How to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars

How to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars

It’s fun to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars. I tend to buy representations of pre-1950 cars and un-hotrod them so they’ll look like they belong on my O27 (1:64-ish) train layout; others buy them, paint them differently and put different wheels on them to make something different from what Mattel sells.

It’s a job you can do with simple tools and materials, at least at first. But like many things, you can keep it as simple or get as advanced as you like. And while you won’t do your first car in 15 minutes, it’s easy to divide a car project into 15-minute-per-day steps, especially if you work on two or three of them at once, and at the end of a week you’ll have a few nice cars to show for your time and effort.

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Model railroading with your Droid: Color matching

The biggest problem with making custom (or reproduction) decals for use with trains of the miniature variety is getting the colors on the computer-generated decal to match the paint on the model. Eyeballing the color won’t work; you need a computer’s help to do it.

Enter a free Android app called Color Eye. Launch Color Eye, point your phone or tablet’s camera at the paint you need to match, and your phone will give you the closest color matches that it knows about, including a Pantone color and a CYMK value.

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How to assemble a plastic model kit

Several months ago I bought a plastic model kit for the first time in probably 20 years. This past week I started to put it together.

I’m doing things differently this time.

Wash the parts

Plastic models have mold release on them, which makes it harder for paint and glue to adhere to the parts, making for a weaker model. The first step to building a proud model is washing the parts with dish detergent. Then avoid handling them with your bare hands as much as possible afterward.

Use better glue

The guys at the local hobby shop argue about the best glue to use, but they agree that the Testors stuff that comes in the tube isn’t it. It’s better to use either a plastic welder like Tenax-7R, or one of the many super glues on the market. Tenax welds the plastic together and actually makes one piece from it. The downside is its nasty fumes (wear a ventilator to save your lungs and your liver–really) and its permanence. Super glues work about as fast but make a chemical bond. The upside to super glue is that if you make a mistake, you can put the mistake in the freezer overnight, and then you’ll be able to pry it back apart and glue it again.

The downside to super glue is that it happily glues skin, so get a debonder from your hobby shop to bail you out if you glue your hand to your model or if you glue a couple of body parts together accidentally–putting your hand in the freezer overnight doesn’t work very well.

Both glues result in a stronger bond than the old tube glues we used to use.

Trim the flash

There’s always extra crud on the edges of your plastic pieces, due to the molding process. Trim that away with a hobby knife. Usually just slowly running the blade across the edge is all it takes.

Putty

When you glue your pieces together, there are always gaps in them. You can get plastic putties that chemically bond with the plastic and those are the best to use, but even a household putty like Durham’s Water Putty is better than gaps. Ideally you want the putty to be a different color than the plastic so you can see your work better.

Use primer

You should always paint your model, even the parts that are molded in the correct color, for reasons I’ll get to. But before you paint, you should prime the model. Use a good-quality primer like Krylon or Rustoleum Painter’s Touch. They are less expensive than hobby primers and they work extremely well.

Primer does several things. Paint sticks much better to primer than to plastic itself, so if you use primer, you can use thinner coats of paint, and you can also use paints like acrylics that normally won’t stick well to plastic. Second, primer can fill in minor flaws in the plastic, and make flaws that need to be puttied more visible. Third, primer makes the detail much more visible, which helps you paint better.

Spray on a very thin coat. It doesn’t have to cover completely.

Paint

Models should be painted for two reasons. The real thing is painted, so your model will look more realistic if it’s painted. Bare plastic looks more like a cheap toy. Second, decals don’t adhere well at all to bare plastic, because they are designed to adhere to paint.

The best paints to use is also a matter of religious debate. I like to use acrylics for the parts I have to brush paint, because acrylics have no fumes and clean up with water. They’re cheap and easy to work with. I can get craft acrylic paints for 60 cents a bottle if I shop around, and the bottles are big enough that they last forever. They’re cheaper than Testors enamels normally sold for models, and I don’t think they dry out in the bottle as quickly.

For the ultimate acrylic, visit a hobby shop that caters to wargamers and pick up some Vallejo paints. They’re thinner than the craft acrylics, so they’re less likely to obscure detail when detail counts. They also tend to be self-leveling, helping to conceal your brush strokes.

