Paint and finishing for model builders

Rather than continuing to make small posts from time to time on this subject, I’m going to make some pages containing what I know. Therefore it won’t take long to read. šŸ™‚ We’ll start with everything here and make it hierarchal when any piece gets big enough to have its own page. Corrections, additions and comments are welcome. I’ll try to footnote.

Model and miniature paint and finishing can be divided into several convenient categories:

1) Reproductions of paints and finishes in small scale. Any miniature which reproduces some 1:1 object that’s not simply unfinished falls into this category. Painted, laquered, oiled and varnished stuff. This quickly subdivides into interest group sub-categories:

1.1) Paint:

1.1.1) Shiny: Automobiles, trains, planes, ships, house trim, motorcycles, utilitarian objects.

1.1.2) Flat: primers, house paint, camouflage paints,

1.2) Clear finishes – clearcoats, spar-varnish, oils, glass and ceramic glazing

2) Raw material finishes – “Unfinished” finishes. These are hard ones:

2.1) Bare materials: Usually a human agency is responsible for isolating and presenting the 1:1 object, which is often uniform in bulk form: metal, textiles, raw and dyed, bare, cut or peeled wood, cut or finished stone, and rubber. Architectural and industrial materials of all kinds. Shingles, asphalt, concrete, fiber reinforced plastic, decorative and engineering plastics, baked goods, complex foods. Rope, cable. Foam-rubber and other celular materials. Brick, tera cotta and other ceramics; adobe, ploughed earth. Carbon-fiber and kevlar composites.

2.2) “Natural” surfaces. Stuff which doesn’t involve human intervention- inherently more variable and unavoidably including weathering and surface distress: natural stone, dirt, sand, water, other fluids, snow, ice, foliage and trunks, stems, roots, flowers etc. animal skin, fur, scales, feathers, eyes, mouths, teeth, claws, nostrils, ears, cell walls, cell partsexoskeletons, bones, flesh, fruits, splintered wood, prepared food not covered above. Human hair. Wiskers, feelers and antenae. Wing membranes, fins, hoves, other body parts.

3) Insubstantial surfaces: flames, smoke, vapor, clouds, bubbles, plant and animal fluids, finely divided materials suspended in a medium, landform, water and foliage textures on a very small scale, soap suds, sea foam. Dust, rust and heat discoloration, other forms of corrosion or chemical reaction.

Colors: what colors are commonly found on what?

A student of painting will equip themselves with some colors, say red, blue, yellow, black and white; and go mix what they neet to match what they see. Noted aviation artist Keith Ferris does this one better- his pictures of airplanes and people are often reproduced by printing, so he uses Process Blue, Process Red and Process Yellow colors to mix what he wants, confident that the commercial printing process which uses ink of these colors will reproduce it well. (The Aviation Art of Keith Ferris).

Scale model builders, modellers, if not just buying commercial paint from a hardware store or specialist (airplane dope, marine paint, etc.), used to have choices of primary, secondary and a few common or proprietary colors (Prussian Blue), much like artists used. “Model paint” was optimized for fine, thin, finishes, approprite for miniatures, quick drying, good brushing, good mixing. It was usually an enamel paint, which air dried, though laquers would be popular with those wanting really thin colors, or very high gloss.

Like fire and water, however, money always finds a way, and eventually model paints started specializing by usage, not simply more colors (the Crayola 64 color and 72 color sets, a typical fine-art paint product line, etc.) This was good for paint makers because they sold more paint and good for modellers because they didn’t have to mix the colors they used over and over- dark red anti-fouling paint on ship bottoms, basic skin tones for human figures, the corporate palates of the railroads, colors Detroit automakers painted iron engine blocks, yellow and green zinc chromate primer found everwhere in aviation, Piper Cub yellow, 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang orange-red, Italian racing red, raw teak on ship’s decks, etc.

Besides small containers, the modern model builder also gets to select among about half as many rattle-can spray colors as the little container colors. Not counting hardware store paints, or automotive store paints, both of which have their adherents, there are Testors general, glossy colors, Testor’s Military Flat colors, Testor’s Custom Car gloss colors, Tamiya Airplane flat and bare metal colors, and Tamiya general/automotive (glossy) lines widely available in the USA.

Revell Germany make spray paint, as do Gunze Sangyo: Neither is easy to find in this country, though very available in other places. I have one small rattle can of Gunze dark green and a micro-size Revell Germany can of a neutral gray.

