Contributed by: albisasky
Published on: 09-21-2005


By Al Bisasky


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My kindergarten teacher once told my parents that I was an extraordinary finger painter and that my artistic talents should be nurtured and encouraged. Today, 52 years later, I can still paint my fingers with the best of ‘em.

All rightly, then. You have your basic tools and you’ve selected your first plank-on-frame (or solid wood hull ship model) and you’re hard at work on the hull. At some point, you will have to begin to paint certain parts as you do with any other type of model. The questions for the beginning model shipwright are (1) what preparation needs to be done prior to painting, (2) what paint do I use, and (3) how do I apply it?

Preparing To Paint:

Keep in mind that some parts will be painted prior to assembly while other will be done after partial and sometimes full assembly. About 95% of the painting that you will do will be done during assembly. Why? Because it’s easier to do and trying to completely paint a finished or almost finished ship model is darned near impossible. Painting-as-you-go is mandatory.

Regardless of the base of the paint (water or petroleum product), all paints will raise the grain of the wood. Therefore, you want to rub down the wood to as smooth a texture as you can achieve. 400 grit sandpaper or a sanding cloth or pad will do the job for you quite nicely. Use a 1” or so paint brush and a vacuum cleaner to get off all of the sanding dust. If you have a compressor, use it to blow out all the nooks and crannies. Canned air will also work. Lastly, rub down the surface about to be painted with alcohol on a lint-free cloth. Now, you’re ready to start painting.

Every model shipwright has a slightly different method of painting. This is the method that works best for me:
1. Apply a thin, even coat of paint, moving the brush in one direction only; not back and forth. Smooth out any obvious high spots and or streaks, but remember that the paint is self-leveling and will even out when thoroughly dried.
2. Let the first coat cure for 24 hours. Buff lightly with fine or very fine steel wool or extra-fine sandpaper (a 400 grit flexible sanding pad works well). This should smooth down the grain that rises with painting. Wipe down a dry, lint free cloth. Apply a second thin, even layer of paint. Again, paint in one direction only. Of course, there will be areas that will be impossible to sand.
3. Let the second coat cure for 24 hours. A second rub down should not be necessary if the paint has covered evenly and the surface of the wood is smooth.
4. If a third coat (or more) is required, repeat step #2.
5. As most paints will dry flat and most model shipwrights prefer a satin or eggshell finish. Apply a thin coat or two of sealer. If you are using water based paint, make sure that you use a water-based sealer.

A Few Notes on the Behavior of Different Colors:

If you’ve done any model painting at all, you know that the lighter colors, especially white, usually require more coats than the darker color paints. Petroleum based enamel paints like Floquil are very thin and spread easily and evenly, while water based acrylics like Polly S are thicker and take a bit more patience and finesse to apply.

Cleaning Brushes:

As I stated in Part I of this series, buy the best brushes that you can afford. Make sure that the bristle material is specifically for your type of paints. Acrylic (water based) or enamel (petroleum based). Floquil brand “Golden Fox” brushes are excellent for acrylics. Properly cleaned and maintained, your brushes should last a long time. I use running tap water to clean my acrylic brushes, followed by a good swirling in a clean paint jar or other glass bottle or jar with a few drops of liquid dish soap. I then rinse them again with plain running tap water. Finally, I clean them Polly S airbrush thinner.

Paint for Wood:

There is a wide selection of model paints suitable for wood. If you already have a favorite, you may wish to stick with it. It’s your choice. If you need a particular color that is not available in your favorite paint, chances are that there is something very close or can you can “mix and match” a batch of the colors that you need.

For wood model ships, I have found Model Shipways a very good water-based acrylic. Available in one ounce jars, MS paint runs about $2.50 a jar. They offer just about any color that the modeler requires to paint period ship models: Bulwarks Red, Cannon Black, Hull Ochre, Hull Copper Red, etc., etc. Model Expo has MS paints are also available in model specific “sets”. For example, the paint set for the WILLIE L. BENNETT contains eight jars of paint: two each of Primer and Hull White and one each of Black, Hull Copper Red, Deck Light Gray and Cabin Buff. Buying paints by the set is somewhat less expensive than individual jars.

MS also offers a selection of water-based stains. While on the subject of stains, Minwax wood stains also work very well for modeling.

