MPM 1/72 Grumman F3F-1
KIT #: 72077
PRICE: $25.00 or so
DECALS: guess so
NOTES: Short run issue with long run technology


            As an opening line for this review of a colorful yellow wing “tweener”, I  wanted to emphasize  the contrast with today’s monochrome schemes. The challenge was tossed out to the editorial staff, huddled on the couch watching “Deal or No Deal”:  “What’s the dullest, most drab,  least inspiring thing you can think of?” The wife was no help at all. A shrugged “I Love Lucy re-runs” was the best she could offer. But Fafnir, the fuzz-faced puppy dawg, gave me that look that makes it so easy to read her mind. So here goes:

            Modern aircraft, in their gray paint and low-viz markings are as dull as dog food again for dinner; but once upon a time, ’tween the two world wars, American airplanes were painted up like a two dollar whore on a Saturday night when the fleet is in.

            The assurance of peace and US hegemony over land and sea  obviated attempts to make planes blend into their background. Search and rescue concerns put a coat of chrome yellow on upper surfaces. Facilitating form-up led to a complex color code with cowl rings, fuselage bands, wing chevrons, and tail paint denoting squadrons, leadership positions, formation slots, and carrier assignments. For the benefit of color-blind flyers, and those who had forgotten to wear their  Little Orphan  Annie Secret Decoder Rings, this information was reiterated  in an alpha-numeric pattern splashed over wings, tail, and flanks.

             The  system reached its pinnacle in the late 1930’s, best worn  on Grumman’s short-reigning series of  tubby biplane fighters.  Except for Monogram’s ancient 1/32 rendering of the famous Gulfhawk (now at the NASM), these airplanes were, for most of the history of modeling, ignored. A fist-full of years ago, Merlin (or maybe it was Pegasus) issued a  rough but buildable 1:72 scale  F3F-3, the last version with the largest engine and schnoz.  Accurate Miniatures semi-recently  kitted a -1 in 1:48, a presumably popular kit judging by the number of build reviews retrievable through GOOGLE. The Czech MPM Company finally issued models of both the -1 and -3 variants, which if out of production, are still available for sale on that company’s and most retailers’ Web sites.

            The Grumman F3F’s historical significance is limited to it being the last USN biplane . The -1 model was a development of the F2F and corrected the latter’s stability problems through a stretched wings and fuselage. It began active service in 1936 with squadrons aboard the carriers Ranger and Saritoga. The larger engined -2 and -3 models soon replaced it; but with arrival of the Brewster Buffalo and Grumman’s own F-4 Wildcat the biplane era ended. Training duties kept it busy until all were withdrawn from service in1941.


            The only thing “short run” about recent releases from the Czech modeling consortium (MPM-Pavla-Sword-Olimp, maybe some others) is the limited number of shots out of each mold. Everything else about fit, finish, and engineering nips at the heels of the revered Japanese; with the exception, perhaps, that no locating, tabs, pins, or holes are provided. The location of struts and such is clearly engraved however.

             The plastic is hard, smooth, free of flash and other flaws. The one piece injected canopy is transparent and thin, too thin, unfortunately, to correct by grinding and polishing (at least for this timid soul) a semi-circular “hair” molded into the left side.

            A small photo-etched brass fret holds an alternative to the molded instrument panel, a pair of rudder pedals, which cannot possibly be seen and are best saved for a more visible venue, some unidentifiable sub-microscopics, and a 2-piece lap belt. No shoulder restraints are provided because in the 1930’s designers  envisioned no reason to install them; an unfortunate  oversight, as the state of the art was primitive in reconstructive maxilo-facial surgery.

            Resin is reserved for the engine (or rather engine face), the engine mounting  spacer, and a larger, similarly shaped cylinder identified on the parts map as Part #36 but otherwise appearing nowhere else on the clearly presented 8-page instruction booklet.

             Resin is also unfortunately the medium of choice for the engine cowl; unfortunate because this choice results in the kit’s only failing. The pour plug is attached at the cowl’s leading edge lip. Cutting it away, however carefully, causes the opening to be too large, too sharp, and insufficiently turned inward. After ruminating upon possible fixes, ranging from grafting on a new cowl lip from the spares bin, to forming and fairing in a filler ring made of rod stock, I settled on the easiest method -  rebuilding the surround with globs of CA gel allowed to cure at its own rate (accelerator causes fizzing and foaming). Shaping and smoothing was complicated by the tear-shaped rocker box protrusions, but my detail sander made from an electric   toothbrush  came to the rescue (q.v. the conversion in MM’s How-To section).  To avoid the problem grind, rather than cut,  the pour plug down to a thin “hymen membrane” then gradually open and smooth the orifice.


