Monday, October 11

"Hands on" review: High Definition Stencil Paint Masks from 1ManArmy in 1/32nd scale

A new airbrush stencil product from the Belgian company "1ManArmy" has been all the chat recently. these sets ensure you have all of the main markings for your aircraft on one (reusable)sheet. Is it a simple case of  "Mask Airbrush & Ready"? Gary Wickham gets hands on with two sets to show you what he thinks in his review...

"Hands on" review: High Definition Stencil Paint Masks
From: 1ManArmy
1/32nd scale
RRP: £19 - £22
1ManArmy is a Belgian company specializing in the production of high definition airbrush paint masks for WWII aircraft scale models in 1/32 scale. Their innovative masks allow modellers to airbrush normal markings, squadron numbers etc but also the smallest instruction stencils which are found on most military aircraft, offering an alternative for the standard water slide decals and allowing a true 'painted-on' result.

1ManArmy do not sell directly but distribute their products through a network of partners/retailers worldwide, including many of the better known online retailers such as Hannants and Aviation Megastore

A quick look on their website reveals a solid library of masking sets for WW2 subjects covering US (8 sets), British (5 sets), German (8 sets) and Soviet (1 set) aircraft.

In this review I'll be looking closely at two of the masking sets (Gloster Gladiator Mk. II (32DET040) & Hawker Tempest Mk. V (32DET003)). I'll also be conducting a hands-on field test with the stencil masks and I have to say I'm super keen to see how they perform. Having a Silhouette cutter for making masks myself I have always believed that the technology to make masks for something as small as stenciling, where individual lettering can be a small as 0.5mm, was simply not possible. It's kind of the "holy grail" or "sound barrier" for modellers who cut their own masks.
Sven from 1 Man Army explains the numerous benefits of using masks over decals:
"Until now very small markings on aircraft and other scale models were impossible to paint or to airbrush and one had to resort to the kit decals or to aftermarket decals/transfers.

Today 1ManArmy is offering a swift alternative, where you can airbrush the marking and stencils, using high precision pre-cut masks. A straightforward technique with an instant result and without the need for gloss coats, setting or softening solutions, trimming or cleaning and always with an amazing precision. 1ManArmy is using a specially developed safe low tack mask, which can easily be positioned and removed. A dry and clean surface is all you need. No further preparation is needed.

Using masks allows weathering, fading and chipping, without the clear carrier film to worry about. Wrinkles, air bubbles, adhesion problems, tearing, silvering and yellowing are no longer possible.
Moreover, paint masks make it possible to obtain a more authentic and natural 'painted-on' look, without the color discrepancy between the paint and the often shiny patina of decals. Paint masks are also much easier to apply over uneven surfaces, panel lines, rivets or curved parts."

So, the idea of using paint masks is compelling and has a number of benefits, however ... there are some general downsides with using masks compared to decals, especially for markings that require more than one color. Multiple color markings (think RAF roundels with upto 4 colors) require careful and precise layout of several masks, one for each color. This takes preparation, patience and precise alignment of the mask layers so when we compare this to a single decal with all the colors properly printed it's actually a lot of extra work. Is it worth the extra effort, well in most cases I think so but many modellers will prefer to stick with decals purely for ease of use.

Now back to this review where we are mostly considering safety/warning stencils on aircraft, which luckily for us are almost always applied in a single color (per stencil) which makes things far more practical in the mask vs decal decision. The only thing we need from the mask is to be sharp and give us painted lettering that is to scale and clear. So let's break out the airbrush and see how they perform in the real world.

Hands on with 1ManArmy 1/32nd scale Stencil Masks
1ManArmy have thoughtfully produced some small "sample" mask sheets which are perfect for review purposes as it means I don't have to break into a full sheet for my tests. In preparation I applied some paint to my old Revell 1/32 Fw 190 paint mule which has raised rivet detail and will be a good test of how well the masking material adheres to tiny irregular surface details (the achilles heel of most vinyl masking material).
The sample sheet includes a random collection of typical stencil masks and I planned to paint them in a range of different colors. Light colors such as red, yellow and white are notorious for poor coverage and often require several layers to become opaque. How would these tiny masks handle that?
Inside each 1ManArmy mask set is a double sided User Manual. Of course, most of us only end up reading the manual after we race headlong in and make a mistake. My advice is to make yourself a cuppa and read the user manual from start to finish. It contains some golden nuggets on how to work with masks in general and in particular stencil masks, particularly some great hints on how to position them accurately prior to painting. The user manual is also available as a PDF download from the 1ManArmy FAQ page
One thing that all masks require prior to use is "weeding". This is the process of removing the unwanted parts of the mask before applying it to the surface of the model. In my experience, the smaller the mask, the harder the weeding becomes so I was curious to see how the masking material 1ManArmy used performed here. Amazingly with the exception of one mask all the parts to be weeded remained on the adhesive backing sheet when I peeled the main mask up. You can see here that most of the small rectangles that make up the dotted line have stayed in place with only a couple coming loose. So, when 1ManArmy say their masks are easy to use they are not exaggerating.
Once the mask is cleanly removed from the backing sheet and any stray weeding elements cleaned off you simply apply to the model surface like any other masking tape. If you skipped over the user manual, go back and read the section about Symmetry and Alignment to get some good tips on positioning the masks accurately on the models surface. It sounds easy and obvious but if you are new to masks you will see its not.