Humbrol, which I understand are also excellent model paints and are available in authentic period ship colors, are available from Tallships, Inc. I must confess that I have not use Humbrol, but getting hold of some and trying it is on my “to-do” list.

If possible, apply a thin coat of Model Shipways primer; this especially important when using the light colors such as Hull White, Cabin Buff, etc. Buff down the primer the same as you would the color coats.

Paint for Metal:

While I use water-based acrylics for wood; for brass, Britannia metal and plastic, I still use Floquil. This is petroleum spirit based enamel. All metal parts should first be cleaned with Floquil’s Dio-Sol thinner prior to painting. Floquil is only available in flat finish. However, you can add a few drops of their Crystal Coat to the paint to achieve a satin, semi-gloss or gloss finish. I just have not found a model paint that works on metal as well as Floquil. The major drawback to Floquil, as with any petroleum based enamel, is the need for proper ventilation while painting, especially while airbrushing.

Preparing the Paint:

Whichever paint or stain that you are working with, thorough stirring is a must. Badger offers a small paint stirrer for modelers that runs on two AA batteries. I simply clamp the stirrer vertically in my Pana-Vice with the stirring bit almost to the bottom of the jar, where it will be the thickest, turn it on and let her rip. For thicker paints, like Model Shipways, I stir for 10 - 15 minutes. Thinner paints like Floquil I stir for about 8 – 10 minutes. If you are doing a lot of painting out of the same jar for an extended period of time, give the paint a few minute re-stir every so often.

Before you reseal the paint jar, if you have used a significant amount of that paint, add ONE – and only one – drop of water to the jar before you screw on the top. For petroleum based enamels, add ONE drop of the appropriate thinner. Wipe off any paint that has collected on the inside and outside of the rim of the jar and inside the lid. This will make it a lot easier to reopen the jar. If the jar has a plastic lid, use caution when tightening it; too much torque can cause the lid to break.


To airbrush Model Shipways acrylics, I use a 60/40 mix of paint and Polly S Airbrush Thinner and a Number 2 or 3 needle and tip. DO NOT USE PLAIN WATER. The paint will spatter. For Floquil, the paint/Dio sol or Floquil Airbrush Thinner ratio is 50/50. As the Floquil is much thinner, you can also use a Number 1 needle/tip combination as well as Numbers 2 and 3. This will depend on the size of the surface area that you need to paint. Regardless of what paint you are using, remember to always apply thin, even coats and let the paint cure for 24 hours.

For recommendations on airbrushes, see Part I of this series.


Before you begin actually painting your model, practice on some piece of scrap wood with each type of paint that you intend to use. Try your whites, lights, mediums and dark colors to get a feel for how they apply. Obviously, the darker paints will provide better first coat coverage than the whites and lights.

Making a Chip Chart:

You never know what the color of any given paint will look like until you apply it. I bought some ” wide basswood strips and cut them into 3” lengths. Using my particular method of painting, I applied three coats of each color to my “chips”. Now, I know what each color will look like on my models.


Just like learning to use hand tools, power tools, planking a hull or rigging a masts and spars, skill of painting your model ship will take practice. Don’t be afraid to do some experimentation. If you are not satisfied with how a particular color looks, do some mixing. For example, I did not like the look of Hull Copper Red on the WILLIE L. BENNETT, so I mixed in some Bulwarks Red to make it more prototypical to Chesapeake Bay skipjacks.

A Final Word:

Painting puts the finishing touch to any model. But remember, while paint can hide small mistakes or imperfections, it can also accentuate them in some instances. The important thing is to have fun and always look for ways to sharpen your painting skills.

If you can afford a set up, nothing looks as good as a model that has been airbrushed, in my opinion. It will take you more time and requires a bit more work, but it is worth it.

Coming In Part IV

I will wind up this series with a few comments about and discuss the pitfalls, pratfalls and boo-boos that I experienced while working on Model Shipways WILLIE L. BENNETT and Mamoli’s HMS BEAGLE.

Until then… happy model building!

Cheers Al.
References: Paints:
1 - Humbrol
2 - Airbrushes (Badger)
3 - Humbrol (Tallships, Inc.)
4 - Model Shipways (Model Expo)
5 - Floquil, Polly S, et al (Testors)
6 - Minwax
Related Articles and Resources:
Homemade wood stains
Wood finishes for model ships...
On Using oil and Acrylic paints on your model
Shop Notes / Tips
Modeling Book Resources
Modeling Links and Resources

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