Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)
Don’t you just hate it when an article starts off with a question? Me too! But sometimes it does serve the purpose of grabbing the reader’s attention. With that in mind, how often have you been to a scale modeling event and wondered, “How the heck did he do that?” Whether it’s a technique in painting, applying an aluminum finish, panel lines, rivets, screw heads, hatches, sliding canopy, or whatever, we’re frequently blown away by stellar craftsmanship.
Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

I consider myself an average modeler. Really! But I have been surrounded by world-class modelers almost my entire adult life, and I do consider myself smart, so I’ve learned things. I have been in close encounters of the fourth kind with the likes of Dave Platt, Bob Violett, Denny DeWeese, Jerry Caudle, and Bob Curry, and I soaked up their techniques like a piece of tissue on a razor cut. Funny, I remember one time in 1984 when I invited Dave and Bob to a Christmas party. After a couple of toddies, I walked them into my workshop and unveiled my brand-spanking-new Ki-61 Tony — my best effort to date. Both looked at me and said, almost in unison, “You know you’re gonna have to repaint that thing, don’t you?” And I did! So enough of the prelude, let’s get on with the main attraction.

One of the most obvious enhancements that can be done to a scale model is adding panel lines and some sort of rivet detail. I know that some go giant steps further and add screw heads and assorted other fasteners, but to make a basic model perk up, adding just those panel lines and rivets can do wonders. I have given this a lot of thought, meaning, how to make the explanation as simple as possible, because, it really is simple! The two techniques go hand in hand, but to do it correctly, the panel lines should be done first. We’ll use the wing as an example but the same procedures will be applied to the fuselage and tail group.

Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

Of course, your finished model will only be as good as your documentation. Be sure to get scale drawings before starting!


Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

A good-looking, detailed surface begins with using good-quality primers.

1 To start, you need a clean canvas. A smooth, sanded surface is a must. Then, add one light coat of primer. Lightly sand the primer, backfill any obnoxious dings or scratches, spot prime, and sand again. Then wipe the surface down with denatured alcohol or another solvent that won’t disturb your primer. We use K36 primer from PPG or Epoxy Primer from Klass Kote. If you prefer rattle-can primer, just be careful. Use a ruler to lay out where you want the panel lines and draw their position on the wing’s surface with a pencil.

Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

A little package of Chartpak drafting tape can be found online for about $5 or less. It’s available in range of colors and widths. But look for the “flat”- or “crepe”-style tape because they pull off easier. To do an average 80-inch model, you’ll need about three rolls.

2 Get several rolls of Chartpak drafting tape, and lay the tape down over the drawn lines. I use 1/32-inch-wide tape on 1/5-scale, or larger, models, and 1/64-inch-wide tape on ⅙-scale, or smaller, models. The adhesive on the tape is strong enough that if you make an error you can lift it and then lay it back down — unless you didn’t wipe down the sanded surface with a cleaner and the sanding dust messes up the adhesive side of the tape.

Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

This shows the panel lines immediately after removing the Chartpak drafting tape. Notice the nice, crisp edges.

3 Now that the panel lines are duplicated in the drafting tape, you can opt for the panel lines to be “innies” or “outies.” In other words, you can proceed to prime and paint over the drafting tape, which gives the effect of panels, or you can lay down several light coats of primer, letting the primer build up just over the tape, then remove the tape in about three or four hours, leaving a channel or indentation to represent the panel lines. There are times when either or both may look appropriate. Like I said, it’s your choice. In either case, lightly sand and apply the color coats. The panel lines will be there forever.


Rivets can be simulated in several ways. They can be applied with strip of dry-transfer markings from Pro-Mark, burned in with a wood burning tool, simulated with tiny drops of glue, or burnished in with a piece of brass tubing. Glue drop rivets are the simplest and should be done before the final coats of color paint are applied.

Draw the lines where you want to apply a string of rivets and lay down small drops of Pacer’s Canopy Glue that has been thinned 25% with water. Squadron, an online hobby shop, has the application bottles with a hollow metal tube, and they dispense the perfect drop! After the glue-drop rivets have dried, go ahead and paint. As long as you keep the size in perspective, these rivets offer a very reasonable facsimile of full-scale rivets. If you figure that the average full-scale rivet has a half-inch diameter head, it’s simple math to determine what diameter they should be on your model.

Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

Here are the brass rivet-cutting tubes. The bottom tool has the correctly honed tubing installed. The upper tool has a piece of tubing that has made about 24 rivets and has not yet been sharpened on the “inside” with a no. 11 hobby blade.

Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

To keep the 1/8-inch diameter brass tube sharp, I run it at full power against a coarse sanding stick or similar product.

1 The technique I use to simulate rivets is one that I developed myself after watching my old friend Charlie Chambers do it manually with a sharpened brass tube glued into a piece of a hardwood dowel. I take 1/8-inch brass tubing, cut it into 1-inch-long pieces, and chuck one of them into a Dremel tool. I run the tool at full speed, rubbing the brass tube against any kind of abrasive surface to sharpen it.

Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

Here’s the bottom of the Macchi’s wing, showing rivet heads alongside small button head screws. The odd piece on the left is one of the door covers. You can see the pencil line that was drawn for alignment.

2 Eventually, the brass tube will wear down, so I just replace it with a fresh piece and start again. It doesn’t take much pressure for the sharpened tube to wear through the paint and leave a darn good-looking facsimile of a rivet head. With a 1/8-inch diameter, it’s the perfect size for any 1/5-scale, or larger, model. It does require a steady hand to do this, but after a few practice rivets, your brain will take over and help you become less jittery during placement.

Model Airplane News - RC Airplane News | Rivet Detail Made Easy (well, easier!)

Try and hold the Dremel tool as upright as possible to get even distribution of the tubing against the surface. If you are a little off, it will make a less-than-perfect impression. Some of these are good when mixed in with perfect ones!

3 Sometimes I make these rivets before I paint and other times I make them after. In the case of the Macchi 200 I used for this demo, I did them all after painting. I then used #0000 steel wool to give the finish a weathered look and a pencil to darken the panel lines if the primer color showing is a bit too light. The effect is really quite realistic!

I realize that the number of guys who actually “build” anything has dwindled. I also know that many modelers already know a lot of these techniques. However, I can think of a few other techniques that might be of benefit to some, like fastening landing gear doors, making perfect-fitting hatches, simulating raised panels, and a slew of other stuff. But there needs to be some input from you — so send me an email via MAN@airage.com or leave a post on the Model Airplane News Facebook page and let us know which techniques you’d like to see covered in a future article.

Until next time, your hatch is closed!

Updated: July 20, 2015 — 12:23 PM


  1. nice work
    I have done scale but compared to what you do I really didn’t

  2. I use a countersink chucked into my drill instead of a #11 blade to sharpen the inside of the tube…works slick!

  3. More hints. All how toos eagerly accepted 😀

  4. You are right… the number of people who build has dwindled… but don’t let that discourage you from sharing tips… and keep sharing, because there is a whole generation of model aviators out there that need to be inspired to the next level! Keep sharing these “sparks” and the fire will catch again!

    1. As Frank sez: “But I have been surrounded by world-class modelers…” I’ve made an effort to converse with Frank and those modelers he mentions every chance I get – at fun-flies, Toledo, Joe Nall, etc. And I try to incorporate scale details into practically every airplane I build. I always hope that my efforts will inspire others to build and to use scale details whenever they can.

  5. On a composite airframe you can chuck the brass tube in a soldering iron and burn them in…

  6. NIce plane Frank,
    Love the tip you share with all of us.
    I hope to see you at TOP GUN next year.
    I am a beginner in COMPETITION so I will be a
    first timer.

  7. Hi Frank, thank you for this nice modeling class. I’d like to see a article about a previous phase: do you apply fiber glass cloth before painting, or apply primer and paint directly over the balsa wood, or any other method? Regards, Luis.

  8. My ears (eyes) really perked up when I read that you knew Dave Platt. Back in the late 60’s when my interest in scale modeling was at its peak, Dave was literally my hero! I would pore over pictures of his models for hours trying to find a flaw, and was never successful. I’d be interested to know if he is still around and kicking and if he is still modeling.

  9. Hi Frank thanks for the tips (although this thread is over 2 years old already!).

    I am working on a Typhoon at the moment which has a ridiculous amount of panel lines and raised rivets.

    Do you have any techniques for raised rivets that you can share?


  10. Thanks Frank, very useful.

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