Like any modelling tape you will want to lightly burnish down the mask to ensure you have a good seal thus avoiding any paint seeping under. I like to use a clean pointed "cosmetic" style cotton bud to gently flatten out the mask.
One thing that works in 1ManArmys favour when it comes to reproducing scale masks for aircraft stencils is that even in the real world the stencils are painted on using one-piece masks (much bigger of course, but single sheets nonetheless). To make this work, in real life they design the stencil masks to use a special font style that avoids the need to have any part of the mask disconnected from the masking material (an example would be the center circle in the letter O or the letter R). If you look closely at any aircraft stencil block (scale or full size) you will see that all the letters have small connecting tags that allow them to be printed and cut in one piece. It's this fact that makes the 1ManArmy masks so super easy to use as you just peel them off using some tweezers and lay them down on the model.
It's always prudent (no matter how good your airbrushing skills are) to place some extra masking tape around the edges to protect from overspray. Remember that in the next step we will be airbrushing from all four directions (not just vertically) so mask accordingly.
Of course you can use any brand or style of paint with these masks and normally I would have reached for my MRP Acrylic Lacquers as I love them for airbrushing but as this was a review I figured most people would be using more readily available brands such as Tamiya Acrylics. The one thing I did do (after having read the user manual) was use Tamiya Lacquer thinners rather than their Acrylic thinners. Why? Well the lacquer thinner significantly speeds the drying time of the Tamiya Acrylic paints and I wanted to make sure that when the paint hit the model surface (through the mask) that it did not stay wet long. This helped avoid any stray wet paint from seeping under the edge of the mask and ruining the sharpness of the edge.
I typically use a low pressure (10-15psi) and 60:40 thinner to paint mix ratio for airbrushing. My Iwata Eclipse (0.35mm) was used with the nozzle cap removed to keep the spray pattern nice and tight. About 3-4 light coats were applied waiting 30 secs between each one. Always remember the GOLDEN RULE from the user manual: "Build up the color in very light layers, which will help seal the edges and NEVER flood the mask!" I also found it helpful to spray each paint layer from a different direction, rotating the model 90 degrees each time. This helps ensure the paint can get into all the nooks and crannies in the tiny mask cutouts, resulting in consistent coverage.
Once I had finished painting I waited about 10 mins (the time it took to clean my airbrush and have a drink) before peeling back the mask. I was very impressed with the result as I saw no leakage or blemishes at all. Even the lettering applied intentionally over the top of the raised rivets came out as clean as a whistle. So black stenciling over top of natural metal was a definite thumbs up.
If you are careful when removing the mask it could easily be used again, just return it to the backing sheet for safe keeping. The adhesive strength used by 1ManArmy feels roughly equivalent to normal yellow Tamiya tape and so I'd expect you could get at least two or three uses out of each stencil before they started to degrade.
Painting with a dark color like black is generally easier because it covers well with only a couple of coats. But what about lighter colors (such as yellow or red) that need more (or heavier) coats to cover properly? I mixed up some XF-3 Yellow and XF-7 Red with the Lacquer thinners and used the same spraying technique again, this time applying a couple more coats to be sure I had an opaque layer.
Once the paint had dried (15mins) I gently peeled back the mask and was greeted with sharply defined lettering and solid color coverage. If you look closely you can see some slightly jagged raised edges on the yellow lettering (due to the extra coats) and this was later removed by lightly buffing with a dry paper towel.
Each of the masks that I used from the sample pack worked perfectly even over the challenging raised rivet details. I was starting to feel confident at this point that these new masks from 1ManArmy really did deliver on their promise of doing away with stencil decals for good !
I found that each of the used masks could be easily saved for another use (maybe two) by replacing them onto the backing paper and storing in a sealable plastic bag. This certainly adds to the value for money consideration.
Now that I had satisfied myself that these new masks did indeed deliver on their promise of painted on 1:32 stencils it was time to look at what 1ManArmy provide in a couple of their full sets.

