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How To Superdetail Your Cheap Plastic Models

September 15, 2006, by Bill Cawthon

First order of business this time is to send congratulations to Joe Enriquez. Joe, a talented modelbuilder from New Jersey, is now a member of the Internet Craftsmanship Museum. He is the first member who works primarily in 1/87 scale and the honor is well-deserved.

This Kenworth tractor is one the incredible models built by Joe Enriquez. Joe is the first modeler working in 1/87 scale to be featured in the Internet Craftsmanship Museum. Photo by Joe Enriquez.

Joe Enriquez is one of the most talented modelbuilders I know (and I am fortunate enough to know some very good modelbuilders). Long after a model would have been considered a masterpiece by someone like me, Joe is still adding touches to make his creation totally realistic. I donít know that Joe would gild a lily but I am absolutely positive he could Bare Metal foil one.

The Internet Craftsmanship Museum was established by the Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship to celebrate the accomplishments of individuals who use their skills and knowledge to elevate a hobby to an art. Joe Martin is the owner of Sherline Tools, a manufacturer of precision machining tools for the small business or home craftsman.

You can learn more about Joe Enriquez and see some of his work by visiting his page at the museum website.

George Stein, a reader from Alabama, asked me to write a column about super-detailing. In fact, he suggested the title. While he, just like I, could learn a lot from Joe Enriquez, George is simply looking to improve the appearance of the models on his layout and thatís something I have been doing for years.

Just over four years ago, I wrote a column on basic detailing (see Killing the Showroom Shine, August 15, 2002). As I havenít repeated myself in 135 columns, I donít think I will start now. However, a recent conversation with my friend Wayne Calder (another talented modelbuilder) gave me some ideas for building on what I wrote back then.

After painting, among the best and easiest things you can do make a model better is to simply detail the body. I am talking about details like windshield surrounds, body trim, door handles and such.

The first step in learning how to detail is learning what to detail: what does the real vehicle look like? With modern cars, itís fairly easy to find one to study. Older vehicles may require a bit of searching on the internet or browsing through the books at your local library or bookstore.

Details have changed over the years. Back in the fifties and sixties, trim was chrome and plentiful. Not only was it decorative, it resisted rust. In the past twenty years, advances in technology have allowed matte black to replace chrome for things like window surrounds and windshield wipers. Chrome door handles and bumpers have been supplanted by body-colored components. Blackwall tires have replaced the whitewalls fashionable well into the seventies, even on Cadillacs and Lincolns.

Another thing to do is look for details that are on the real car or truck, but missing from your model. One of the most common omissions, especially on older vehicles, is rearview mirrors. Check the shape and how they are mounted. While some of the fancy designs can be a challenge, simple passenger car mirrors can be easily fashioned from small bits of brass or styrene plastic.

Having done your research, you are now ready to tackle detailing.

This type of work is done most easily while the model is disassembled for the painting I recommended in my earlier column.

By the way, one tip I did miss back then is to keep a box or other small container for all your parts. You donít want to come up short when itís time to put everything back together.

For large areas of bright metal, you can use a product like Bare Metal Foil; itís a great product and fairly easy to use. However, like Day-Glo paint, too much bright metal doesnít look right on a 1/87 scale model. Opt for Chrome instead of Ultra Bright Chrome and consider aluminum for weathered models. Practice a bit and be sure to check out Dennis Dotyís excellent tutorial on using Bare Metal Foil.

Herpaís Triumph TR-3 is an okay model, but the addition of AutoMobiliaís Trans-Kit turns it into a miniature masterpiece. Top photo courtesy of Herpa/Promotex. Bottom photo courtesy of AutoMobilia. Copyright © 2006 AutoMobilia

In 1/87 scale, details like chrome door handles and windshield wipers are too small for foil; thereís not enough area for the foil to get a good grip. This means youíre going to be painting thin lines using a paint that runs freely so the best advice I can offer is to get as little paint on your brush as possible. Unless your hand doesnít tremble at all, use short strokes and take your time. The color will build up and youíll avoid blotches and bloopers.

For things like windshield and backlight surrounds and thin trim strips along the side of the car, the same techniques apply but you can also use various masking products. I prefer the 3M blue masking tape; itís very flexible and snuggles down nicely to prevent paint from bleeding under the tape.