            More than with a monoplane, building a bipe pre-requires a strategy session to settle upon the construction and painting sequence. Adding the struts and landing gear assemblies prior to painting would make the neatest paint job (covering all the glue joints), but these fragile parts would doubtless be broken in handling. The standard solution is to assemble fuselage, tail and lower wing panels; paint and decal, then concatenate the fiddly bits and subassemblies. That in turn requires that the locating engravings for struts and other small parts be deepened with a rotary burr bit to prevent losing them under the finish coats.

            The next step is to plan for rigging, and bore  anchor openings  for major wires. I drill holes halfway through the upper wing, and completely through lower surfaces, where the inevitable stubs and paint touch-ups will not be noticed.

            Instructions call for assembling and inserting the cockpit as Step # 1, but the cockpit opening is large enough to insert the seat and stick at a later point, which facilitates masking the interior. The floor, bulkhead, and instrument panel must go in before the fuselage halves are glued together. I used the injected instrument panel, painted black, and later adorned with instrument decals from True Details.

            Step #3 diagrams assembly of a 4-piece hexagonal bulkhead assembly which is supposed to blank out the landing gear wells. This conglomeration neither fits nor suggests for itself  a use justifying the trouble of its construction, so it was discarded in favor of  closures made from thin card stock. Anchor blocks (parts 18 & 19) must be glued to the fuselage inner surfaces or the main and tailwheel struts will have nothing to hold on to.

            Fuselage halves fit together perfectly without vice-pressure or filler. The cockpit opening needs clean-up and tweaking to fit the canopy, so the clear part should be cut from its sprue at this point, test-fit, and adjustments made. A head-on drawing in the instructions calls for no noticeable  dihedral in either the lower wings or horizontal stabilizers. After their butt joints have hardened, the paint shop needs to be opened for business.


            Markings are provided for 2 aircraft, neither of which is optimally colorful, considering the possibilities and the references available.  Both are section leader planes featuring full cowl ring and fuselage bands. 4-F-10 uses black for the section color with a green tail denoting the squadron and home carrier. Black isn’t one of my favorite colors.  3-F-1 has red  bands and a white tail. White isn’t one of my favorite colors either.

             Blue is my favorite color, which is why I wanted to reproduce 4-F-7, a striking combination of blue cowl, band, and chevron, with a willow green tail. Markings for that plane, which is amply documented in books and on several Web sites,  were scrounge-able from the spare decals bin, with one big BUT. By the late 30’s, airplane painters had gotten fancy-schmancy and were outlining the colors with thin contrasting lines. Black and red were outlined in white, and said stripes were provided on the kit decal sheet. Blue was outlined with black and the spares bin would yield up no black stripes 1/16” wide. Preliminary experimental attempts to cut them from larger black swatches proved less than promising.

            The Yellow Wings Decal Company was announcing on their Web site a forthcoming release of 1/72 F3F-1  markings, to include the object of desire. The project was placed in a scratch-and-hold, not pending that production, but because a long Indian Summer  provided too much opportunity to whittle down the contents of an overstuffed Honey-Do outdoor projects jar. By the time Wright Brothers Day rolled around (Dec 17, remember?) no doubt remained  that Balmy Autumn had been overwhelmed by the coldest Mid-Atlantic Winter in 15 years. (Thank you, Al Gore, for warming the global.) The Secret Model Airplane Building Room was de-mothballed and the F3F was exhumed from the Pending Projects Drawer.

            E-mail queries to Yellow Wings went unanswered, so I bit the bullet and settled on the black / green combo. While outlining stripe s are provided on the decal sheet, color bands are not.  The fuselage wrap, wing chevron, and cowl  must  be painted, which causes a confrontation with the silver base color. Manufacturers’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding, and with the possible exception of Alclad II, the price-per-ounce of which exceeds that for gold bullion, no bare metal finish readily retailed in this corner of the galaxy  is immune from the ravages of masking tape; particularly not tape tacky enough to cling to the complex curvatures  of the bipe’s barrel-shaped body.

             Floquil’s railroad enamels are the most resilient I’ve encountered, but I still decided to play it safe by first spraying then masking the accent colors (except on the upper wing surface, where Testors gloss black was applied over Model Master chrome yellow, which in turn rested on a base coat of gloss white).  A light coat of Future provided a passable representation of the appropriate aluminum laquer sheen, as well as a smooth substrate for the decals.

