Step by step guide to masking and spraying markings and insignia

In my opinion, the most realistic way of reproducing markings, insignia and lettering on a flying model is to paint then directly onto the airframe. Decals (if available) can work well (depending on their quality), but can crack and begin to flake off over time, and tissue markings will never quite as realistic (though can be an art form in their own right). The other big plus of painting your own markings is that you have the complete freedom to finish the model in whatever scheme you like, and thus have a unique and individual model. As my signwriting skills are extremely limited, I find spraying these on to be the best way of doing this, rather than brushing - the sprayed markings will also be lighter as less paint is applied to the model. Producing the extensive masking is not particularly difficult, but rather tedious and time consuming, but I consider the the results worth it. To illustrate the technique I use, the following photos show how I applied the US markings to my Dime Scale Stearman 76. In this case the markings are being applied to a coloured tissue airframe, but I would not do anything different if they were being put onto a painted model. I readily admit that I am using the same methods that Doug McHard used and illustrated in the old classic book "Flying Scale Models of WWII", so if you are lucky enough to have a copy of this, I suggest you refer to that as well (his photos are better than mine!)


  • A roll of 2" wide paper masking tape (as sold at car accessory shops and DIY stores)
  • A clean cutting board with a smooth surface - a perspex or polycarbonate offcut is ideal, or treat yourself to a proper graphic artists cutting mat if you haven't got one already, and use the back (the side without the printed dots).
  • Some new blades for your modelling knife or scalpel.
  • An OLFA Compass Cutter - essential if you are doing circular markings - also great for cutting out circles of coloured tissue and laminatons for balsa wheels etc. (should be available from any good art/craft shop).
  • A steel rule.
  • Step 1

    The masking tape is stuck down to the cutting board and the compass cutter used to cut a circle corresponding to the outer diameter of the required marking (as shown on the model plan). In this case the diameter of the wing roundel was only just smaller than the width of the tape. If it is larger, then simply stick down two strips of tape, one butting up against the other (unless you can find a source of 3" masking tape!) In case you are worried, the paper roundel was cut from a photocopy of the plan, not the original). This was done five times (one for a spare).

    Step 2

    The compass cutter is now adjusted to match the diameter of the centre red disc of the marking, and using the same pinhole in the tape, a smaller circle is cut in each roundel. If you were doing say an RAF roundel, this process would simply be repeated for all the different diameters of the different colours. The US markings are rather more complex - hence the following stages.

    Step 3

    Using the cut-out from the plan, the positions of the five points of the white star are marked around the outer diameter.

    Step 4

    The marks are joined up using a pen and ruler.

    Step 5

    Using a steel rule and a sharp knife (put in a new blade if in doubt) cut along the lines that bound the white star. This picture shows the different parts of the completed mask - the centre disc and blue segments are removed, leaving the white star and the outer edge still on the board. To lift off the bits of tape, insert the sharp point of the knife under an edge, and gently ease it off the board. Try to avoid touching the adhesive side with your fingers, as then it won't stick so well. Masking tape is pretty tough, so you sould not have a problem tearing unless you are very rough with it.

    Step 6

    Assemble the masks onto the model. In this case I applied the stars first, so I could line them up pointing forwards, then the blue segments, and finally the outer ring. The red centre disc is not used. Make sure everything is seated down properly, and that the edges of the masks butt up nicely to each other.

    Step 7

    Remove the white star portions, and return to the cutting board for safe keeping. You may wish to mark them top left, top right etc. - also which arm of the star was pointing forwards - this will help when they are later replaced if all your stars are not exactly symmetrical. I use a fairly crude single action airbrush (a Badger 350), so need plenty of protection from overspray. To eliminate this, a piece of notepaper with a square hole in it slightly larger than the width of the masking tape has been overlaid, held in place with four thinner strips of masking tape. Those with keen eyes will notice in addition four pieces of sellotape over the corners, to make sure this stays in place.

    Step 8

    Matt white enamel paint thinned with cellolose thinners (gives better adhesion to the tissue than enamel thinners) is sprayed over the star shape. Use several light coats, and dust on the initial layers gently so that you do not get any runs under the tape. The use of cellulose thinners means the paint dries very quickly, which is a help here.

    Step 9

    Not a very clear picture this, but the next stage, after the white paint is fully dry (overnight), is to place the masking tape stars back onto the model, over the white paint. The hole for the centre disc will now be exposed, and everything else masked, ready for spraying the red (I find red paint always looks better over a white undercoat, as does yellow, as they always seem rather translucent). As an additional precaution against overspray, I cut circular holes with a diameter just greater than the centre disc in four new squares of masking tape and placed these over each of the wing insignia. Keep the holes you cut out for the next stage. Then spray the red.

    Included in this photo is the fin and rudder for the first time. This is a much simpler item to mask - simply mask off the red/white portion of the rudder with a thin strip of tape, then provide additional overspray protection using notepaper attached using another strip of tape (much safer than applying 2" of sticky tape to the whole fin - this would have a distinct tendency to remove all the tissue from the frame when you tried to get it off!) Once the white is sprayed, a series of horizontal tape strips are added to mask off the white stripes, before spraying the red. You will see that in the picture half these strips have been removed to show the final effect.

    Step 10

    Nearly there! Remove the extra squares of tape mentioned above, and place the discs you cut out of them over the newly painted red centres. These will slightly overlap the red area, sealing the join to the white star mask. Next remove the five outer segments and airbrush on the blue. This photo was taken immediately prior to spraying.

    As far as the fin goes, all the previous masking is removed, and new strips of tape added to mask the border of the vertical blue stripe. Notepaper masking pieces for additonal overspray protection are used as before.


    Remove all the masking carefully - especially if you have applied the tape over paint. In this case you have to remove it VERY slowly, preferably bending it back right over itself as you peel it off. Be careful of any tissue joins, and peel towards an edge, otherwise you may pick up the tissue and rip it. The photo here shows how the insignia appeared after the tape was removed, prior to any touching up. I always end up cleaning a few edges up using a fine paint brush - in fact the example shown here came out better than most.

    Well, I hope that has been helpful to somebody. Obviously, markings come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and techniques will vary. If painting lettering or logos, for instance, I attach the masking tape to the cutting board, then tape the artwork over the top with sellotape. I then cut through the artwork into the tape in order to get the correct shape. One way of getting correct artwork is to get hold of a decal sheet for a plastic kit of your subject, then blow this up to the correct size on a photocopier. There are many other possibilities of course - photos, side views and plans from magazines for instance, or how about taking your own photos, making sure you are at 90 degrees the item of interest of course, to minimise distortion.

    If you have any questions or comments about masking, please feel free to contact me.

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