Weathering Techniques for Model Aircraft

Weathering Plastic Model Aircraft

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A model of a military vehicle is not quite convincing when it looks like it just left the manufacturing plant. To achieve a greater degree of realism, most modellers like to add signs of wear and constant maintenance.

We can, for instance, simulate stains from engine exhausts, leakage from hydraulic lines, gun burns or oil stains in order to enhance the “presence” or realism of a model.

This technique is called weathering and there are many more or less subtle ways to achieve this “used” appearance. We could discuss for ages about how much wear and tear that should be applied to a certain model, so it is important to keep in mind that what we strive for is to create an illusion – and some exaggeration may, therefore, be necessary. For instance, panel lines may not even be visible on a real aircraft from a distance of 200 feet, but a model still looks more realistic when the panel lines have been traced with dark ink.

When applying weathering to a model, a good idea is to work gradually and taking frequent breaks instead of going wild with different techniques. This way you can more easily find the exact right amount of the desired effect without overdoing it.

It is also very important to have some basic knowledge about the object you are applying weathering techniques to. Chipped paint revealing bare metal on the back of a Hurricane fighter may look very convincing, but is nevertheless totally wrong, as that part of the real aircraft is built as a wooden frame covered with painted canvas.

Japanese aircraft from WWII were often painted with bad quality paint that quickly chipped off, and so many of those aircraft looked really awful and worn after only a year of constant use.

Modern jet fighters are never rusty or dirty, even though the paintwork can show signs of retouching and repairing. Exhaust stains should always be swept across the model in a curve in the direction of the airflow over the fuselage and wings. You should also be quite familiar with what parts of the aircraft that are outlets and vents and what are not, or you may end up with totally incorrect effects.
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Weathering is a matter of preference, taste, and debate. Each modeler has their opinions as well as their own methods and techniques. I’m a big fan of weathering and I am always trying new ideas and materials. Weathering will enhance the realism and character of a scale model aircraft. However, one major skill is to know when to say when.

Overdone weathering will take away from the appearance. In this section, I will touch on some of the methods and materials I use.

There are many different ways to give your model this “used” look. Here we will look at some of the most used techniques:

  • washing
  • drybrushing
  • stains
  • chipped paint
  • faded paint

If you manage to master these techniques, you will be fully capable of creating true reality-oozing masterpieces.

Washes

The purpose of a wash is to accent any recessed or raised detail. A dark wash will create the illusion of depth and detail visibility. On large surfaces, a wash can break up an otherwise mono-toned appearance by defining small detail and lines. Most modelers use an oil-based, acrylic or watercolor wash. I always use watercolor for a couple of reasons. They’re easy to remove from the model and dry quickly. Plus, they won’t stain the finish or decals. So, let’s get started by mixing up a batch.

Washing is a technique that simulates shadows on a model. You may wonder why a model would need simulated shadows, as the shapes of the model are exactly like the original anyway. But the truth is that while the model is a proportionally scaled-down version of a large object, its shadows are not.

Shadows on large objects are very sharp and clear, while shadows on small objects are fuzzy and soft. Look around you to see for yourself! So for a model to appear “large” and thereby more realistic, the sharp and deep shadows must be enhanced in some way.

Technically a wash is an application of very thin paint that is allowed to flow into panel lines, joins, and corners. A wash in the cockpit of a model aircraft will make every detail look more heavy and real. Washes can also be used in panel lines to make them appear darker and more realistic. A wash is also great to create an illusion of some details being oily and dirty, such as the greasy and grimy look of landing gears and landing gear bays.

The keyword to remember here is thin – you should keep the wash very, very thin indeed, or you will just paint over the details. Put some thinner in a tiny jar such as the screw cup of a Coke bottle, and then add one or two drops of paint. Black colour may be too strong, so I usually use dark grey with a dab of brown. If the mixture looks like dirty motor oil, you have way too much paint in the mix!

Load a brush with the wash and just wet down the entire part that you want to enhance. Because of the rules of physics in liquids, you will find that the wash will assemble in the corners and around protruding details and move away from flat surfaces. When dry, the illusion of shadows is perfect! But don’t let the wash assemble in thick, big puds, or you may risk covering up the underlying paintwork.

As much as I love acrylics, they don’t work too well for washes, basically, because a water droplet has a tendency to push the pigment to its surface. The pigment will thus condense around the edges of the drying droplet, leaving quite strange drop marks.

I use a small, sealed container to mix and keep my washes.

  1. A small dab of watercolor (actual colors will be covered further down). The mix should be about 20% paint
  2. Water. The mix should be about 80% water
  3. A few drops of liquid dish soap. This will break up the water surface tension and cause the wash to flow into recessed areas and corners.
  4. A few drops of white vinegar. Don’t ask me why but the vinegar will cause the watercolor pigments to pool and not spread. Therefore, the pigment will remain in the recessed areas and not bleed out onto the surrounding surface area.
  5. A small fine point brush and some Q-tips and damp paper towel

Now, it’s time to apply the wash. Make sure the wash is mixed well.