            These are printed by Propagteam, and give possibly the best results of any water-slides; though they can be  frustratingly finicky if not properly handled  (phrase sound familiar to you married guys?).They have to be floated, not slid into position. A few drops of wetting agent added to the soak water helps avoid catastrophe. I use Artist’s Acrylic Flow Improver, available at artist and craft supply stores (Michaels et al). It is also effective in taming Future’s occasional graininess and orange-peeling tantrums. Ten drops per ounce. Do not, as called for on the label, first dilute the agent with water; as this causes the Future to bead up rather than level out. Propagteam decals settle and adhere adequately without setting agents; but will tolerate and even benefit from an application of Micro-Sol – after the marking has first thoroughly dried.

            Despite exercise of extreme vigilance in application, the Decal Gremlins managed to do their evil deeds. While my attention was diverted, several markings, notably the tail fin codes, were surreptitiously slid out of alignment. Once appliqués of this brand  take hold, they  cannot be re-floated and re-positioned. A pair of sub-miniature fin markings is provided, revealed  under high magnification to be winged  turtle silhouettes, the significance of which is not explained in any reference. (Elucidations  are welcome from knowledgeable members of the audience.) One of these was duly coaxed into position; the other simply vanished from the forceps tip in what can only be concluded to be a mini-preview of the Heavenly Rapture. Searching the spares box for anything remotely similar was futile. A second coat of floor wax  sealed everything for posterity and secured the historically appropriate pristinity. These airplanes were reportedly maintained in brand-spanking-new condition; and photos betray no weathering.



            Affixing the upper wing is best done by attaching to the lower panels the main “N” struts; using high-grab slow-set tube glue to achieve an approximate but adjustable angle. Once this goo has semi-set, the upper wing can be poked into place and the assembly left undisturbed to harden, hopefully free of gremlin intervention. The cabane struts can then be inserted. Those provided on the sprues are oversize, in need of de-seaming, and endowed with swollen fairings resembling turkey drumsticks. They are more easily replaced with bits from the spares box or lengths of strip stock. The anchor points identified and enhanced with a burr bit prior to painting did not provide the proper strut angles. Filling these depressions with thick silver paint and engraving new ones spoiled what stared out as a flawless paint job. That ruination was furthered  by the need to re-do the rigging holes, which now also were in the wrong loci.



            The most near-perfect medium for 1:72 rigging is 32 gauge stainless steel surgical suture. I’m blessed with a brother in the business, still indebted to me for helping to put him through medical school. Others will need to negotiate with approachable doctors, dentists, or veterinarians (while  at the bargaining table, try also for a box of #11 scalpel blades). This wire comes packaged in foot-long tubes and is stiff enough to hold its straightness without tension. It is tough stuff and will ruin the jaws of a sprue cutter if  this favorite cutting tool is foolishly selected. (Ask me how I know.)

            The stringing technique involves slipping an approximate length through the lower hole, so as to avoid any bending, inserting it  into the upper anchor point, then securing both ends with liquid CA (Cyano-Acrylate;  Super Glue). Stubs protruding to the underside can be cut, ground flush, and  treated to a paint touch-up. Short sections, such as the criss-cross pieces spanning the cabane struts, are more easily cut to length by trial and error and pinned in place with tiny globs of gel.

            After achieving a perfectly taught stringing in a single session, I allowed the glue to set for several hours (accelerator, remember, causes foaming); returning to find several strands had somehow sagged. Thermal expansion seemed the likely culprit, but on second thinking that made no sense. The room was now much colder, and if anything, the metal wires should have contracted. Conceding to  the  irresistible power of the Gremlins, I managed to re-string the worst offenders without causing unacceptable damage.

            After another glue-drying interval, I again returned to find the same landing wires had sagged. My fist, raised high in preparation to smash to smithereens the accursed project, was frozen in mid air by a slash of scientific  insight: “Ach! Du! Dumkopf!”  Yes, thermal expansion, or rather contraction, was indeed the villain. Colder temperature did shorten the wires; BUT – the considerably greater mass of styrene was also affected. The length of the wings and struts was shortened, as consequently was the interplane distance – a greater differential than could be accommodated by the shrinking wires. After turning up the thermostat and letting the room reach normal temperature, the wires returned to their perfect alignment.

My previous repair and the devastation it caused had all been in vain.

