Markus Frey’s stunning Pilatus Pelican S2.

Shaun Garrity offers up a few ideas for adding simple but effective effects to your latest scale creations

A modelling pal of mine Ken had a simple philosophy regarding the art of scale detailing model aircraft. His planes always looked realistic, yet he took an uncomplicated approach to achieve great results.

For many years now plastic mouldings, water slide transfers (decals) in a range of sizes, scale wheels etc. have been available and if you were prepared to stump up the modelling tokens, fully detailed cockpits, especially for jets, along with intricately machined retracting undercarriage mechanisms.


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Nowadays many items can be recreated by 3D printing, or laser cutting for metal parts, with many commercially produced and available off the shelf from established suppliers such as Mick Reeves Models (they’ve been around for 50 years and Mick is a three times World Champion).

However, old-time methods can be used to great effect without resorting to the cheque book. It’s very easy to reproduce passable engines using balsa, dowel, a few nuts and bolts and aluminium tubing, air scoops from cut up ping pong balls or yoghurt pots, exhausts from balsa and tubing and a myriad of hatches etc. with thin aluminium, litho-plate or plasticard.

I realise that this is another ‘can of worms’ subject with many, many different views and methods to achieve results but the following is how I’ve approached things over the years. My goal was never to achieve contest winning results just stand off scale detailing that’s convincing from a short distance away and worthy of at least a second look. You would need a book the size of ‘War and Peace’ to cover all the aspects of the topic, so here are a few ideas.


Before starting its worth thoroughly researching the subject, its variants and deciding how far you want to go in detailing your new project; this is so much easier today with the proliferation of information on the internet. For me though, it’s nowhere near as satisfying as thumbing through books but is, without question, a much quicker way of accessing the information.

You can break down the basic areas needing attention into a number of mini projects. Clearly covering, painting and detailing with the application of decals etc. is the first consideration, followed by the cockpit, then the engine and finally the undercarriage, which should definitely receive some attention as well. View these as the minimum requiring looking at to recreate some scale magic but, if you have the will, keep going; 13,800 – keep that number in mind for later on in the article.


Heatshrink film, heatshrink fabrics, litho-plate, glass-fibre, nylon, tissue; they all have their place and work for scale model aircraft, it just depends on how accurate you want the final finish to be. Clearly heat shrink film on a WW1 model wouldn’t be ideal but if you are going for a sport scale look then why not use it as it can be matted down with a non-metallic pan scrub.


I’ve recently taken a different approach on my heat shrink fabric covered WW1 models and I see no reason why it won’t work on modern types. I can’t claim any originality for the method, but I achieved great results; it’s inexpensive and provides a good base to work from.


Taking the time to use a paint mask produces far better realism than vinyl stickers can.

So, what is this ‘nouvelle idée’? House paint – yes, that’s correct, and in my case specifically the Valspar Matt Emulsion water-based range of over 2,000 pre-mixed colours. Amazingly suppliers have the capability in store to match 2.2 million ones from a tiny sample so you should never be stuck getting the exact colour. Available in small tester pots keeps the cost down to peanuts and the great benefit of using this paint is it can easily be applied with a foam roller and cleaned up with water.



House paint applied with a sponge roller.

Complex colour schemes can be achieved with ease. No masking other than where different colours meet, no overspray, minimal odour and cleaned with water it has excellent single coat coverage. One tip is to wipe the heatshrink fabric down with thinners first and use an etching primer if painting over aluminium to ensure the best possible adhesion. Only black and metallics such as silver didn’t work well for me so acrylic or enamel was substituted.


Paint masks can be used for wheel lettering. Oil paint pens seem to work well.

Once you have the base paint scheme it’s time to apply lettering and insignias etc. You could use water slide transfers or vinyl graphics to good effect but for extra authenticity have the vinyl cut as a mask so you can paint on the detail. It takes a little longer, but the results are far better. Take a look at the accompanying photos and you’ll see what I mean.


After removal the finished article. It needed re-doing as the mask wasn’t accurately placed. More haste, less speed.

