Painting the wheels and tracks of AFVs is one of the most challenging aspects of these types of models. Multiple wheels surrounded by tracks, often hidden behind track guards and shields can be very difficult subjects. Where possible, many modellers will paint these parts individually, or as sub-assemblies before attaching them to the model.
Many AFVs have metal road wheels with rubber rims and painting these rims neatly can prove difficult and time consuming since there may be many of these wheels to complete. This article shows some of the ways that this can be done.
Most of the methods shown below work equally well with rubber tyres on wheeled vehicles or aircraft.
Do You Need To Paint The Rims?
Not all AFV’s have rubber rims on their wheels so check your references to make sure that you really do need to paint the rims a different colour to the hubs. Even if the road wheels are rubber there are instances where it is not necessary to paint them.
Often AFV’s are painted in the field or in bad conditions and the rubber rims may well be painted the same colour as the hubs. As the rubber flexes, some of this paint may flake off but even so the rubber rim is likely to be mostly the same colour as the hub. See the photograph at the top right of this article to see an example of where the rubber rims have been painted over.
Alternatively, if you are planning to paint your model in anything other than brand new or ‘just been cleaned’ condition then your efforts to paint the rims a different colour might be wasted if the entire wheels will be coated in layers of dust and mud. However, if you are sure that you want to paint the rubber rims a different colour to the hubs then read on.
Methods Of Painting Wheel Rims
1. Flowing a wash into the recess
This method works when there is a barrier between the rubber wheel/rim and the metal hub. It works best when the rubber rim is actually recessed where it meets the hub as is often the case with the tyres on wheeled vehicles and aircraft. The method is illustrated in figure 1.
A small paintbrush is loaded with heavily thinned paint that is the colour of the rim/tyre. The tip of the paintbrush is touched to the point where the rim meets the wheel hub and paint will flow from the brush into the recess and will flow around the wheel rim. You may have to do this at a few points around the rim to make sure that the full circumference of the wheel rim is covered. The difficult part of getting a good demarcation line between the hub and the rim will now have been done and the rest of the rim can be brush painted quite easily.
2. Brush painting by hand
The wheel should be mounted on some form of stick so that it can be held easily and rotated. The end of a paint brush often works well. A small paintbrush is loaded with paint that has been thinned (but not so much as in method 1 above). The brush is touched to the wheel rim and the wheel is rotated to leave paint behind. It is easier to rotate the wheel than it is to move the brush.
The photo on the right illustrates the process being used. Note how the third and forth fingers of the right hand rest against the first and second fingers of the left hand. This minimises any movement between the brush and the rotating wheel allowing very fine control over where the brush leaves paint.
3. Masking with a template
The third method is almost the reverse of the above two in that the wheels are first completely airbrushed in the colour of the rubber rims and these are then masked off using a circle template. A circle template is used for technical drawing and consists of a sheet of plastic with circles cut out. There will almost certainly be a circle the exact size of the wheel rim so the circle template can be held over a wheel and the wheel hub sprayed without any paint getting onto the wheel rims.
Since the circles are normally close together it will normally be necessary to place masking tape over the holes adjacent to the one you are using to prevent paint passing though them.
Although this method has the advantage of not requiring any brush painting skills, there are a couple of problems. The first is that after a very short time a lot of paint will build up on the template and it will need to be thoroughly wiped off before proceeding further. Also it can be difficult holding the template in place so that no paint seeps underneath it.
4. Masking with paper or frisket
This method is similar to method 3 except that templates are cut out of paper with a circle cutter. A circle cutter can be minutely adjusted to cut any size of circle so after a few tries it can be set to cut holes out of paper that will exactly match the size of the wheel rim. A separate template can easily be cut out for each wheel.
The difficulty with this method is getting the templates to stay on the wheel since the airbrush will tend to blow them away and even if they stay in place there is a danger of seepage under the mask.
Using sticky ‘Post-It’ notes can help, although there is unlikely to be enough of the sticky area to go all around the wheel. Another option is to cut the hole out of wide masking tape. The ideal solution is to cut the holes out of ‘frisket’ which is a plastic film that is slightly sticky on one side and specifically made for masking when airbrushing.
In the example shown in these photographs the template is used to mask off the rubber tyre. It is also possible to do the opposite. In other words, the entire wheel should be airbrushed with the colour of the hubs and then circles can be cut out of paper, card or thin plastic that are used to mask the hubs so that the rims can be sprayed a grey-black colour. Both types of masking acheive the same end. Which is easiest depends on the size of the wheel, the rim and the profile of the wheel and the personal preference of the modeller.
There are so many types, sizes and colours of wheels that it makes sense not to fall into the habit of using into a set method on every model you make. The above paragraphs show several different methods, but you may benefit from combining or adapting them. For example, take the wheels of the Panzer IV. There are 16 pairs of road wheels with rubber tyres and they are quite small. There are a further eight return rollers which also have rubber rims and they are even smaller.
I wanted to avoid spending hours of repetative masking and detail painting, so used the following method. The wheels were individually mounted on cocktail sticks and then sprayed all over with black at the same time that I primed the main model. The next stage was to carefully spray the hubs of each wheel with Vallejo Desert Yellow. Actually, to be specific, I sprayed Desert Yellow on the entire centre of each wheel and then sprayed a mixture of white and desert yellow on the hubs to lighten the centres where they stick out and would catch the light. I did this spraying at the same time as spraying the main hull using the same colours, so that eliminated the time needed to mix paint and prepare specially for the wheel painting. The result at this stage can be seen in the photo on the right.
Even though I had sprayed the centre of the wheels carefully using a fine airbrush on a low pressure setting, there was inevitably some overspray on to the rubber tyres. I corrected this by mixing some very thin black paint and applying it to the rim with small paint brush as I rotated the wheel using the cocktail stick as a holder. Because the paint was very thin, it natually flowed up to the edge of the rubber tyre making a clean line fairly easily. This was much faster than trying to mask off the tyres on each of the wheels. The result can be seen in the photo on the right.
Once the wheel has received a wash, dry brush and light weathering it will look a treat and the painting was quick and simple.
The Colour Of Rubber
When painting rubber rims or wheels the temptation is to grab the black paint pot. However, few things in nature are truly jet black and rubber wheels are not one of them. It is normally best to use a very dark grey for painting rubber. Tamiya Nato Black and Vallejo Grey Black both work well. However, if you plan to add weathering to the wheels then it may be best to use black because the subsequent weathering will tone down the difference in colour between the tyres and the hubs.