How to Paint Model Tank Wheels
Tanks are interesting subjects because they afford the modeler all manner of creative outlets. Factory fresh? No problem. Damaged in battle after being in the bush for months? Have at it. But first, you need to get past the wheels!
For me, at present, this means the 20 road wheels belonging to Tamiya's 1/35 T-34/76 1943. Interestingly, the specific T-34 I’m modeling will have two different types of wheels: rubber-rimmed and all-steel. What a great case study for some tips and tricks, no?
Preparing the parts
It might sound silly, but cutting wheels from the sprue and the subsequent sanding does require a degree of thought. Think about it. Wheels are round. Most cutting and sanding tools are straight. See the problem? If you aren't careful, all that prep work can easily leave flat spots in your wheels. I've been there. Therefore:
Use a good pair of nippers to cut close to the part, but not so close that the plastic warps
Use sanding sponges to sand away the residual plastic nub from cutting and any flash or seam lines that may be present. Sanding sponges will easily conform to curved surfaces and are an excellent cheap tool that will boost your game
Painting with ease
I see a lot of pictures on the internet where people impale their wheels on some type of skewer. I have no objections if this approach works for you, but personally, I think it is cumbersome. Instead, consider using 3M's Painters Tape and a turntable:
"Detack" the painter's tape once or twice so that you won't peel up any freshly laid paint. I usually use Tamiya's acrylic range for larger projects that require airbrushing. It dries quick and bonds well to plastic
Tape the wheels to the turntable
Spray all the wheels from one direction
Turn the table as needed to get coverage
Flip the wheels
Repeat step 3 and 4
Using a turntable will avoid all the hand operations required to handle dozens of impaled wheels. You're welcome!
Priming to get ahead
A trick I picked up from the internet is to base coat tanks with Tamiya's NATO Black (XF- 69). This color works well as a general primer or pre-shading color. It also works well as a "rubber" color for wheels. These properties allow two things to happen:
If the wheels are to form pairs, you might be able to avoid painting the 2 inner surfaces with the main body color by leveraging the NATO Black shadow property. As a rule of thumb, you can reduce the future painting burden if:
You are painting a darker color scheme where the NATO Black “shadow” won't be too jarring
The wheels don't have rubber rims. Rubber rims look best when there is contrast with the body color
Wheels with rubber rims can get an automatic "skip a step" because of the NATO Black “rubber” property
For example, the wheels on this T-34 come in two flavors. 8 rubber-rimmed wheels that will form 4 sets, and 12 all-steel wheels that will form 6 sets. The 8 rubber-rimmed wheels will look better if I paint all 16 surfaces with the contrasting main body color. However I can join the all-steel wheels together into 6 pairs and avoid painting the corresponding 12 inner surfaces. Now I'm going to talk about each wheel type in turn.
Assuming you are using an airbrush, how can you preserve those rubber rims to-be? Use a circle template!
Match the wheel diameter to the correct circle size
Tape the adjacent circles to prevent overspray
These T-34 rubber-rimmed wheels all feature a main body color that builds from a mixture of 9 drops Dark Green (XF-61) / 1 drop Yellow Green (XF-4), to 7 drops Dark Green / 3 drops Yellow Green, and finally 5 drops Dark Green / 5 drops Yellow Green. This color gradient is an example of post-shading and is completely optional. But if you want to preserve the hard edge rubber, make sure to use the circle template when applying each gradient. Note that I only applied the full gradient to the 4 outward facing wheel surfaces. This means the inner surfaces will appear under heavy shadow.
Things happen in the wild world of modelling. Even if you use the circle template, your crisp rubber rims can be ruined by overspray. But no need to worry:
You can always pretend your tank was painted in the field
Apply a black pin wash for extra contrast between the body color and rubber rims. Tamiya's Black Panel Line Accent Color works great for this
I should note that applying the panel liner before a gloss varnish will make it diffuse into a broader area of the rubber. However, if you apply the panel liner after a gloss varnish, it will collect towards the join between the rubber and rim. Crucially, mistakes will be easier to wipe away if you add the panel liner after a gloss varnish. Because I am a risk-seeker, I chose to do this example before a gloss varnish.
With all-steel wheels there is no need to use a circle template. For these T-34 wheels, I simply followed the same color gradient as the rubber-rimmed wheels. Easy peasy.
But there is a catch. What color should the wearing surface be? I'm pretty sure that any painted on color would get worn away through contact with the tracks and terrain. So here's my trick for getting those paintless edges painted up a different color:
Tape a piece of plastic wrap to your workbench
Paint a strip of plastic wrap your desired color
Roll the wheel through the paint strip as if it were a paint-roller. A cocktail straw may help with the rolling
I enjoy building tanks. But the wheels are something of a Sisyphean task for me and I know I'm not alone. My goal for this post was to offer a few tips and tricks to ease the pain for others. To summarize:
Nippers and sanding sponges work wonders
Turntables reduce hand movement
Take advantage of NATO Black’s shadow or rubber appearance
Use a circle template to keep rubber-rims crisp
You can treat the contact surface of all-steel wheels like a paint roller
Now that the wheels are painted up, we're done right? Not so fast. We still need to talk weathering!
Queue the music.
The wheels on the tank go round and round, round and round, round and round...
Thanks for reading,
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org or on IG and Twitter @igluemodels