This is the first of three articles providing a detailed account of building Dragon’s 1/35th scale model of the German Panzer IV Ausf.F2 (G) ‘Smart kit’.
The articles are more than a simple review of this kit. They are intended to explain the process of building a highly detailed scale model showing all the various techniques needed and the challenges that have to be overcome.
These articles also put under the spotlight Dragon’s ‘Smart Kit’ approach.
Dragon’s ‘Smart Kit’ Approach
Since scale modelling became popular in the 1960s, model kits have become increasingly better quality and more detailed. Not only has the injection molding process been continually refined, but where plastic cannot acccurately reproduce complex or tiny parts, other materials such as resin and brass photo-etch are now commonly used.
This has led to better and better models, but there has been a price. The cost of scale model kits and the time taken to complete them have both increased. A few of the leading manufacturers such as Tamiya, Dragon and Tristar have led this process with the result that some tank models on the market have many hundreds of parts, some of them so tiny they are barely visible. Simply assembling the individual link tank tracks that are now often provided can take several evenings work.
For some modellers, this process has gone too far. For many people, scale modelling is a hobby to give a few hours of relaxation each week. Modellers may want to produce stunning models, but they also want to have some fun and be able to compete a model in a reasonable time.
Dragon have tried to address this wish by introducing some models under the ‘Smart Kit’ banner. These are kits where a great deal of effort has gone into designing the model so that the number of parts are reduced without noticably compromising the quality of the finished subject.
An example how this works would be a tank’s suspension. One of their normal kits might have the suspension built up from a myriad of tiny parts that allows the suspension to work and the wheels to be put a different heights, so the tank can be placed in a diorama with uneven ground. A Smart Kit will have the suspension built up of fewer parts that are easier to construct but the model will only sit on a flat surface.
Another example of the Smart Kit approach is with the materials used. Dragon may still provide a photo-etched fret containing small parts, but these will only be provided where they provide a noticable improvement over equivalent plastic parts. In a normal Dragon kit there may be a large number of metal parts, even though some of them may look identical to plastic parts when painted. Why should Dragon do this? The answer is that metal parts can be bent and punctured to simulate battle damage and wear. Therefore, the Smart Kit may be easier to put together but will offer fewer options with regard to showing wear and tear.
Dragon’s Smart Kit approach has only been possible due to the amazing finesse that they have developed with their injection molding process. Dragon somehow manage to produce parts out of styrene that are so tiny or thin that they would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Dragon have also developed ‘slide mold’ technology that allows complex three dimesional shapes to be produced. This means that a tank hull that may have been constructed from many parts a few years ago is now molded as a single piece. Gun barrels are also produced as a single piece – sometimes with rifling inside the barrel!
So the questions to be answered are:
- Just how easy are Dragon’s Smart Kits?
- To what extent is accuracy and detail compromised by the Smart Kit approach?
Why This Model Kit?
It is my intention to build up a collection of tanks that will show the development of armoured warfare from the First World War to current times. The Panzer IV was the mainstay of German land forces in WWII and thus I would have to build at least one of these venerable machines sooner or later to make my collection complete.
Dragon released this model in 2007 and it was based on brand new tooling specifically designed for the Smart Kit approach. Reviews of this model indicated that not only was it extremely high quality, but also that it was a very accurate representation of the real thing. This kit therefore seemed an ideal subject.
Normally, I would do some research into the model I am about to make. This is partly to make sure that the model will be accurate and partly because I like to get ‘under the skin’ of the subject and find out about it’s history. It was my intention to build this model ‘out of the box’ exactly following the instructions. I had already read a review of the model in Military Modelling International that confirmed the kit was accurate, so there seemed little need for more research. Nevertheless, I could not resist buying the Osprey book ‘Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf. G, H and J’ to find out a little about the performance and history of this tank.
I was interested to discover that two of the seven paint schemes in the Dragon instructions are based on the only two Ausf.G tanks which have colour drawings in the Osprey book. I doubt if this is a coincidence
A Brief History Of The Tank
Development of the Panzer IV began in 1935 and production continued right until the end of WWII making it the only tank the Germans produced right throughout the war. It was originally intended to be an infantry support tank and was given a short 75mm gun primarily intended to fire high explosive ammunition.
However, it did have the ability to fire armour piercing rounds which proved essential because the crews frequently found themselves up against enemy armour and the idea of using tanks purely to support infantry proved to be unworkable.
There is a commonly held idea that German tanks were considerably superior to allied tanks at the start of WWII. In fact, the tanks deployed by the French and British were equal and sometimes superior to the German tanks. The Germans simply used much better strategy and tactics. After the battle of France the Germans realised that they needed to upgrade their tank force and the situation became critical after the launch of Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The Germans started to meet the Soviet KV1 and T34 tanks on the battlefield and realised that their own vehicles were seriously outclassed by every measure.
