This article will deal with the tricky problem of painting the tracks on armoured vehicles. It contains a step-by-step guides on two example models. It should be noted that there is no set method that can be followed with every model. The modeller will have to adjust the method used to meet the challenges of each particular subject and the environment that the vehicle is intended to be operating in.
However, by showing the method used in these two cases, it is hoped that it will be easier for other modellers to decide on the process to follow for their own projects.
One of the downsides of modelling armoured vehicles is the difficulty of painting the complex suspension and tracks. AFVs have many wheels that are surrounded by and in contact with the tracks. Furthermore, as if the suspension is not a big enough challenge, access to some of the wheels and tracks may be restricted by side skirts.
The following is a guide to painting a set of tracks. One thing to bear in mind is that if the intention is to heavily weather the suspension and tracks, then the amount of care and detail that has to be put into the painting process for both the tracks and the rest of the suspension may be reduced since most of it may be covered up with mud, grime and dust.
However, slapping on a load of mud should not be a solution to poor modelling. The weathering should be appropriate to the subject and the situation that it is intended to be portrayed in. The suspension and tracks significantly contribute to the character of the vehicle and if these are obscured by excessive mud, then part of the vehicle’s character will be lost.
Painting On Or Off The Vehicle
The tracks can be painted separately and then added to the vehicle, or they can be painted after they have been put on the vehicle. The first step in the process is to determine which of these is preferable.
Painting the tracks separate to the vehicle can be a lot easier. However, the tracks and the rest of the suspension must blend together so care needs to be taken to put the tracks and suspension through the same weathering process to make sure they look good when they are put together.
If tracks are painted off the vehicle then there is a good probability that some of the paint may be damaged during the process of fitting the tracks, so be prepared for some corrective touching up. Furthermore, once the tracks and wheels are painted it is more difficult to get a good glue bond between them which is also a consideration for some models if the tracks do not naturally stay where you want them without glue.
Some tracks are easier to paint separately than others. ‘Rubber band’ and ‘Working’ tracks can be assembled and handled as a separate item, but ‘Link and Length’ tracks generally need to be glued to the wheels and each other, so it is very difficult to paint them separately. Some modellers glue ‘link and length’ tracks to each other and the tank wheels and then remove the whole track and wheel assembly together for painting.
So there are pros and cons to both methods and which is best will depend on the particular model, the type of tracks and wheels and the final effect that is planned.
In the first example below, the tracks are of the ‘rubber band’ type and it was decided to begin painting them separate to the rest of the APC, but to put them on the model for the final weathering to ensure that they blended in with the rest of the suspension.
The photograph on the right shows the tracks as they start out. These are ‘rubber band’ type tracks as supplied on the Tamiya M113 1/35th scale armoured personnel carrier ‘desert version’. The basic kit is quite old and these tracks are not up to modern standards, The detail on the outside of the tracks is just about passable but there is virtually no detail on the inside. However, since replacing them with separate resin or white metal alternatives would have nearly doubled the cost of the kit, it was decided to make the best of them. Fortunately, the top run of tracks is covered by track guards that hides the poor quality of the tracks to some extent.
It is a matter of choice as to whether the tracks are primed. Normally, I do not prime tracks because I have never had a problem with base coats adhering to the tracks. The tracks will often be covered by so many other coats of paint and then heavily weathered, that a primer does not seem to give any advantage.
Having decided to dispense with a primer coat, the first stage is to airbrush the tracks with a base coat. Most tank tracks start out a dark dull metal colour. I chose Tamiya Nato Black XF-69 for the colour. Other modellers have recommended Vallejo Track Primer or Oily Steel colours. However, very little of this base colour will be visible and the Nato Black is a good match for the rubber treads on the tracks, so I prefer this colour overall.
If the tracks have not been joined they can be laid out flat for airbrushing. After the top side has dried it is flipped over to paint the other side. In this case, the tracks had been joined together into a ring. A few centimeters of track were painted, they were then rotated to present a new side to the front and then the next few centimeters were painted. The rotation continued until the whole track was painted. It is a good idea to start the painting where the tracks join, so you can tell when you get back to the starting point.