Flightline Graphics specialise in producing a vast range of high quality, accurate vinyl’s and paint masks, along with rub down, dry decals that remind me of the old Letraset style transfers. If you have a steady hand and some artistic skill, then there’s no reason why you couldn’t freehand roundels or insignias etc. But I know my limitations with a brush; I’m limited!


Lazertran decals are very easy to make and an inexpensive.

To finish off after final detailing, water-based floor varnish, again applied with a foam roller, does the job using matt, satin or gloss as appropriate. Around the nose and fuel tank I applied polyurethane varnish. I’ve not tried this paint method for glow fuel powered models, just petrol and so I guess a traditional fuel proofer would definitely be required.


Trim tabs are easily replicated using an air brush and card templates.

As always when using different types of paint, check first that they are compatible and don’t react. The paint mask method can even be used for lettering tyres using oil paint-based marker pens, which are convenient for outlining items as well. That being said vinyl still has its place on heatshrink films. Or as an alternative you can ink jet print decals on a special water slide paper or clear or white adhesive vinyl sheet.

For waterslides I’ve used a brand called Lazertran Decal Paper sourced from Amazon and had excellent success. The logo on the tail of my 1/3rd scale Cub was printed on this paper and is still looking good after three years.

Sharpie permanent marker pens or similar are useful for panel lines etc. Just ensure they have fully dried before touching or adding any further paint such as fuel proofer otherwise your lovely sharp lines will cease to be and smudge. Another way to simulate trim tabs, panel detail etc. is auto trim tapes but I prefer to simply create a shadow with an airbrush using appropriately shaped card templates as a stencil to create the illusion.


The 13,800 rivets on Marcus Frey’s Pelican are individually glued in. That’s true commitment to the scale modeller’s art.

Remember 13,800? That’s the number of individually glued in rivets master modeller Markus Frey from Switzerland used on his latest outstanding 5.5m span, 1: 2.8 scale Pilatus ‘Pelican’ S2. Being skinned in thin aluminium, dots of glue wouldn’t have worked. Smoke and Mirrors? Not in this instance Ken, eh!


When you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating an accurate colour scheme don’t forget the office. As mentioned, commercial products generally are not cheap, an example being a 1/5th scale P-51 Mustang cockpit for £300.00 but to be fair you would need to invest a tremendous mount of time and skill to replicate this from scratch.


Now this is a cockpit, and all built from scratch!

However, a ¼ scale J-3 Cub from the same supplier still costs £200.00, but a passable alternative can quickly be reproduced for little cost using blue foam sheet to form the seats and a printed out image of the dash (easily found on the internet) stuck in place.

Various sized glass headed pins make perfect switches and levers and by cutting appropriately sized rings of plastic or aluminium tubing glued onto the image give the control panel instruments a 3D appearance; simple and cheap. I like to take the halfway house approach so for my larger quarter and third scale models I tend to buy ready made instrument dials (manufactured by Pichler) from Inwood Models or for WW1 and WW2 aircraft, Mick Reeves Models who stock a superb range of accurately detailed items.


The cockpit of Markus Frey’s half scale glider. Uncomplicated but very effective.

Also needing consideration is where the servos etc. are going to live and they may need to be relocated so they don’t project into the space; just a thought. If absolute accuracy is the goal, then cockpits can become a labour of love and countless hours disappear into the ether. A mate of mine spent more time on the scratch-built cockpit of his latest project than building the whole model, so if your time is more precious than money dig deep.


Rotary, radial, in-line, boxer, inverted V, water cooled, air cooled, turbines – the list goes on. For WW1 there were few options, basically rotary or in-line, so life is simpler to a degree, especially rotary as vacuum formed replicas easily fit into the front of radial cowls.


Basic painting of the moulded-in engine improves its appearance many fold.


Dressing up a vacuum formed rotary engine will produce good visual results.