I prefer to spray rather than brush whenever I can, because then I don’t cover up as much detail, and I don’t get brush strokes. I can spray a light coat followed by a second light coat and get nice, even coverage. You can get sprays intended for plastic models at a hobby shop, but if you can find a suitable color from Krylon or another hardware store brand, you can use it.

An airbrush is nice, if you can afford its cost and can afford to invest the time required to learn how to use it and keep it clean.

So, should you paint before or after assembling the model? I find it easier to paint what I can before, and scrape the paint off the surfaces that need to be glued.

What if you really mess up the paint? There are ways to safely remove paint from plastic so you can start over.

Masking

When you need to paint an assembled model and you need to keep the paint away from parts of it, use masking tape. Don’t use the cheap beige stuff. Get some good blue or yellow painter’s tape, which is less likely to lift the paint that’s under it.

To keep paint from bleeding under the tape, you can either brush along the edge of the tape with the color that the tape is covering, or brush with some clear acrylic medium (look for it in the artist’s paint section of stores like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby) or, believe it or not, Future Floor Polish. This seals the edge, and if any of it bleeds under, it won’t be visible.

Decals

Dad and I could never get decals to stick right. What we didn’t know was that decals are nothing more than a clear lacquer sprayed on paper with something printed on it. They are supposed to bond permanently with paint underneath them.

So the first secret of applying decals is just to paint the surface beneath them. Decals stick better to glossy paint than flat, so if you don’t paint with glossy paint, apply a bit of acrylic gloss medium or Future Floor Polish (which is actually a clear gloss acrylic, not a wax), let that dry, and then apply the decal to that.

I have some additional waterslide decal tips and tricks if you’re interested in them.

Clearcoat

When you’re done, spray a clearcoat over the whole paint job. This gives a consistent and more realistic finish. A gloss coat is fine if you want your model to look factory new. But for a more typical real-world look, use a clearcoat with a dull finish. Testors Dullcote is the standard.

Before you experiment with Krylon or another hardware store clearcoat, take some scrap plastic, paint it with the same paints you used to paint the model, and then spray the clearcoat over it. Not all clearcoats are compatible with all paints. I once tried Dutch Boy clearcoat on a plastic model and it caused the paint to bubble, ruining it.

Following these tips won’t make award-winning models, but it will make your models look a lot nicer.

Removing paint from old plastic models and toys

So, someone got the bright idea that my Dad’s Lionel 6017 caboose needed a gold roof and painted it. Great, huh?

Believe it or not, it’s possible to remove paint from plastic and metal toys and models, using household items, easily and inexpensively. Whether you’re wanting to restore an old Lionel train to what it’s supposed to look like or wanting to strip chipped paint off a Matchbox car to prepare it for repainting, it’s easy to do.All you need is an old toothbrush, a pair of rubber gloves, a bottle of pine cleaner, and a plastic container–ideally one large enough to hold the item but with very little room left over.

Pine Sol isn’t as good for this as the cheapy knock-offs. The formula seems to have changed in recent years, making it more gentle than it used to be. Place the item in the container, pour in some of the cleaner, and let it sit.

In the case of Dad’s caboose, I should just pour in enough to immerse the roof since that’s all that’s painted. The cleaner will also gladly take off the white lettering that came from the factory, and I want to leave that alone. If the entire item is painted, cover the whole thing.

Within a few minutes the paint will start to bubble. Let it sit overnight, then put on the gloves, pull out the item and start scrubbing. Most of the paint will peel right off. If you have any stubborn spots, immerse it again and let it sit a while longer. Change the bath if it’s too stubborn.

You’ll be amazed at how easily it works.

If you intend to repaint, remember to primer first. Apply two thin coats. Just hold the can a few inches from the item and spray a fine mist. It doesn’t have to cover completely. Let it dry, then apply another fine mist. Ideally, the primer should be as similar to the top coat as possible, but it’s not necessary.

To apply the final coat, again, spray a fine mist. Shake the can liberally beforehand to mix in all of the pigment. Three or four thin coats look much better than one thick coat. If you’re going to apply decals, use a glossy finish. If you want a flat finish, you can apply a flat lacquer finish after applying decals. Take your time, and you’ll have an item to be proud of.