So many modellers in any field often accumulate a stock of primary colors as used in the 1:1 world, and specific colors used for specific purposes. Southern Pacific’s famous “War Bonnet” red, yellow and silver (aluminum) and Thomas The Tank Engine’s blue and red. Having pre-mixed colors appropriate to the subjects you model is natural. I have a hundred or more little bottles of paint:

The majority are airplane camouflage colors. Polly Scale, Testor’s Acryl (meaning Acryl II), Tamiya and Gunze-Sanyo. One or two really old bottles of PollyS, Testor’s Acryl I, Pactra Acrylic (!) and some specialist products. All are “water-cleanup” products. I have a lot of grays in this set, USN light gull gray the very poetic color of sunlit clouds, flat 36440, shiny 16440, early WWII ANA-6xx; flat dark gull gray (popular for modern military cockpits), the light and dark “Ghost Gray”s popular with the USAF in the 1970s/80s, the colors or heavy rain clouds; light and very light grays used by the USAF, RAF Ocean Gray, Sea Gray, Dark Sea Gray and Extra Dark Sea Gray, usable from 1942-ish to the present day; RLM-02 grau, for otherwise uncolored surfaces in WWII German airplanes and some exterior camouflage, particularly dappling, also a color to represent the epoxy primer now used by Ford for automobiles, and a ‘utility’ color for VW products- painted (not chromed) hub-caps on VW micro-busses, other-than-body-color bits and pieces; USAAC/USAAF Neutral Gray underside color; FS 16515 “Canadian Voodoo Gray”, used by the RCAF and possibly related to the utility gray Boeing calls BAC 707… Other popular shades for Camouflage are greens, browns, yellows, blues, pinks. All colors drawn from nature, none of them with the sharp, spectral purity of decorator bright blues or hot rod laquers. Camouflage colors are the colors of unmodified nature- clouds, the sea, foliage, farm-land, sand, shadows, mud, clay.

Then come primary and other colors with no specific application, generally but not always glossy. Tamiya and Gunze-Sangyo dominate in my paint set because they’ve been selling this kind of thing for decades, while Testor’s Acryl and the Polly Scale Railroad colors have only been available recently. Now that I tend to rely on Future Floor Wax for glossy finishes, I buy the color without reference to the finish, and gloss it up if it needs it.

I can and have used Tamiya gloss paints with a brush but it takes patience and practice to get good results on large areas. With Gunze-Sangyo I have never done what I think of as a good job, on a large area, with a brush. It sprays pretty well, thinned with water or water and rubbing alcohol mix, and so if I have to use a lot of it, my trusty Badger 250 Paint Sprayer comes out.

Then paints and finishes to reproduce unpainted metal surfaces. Oh boy, model builders, especially airplane model builders, can be identified by how many different colors of gray they have (25+ for me) and how many “Silver”, “Chrome”, “Aluminum”, “Flat aluminum”, “Steel”, etc, they have. Whenever I discover a new line of model paints, I buy a metalic- Aluminum, Flat Aluminum or Steel, to see how good it might be. None of the water-clean-up metalic paints are very nice- they tend to be thick, awkward to brush, cover poorly. Spraying takes care of the brushing issue, but leaves the rest. Testor’s oil-based products are the gold standard here- their Chrome Silver is the finest-ground, shinyist and most reflective and realistic of all the bare metal paints available for brushing, provided you want a polished aluminum, chrome, etc. finish. Terrific for Their issue of “Metalizer” bare-metal paroducts puts this first rate system in the hands of anyone who wants it.

All Bare Metal or Natural Metal Finish paints can be quicly modified with clear-coats. For example, the old Testors Chrome Silver with an overspray of Dull Cote flat laquer became a whiteish-silver similar to oxidized aluminum or aluminum paint, or even Corogard finish for modern airliners. Future brand Floor Wax (called Kleer in much of the world outside the USA) can be tinted with white, light or dark gray, black, flat base, etc, and then applied over Metalizer buffable Aluminum (or Titanium, Stainless Steel, Magnesium, etc.)

All natural metal finish or bare metal paints can be further modified by rubbing with SNJ powdered metals, normally meant to be rubbed into a paint base but rubbable into any paint or finish…

Then dedicated industrial shades– Polly Scale railroad liveries, Xtra Colour solvent-based airline liveries, the colors used for automobile engine blocks and for automobile racing team liveries, “steel gray paint”, ‘aluminum paint’, zinc chromate yellow, zinc chromate green, red iron-oxide primer, gray automotive primer, industrial medium gray, blue-gray, semi-gloss black and various dark grays.

