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Scribing panel lines

These are the basic tools I use for scribing panel lines. Monogram\'s P-47D is the subject of todays surgery.When I was modeling as a teen, in the late 70’s, I built mostly Monogram kits. I don’t ever recall paying much attention to the panel lines at the time, as my goal was to slap ’em together, get it on the shelf, and move on to the next kit.

When I got back into the hobby in 2006, I very quickly encountered the raised versus recessed panel line debate. It actually shocked me how heated a debate it was. At times it seems like it’s the modeling equivalent of the Cold War.

Still, I like those old kits. The generally are lower cost, decent quality, and build up into great additions to the model shelf.

And while I have no problem with raised panel lines, per se, I do like the way a good wash looks in recessed lines. I just sort of ignore the debates, basically, and do what I like. 🙂

When I first heard about scribing panel lines, it sounded like a pretty difficult process. However, I decided to give it a shot. Now that I’ve got 4 or 5 scribing jobs under my belt, I don’t mind it at all.

My method for scribing panel lines is like most modelers methods- bits and pieces from many things I’ve read or been told. I just sort of pick out the techniques I like. So please don’t think I present this as THE method. It has worked for me, and hopefully, if you’ve not tried scribing before, this can be a starting point for you.

The tools
These are the various implements I like using. Of course, you can make substitutions as you see fit.

  • #11 xacto blade
  • Scribing tool of choice
  • Various grades of sanding paper/sticks
  • Mr. Surfacer 1000 or similar
  • Plastic labeling tape
  • Tamiya Extra Thin Cement or similar
  • Toothpicks
  • Medium or stiffer toothbrush
  • Paper Coffee Filter
  • Kitchen sponge

I use the kitchen sponge to rest the parts on as I scribe them. That way it’s lifted slightly off my workbench, and I can roll the part from side to side easily, but still maintain downward pressure as I scribe. It’s also a handy place to wipe excess plastic off of your scribing tools.

Another pointer that can help- take a good, clear picture of the part before you start, as a reference to panel line and other details locations. You might need it later!

Getting started
The first step is to scribe the basic lines. As I prefer panel lines that are fairly prominent, I do this using a Model Master Scribing tool. There are others that you may prefer to use, and many people simply use a #11 xacto blade, as it provides the most petite lines.

(Note: Regardless of whether the kit has raised or recessed panel lines, the basic techniques I describe here work for both. For kits with raised panel lines, I don’t sand them down first. The scribing tools will cut through them with no problem.)

For surfaces that are fairly flat, such as wings and tail surfaces, I use a strip of labeling tape as a guide for the scribing tools first passes. I simply line it up with the panel line, and smooth it down so the sticky side holds it in place.

Fuselages can be a little trickier- the curves don’t always work with label tape. Lines parallel to the line of flight usually work OK with tape though. One trick I’ve used to make a scribing template it to put a piece of masking tape along a vertical panel line. Using the tip of a #11 blade, lightly cut the tape along the line. Use the tape to cut out a template from a piece of label tape.

If all else fails, with careful scribing, raised panel lines can be enough guide themselves to get the job done, as can recessed ones you may be enhancing

With one hand lightly holding the tape in place, I use my scribing tool to lightly draw my first line. I don’t apply much pressure… just maybe a bit more than the weight of my hand resting. I draw the tool towards me, pulling back with my arm, almost as if I’m pulling a handle. Motion from the wrist seems to be less precise, whereas drawing back with your arm seems to make a straighter line.

I do 2 or 3 light lines, slightly increasing the pressure each time. Once I’ve done this, I remove the tape, and do a few more lines with heavier pressure. If you jump out of the groove- don’t panic. Simply scribe in the reverse direction where you jumped out of the groove. This will rescribe the correct groove, We’ll cover fixing the uh-ohs later.

Once I’ve gotten the line to my satisfaction, I switch to the xacto knife. The reason for this is that the scribing tool spreads the material open more than removing it. When the lines are later sanded, the spread “raised” portions will be sanded down. The sharper, more precise lines of the xacto knife will be left.

