Home Modeling Great Paint From Spray Cans: Part 1

Great Paint From Spray Cans: Part 1

Written by William Santiago

I wanted to see if I could build a high-quality, eye-catching model that would be competitive on any show table.

That’s challenging enough, but I also wanted to see if I could finish that same model using spray cans instead of an airbrush.


We live in an era where many modelers think spray cans are amateurish and imprecise, and that the only way to build a killer model is to use an airbrush.

I’m here to tell you, “It just ain’t so!”

There are a lot of good reasons to use aerosol paint.

Perhaps you’re a beginner who just wants to break through the orange peel barrier and build consistently nice models you’ll be proud to put on your shelf.

Aerosol is for you.

Perhaps you have a family or demanding job and consequently don’t have a lot of time for modeling.

Aerosol is for you. Heck, you could be a burned-out veteran contest winner who just wants to get back to the enjoyable roots of modeling.

Surprisingly, aerosol may be for you!

Today there are many excellent aerosol paints available for car modelers, more than we’ve ever seen in the long history of our hobby.

Testors rules the roost with an excellent selection of both stock and custom colors in enamels, and Tamiya’s new lacquers have sweetened the pot considerably.

Adding spice to the mix is the incredibly expansive array of commercially available paints offered by manufacturers such as Krylon, Dupli-Color, Plasti-kote, and others.

It may sound like heresy, but you could take away my airbrush, and I wouldn’t miss it a bit!

I’m a closet Ferrari nut, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Tamiya’s 360 Modena kit (no. 24228).

The beautifully detailed Modena would give me the opportunity to use a wide variety of aerosol paints, including gloss, flat, and metallic varieties.

For the body, I used Tamiya’s Italian Red spray paint (no. TS-8).

These lacquers are still relatively new to the States, and indeed, to many of our readers.

Tamiya’s spray paints are lacquers, but they’re different from chemically “hot” commercial automotive paints that can damage plastic.

Tamiya’s lacquers are “cool” and can be applied directly to kit plastic without the threat of damage.

If you prefer enamel, have no fear.

Testors Italian Red (no. 2919) spray paint is just as suitable for this project. In fact, throughout this project you’ll notice there are options for using different brands of paint.

There are subtle differences, for instance, between the semigloss black paints made by Tamiya and Testors.

You can use these differences to your advantage to add more visual interest to the model.

Testors’ clear lacquer topcoats are available in gloss, semigloss, and flat varieties, and can be used to vary the surfaces of flat, semigloss, and metallic paints, adding even more variety to the mix.

You should not use Testors’ clear lacquers over gloss enamel, as they can separate from the paint, but they work quite well over the aforementioned paints with excellent effect.

There’s no substitute for a good-looking paint job. It’s the first thing you notice about a model car!

In this installment, I’ll show you how to prepare, paint, and polish out the body of the Modena. Follow along as we take the screaming-red 360 through the paces from start to finish!

1. The selection of aerosol paints available to car modelers is staggering. Along with a wide range of hobby paints, there’s a veritable cornucopia of offerings from commercial sources. Note that all manufacturers have their own secret formulas for their particular paints, some of which may require special primers due to hotter solvents. Also, while you’re out buying paint, make a side trip to your local bookstore or newsstand. I found two magazines with reference material on the Modena.

2. The first thing you’ll want to do to a body is remove the seams left by the molding process. These are hard to spot on Tamiya kits, a credit to the manufacturer’s attention to detail. You’ll have to look closely before you’ll find the seams. Sand them down a bit with 400-grit sandpaper and they’ll be easier to spot. Make sure you remove all of the molding seams, or they’ll show up through your carefully applied finish! By the way, paint hasn’t been applied yet – the Modena’s body is molded in red styrene.

3. My only gripe with the Modena body is that the panel lines are somewhat faint. I remedied this by whipping out my Bare-Metal Foil panel scriber and adding more depth to the body’s panel lines. Often, panel scribers leave a burr along the edge of the scribed area that must be removed before painting. Remove these by running the edge of a sheet of 400-grit sandpaper along the panel line until the burr releases or is sanded away.

4. There weren’t any areas that needed filling on the Ferrari body, so I proceeded to the primer stage. After applying several coats of Tamiya flat white Fine Surface Primer (no. 87044), I noticed the red pigment in the plastic was bleeding through. This is common with red, yellow, and orange styrene. To stop the bleeding, I applied two coats of Design Master Super Surface Sealer. This aerosol sealing agent is available at craft and art-supply stores.

5. Here’s the body after the sealer and another coat of primer have been applied. The sealer worked quite well, eliminating the possibility that the pigment might bleed through. Since I was painting the Ferrari red, it might not have been noticeable, but if I had done some bodywork or were painting the Ferrari red, it might not have been noticeable, but if I had done some bodywork or were painting the body another color, the results could have been disastrous.

6. Just to satisfy my curiosity, I did a test on a piece of red sprue from the kit. I applied some yellow Tamiya spray paint directly onto the red sprue to see if the pigment would bleed through. Ironically, the pigments did not bleed through the paint as it had the primer. I probably could have painted the body without using the sealer, but when there’s the possibility of a problem occurring, I’d rather be safe than sorry. I’ve seen too many paint jobs ruined by pigments!

7. Only a small amount of bodywork was required before applying the final primer coats. I used a large, fine-grit flexible sander to do the minor cleanup, then added a final coat of sealer and primer. The Tamiya primer goes on in thin layers with virtually no texture, so I chose not to give the body an overall sanding as I usually do before painting. If you’re using a thick primer with a noticeable texture, smooth it with 600-grit sandpaper to reduce the possibility of texture in the color coats.

