Top Ten Tank Track Tips and Tricks
That model tank on your bench isn't going anywhere without a good-looking set of tracks. Fortunately for us modelers, tracks offer an amazing blank canvas for expression and creativity. Anything between factory-fresh and burnt-out-destroyed-rusted-hulk are fair game. And therein lies the fun: how does one achieve their desired look?
If you scour the internet, every experienced modeler will have their own carefully honed track-making process to follow. Now by all means, if you've found a technique you love, go and replicate it! But if you want to experiment a bit and find your own way, here are my favorite tips to move you along.
Editor's note: There is a lot of meme-ery(?) out there poking fun at journalists calling any and all military vehicles a tank. In this post you will see military vehicles that use tracks, and therefore you may be inclined to discredit igluemodels.com because I used the word "tank" in the post title. But before you burn the igluemodels.com penguin in effigy, know this:
I am not a journalist
I know what a tank is
I wanted an alliterative title that won't get picked up by "track and field athletes", but will get picked up by "tank modeling nerds" and the likes. Gotta SEO!
If you are going to model tank tracks effectively, it's best to have an understanding of their general anatomy and a few reference photos. Unfortunately, terminology is a bit fuzzy because there is such a wide variety of track styles. Therefore, I will use these terms going forward:
Track shoe: The body of each individual track, or link in the chain
Pins: Rods that extend through the track shoe that allow end connectors to connect two track shoes
End connectors: The caps that join pins from adjacent track shoes to form the chain
Rubber pad: Insert that can be added into the track shoe to smooth the ride and reduce wear and tear on paved surfaces
Steel cleat: Insert that can be added into the track shoe to improve off-road performance
Guide horns: The vertical protrusion in track shoes to keep tracks aligned in the running gear
Grousers: Bar-like protrusions that can be added over the track shoe to improve grip. Similar to a cleat but added outside
Duck bills: Flat pieces of metal that extend the width of the tank track. These reduce ground pressure and are often added in muddy or snowy conditions
And sometimes the tracks are just one rubber piece. Take this M4A1 Mortar Carrier, for example. Sigh.
Now that we understand how real tracks are put together, it's time to explore the 3 main scale-world offerings and talk pros and cons:
1) Rubber band: A stalwart of the hobby world, these tracks come as one long strip. In older times, these tracks were frequently made of vinyl and had rubber-like properties. They also had to be heat-fused because standard hobby cement did not work. Nowadays, rubber band tracks are available in different proprietary plastics that can be glued together by standard cement. These tracks are great for convenience, but serious builders often find them lacking in detail, and achieving a realistic track "sag" is notoriously difficult.
2) Individual: Found at the other end of the spectrum, these tracks need to be assembled shoe by shoe! If that wasn't tedious enough, some shoes might even be made of multiple parts. When you see tank kits boasting over one thousand parts, individual shoes are often in the box. This level of complexity comes with many benefits in terms of detail. For example, crisper molds and even slide molding (think hollow guide horns) are par for the course. Furthermore, it is relatively easy to achieve realistic track sag because each shoe can be positioned. Some of these track sets are even workable because they feature real track pins! And if that wasn't enough, shoes are available in metal which allow for quick weathering via metallic burnishing fluids.
Editor's note: Check out these newly arrived 1/35 Panzer III/IV 3D printed tracks! They have extraordinary detail compared to the kit's rubber band style tracks.
3) Link and length: Thankfully, the hobby gods have given us a middle ground. These tracks are usually made from styrene and feature individual shoes for use on complicated curvatures, and lengths of shoes for straightaways. Sometimes sag is even pre-molded for you! In my view, these tracks represent a good compromise in realism, time, and cost.
The section you've been waiting for. Instead of prescribing a finishing method, here are suggestions that are simple and effective:
1) Chipped rubber: Use a hobby knife to simulate chipped off rubber from track pads.
2) Preshade individual track links different colors: Paint random colors on random shoes. When you add subsequent layers of paint, these colors will show through subtly.
3) Base coat: When I first started to build tanks I never painted the tracks which is analogous to beginner aircraft modelers leaving the canopy unpainted. You can do better! Just find a suitable base color like Vallejo's Track Primer (70.304) or Tamiya's Mettalic Grey (XF-56)
4) Area washes: Give your tracks a wash to get them dirty. A wash will add nice depth to the details and visually help to separate links on rubber band tracks. Try a few different mud-like colors and even some rust colors. Feel free to apply the washes randomly, too.
5) Pin washes: Like the area washes, a pin wash can help distinguish individual links from one another. The goal here is to achieve targeted areas of depth. I tend to use a darker color for the pin washes and apply them between shoes.
6) Add splattering: For even more color variation, splatter some paint (or washes) onto the tracks by flicking the end of the bristles. Mud and rust are fair game too.
7) Use pigments: Tracks touch the ground. The ground can be dusty or muddy or anything in between. Play around with pigments in dry, wet, or sludge mode to your heart's content.
8) Sponge chipping: If you have metal road wheels grinding against metal tracks, consider wearing out the respective contact surfaces. Cut a piece of sponge to the width of the road wheels, dip it in metallic looking paint, pat off the excess, and then pat the tracks. You've most likely painted with sponges as a child, why not do so now?
9) Polished steel on guide horns and outer tread: Use pigments, paint, or even a pencil to give these areas a metallic shine.
10) Burnishing fluid: If you are using metal track links, give them instant, chemically-accurate, weathering in a bath of burnishing fluid.
I hope it's clear that there are a number of different real world tracks and a greater number of ways to replicate them in scale form. Because of this, some modelers may suffer blank-canvas syndrome and crumble under the pressure of choice. After all, model making may be the only assembly-driven activity where the instructions are revered and never thrown away!
For those crumbling, remember that this is a hobby intended for fun and relaxation and a way to get those creative juices flowing. Worst case you screw up, No worries. Just strip things down and start over, or order a replacement set from the aftermarket, or roll the tank in some real mud.
Bonus tip: Roll your scale tank in real mud. Nothing could be more authentic!
Thanks for reading,
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org or on IG and Twitter @igluemodels
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