Railing 1/700 scale U-Boats—without photoetch!
by Tim Reynaga
|Back in the late 1970’s I was a teenager happily building my way through Revell’s old 1/720 “International Series” warships, which I thought were the coolest things going (dig those moveable turrets and snap-apart hulls—yeah!) Then Hasegawa released these little beauties…WOW! They just blew me away...all those limber holes, awesome deck guns, amazing surface detail; even the life preservers and running lights were molded right in. And they were sooooooooo tiny! As far as I was concerned, these models were the coolest ever…except…well, what was up with those solid molded rails?||click image
|I had never added rails of any kind before to my ships, and most of the smaller scale kits didn’t have them. But there they were on the Type VII, hulking up like some weird basket on the back of that neat little conning tower. It was a game attempt, but they were hopelessly embedded into a solid hunk of decidedly non-scale plastic. These goofy things weren’t at all up to the level of the rest of the kit. No problem. A few scrapes of the xacto and they were history—but then it looked so…NAKED! My small scale ship models usually looked okay without rails, but on U-Boats they were pretty conspicuous…|
What to do? I didn’t have much experience scratchbuilding, and those intricate rails looked pretty intimidating. (Remember, this was during the dark days of the 1970s: the energy crisis, rampant inflation, Watergate, disco, and, worst of all…NO PHOTOETCH!) First I tried fitting bits of cut down window screen. Awful. Then I tried tulle wedding veil material (I don’t think mom ever noticed those trimmed edges…) Not much better.
|Finally, I conceded that my best shot would be to try it the hard way: wire. I took some fine guage copper material salvaged from an old phone cord and started to play around with it. I had taken a pencil rubbing of the molded rails before scraping them off the hull, so this and the deck served as guides in bending a piece to match the compound curve of the top deck. The subtle shape of the Type VII hull toprail was difficult to capture; it took several tries to get the two sides to not only conform properly to the deck but to each other. Asymmetrical toprails on that narrow, exposed deck would have been painfully obvious, so I kept at it until they looked right.|
|Ok, so far so good. Now how do I attach these things? Plastic cement wouldn’t work, JB Weld epoxy seemed a bit extreme (and a gawdawful mess to work with). Krazy Glue had just come on the scene, but I was frankly a little afraid of the stuff; my experiments with it up to then had succeeded mainly in gluing my fingers together.|
| I finally opted for an interim solution: Elmer’s
school glue would hold the parts in place until I could find a suitable
adhesive for the final bond. It was just a stop-gap measure, but
I figured it would enable me to fabricate the parts and test fit them together
temporarily. As it happened, Elmer’s glue by itself worked great.
The joints blended nicely and were surprisingly strong once the glue hardened.
Also, the forgiving nature of white glue made it very easy to work with.
This was good, since the wire parts were all handmade and required a good
deal of fiddling to get them shaped and positioned correctly. The
white glue could be loosened by simply rewetting the joints, making adjustments
much simpler and the risk of damage that much less. It was also nontoxic
and non-smelly, a definite plus since I worked at a desk in my bedroom.
The one disadvantage was the tenuous binding power of the glue to metal
and plastics. Not formulated for this type of use, I expected the
Elmer’s glue bonds to be exceedingly frail. I need not have worried;
over twenty years later they are still holding fast!
After attaching the toprails the six upright stanchions were cut and positioned following the pattern of the molded rails I had taken off earlier. Finally, the straight horizontal lower rails were cut and placed against the stanchions, each being attached with thinned white glue applied with a #000 paintbrush. I hadn’t yet aquired my first airbrush, so the whole assembly was carefully brush painted once the glue had dried.