Hawker Tempest Mk.V Airbrush Masks 
1/32nd scale
The first set I looked at covers the Hawker Tempest Mk.V in set 32DET003. This set contains airbrush paint masks in 1/32 scale with two main masking sheets well protected inside a sealed plastic sleeve along with full color A4 instructions printed on heavy cardboard. 

This set contains:
Basic Markings comprising of wing and fuselage roundels
Squadron / Aircraft Letters plus serials for two Tempests (JF-E & JJ-N)
37 individual stencil masks
Positioning (and painting) instructions for each stencil
User Manual (remember to read)
I was a bit surprised that only very basic information is provided in the set for painting and marking placement for the two specific included aircraft. Like myself, you will need to do some research of your own to determine the specific details, like spinner colors & D-Day stripes for the aircraft of choice. I can kind of understand why this was done because the real stars of this show are the stencils, however if you go to the trouble to include specific aircraft codes then the inclusion of a couple of side color profiles in the instructions for each would have been nice.
The main masking sheet for this set weighs in at a respectable 300mm x 150mm. Of course the bulk of this real estate is taken up with the roundels and codes, with the poor old stencils consigned to the bottom inch or so. 
As we saw from the earlier hands on test using the sample set, the demarcation cuts are razor sharp and this means each mask comes away easily and cleanly, making using this set far more enjoyable.
Of course the main focus here are the stencils. In this department the 1ManArmy team have pulled out all the stops. Full positioning instructions are provided for each and every stencil with number callouts clearly shown on the instructions and the masks themselves. The all important alignment angles needed for each stencil are also shown in context. Color printing on the instructions is sensibly used to highlight exactly what color the stencil should be painted in (seems like a lot of black and red were used on Tempests).
A close in photo of the main sheet reveals that the mask ID numbers are also cut into the mask. Take heed of the user manual and be sure to place a small section of tape over the ID number once you get it onto the model. Also note that the generic roundels are all multi part (color) masks (consisting of parts a, b, c and d). Again I would encourage you to read the provided user manual under the chapter of Using Layered Masks to get a feel for how to deal with this guys.

Gloster Gladiator Mk.II Airbrush Masks 
1/32nd scale
The second provided set covers the Gloster Gladiator Mk.II in set 32DET040. This set contains airbrush paint masks in 1/32 scale with a single main masking sheets well protected inside a sealed plastic sleeve along with full color A4 instructions printed on heavy cardboard. 

This set contains:
Basic Markings comprising of wing and fuselage roundels
Squadron / Aircraft Letters plus serials for two Gladiators (HE-Q & HP-B)
31 individual stencil masks
Positioning (and painting) instructions for each stencil
User Manual (remember to read)
Much like the Tempest set, only the most basic of information is provided in the set for painting and marking placement for the two specific included aircraft (HE-Q & HP-B). Again, a little bit of internet searching is needed to obtain any specific details relevant for your aircraft of choice.
The main masking sheet for this set also measures 300mm x 150mm. Again the bulk of this real estate is taken up with the roundels and codes, with the stencils clustered together in the top right corner.
As with the Tempest set we are provided with full positioning instructions for each and every stencil with number callouts clearly shown on the instructions and the masks themselves. From what I could tell all the stencils on Gladiators must be painted in black, which makes our job much easier.
At first glance the Gladiator stencil masks seem pretty standard but take a closer look at numbers 19 and 20. These are designed to be applied to the main wheel hubs and 1ManArmy have cleverly cut circular alignment guides to allow for super accurate positioning. This sort of attention to detail often comes when manufacturers take to the time to actually field test their products and incorporate little tweaks like this.

CONCLUSION - 1ManArmy 1:32 Stencil Mask Sets
To truly stand out in the crowded model accessories marketplace you need to make sure your product has at least one attention grabbing (unique) feature. If you can manage that, and not just go over the same old ground, then you may very well have a winner.

To be frank, when I started this review I had never heard of 1ManArmy or their mask sets. That's not unusual, because there are so many small modelling companies that you just can't keep up with all of them. In this case however, I'm so glad the review sets came my way as having now road tested their stencil mask sets I can honestly say this is some pretty revolutionary stuff. I'd put the technology behind these masks up alongside innovative products like Quinta and their 3D Decals, it's that good.

I know that masking (stencils or otherwise) is not everyones cup of tea, but if you are going to try masks for the first time on a model then these are the ones to use. Be careful however, once you use masks for your model markings, you will find it hard to go back to decals. It's a slippery slope :)

My sincere thanks to 1 Man Army for sending us these review samples, you have made a convert of me.

Gary Wickham

Thanks to the people at 1ManArmy for sending these two sheets to Gary to review for you
You can see more of Gary's Work on his Website & his Facebook page.