How To Apply Foil to an Aircraft Model
by Bucky Sheftall
Finding the ultimate natural metal finish (NMF) technique has always been something of a Grail Quest for The Hobby, perhaps akin to what discovering a cure for the common cold is for medicine, developing a Grand Unified Field theory is for physics or, until 1998 at least, belting more than 60 home runs in a season was for baseball. Accordingly, false hopes have been raised many more times than most modelers would like to remember. We have been teased and tempted over the years by various products claiming to simulate NMF, mostly coming in paint bottles, that never quite seemed to deliver as advertised. No matter how good the results were, shiny paint is, after all, shiny paint and not aluminum, so there was always that “close but no cigar” quality to even the best of them.
of course, there have always been the countless “sure-fire” homespun
techniques for NMF that have made the gossip and BBS rounds over the years (“ya
gotta use organic sumac lacquer, mirror powder and yearling deerskin buffing
leather, but only during a full moon”, “dust it with Crisco and graphite,
then microwave the sucker”, “Electroplate”! Electroplate!”, etc., etc.).
Whatever the gimmick or trick, however, a real drop-dead, knock-your-socks-off
absolutely convincing NMF technique always seemed an unrealizable dream. Always,
that is, until recent years, now that a small but ever burgeoning number of
Fanatic Foil Freaks (FFFs) are working feverishly and diligently towards making
the dream a reality.
real kicker is that the answer to our prayers had never been farther away than
the nearest kitchen cabinet all along. With a little help from a two-buck bottle
of Microscale Foil Adhesive, all you need is a roll of cheap (the cheaper the
better – I’ll get into this later) aluminum kitchen wrap, a little practice
and a whole lotta patience to have show-stopping NMF aircraft models that will
dazzle friends and family alike. As a fellow FFF on another website has so
eloquently put it, “it looks like metal because it IS metal”. Well, that
says it all. Nothing looks more like aluminum than aluminum. Accept no
OK. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the technique is rather difficult, always chancy and often exasperating. But then, when did that combination of factors ever keep us from building models, right?
aluminum kitchen or cooking foil, mirror-finished on one side, dull on the
other. You DO NOT want the good quality Reynolds Wrap kind of stuff Mom used on
those Christmas fruit cakes. No, that stuff is practically armor plate compared
with the aluminum foil I am using (Toyo Arumi – a product of resource-starved
Japanese manufacture), which has a thickness of 8 microns (less than most
painted surfaces). It is so flimsy it will rip if you look at it funny. Moral of
the story: cheaper quality is better because it is thinner, and the thinner the
foil you use, the better definition you are going to get to bring out all those
good rivets, panel lines, etc.
As Shep Paine
once put it, a metallic scheme is the most unforgiving surface type you can
model. Every mote of dust, every finger swipe, every hesitant brushstroke – in
short, every mistake you make with it will stand out as clearly and gaudily on
the finished product as cheap lipstick on a filling station bathroom mirror.
Although much more forgiving (if at least a bit more readily repairable) than
painted metallic schemes, foiling is still no exception to this rule, so keeping
the old adage about “an ounce of prevention” in mind and taking a few
prudent preparatory steps will save much heartache later on. First of all, it is
crucial that your work area be as dust-free as possible. A tall order, perhaps,
for a modeler, but a little preventive vacuuming or at least a peremptory
sweep-up or damp cloth wiping of your table certainly can’t hurt.
the foil (“Hello, foil”…”To the moon, Norton, to the moon!”) is a
matter of careful and mutual respect between man and material. Cut a workable
amount of foil from the roll (i.e., just a little more than you need for the
area you will cover), taking care not to foul either your piece or the remainder
on the roll with small wrinkles. Big wrinkles can be rubbed out, but the small,
tight ones can not. If a piece gets wrinkled like this, it is unusable.
