannon in the wings) but I chose not to bother - just another thing to break off ‘twixt car and workshop! Finally, to seal the surface finish I sprayed on matt polyurethane lacquer, and that was that.

Step 5: In Style

Picture of In Style

So there we have it. My ‘109 may not be F4C scale, but it no longer looks like a toy aeroplane. It oozes character and actually looks a little menacing. The model now draws a lot of admiring glances and really does appear more like the battle-weary tool it mimics. The cockpit section raises the most questions, particularly the instrument panel, which, ironically, took the least amount of time!

All the techniques employed here can be mastered with relative ease, and I hope I’ve proved that you just need a little imagination and some reference material to turn an everyday sport-scale ARTF into something quite special.

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