If there are any cylinders hanging down, such as the case for a Nieuport 11 (Bébé), then these can be easily fashioned from balsa and ply discs with plastic, brass or aluminium tubing to dress things up. Exhaust manifolds can be treated to look pitted by gluing on sugar or salt granules, giving the piece a coat of filler primer, a light sand to reveal the grains then melting them out with water. Dry off, re-paint, finish and hey presto one very corroded looking exhaust. Application of black, bronze, or silver paint adds perceived depth and gives the appearance of oil staining for an even more realistic look to cylinders and crankcases.


Simple engine from balsa, ply and tube on a 1911 Fokker Spinne.


This outstanding 3D printed radiator was created by Nigel Wagstaff for his third scale Fokker D7.

In-line engines are again easy and inexpensive to replicate from wood, card, plastic etc. There’s just more effort required to create them and when treated to a suitable paint job, again they can be very convincing. Of course, if you have access to a 3D printer (and the skills to generate the program) then the world is your oyster. Nigel Wagstaffs museum quality third scale Fokker D7 has a 3D printed radiator, engine and full-scale cockpit – mind blowing.


It’s hard to believe this is just plastic, a few springs and some nuts and bolts.


If you want to up the realism stakes then use a radial motor such as this one from Moki – at a price!


Whatever you do here, fixed or retracting, piano wire dangling down just won’t cut it, ruining the model’s appearance. A simple non-functioning Oleo style undercarriage leg can easily be fashioned from plastic or metal tube, however for smaller scale models inexpensive and, in many cases, sprung units are available from regular model shops.


A few brass tubes, brass sheet and little time makes this simple Dural undercarriage look very passable.

For larger aircraft a number of specialist suppliers provide true to scale fully functioning items, even bespoke one-offs; these are not cheap as many hours are required to manufacture them so unless you have the engineering skill you will have to splash the cash.


With skill, time and money an exact replica of a model’s undercarriage can be made. This example even has brakes.

Retracting undercarriages used to be time consuming to fashion and install with bellcranks, pushrods, originally using a high-power servo or two to make it all work. Air retract systems simplified things and had the advantage of being scale-able from the smallest to the largest models. More recently off the shelf servo-less electric units are a very simple way to stop your legs swinging in the wind, some even offering a twist and turn action.

For a fixed undercarriage, such as the Piper Cub, bent dural provides a fair representation, but it can be made to look scale using a few brass tubes, scrap brass sheet and a couple of bellow glands as used on model boat pushrods. Remember, the tubes will need to slide to allow for flex on take off and landing.


A fortune in large scale commercially manufactured retracts.

Earlier aircraft had simple fairings made from wood and a number had binding around them to prevent splitting. A raid on my wife’s sewing box provided the bias binding tape used on my Morane A1 to good effect. Simply glued on with PVA then painted it looks very convincing. This technique also works for cabane and inter-plane struts (if appropriate to the subject matter).


It’s very easy to get carried away; this detailing lark can become addictive. Rib tapes are an easy addition but remember not all tapes had crimped edges. I cut the job in half, only putting tapes on top of the wing and tail; lazy, probably, but how many people will be peering underneath?


Anemometer mounted on an interplane strut. Easier to spell than to say!

Other items simply replicated are manufacturer’s data plates. Ink jet print onto clear adhesive vinyl, stick onto lithoplate, a quick spray of fuel proofer or polyurethane and the job’s done. It’s little touches like this that can make your model really stand out from the crowd.


Manufacturers data plates can be made with clear ink jet vinyl bonded to a lithoplate backing. The faux hinge above is simply slotted plastic tube, painted up.

One point I should have made at the onset was before you invest too much time detailing, a test flight should definitely be on the cards just in case you need to make any modifications or, worse still, have a premature meeting with terra firma.


Just balsa and plastic tube is needed to replicate this exhaust and it looks convincing.

So, I hope this brief overview will inspire you to get creative and surprise yourself, without resorting to the cheque book, and discover what can easily be achieved for little cost and a splash of modeller’s ingenuity.


Propeller decals add a finishing touch.


A ply disc and logo cut from thin card, glued in place, sprayed with primer then brass paint, finished off with varnish and you have a passable cast brass plaque.


For around £12.00 this moulding improves significantly improves the appearance of the Nieuport’s business end.

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