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How to get that ultra aluminium finish using ordinary kitchen foil.
Author: Bill Matthews
Submitted by:   Date: 09-30-2003
Comments: (3)  

For 30-odd years after 1945, most aeroplanes went about their business naked, their aluminium skins exposed to whatever weather they happened to encounter. Nowadays, most are painted, the costs of corrosion having been found to outweigh (literally) the extra weight of paint, but any collection of models will need to include some finished, at least partially, in natural metal.

Natural metal is normally represented on models by silver paint, but this, by its very nature, cannot do so accurately. Silver paint consists of finely-divided particles of aluminium suspended in a medium, and, however well applied, its structure remains granular, in contrast to the truly smooth surface of the real thing. Moreover, silver paint is not hard-drying, and can be marked quite easily months, or even years, after application. The only finish that will represent aluminium accurately is aluminium itself.

Kitchen foil, readily available from supermarkets, is ideal for finishing models. Though tough, it will stretch around complex shapes. One side is highly polished, the other dull, and the dull side, which is normally applied outwards, is grained. This graining provides contrasts in tone, as adjacent panels can be covered with sections of foil cut alternately from across and along the roll. This contrast in tone between panels is a feature on all unpainted aircraft, at least when new; as they age, the weather takes its toll, and the metal tends to dull to an overall whitish tone.

Like most airliners of their period, most DC-Bs were unpainted, and Heller's beautiful 1 /72nd scale kit is an ideal subject for foil covering, as it is relatively large and has a large number of recessed panel lines along which the foil can be cut. The process, though timeconsuming, is not difficult, and the final result far more attractive than silver paint.

Before beginning to apply the foil, the fuselage top should be sprayed, and left for three days to harden. It is essential that any ragged edge left by the masking tape be trimmed down with a very sharp razor blade. If this is not done, any irregularities will show through the foil where the two finishes meet. In fact, foil will accentuate any irregularities in the underlying surface. Otherwise invisible file marks will show up when covered with foil, as will minute specks of dirt. All such must be removed by further rubbing down. Some parts, which are either very difficult to cover with foil, or are too small to bother with, such as the cowlings and tail bumper on the DC-Bs, should be painted silver before foiling begins.

The adhesive used is Microscale Metal Foil Adhesive available from Hannants, price ?1.50). As supplied, this is rather too thick; a little should be poured into a suitable container and thinned with methylated spirits until it will brush thinly over the foil.

Start by cutting out a piece of foil considerably larger than the panel to be covered, and smoothing it through the fingers.Lay it on a flat surface in this case an old table mat - and brush on the adhesive. (Since this article was written, I have found that it is better to apply the adhesive with a soft pad or tissue rather than a brush, as it goes on more smoothly.) When this has cleared, lay the piece of foil in position, and smooth down with the side of the wooden cocktail stick, working outwards from the center. (Plastic cocktail sticks are too hard, and will score the foil). Flatten out any creases as they appear, using gradually increasing pressure, working across, not along, the crease. If a crease becomes sharp-edged and will not disappear even if pressed fairly hard, remove the piece of foil and start again. The usual cause of this, especially on areas having double curvature, is trying to use sections of foil that are too large.

Work the foil down into the panel line along which it is to be cut, using the point of the cocktail stick. These points become blunt and distorted very quickly, and the sticks should be discarded as soon as they do. On a large model like the DC-6s as many as 20 and 25 sticks may be used. When the piece of foil is lying smoothly, cut it along the panel line. Use a very sharp single-edged razor blade to ensure it is cut absolutely cleanly, especially at any turns or breaks in the panel line. It is best to cut along the outboard edge of the groove rather than right into it; if this is done, adjacent sections of foil will open up along the bottom of the groove, the slight gap between them over-emphasizing the panel line.

Carefully pull away the detached portion of foil, using tweezers. If it does not separate cleanly, run the blade along the cut again. Never try pulling, as this will split the foil and ruin the work. Next, flatten the 'feather' raised by the blade with the point of the cocktail stick. Finally, polish with a very soft cloth, such as an old handkerchief, moistened with methylated spirits.

The method just described is varied slightly for very small areas such as inspection panels. The adhesive is applied to the model rather than to the foil, and the foil laid over several adjacent panels. After pressing into place and trimming, adhesive is applied to the area around the panels, and foil cut in the opposite direction to that covering the inspection panels laid on. This is then cut away over the panels, and also along suitable main panel lines, the excess being removed.

When covering wings and tailplanes, foil should never be cut along trailing edges and tips, but taken at lean ? inch around these, normally from uppersurface to undersurface. At the tips, which are usually sharply curved, a series of 'V's will have to be cut out of the overlapping foil to ensure that it lies down smoothly. If this is not done, the foil will lift along the edge of the surface.

Above all, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that the secret of success is to cover small areas one at a time, especially if these have double curvature. The rear fuselage of the DC-6B, for example, was covered in seven strips, each less than ? inches wide. It is not worthwhile applying foil to small parts such as the undercarriage doors, and these are better painted.

Paint and decals take well over foil, and can be applied without difficulty. The prominent gray areas around the engine nacelles on the DC-6B were sprayed on the usual way. Masking tape should be removed carefully, but if any lifting of the foil does occur, it can be pressed down again with the cocktail stick.

As can be seen, the completed DC-6B looks both attractive and realistic. The process also has many other applications: for example engine cowlings of a Hawker Hart covered in foil, applied gloss side outwards, will contrast significantly with the silver paint on the parts that on the original were covered in silver doped fabric.

by Bill Matthews

Member Comments :

 comment by: selier posted on 02-22-2004, comment #70

Great article about using aluminium foil to cover a aircraft. Esspecialy the remarks about adjacent panels with polished or dull side up. Thanks very much.

 comment by: skippiebg posted on 03-31-2005, comment #555

I'll second that! My patience (skill?) with foil invariably runs out and I end up using unrealistic, dull silvery paints as a shortcut. Result: misery. Must try again...

 comment by: brommer66 posted on 01-16-2006, comment #1617

Hallo Bill

I just joined this site, and I am very pleased with the information on modelling Airliners. I have been reading your article on the aluminum foil finishing of models with great interest. I have always been thinking of doing this myself one day but never did. I agree, there is nothing better looking than "real" bare metal. However, I am living is sort of 'the boondocks' as far as good modelling supplies is concerned and will have difficulty finding Microscale Metal Foil Adhesive for example. Now I remember way back somebody was using clear varnish, suitably dilluted, as adhesive. Do you, or anybody else visiting this site, know about this method or any other methods that could be used. Another question. I am thinking of covering a Revell / Italeri DC-3 (1/72) with foil. The panel lines are extensive on this model; should they all be treated separatly, I mean was the real aircraft build up with so many separate metal sheets?

Thanks all
Jos Hoes (brommer66)