  1. You will want to apply any wash after the second gloss coat that was applied over the decals. A wash is much easier to remove from a gloss coat rather than a flat coat.
  2. Use the brush to fill all recessed detail and lines and let dry.
  3. Once, the wash is completely dry, remove the excess from the
    surfaces with the damp paper towel. This may take a few tries to get it off. Use the O-tip for hard to reach places. If some or all the wash comes out of the recessed areas. Reapply and try again. This means the recessed area is too shallow. If the wash is not dark enough, reapply more to the area until satisfied.
  4. Allow the entire wash to fully dry. Then, a final flat coat can be sprayed on to seal the wash and cover the gloss coat
  5. If the detail just won’t hold the wash, you can use a sharpened dark gray colored pencil to fill in the section. Just lightly trace the detail. If you make a mistake, use a white eraser to remove the pencil. I recommend Prismacolor pencils.

Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out perfectly the first time. It will take a few attempts to get the balance right!

Color choices depend on the application of the wash and what you want to achieve. Using a variety of colors is a simple way to simulate certain types of weathering. Here is a list of colors I use for certain results.

  • Dark Gray or Payne’s Gray – This is a good overall color for panel lines, rivets, strut components, engines, and cockpit detail. Grays are dark enough but not too dark. Black is not recommended.
  • Browns, Siennas and Earth tones – These are good for undercarriages where there was exposure to mud, dust, and grime. Black mixed with Burnt Sienna makes a good mud color.
  • Yellow Ochre and Burnt Umber- Excellent colors for simulating rust and oxidation around panel lines and rivets. Mix together so the yellow is toned down.

When applying a wash to panel lines, a slightly different approach must be used. First, apply a clear coat to your model and make sure that this coat is fully dry before applying a wash. If the paintwork is still somewhat wet, you may risk that the wash will soften the underlying paint and make it run. Use a small paintbrush loaded with some wash, and put the tip into a panel line. You will find that the wash will trickle into the panel and follow it for a short distance. Repeat as many times as you wish for a nice result. Don’t overdo it, or you will end up with a really tacky model!

If some of the thin wash should happen to run outside the panel lines, wait until the wash is almost dry, then take a very slightly moist rag and wipe the excess wash off. Make sure that you wipe off in the direction from the nose of the aircraft and towards the end to achieve a very neat and subtle “worn” look.

Pastels

Colored and earth-tone pastels are an excellent way to simulate weathering, fading, exhaust staining, cordite staining, and dust. I picked up a set of colored and earth-toned soft pastels at my local art store. They can be carved with a xacto blade to produce a fine powder for application. I find the best ways to apply them is with a sponge-tipped make-up applicator and a stiff, stubby brush. Pastels will adhere to flat finishes and natural metal finishes but not metal foil. Pastels must go on very last. The model must be complete. Why? Pastels will disappear if a clear coat is applied over them. So, you can’t seal them. Therefore, if your model aircraft isn’t complete, they may get rubbed off from handling.

Colored pastel sets will allow you to tint and lighten any colors on the model. For example, if you want to simulate paint fading on a dark green surface, you could use a beige, khaki or pale yellow to blend into the dark green for a soft fade. For an overall fade on any color, a light gray or sand could be used. For exhaust staining, black layered with white and red will look convincing. There are no set guidelines for color usage. Experiment and see what works for you.

Earth tone pastels will give more of a dirty/dusty effect. I use these to highlight panel lines, wheel bays, and cowlings where dirt and dust would
have accumulated.

Keep in mind, subtlety is the key. Apply small amounts, blend and build up. If too much is applied, a white eraser or damp Q-tip will remove the pastels.

Drybrushing

Another method to enhance the feeling of realism of your model is by dry brushing. It is quite the opposite of applying a wash – with this method you simulate direct sunlight falling onto and highlighting raised parts and thereby enhancing raised details and edges.

Drybrushing is done with a fairly broad paintbrush. Load the brush with some paint. White is often too much – use a lighter shade of the background color or light grey instead.

Now start to “paint” on a piece of paper until the brush no longer leaves a visible color on the paper. As long as the bristles of the brush leave individual paint marks on the paper, you have too much paint in the brush.

When only some very small traces of paint are left, carefully brush the detail you want to be highlighted. It’s a good idea to move the brush in one direction only – preferably from the direction of a general light source – that is from above. If used skillfully, surprisingly nice results can be achieved with this method. Again, cockpit details will benefit greatly of a gentle dry brushing, but also other areas, such as cannons, wheels, landing gear struts or any other protruding parts. The only areas that should be avoided are the smooth and flat areas of your model.

