Superdetailing the GIAT "LeClerc" Main Battle Tank 503eme RCC, 2eme Escadron Mourmelon, France, 1997
With Modern Main Battle Tanks being my favorite models to build, I could not leave the French Leclerc out of my collection. This one is the fourth of my finished collection behind the Minicraft M1A1 (Desert Storm), the DML T-80 with ERA (Russia), and the Tamiya Challenger (Desert Sabre). I am attempting to build the most modern tanks of each country that are currently in service. The model described in this article was completed in 1999, and represents a vehicle as it would appear upon initial delivery to its parent unit from the factory. As a side note, this article is for an initial production vehicle, and does not reflect the most current versions being fielded in Kosovo.
This is the first Heller Kit I have made and it has some good, as well as bad points. For the most part, the kit has real nice surface texture on both the hull and the turret, and the detailing is what I would consider average to above average. As a plus, the kit includes a set of photo-etched brass that contains engine deck screens, non-skid plates, rear fuel drum mounting straps, and snorkel tube mounting straps. The quality of the photo-etched brass ranges from good to mediocre. The tracks are both good and bad depending on how you look at it. They are the rubber band type, which makes them easy to assemble, but they have raised ejector pin marks on them that you cannot remove, which spoils the otherwise decent looking tracks. The plastic parts are flash free, but have raised ejector pin marks, sinkholes, and bad mold shift lines that are a hassle to remove. In addition, the sprue attachment points are really thick and difficult. This all makes for a pretty bad part fit throughout most of the kit. One thing that bugged me about this kit was the way Heller molded the periscope parts. They are not the usual separate piece of clear acetate to be inserted into an open periscope, and they are not molded as part of the hull and turret. These are separate parts that are molded in clear plastic (I should say "barely clear") with the intention that they be glued down, and the model builder paint around the clear periscope faces. It is difficult to do this way, and the clear parts presented some of the worst fit problems encountered. Heller, why did you do it this way? The biggest downer of the kit is the decals. They were, quite simply, the worst I have ever seen! On the other hand, the instructions are adequate, as the drawings are clear and easy to follow, and there is also a nice five-view paint and markings guide included. The following paragraphs will expand on these topics.
There are many small things that I did to the kit to make it more accurate in regards to my references, and this article will describe the building and detailing techniques that I used to get it finished. I followed a construction sequence different than in the kit instructions, so I will start from the very beginning.
BUILDING THE HULL:
The first 4 steps of the instructions are spent building the figures. They look like zombies, so dont even bother doing them.
Step 5 is for the eight photo-etched pieces on the engine deck. I did not do Step five until later.
In Step 6, Heller would have you paint the lower hull, road wheels, idlers, drive sprockets, and return rollers. This is an unnecessary step, as you assemble all these parts in step seven, and this is where I actually started assembly.
Step 7 is for the idlers, Step 8 the road wheels, and Step 9 the drive sprockets. All of these parts have locating tabs and slots, and caused no trouble to assemble. I use a simple process to make sure the wheels are straight. After applying glue to the locating surfaces, I press the completed wheels flat on my workbench. I do this on both sides, and then roll them down a slightly inclined workbench. If they roll straight, youre good to go. If they roll crooked, flatten them until they roll straight, and your done. Once I was satisfied with the running gear, I put the parts back in the box for later assembly.
Step 10 is construction of the upper hull to the lower hull, and rear hull plate. No specific sequence is given in the instructions, and after a lot of test fitting, I decided to glue the rear hull plate to the lower hull, and then the upper hull to the lower. The fit of the rear hull plate was very tight, and wasnt bad. I applied Testors liquid cement to the seams on the inside of the parts, and when finished, I had a very nice joint on the hull bottom that only needed a very light sanding to remove. The upper hull piece was not as nice. First, it was warped along the sloping section in front of the Drivers hatch on the left-hand side. Second, the plastic is very thick in this area of the part, and it refused to change shape with pressure or hot water. Third, the lower hull and rear hull plate have no locating tabs for the upper hull. I ended up super gluing the front of the hull top to the glacis plate with accelerator. Once set up, I lined up the upper hull with the rear plate, and of course, it didnt fit like it did during testing. To make a long story short, I used rubber bands and super glue to get the parts as close to fitting as possible, and when dry, filled and sanded the gaps. This was very unpleasant, and I said many nasty words at the model, as there were many gaps and uneven areas on the top of the hull sides, next to details that I did not want to sand away. I asked Mike Kendall, who built this kit before I did about the fit problems, and he told me the upper hull in his kit was also warped, so I take no blame in builders error. It is just bad!