As for Dad’s Lionel 6017, no paint for it once the paint removal is complete. It’s staying red plastic with simple white lettering, just as the guys in New York intended 50 years ago.

I need to build this in O gauge

I visited the site because the link promised billboards. I got so much more. Now the fine Scot in me really wants to build this box car.

Since my trains are O27, not HO, I can’t use his artwork directly. But his HO scale decals might be suitable for a tinplate 6-inch car like those American Flyer and Marx used to sell, since those 6-inch Marxes basically look like double-height HO cars.This is precisely why I’m not a rivet-counter. Trains are supposed to be fun. This car doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s fun. The Second Amendment Gun Shop with a sign in the window saying “No weapons allowed” doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s fun.

I try to keep elements of what I do believable–you won’t see any low-rider Honda Civics running around my layout, which is supposed to look like the 1950s because my trains were built in the ’50s–but since I can’t build models of a specific time and place, what’s the point of getting uptight about whether M-K-T box car 45001 really existed?

But hey. For some people that’s the best part of the hobby. That’s OK. Just don’t try to stop me from having my fun.

More tips for playing with toy trains

As you can probably guess from the length of time between postings, the Lionel has proven to be quite the distraction. A welcome one, but definitely a distraction.
I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way.

Clean old plastic buildings quickly. My buildings had accumulated a decade or so of dust and grime sitting in a box, and they probably weren’t clean when they were boxed either. The solution? Put a dab of hand soap and a small amount of laundry detergent in a bucket, then fill it with warm water. Just put in enough soap and detergent to make some suds. Disassemble the buildings and drop them in. Let them soak for a few minutes, then scrub with a toothbrush. They’ll look almost new. Note: Don’t do this if they have decals, or if you deliberately weathered the buildings. If you don’t know what weathering means, then go get your bucket.

Cleaning severely rusted track. To clean severely rusted track, give it a thrice-over with a drill’s metal brush attachment. It’ll mark the track up badly, but it’ll clean it up fairly nicely and may allow a dysfunctional train to run again. Don’t worry about ruining a prized collectible; used Lionel track sells for 25-50 cents a section at a hobby shop. This also means you shouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into salvaging rusty track–especially considering the new stuff sells for a dollar.

Lubricate your cars’ wheels for smoother operation. Unlike the engine, WD-40 is fine for this. Put a small quantity of oil into a bottlecap, then use a toothpick to apply it anywhere that the axles come in contact with other parts of the car. After doing this, your train will run more quietly and smoother, and your locomotives will be able to pull approximately 30% more weight, so you can feel free to add another car or two.

Buildings on the cheap for the nether regions of your layout. If you have some kind of structured drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, KDE Kontour, Macromedia Freehand, or even something like Visio) you can draw the basic shapes of buildings, print them out on heavy card stock, and cut them up and glue them together. Get started by taking measurements from an existing building and use that as a guide to help you learn the height of a door, window, and floor. Export the file to some kind of raster format (JPG or PNG) prior to printing and use GIMP or Photoshop to add textures if your drawing program doesn’t support it. For added realism, cut out the windows and glue in pieces of transparent plastic (kitchen plastic wrap is fine but cutouts from clear plastic bags are nicer). It doesn’t take any longer than assembling and painting a plastic model, the results are surprisingly convincing–the only advantage plastic offers is more realistic texture–and you’ll never beat the price. And if something happens to the building, you can always print out and reassemble another one.

Polystyrene sheets for scratchbuilding plastic models on the cheap. Once you’ve built some paper models and want to move up to building plastic buildings from scratch, you can pay $7 for a small sheet of polystyrene at a hobby shop, or you can buy 88-cent Beware of Dog signs from the nearest hardware or discount store. It’s the same stuff, only bigger and printed on one side. Put the printed side on the inside of the model and cover it with paper if you want to keep your secret safe. If you live near a big city, I’ve heard that plastic distributors sell big 4’x8′ sheets of polystyrene for about $7. A square foot of material makes for a good-sized building, so a 4×8 sheet will probably yield more than 30 buildings.

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