Tips and Tricks for Modeling Aircraft Cockpits

Unless you are making a UAV, your model airplane will have a cockpit.  After radial engines, cockpits are probably my favorite part of an aircraft build.  Today’s kits typically come with excellent detail right out of the box that just need paint.  Of course, there is always room for an aftermarket resin set or some photoetch bits to kick it up a notch.

On most airplanes, the cockpit can be a key visual feature of the finished model, so it pays to invest some time and effort up here.  It is also one of the easiest ways of “improving” model airplane builds.  However, there are a few things that I have learned to consider when finishing cockpits:

  1. There can be a ton of detail to detail (which is fun) but once it is closed up, a lot of that cockpit detail will be lost forever.
  2. When sandwiched between the sidewalls the cockpit will be dark so you will need to re-think any concern about colour accuracy and put your mind towards how to actually see the colours.
  3. When the cockpit is supposed to be ‘black’ definitely do not paint it black.
  4. Weathering can be applied to cockpits but the key is restraint: think scratches instead of chips and dust instead of mud.

There are a lot of online resources for almost every aircraft.  With a bit of research, you can see what knobs and levers need colour.  That said, most cockpits are bland in terms of bright reds and yellows.  Otherwise, keep points 1 and 2 in mind at all times!

Being Strategic about Detail

I bring this up first because we modelers can end up spending a lot of time and resources on detailing a cockpit – only to have most or all of that effort lay dark and forgotten, silent for all time.  I’ve posted this before but it is worth noting again.  Look at the wonderful cockpit on the Ki-15 Babs from Fine Molds.  Just look at it.  Not only was it a pleasure to build and paint, it all fit together wonderfully:

Want to see it again?  Yeah, good luck:

DSC_0269

If you look closely – you will see that under the lattice canopy the fuselage has two “holes” cut out of the top for the pilot and navigator.  In other words, almost all of the cockpit is invisible.  I am happy with the outcome of this model but maybe I could have saved a lot of time by just painting it interior green and moving on.

How about this one from the Hobby Boss Corsair:

DSC_0035

Just look at that firewall.  It was perfectly painted and the detail pops out.  Just look at that shading!  Of course, all of it is completely wedged into the fuselage and behind the instrument panel.  In other words, it is impossible to see.

My advice is to consider the subject and adjust your effort to suit what can be seen.

Making it Pop

How many times have you heard someone ask: “what is the correct colour for…?”  I think every modeler goes through the phase where every colour used needs to be as “accurate” as authoritatively determined by the all knowing “They” (“They” being the ones who always know best about these things).

Thousands of electrons have been sacrificed to further points in the “paint accuracy” debate or the correct hues of zinc chromate, interior green, and aotake blue.  None of them are going to be rehashed here.  My point is that after sealing up a few cockpits with the most painstakingly researched “accurate” coats of paint I could find or mix, I determined that no one could tell the difference.  It is dark in there and once installed; a good chunk of the cockpit is no longer visible.

Here is how I have handled it in Tamiya’s 1/32 Corsair.

The cockpit in the big Tamiya Corsair is pretty much the pinnacle in scale model cockpits.  In this case the sidewalls have excellent detail that can stand out if properly highlighted:

I first sprayed the sidewalls (and floor in this case) with NATO Black.  I then drybrush the area with white.  Now when I say “drybrush” in this case, I am going a bit wild.  Normally dry brushing is a subtle technique used to highlight raised detail.  However, the technique can also be used to further lighten panels if you apply it multiple times.  In this case, after multiple applications of white, the flat areas between the ribs have a ‘dusting’ or a cloud of white.  They certainly lighten up and the only truly dark areas remaining are the recessed spots where the flat panels meet the ribs.

I then take a very thin mix of the interior colour (25 or 33% colour to thinner) and I gently spray this over the sidewall to build up the colour without obliterating the highlighting underneath.  I also lighten the interior colour a bit to help see all of this detail once the cockpit is closed up.  In this case I lightened the interior green with white at a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio.

Of course, dry brushing is no longer en vogue with some.  So, another way to get to the same result is to individually paint the ribs white and shoot white between each rib with the airbrush.

The Problem with a black cockpit

There are some cockpits that are properly black and will have all sorts of different details that you can make out.  But when it comes to painting a model cockpit black, ALL of the detail disappears.

For me the best way to paint a black cockpit is to start with a very dark grey basecoat and then bring out the details using various lighter shades of grey in dry brushing and detail painting.  This is followed by a couple pin washes with Tamiya black panel liner:

This Apache is supposed to have a black cockpit but it was painted with a 50:50 mix of Tamiya NATO Black and RLM Grey.  Dry brushing was done with a couple Citadel grey paints but really, any grey paint will do. I then glossed, added the decals and a light pin wash of Black panel liner.  I avoid dunking the model in wash and wiping it off when I do this.  I just use a small about of wash on the brush and poke it where it should flow (panel lines, corners, etc) and I let capillary action take the wheel.  After a flat coat the cockpit is complete.

Is it black? Is it accurate? It is neither.  But I can see all that wonderful detail.  As well, when compared to the green of the fuselage and under the canopy, the grey darkens to the point where it might as well be black.

How I paint a Cockpit – A Simple Cockpit Step by Step

There is no right way to build a cockpit but next the few pictures show one way to complete a cockpit using nothing but the kit parts.  Sometimes I vary these steps depending on how detailed the cockpit is but generally this is how I do it.  The model I am using is Tamiya’s new 1/48 P-38 Lightning.  There is a lot of canopy over the cockpit with the option of posing it wide open so efforts will not be wasted.  Detail wise it is not bad out of the box so I did not bother with any aftermarket.

