“Water” based model paints. Testor’s Acryl, Polly-Scale, Tamiya, Gunze-Sanyo and now Vallejo

I build (or at least start) a fair number of plastic models, particularly airplanes and cars, but also the occasional ‘other’ – a ship, figure, military vehicle, space-craft, etc. Polly-Scale is my #1 choice for model paint and and Testor’s Model Master Acryl is #2. They are what I buy if I give a model and brushing paint as a present.

Polly-Scale has the finest-ground pigments, and I’m used to working with it, so I find it easier to use, in terms of brushing cover, ease in avoiding brush marks or drips and lumps, drying time, etc. Each of the major brands of ‘water based’ paints have distinct and unique solvent and drying systems and for flat paint I find Polly-Scale‘s system the best- it goes on thinnest and covers in the least number of coats.

Testor’s Model Master Acryl is my second favorite. It has a range of gloss-finish paints, unknown in Polly Scale, color matches to a wide variety of original standard military AND automotive colors., and straight-forward primary colors for doing one’s one mixing. It is widely available, slightly more so than Polly Scale, and it costs $2.99 a bottle versus $3.99 for Polly Scale. So the same $12 + tax gets you 4 bottles of Acryl, or 3 bottles of Polly Scale, at most stores. You can still get Polly Scale for $2.99 a bottle at some places, though….

Tamiya and Gunze-Sanyo are tied for third in my world- they use a water and alcohol solvent, not just water; they have a lot of gloss colors which are perhaps more demanding than Testor’s Acryl to apply well, they can become thicker on your parts than you’d really wanted, and they don’t seem to dry as innert as Polly-Scale or Acryl. Gunze-Sanyo gloss colors, in particular, don’t ever seem to dry. A topcoat is needed. Tamiya gloss feels firm and strong but wears very easily. Luckily, all of these paints react well to Future Floor Wax, so bringing up a gloss is no problem.
All four of theses paints require thorough stirring. Just like house paint. I use a little stainless steel paddle I got in Chemistry class many decades ago, but a nice piece of 12 AWG solid copper wire, or stainless steel or aluminum wire works nearly as well. Stirr the paint until you’re absolutely convinced it is completely mixed. Then stir it for 1 minute more. Remember to raise the stirrer from time to time to mix between the top and bottom of the bottle.

Vallejo, from Spain, are the newest kids on the block. They’re water based acrylics with a stunning selection, and all packed in 17ml squeeze bottles. I get a sense they started out aiming especially for the figure market- little metal or plastic warriors, fantasy figures or dinosaurs, although there are some airplane-oriented colors in their range. They sort chromatically, rather than by nation and branch of military service, or rail-line…. The paint itself is about right for brushing, maybe even a little thick. It sticks well, color is dense and the bronze green and dayglo orange I’ve used look good and stay in place months later. I’ll have to try spraying it or applying it over a large area some time…

Some historical notes:

It was a very long time ago that I first saw Polly-Scale, then called “Polly-S“, acrylic paint for model builders. Back in the 1970s. I’d used artist’s acrylics for various purposes and both enjoyed them and recognized their differences from oil based paints. Back in those days, there were two US model paint suppliers available widely, Pactra and Testor’s, and it was pretty easy to find Humbroil from the UK, in the little tins like miniature housepaint cans. There were lots of other model paints- seemingly every model company had its own brand of paint and glue during the 1960s, and there was at least one model paint company founded on providing exact matches for ‘official’ military colors.

Oil paints were very democratic. You could mix any with any other, thin them all with paint thinner from the hardware store, and they all had similar working characteristics. Testors and Humbroil seemed to have the finest ground pigments, and Humbroil had a seemingly vast range of flat/matt/matte finishes, which were a real step forward from glossy primary and secondary colors from the 9 bottle ‘paint set’- black white, red, blue, yellow, orange, green, purple and thinner. Actually, purple was so loaded with cultural meaning it was probably not sold in the sets- maybe you got gray or “flesh” (peachy caucasian skin tone, sorta) instead, or maybe the basic assortment was 8 bottles… Oil paints disolved in model glue too- so you didn’t have to be that scrupulous about scraping paint off surfaces to be joined, the glue would get through ‘some’ paint. Best of all, because of the vanishingly low surface tension of the hydrocarbon base, you could do a reasonable job of painting most colors onto your model with just one coat, and if you were reasonably careful, not many brush-marks. (yes, several, thinner, coats would have made for a better finish. But we’re talking 8-12 year olds here…)

Polly S was different. First and foremost, it was water based, Second, it was VERY flat and VERY thin- one coat wouldn’t cover much, unless you were painting a flat color over a plastic that was basicly the same color. So you had to apply multiple coats, and it would leave brush marks if you weren’t good at brushing it out thin.

On the other hand, you could work with it all day indoors without stinking up your room, or the basement/garage. And when it dried it was VERY inert- oil based enamels do undergo a chemical change as they dry, and simply applying thinner will not soften them and return them to the pre-dried state, but thinner and some friction WILL remove them. Not so Polly S. Once it was dry, you could sand it off, and that was about it. Ask me how I know… And it dried quickly too!

