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How to work with photoetched parts

Add fine detail to brakes, grilles, emblems, and more
By Mark Melchiori
In-Depth Techniques
Mark's Monte Carlo
Photoetched parts were once considered a sort of novelty aftermarket item, but are now also supplied in many new and some reissued kits.
In recent years, photoetched (PE) parts have become a staple for many car-model builders. They're made by transferring a photo negative of the part being made to a thin sheet of metal - usually brass, aluminum, or stainless steel. When the artwork is transferred to the metal, it will resist the etching chemicals. When the metal is removed from those chemicals, all that is left is the original pattern: the parts that we buy at the hobby store.

Some of the first photoetched parts aimed at car models were emblems and nameplates for the body. Now, just about everything from grilles to brakes to carb linkages, and everything in between, is available as a photoetched part. I have even seen PE French fries included on a fret. It is almost to the point that if there is a plastic or resin kit for a car, there is probably a photoetched detail set out there for it.

Because they are metal, etched parts can be made to a more-scale thickness than comparable plastic parts, which adds realism. It also makes it easier to replicate a natural-metal finish for some parts. Other parts can be buffed to a chromelike shine as needed.

For those who have never used PE parts, the following photos can be used as a general guideline to get you started. Experienced users may pick up a new trick to use. Please remember that these techniques are ones that I have found to work for me.

Photoetched parts are small, and can be sharp. Please take the necessary precautions to keep yourself safe.
Photo 1
Photoetched parts come from various manufacturers, ranging from kitmakers to aftermarket companies. The sheet in the middle is from Tamiya's 1/12 scale kit of the Lotus 78. It is surrounded by examples of the products offered by several companies. Some are easier to use than others, but all should perform well with a few basic techniques.
Photo 2
The etched pieces in photo 1 are fairly simple, and are easy to use. Some pieces are a little more labor-intensive, such as this set from the Fisher Models McLaren M6A. Some of the parts require folding along scored lines to produce a 3-D part. The largest piece on this fret gets folded up to replicate the aluminum interior of the 1:1 car.
Photo 3
A good selection of adhesives is vital. Any of these should do a good job for you. Notice that there is no model cement in the photo; it will not work with photoetch. I also left out epoxy, because I find it too messy to work with, and it takes too long to set up for this purpose.
Photo 4
Some basic tools that you will need include a sharp hobby knife, scissors, sprue cutter, files, sanding sticks, masking tape, and a good pair of tweezers. Investing in quality tools will save time and money in the long run.
Photo 5
To cut the larger parts from the 1/12 scale Tamiya PE fret, I used my good, sharp pair of scissors; the mounting points on the large fret proved to be too big to slice through with the hobby knife. I could have used the sprue cutter do take care of this, too. For a clean edge, cut as close to the part as you can.
Photo 6
To cut some of the smaller parts from the Tamiya fret, I laid a piece of masking tape over the parts that I was removing. This should prevent the parts from flying off to the "model part abyss" that we all have at our work areas. Trust me: photoetched parts are hard to find after they leave your workbench.

Photo 7
One of the most-common uses for photoetch is for brake discs. No plastic or paint can realistically replicate the surface of a brake disc. In the Tamiya kit, etched disc covers are included for the plastic discs.
Photo 8
After I removed the etched disc from the fret, I found there were a few nibs from cutting the parts from their attachment points. On round or curved parts, a coarse sanding stick will remove the offending nibs nicely. Using a file here could result in an unseemly flat spot on the round disc.

Photo 9
I used a good brand of super glue for a strong bond attaching the etched part to the plastic. I also knew that the glue "fogged," it would be easily fixable. Use the old saying about any model adhesive: "if you think you're using enough, it's probably too much."

Photo 10
Some builders just glue the photoetched brake discs on, and call them done. But if you look at a 1:1 brake disc, you will see minute radial lines from the brake pad making contact with the disc when stopping the car. I tried to replicate this by laying the model part on pieces of sanding film and turning it slowly.

