Tamiya 1/48 scale conversion
by Jim Kiker
Tamiya's 1/48 scale Spitfire Mk.I is available online from Squadron
Back in the late 1990s I bought one of the then-fairly-new Academy Spitfire Mk XIV kits with a vague idea of a scheme. My buddy Wally conducted an intervention, and the eventual result was a PR XIX finished as Ed Pole’s favorite Spit from Hong Kong circa 1952. Having been in the reconnaissance business, the notion of doing any number of reconnaissance types was soon fanned into an abiding interest. Not long after that I found a copy of “Spitfire: The History” and the rest, as they say, really is history.
At the end of the day I had acquired enough kits, aftermarket, and references to do a series of reconnaissance (or recce) Spitfires. As I like unusual camouflage schemes, I looked for and found a number of them. And of course, if one is to produce a collection of PR Spitfires, one simply must have one of the first two Spitfire PR’s ever, and in overall Camotint color as well, to make a bookend for the PR XIX. What could be better? And so began an intermittent journey of researching, planning, and building a series of Spitfire PR’s, interspersed among the other projects I have pursued.
First, here are the two critical pictures I needed to do the PR I; the first is well-known, showing N3071 about to take off on the first-ever Spitfire reconnaissance mission.
The second picture came to me much later; it reveals a dark color on the left landing gear, wheel, inner gear door, and I think also in the wheel well, the underwing roundels, barely visible underwing camera ports, and finally a lack of evidence for the serial number. Splendid!
I started with the Tamiya 1/48 scale Spitfire Mk I kit. As many a modeler knows, this is a wonderful kit to work on. It does however have some outline issues which I set out to improve. The improvements were based on dimensions and kit measurements originally done by Spitfire boffins Roy Sutherland and Bruce Archer, using the plans from the book “Spitfire: The Canadians.”
The basic kit is short by about 3/32” in the rear fuselage. I used an ICM Mk IX rear fuselage to add that length to the fuselage. After cutting the Tamiya fuselage I found that by lining up the ICM rear fuselage at a point where the height from top to bottom matched the Tamiya fuselage, I got the desired lengthening. As this picture shows, the contours of the two fuselages do not completely match; however, the Tamiya fuselage is known to be a bit “tubby” in the area behind the wing root. I reinforced this area on the inside of the Tamiya fuselage part with CA glue and then sanded the part down from the joint to the edge of the wing fillet. This slims down the fuselage nicely as well as giving the extra length I was after.
This picture shows the difference in length before and after the surgery. This picture isn’t stretched- it’s just the angle I took the picture at!
In addition to adding length, the mod also moves the horizontal tails back. I think this enhances the look of the stretch on the completed model. Also note that the ICM piece has a very similar method of attaching the horizontal tails compared to the Tamiya kit.
It is fairly well known that the Tamiya wing is a bit too bulbous around the trailing edges; perhaps less well known is that the leading edges are also a bit over-rounded. In the case of the trailing edges, I marked off 1/32” at the panel line between the aileron and the flap. I sanded the entire trailing edge to up to my mark, tapering the curve so that the outer aileron and the inner edge of the flap at the wing root were left alone. This insures that the wing tips and the wing root will fit the adjacent kit parts without any problems. In the picture below, I have fixed the kit wing leading and trailing edges. The tan upper wing is from Tamiya’s Mk Vb kit, and shows the extent of the changes. I reworked the leading edges without sanding through the thickness of the plastic. I also re-thinned the trailing edges from the inside, insuring a good fit with constant dry-fitting.
Looking back, if one wishes to be truly obsessive about it the leading edge of the flaps probably should be filled and rescribed; however, we all have a point where we choose to go no further; this happens to be mine on the Tamiya Spits. As with the fuselage, these may seem to be small changes requiring lots of time, but they payoff big when you look at the finished model.
Here is a picture of the inside of the wings with several things worth noting.
Second, you can see the drilled-out camera ports; more on that later…
Third, I covered the inside of the shell ejector chutes for the guns; the guns and a lot of access panels and panel lines will be removed later.