Using the back of the xacto blade, I draw the tip along the panel line, using enough pressure to pull up a thin “bead” of styrene. (I actually like using a slightly dull blade when doing this.)

At this point, I stop and check over my work, and see if I need to repeat steps in any area. I generally do a section at a time, for instance an upper wing panel, or a fuselage half. Once I’ve scribed the lines to my liking, it’s time to move on to clean-up.

Cleaning the lines up
I start by using my xacto knife blade to “shave” along the surface of the part. I hold the knife blade flat against the part, pushing down slightly to bend the blade just a bit. Using the sharp edge of the knife, I lightly draw it along. If you’ve got the angle right, you’ll shave off a narrow “curl” of the material that the scribing tool originally raised. I do this step to minimize how much sanding I need to do, as that can actually remove a lot of the work you’re doing.

I use my finger, drawn both along the panel line and across it, to feel for major rough spots. If I feel one, I’ll repeat the step above. You can also turn the knife blade the other way, drawing it backwards along the panel line to remove burrs.

Fixing the uh-ohs
Remember those mistakes I mentioned earlier? This is the point I like to clean those up. I use Mr. Surfacer 1000, and with a 0 brush. I dab some along and places where my scribing tool jumped out of the groove, where I “overshot” the end of a line, or where I “over shaved” an area. Make sure you stay out of the lines you do want. You may need to go through a few applications, letting the Mr. Surfacer dry and making sure the lines are filled.

Smoothing it all out
Now we get to sanding. If there is no raised detail you need to preserve, then a good general sanding with 400 or 600 grit will remove any raised detail, as well as remaining areas raised by scribing. The panel lines will fill up with plastic dust- don’t worry.

If there is detail you want to preserve, then using a smaller piece of sandpaper to sand only the lines is called for.

After that, take a few passes with a finer grade paper- 800 grit or higher. By now, the surface should feel fairly smooth, with no raised areas aside from detail you meant to preserve.

Getting in the groove
No we need to remove the excess dust from the lines. For this, you can use toothpicks or a medium or harder toothbrush. I usually start with a toothbrush, which gets quite a bit of the material out. A toothpick will get harder to remove material without raising or removing plastic. Sometimes you may need to lightly use the tip of the #11 blade.

The last step in removing the material from the lines is to run a light bead of Tamiya Extra Thin Cement along the panel lines. I know this sounds kinda crazy if you’ve not done it before. The first time I heard it I was doubtful myself. What it does though, if applied lightly, is dissolve any remaining material. As you pass the brush along the lines, they just magically clear up and pop out. If you’ve left too much material in in, they may look a little muddy. No problem- just let the glue dry and rescribe and clean again.

Final steps
The final step is to do a final sanding with a coffee filter. Why a coffee filter? Basically, it’s very cheap, super fine grade sandpaper. It will polish the parts smooth, and remove the traces of glue left on the plastic.

If you’ve worked carefully, you’ll end up with a part that look as good as a part cast with recessed lines.

Before painting, you’ll want to use some rubbing alchohol or other cleaning solution to remove grease and oils from your hands that can keep paint from adherring.

Some additional tips:

  • I like to scribe lines before building the kit. But you want to make sure the lines along the top and bottom of parts like the fuselage line up. I simply join them with masking tape or rubber bands and mark where the lines meet along the join line.
  • For small panels, you can use a purpose made scribing template. Or, if you want to save a little money, grab a draftsman’s erasing template. It doesn’t have as many shapes as a scribing template, but it’ll do in a pinch if you are on a budget.
  • When you join the parts together, such as the fuselage, you may need to sand those seams to get them to disappear. Just follow the steps above to rescribe the lines you might sand down.

There are certainly many methods for scribing panel lines. Some (maybe most…) are probably simpler and less involved than the one I just described. What I use is a mish-mash of techniques that work for me, and hopefully you can take them and add and subtract your own twists to get something that you like. And if you do it just like I do, and it works for you- great! If not…. it’s not my fault, I swear! 🙂