Introduction: Build a Sturdy Model SU
MiniArts 1:35 scale kit of the Soviet SU-76M assault gun built by Steve Zaloga for Military Modelling.
The Soviet SU-76 was one of the most widely produced Allied AFVs of World War II, outnumbered in the Red Army only by the T-34. It has not been well served by the model companies until now with MiniArts excellent new 1:35 scale SU-76M kit.
Step 1: Suspension
I began with the suspension. This was one of the most troublesome aspects of the model as the torsion bar arms that connect the wheels to the hull do not fit very well to the hull side sockets. The problem is a combination of a bad fit of the axles and the lack of any firm method for securing the wheels at a constant height. My method around this problem was the old scratch-builders secret of building a small box from a strip of sheet plastic 7.5mm high, mounting this on a solid, flat piece of wood, and then temporarily attaching the hull to the assembly jig with tape. This keeps the hull level while attaching the road wheels.
Step 2: Tracks
The tracks provided in the kit are nice and delicate, but they lack any positive means of attachment during assembly. I found that the best way to assemble them was to mount them on a piece of basswood, and glue them together with slow-setting liquid cement such as Testors. The basswood is preferable over a piece of plastic strip, as the glue wont stick to the wood. Slow setting glue is a good idea to prevent the tracks from becoming rigid before attaching them to the suspension. I attached them to the suspension before they became hard in order to bend them around the idler wheel and drive sprocket, as well as to provide enough flexibility to depict some track sag in the upper run.
Step 3: Brass Screen
One of the few clunky features of the kit is the depiction of the screening over the engine air intake on the side and the rear. I decided to cut both of these out and replace them with photo-etched brass screen. This proved more difficult than it first appeared, as the side air intake box is very thick, and the hole in the rear intake plate does not match up to the radiator housing inside the fighting compartment. I solved the first problem by scratch-building a new air intake box for the hull side out of black Evergreen plastic, and I solved the second problem by adding some trim around the hole in the rear plate to hide the problem.
A standard issue with open-topped AFVs, such as this one, is the thickness of the armour plate on the exposed edges. While it is possible to replace these with sheet plastic, my approach is usually to thin the upper edges to a knife-edge, which is easier, and effectively disguises the problem.
Step 4: Traditional Approach
I would not recommend following the kit instruction sequence as it suggests attaching lots of the little detail parts to various subcomponents before assembling major kit bits. I used a more traditional approach, and put together most of the major assemblies before attaching the smaller and more delicate parts.
Step 5: Gun Assembly
The next major construction problem I encountered was the gun assembly. MiniArt uses the same ZiS-3 gun they provide in their kit of the normal field gun version. While this is all well and good, in reality, the forward recuperator housing and other bits dont fit very well within the new armoured housing. Even if it is possible to get this whole assembly together after a lot of shaving and sanding, it still means that it is necessary to build the gun already attached to the chassis before painting.
Step 6: Gun Separate
I wanted the gun separate from the hull to make it easier to paint it and the fighting compartment interior and my solution was to cut off the front of the gun, which wont be seen anyway. This way, the rear portion of the gun can be left separate for painting and detailing, while at the same time the exterior part of the gun mounting can be assembled with the rest of the hull. The only part of the forward gun assembly that should be saved is the forward part of the slide that can be seen through the opening at the bottom of the armoured gun cover. I also replaced the barrel and muzzle brake with one from an Italeri ZiS-3 because MiniArt moulded the muzzle-brake top-to-bottom which promised to be a problem getting the openings to look right; I had a stash of Italeri kits from a hobby show some years ago when someone was selling stacks of them for the give-away price of 50 cents each. However, I have a suspicion we will see a turned brass or aluminium barrel and muzzle brake for this kit eventually anyway.
Step 7: Extra Detail Work
Open-topped AFVs such as the SU-76M offer plenty of opportunity for extra small detail work. The two most useful references I found for doing some super-detailing are Aleksander Chubashins book on the SU-76 originally published in Russian, but reprinted in Polish by Militaria as No.260 in their Tank Power series, and the Kagero Topshots on the SU-76 by Grzegorz Okonski; both are still in print and are available from book dealers who handle Polish publications, or via Internet Polish hobby shots such as Jadar.
Step 8: Further Interior Detail
I did a fair amount of small detail changes in the fighting compartment, including substantial re-builds of the ammunition racks and machine gun drum racks. The 76mm ammunition racks provided the biggest headache as each round had a small semi-circular clip to hold it in place. I spent a couple of evenings trying out various schemes to depict these clips including various attempts at vacuum-forming and using PE strips, but I finally settled on using plastic strip instead. I wrapped some .010 x .030 thou Evergreen strip around a brass rod, submerged it in boiling water, and then quenched it in cold water to make it keep its shape. I then cut the strip into semi-circular pieces, and assembled them together with some other little bits to result in the final shape seen in the photos. I doubt many modellers will wish to go to this level of effort, but perhaps some after-market firm will come up with an ingenious way around this problem.
The machine gun drum racks were much easier. I started by punching small holes in .010 thou sheet plastic, cutting these into squares, then trimming off the angles. Next I made a simple jig using basswood to keep the individual plates separated evenly, and glued the assemblies together using the outer strips. I have a suspicion that some of the after-market PE manufacturers will offer these eventually.
Step 9: Comprehensive Radio Set
I wanted a more comprehensive radio set than the one provided in the kit, so I built a 12-RT set using the stowage box provided in the kit. I rebuilt the mountings for the periscopes, which are a bit simplified on the kit. The padding on the rear plate is too flat, but I only replaced the portion on the access door using epoxy putty, as it is the most obvious. I added a gunners seat, and re-carved the other two seats, which are a bit too rigid and angular for padded seats.
