Sunday, February 21, 2016

Painting MERDC Camouflage

One of the things that really interested me when it came to painting a US force for Team Yankee was the opportunity to give them a really unqiue camo scheme - commonly known as MERDC (Mobility Equipment Research and Development Center).

The thing I found particularly interesting about this scheme is that the template is the same regardless of the theatre of its use, only the colours change. The benefit of this is that it makes it relatively easy to paint your vehicles in a historical scheme.

Of course, the downside is that all of your vehicles (of a type) need to look roughly the same. Realising this, I decided to take what many might consider the path of most resistance, coming up with some painting masks that would let me cut out either the Forest Green or Field Drab sections (I’m painting a force in the Winter Verdant MERDC variant, like the Battlefront studio US models pictured in the Team Yankee book) and airbrush that colour over a base of the other one.

The MERDC Templates
Before I could start making masks that I could use for airbrushing I needed to find out what colours are meant to go where. Aaron (the resident BF painter and font of knowledge) was kind enough to lend me his book on MERDC and some internet searches gave me a wide variety of material – thank goodness for the internet and large scale modellers! 

you can download a set of templates from the BF website here... (right click, save as...)

How did I make my masks?
I started out with the M113, because it met a couple of important criteria:

  • I needed a decent number of them, once you include a Mech Platoon, ITV Platoon, VADS Platoon and potentially Mortar Platoon in a force. 
  • It’s a box with tracks! The templates work much better on nice flat sides.
My first plan was to get some thin clear plastic sheet, overlay it on a print-out of the MERDC template, and cut out the appropriate bits. For the M113 I chose to cut out and spray the Field Drab, after initially basecoating the whole vehicle Forest Green. However, I found that in practice, clear rigid plastic was just too tough to cut precisely enough, even in very thin sheets. In our stationery cupboard I found some clear plastic document wallets made out of a nice soft plastic and therefore easy to cut. They were not very rigid, though, so I ended up building a frame out of some plastic card.

This worked really well, and the frame held the mask in place on the vehicle, making it easy to spray that face of the vehicle, quickly move the template to the the next one, spray and so on. Then I would grab the template for the next side and keep going. I did find that the front and rear faces had so much stuff on them that it was difficult to make a mask for them. So for these two faces I used blu-tack to make a mask instead.

Using this method I was able apply the Field Drab to six vehicles in about an hour, including blu-tacking the front and rear faces – not bad, compared to painting the pattern freehand!

Paper masks
I sent my original template to Evan (our sculptor) to try out. He took a simpler path, where he just printed out the template, cut out the Forest Green areas and then folded the paper over the vehicle. I had considered this approach, but my original concern was the durability of the paper versus plastic. I wanted my templates to be reusable over as many vehicles as might be needed.

But Evan's experience was that as he airbrushed the model, the dried paint actually helped to add rigidity to the mask. He found that with a couple of very small pieces of blu-tack were enough to hold the mask on to the model, leaving his hands free for easy airbrushing.

Cutting a paper version is definitely a lot faster. Whilst I have not yet tried it through to completion, I experimented with cutting one out for this M109, and it was pretty quick. As you can see, I have decided to combine the paper mask and blu-tack, as the majority of the surface is nice and flat.
Once again, I would blu-tack all the vehicles I planned to paint in one go, to help keep them looking the same. Plus, you do not want to be fiddling around with wet blu-tack and transferring paint everywhere.

Tips for using the masks
Commit to the process before finishing your assembly.
Certain items – cupolas, MGs etc – will get in the way and make it very difficult to lay the mask over the vehicle. So I would avoid or delay gluing them on to the vehicles if I was going to use a mask. I still hadn't made up my mind about using masks when I assembled my first vehicles, and now my M106 Mortar Carriers are going to present a challenge, as they have their baseplates and cupolas attached.

Print twice, cut once.
Planning is your friend. Before basecoating the vehicles, take a close look at the templates and work out what sequence of colours will work best. For the M113s the Field Drab areas seemed like the best choice to cut out, whereas for the M109s the Forest Green seemed like the best choice to cut out, avoiding a mask consisting of four or five tiny pieces. Decide on the sequence that will work best for you. But definitely try cutting some masks out first before you deploy the paint. It is also worth having a second, intact template printed, to guide you with painting the Sand and Black areas later on.

Always make sure you leave a frame around your masks (i.e. make the masks bigger than just the painted area) this way you wont get overspray on the other faces of the vehicle.

Paper or plastic?
They both have pros and cons. My plastic templates will last forever, but cutting them out did take a lot of time and effort: two or three evenings of thinking, planning, as well as some trial and error. With the benefit of practice, I am confident I could now do a set for another vehicle type in an evening. Paper is less durable, but much easier to work with. Cutting a set of masks for the M109 out of paper only took me about an hour, once I had decided how to sequence the colours.

Blu-tack is your friend.

If you decide to use paper masks, use blu-tack to help stick them down, so they don’t blow off with the air flow from the airbrush or let too much paint overspray underneath. You can also use it to mask fiddly areas where a paper or plastic mask is too much trouble – in which case, don’t forget to blu-tack all of your vehicles in one go, to save time and to make it easier to keep all of your vehicles looking consistent.

Take the pressure down.  
I turned my compressor down quite low to avoid the mask flying off or, in the cases where there was equipment making the mast sit above the vehicle, reduce overspray making its way under the edges of the template.

Masks won’t do everything.
There are just some areas where the masks won’t work – like the rounded corners of the M109 turret. My plan is the mask the top of the hull and turret, and side of the hull, then use blu-tack for the rest.

If you put the turret on hull (once painted) you can blu-tack the turret sides and use the turret top and hull side to help make sure your colours start and end in the right places.

And of course, once your templates have done most of the work, you can always use good old-fashioned freehand painting (airbrush or brush) to fix up any messy or incomplete areas.

What's next?
Finally, paint the Sand and Black strips on and you are done, ready for weathering, washes or whatever else you want to do. 

Hopefully this has given you some inspiration to at least try experimenting with the masks. I am certainly sold on the idea for vehicles where I think I will be painting a decent number of them, as the time invested up front pays dividends later. Especially since I now have plans to paint some New Zealand M113s in the Red Desert scheme!

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