Other military colors- aircraft interior colors (USN/USAAC interior green, bronze green, RAF interior gray green), armored vehicle colors, uniforms colors, USN Haze Gray and other ship camouflage colors;

Raw materials (other than metal) colors– rubber, doped linen, leather, beige resin radome and fiberglass duct color, fresh and old concrete color, raw wood varnished wood

And so forth.

What I know is 20th century vehicles, mostly, airplanes, cars, some ships, related stuff. Other people know other things appropriate to their interests. In 40+ years of wondering what color to paint stuff, this is what I’ve come up with: (And I’ll have to alphabetize this by subject and by color at some point, but lets capture it first.)

Stuff in general- small parts, things the 1:1 builder bought from specialists: nuts, bolts, switches, little motors, compasses, light fixtures, are usually black, gray or silver. These neutral colors blend with most real stuff and your typical maker of real things, trains, planes or automobiles, doesn’t repaint the proprietary bits they buy from others. The blacks are often not starless, Bible black, but very dark gray. The silver is usually not bare metal (sometimes it IS bare aluminum or stainless steel, occasionally chrome plating), but usually paint with aluminum pigment or a steel-gray color. The gray is usually a middle-tone, intended to go well with anything.

On cars and trucks, these colors are good for starter motors, generators/alternators, voltage regulators, fuel pumps, shock absorbers, springs. Fancy stuff like starter motors and voltage regulators is often silver painted, springs and stuff without moving parts usually semi-glossy black. Some starters will have a black or gray solenoid (the smaller cylinder). Some engines are painted black or silver, but a corporate blue, orange, red, metalic green, etc is often found. Utilitarian and economy engines often have black, gray or ‘engine color’ air cleaners. Hot cars have chromed air cleaners.

Semi-glossy black is good for suspension pieces- steering knuckles, A arms, axles, brake backing plates, brake drums. Disc brakes are, of course, bare iron, unless carbon or ceramic, and will be covered separately. Brake calipers are often bare metal, sometimes silver, gray or black, often grime and brake-dust covered. Modern sports-car brake calipers might be red, yellow, etc. Steering boxes, shafts, etc, are usually black. Rack and pinion steering racks are often bare aluminum castings, with rubber boots and black tie-rods. Aluminum suspension pieces (Honda/Acura NSX, Corvettes, etc) are often unpainted cast aluminum. Bell housings and transmisison cases are very often bare cast aluminum.

On airplanes, black, silver and gray are good for engine parts that aren’t bare metal- radial airplane engines are most commonly black cylinders with gray crankcase and gearbox, black and gray accessories like magnetos and carburetors, Cylinder heads may be bare aluminum, black, silver or gray. Water-cooled airplane engines usually have the block, heads, valve covers, sump, supercharger, etc, painted gray, black or silver. Typically, on a water cooled engine, everything made by Pratt and Whitney, Rolls-Royce, Daimler-Benz, etc, is a single color. So carburetors and propeller governors might differ, but the rest will be the corporate shade du-jur. Landing gear legs and wheels are frequently silver or gray, radiators usually black, stuff in the cockpit gray or black

On ships, silver, black and gray are good for auxillary engines., winches, mufflers, air conditioners, radios, engines in boats, fog-horns, davits, booms, cranes, the backs of running lights, stuff bought ready-to-go. Major structure, inside and out, will be painted and repainted as the owner prefers.

Special colors inside things:

Headlining and the inside of the pillars holding up the roofs of automobiles and trucks is a light gray to white, usually- the gray maybe a lightened tint of the interior color, but a bright red interior will have a white, not red, not usually pink, textile on the underside of the roof. A golden buff color might be used for a beige interior.

Black, gray and blue-gray are considered the default colors for civil airplane interiors, but Boeing switched to beige and light brown in the 1980s (more restful, just like the Audi ad used to claim). Light aircraft have automobile-like interiors- cloth or vinyl seats with cloth or vinyl on the walls and roof. Since they’re sold to the same people who buy high-end cars, they look like high end cars of the period they were made- 1950s? Coral pink and pale gray. 1960s? two or three blue gray tones, or orangy or avacado green. Like cars, the headliner and window pillars will be light colors. Control wheels may be black OR white, rudder pedals painted or bare aluminum. Instrument faces are usually black, but instrument panels range from black to cockpit color to fancy wood. Corporate and third-level airliner cockpits and cabins are usually corporate neutral- blue gray, light above, dark below, beige and light brown, Controls might be a light, industrial, gray, pilot’s seats in airliners small to large are often sheepskin with wool still attached. Natural color, or dyed or worn to a light gray or a blue gray. (Think luxury automobiles).