Lay the foil dull side up (the matte finish provides “bite” for the glue, thus minimizing beading) on a disposable, smooth, dust-free (sorry to be repetitive, but I can’t emphasize this enough) surface. I’ve found dry cleaners’ shirt-backing cardboard to work nicely. Dip your brush about a quarter-inch into the glue, then, making sure to keep your brushstrokes parallel (they’ll be slightly visible after the foil goes on, so orient them to look like stress lines or “grain” in the metal structure), start from one end of the foil piece and brush evenly and quickly over to the other side, covering everything in one pass. If either puddles or dry patches appear at this stage, you can (and should) give them a quick stab or two with the glue brush, but you should do this carefully, because as a rule of thumb, it is best not to go over the same spot twice. The reason for this is that, much like uncured paint, the glue-wet brush will re-liquidize spots from the previous coating, lifting them up and off the surface as the brush passes over. These will then dry into little but very inconveniently three-dimensional rubber cement booger-like motes that are impossible to remove. If this happens, you will have to trash the piece, cut out another and start all over again.
If all has gone
well, you now wait until the whitish-milky glue has dried to a dull Scotch
tape-like sheen. I like to use my incandescent desk lamp as a dryer to speed
this process up. If you wish to do so, make sure you’ve dusted the lampshade
recently. If not, you’ll get a nice little sprinkling on your glued foil when
you adjust the light over the work area.
Once the pressure sensitive glue has dried, the foil is ready to be applied. Choose a single point near the center of the area to be foiled, and aim center-of-mass of your foil piece to touch there and ONLY there. From this single, central point, begin burnishing out towards the edges, being careful not to make any more wrinkles than you absolutely have to. After you have finished burnishing and find, to your horror, that there are nasty little air blister bubbles in the foil, just lance’em! Make a feathery light cut along the bubble from end to end, with just enough pressure to cut the foil but NOT the plastic underneath. Burnish over this with the edge of a toothpick, pushing along the same direction as the cut, and it will all but disappear.
Before beginning any foiling, you should study the layout and structural scheme of your model to determine the order in which you will foil. In general terms, when working with aircraft, I have found it best to foil fuselage, wings, stabilizers and (if present) drop tanks separately before assembly.
Foiling each distinct airframe component like this keeps your foil pieces small and manageable, reducing hassle in the event of “disaster” requiring re-foiling and also helping to prevent wrinkles and spindles by avoiding abrupt angles (wing joints, etc.) in the surfaces to be foiled.
The particular machine I chose to model is 1LT Dolphin Overton’s fighter bomber stationed at Taegu, Republic of Korea in 1951. Lieutenant Overton was a 1949 graduate of West Point who was commissioned in the new Air Force and later went on to ace status in F-86 Sabres. Aeromaster produces fine quality decals (AM 48-408 and stencil set AM 148-025) for modeling this aircraft.
I forget, I should note here that there are two basic schools of thought
regarding foil jointing. One (and perhaps the dominant) school holds that the
best results are to be had by foiling along the panel lines, i.e., laying each
panel with a separate piece of foil, then cutting away the excess. The major
plus for this process is that does it away with the need for overlapping foil
joints. The downside of this is that the foil edges are delicate, and when you
go back to blacken the panel lines later on, you will inevitable curl up some of
these edges, sometimes requiring major repair. Also, this process involves
freehand blade cutting directly on top of the plastic. I don’t care how good
of a brain surgeon you may be, there is just no way that you are going to leave
those panel lines the way you found them after you have gone over them with an
X-acto knife. The damage may be minimal, but it is there, and if your
personality is anything like mine, it will bother you later on just knowing that
it is there, and will catch your eye every time.
method I prefer is to live with joints in peaceful co-existence (thus nicely
preserving the integrity of my panel lines). In other words, I try to cover as
much surface with one piece as I can while keeping the size manageable and
deliberately avoiding laying the edges along panel lines. Despite its thinness,
foil is amazingly tough and resilient under abrasives, and I use this quality of
the material to maximum advantage in employing abrasives and buffing agents to
any case, experiment with an old model to find a technique that works for you.
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2000 by Bucky Sheftall