Smears, smudges, and stains

Engine and exhaust stains are sometimes very prominent on some aircraft, especially in light colors. These stains should definitely be simulated, if our model is not supposed to be a brand new aircraft just rolling off the production line in the manufacturing plant.

Stains can be airbrushed on, or we can use different colored chalk pastels to simulate this effect.

Just grind or sand the pastels to a fine powder, and apply them with a cotton ear-bud. I must warn you that this effect can be easily overdone just because it’s so much fun doing it. I have yet to see pilots or maintenance personnel leave big blobs of muddy footprints on the wing walks of an aircraft. Remember that modern jets are washed regularly, and your model shouldn’t look like something that had spent the night in a swamp.

Make sure to use chalky pastels and not the oil-based ones, and don’t forget to seal the paint with some clear varnish afterward so you can touch the model without wiping off the chalk powder.

Check out some pictures of real aircraft – it is easy to see that unless the aircraft is brand new, the hue of the painted finish varies quite a lot between different parts of the wings and fuselage. This is true even if the whole aircraft is painted in one colour. Some parts or panels may have been retouched or changed, and no paint remains unaffected by the ultraviolet light from the sun.

When painting, you can try to imitate this effect by masking off some panels, and paint them with slight variations of the basic colour. You can for instance highlight the areas between the panel lines to create an illusion of sun-faded paint. Don’t forget to fade the decals at the same time, or they will look very artificial.

Chipped paint

Paint failure was common on combat aircraft. Due to harsh conditions, no primer, poor upkeep or foot traffic, many planes displayed paint chipping. There a couple of well-known ways to simulate this effect.

You can create an illusion of chipped or nicked off paint around wing edges and access panels by carefully adding spots of aluminum-colored paint. For smaller models (1/72), patches of light grey may look more correct. This is probably one of the easiest weathering techniques but it still takes some skill for the effect to look realistic.

There are many other ways to achieve the chipped paint effect, like priming the model with a metal color, and then paint the model with the final color. Now if you are very skillful, with a piece of masking tape just a short time before the final paint has totally dried, you may just be able to “rip off” some of the paint and reveal the bare metal paint underneath.

It is a very tricky technique to master but can give astonishingly realistic results.

Even here it must be stressed to take it easy with the chipping and remember to check some real-life references. Especially when it comes to modern jet fighters, it is important to remember that they are constantly being retouched and repainted, so the only places you may find chipped off paint is on the wing leading edges and jet intakes.

Salt Chipping

This is probably the most time-consuming method but the most effective. It may seem intimidating at first. But, after your first time, you’ll have it down. All that’s needed is a bowl of water and regular table salt.

1. Spray your entire model aircraft with a natural metal base coat (I covered this subject in the painting and finishing section). Any metallic lacquer paint will work but I recommend Alclad II or the Model Master metalizer. Once fully cured, the finishes are hard and durable.

Enamel or acrylic paint will not withstand this technique. Allow the finish to cure (48+ hours minimum).

2. Place the water and salt in individual bowls. A thick paintbrush is needed to spot the water on the model. Place the water and salt in areas where paint chipping would occur. Reference pictures of the aircraft are recommended for help in placement. Start putting small drops of water onto a section of the model. Then, sprinkle small amounts of salt by hand onto the water drops. At this point, the water/salt mixture can be moved around with a small brush into position. Once the mixture is placed accordingly, allow it to dry thoroughly. When dried, the salt will be crystallized and stuck to your scale model aircraft, making an irregular mask.

Faded paint

All paint is affected by the sun and the weather. Even the paintwork on your car will show signs of fading after a few years. Military vehicles are even worse because they usually aren’t protected with the same high gloss multi-coat paint than a regular car. Heavy use, constant exposition to harsh weather conditions and the strong ultraviolet rays at high altitudes will make the paintwork of military aircraft look flat, faded and pale already after a few months. To recreate this faded effect on your model you can use a painting technique called pre-shading.

Pre-shading requires an airbrush and is a bit more tricky to master than the previous painting techniques we have looked at so far. Start with priming the entire model in white or very light grey color. It is important that this priming color is a few nuances lighter than the actual camouflage or you will not get the desired effect later!

Next paint broad shades along the panel lines using a dark color, such as dark grey. This paint must be a few nuances darker than the final camouflage. Avoid black, as it may be a little too aggressive unless the final camouflage is very dark. You don’t have to use masks to follow the panel lines, although you must make sure that the edges of the dark areas are soft and not sharp.

Now as you finally spray on the actual camouflage, you will notice that the underlying darker and lighter areas will partially show through the final paintwork and affect the tone of the final colors just enough to give an effect of sun-bleached and dirty paint. If done carefully, the effect is quite startling!

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