Finally, on the upper right of the picture is a repair job I brought on myself. I often think that modeling consists of a series of problem solving exercises, and here is a case in point. While working the inside of one upper wing, I took a chunk of the aileron out by accident. To fix it, I cut the aileron off of the lower wing and glued it to the top wing half; I had to shim the front edge to retain proper fit on the bottom of the wing. I cut and glued a piece of plastic sheet to replace the missing chunk, then carefully dressed the trailing edge and restored the raised rib detail of the ailerons.
N3071 was one of the two Spitfires that were converted from late production Mk I’s in the fall of 1939. To convert the Tamiya Mk I kit to a PR I, I removed the wing guns and filled in the openings in the wing leading edges. I filled in the spent shell chutes. Per the original modifications, I also filled in all of the gun access panels and all of the normal panel lines on the wings except for a few access panels. These panel lines were filled on the real aircraft with Plaster of Paris, sanded smooth, and the aircraft repainted, all in an effort to improve aerodynamic efficiency. On the model, I used CA glue applied to short sections of panel lines with the tip of a straight pin. I let that dry for perhaps a minute, then sand it smooth. Where there are adjacent panel lines, I also re-scribe them immediately. CA glue will continue to harden and become much harder than the plastic; if you leave if for an hour the work will be much more difficult and the tendency is to sand depressions into the kit plastic (ask me how I know!). So speed is of the essence, but I like that since I can quickly fill, sand, rescribe, and move on, leaving new panel lines that match the kit lines without having any putty shrinkage issues and, being careful, without sanding off large areas of kit surface detail.
The gun heater system was retained on the aircraft. Sydney Cotton and his merry men were sharp cookies, and they figured out that the gun heating system would also work to keep the camera lenses from fogging over/icing up at altitude. In modeling terms, I wanted to add the gun heater outlets. They are differently-sized lengths of plastic tubing that I cut to length, sanded down to form a cone, and added on each side of the lower wings.
The cameras were installed in the ammunition storage spaces between the two inner machine gun bays. These are already depicted in the kit, so all I needed to do was add the camera ports. I simulated camera lenses by gluing short lengths of 1/8” plastic tubing on the inside of the upper wings; at the end of the project I added Micro Kristal Klear for the camera ports themselves.
Additional items on the real aircraft to complete the conversion included the removal of the radio gear, the antenna mast, and aerial wires. The armor for the pilot was also removed.
This aircraft used an armored windscreen but it does not have a rear view mirror. The kit windscreen has a hole in it to mount a mirror. I could not figure out how to fix this without it showing, so a vacuform canopy was substituted. A vacuform canopy which includes the large “recce” blisters was also used.
I pre-painted the areas around the camera lenses and the radiators before gluing up the wings. I added screen detail to both radiators and painted it before they were installed. As a result, I succeeded in having no overspray in those areas during painting.
Aside from the vacuform canopies, the kit interior was updated with a mix of kit parts, parts from an old Cooper Details set by Roy Sutherland (Cooper now known as Barracuda Studios), and some scratchbuilt bits.
Here are the interior bits ready to go. I painted the insides of the fuselage pieces off black, then British Interior Grey Green, shooting the green from above to produce natural shadows. Once dry, I gave the surface a coat of clear gloss, did some light washes, and finished the details. A clear flat coat sealed it all in. This was a nearly-new aircraft, so there was little weathering to do to match the condition of the real aircraft. I added the seat harness attachment with fine wire and glued it to a paper “Y” harness cut to fit over the resin seat’s shoulder belts; it was glued to the top of the fuselage once the seat bulkhead was installed in one fuselage half.
To complete the detailing, I scratchbuilt a new engine coolant radiator flap and installed it in the open position.
Every Spitfire kit I’ve owned or looked at features main landing gear that are too long. The real aircraft has almost a hunkered-down stance. I built new gear from scratch using nested tubing and detailed them out.
The kit exhausts were replaced with Ultracast units at the end of finishing.
Ultracast elevators and rudder were also used and repositioned.
The pilot’s entry door cut out and replaced.
The kit propeller was replaced with a spare one form an old Monogram Mosquito kit shortened a bit to the correct diameter, and mounted on a pair of nested brass tubes so I can remove it for travel. I had planned on using a resin piece, but having broken a blade off I decided to use a one-piece plastic unit for a little additional strength.
