Varnished Plywood Finishes

Text and Photos © by Brad Cancian

A number of First World War aircraft had their fuselages covered in clear varnished plywood. This plywood was light and provided strength and stiffness to fuselages, preventing the need for internal wire bracing. The most notable aircraft that sported fuselages constructed in this way were the Albatros D series of fighters, as well as aircraft from LVG, Halberstald, and many others. There are a number of ways to replicate wood grain, I will outline the method I currently favour.

Sit 48 feet away from a wooden surface – whilst you cannot see the individual grains in the wood, you can notice tonal differences. This is what gives the item away as being made of wood. Translate this to a model – in 1/48 and 1/72 you will not see individual grains, but the changes in tone that give away an item is made of wood. This is the effect you want to achieve on your model.

I will demonstrate how I did this on my Eduard 1/48 Albatros D.Va fuselage. The first key thing to do is study period photos. This will give you a good idea of the overall tone (dark / light varnish), colour differences between panels, grain direction, panel orientation etc. When looking at period photos of Albatros varnished plywood finishes, a few things become apparent – the tone is light, there is a subtle variation in colour between panels, and all panels have their grain running parallel to the direction of the airflow with the bend radius of the fuselage.

I use Windsor and Newton brand oil paints for this technique. For lighter coloured plywood finishes, I use three colours – white, yellow ochre, and burnt sienna. These are painted over a base colour, usually Tamyia buff, or Gunze linen. I never use white as a base colour – it is too light and everything ends up looking exaggerated. In the case of Eduard's Albatros, the plastic is already buff – which is a bonus. The first thing I do after studying the photos is give the different panel's variations on the buff colour. This gives a good base to replicate the subtle differences in panel colour seen on the real thing. See figure 1 below:

Fig 1 – Base Colours

Here you can see the colour differences seem fairly extreme, don't worry about this, it will be fixed by the subsequent applications of oils and clear coats. Try to keep it fairly random.

The next step is the trickiest part and requires practice. Mix the three oil colours fairly randomly. I keep three blobs of paint on the pallet and use the area between them to mix. You don't really want a uniform colour, you want some variation. Try to keep the colour of the paint based roughly around the colour of bare plywood. I then add very small amounts of turpentine to this mix. Usually via a brush – the oil paint is too thick by itself and will leave huge brush marks if not thinned slightly. Again the key to how much you thin the paint is practice and experimentation – find what feels right. Next, working one panel at a time, paint the "grain" onto each panel. Keep the strokes in the same direction, and try to vary the colour of the oil paint across the panel. Try and give each panel its own "personality"; vary the basic tone of the oils across the panel, give some panels some dark grains, give some panels light grains, give some panels little knots and so forth. Work in with the base colours applied earilier – don't try and make a panel with a light base coat into a darker panel, it will end up looking exaggerated. Figure 2 shows the result of this step.

Fig 2 – Oils Applied

Make sure you give this at least 1 week to dry!! Oils dry very slowly and are very prone to marring when wet. Put the model in a covered place where it will not get dust on it – dust will be very difficult to remove without marring the finish before the paint dries and will not look good on the finished model. Don't touch the area with your fingers while the paint is drying or you will ruin the lot.

At this stage it still looks a bit exaggerated. Do not fear, the last step will fix this. Take some Tamyia clear yellow, thin it about 50/50, and add a couple of drops of clear gloss. Give the model a few misted coats of this mix. Gradually build up the colour – it may take up to 10 coats to get the effect you want. The yellow imparts a nice "honey" hue to the wood grain – this is a characteristic of the Albatros fuselages – as well as helps to tone down the colour differences between the panels and tie the whole thing together. The clear gloss helps provide a nice hard semi-gloss finish. Vary the degree of coverage as you see fit to what you think looks best. The finished product is shown in Fig 3 below:

Fig 3 – After Clear Yellow Coat

Let it all dry and you can weather the finish as you would with any other model. This technique is far from perfect but to my eyes it looks convincing – Practice first before tying it out on a real model, get a feel for how the oil paints behave and you can achieve some very nice effects. That's it!