With the basic hull and running gear finished, I moved on to step 11, 12, and 13, which is the assembly of the suspension and return rollers on both sides of the hull. The first and last road wheel stations have pieces that are added first, and then you can start making the suspension units. The suspension on the LeClerc is very unusual looking in the kit. As I did not have any reference photos of the suspension, I dont know how accurate it is. I can say that these parts are a real nightmare to clean up though. They are supposed to be somewhat round, but with mold shift being really bad on these parts, I recommend only cleaning up the first and last units that will be visible. Save yourself a lot of time and heartache, as the other units will not be visible after the road wheels, tracks and side skirts are on the model. Watch the alignment too, as the parts did not fit together very well in their alignment holes. My solution was to glue them all in place with liquid cement, wait for the glue to set almost hard, and then place about half a pound of pennies inside the hull. I used only enough weight to insure that all the road wheel arms touched the surface of the worktable. Once the suspension units were dry, I wrapped up steps 11 and 12 by gluing on the return rollers and mounts.
Steps 14 and 15 is the installation of the road wheels, drive sprockets, and tracks. Now is when the decision must be made to do these steps, as the side skirts will be attached in step sixteen. Do you leave the suspension unfinished until after painting, and then add the skirts, or do you paint and add the suspension before doing the side skirts? I found that the road wheels are loose fitting on the axles. I tried each wheel at least three times on three different axles, and the fit did not change. Also, pay close attention to the wire axle for the drive sprockets, as it is a bit too long and has a lot of play, with no real locator to make sure it stays in place. I assembled the tracks after painting and dry brushing with the old "heat the screwdriver with a lighter trick." They were easy, and fit O.K. They sag at the front and the back, just like the real thing. As mentioned, it is unfortunate that they have raised ejector pin marks on them that refuse to be removed. Even when finished with the track on, and the skirts in place, the road wheels and track can easily slip out of alignment. I recommend NOT gluing the road wheels to allow for adjustment. In the end, I decided to paint the tracks and dry-brush everything, and then move on to step 16.
Step 16 is the addition of the side skirts, the upper hull tow hooks, and a lifting bar on the engine deck. I glued the side skirts in place first, followed by the lifting bar, and then the front tow hooks. Watch out for the side skirts, as the one for the right side in my kit was warped. I fixed it by heating it in boiling water, and then taped it flat to my workbench to cool. Once straight, I glued it in place.
Step 17 completes the front of the hull by adding the fire extinguisher, driving lights, lower tow hooks, and storage bin handles. After the usual cleanup of mold seams, I glued all of the parts in place, except for the clear lens for the headlights and turn blinkers, and the handles for the storage bins. These were added after painting.
I skipped steps 18 through 25 for the time being. These steps cover the assembly of the rear fuel drums, mounts, and photo-etched restraining straps. I wanted to complete the entire hull assembly before I built the fuel drums.
I also skipped 26 as I had other plans for the Gunners optics. (This will be covered a little later.)
Moving on to step 27, I completed the upper engine deck and hull rear by adding the upper tow hooks, lower tow hooks, and exhaust outlet. I went back to step 5 and added all of the photo-etched parts by cementing with liquid cement. This is easier than it sounds, because all the parts are flat and mate well with the plastic. Apply liquid cement, and let the plastic get soft, then push the parts in place with the eraser of a pencil. I left the tow cable and grab handles off until after painting. The only remaining things to do to complete the hull is to build and add the fuel drums from steps 18 through 24, and this is done in step 28. All I have to say about the fuel drums is WHAT A HASSLE! The mounts are awful, the alignment sucks, and the photo-etch restraining straps are the worst parts of the brass included in the kit. I left the fuel drums off until after painting.
