Tips for scale model painting

Good paint is just one part of the equation

Given a couple of cans of paint and a scale model, the average person will get a result somewhat less than great. Obtaining the right tools for painting safely and effectively is what’s needed for a consistently good result. Successful model painting includes a proper coat of primer and paint to evenly cover but not obscure detail. Crucial is the lack of dust in the finished paint job. Nothing spoils your paint work more than a dust fleck right where you’ll notice it. Here’s some handy tips for scale model painting that I’ve learned over the years.

Find a spot to paint that is relatively dust-free

Dust is a natural component of everyday air. You’ve probably noticed lots of dust flying about when sunlight is streaming into a room. Chances are that you don’t have a “clean room” where you build your models. The best you can do is a relatively clean area free from loose dirt and debris, air breezes and human traffic. Those things stir dust into the air extremely well.

A quiet room with a closed window and a door to close is ideal. This keeps moving air out and the odor of paint contained.

What to look for in a paint booth

The next thing you’d want is a spray booth to contain overspray and exhaust paint fumes. You can get a pretty good result with a portable hobby booth like this one. It will allow you to paint all manner of models save for the very largest models out there. Look for maximum air extraction capability in the booths you look at. The one I have has two extraction fans so that I can use one or both of the fans simultaneously depending on the force of air I want.

model painting for successYou definitely want one of the booths with integral LED lighting. They all come with ducting to exhaust spray paint mist and odors out through a window. This is crucial to safe spray painting, as is a good paint mask. A flat exhaust nozzle sits in the window sill with the window closed to keep it in place. You’ll need to make a gasket to fill the open gap the exhaust nozzle does not fill.

Tips for scale model paintingYou can make one out of 1″x1″ wood and constructed like this one with weather stripping all around to provide a tight seal in the window opening. Cut the bottom piece to the width of the inside of the window frame opening. The short piece on top runs to one side and allows the exhaust nozzle fit in snugly in the open area. This keeps breezes (and dust) from coming in from outside and seals against odors and overspray from coming back into your space.

A filter resides at the back of the booth. You’ll want to have a few clean extras on hand to replace hopelessly clogged-up examples. I have had success vacuuming the dry, spent paint from the filters to prolong filter life. Clogged filters greatly limit the extraction fans from pulling paint overspray and fumes out and away from you.

You can find the booths and filters on hobby supply sites, ebay and amazon. Some can be connected to create a double-width booth as well for those XL models.

The accessories

model painting for successI can’t stress enough the importance of a good paint mask. Paint other than acrylic is toxic and can cause very serious health issues. I use a mask like this one. It has replaceable filters and keeps 99% of toxins and odors out. A hospital mask does not even come close to doing the same thing.

This mask is also quite handy while spraying weed killers and other toxic chemicals as well.

With practice you can also perfect your Darth Vader voice while wearing one……

Tips for scale model paintingYou’ll want gloves to protect your hands from becoming covered in enamel or lacquer paint. A great solution are disposable gloves.

Lining the bottom of the booth with unprinted newsprint is a good idea to keep old, spent paint dust from gathering at the bottom of the booth. Pads of newsprint are inexpensive and are available at most art/craft stores as well as some big box retailers. The paper also makes clean packing material when moving.

The need for stands

Tips for scale model paintingFinally, you want a few paint stands for all the parts you’ll want to paint all at the same time. It’s a very good idea to spray one color at a time and remove any parts with wet paint from the spray area well before you spray another color. Unless you like the look of speckle paint.

You can make the 4-prong stand for bodies. Use 1/8″ steel spring wire placed into 1/8″ holes drilled into a decent sized piece of wood and glued in place with 5-minute epoxy. The spring wire is pretty tough to cut, so you’ll need a Dremel Tool with a cut-off disk or at least a hack saw to cut the wire with. The spring wire firmly holds a model in place with spring-like pressure.

Tips for scale model paintingSimilarly, you’ll also want to paint smaller parts and so create a base for placing clip rods like these into a stable place. The small alligator clips are available at any decent hardware outlet. I soldered 3/32″ brass rod into them, each 4″ long. You can use epoxy or super glue if you don’t have a soldering iron. Pieces of 2×4 lumber cut into 4″ lengths make a very stable base. For the clip rods I drilled holes at the corners so 4 model pieces or assemblies can be painted at the same time.

If the model pieces don’t have a convenient area to place the clip, use a small dab of 5-minute epoxy to glue a small piece of square plastic rod where it can’t be seen (like the underside of a hood or fender) and cannot be seen when fully painted. Just gently twist out the square rod when paint is dry and touch up the area as needed.

Painting technique

Unless you want to invest in an airbrush and compressor, you’ll probably use rattle can spray paint. My fave is Tamiya lacquer. The spray head on the can gives a fine mist of paint and is available in a wealth of colors. Hold the can at arm length from the model and make no more than two passes of fine mist for each paint coat. Two light coats of primer and 2-3 light coats of paint color followed by a coat of clear should do it. Allow 30 minutes of drying time between coats.

For a more detailed look at fine model painting, see this great Tameo tutorial. While it concentrates on airbrush painting, the techniques are the same for spray can use.

If you need to mask your model at all, use Tamiya masking tape. It is prefect for a clean job. Make sure to “burnish” down the edges of the tape with a toothpick to seal out any paint leaks or overspray. Use enough pressure to seal the edges but not so hard that it will pull up paint when removing the tape.

The nice part: this stuff won’t break the bank

The stands can be made with scrap wood and wire hangers if you so desire. A spray booth will run somewhere from $80-$200. Shop around. The portable booths are great for apartments or homes alike.

When you realize that the investment in this equipment lasts a very long time and makes your paint finishes much better, it’s all well worth it.

For more modeling tips, go here.

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