I always enjoy seeing model projects being built and before being painted at our club’s Show and Tell sessions; they are often quite instructive to see at that point. Here is a pic of this build before the paint went on. I used automotive lacquer-based sandable primer for the wings and other areas during construction. It helped fill in minor surface marks and depressions when sanded back down. I often do this with conversions; even though I have to reopen some of the panel lines it’s a valuable part of the finishing process.
You can also see that I normally paint the vertical frames of the fixed windscreen and rear canopy and mount them before painting. This allows me to fair in the joints, and I mask and paint the interior color of the frames and then the exterior color during painting.
One other item worth mentioning is that the Tamiya kit pinches in a bit just underneath the rear fixed canopy. I think this was done to allow the kit canopy to be positioned open, but it also results in a little “dished in” area that is not on the real aircraft. I applied several coats of Mr. Surfacer in there and sanded it out. Once that’s done the area looks better, although with the canopy open it’s not very noticeable.
I also added some thin strip to the top of the edge of the cockpit where the canopy would sit when closed, both on the right fuselage half and on the pilot’s hatch, to simulate the canopy rails.
N3071 was received by Sydney Cotton’s team as a standard early Mk I painted in Dark Green, Dark Earth, and silver undersides. It also had the bottom of the wings painted in white/black, as seen in the pictures by the light/dark shades on the landing gear struts, wheels, and interior of the wheel covers; this likely included the wheel wells as well. Once the PR mods were complete, the aircraft was repainted in Camotint, which was later renamed Sky.
Sydney Cotton had registered this color with the government but did not charge royalties when it came into use as a new undersurface color during the Battle of Britain. Camotint was a smooth finish paint; once it was done, the airplane was waxed for aerodynamic smoothness, not necessarily for a high gloss.
I first painted the insides of the wheel wells in white and black. The pictures suggest to me that the aircraft was placed on jacks and the gear was raised before painting. The wheels were likely covered up for painting. To replicate this, I taped in a spare set of wheels and the main landing gear wheel well covers to mask the white and black. When this was painted, I allowed some Sky overspray into the outer wheel wells around the tire.
I made a custom mix of my usual solvent-based paint for the main color. I then painted a clear gloss acrylic finish all over the model in preparation of decaling.
Appropriate three-color roundels were applied, but note that the underwing roundels were fairly large and carried larger than standard-proportioned centers. The photographs strongly suggest that no serial number was carried, as was common practice among Spitfire fighter squadrons at that time. I therefore left them off. If anyone has another picture of this aircraft showing the serial number, I’d love to see it and I would be glad to add them.
Once the decals were on, I applied another coat of clear acrylic gloss. I added pin washes to the panel lines, using Payne’s Gray (a dark, slightly-bluish gray) oil paint, mixed with naptha (lighter fluid) for high-shadow areas such as around the control surfaces and the remaining removable panels such as the engine cowlings and inspection hatches. The Naptha thinner is less hot than mineral spirits so it is easy to wipe off excess without disturbing the paint beneath. I then lightened this mixture and added it to all the “normal” panel lines. I also added some light brown streaks here and there on the flaps and elsewhere to reflect the aircraft’s operation from grass fields.
The entire model got a mixed coat of semi-gloss clear acrylic followed by a rub down with an old Tee shirt. I wanted to replicate the smooth waxed finish of the aircraft without creating a really glossy look, and I am very happy with the result.
Ten years on, I now have four recce PR Spitfires done, with one to go to be displayed together. The PR I here in Sky was the beginning of the line; I have a PR IV in dark blue and white, an FR IX in PRU Pink, and the last of the line is the PR XIX in Medium Sea Grey over PRU Blue. What’s left? A PR XI of course, and it’s the only one that will be in overall PRU Blue!
Special thanks to Roy and Bruce again, and also to Edgar Brooks and other British modeling cousins for their help in nailing down some of the details and for the picture showing those underwing roundels; that and the correct position of the camera ports were the most crucial missing pieces of information I needed when I began the project.
Model, Images and Text Copyright ©
2011 by Jim Kiker
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