Metallic paints for scale modeling, Review – Part One

The time has come to put an end to uncertainty regarding the choice of metallic paints in modeling. This is a topic of much hesitance for many, but it no longer has to be. See, I spent some time to figure out the variety of options and techniques out there and now my knowledge is yours as well. Selection of paints is dictated by the focus on painting scale models, that is, mostly plastic. Also, since my modeling passion is largely airplanes, my findings will be biased to that. Enough of ado, lets briefly consider what is important when dealing with a metallic paint first.

Surface preparation

But you already new that, right? Smallest of imperfections, invisible on unpainted and sometimes even on primed plastic will glare on you from under just about any kind of metallic. So take your time to smooth out those seams. Overall sanding with a fine sandpaper (2000 grit) usually wont hurt either. No need to go beyond that because it’s the next step that is decisive.

Black priming

This one is not a secret either, black undercoat gives a metallic natural and deep sheen. What’s not so simple is how exactly one should make it. Here we should stop and contemplate a bit on the exact goal we’re trying to achieve. Metallic look can mean plenty of things, from a highly polished chrome to a dull roughness of raw iron. Not surprisingly, techniques vary alike. Since I’m having in mind metallic surfaces of airplanes, here’s what I’m after:

1 High-polished aluminium as seen on early airliners and some warplanes, almost mirror-like

2 Naturally looking non-polished aluminium as seen on some warplanes and more often on cold war jet warplanes

There is a general agreement that the way to achieve high-shine look lies in lots of manual labor. Specifically, primed surface is polished with ultra fine sandpaper (4000, 6000, 8000, 12000 grit successively) and, just to make sure, with a polishing paste. In my experiments I did that and got some decent results as you’ll see below. This is a sound technique for dull aluminium but not the best for a high shine. After quite a bit of trying with bases (which I’ll not try your attention with), simple and plain mix of Gunze Mr.Color 2 (Gloss Black) with Leveling Thinner in 30/70 proportion is what gave gorgeous, shiny, almost wet looking black base. So much so in fact, that in high-shine experiments I used this kind of base almost exclusively.

Compare polished (left) and painted spoons on this image
The polished shot is a bit overexposed which allows to see remaining surface imperfections. The scratches are left by coarser grits; admittedly I haven’t done a very good polishing job. The grainy look seems to be result of inadequate sanding on earlier stages (4000, 6000 grit) with some pits remaining. This is obvious on photos but not readily apparent to the naked eye. Seems a lot of practice is needed to polish the base smooth but not to the plastic. On the right is a spoon painted with the mix above. It took mere seconds to spray and about ten minutes to dry; you can actually see my reflection in it. This is not an absolute perfect mirror-like reflective surface but is far more shiny than the polished one.

For non-polished look the base part is much easier. Just about any fine-pigment primer sanded with 4000 grit is good. Panel variations can be done using different primers, sanding direction, etc. Important part is the paint itself – it should either be buffable or have really fine pigment. And that, my friends, is the whole point of the story. Read on.

Painting

It may appear polishing can be considered something superfluous. Not so. Although not the way for the high-shine, metallic paint on polished base can look very much like the real metal. In fact, lots of excellent looking models are painted using this method. The polished spoon, featured on the image above, looks very nice after painting. See for yourself:

#16. Primed with Mr.Surfacer 1500; polished (4K,6K,8K,12K grit); painted with Spaz Stix
A small disclaimer is in order here. What you see on the photos are brightly lit spoons shot from a close distance. Any imperfections of the surface and paint are therefore enlarged and may appear plain distracting. Whether a paint look realistic is not always apparent on the photos but I’ll comment and you are encouraged to make a test yourself. That said, paint on the #16 above looks great enough to be put on a model, but let’s see the alternatives.

How important a smooth surface is for a metallic look? Let’s take the same paint and lay it on the spoon primed with a 50/50 mix of Mr.Surfacer 1500 and Leveling Thinner. No polishing this time.

#17. Primed with 50/50 mix of Mr.Surfacer 1500 and Leveling Thinner; no polishing; painted with Spaz Stix
The difference is quite obvious. Not only it looks matt but not like a metal at all. It does in a way resemble metallic paint used on some aircraft, like some wing panels of P-51Ds.

