How to Paint a Model Rocket

To achieve the look of a model rocket that appears like a small scale replica of the real life rocket, it is important to learn how to paint a model rocket.

Like any painting job, the key to success is careful preparation of the surfaces to be painted. Painting over bumpy surfaces or bare wood will lead to unsightly results. Once the surface is prepared, a primer coat of paint should be sprayed on giving the model a nice clean and smooth surface to paint. The primary color of the rocket should then be sprayed on to achieve a nice consistent finish. Once dried, additional colors can be sprayed or brushed on, and then the rocket may be sealed. Finally, decals can be applied and final finishing touches done.

The steps listed in this article are the standard steps in finishing a rocket. Some model rockets need little, if any, painting, while others must be fully finished. For more basic finishing, some steps may be skipped, and for more detailed painting and finishing some additional detailing steps may be done.

Prepare the Rocket

The key to a great paint job for a model rocket is to have a smooth surface. This means that during assembly, care should be taken to glue carefully (i.e. do not leave lumps of glue on the rocket) and make sure all pieces are lined up correctly.

Seal Balsa Fins

Wood absorbs paint. Because of this, any bare wood surfaces should be sealed with a sanding sealer. The sanding sealer will also work as a filler to make the surface of the wood smooth. Once dried, the balsa should be sanded with 400 grit wet-dry sandpaper. This process should be repeated, usually about three times, until the sanding yields a perfectly smooth surface.

  • HINT: look at the reflection of a light, at a sharp angle, on the surface of the wood to see any imperfections.

Sanding

Surfaces to be painted should be sanded to remove any imperfections and leave a clean surface for the paint to adhere to. Lightly sanding the entire model rocket with 400 grit wet-dry sandpaper, including the body tube and nose cone, will both smooth the surface and remove any glossy surfaces that would be hard for paint to stick to.

Remove Nose Cone

The nose cone should be removed from the rocket, if possible, to paint it separately. If the nose cone is painted with the rocket, then it is very possible for the nose cone to become stuck to the body tube by the paint. If this happens, you have to break the nose cone loose from the body tube, which will often damage the painting job you just completed.

The nose cone should be painted while in a spare section of body tube whenever possible.

Paint the Rocket

With the model rocket sealed and prepared, the rocket is ready for paint.

  • Please see How to Choose a Model Paint

Apply Primer Coat

A primer coat of paint may be applied which provides a proper surface for the final paint to stick to. The color of primer to use should be selected based on the final color of the rocket, so the primer color will not effect the final results of the painting job.

Major Color of Rocket Color of Primer to Use
Light (white, yellow, etc.) White
Medium (green, blue, orange, etc.) Gray
Dark (dark-blue, red, black, etc.) Black

Once the primer has dried, sand off any dust marks or imperfections gently with 600 grit wet-dry sandpaper.

Apply Base Color

Whichever color is the majority of the rocket, is usually used for the base color to simplify the entire painting process.

Apply a light, even coat of the base color. Make sure not too spray on the paint too thick as it will streak and leave an unsightly surface. It is always better to do two light coats of paint than one heavy coat. Apply as many coats as necessary to achieve the desired color consistency, then set the rocket aside and let it dry completely.

Add Secondary Colors

If additional color are to be applied to the rocket, they may be done once the base color has cured completely. There are two ways to add secondary colors: paint by hand, or mask off certain areas and use a spray paint.

For those with a steady hand, or when secondary colors are used minimally, applying the paint by hand is a good option. Make sure to use a quality paint brush. The use of a small amount paint thinner added to the paint, to make it apply smoother, is helpful if hand painting a fairly large area.

Though sometimes challenging, the use of masking tape to cover the portions of the rocket that are not to be painted, and then using a spray paint to apply the secondary color, will typically results in the best final finish for the paint. This technique should only be done by an experienced modeler since the accurate application of the masking tape, to make sure a clean paint edge is achieved, usually takes practice to achieve.

Finish Touches

Now that the model rocket has been fully painted, decals may be applied and an optional top-coat may be applied. To really finish off the model, a final coat of wax (like waxing a car) will make the model rocket shine.

Apply Decals

The decals should be applied based on the instructions that come with the decals. There are several different types of decals, so following the directions is very important.

Apply Top Coat

Once the rocket is finished, a final top-coat may be applied. This is a clear coat of paint designed to seal and protect the rocket. The top-coat will also seal in any decals that have been applied, reducing the chance that the edges of the decals will peel up.

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