Achieving Fine Detail with an Airbrush
by Lee Rouse


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 camo schemes.

Here are a few pointers for those of you wanting to take the plunge. I make no pretence 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 camo schemes, I try to use a device to hold the model. For example, there are Helping Hands. You know this tool- it 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. For larger models, I've found the PanaVise Jr. to be a great tool for holding models. I picked up a couple of these at Big Lots discount store about a year ago for a ridiculously cheap price of about $12.00 each. The bottom line is that using a tool to hold the model frees up both hands and allows me to concentrate on where I'm putting my paint spray, rather than having to concentrate on painting AND holding the model. 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.

3. Good equipment helps. I own two Iwata airbrushes, the HPc and HPb, both of which I love. Having gone through a Badger 150, Pasche 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) if you are airbrushing enamel paints. 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. Acrylic paints are tougher to work with when airbrushing fine lines, because the paint tends to dry quicker on the tip of the needle. While working on my Promodeler Bf110, I experimented with several different paint/thinner combinations. I finally found one that produced a very fine, consistent line: Tamiya paint, heavily thinned with Gunze Mr. Color Thinner. That's right, an acrylic paint, thinned with an acrylic lacquer thinner. Hey, it works.

Because your paint will be thinned more than usual, you should gradually build up the paint, rather than trying to achieve the final result in one pass. For example, if you are shooting a camouflage demarcation line, go over the line with multiple light coats until you achieve the density you're after. Then you can switch to a higher paint-to-thinner ratio to fill in the interior section of the camouflage band. The same logic applies for creating mottling- gradually build up the mottle, rather than trying to do it in one action.

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!), or replace the regular nozzle head with a crown cap. 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 or old brush moistened in thinner. Keeping the tip of the needle clean is critical for smooth, consistent paint flow.

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. One 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 which 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!