Commercial airplane landing gear wells were often simply the exterior color, white, silver, gray, wrapped around the doors and sprayed over the inside, but they are usually white (Boeing, Airbus) or a light gray (some Airbus, maybe) with white, light gray, metalic gray landing gear legs. Commercial aircraft leave the factory with insides painted as the manufacturer chooses, unless the customer pays for something different. As they are maintained, stripped and repainted, the interior takes on the appearence that the owner chooses, particularly if the owner does their own maintenance, as all the big carriers did until not long ago. I’d expect the new, outsourced, maintenance facilities can carefully reproduce whatever Lufthansa, KLM/Air France, United, etc, most want, rather than picking for them. I also have no doubt that the airlines maintenance folks will use whatever is favorable from a safety standpoint, and/or costs least from an economic standpoint. If its not the corporate logo, that’s all their management understands.

Commercial aircraft usually had silver/steel/metalic landing gear legs and wheels in the 1930-196x era. As white and light gray replaced silver (aluminum) paint on airplanes generally, one remaining location for silver (aluminum) paint was the front wheels of Boeing airliners. Silver, light gray and white are all good calls for main-gear wheels on airliners since the early 1950s, but they become covered in brake dust so quickly that the ‘color’ is, at most, what’s under the brake dust. Note that the brakes are on the main gears, not the nose gear, so no brake dust on the front wheel/tire/wheel-well.

Military airplane interiors differ by country and era. Before WWII natural material colors were comon- doped linen, clear-finished plywood, bare metal, black, gray or silver paint, polished brass, aluminum or stainless steel. (these are good for any airplane 1903-1930…)

1935-1950 British airplanes used a gray-green, “British interor green” which was a fuel-proof paint that protected the non-metalic materials of an airplane. Every inch of the plywood de Havilland Mosquito’s structure was painted interor green. About 1944, the UK began painting things above the pilots hands but below the windscreen black, with the interior green below that. The inside of windscreens is an obsessive subject all its own- interior green, occasionally black, sometimes a light gray… even when black is used for the rest of the cockpit, black canopy framing tends to make one feel caged… unless in a night-fighter or night-bomber, when black might be exactly right for the inside of canopy framing.

1935-1955 US military airplanes used zinc chromate primer tinted to match the US Interior Green color, or bronze green or an industrial dark green. Grumman used a light gray primer, but put the approved Interior Green color inside the cockpit. Larger planes, transports and bombers, might have bare aluminum inside, or aluminum paint, or yellow or green zinc chromate (Typical B-17s had Interior Green, bare aluminum and often zinc chromate or some dark or bronze green or olive drab, all in different places inside the fuselage, as well as clear-finished plywood, black and silver bits. B-29s and B-24s were similarly complex, as were B-25s and B-26s.

The US Navy switched to gray interiors in the later 1950s. The USAF kept interior green for a while but went to gray by the time they were buying F-4 Phantoms and A-7 Corsair IIs. The UK switched about the same time, and Canada, Australia, France, Italy, Japan followed the larger countries. India and Pakistan probably tracked the Brits. South Africa? Brazil? China? Sweden? I have no idea.

The Soviet Union used a bland gray-green during WWII and after, but switched to a “swimming pool” blue-green around the time of the MiG-21. Some MiG 21s and Sukoi 7s, 17s, etc, have gray-green or gray interiors, but Tu-16s and Tu-95s, MiG-21, 23, 25 and 27 all have the medium blue-green interiors. Not as dark as the vibrant blue-green that was Lockheed’s choice for the Constellations, this color, like a dark hospital green, was intended to help the overworked and over stimulated aircrew stay calm and focused.

Military aircraft wheel-bay doors are usually a tidy or camouflage color outside, a good interior color inside, when new. As exterior camouflage or tidy colors are renewed and changed, there is a greater and greater likelyhood that the inside of the door, though usually not the inside of the well, will be painted the same color as the outside. Because its easier to tape a big piece of paper across the mouth of the well than to do that AND mask the inside of the doors. Of course, some people put the plane on jacks, raise the gear and paint that way, and some remove the gear well door, clean and inspect it and completely refinish it, in one color, before re-attaching it. So your Convair F-106 and B-36 have, as best I can make it out, US Interior Green colored, if not plain, green, zinc chromate, INSIDE their landing gear well doors. The F-106, built and serving later, had white landing gear legs and white wheels, the B-36 built and in service earlier, had silver (aluminum) painted landing gear legs and wheels. A-10As started with light gray inside the wheel wells, and light gray wheels and gear legs. I’d bet the wells are the inderneath camo color now, particularly since its been changed. And so forth.

