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Recreating a "wreck"

Q: I'd like to know the best method to make a "wreck." I want to make a model look like it ran into a tree. Could you please tell me the best method to heat the model to create this effect?

- John Mertens
Mustang, OK

Ken: Carefully heating and bending body panels is one of many ways to create a model that exhibits the effects of accidental damage. A section of the car, such as a door panel, is heated over a flame or immersed in hot water until it's pliable enough to be reshaped with your fingers. The panel is then carefully pushed, pulled, and prodded until it has the desired shape. This technique works quite well for creating what I would call "soft" dents, like parking-lot damage or "too-much-weight-on-that-Model-T-fender," but it typically doesn't lend itself well to sharp edges and creases. In addition, too much heat will melt and shrink plastic, which doesn't realistically happen in a wreck.

Before we get into the "how," we should examine the dynamics of a wreck so our end result looks convincing and realistic. In the split second of any impact at speed, a vehicle is dramatically reshaped, to put it mildly. The bends, folds, and creases are sharp and drastic, and to some extent, the vehicle will mold itself to the stationary object it has come in contact with.

One of the best ways to get first-hand information ahead of time is to go to the local salvage yard and see what happens to a wrecked car. Note the weak points and all the ways a car can crumple, and take lots of reference photos.

Another great source of information is Old Car Wrecks by Ron Kowalke (Krause Publications, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990-0001). It chronicles accident scenes from the 1920s through the '60s and is loaded with pictures of old car, truck, and racetrack wrecks. I picked up a copy to show how different vehicles reacted in accidents, and far from being morbid, the book has some great detail shots.

How do you replicate a major wreck? The easiest way is to use thin sheet metal to recreate the portion of the car to be wrecked and crimp it into the proper post-accident shape. Pick up some .010" or .015" sheet brass or aluminum from the hobby store. Thin aluminum flashing from a hardware store will work, too, as will Verlinden sheet lead (although this last option is much more pricey). If none of those options are available, aluminum TV dinner trays will work.

Bend the metal to the kit piece to be crunched and shape it with your fingers or with light taps from a small hammer. Depending on the panel, some relief cuts may be required to form the piece, but since you'll be bending the panel into oblivion anyway, you don't have to be an expert metal fabricator to achieve good results. For more complex panels, cut and bend a piece of card stock to shape, flatten out the cardstock, and transfer the shape to the sheet metal.

Using your reference material as a guide, bend the panel into the shape it would assume in a wreck. Cut the original panel from the car body and replace it with the carefully crumpled mess you just created. Repeat this process for each panel to be mangled. If you think of each panel as a subassembly and "build" the wreck a section at a time, the results will be very convincing.

The finished wreck can be finished piece-by-piece as you go along, or painted at the end of the assembly process. When this technique isn't feasible (as in crumpling a chrome grille) strip the part first, then carefully heat and bend it as noted above. The bent piece can then be resprayed or finished in chrome foil.

The key to success is to pay close attention to each detail of the crash and duplicate it a piece at a time.


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