Smoothness of underlying surface is of critical importance to airbrushed paints, but what about Rub-n-Buff?

#18. Primed with Mr.Surfacer; polished (4K,6K,8K,12K grit); painted with Rub-n-Buff
As a buffable finish, Rub-n-Buff is not very sensitive to small surface imperfections. What is more important, it looks a lot, a lot like real aluminium. It has a feel to it no other paint in this review could match. It doesn’t look high-shine mirror-like, but then again, not every natural metal finish does. This is a perfect match for many WWII warbirds.

I know what you’re thinking. What about Alclads? After all it’s an established standard in what comes to modeling metallics. Alclad offers a line of high-shine paints. It’s hard to say which one is the most shiny, they are pretty close and differ mostly in tint. ALC-107 Chrome is a whiter one while others got a measure of dark-grayish tone.

Let’s compare ALC-107 Chrome on a surface primed with Mr.Color Gloss Black, polished to 12000 grit vs unpolished.

#22. Primed with 50/50 mix of Mr.Color Gloss Black and Leveling Thinner; polished (4K,6K,8K,12K grit); painted with ALC-107 Chrome
#20. Primed with 50/50 mix of Mr.Color Gloss Black and Leveling Thinner; painted with ALC-107 Chrome
As you can see, gloss-primed version is much more reflective than the polished one. Makes a case for sandpapers of up to 60000 grit, ain’t it? Which is more natural-looking? The polished version makes for a great looking aluminium, almost on par with Rub-n-Buff. Gloss-primed might be a better fit for smaller polished steel details. On to the real high-shiners!

To my taste, the best looking Alclad overall is ALC-119 Airframe Aluminium. Here is an example of it. This time the primer is 30/70 thinned Mr.Color Gloss Black. The additional 20% dilution actually goes a long way when aiming for a smooth base. As you can see, the reflection is a bit sharper and the surface itself is visibly smoother on #23 than that on #20 above.

#23. Primed with 30/70 mix of Mr.Color Gloss Black and Leveling Thinner; painted with ALC-119 Airframe Aluminium
Is that it? Is ALC-119 the one top high-shine paint for a modeler? I’d like to say that but it appears not to be the case. Let’s check out Spaz Stix SZX10000 on a glossy base.

#24. Primed with 30/70 mix of Mr.Color Gloss Black and Leveling Thinner; painted with Spaz Stix SZX10000
It can be called a mirror-like finish, no arguing about that. It’s distinctly more reflective than Alclad. Does it look natural? Well, I can’t really say. It looks like chrome and doesn’t have a weighty metal-like feel to it. I guess it’s a perfect paint for car models where there are lots of chrome-plated parts, but for airplanes it might be too much. As with other paints slight variation in the process lead to a bit of a difference in the look. Here are some more of Spaz Stix:

#25. Primed twice with 30/70 mix of Mr.Color Gloss Black and Leveling Thinner; painted with Spaz Stix SZX10000
#26. Primed with 50/50 mix of Mr.Color Gloss Black and Leveling Thinner; painted with Spaz Stix SZX10000
Here again the difference in thinning the base is apparent with 30/70 version being more reflective. Well, at least in highlights.

Buffing powders

Quite another option of getting a high-shine finish. A similarly prepared surface is buffed with soft cotton cloth and a powder. While the powder can be as simple as ground graphite, there are two commercial products, SNJ Polishing Powder and Kosutte Gin SUN. Both are not very easy to get a hand on. SNJ seems to be long out of business and Kosutte seems to be a subject to restrictions in some countries. Nevertheless, it’s available for purchase from Hobby Search. Here is what it looks like on a spoon:

#27. Primed with 30/70 mix of Mr.Color Gloss Black and Leveling Thinner; buffed with Kosutte Gin SUN
As you can see, the result is quite good, almost on par with Alclad’s Chrome. On the other hand, it is more transparent, has a violet tint and is very delicate. While one can reasonably easy handle Alclad when masking, there is just no such option with buffed powders, including this one. Another consideration about buffing powders is they being a major bio hazard. Breathing a fine metal dust is not good for humans, so avoid it. There are better alternatives anyway.

That’s about it for today. Please read Part Two of this review where we’ll look at Gunze Buffable Metallics, Gunze Super Metallics, some Tamiya options and the announcement of winners.