Tanks: Light colors predominate, though camouflage is continued on both sides of hatches that might be opened during action. US practice was and is white, the UK used and uses white, Germany 1935-1945 used a warm buff color, the Soviet Union 1935-1945 used light gray. Tanks are operated and lived in some to many hours each day, and once bolted together seldom taken apart to be cleaned or turned upside down and shaken out. So bright, even, colors would accumulate scuff marks, stains, etc, even when the crew had time and materials to clean up. Some tanks lasted years, some had short, exciting lives (many crews in Normandy in 1944 had more than one tank shot out from under them… no doubt the Soviet and Germans in the East had similar experiences). So on a given day in WWII, a given tank could be an old survivor, carefully maintained, even upgraded, or straight off the factory line and still smelling new. Much of armor and military modelling is in the weathering and distressing, not the factory-fresh look. Today the USA takes its M1A Abrams tanks back to General Dynamics, who completely disassemble them, take hull and turret down to bare metal, repair what needs repairs and then completetely refinish them as-new. No doubt the UK, France, Germany and other NATO countries do the same. Russia? China? Middle East? No idea.

Here’s my page on USAAC/USAF colors:

5 responses to “Paint and finishing for model builders

  1. Paint and finishing for model builders is hobby some people.I also like Paint and finishing for model builders.

  2. I am just getting back into model building and starting with an F4U-4 Corsair[Revell 1:48]. I would like to paint it as accurately as possible,trying to replicate VMF 214 Black Sheep Squadron paint colors and makings.The assembly instructions are a little vague on painting details for such things as the rear tail gear .Is the correct feusalage interior a zinc chromate and if so is this a greenish color? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Tim

    • Hi Tim,
      Well chosen! Is Revell’s 1/48 kit the nice ’60s Corsair originally by Monogram? folding wings, retractable landing gear? It should build up nicely. The VMF-214 Black Sheep most famous planes and markings were F4U-1s, with 3 bladed propellers, slightly different carburetor air intakes. I’m sure they flew -4s later. If you want to build a -4 and paint it as a -1 I say go for it.
      You might try, back issues of Fine Scale Modeler or Scale Aircraft Modeling International, Internet Modeler, Hyperscale etc for more information. Tom Cleaver wrote a Corsair Interior 101 that’s WELL worth looking at- says he’s been there while real Corsairs had their original paint revealed during removal. Cleaver reports yellow zinc chromate where I had thought green was right- take your choice!

      Early Corsairs came in -1, -1A, -1D, & -2. Vought used a number of interior colors in wheel wells, the underside color, sometimes the plain green zinc chromate primer, sometimes the second coat of primer was tinted was “Indian Red” (as in subcontinent) and the result is described as “brownish salmon”, equivalent to FS30215- wow! Gear legs were painted gray, sometimes with “aluminum” or “steel” (darker, gray-metallic). By the time of -4s, the whole exterior, inside and outside of gear doors, gear legs, wheels, was glossy dark blue. Bert Kinzey’s pair of F4U Corsair In Detail & Scale books (Part 1, early, and Part 2, late) go into all of this in exhausting detail. ALL Corsairs were maintained in the field, and repainted as needed, so its hard to argue against older and previously used F4Us havign the same color in the wheel wells as the rest of the underside. Is all about the same from a maintenance point of view. The steel landing gear legs are somewhat different and might have stayed in a gray or metallic shade longer than the chromate or brownish salmon showed in the wells. Corsair cockpit sidewalls, seat, etc. appear in modern museum photos to be *untinted* green zinc chromate- apple green, like the inside of a school bus. The instrument panel and control consoles on either side were flat black, as was the grip on the joystick. If the Revell kit is the old Monogram mold, the seat, if any, is probably on a post and there’s almost nothing else in the cockpit. That’s not completely wrong for a -1, they had no floor, just a pair of troughs for the pilots heels, from under the seat to the rudder pedals. A piece of part tree filed flat would be a dandy console on either side, two more could be the heel troughs & tint down all the paint to make it dark and mysterious… :^)
      As Al Superczinsky used to say, “Build what you want, the way you want it!”

  3. Found your site via bing the other day and absolutely adore it. Carry on the excellent work.

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