In the ideal world, I would have the Real Grade RX-78-2 Gundam in my hands, built and ready to be reviewed. In the ideal world, I would also know how to operate my very own fission-powered jetpack. But alas, I do not live in the ideal world, therefore not only do I have to continue to pay eye-gouging high prices for the underdeveloped public transit system of Toronto, I must also patiently wait for the arrival of my RG Gundam kit, which is going to arrive near the end of the month at the earliest. Sure, I can have a crack at reviewing the MG Master Gundam in the meantime like I’m supposed to, but hell, I just don’t feel like it. So instead, I’m going to talk about something that I was very concerned about when I first started to get into the plamo hobby: top coat.

It is common knowledge that like panel-lining, paint improves the appearance of the model tremendously. This is especially true for older models that were not moulded completely in the correct colours. However, with its advantages comes with its own set of drawbacks. Here are some to consider:

  • An airbrush/air compressor kit is very costly
  • You won’t always find the right colours from canned spray paints
  • Mistakes can be hard to correct
  • Demands an environment that can accommodate for the noise/fume/mess

While I encourage everyone with the means to venture into model-painting to do so, I fully understand that all this may very well seem overwhelming to the plamo newcomer who hasn’t even chosen their first kit yet. Even to those who have enjoyed the hobby for quite some time, fully painting a model kit isn’t an option that’s available to everyone. Fortunately, there is an intermediate option between the two extremes: spraying flat/matte top coat directly on an unpainted model.

I came across the idea through an old Danny Choo post about a no-paint gunpla technique that involved top coat and weathering pastels, amongst other things. While this was very informative, I still wasn’t clear on many things. “Does the top coat make a significant difference if you don’t weather the model? How much top coat should I use? What are the risks?” – These were the questions that plagued my mind, and digging through hobby forums for information didn’t always yield the answers I needed. But in the end, I decided to give it a crack anyways, and now 20 kits later, I think I’m at a position where I can say a thing or two about top coat on paint-less models.

What does it do?

Left = naked, right = coated. I’ve masked the chest windows and removed the clear visor for the naked shot, so disregard those particular differences.

The number one purpose of spraying top coat on bare plastic is to get rid of that lousy plastic sheen that gives your model a toy-like feel. For this purpose, you’ll want to give your model a layer of flat top coat in order to achieve a matte feel. A coat of flat will make the model’s surface uneven on a microscopic level; hence light will not bounce off it of the same way as before. When my non-modeler friends see my models for the first time, they assume the models are painted — such is the effect of flat top coat.

Another great thing about top coat is its ability to hide scratches. I’m not just talking about some small markings you leave with a nail file – naw, this also applies to serious scratches made by low-grit sandpaper and rough stuff like light woodworking files. Of course, the rougher the scratch, the more top coat you’ll need. This means you can sand/file away those annoying nip marks without worrying about any scarring to the model.

The last thing great thing about top coat is an obvious one: it seals in the detailing like panel lines paint touch-ups. No more worring about rubbing off your lines by accident or chipping your gundam maker paint – the top coat is going be there to protect your model from minor abuse.

Keep this in mind, however: because top coat makes the surface of your model uneven, it’s much easier for dust to cling onto the surfaces. This doesn’t mean you can’t get rid of dust on your model – you’ll just have to spend more effort getting that stuff off of a top coated model than a naked model. Furthermore, although top coat is capable of protecting the detailing underneath, the coating itself sure as hell isn’t invincible. If you aren’t careful when posing your models after you’ve sprayed, you’ll leave behind a scratch on the surface. The severity of this issue varies on the design of the kit itself, but watches out for restrictive skirt and shoulder armour, as they tend to cause some friction against the legs and chest, respectively.