Step 1 – Basecoat:

I primed all of the cockpit parts with Tamiya AS-12 Aluminum lacquer.  Because I was going to scratch the surface later, I wanted to have a ‘hard’ paint surface to work from.  Any lacquer will do and Tamiya’s new lacquer line of paints are just as good, if not better, than their spray bottles.  There is no science or technique here – just spray the Aluminum and let them dry.

Once they are dry, I followed Tamiya’s instructions for the interior green colour and sprayed that over every part too.

Step 2 – Masking the bits:

On the sidewalls and floor of the cockpit there are black boxes for radios and other equipment.  They are fairly small and with a steady hand you could brush paint them easily.  I chose to mask and spray.  Using a small pair of scissors, I cut squares of Tamiya tape.  It may seem tedious to do this step but it will make dry brushing these parts much easier in the next step.

Step 3 – Dry brushing and Detail Painting

The key to dry brushing is to have as little paint on the brush as possible and to lightly build up the colour on the raised portions of the parts.  The danger is always going too heavy or accidentally brushing onto other surfaces.  The masking helps avoid these problems.

When it comes to detail painting you want to have a very small sized brush but you also want to thin your paint.  I almost always use Tamiya acrylics for this work because I can easily thin them.  I put a drop of paint and a drop of thinner side by side on a flat plastic surface.  I dip the brush into the thinner and then I gently draw from the paint drop.  The idea here is the paint from the bottle is way too thick for this work but you do not want it as thin as you would for airbrushing.  The danger here is loading too much thin paint onto the brush and having it flood the part when you touch the detail.  To minimize this danger practice on the masking tape – if you can easily make a dot with the brush and it remains a dot, then you are on the right track.

Step 4 – Gloss & Pin Wash

IMG_0574

I’ll level with you; I am not a fan of the “dunk and wipe” style of wash but I think the pin wash has its place.  A pin wash is precision and can be used to create depth.  The way it works best is over a gloss surface so I start with that.

My gloss is simple: Tamiya XF-22 Clear mixed 60:40 with thinner and then I spray a light coat of lacquer thinner right over it as it is drying.  This gets me a glass like smooth which allows the pin wash to run right into panel lines, crevices and around details.

The wash I use is the Mig Ammo stuff – it is very forgiving in case it flows to places where it is not supposed to be! With a glossy surface I just wait 30 minutes and clean up with a cotton bud.

I also go for a wash that compliments the base colour and does not appear too stark.  With interior green I might go dark green or a brown.  I apply it with a small brush and I let the pin wash flow with a slight touch.

Step 5 – Scratches

IMG_0577

Remember that I primed with lacquer aluminum and the base coat is acrylic green.  The paint will adhere to the primer rather well, but it can be chipped with a sharp tooth pick by light ‘stabs’ or by rubbing the toothpick along edges.  I would not go with chipping fluid in the cockpit because the paint wear in here is typically scratched or rubbed down – it doesn’t typically flake off.

Take your time with this, work around spots that would attract scratches and use reference photos to help.  Less is definitely more.

Step 6 – Flat & Dust with Pencils

Up until this point the gloss coat tends to make the cockpit look awful but the flat coat brings it together.  I used Tamiya spray flat because I was lazy but any flat coat will do. The flat coat will also allow you to do further weathering in the cockpit.

For that I chose the new AK Weathering Pencils.  I used “Dust” as I just wanted to get it a little dirty but nothing too crazy.  I dipped the pencil in water and drew thin lines of the milky dust in the corners, along the bottom.  I put some anywhere it would collect.  I then used a clean brush to place the dust exactly where I wanted it.  This is the second time I have used the pencils and I am still getting used to them. The pictures do not pick it up well but the dust together with the scratches definitely make the cockpit look lived in.

How About A YouTube Video?

One of my modeling resolutions this year was to put together my first video.   I was not sure how to go about doing it but I gradually learned and I have to say that VideoStudio is easy to use.  If you want to check out my very first video, you can do it right here:

Final Thoughts

Well there you have it: one tried and true way to finish an aircraft cockpit.  Again, I find this to be one of the more enjoyable parts in aircraft modelling.  I have learned (the hard way) to really focus effort on parts that will be seen.  The classic case being the Tamiya Beaufighter.  What an amazing cockpit and navigator station. Excellent sidewall detail too.  I went all out on that thing.  Well, as you can imagine, only the very front of the pilot’s station is at all visible!

14 thoughts on “Tips and Tricks for Modeling Aircraft Cockpits

  1. I have also realized that much of the interior detail we all love is pointless. If the finished model will have a canopy between the viewer and the detail it will generally never be seen again, with a few exceptions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think part of the reason we add the detail and do the painting is because we are thinking about being the person in there using all those sticks and switches and levers and dials.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great article, all the effort we put into the interiors of our models is mostly for our satisfaction. No one can see it but we know it’s there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent article, thank you!
    I am currently working on a long-time project of a 1/32 Mosquito, and am going to town on the cockpit detail. Why? Because I want to. But I also made the strategic decision to pose the finished model with the front port fuselage half removed (posed on its own stand) so that my detail work in the cockpit can be seen.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have seen your progress. To say you have gone to town is accurate – well done! Just to be clear, I am not looking down on those who detail and eventually seal up their work. I was trying to reflect some disappointment when I have done so! Back to your model – you definitely need to display the work and I cannot wait to see it in person!

      Like

  4. I hate doing cockpits – a 72nd Bf 109 gets a shot of grey primer, a bit of a pin wash, some belts and a decal instrument panel and finished! Trim wheels is I’m feeling up to it..I don’t even use a grey 66 !!!

    Liked by 1 person

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