|The next area to be railed was the conning tower. The railing of the Wintergarten (“Greenhouse”) on the tower, though considerably more busy looking than the main deck railing, was actually simpler to accomplish. Lacking the compound curves of the deck toprail, it was a straightforward matter to form the simple round shapes of the guardrails.|
|I began with making two rings by wrapping the wire around nails of the correct diameter. The lower rail was to be slightly smaller than the upper, so one was formed around a slightly smaller nail than the other. Otherwise they were identical. Then I bent the ends of each outward to form the lengths which were to connect them to the tower. Though not complex, it is important that these rails be even. They form a focal point of the boat, and any irregularity would be very distracting on the completed model. Also, the uprights to come would not have sat uniformly if the structure was crooked. A bit of coaxing was needed to get them right, no big deal. After I was satisfied with these shapes I attached them to the tower. The unsupported horizontals had a tendency to droop while the glue was still soft, but propping the sub vertically on its nose for a few minutes whle the glue thickened took care of this. Then came the flagstaff and vertical stanchions. I began with the flagstaff, using wire to replace the oversized kit part. This formed the anchor of the structure, and all the uprights on the sides were spaced from it. Progressing from there forward along each side I glued each of the uprights into place taking care that they were vertical and evenly spaced. With the horizontals properly aligned these verticals went on easily. This was the fun part because with the addition of these stanchions the intricate Wintergarten really came together. When the glue was dry I examined the assembly to make sure it looked right, rewetting a bit and making minor corrections here and there. Despite the white glue, which does not bond at all well to metal, the completed assembly turned out to be quite sturdy. I was able to fix a small misalignment of the upper and lower horizontals by bending the wire with gentle pressure from a hobby knife without breaking the tiny glued joints. When I was satisfied with the shape the glue was allowed to dry thoroughly—not that that took long, since such miniscule touches of white glue dry in just a few minutes.|
|The assembly then received a coat of hull gray, lightened slightly to enhance the contrast. If you apply your finishes by brush as I did exclusively in those days, it’s important to do this with highly thinned paint. It doesn’t cover very well, but ugly paint clumps would have ruined the effect of that delicate structure. Nevertheless, I made sure to cover it as thoroughly as I could since any bare spots would show a glaring copper color and give the game away.|
|I had to go back and touch it up several times; it seemed
that every time I thought it was done a new viewing angle would reveal
a shiny little spot of copper peeking through…arrgh! The job can
be done this way all right, but I don’t recommend it. Life definitely
got easier when I bought my first airbrush!
The construction of the Type IX Seekuh (“Sea Cow”—I just love that) folowed that of the VII with only minor differences in the models. For some reason Hasegawa decided not to include the molded railings on the conning tower like on the Type VII, so removing them was unnecessary. Since the main deck rails on the Type IX were straight they were easier to make than those on the Type VII. Otherwise making the railing was much the same on both subs.
|After the rails, fixing up other details was a piece of cake. The FuMo29 centimetric radar unit on the Type IX conning tower came molded on it as a solid block, so I replaced it with a bit of rayon fabric mesh. Much better. Since I had knocked off and lost that nice little RDF loop on the Type VII earlier (Doh!), I made replacements for both subs from wire bent around a needle. This actually worked out well as the new loops came out more delicate looking than the kit originals. Those terriffic kit deck guns inspired me to improve the 20mms, so I cut them from the mounts and repositioned them at more casual angles, with shoulder pads and barrels made from wire.|
|The paint job on the Seekuh was just like the Type VII, but with a little extra. I had seen some pictures of Mediterranean based U-Boats with that funky mottled camouflage, so I had a ball adding little green splotches all over the hull and tower. Both boats also received thin washes of dark gray along with liberal streaks of lightened gray and brown rust to simulate the paint deterioration universal among World WarTwo-era submersibles. (Of course, “liberal” in tiny 1/700 scale is relative; a light touch was all that was required!)|
|By the way, it was during this project that I first discovered that brown simulates rust on ship models better than does rust color paint. I found this accidentally when, having run out of my trusty Pactra rust (and too impatient to stop work and make a trip to the toy shop where I bought my paints), I tried some brown instead. The effect was surprisingly good. It was less extreme than the vivid rust paint had been, and much more realistic. If you actually look closely at rust-streaked metal surfaces you will see that the color is mostly a rather dull, dark reddish brown rather than a bright rust color. I was still learning how to weather my ships without having them end up looking like rotting hulks, and the subtler tones of the brown turned out to be a big help.|
|Last came the U-Boat’s rigging. Before installing the jump wires I added a net cutter to the Type VII’s bow and small support assemblies to both boats aft made from wire. The rigging itself was some super fine copper wire I had copped from an old transistor radio coil.|
|Even though it must be painted, I have always liked this
microfine wire better than fly tippet or stretched sprue for rigging since
it is easier to impart a realistic sag to the scale lines. It also
doesn’t loosen or flex with temperature changes. Insulators on the
lines were dabs of white glue. The wires were (oh so gently!) brushed
with highly thinned hull color paint after they were in place. As
with the safety rails, these lines had to be repeatedly touched up to assure
that none of the copper color showed through. When this was done
the subs were completed with Kriegsmarine naval ensigns made from painted
I had great fun building these little U-Boats, which, with the exception of the railings, were among the best kits I had yet seen. Replacing those rails had definitely been a challenge. They came out all right, but hand making those things was an effort I wouldn’t want—or need—to take on again. Today there are inexpensive, accurately scaled, simple to use photoetch rails available which will get the job done in no time. So much easier to get there now than in the 1970s…!