10 responses to ““Water” based model paints. Testor’s Acryl, Polly-Scale, Tamiya, Gunze-Sanyo and now Vallejo

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  2. Wow, that takes me back…I also like the exact two paint manufacturers/types in the same order…I think that the Polly-Scale is a little more accurate and the Testors is cheaper but almost as good and more available, as you pointed out…and the most important thing of course is to enjoy building the model…have fun and take care…

  3. Thanks Kirk. I hope you’re enjoying models or some other creative outlet yourself.

  4. Is there a special paint that is used for airbrushing plastic models and if so what do you recommend?Thanks .

  5. Hi Steve,
    All that distinguishes paint for models from other paints is finely ground pigments and the ability to lay down very thin. I prefer Polly Scale acrylic (water based) enamel paint, many enjoy Testor’s Model Master Acryl II (water based) enamel. Badger makes a line of water based acrylics I haven’t used yet.

    Tamiya makes an alcohol and water based acrylic which many, many, people use and enjoy. Its good paint, widely available, but not as forgiving as Polly Scale, and at my age, forgiveness matters more than justice! Its a little more challenging to brush well than either the Polly Scale or Testor’s Acryl BUT it covers well, dries reasonably fast, has lots of colors, etc. Gloss paints are VERY glossy.
    Gunze Sangyo make an alcohol and water based acrylic which I have airbrushed and it worked quite well. Its very popular at my IPMS chapter, particularly with some of the better modelers. I find it never completely dries and benefits from a ‘passivation’ layer of Future Floor Wax. Vallejo, from Spain, is making inroads too, very airbrushable, very fine, lots of colors to work with.

    At a guess, in my chapter, the largest number of people probably airbrush Testor’s Model Master oil based paint, and Humbroil oil based paint, followed by Gunze Sangyo, Tamiya and Vallejo acrylics, with Testor’s Model Master Acryl II and Polly Scale in third place but well liked. Many people use more than one on a given model, depending on what’s available and what they need at the time.

    Many of us use Model Master Metalizer (laquer), some use SNJ, Humbroil Old Silver, Tamiya rattle-can bare-aluminum, etc, etc. for natural metal finishes. I think I’m the only one who routinely uses Polly Scale’s acrylic metalics with a brush.

    In all cases hew to the sage advice of Mr. Al Ernat of D & J Hobbies for years and years: Thin paint for air brushing to the consistancy of whole milk. Thicker than water, but not much, and notably thinner than most paint out of a bottle. This works with my Pasch H double-action, with my Badger 250 Paint Sprayer and everything I know of.

    PRACTICE on a scrap model or the inside of an unbuilt one before you commit yourself if this is new. Do NOT try some technique for the first time on a kit you’ve put 100 hours of cutting, glueing, sanding, etc, into. Use a garage-sale model, a styrene coffee lid or plate, a clear styrene clam shell food container, but use SOMETHING to try the techniques you plan to use on your real model, before you paint the real model. 1/32 cars, 1/72 airplanes, 1/700 ships make good practice objects. If you want to see what a color will look like on a car, you can always drill out the rolled top of the two posts/rivets and paint a Hot Wheels or Matchbox car that came from a garage sale or the $1 table at the drug store.

    Keep track of what you do in a note book, so you can repeat what works. You could even report what worked on this blog for others to read!

    Practice on styrene is more representitive than practice on metal, wood, cardboard, PVC, etc, but glossy faced cardboard, primed brass, copper or steel, etc, etc, can all be used as vehicles to try a technique.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Enjoyed your post, I too love use Polly Scale paints.

  7. PanzerKnacker42

    I used to use poly s as an under coat then I used artist oil color for highlight and shadow. Kids I talk to now look at me like I have two heads when I say artist oils.If used properly can give even a mediocre figure a dramatic finish.
    Now the golden demon is the prize for figure painting and they layer water based paint to give the illusion of a feather edge. I can get the same effect with oil in 5 minutes that it takes 3 days with water base……..Kids!

    • They’ll learn, just give ’em time. Youth IS wasted on the young… .
      Many people are surprised that thought or technology, went into old school things
      like oil paint… though before Dr. Kettering’s fast drying paint and boiled linseed
      oil, the long working time of oils wasn’t all that difficult to produce…
      There’s a great little writeup somewhere about discovering and admiring Zeller’s
      algorithm for calculating day of the week from a date, and the writer
      wondering where Zeller works and if they might meet him… Christian Zeller
      published his paper, “Kalender-Formeln”, in Acta Mathematica, 9:131-6, Nov 1886.
      So we’re not likely to run into him at the coffee shop!
      Primo Levi has a number of great ‘lost civilization’ stories about paint in
      his superb memoir, “The Periodic Table”. He was a paint and varnish chemist
      most of his professional life, and the onion story, for one, is a classic.

  8. Polly scale has been my favourite for some years but is increasingly hard to get. I buy some occasionally from the Hannants site or at model shows but the guys at the shows tell me they have problems obtaining it also. It is a superb medium for me as a brush painter, two coats is usually enough to give a beautiful finish. It is so fine that all detail is unmarred. You do have to be careful with your surfaces because any flaw will be picked up, but by the same token all the details will be preserved. No other paint comes close but if you thin down Humbrol acrylic, Vallejo or Lifecolor and apply three or four coats it you can get a decent job. Not quite the same as Polly scale alas. At present I am having difficulty in locating tyre colour paint as White Ensign’s website is not responding to my orders and I can’t locate Testors or Gunze Sangyo on the popular British websites. Keep trying, I suppose. Pip, pip, chaps.

  9. good news ilike your post….

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