There were plans to considerably improve the existing tank models and to introduce brand new tanks. Regrettably for the German Army this would take time. A short term solution to improve their armoured capability was to introduce the Panzer IV Ausfuhfung (model) F2 (later renamed the Ausf.G). This model of the Panzer IV was very similar to the previous model except that for the first time it was given a long barrelled 75mm gun that vastly increased both it’s accuracy, range and penetrative capability. To a large extent, this allowed experienced German tank crews to meet enemy tanks on equal terms on the battlefield, although the Germans were almost always heavily outnumbered.
The Panzer IV Ausf G. was produced from March 1942 to May 1943 when production switched over to the Ausf. H. Almost 2,000 of this model of the Panzer IV were produced and generally crews were very pleased with their performance.
Purchasing The Model
I purchased the model online from the SBX Model Shop . I have made several purchases from them and they have all arrived promptly with free postage and packing, so they have become my first port of call for modellling supplies.
The cost was £35.22 which makes it a relatively expensive kit. However, since I was not expecting to have to purchase any aftermarket accessories and the kit was top quality, I was happy to pay this amount. Some kits might be half the price, but when supplemented with aftermarket tracks and photo-etch sets to bring them up to standard, they can end up costing far more than the Dragon kit.
Step 1: What’s In The Box
Time for this stage 1.5 hours (cumulative 1.5)
The first stage in any build is to follow the steps outlined in the article ‘What’s In The Box’ .
My first observation is that the box is larger than most similar 1/35th scale tank kits and there was no space wasted because it was packed with plastic. There are 14 light grey and 1 clear plastic sprues with each one sealed in its own plastic bag.
In addition, there is a small brass etched fret, an even smaller aluminium etched fret, metal cable, two bags of Magic Tracks (for the left and right sides) and a sheet of decals.
Each of the smaller pieces is in its own bag and all the small bags are taped to a piece of card that is also in a bag. You certainly cannot fault Dragon for the enormous effort they have put in packing the parts safely.
In total I counted 297 styrene parts, 24 brass and 108 tracks – a total of 430 pieces.
The quality of everything is outstanding. I could not find a single fault on any of the sprues, no sink marks, no flash. There are a few ejector pin marks, but as far as I could tell at this stage none of these would be visible on the finished model. This is all the more remarkable considering that many of the parts are either tiny, or complex and must have been difficult to mold.
One feature that is noticable is that many parts have one or more ‘overflow stubs’ where excess liquid plastic can escape. This does mean that these stubs all have to be cut off and cleaned up, but it seems to have completely elminated any sink marks, so is well worth this minor disadvantage.
The molding is remarkable and a magnifying glass is needed to see some of the details, such as the manufacturer’s name on tyres and tiny weld beads.
The lower hull is a very strong and solid molding with the floor, sides and front in a single piece and detailing on all sides. This shows what can be acheived with Dragon’s slide mold technology.
Virtually all hatches and access panels can be positioned open or closed and the decals are printed by Cartograf and thus are of the highest quality.
I would have only two negative comments about the box contents, neither of which are major. The first is that Dragon do not provide any figures with the tank and it would have taken very little cost or effort to include one figure that would show the size of the tank. The box artwork shows the tank surrounded by figures which could be misleading as to the contents. Nevertheless, this is a minor point and Dragon would no doubt argue that they provide a wide range of excellent figures for sale separately and that it would have been difficult to provide a single figure that would have been appropriate for all of the paint/marking schemes they offer.
The second criticism is that the plastic seems softer that I am used to on most kits. This does have the advantage that parts are less likely to snap off the sprue prematurely and less likely to break. On the downside, it is more difficult to work the softer plastic, such as scraping and sanding. Overall I would have preferred the styrene to be harder.
The instructions fold out into a long single sheet of paper printed on both sides. The build is divided into 18 steps and the instructions appear to be fairly logical and easy to follow. The first page contains a diagram of all the sprues and other parts that should be present. Those parts on the sprues that will not be needed for this model are clearly marked in blue, so there is no doubt about whether left over parts should be somewhere on the model.
Dragon provide seven paint/marking schemes and for each one there is a diagram of all four sides and the top of the vehicle which is very helpful. It is possible to build a vehicle that served in either France, Russia and Africa in a variety of paint schemes – some camouflaged and some plain – so there should be something to please everyone.
The final stage in this first step was to wash all of the sprues in warm soapy water with a large soft cosmetic brush. The sprues were then left to air dry naturally and the basin thoroughly checked for parts that had come loose before pulling out the plug.