Photo 11
Here are the radial lines that I added with the sanding film. I did use a more-coarse film than I usually would, to help the lines show up better in the photographs. You can also see the realistic finish of the etched part. I know that I could not get this finish with paint!
Photo 12
After I cut the wing end plates from the Tamiya fret, I got rid of the nibs with a flat file. The file worked well on the flat edge of the part. I also felt that the soft sanding stick might be damaged if I caught the edge of the part the wrong way.
Photo 13
The wing endplates in the Tamiya kit must be painted black to match the paint scheme of the car. Photoetched parts can be painted using the same basic preparation that is used on a plastic part. Here is an endplate after being scuffed with a fine-grit sanding cloth.
Photo 14
One of the nice things about photoetched parts is that they are metal, so any type of paint can be used on them. I chose to use Tamiya products on the endplates, to match the paint on the rest of the model. When painting etched parts, I always wipe them down with a degreaser, followed by a good washing with soap and water.

Photo 15
The Tamiya PE set also includes overlays for the kit radiators and oil coolers. I laid the etched parts over the painted plastic parts, but I found that they lacked a little depth. I used a black wash on the plastic parts to take care of that.
Photo 16
Here is a finished kit radiator with the wash and etched part added. You can see the extra 3-D realism that the photoetched piece added to the part.
Photo 17
Some of the mesh parts in the Tamiya set needed to be painted black. I built up the paint in mist coats so as not to fill the holes in the parts. Even more care would need to be taken on smaller-scale etched parts.
Photo 18
The first step in applying etched emblems to a model body is removing the molded-in emblems. I usually start with a sharp hobby knife and gently slice underneath the molded emblem. Be careful not to cut so deep that you gouge the plastic and create more bodywork for yourself.

Photo 19
After trimming the emblem from the body, I used a four-sided sanding stick to level the surface. Plastic emblems sometimes "ghost" back when paint is applied to the body, but I was not too worried about this; the PE emblems go in the same spots.
Photo 20
The photoetch set for the Revell-Monogram 1977 Monte Carlo is relatively small, but it's complete. To keep the tiny parts from flying off, I stuck a piece of masking tape to the back of the fret. The attachment points were small enough that they were easily cut with a hobby knife.
Photo 21
Here's a neat trick, shown to me many years ago, that really helps: My bottle of clear craft glue has been knocked over several times. After a while, the glue that collected in the cap starts to firm up and get tacky. Sticking a toothpick into the cap will leave the end of the pick just tacky enough to let an etched part stick to it.
Photo 22
I use an old paintbrush handle that has been sharpened for holding onto etched parts, using the method in the previous photo. Holding the part this way makes it easier to get the adhesive onto the surface of the part that will be applied to the model. In this case, a coat of clear acrylic is being applied to a fender emblem.
Photo 23
With the acrylic applied to the emblem, stick the part to the desired location on the body. A little twist on the stick should break it free, leaving the etched part on the body. I always use a water-based adhesive when attaching etched parts to finished bodies. If something gets messed up, it is very easy to wash it off and start over.
Photo 24
I decided to use my clear craft glue to attach the etched door handles. This time I put a thin coat of glue directly onto the body, again using the "less is more" method. I actually used a lot less of the glue than it shows on the tip of the stick.
Photo 25
After waiting a couple of minutes for the glue to tack up, I used tweezers to gently place the etched handles into position. Using the bare minimum of adhesive prevents it squishing out from under the part when it is pressed into place.
Photo 26
After letting all of the photoetched parts on the body dry overnight, I use a fine-point brush with a very small amount of clear acrylic on it, and touch it over the part. Capillary action should draw the acrylic from the brush onto the part. This will help keep the etched parts in place for a long time.
Careful handling and application of photoetched parts certainly improves the appearance of Mark's Monte Carlo. With patience, the proper tools, and the techniques shown here, you can upgrade the look of your models.


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