How to Build Model Tanks

Written by sean kotz
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How to Build Model Tanks
This array of model tanks includes a number of variations on the US World War II workhorse, the M4 "Sherman" tank. (tanks from defence image by Ivonne Wierink from

If you ever go to an International Plastic Modelers Society competition, you will find a tremendous number of tank and armour entries. The reason is simple. The real life counterpart is visually interesting, clearly powerful and comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, nationalities and paint schemes. Most model tank kits come with adequate basic instructions. However, having the proper tools and a little background in the history of the tank is very much worth your while.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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Things you need

  • Tank model kit
  • Dish soap
  • Warm water
  • Sharp nosed wire clippers
  • Hobby knife with #11 size blade
  • Fine grained sand paper
  • Cyanoacrylate (CA) glue
  • Toothpicks
  • CA glue accelerator
  • Auto primer
  • Acrylic paints
  • Airbrush or spray cans
  • Small paint brushes
  • Flat finish spray sealant
  • White spirit
  • Dark oil based paint
  • Lidded glass jar

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    Building a Model Tank in Stages

  1. 1

    Wash the parts of the tank kit in warm soapy water by hand, paying special attention to loose parts and small delicate pieces, and allow to dry completely.

  2. 2

    Follow the included instructions with the kit in the precise order they are written. Read the instructions first and familiarise yourself with the fitting of the parts before gluing.

  3. 3

    Cut the parts off the plastic tree with a pair of sharp nosed wire clippers, cutting as close to the edge of the parts as possible. Trim the parts with a hobby knife with a # 11 blade and lightly sand away any rough edges with fine grained sandpaper.

  4. 4

    Determine which parts should be painted before applying them to the tank. Generally speaking, the turret will be a separate assembly and paint job, as well as radio equipment, the tracks and wheels and other details that are applied after the body is painted.

  5. 5

    Glue parts of the tank together in the order presented in the instructions. Apply a small drop of CA glue to joining parts, using a toothpick to apply or spread the glue as necessary. A spray of CA accelerator can be useful to speed up the process.

  6. 6

    Apply a coat of primer to all parts before painting them. You can use regular sandable auto primer sprayed gently in fluid sweeps back and forth across the surface until a thin, even coat is on all sides of the parts.

  7. 7

    Paint the kit with flat acrylics with an airbrush, beginning with the base colour and applying patterns on top of the base colour. If your tank is a single colour, like many U.S. tanks, you can use a can of aerosol spray paint of the appropriate colour. You can also use a hand brush in several light coats.

  8. 8

    Allow the paint job to cure for approximately 12 hours.

  9. 9

    Apply a coat of flat sealant. Hobby products designed for this are better than general purpose sealants.

  10. 10

    Paint the tracks with a primer coat followed by a smoky grey or dark rusty brown colour. Apply two or three coats of sealant here.

  11. 11

    Apply the tracks. If the tracks are in a rubber belt, heat them with a hair dryer to make them flexible and glue the treads to each wheel to simulate the natural effects of gravity on heavy iron plates. If the tracks provided are plastic links, apply in sections as directed.

  12. 12

    Apply decals. Trim as close to the edge of the decal as possible and immerse in warm, not hot, water. Hold the decal in position on the tank with the forefinger of one hand and gently pull away the paper backing with a pair of tweezers in the other.

  13. 13

    Add any final accessories such as sand bags, spare wheels and tools to the tank.

  14. 14

    Dry brush a coat of "dirt" on the tank treads and undercarriage. To dry-brush, put a tiny amount of light brown or tan paint on the tip of a flat brush and pull all visible paint off the tip with a rag. Then, gently pull the brush across the surface details.

  15. 15

    Seal the kit a final time with a flat coat acrylic sealant.

  16. 16

    Create an oil wash by mixing a solution of 95% white spirit to 5% oil based paint in dark grey, black or dark rust brown in a glass jar with a lid using an old paint brush. Gently apply the oil mix with a brush and allow to seep into the cracks, then dab off the surface with a clean cloth.

  17. 17

    Apply a light oil wash after the sealant has cured for at least 12 hours.

Tips and warnings

  • Once you have some experience, you can try special details like photo etched parts, Zimmerit on German World War III tanks and additions like fire damage or special modified equipment.
  • Most tanks are complicated to produce well, so plan on the project taking several sessions over the course of several days or even weeks.
  • If you want the wheels, gun or turret of the tank to be movable, avoid painting or gluing the onto the adjacent parts.
  • If your decals show a little of the outline or seem to wrinkle, commercial products called "decal relaxers" are available to solve the problem.
  • Always paint in a well ventilated area.
  • Use caution with hobby knives and replace dull blades. Accidents are more commonly caused by a dull blade slipping than a sharp blade.
  • Be careful when using CA glue and accelerator as it will react quickly and may cause unwanted binding to your fingers.

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