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Painting the Fail Dauntless, Part 2: Natural Metal Finish

July 12, 2010

When you get right down to it, modeling is all about verisimilitude. It’s about taking a bunch of polystyrene plastic and assembling and painting it in such a way that it looks like you took a shrink ray to an actual aircraft, tank, car, battleship, etc.

Painting plastic to look like painted metal is relatively easy. Painting plastic to look like bare metal? Now there’s a challenge. Spraying silver all over a model just isn’t going to do it. It won’t pull off the smoothness and brilliance of bare metal.

Obviously not just painted silver

Speaking of bare metal, have you ever wondered why the Allies started fielding unpainted aircraft around 1943? No? Well I did.

I always figured it was some kind of giant middle finger to Germany and Japan. You know, “we have so much air superiority that we don’t even have to camoflage our planes anymore, suckas!”.

Well, the real story is based in, you guess it, SCIENCE. By the time World War II rolled around, most aircraft were being skinned in aluminum alloy. Now, pure aluminum is corrosion resistant, but this alloy wasn’t, so it had to be painted. Then Alcoa came along with the solution of fixing thin sheets of pure aluminum dubbed Alclad to the outside of the aircraft. It worked, and viola, bare metal flying middle fingers were soon dominating the skies over Nazi Germany.

I still don’t know why there was so much fuss and engineering thought put into creating this natural metal finish, but my best guess is that it probably had to do with aerodynamics. The fact that P-47 pilots would wash and wax their painted aircraft to coax another 10mph out of them seems to bear this out. After all, pure, smooth metal is bound to be slipperier than paint. And slipperiness = less drag = more speed and/or range. That would also explain why so many airliners are still finished in Alclad sheeting.

Okay, enough with the history lesson. The basic gist is this: a lot of the subjects I want to build sported natural metal finishes, and since pulling these off in plastic is somewhat tricky, I decided to press the Fail Dauntless into service one more time.

Enter Alclad II

Back when I was building models in the early 90s, Testors’ Model Master Metalizer paints were all the rage. These were the first paints that you could airbrush on, and then buff to a metal-like sheen. They were still very temperamental, and not durable at all, but they were still a lot easier than going the tedious bare metal foil route.

Then, sometime around the time I stopped building models altogether, Alclad II lacquers came out. And from everything I’ve read, they can produce some awesome finishes.

Hawker Sea Fury finished in Alclad II lacquers

Better still, they don’t require buffing, and they’re said to be tough as hell, meaning they won’t lift or chip when you mask over them to paint cowlings or ID stripes or the like.

Needless to say, I was intrigued, so I picked up a few bottles of different shades at the local hobby shop.

Dark Aluminum, Duraluminum, Airframe Aluminum, Dull Aluminum, and the sweetest Exhaust Manifold, from left to right

Prepping the Fail Dauntless

Surface preparation is key with Alclad II. It’s said to work best on a very smooth, very shiny surface. To this end, everyone recommends sanding the hell out of your model with increasingly fine grit sandpaper, until you’re pretty much sanding it with baby minks. Once it’s smooth, it gets hit with a primer. Alclad II recommends a gloss black base coat.

Well, I got half of this right. Since the Fail Dauntless is a total screw-it-slam-together-paint-testbed, I didn’t bother with sanding it. Not that it would have mattered. The FD is all raised panel lines, so managing a good sanding without destroying all of the model’s detail would have been impossible.

Instead I just went ahead and masked the three-layer blend on the right side, then sprayed the left side with Krylon gloss black that I decanted from the rattle can with a damned straw.

After the black base coat

Fail Dauntless Fails

To my total surprise, the Alclad II (I opted for the Airframe Aluminum shade) went on with zero fuss. It felt like I was literally shooting metal out of my airbrush. I’ve made a mental note to try their gold shade and laugh maniacally the entire time.

The problems weren’t in the paint, or even in my airbrushing technique. They were in my shoddy prep work. Specifically, the total lack of sanding, and my accidentally touching the left fuselage with a bare thumb. Wherever the finish wasn’t smooth, the Alclad wasn’t smooth. And when it encountered my thumbprint, it just seemed to avoid it.

You can see where my thumb screwed it all up. Bottom of the fuselage just above the PVC stand on the right.

Overall, I think it still came out pretty cool, and I intend to apply all the lessons learned when it comes time to build the P-51D.

Two paint tests. One Fail Dauntless.

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