What to Spray

The three big choices are the Mr. Top Coat (Flat/Matt), Mr. Super Clear (Flat), and the Tamiya Modeller TS-80. I’ve used Mr. Top Coat for most of my models and tried Mr. Super Clear for the MG Gouf above. The Gouf turned out looking more matte-looking than the rest of my models. This is partly because I had to spray a lot to cover up the serious scratches I made on the kit, but I also suspect that Mr. Super Clear also gives off a slightly chalkier finish than Mr. Top coat. I have yet to use my can of TS-80, but the guy who sold it to me said it’s indistinguishable from the other two brands. The dude has a pair of beady little eyes, so I’m not sure how far I should trust his words, but I don’t suspect that there would be a huge difference between the three brands.

Top coat spray cans were really easy to get a couple of years ago, but recently that Japanese retailers ceased to ship pressurized air items due to tightened shipping regulations. This makes getting the cans a little trickier. Try looking for this stuff from domestic retailers like hobby stores – that’s where I buy my cans nowadays.

How to Spray

The short answer would be “push down on the spray nozzle”, but you knew that already, didn’t you? So here’s the long version:

  • Dip your spray can in hot water for a few minutes. I forget where I got this tip from, nor do I remember why this is helpful, but I think this makes the spray mist a little finer due to the heat’s ability to make the particles in the can more excited (did I get that right? It’s been a while since my elementary science classes).
  • Hold your models around 20-30cm away and flick your wrists back and forth while spraying. This is not precision work, so go nuts. If you spray the parts too closely, you risk the chance of producing a milky fog on the surface of your model.
  • Spray continuously for a few seconds at a time, not in short bursts. Shake the can well before each spray to get even results.
  • You don’t have to spray your model piece by piece, but it is a good idea to at least separate the model into several smaller components (e.g. arms, legs, torso, backpack [if large enough]) to avoid excessive obstructions.
  • Let your parts dry before spraying another coat. You don’t want your parts to be dripping. How much you want to spray is completely up to you – just make sure the parts are evenly coated.
  • Make sure to set down the freshly-sprayed parts in a safe manner (i.e. don’t set down a wet part flat against another surface). The coat dries within minutes, so it would be reasonable just to hold onto the part in your hand for a while to have it dry a little.
  • If you are planning to use decals on your model, make sure you apply them before the applying flat top coat. Decals like smooth and even surfaces, and the rough finish that flat top coat leaves would cause major if you need to apply decals on top of that.

Things to watch out for while spraying:

  • Dust, hair and other miscellaneous airborne gunk. Ideally, you don’t want this stuff sealed under your top coat. This is why spraying in your bathroom with the ventilation on would be a good idea – not only do the vents help to disperse the toxic fumes, but bathrooms tend to be less dusty than the other parts of the house. You can remove dust and hair trapped underneath your model with some gentle sweeps with a toothbrush.
  • Cold temperatures. I don’t know about this for certain, but I think that cold temperatures have an adverse effect top coat. I’ve only sprayed outdoors in the winter once, and the finish on those models ended up a few steps short of desirable. I think the spray gets condenses when it’s too cold, causing droplets to form, thus making the coverage to be uneven and spotty. It might also have something to do with my lack of patience, though – trust me, you don’t want to be outside holding your little plastic men in a Canadian winter for too long.
  • Humidity. I’ve never run into this personally, but the instructions on the Tamiya TS-80 cans warn against humidity, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why moisture in the air would screw with the spray.
  • Flat top coat will fog up any clear parts. Make sure to remove or mask any exposed clear components like mooneye visors or the green orbs on the MG Gundam Exia, for example.
  • Try not to breathe in the toxic fumes. The best thing to do would be to get a protective mask. Also try to spray the model in a well-ventilated area or outdoors.

…Wow, this filler post sure ran on for far longer than I anticipated. I’ll have a real plamo-related content up soon (probably a RG RX-78-2 review). In the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free to ask via comment, twitter(@Chag_HH) or email and I’ll answer them to the best of my casual modeler abilities. Here’s hoping that this little guide will help out newcomers in the days to come!