10 Responses to “ Metallic paints for scale modeling, Review – Part One ”

  1. Hello, many thanks for this article – far more informative than dozens of magazines I have read TBH, especially regarding the primer/thinners mix applied before-hand – But could you help by answering what pressure you sprayed the metallic paint? In particular the Alclad and Spaz Stix please. Thank you

    • Hey Mike,

      Thanks for the feedback, appreciate it! Alclad recommends 12-15 PSI in their instruction docs. Since the paint is pretty liquid, it can be sprayed with even lover PSI if you get the distance to the subject right. The airbrush nozzle is another factor though. The wider the nozzle the more pressure you need. This is probably the reason they give a recommended range instead of an exact value.

      With Alclad’s I tend to spray at somewhere around 12-14 PSI from 2-3 inches with 0.4mm nozzle. With 0.15mm nozzle I do 12 PSI from 2 inches. You can get a fine result with much higher pressure as well but it would waste a lot of paint as air/paint stream would bounce off the surface too much. Generally the aim is to lay the paint slightly wet but not flooded and with minimum paint mist flying around. Any pressure/nozzle/distance combination that gets you there will work.

      Spaz Stix is basically the same consistency, so the same advice applies. In fact, most modern metallic paints do not need dilution. You can tell just by shaking the bottle. If it’s fluid like a plain thinner, it’s fine and the above advice will work.

  2. quan nguyen

    Hi, i must say this is really helpful articles, especially for me, as the newbie. So, I dont know how to contact with you, pls reply me as soon as possible, i have a few questions which need to be explained. Thanks!

    • Hey Quan,

      Thanks! You can write your questions right here, I will try and answer.

      Cheers!

      • quan nguyen

        So, im using handbrush for mr hobby and mr metal color’s paints . Mr metal color is fine, but mr hobby’s paints dry very quick ( mine is shiny silver, red, blue and steel – all metallic ). The result after painted with shiny silver and steel are not good enough for me ( they dont look like silver and steel ), and because of quick dry, it is really wasting of paint ( even mixed with laquer thinner ). Maybe it is easier to describe with pics, i can send you some of mine. How to make matte color ( like black matte )? Which color is needed ?

        • Mr. Metal Color series are lacquer based and therefore are more fluid and tend to have finer pigment. Mr. Hobby series are, in turn, acrylic-based and acrylic metallics are generally thicker and have coarser pigment. I haven’t tried hand-brushing acrylic metallics, but generally I’d expect better result from the lacquer based alternative, just because of the mentioned difference in qualities.

          Also important that Mr. Metal Color are buffable paints and buffing allows getting some more shine. Acrylics are non-buffable, meaning you can only get so far with them.

          For handbrushing acrylics adding some acrylic, not lacquer thinner should be helpful. You could also try adding some acrylic retarder to help with the drying time.

          Generally though, I’d stay away from acrylic metallics. If using handbrush is imperative for you, enamel-based metallics such as AK Interactive True Metal range give far better look.

          Send me some pics of what you’re getting to nicnilov at gmail.

  3. Nic can you do a test with Vallejo metal colors as well? Very curious to know how they compare to the other metallics you have tested

  4. Peter Ecos

    Hi Nic,
    Great information, far better than what’s found on many books.
    How did you apply the rub n’ buff? And how do you think it would behave around nooks and crannys found on airplane models, i.e. where the tail plane joings the fuselage, cowling rims, etc.

    • Hey Peter,

      Thanks for the comment! I applied rub-n-buff with a finger, plain and simple. There is some character to it and it has to be done at some speed so it doesn’t dry up, but it’s easy to clean up and fix if needed. If you tap a finger on it enough it will adhere to the surface relief pretty well. The only issue is probably what you noted, hard to reach spots. For that it can be touched up with a brush after some thinning down with white spirit. You can airbrush it as well but I think it works best when applied by hand.
      There is actually a modeler, Gruson Michel, who paints his models with a brush and they look really great. It is from his posts I first got to know about rub-n-buff. They are not too easy to find, but here is a couple of links: P-38J and P-47D. I can’t find right now the page where he talks about how he uses rub-n-buff and his brush technique, but it’s around. So yeah, it’s a good paint and worth a try.

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