Building model kits going a little too smoothly for you? Finally decoded all the symbols in the directions? Honed your build order to the maximum efficiency? Well, why not try adding a Photo Etch set to your next build! It is sure to drive you crazy and double the time you spend on your knees looking for dropped pieces! The pictures throughout this article are from my next project you’ll be seeing more of soon. It’s a Tamiya 1/35 M113 that may look a little different from the box art by the time I’m done.
Using photo etch (PE) isn’t as bad as I made it out to be, but it does add a new set of rules and skills to the equation. I had not used PE in a few years and it was nice to knock the rust off the techniques required.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about what PE is and why you might want to use it. PE parts are metal pieces chemically etched into their shapes. Basically, the chemicals eat around the designs on the sheet of metal to leave very detailed parts.
Ideally, these parts can replace parts of the model that are out of scale or non-existent. For example, things like 1/35 scale seat belts or wire mesh aren’t going to be accurately represented in plastic molding. If you are going for exceptional accuracy, PE can help.
Because PE etches on flat metal sheets, you will end up building 3d shapes from a 2d pane. That requires bending flat objects into the shapes of the parts you are re-creating. PE bending tools are available for purchase, but I can get far with the tools I already have.
Two sets of tweezers, a fine bladed hobby knife, and super glue will get you through most PE application.
Build order is one thing I’m still trying to master. The PE set will come with a set of directions. It will show you what PE part goes on what kit part. It also shows you what kit parts might need to be cut off and what holes need to be filled in. It’s not always obvious whether you should start with the kit or PE directions. I bounce back and forth between the sets of directions arbitrarily.
Except when I don’t! If a kit part needs to be cut off, filled in, or smoothed out I work on it first. It’s much easier to cut off and sand a piece if its not surrounded by other parts you’ve already glued on. I’ve noticed that PE directions don’t always group steps together logically, so after every step I go through the directions to make sure that part is done.
If I’m careful about cutting the PE part off the frame I don’t need to worry about sanding off extra bits. Given that many PE parts are tiny, sanding them is best avoided if possible. If I do need to scrape them, I do it before the piece is bent into shape using tweezers and a sanding stick. This is also an excellent way to launch expensive tiny metal into the other dimensions. From there they will battle orphaned socks for dominion over the land of the lost.
To glue them in place, I created the one tool to rule them all. It took years of engineering and tinkering to get right. I’m hesitant to give away too much, but what the heck.
It’s just a needle that I jammed into the end of an old paintbrush and glued in place. It gets a lot of use though. I put a drop of super glue into a beer cap or scrap of plastic, dip the needle in it, and apply to the PE part. It’s also used to stir paint pots, unclog Vallejo paint tips, clean my ears, and clean my airbrush.
Don’t get intimidated by PE sets. It’s just a little more time and effort for a more detailed look. If you are an old hand at PE, please let me know what tips or tricks you use!