By the time the second track run has been painted on the outside, the first track run will have dried enough to pick it up and it can be turned inside-out so the inner surface can be sprayed. Two thin coats of base coat were applied, flipping the tracks over between coats.
The next stage is to apply a wash to indicate rust. Tank tracks are inveriably made of steel and any surface that is not regularly worn will very soon be covered with rust. AFVs that have been standing unused for some time often have the entire run of tracks entirely covered in rust and even AFVs in regular use will have some rust spots on the edges and between individual tracks.
A wash is a very thin coat of paint made up of around 5% paint and 95% thinner. There are plenty of ready made rust washes on the market but it is easy enough to make your own using either enamel/oil paint and turps or acrylic paint and water/thinner.
The colour of rust is a debatable subject as it can appear to be any colour from bright orange to dark red. I made a wash from Tamiya acrylic Hull Red with a couple of drops of Games Workshop’s Blazing Orange. This was spread liberally over the tracks with a medium paintbrush and left to dry.
Layer Of Dried Dust
The model is an M113A2 as it appeared on active service in Iraq in 2003. I intended to display it on a base showing it travelling along a tarmaced road. Therefore, the only weathering needed was a layer of dry sandy dust.
This was simulated by using MiG pigment powders applied with turps. A old medium sized brush was dipped in turps and then in a pile of the pigment. This was then dabbed on the tracks working it well into the nooks and creases. Turps is used because it only holds the powder in place whilst it is wet. If a large build up of mud and dust was required then I would have used varnish, MIG pigment fixer, or acrylic resin as the medium for applying the powder. Applying the pigments is a messy business and it is advisable to work over a piece of scrap newspaper to collect the pigment that drops off.
The main pigment colour used was, not surprisingly ‘Gulf War Sand’, but the odd splodge of ‘Europe Dust’ was put on the tracks occasionally to give a variation in colour.
The tracks coated in pigments were left to dry and then most of the pigment powder was brushed off with a stiff ‘stipple’ brush. This left only a residue of the powder on the surfaces and in the cracks that gives a good impression of accumulated dust.
A piece of slightly dampened paper towel was gently wiped over the rubber treads to remove the pigment powder where they would make contact with the ground. The result was a set of tracks looking reasonably like the photo in the top right of this article. This was the point at which I felt the tracks should be attached to the vehicle. The vehicle was only going to receive a very light weathering with a spray of highly thinned desert sand paint applied with an airbrush. This would cover the wheels and tracks blending them together.
Finally, the guide teeth of the tracks were then lightly airbrushed with a metallic paint.
The example above shows how traditional ‘rubber band’ tracks were painted. The photograph below shows the tracks for Dragon’s Panzeer IV Ausf G. These tracks are made up from individual links, but the method used was very similar. In some respects it was easier than the M113 above because these tracks do not have any rubber pads.
The tracks were left off the tank for painting and were made up into several sections.
They were washed with warm water and a little washing-up liquid detergent to remove any grease and ensure the paint would adhere well.
They were then airbrushed with Vallerjo track primer which is a dirty muddy colour.
When thoroughly dry, a wash of Vallejo Model Air rust was applied. Model Air colours are intended for use in airbrushes and are quite thin. However, since the paint was being used as a wash and needed to be very thin it was ideal for brush painting.
Once the wash was dry I determined it was time to fit the tracks to the model which had to be done with superglue since all the plastic surfaces were now covered in paint and polystyrene cement would not work.
The lower part of the model, including the tracks and suspension, was given several light coats of very thin earthy colours to give them a weathered dusty look. It was important to do this stage when the tracks were on the model to ensure that the weathering on the tracks and wheels was consistent.
Finally, Vallejo oily steel paint was dry brushed on the outside of the tracks where they would contact the ground and on the guide teeth where they would rub against the wheels. As a general rule, the part of tracks that do not make contact with the ground or the wheels will become rusty whereas the parts that are subject to regular rubbing and wear will remain shiny.
Because of the variability in the types of tanks tracks available there is no set method for painting them, but in most cases the painting can be broken into the following stages:
- Base coat
- Rust wash
- Weathering (washes, pigments or very thin paint spraying)
- Metallic highlights on parts subject to friction
Generally, the first two stages are best done off the model and the last two on the model.