8. Before we start painting, let’s look at different ways to mount parts. Here’s the Ferrari body attached to a Shabo painting stand; it’s next to a similar stand I made myself. This type of stand is the best way I’ve found to mount a body for painting. The wire supports are flexible and can be bent outward to add tension. Sure beats the old bent coat hanger!

9. Small, unusually shaped parts can be mounted on strips of styrene or metal tubing for painting. A small amount of super glue holds the part. I usually have several of these around when I paint, and I stand them up in a glass bottle between coats. Once the paint has cured, simply pop the parts loose and sand away any excess glue. Small body-colored parts, like side-view mirrors, should receive the same number of color coats as the main body parts to assure a good color match.

10. Small parts that only need to be painted on one side can be mounted on sticky-side-out loops of tape. You can use virtually any kind of masking or packing tape to hold the parts. This is also a good way to mount wheel rims for painting. If you need to paint both sides of the part, flip the part over and repeat the process after the first coat is dry. Works like a charm!

11. Let’s paint! The first order of business is warming up the paint so it will flow better. This is very important with thick enamel paints. The Tamiya lacquer is considerably thinner than enamel, but I still recommend warming it up to help it flow. Cold paint has a tendency to clump and develop an “orange peel” texture. To warm up the paint, fill a bowl (or the bottom of a sink) with about three inches of hot water. Stand the spray can in the hot water for a few minutes before you start painting.

12. After shaking the can vigorously for a couple of minutes, apply the first mist coat of paint to the model. This light dusting of paint shouldn’t cover the entire surface. These mist coats may seem like a nuisance to apply, but they’re laying the foundation for optimum coverage once the wet coats are applied. Wait approximately 20 minutes between mist coats to allow the paint to set up. Any parts (even the smallest ones) that will be spray painted with a gloss color should be mist coated.

13. Here’s the body after three mist coats. Complete coverage is almost achieved, but I’ll add one more coat to be sure the body is completely covered. After the last coat has been applied, let the body sit for an hour to allow the paint to set up. The mist coats will help the later wet coats adhere to the model, and keep the paint from pulling away from panel lines and exposing the primer underneath.

14. Now the real work begins! The following coats are heavier, “wet” coats, in which the paint glosses up during application. The trick to applying a wet coat is simple: Apply just enough paint so that the coating is wet and glossy, but not so much that it runs or drips. Mastering the art of the wet coat takes practice, but eventually becomes very natural. I found the Tamiya paint to be very forgiving. This paint sets up faster than most enamels and isn’t as prone to run.

15. At this stage, the Modena body has had several wet coats applied. The Tamiya lacquer isn’t as thick as enamel but is somewhat heavier than standard automotive lacquers. Consequently, you’ll need to apply several more coats of the Tamiya paint. When I ran out of paint, I still felt like I could’ve added another coat or two to the body.

16. Most paint will have some surface texture after it cures and Tamiya’s lacquer is no exception. This is where a polishing kit comes in handy. Lacquer solvents evaporate faster than enamel solvents and cure or “gas out” in less time. You can polish lacquer in about four days, as opposed to the 7-10 you’d have to wait for enamel. I’ll use sanding pads to rub out the Modena’s finish, but sanding sheets would work just as well.

17. I started polishing the finish with a 3,200-grit pad (the workhorse of the bunch), as it will level the surface of the paint. On this important first step, I always use the pad dry because it’s easier to determine when the texture has been removed. Work slowly when using this coarse grit, as it can easily cut through the paint and into the primer. Note the dull finish on the body, a sign that all of the surface texture has been removed.

18. Here the finish has been wet-sanded with consecutively finer grits in the polishing set. By the time the 12,000-grit pad has done its duty, a nice luster has returned to the paint’s surface. It’s hard to believe that the dull paint from the last step is now so glossy. But wait – the next step adds even more shine!

19. Polish removes the surface haze left by the sanding grits. There are many good polishes available; I use Novus no. 2 plastic polish. This polish is applied by dabbing a small amount on a piece of flannel cloth and rubbing it into the surface of the paint using circular strokes. Afterward, the excess polish is buffed off with a clean portion of the flannel cloth. Applied in much the same manner as the polish, Novis no. 1 serves as a surface protector and glossing agent. This is the final step in the finishing process.

20. Here’s the Modena body, fluffed-and-buffed to a high shine. With such a smooth, trim-free body, I thought that it would be easy to rub out. I was wrong. It has more twists and turns in it than a good spy novel! Several areas, such as the concave lower side scoops, are almost impossible to reach with a sanding pad or sheet. The edges around the scoop are sharp as well, increasing the possibility of cutting through the paint. The bottom line: Proceed with caution when sanding and polishing this kit.

Careful with that clear

I’ll finish up this installment with one important note about Tamiya’s lacquer paint.

If you choose to apply Tamiya’s clear gloss (no. TS-13) over a Tamiya color finish, you’ll need to be careful when you apply it.

You have two choices: you can add the clear coat immediately after applying the last wet color coat, or you can apply the clear coat after the color coat has cured and gassed out for at least a month.

Tamiya’s clear gloss paint cures at a different rate than the color paints in the line.

If you wait even a day to apply the clear gloss, the different curing rates will cause the clear finish to crack.

I have used Tamiya’s spray paints on several occasions, and they have always been easy to use.

I did, however, run out of paint before I finished the job on this Ferrari.

In retrospect, I should have had an extra can handy to handle this situation. Other than that, this easy-to-use paint is truly a viable option for both enamels and automotive lacquers.

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