Paint Types for Scale Modelers

by Lars E. Liljeblad

Paint certainly deserves a special mention when it comes to scale modeling. It's one of the last steps and one of the trickiest, most challenging, of model building techniques. Not to mention the most important. It's the one in which your work will be judged by others - you can't hide flaws in the final finish.

There are basically three different types of paint; lacquer, enamel and acrylic. Lacquer is an excellent paint with a very strong solvent base, adheres well, and goes on thin without obscuring detail. It's considered one of the best for high-gloss finishes, especially in the car modeling circles. The one drawback is that it attacks plastic if put on too heavy. The best way to apply lacquer paint to models is to dust it on, then gradually build it up.

Enamels were the standard for many years in modeling, and do work well, especially with stronger solvents such as turpentine or lacquer thinner. The main drawback is they go on rather thick and can take up to two days to thoroughly dry before weathering.

Acrylic water-based paints have been gaining much popularity over the last few years, and are now becoming the standard. Brands like Tamiya, Vallejo, Andrea, Liquitex, Cell-Vinyl and Creatix are great paints for both airbrushing and hand brush painting. And as a bonus, they are non-toxic for those who like long modeling sessions without the worry of breathing in dangerous fumes and feeling fatigue. In the world of armor modeling, Tamiya brand acrylics are pretty much the standard and most widely used. They adhere very well, have a great color range and are easily accessible at hobby shops and some craft stores. They take the abuse of weathering, and they're quite permanent. A note about Tamiya brand acrylics; use only their brand of thinner for these paints, as it seems their formula is a little different from other brands. Rubbing alcohol will work fine, but Tamiya thinner is the best.

Some useful items to have:

  • Storage cabinet or containers for paints
  • Respirator
  • Pipettes (Testors) or eye droppers for mixing paints
  • Mixing Jars
  • Flow-Aid by Liquitex (for acrylics when airbrushing)
  • Good quality brushes (Red Sable preferably)
  • Index cards (to practice on before going to airbrush your model)
  • Water trap for your airbrush
  • Squirt bottles (for adding thinner or water to paint
  • Wet palette (Sta-Wet by Masterson's) for water based paints

Metallic Paints

A truly realistic raw-metal finish is something modelers have been trying to achieve for years. It's really not that difficult these days, especially if you take a few steps to ensure a good finish. At one time, basic Testors enamels and model railroad lacquers were about our only choices, and could actually produce some decent results. Floquil Old Silver and Bright Silver in particular are quite good, even by today's standards. Testors produces a line of buffing and non-buffing metallic's that give an excellent finish. SNJ Spray Metalc, is yet another brand of buffable metallics which will also give you satisfying results. So there are several good metallic paints available that will enable you to achieve a stunning finish; my personal favorite is Alclad II. The finish from this brand is truly awesome, (you'll swear it's actually metal!)

Preparation is everything with metallic paints. Let's start from the beginning. Because metallics show every flaw on the surface of the model, we must prepare the surface to a polished look in the raw before applying the paint. The actual paint itself goes on microns thin, and shows even the smallest details. I suggest filling all seams, and polishing with a good plastic polish such as Novus 2 or Blue Magic (an automotive metal/plastic polish). Also, use Novus Polishing Mates - this is a non-abrasive cloth-like material that won't scratch or mar the surface. The model can then be cleaned with rubbing alcohol or dish detergent and water. The other approach after polishing, which Alclad recommends, is to spray a nice gloss black base coat before applying the metal paint. The black needs about an hour in between coats, and overnight before the metallic is applied. The other nice thing about a black undercoat is that it allows you to tone the metallic surface, making it more realistic.

Acrylic Inks

Water-based Inks are relatively new to modeling, but offer some great results. They are very fluid, and the colors are extremely bold. I've found that they're similar to thinned artists' oil paints, and can be mixed with regular acrylic paint for different effects. They're great for general washes, and weathering effects, as well as simulating wood. For instance on wood; if you apply a base coat with a color like yellow ochre, or a shade of tan, then take some thinned acrylic ink such as sepia or chestnut and streak it across the surface with a flat, slightly worn brush, you'll see different shades of brown and the light tan peering through giving a very realistic wood-like effect without too much effort. The key is to thin the ink to the right ratio. Afterwards, seal with a satin water-based varnish.

Aerosol Can or Airbrushes

If an airbrush is not within your budget, spray cans will have to do the job for the time being. The main disadvantage with spray cans is the limited selection of colors, and no real control of paint volume. However, you can get very good results especially with proper application and preparation.

Shake the can well before using, and test on some scrap cardboard before going over to the model. Spray at different angles and don't hold too close. The trick is to spray in quick strokes past the model and don't let it go on too heavy. Warming the can in water before will also help you obtain a finer spray. Airbrushing is of course the best way to apply paint, not only do you have total control of the amount of paint that gets applied, but you can mix-up your own colors and add special effects such as shadows, highlights, weathering effects and more.

Final Note

The type of paint you use really doesn't matter, that's really personal preference. It's the results that count. Some modelers use a combination of enamels, lacquer and acrylics on their projects to get a different variety effects. Some types of paint are better for certain things; lacquer is probably the best choice for a high-gloss finish on a car model or commercial airliner. Acrylic on the other hand is excellent for figure modeling and armor modeling. Enamel works well on figures and general modeling, but the choice is up to you, practice and experiment with different paints, you'll see that the possibilities for a realistic finish on your miniature are endless!

About the Author

Lars Liljeblad is a full time modeler who works exclusively for private collectors. His work can be seen on a variety of websites including his own http://larslil.com/ as well as www.scahms.org. His writing credits include work for Fine Scale Modeler and Sci-Fi & Fantasy Modeler.

Lars is currently president of the Southern California area Historical Miniature Society. Striving for excellence in modeling, the club holds a yearly international model competition exhibition which attracts modelers and collectors from around the world.

Lars is a former automotive metal fabricator and his other interests include collecting movie and television memorabilia, as well as history, science fiction, movies and music.

Other Articles On Scale Model Building

Airbrushing Miniatures Getting Started

Airbrush Painting Tips & Techniques

Preparing a Scale Figure for Painting

Weathering Techniques and Realism for Scale Models

Groundwork and Composition in Scale Modeling

Illuminating Your Scale Model with LEDs & Fiber Optics

Scale Modeling Tools

Household Items in Scale Modeling


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