Now that the hull is complete, I moved on to the detailing stage. Starting at the hull front, I added mounting strips to the front mud flaps from Evergreen .010 x .030 plastic strip cut in a Northwest Shortlines chopper to make sure they were square. The strips run along the top edge of the mud flaps where they attach to the hull. Moving up onto the front upper hull, I drilled out the nozzle of the fire extinguisher with a pin vise. There are a couple of protrusions that look like mounting bolts right next to the headlights on both sides of the hull. I made these out of 2 sizes of punched discs with my Waldron
Sub-Miniature Punch & Die Set. The first disc was punched out using .010 sheet and a diameter of .038, and then the second one made from .040 thick strip and .023 diameter. I then glued the smaller disc on top of the larger one, making sure it was centered. I did this four times. After the camouflage was finished, I painted the inside of the headlight mounts with Testors chrome silver. The kit comes with clear plastic for the indicators and headlights, and the LeClerc has both clear and orange indicator lights. I painted the back of the clear parts with Tamiya clear orange for the orange indicator, and left the other portion clear. When dry, I used white glue to glue the indicators and headlights into place. Once the glue was dry, I coated the clear parts with Future Floor wax applied with a paintbrush to make them look really shiny. The chrome silver emits a lot of reflectivity, and the future provides a lot of depth. Normally I like to use M.V. Products lenses, but this procedure worked out really well for me. The last details done to the front upper hull after painting was to add the Drivers periscope glass. I made this detail from exposed 35mm negative film cut to size and white glued into the periscope face. The purple color of the film is almost an exact match for the Anti-Laser coating seen on modern vehicles, and it also has a reflective quality that gives the periscope depth.
The next area for detailing is the side skirts. One of the problems with the skirts is the hinges. They are missing about half the thickness they need to be when compared to reference photos. I corrected this by gluing Evergreen strip to the existing hinges, making sure that the strip was slightly wider and taller than the existing hinge. Once the glue was set, I sanded the plastic strip flush with a sanding stick. The next step was to cut the hinge separation line with a razor saw, using the kits molded line as a guide. Final detailing was to add hinge pins made with a Waldron Sub-Miniature Punch and Die Set. These pins are .048 diameter by .040 thick and are centered on each end of the skirt hinge.
Now that the hull front and sides are detailed, it is time to move to the rear of the hull. The exhaust outlet looks like it is made out of a mesh like material, and the kit pieces are molded in this manner. However, after gluing the two halves together, the seam ruins the effect. Once I removed the seam, I re-textured the exhaust with a stippling technique, making sure not to damage the smooth parts of the exhaust. I added the kit tow cable after the camouflage was painted, as it is very good. Once the fuel drums were completed and added to the model, I made the fuel transfer couplings from aluminum tubing, Evergreen strip, and Grandt Line nut/bolt/washer castings. Fuel hoses were then added from the fuel drums to the couplings, and from the couplings into the rear engine deck from .031 wire solder per the kit directions. (By the way, the kit supplies these parts in a rubber like injection molded part, and are worthless.) Final detailing on the hull rear was to paint the turn and brake indicators with Testors chrome silver coated with Tamiya Clear Orange and Clear Red respectively. This was done after the camouflage was painted.
BUILDING THE TURRET
The construction of the turret starts in Step 29. I started by gluing part 92, which is the clear plastic piece for the Gunners optics, into position. This piece goes into its location from the inside of the turret, and must be done before the rest of the turret can be completed. Dont worry about using liquid cement on the clear parts. The upper turret half was then glued to the lower turret half, and once dry, the rear turret panel was glued in place. The fit of the turret pieces was not very good, and I had to use putty on the seams. This was not bad on the turret bottom, but the rear panel has some funny angles that were very difficult to get sanded cleanly. Once the filling and sanding was complete, I Finished Step 29 by gluing on the side armor panels. These require very careful alignment, and also required a little bit of filler at the back joint.
Step 30 and 31 is the assembly of the Commanders and Gunners periscope/armor/hatch parts. Once again the clear parts are glued to a plastic piece, and then the whole unit added to the top of the turret. Why??!! Glue the parts together as if they are not clear. The fit, once again, was awful. The areas inside the periscopes need filled, as the clear part did not mesh well with the regular plastic parts, on both units. To top it off, when the units were glued into position on the turret in Step 32, they did not fit, and required filling and sanding. This was a real pain in the Ass, because the top of the turret has a very nice anti-skid texture that is easily damaged while filling and sanding away the seams. Do I sound angry yet? I spent A LOT of time on these evil little sub-assemblies. Once that was finished, I completed Step 32 by adding the front of the turret, as well as the armored doors for the Gunners sights.