The largest areas, like bumpers and grilles, would be candidates for metal foil but many times complex surfaces can make using foil either difficult or impossible, so itís time to paint. I suggest an airbrush or spray paint. The uniformity of the finish will look much better. If you want to get really serious about a metallic surface, look into Alclad finishes. These require a fair amount of preparation and a dark base coat, but the results are phenomenal.

Another trick I like is to paint the grille with a thinned wash of India ink, letting it pool in the grille openings. Itís a simple matter to wipe the excess off the painted surfaces and the resulting effect is very realistic. You can also paint the grille opening black and then dry-brush the chrome grille over the black.

I covered headlights and taillights in my earlier column and I still use the same technique.

Once you have done the detailing and perhaps some weathering, youíll have a model that will look great on your layout. Since you probably have most of the required tools like a sharp hobby knife and fine-tipped brushes, the additional investment will be mostly in materials like paint, masking tape and perhaps some metal foil.

If you want to try out these techniques on some really inexpensive models, buy a package of the Herpa Magic Cars. A set of two is just $6.50 and some paint and detailing will give you a model that looks like it should sell for a lot more than three bucks and change.

If you have some of the nice sports car models made by Herpa, Busch or Wiking, one of the best superdetailing tips I can offer is the Trans-Kits from AutoMobilia, a German manufacturer of photo-etched parts. The parts are delicate and there is some work involved, but you will have a first-rate scale model when you are done. Check out what can be done with the Herpa Triumph TR3; Herpa liked the results so much, they devoted an article to the TR3 Trans-Kit in Der MaŖstab, their own magazine.

Automobiliaís product line extends beyond the kits to include rearview mirrors, windshield wipers, antennae and other detailing parts to fit a variety of car models.

Light truck mirrors are available from places like Plano Model Products. Plano also offers lots of parts for larger trucks.

Need wheels or other parts? Check through the dozens of items offered by Herpa and Promotex. Photo courtesy of Herpa/Promotex.

Want different wheels? Promotex Online is a great place to start. Lots of great truck parts and some nice wheels and tires for cars, too. Take some time to scroll through the pages of accessories available from Promotex and Herpa.

Add some sporting accents to your models with the Holiday accessory set from Busch. Surfboards, skis, bicycles and mounting racks are all included in this set and they are easy to attach to any model.

License plates are another detail usually missing from factory models. American license plates are available from Microscale and German plates from a variety of sources. Of course, you can also print your own using a personal computer and inkjet printer. Before you do it, though, be sure to get measurements from real license plates; they are smaller than you think!

Donít be afraid to kitbash or scratchbuild. Pickups are especially tempting subjects. Add tools in the bed or make a camper shell from sheet styrene. Take the wheels and tire from a Busch Mercedes LP809 and put them on the 1950 Chevrolet pickup (youíll need to eyeball the width of the rear axle to get the spacing right) and you will have a nice one-ton truck to which you can add a vocational body, like a flat or stake bed or kitbash into a wrecker.

Add a rack to the roof of a station wagon and load it up with suitcases (thatís why they used to call them luggage racks) or picnic items.

Superdetailing can be easy or challenging, depending on your goal. While a master craftsman like Joe Enriquez will spend many hours creating one of his masterpieces, it takes a lot less time to improve a marginal model.

If you want to get some inspiration, I invite you to take a tour through the nearly three hundred galleries at the 1/87 Vehicle Club. The galleries are sorted by category, prototype manufacturer and modelbuilder, making it easy to find lots of photos of the work of many talented hobbyists. For some great tips and lots of good information, try

To be honest, the most important step in detailing is just doing it. The Internet is loading with tips and techniques and there are online forums with people who will be happy to share their experience, but if youíve built models of almost any variety, you probably already have a lot of the skills you need. There are a number of models inexpensive enough to be practice pieces, so you donít need to risk more costly pieces as you perfect your techniques. Pick up a bottle of Floquilís Polly S Easy Lift-Off in case you need to start over. I have a bottle Ė and itís not my first.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon


Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant working with the information technology and hobby industries. He is an associate editor for Model Railroad News and writes a monthly column on the U.S. light vehicle industry. He is a member of the 1/87 Vehicle Club and the Texas Auto Writers Association.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: September 15, 2006