Step 10: Brass 76mm Ammunition
The one after-market part already available for this kit is the excellent set of turned brass 76mm ammunition from Hussar, and I got mine from Air Connection in Canada. These not only provide a much wider selection of ammunition types than the kit, but also some spare brass cases to depict spent rounds, excellent markings information, and even ridiculously tiny decals for stencilling on the projectiles! The DT machine gun came from an Eastern Express BT-7 kit, though Model Kasten also released a white metal DT machine gun many years ago that may still be available.
Step 11: Front Exterior of the Gun Mount
I rebuilt a fair amount of detail around the front exterior of the gun mount based on my observations of the one at Aberdeen Proving Ground. I decided to show my SU-76M without the extensive assortment of tools provided in the kit, but this is actually more work than using the kit parts since it requires a set of tool clasps. I made these from some spare bits of German AFV clasps in my PE stash. I replaced the kit tow cable with one made from Karaya soft copper cable, and I depicted one of the different styles of tow cable loop sometimes seen on Soviet light AFVs which used a series of small screw plates to hold the loop in place. To add a little interest to the front, I depicted the front mudguards folded up, making new front mudguards from .010 thou sheet plastic.
Step 12: Hollow Out the Exhaust
I hollowed out the exhaust stubs on the right side, and also made winter-covers for the air intake since I intended to depict my model in winter camouflage. The exhaust pipes on the SU-76M were usually wrapped with asbestos cloth strips, and I replicated this using Christmas tissue cut into thin strips and soaked in a solution of white glue and water before wrapping the kit pipes.
Step 13: Strips Cut From Brass Sheet
The kit provides the many small mudguard braces, but I decided to replace these with strips cut from brass sheet to get them closer to scale thickness. I replaced the various U shaped stowage loops with thinner ones made from wire, and the square shaped loops from some PE sheets intended for T-34 kits. The small O clips around the top of the fighting compartment for tying down the tarpaulin came from some Tichy railroad HO scale plastic O rings.
Step 14: Toothpaste
I decided to show my SU-76M in the markings of the 8th Light SP Artillery Brigade, which had an interesting unit insignia. Photos of the unit in the Militaria book showed a very weathered winter whitewash. Ive always found a distressed whitewash finish to be a real challenge to paint because if its too sloppy, the model looks messy, but if its not distressed enough, the finish looks toy-like and phoney. Ive tried using the salt masking method of weathering, and while this can be effective, I find it to be a little too geometric and a bit too difficult to control. Another masking method is to use Marmite (yeast extract spread), but since that substance is abhorred (ignored?) by the sensitive palates of the Former Colonies in the Americas, I needed a substitute.
The closest in texture and dissolvability is toothpaste. I tried this a few times when depicting distressed paint on wooden doors such as on the wooden door in my M5A1 vignette two issues ago. The main problem I have with toothpaste is that it is soap, and so it tends to dissolve acrylic paint even after it has dried. Since I use Tamiya acrylics for most of my painting, this is a bit of a problem. The obvious solution was to create a barrier between the paint and the toothpaste, and I decided to try a clear lacquer, in this case Testors lacquer clear gloss.
Step 15: Controlled Application
After applying a base coat of Tamiya XF65 Field Grey to depict faded Soviet 4BO camouflage green, I airbrushed the model with clear gloss lacquer to protect it from toothpaste attack. Once dry, I dappled the model with toothpaste using a bit of natural sponge; the type found in an art/craft store, not the synthetic stuff found on the kitchen sink! The main advantage of toothpaste is that its application can be controlled, so I applied more around the lip of the fighting compartment were the tarpaulin shielded it from the whitewash. Likewise, I applied more below the drivers hatch where constant little Russki feet would wear it away.
Step 16: Scrubbing Excess Toothpaste
Once the toothpaste was in place, I then airbrushed an irregular pattern of Tamiya XF2 White acrylic over it. I let this set for about half an hour until it was dry to the touch, and then I took the model over to the sink along with a broad acrylic brush with firm bristles, and scrubbed off the toothpaste, exposing the green paint below. This takes a bit of practice, so experiment on some old model or some scrap parts before attempting it on a precious model! I find this method provides a very realistic chipping effect that is far more natural than trying to depict it by hand painting. I made the unit markings on my Epson inkjet printer using Testors clear decal sheet.
Step 17: Seasonal Setting
I decided to show the model in a late winter/early spring setting with the ground starting to thaw and the suspension dirty from mud. I used Tamiya XF51 Khaki Drab, followed by an irregular overcoat of XF72 JSDF Brown on the suspension and on bits of the lower hull. Most of the small detail painting was done with Vallejo acrylics.
Step 18: Finishing Touches
The vehicle commander is from the Alpine Miniatures series, kit 35039, which is up to their usual high standards of sculpting and casting. The stowage on the model was adapted from the Blast resin sets, mainly their recent Humber scout car set. I made the base from a piece of blue Styrofoam house insulation with Silflor grass. I painted the base in white, and then dry-brushed the Silfor grass starting in XF60 Dark Yellow and then working in lighter colours to resemble dead grass.
Step 19: Concluding
The MiniArt SU-76M is a craftsman model that demands more care and attention than a Tamiya kit, but it is worth the effort as the detail and structural accuracy of the kit is extremely fine. I certainly hope that MiniArt continues to turn out kits of this quality. This model provides an enormous amount of vignette and diorama potential, for example a Suka carrying a load of infantry riders. I hope the accompanying historical photos will provide some inspiration for modellers of the SU-76.