            The route to avoidance of future suture disappointment would be performance  of  all rigging operations in an unheated environment. However, manipulating hair-thin wire while wearing goose down-filled mittens  would present additional challenges. An alternative, as yet untried, solution suggested itself. Instead of securing both ends of the wire, leave the lower end unglued so that it could ride freely in its anchor hole without bending, just as a steel girder slides in the expansion joint of a bridge or sky-scraper. I’ll give it a try and report on the results in the next build report of a biplane – which may take awhile. The only ones in the stash are Roden’s Curtis flying boat, and Olimp’s Jenny on floats. The degree of rigging required by each is enough to give any sane man reason to reconsider. Both my rest eternally undisturbed in their boxes.


            Since the airframe would remain secured in the Panavise-Jr. by a sprue rod stuck to the  firewall, affixation of all the appurtenances  would proceed from the tail cone forward on bottom, then top, concluding with a crowning by the cowl and prop. The box art and build photos from Hyperscale (of the Accurate Miniatures 1:48 bird) showed a dangling tailhook, but no such part could be found on the parts map. Before diving into the spares bin, I checked  my Squadron In Action reference, which clearly states that the hook hides in its shroud, that isosceles thing-a-ma-whozits   molded beneath the rudder. MORAL: Research the real airplane. Don’t perpetuate another modeler’s or artist’s mistakes.

            The tail bracing struts are a bit big and in need of clean-up, so they were shoved aside in favor of snippets of strip stock.

            Each of the landing gear assemblies comprises a mini model in itself. The main struts have molded on their upper end a curious rectangular box, A check with Squadron / Signal and The Grumman Guidebook  revealed that these most likely represented hydraulic cylinders responsible for pulling the gear up into the belly, I carved them away, replaced them with lengths of round stock, and fashioned from stretched sprue a set of  near-invisible actuating  rods. The lower retraction arms are molded together with a section of belly skin, facilitating assembly, The upper sets of “V” arms are better replaced by bits of rod or stretched sprue. I masked the wheels by first spraying them scale black, then, using a hollow gasket punch, poked an appropriate sized hole in a square of tape and covered the tire (tyre to you British folks) with the resultant donut (or doughnut), then shot the hubcaps silver. .

            Topside, the antenna masts were made from bits of stiff wire and the antennae themselves were formed of “invisible thread”.  Seat and stick (It’s a “Joyce stick”, not a “Joy stick”)  went in at this time. As mentioned, I left the molding flaw in the canopy, rather than risk destroying, by sanding and polishing, it and any remaining composure. The canopy suffers another less serious flaw. The longitudinal framing that separates the canopy into three sections is not molded.  Easily fixed with pieces of foil HVAC tape (Heating / Ventilating / Air Conditioning – handy  stuff in the modeling room and elsewhere around the house and car). Some F3F-1’s had an additional lateral brace about ¾ of the way aft of  the windshield frame, but this particular plane apparently was not so equipped.

            As I was attempting to place the telescopic bombsight in front of the canopy, it too was snapped from the forceps and sucked into the Upperworld to join the previously disappeared flying turtle decal. Neither has ever been again seen. I fashioned a new sight from a section of modern jet boarding ladder. In reality, the eyepiece of the sight passed through the windshield into the cockpit. Dive-bombing into the sea at a 40 degree angle with the pilot’s attention riveted to a tiny ocular must have been an exciting prospect, particularly in light of a lack of shoulder restraints.

            The passably accurate  resin engine face fits into the cowl without alteration or altercation.  A cylindrical resin spacer holds the assembly slightly away from the firewall so a gap exists between the cowl and fuselage. Apparently cowl flaps had not yet been invented and ram air for cooling exited at this space.  The F-3 had two tiny but distinctively faired exhaust stubs beneath the cowl. Their location is scribed, but no parts are provided. I was about to fashion some from hollow solder and drill them into the cowl, but on a weird hunch checked the spare parts bin marked “Engines”. There, still stuck to a piece  of sprue, was a pair of precisely formed pipes. I believe they came from an FF-1 model (also MPM, or maybe Pavla),  where they had been  replaced by hollow tubing.

            After the prop, the last part to go on is a small scoop – probably carburetor – on the port side. At this stage I had begun clearing  the bench and had thrown away all the “empty” sprues; so I carved a new inlet from some sort of fairing. The scribed location for the scoop seemed  a tad too high, but by the time I decided to move it the Superglue had set.


            More yellow wing ‘tweener classics, Mom. Please.

Joel Hamm

January 2009

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