explain it to me simply: how do I paint a model boat?
May 26, 2020 6:05 PM   Subscribe

One of my lockdown projects has been building a model boat. This is an odd choice as I do not know or care much about boats, but it's absorbing and I think I'm learning some little things. One thing I can't seem to figure out is how to get the paint not to look absolutely terrible. I may need this explained in very simple terms.

I'm actually on a site where everyone builds model boats and posts pictures and asks and answers questions, but I'm getting the impression there's sort of a bimodal distribution between people like me who can only say "well, I tried X and it sorta halfway worked" and people who have built models their whole lives and to whom my questions basically sound like "I'm trying to write a novel. How do I hold a pencil?"

The planking I muddled my way through. Now I'm painting and it looks like shit. I applied one coat of tan enamel model paint probably without sufficient sanding because the wood looked smooth to me. That looked very very bad. Then I got some spray primer in matte gray, and that went on smoother. I put on two more coats of enamel and it just looks...I dunno, bumpy? I should do this with a picture.

The backup plan here is to use some white spray primer on the whole damn thing because it won't look shoddy, but it will look a little boring. But...is there something else I should be doing? I will say, I've tried to sand between coats with 220 but it's fairly hard to get the sandpaper into the small area and get the surfaces. So it's possible that's the problem...

Thanks for any help.
posted by less of course to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Is the model paint of the spray variety, or brushed on?

There are a lot of ways you can develop unintended bumpiness. Possibilities in this case include...

The first coat “raises” the grain of the wood, meaning that the solvent/paint swells loose fibers on the surface and then hardens them. It’s normal to have to lightly sand a wood surface after the first coat of finish, to knock down the fuzz. You can’t just keep painting and expect to bury the bumps.

Brushing on paint that’s too thick, or continuing to work it / brush it as it begins to dry and thicken, leaving brush marks that don’t flow out.

Spraying lacquer from too far away, allowing droplets to partially dry before they hit the surface.

Ignoring recommended recoat timing when working with enamels. If you recoat enamel at the wrong time, the previous coat will wrinkle and ruin the surface.
posted by jon1270 at 7:06 PM on May 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

I don't paint boats (so no wood) but I do paint model railroad equipment sometimes, and find that lots of really thin coats of paint, very lightly brushed on and left to dry for plenty of time is the way to build up a nice smooth surface. Don't try to cover it all in one layer.
posted by Chairboy at 3:50 AM on May 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The thin coats that Chairboy uses are made by thinning the paint with whatever thinner is appropriate to the type of paint he's using. Lots of model paint arrives very thick. From the picture, it looks like you used gloss paint. A more realistic appearance might be gained by using flat (matte) paint.

Sanding in tight places is best done by wrapping sandpaper around some tool, like a small stick. Here's a tool made for the purpose.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:00 AM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

The way to get good at painting models is to paint a lot of models. You're not going to get there on your first try.

But, yes, lots of thin coats are the way to go. Also, prep first. Your prep is everything. Sand everything smooth before you paint and use primer. The primer will help any defects show up and you should address them before you paint again. Then brush or (preferably) spray many thin coats.

And be proud of what you've done so far. Painting or finishing anything is some sort of wizardry that any woodworker or model builder is constantly struggling with. You'll never get it so you think it's perfect, but keep going at it and you'll get pretty good.
posted by bondcliff at 6:54 AM on May 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

I went through the same thing building ukuleles and found that what they say is true: making mistakes is a big part of learning....and there are tons of idiosyncrasies to learn with these sorts of projects. That said, it is ALWAYS worthwhile to test any paint or primer on scrap. I use a thin coat of de-waxed shellac under whatever else I'm going to put on. I like it because it's non-toxic and I can sand down any raised grain without worrying about breathing in paint particles.

It's looking pretty cool to me, even with the bit of texture on the paint. I could see every glaring finishing mistake on a ukulele I made for a friend a while back but seeing it again 6 month later, I found them barely noticeable. That actually goes for a lot of projects I've made.

I'd look for another forum where you can feel comfortable asking beginner questions.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:27 AM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do a sample or test on as similar wood as you can so you know what your finish process will look like. This takes the guessing out of it.
posted by bdc34 at 9:33 AM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

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