The Tin-Foil P-51 – Using aluminium foil to achieve a bare metal finish

And now for something completely different…

As you know, I build some aircraft kits, but there’s one thing I consistently avoid – any kit that features a bare metal finish. Mainly because my attempts at a metal finish have ended up looking dreadful. My son also builds kits, and he’s made of sterner stuff. He wanted to experiment with using aluminium foil to achieve a metal finish on a 1/72 kit, so he bought a cheap P-51 Mustang kit, some special glue and a roll of ordinary kitchen foil. Here’s his story of the creating a tin-foil P-51…


I recently got back in to modelling at the start of the year, and although I’ve greatly enjoyed it so far I’ve encountered a bit of a problem. My main interest is aircraft, and I have a particular fondness for the early Cold War period, however to properly do many of these subjects justice requires being able to create a convincing natural metal finish. I don’t have the space to use an airbrush which rules out using Alclad, and although I’ve experimented with various different paints and varnishes it’s always been difficult to escape the impression that the end result is just silver painted plastic.

After doing some research I had read about the possibility of using aluminium foil to give a nice looking metal finish, and given the poor results I had got through using paint I was keen to give this a try.

The Kit

The kit I used was Academy’s 1/72 P-51D tooled in 1993, in the colours of Gordon M. Graham’s “Down For Double”. For an older model and at only £9 GBP I was quite pleasantly surprised – there was some nice crisply moulded detail in the cockpit sidewalls with separate parts for the throttle assembly and oxygen hose, and externally the moulding was quite reasonable with recessed panel lines and rivets and separate parts for the flaps allowing them to be lowered.

The kit did lack in a couple of places, with the exhaust stacks and gun barrels being a bit crude,  and the instrument panel and wheel well detail not being particularly accurate to the real aircraft, but overall for the price it gave a decent impression of the P-51.

Assembly was straight forward with the parts needing little cleanup, and the fit was generally very good only needing a small amount of filler along the wing roots.


Once assembly was complete I move on to the foiling. The foil that I used was simply a cheap roll of kitchen foil from the local shop, and it was secured using Microscale Industries micro metal foil adhesive. The instructions recommend that it be applied to the pieces of foil to be attached, however I found it easier to apply it to relevant areas of the model itself.

The adhesive was applied using a small brush to the panels to be foiled, and any excess removed using a little thinners – before adding the foil it needs to be left to sit for a couple of minutes to become tacky.

Once the glue is ready, the foil can be applied – generally I tried to keep the pieces of foil just a little larger than the area they were to cover, although this does not matter too much as the excess will be removed. For large flat areas such as the upper and lower wing surfaces larger pieces of foil covering several panels could be used, but for more complex shapes I found that there was no option but to work panel by panel.

The foil is placed on the glued area and burnished down using a cotton bud – the glue softens the foil which allows it to conform to the raised and recessed detail quite well. Once secured down, the excess foil can be removed by carefully running a craft knife along the panel lines, and any excess glue cleaned up using a brush dipped in some thinners. Where needed, recessed detail can be defined by gently running a cocktail stick along the recesses.

I found the glue did a good job securing down the foil, and I didn’t have any issues with it coming up despite handling the model quite significantly during the foiling. Where foil areas did need to be removed it could be gently scraped off using a knife, and the glue cleaned up using some thinners.

In general I found that the foil conformed to the model well, however compound curves presented some difficulty and in some cases needed multiple small strips of foil to cover the panels in these areas. I did find that the foil I used was quite prone to creasing once softened by the glue, and in the future I might try using some that is slightly stronger to avoid this. Areas such as the upwards curve of the vertical stabiliser and the tips of the wings and tailplanes were also not really shaped in a way that made them easy to cover, and probably should have been painted instead.

I did find that with so much handling of the model required during the foiling, the finish in some areas got damaged leaving some scrapes and other marks in the surface that could not be removed – I think that covering finished areas in masking tape would probably go some way to mitigating this, and these probably wouldn’t be as apparent if going for a less reflective finish anyway.

Painting was carried out using Vallejo’s model colour acrylics. The tail and underside of the nose were left unfoiled and painted as normal, however the anti-glare strip on the cowling required masking and painting over a previously foiled area. Remarkably I found no real problems with this – the initial coat of paint did not apply very evenly, almost as if the surface was a little hydrophobic, but subsequent coats covered with no issues – the painted surface did appear a little lumpy in comparison to the plastic areas, but this is probably just down to unevenness in the foil itself.

Despite my masking job not being great, the tape behaved quite well with no real bleed through and no problems with pulling the foil up when removing the tape.

Decals were applied directly on to the foiled surface, with no decal fix or softener used, and seemed to adhere and conform quite well, although as they can’t be sealed in with varnish you need to take a little more care than normal when handling the model. I did find the decals themselves to be extremely thin and fragile which made them a little awkward to work with, especially the red strip around the nose which repeatedly folded over on itself when being applied.


Whilst the result is far from perfect the finish on the metal areas looks quite convincing, and is certainly better that could be achieved using traditional paints. I was a little nervous about how the paints and decals would react to the foiled surface, however I thankfully didn’t encounter any nasty surprises there and found I could approach things as normal.

I’m definitely keen to experiment a bit more with the technique using what I’ve learned so far, and for anyone who’s in a similar situation without an airbrush I would certainly recommend giving the foiling approach a try – if nothing else the result is likely to look quite striking.

For anyone who is considering giving it a go, here are my main takeaways/tips from this build:

  • If you have a paint mule lying around I would definitely consider using it to put in some practice first as this is very different technique to painting and you will have a much easier time if you are comfortable with the process beforehand.
  • Ideally the foil you use should be as thin as possible, but strong enough to resist creasing/tearing. Different foils will also give different finishes, so try and choose one that matches the result you want – as above it’s probably worth experimenting with several kinds to find the one that works best for you.
  • Choose a subject that is shaped well for foiling – I found that complex shapes and compound curves were quite a challenge to foil well, so simpler geometry is probably easier.
  • Don’t feel the need to foil absolutely everything – some areas will be very difficult to cover neatly and it’s probably easier just to paint them – at least in 1/72 scale this won’t be too apparent and will definitely avoid some frustration.
  • Make sure the plastic is clean before applying the foil – it conforms well enough that any detritus on the model can be visible on the surface.
  • Take care when handling – I managed to put some dents and gouges in the surface that could not be removed. Covering completed areas with masking tape might help with this but it can probably also be avoided just by being more carefull when working.
  • I found that rushing would inevitably lead to making a mistake and having to start again, so it’s definitely preferable to take your time. In particular you should take care when cutting away the excess foil as it’s easy to tear it, and I would also avoid the temptation of foiling too large an area at once unless it is very flat as this is likely to lead to creases.

Good luck!

3 thoughts on “The Tin-Foil P-51 – Using aluminium foil to achieve a bare metal finish”

  1. That looks really good, but I’m with you, I don’t think I wold have the patience to pull that off. Luckily I have an airbrush, so when I get to bare metal, out come the Vallejo Metal Air!


  2. I have used Elmer’s glue in a spray can. I sprayed the tin-foil and sticked it to wax paper.
    I have used that on my Monogram B-29 and B-17 20 years ago.


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