Weather-Worn and Battle-Scarred: Painting Naval Subjects in Scale

Unless you’re going for that “builder’s model” look, odds are you’re curious about pulling off a realistic weathering job for your naval build.  This post is designed to provide a step-by-step method for how I achieve chipped, stained, and scorched paint effects on my 1:700 builds.

Trumpeter’s 1:700 USS San Francisco (CA-38) showing battle damage.

Trumpeter’s USS Franklin (CV-13) under construction and showing the effects of saltwater abrasion and intense heat from uncontrolled fires.

Ships don’t weather the same way that armor and aircraft subjects do.  Sure, there’s streaking involved, but the constant abrasive force of seawater and salty air creates unique challenges for accurate weathering; on top of that, battle damage can add another wrinkle to the mix as the modeler strives for realistically scorched metal.

USS Franklin (CV-13) on April 28, 1945, upon her return to New York City. Naval History and Heritage Command Identifier: 80-G-K-4778

Black and white photography presents its own challenges for accurate shade matching, as seen in this December 12, 1942 photograph of USS San Francisco (CA-38). National Museum of the United States Navy Identifier: 80-G-40250.

The most important habit to break when weathering away your surface paint is that nature already does it the right way.  In many cases, we add weathering to our builds as something that goes on top of our finished topcoat, be that lightening or shading.  This is an incredibly valid approach, but one that can result in uneven coloration or unrealistic effects.  Instead, if you build up your model’s colors in a prototypical sequence (i.e. the way that equipment is painted in the real world) you’ll spend more time getting to the finished product but wind up with a much better looking result.

As with most painted metal surfaces,  the proper sequence from base to topcoat is:
Metalizer > Primer > Topcoat
When dealing with airbrushed plastic, however, a few additional areas need to get thrown into the mix as well.

First, metalizer paint (such as Alclad) looks most realistic when it is applied in thin layers over an undercoat of black.  This adds depth and sheen to what would be an otherwise uniformly silver product.

Next, between each layer that is going to be worn, a coat of hairspray is needed.  Yes, hairspray.  As I documented here some years ago, by serving as a buffer between coats, hairspray can be used to create realistic chips, scratches, and fades without removing paint down to the kit’s bare plastic.  Of course, one can use actual products designed for this (such as AK Interactive’s Weathering Fluid) and achieve a similar effect, but I find that a $0.99 bottle of unscented hairspray works fine for my purposes.

Now, you’re not going to use hairspray between the layers of black and metalizer, since you don’t want to chip away metal to reveal a black undercoat that would not exist in reality.  Keeping that in mind, the revised layering sequence is:

Black Base Coat > Metalizer > Hairspray > Rust > Hairspray > Primer > Hairspray >Topcoat

True, its more layers, but you get a much better result.

Now that we’ve got that, let’s look at the process in action, using Trumpeter’s 1:700 USS Franklin (CV-13) as the example.

There is no hard and fast rule concerning base coating, but for the record I am a dedicated champion of Mr. Surfacer 1200 Black.  Thinned properly, it sprays beautifully and accomplishes the twin tasks of priming and black-basing; that term, “black basing,” is (I believe) the brainchild of Matt over at Doogs’ Models, so be sure to check that page out for more awesome painting tips.  Once cured, it’s also sandable like any primer, so it can be smoothed down to a fine sheen before putting down metalizer.

Speaking of, I didn’t get the best picture when it came time to start spraying down the silver (or, in this case, Alclad’s Duraluminum):

In Franklin’s case, I built the ship as she appeared on the morning of March 19, 1945, during recovery efforts following a devastating attack in which the combination of two Japanese bombs, fueled American aircraft, and armed ordnance united in a massive and cataclysmic blaze (look for a blog post specific to this project in the coming days).  This effect required that a good bit of twisted and shredded metal to be placed within the hanger deck, hence the disorder that you see above.  I coated the hanger deck silver, but not too thoroughly since most of it would be obscured.  You can, however, see that the sides of the ship have been fully painted in the Duraluminum and allowed to cure.

Next, hairspray!

Heck yeah I shop at Dollar Tree! What of it?

Tip: Only apply this to areas that you know you’re going to be chipping/weathering.  If you’re not going to show bare metal or primer in an area, don’t waste your materials or time coating it with the hairspray.

Now, once that’s cured for at least 6 hours, it’s time for rust (if desired).  Apply this sparingly and unevenly, since it’s coloration is naturally uneven.   After about 10 minutes, wet a stiff brush and start mottling.  You’re going to break up and remove most of the rust color, while leaving a discolored and distressed metal behind it.   As always, allow time to cure and then move on to primer color.

Primer is one of those things that everybody has an opinion on.  To be honest, it did vary a good bit between pieces of equipment.  The best reference that I’ve found for USN WWII primer comes from this shot of one of USS San Francisco (CA-38)’s bridge wings:

National Park Service, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Identifier: SAFR 7896.

You can see damage incurred during the First Battle of Guadalcanal on November 13, 1942, including stress fractures and scorching.  The overall light green color is the primer used as the coat between steel and the top coat of Navy Blue 5N.  One can suit their own fancy when picking this shade in contemporary paint colors, but I find that Tamiya’s XF-4 (Yellow Green) does the trick nicely for me.  Thus, once I’ve laid down another coat of hairspray it’s time to get green:

For a large surface area coat like the one I used on Franklin (she was pretty weathered from stem to stern), I sprayed in approximately 2-inch increments.  By that I mean I would cover about 2 inches of hull, chip away to reveal the undercoat of steel or rust, spray another two inches, etc.  This is to keep the paint wet and workable.  If you sprayed the whole model and then went back to the beginning and started chipping, odds are that the primer color would have cured enough so that you couldn’t realistically modify its appearance with your wet brush.

Another tip that I discovered during this process was to wet the part of the model I was working on, then take my airbrush and shoot only air (no paint) at the water.  This caused it to streak in random directions, creating little vales of microshading which added yet more nuance to the weathered effect.  Really, it’s all a matter of feel and timing – to prepare for this build I actually refined all these techniques an another project, a battle-damaged San Francisco.  Don’t try to get it right the first time, because you won’t.  Just keep at it, and soon it will start to feel natural.

In the photo above, I’ve already sprayed the whole hull and chipped/distressed my way through the green to some of the underlying steel.  This effect is heavier near the bow, as that part of the ship receives the most direct impact during travel.

After the same period of curing and applying hairspray, it’s now time for the top coat, in this case a homemade 2:3 mix of Tamiya XF-17 and 18 to yield Navy Blue 5-N.  Again, spray in small sections, weathering your way as you go.  Soon, your ship will start to look like this:

Lastly, paint the boot stripe along your lower hull using (you got it) the same techniques.  However, when shaping the stripe, be sure to keep your chips in sequence with those above the stripe.  This will prevent unnaturally clean lines on an otherwise dirty ship.  The endgame is to have layered chips upon chips, so that each coat will have chipped down to rust or steel in some areas, primer in others, and simply faded top coat in others still.  It’s about depth.

And there we have it.  A battered, battle-tested veteran of the Pacific Theater.

I’ve already got an upcoming post drafted which examines other aspects of the Franklin build, including modifying the ship’s island, wrecking its flight deck, and using photographs and background knowledge to realistically add more than 1,000 crew to the scene.  It should be refined and ready for posting in the next few days.  I’ll see you then, friends.  Until then, fair winds and following seas.  Oh, and happy modeling. 🙂

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One thought on “Weather-Worn and Battle-Scarred: Painting Naval Subjects in Scale

  1. Pingback: Modeling War Damage – USS Franklin (CV-13) | The Museum Modeler

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