Time for this stage 9.5 hours (cumulative 11 hours)
On most tanks, the wheels and suspension are a major job and this model is no exception. The tank has eight pairs of road wheels on each side. Each set consists of an inner and outer wheel plus the separate hub cap. In addition to the three lugs that have to be removed from each road wheel there is also a molding seam that runs right around the circumference that has to be sanded away. That is a lot of cutting and sanding.
Add to that the eight pairs of return rollers, plus the multi-part idler wheels and drive sprockets and it is easy to see why it took two and a half hours to clean up the wheels and glue them into their respective sub-assemblies. The drive sprockets were the most difficult to clean up as a molding seam ran around the circumference It was tempting to leave it there as many of the teeth would be covered by the tracks, but in the end I decided to remove the seam by sanding in and out of every gear tooth. None of this was particularly difficult or skillful, just time consuming.
At this point I drilled a hole through the base of the hull and fixed a metal washer and nut in place with epoxy glue. This was done to enable me to fix the completed model to a base as per my normal procedure (see ‘Attaching Models to Bases’ for further information).
Everything was going according to plan, albeit slower than I would have liked, until I came to assemble the final drives. The left and right final drives (that support the drive sprockets) are made from four parts and to my horror one of these parts was missing from the sprue.
I spent quite some time searching my workbench, the floor and the kit box before accepting that it has disappeared. I thought that I had been careful, but clearly not careful enough. It was unlikely that it had been missing from the box because every sprue came in it’s own plastic bag and I checked them all over before opening the bags, so I must take responsibility for losing this part.
This is the modeller’s nightmare because getting a replacement part from the manufacturer is difficult and time consuming at the best of times. However, on examination, I felt that I could manufacture a replacement. It was tricky because the missing part covered a conical section of the drive sprocket. Using the tried and tested method of trial and error, I cut out a template in paper used this to cut out the shape from thin plastic card, then bent and trimmed it until it fit perfectly. It did take three attempts to get the paper template right and two attempts to get the plastic card shaped correctly.
The next problem was how to replicate the seven prominent bolts that were on the missing part. Fortunately, the missing part covered seven similar bolts on the final drive, so I was able to carefully cut these off and reuse them on the replacement part. Crisis over, but it had taken over an hour to replicate the missing part.
Step 3: Rear Bulkhead & Exhaust
Time for this stage 2 hours (cumulative 13 hours)
The rear bulkhead had been fitted without any problem early on in the build but now it was time to add the many details. These include the supports for the idler wheels, the exhaust system, the tow bar and turret rotation motor. All of these are multi-part.
Most of this was straight forward apart from the exhaust and muffler. This was made up of ten parts and although building it was easy enough, fitting it to the rear bulkhead of the tank was a trial. The muffler had two supports each with two locating lugs, there were also two pipes running into the tank both with a cover that was attached to the pipes and the muffler and the bulkhead. It was one of those situations where I could not seem to get everything touching the bulkhead in the right place at the same time and if I pressed too hard in any direction something would fly off.
After numerous attempts and much cursing it all suddenly clicked into place and a few spots of liquid poly cement applied with a tiny brush made sure that it stayed there.
As part of their research Dragon discovered there were three different tow bars used on this model of the Panzer IV and have kindly provided all three so the modeller can choose which one to use. Unfortunately, they give no indication which one to use for the various paint schemes they recommend. This is a general criticism whenever they provide optional parts. I have many photos of Panzer IVs and it is rare that there is sufficient detail to identify the small differences in the tow bars and I had no photos of the rear of the particular tank I was modelling – in fact it is quite possible that no such photo exists – so I had to choose the one that looked the most interesting.
The only other point of interest in this part of the build is that the labelling of the left and right idler wheel supports (parts E23 and E24) is reversed on the instructions which caused a little confusion for a while.
I decided to leave the wheels off the tank to make painting easier later on, so that meant the lower hull and suspension construction was complete and I could move on to the upper hull.
It is always a relief to get this part of a tank model out of the way. There is a lot of repetition and sometimes progress appears agonizingly slow. This particular model was fairly typical, although losing a very obvious part and having to create a replacement from scratch did not help.
A general observation about this build is that the instructions are not easy to follow. The diagrams are clear enough, but a single diagram may show several major components being fitted and it is not always obvious the order they should be added.
This problem is compounded by Dragon’s habit of labeling parts according to the sprue they are on so there may be parts A9, B9, C9 etc. This means that the part numbers give no indication as to the sequence of fitting – does part H15 go on the hull before or after part J9? The only way around this is copious amounts of dry fitting to find the best order to assemble the parts.
On the other hand Dragon should be applauded for the effort they have made in making sure that parts cannot be fitted in the wrong place or the wrong way around. There are plenty of locating holes and these are always asymmetric, or different sizes, so that parts willl only fit in the right place and the right way round.
To follow the progress of this build go to Part 2 .