Steps 33 through 37 are for the construction of the fording tubes, their mounting brackets, mounting straps, and mounting plate. This complete sub-assembly is then added to the rear of the turret in Step 38. I skipped all of these steps, as I didnt want the fording tubes mounted on my model when complete. The tubes are usable, but require a lot of sanding to remove the seams, and are really better off if replaced by brass or aluminum tubing. I also did not like the photo etched restraining straps, as they look wide, flimsy, and are poorly detailed.
Moving on to Step 38, I glued the rear plate to the turret (Part 13), the wind sensor, and the kit supplied grab handles. Watch out for the alignment of the wind sensor, as the base is rounded, and there is not much surface to glue to the top and back of the turret to get it straight.
Step 39 adds all of the grab handles to the turret, as well as the mounts for the antennas. I decided to wait on gluing the grab handles into place until after painting. The antenna mounts are two pieces each, and after assembly, I cut off the tube sections where they meet the spring bases, and replaced them with a short section of K & S aluminum tubing cut in a miter box. Once the super glue was dry and everything was straight, I glued the antenna mounts to the top of the turret.
Steps 40, 41, and 42 are for the painting and assembly of the turret mounted machine gun. This will be covered under the Turret Modifications section.
Step 43 is one of my favorite steps, the building of the main gun, the muzzle reference system, laser range finder, co-ax machine gun tube, and mantlet. The fit of the main gun was O.K., but because it is long and has 2 sets of four weld rings around it, careful sanding is required to element the seams. The muzzle is also very thin, and doesnt look quite right. After all the sanding was complete, I added the laser range finder and muzzle reference sensor, making sure that they were all straight and in alignment with each other. This is easy to do if you have a scale ruler. The final step was to glue the gun into the mantlet.
Step 44 completes the construction of the kit by inserting the main gun into the turret opening, installing the Drivers hatch, and adding the turret mounted machine gun to its mount on the turret.
With the basic turret construction complete, I proceeded to make changes and detail the turret in the following ways. The Galix smoke mortar system on the kit is woefully inadequate. The openings in the turret are in the right places, and are shaped properly, but the only parts supplied by the kit are round decals that are supposed to represent the caps for the mortar tubes. These, in the words of a modeling friend, "look like Shit." I made the mortar tubes that extend out of the openings from small diameter K & S aluminum tubing. Check your references, as the tubes are different lengths in the various openings, and they project at different angles. Each one has to be made to custom fit each opening. Once the tubes were complete, I added the caps from .015 thick disks punched with my Waldron Sub Miniature Punch & Die Set. Going back to Step 38, I drilled out the opening in the top of the wind sensor with a pin vise, before it was cemented to the turret.
While the pin vise was out of the toolbox, I drilled out all of the drainage holes in the rear stowage racks. This was a very tedious operation, as each rack has about 40 or more holes in them. I am glad I did this though, as the finished racks have an almost photo etched look to them, and they add visual interest to the model. (The main reason I did not add the fording tubes to the finished model.) The main gun is missing the foul weather cover between the turret front and the mantlet, so I made one by stuffing Green Stuff putty into the opening. Once the putty began to setup, I textured it to look like my photos. The only drawback to adding this detail is that the main gun will no longer elevate or depress. All Periscope Glass was made from exposed 35mm negative film that was custom cut and white glued into each periscope opening after the camouflage was painted.
FIRE CONTROL SYSTEM
The laser in the kit is missing the lasers glass, so I cut the lasers armored tube off of the kit part with a razor saw, and replaced it with a small section of K & S aluminum tubing that was the same diameter and length as the kit part. I thought about drilling out the kit part, but found it easier to use the tubing instead. After checking to make sure everything was square, I super glued the tube in place, and painted the opening flat black. After the camouflage was painted, I made the laser glass from 5-minute epoxy inserted into the opening in the tube with a piece of stretched sprue. While the epoxy was mixed and on the workbench, I made the gunners primary day sight glass, and the thermal sight glass the same way. The thermal sight glass is slightly different, as I tinted it with Tamiya Clear Red. This was done after painting the camouflage, and was easy, as the sights are deep depressions that just need to be filled in with the epoxy after being painted flat black. In Step 43, I drilled out the three openings of the muzzle reference system with a pin vise. Once again, after the camo was finished, I painted the openings black, and then made the sight glass from 5-minute epoxy. Once all the epoxy is dry, the fire control system is complete.
COMMANDERS INDEPENDENT THERMAL VIEWER
One of the coolest things about modern tanks is the Commanders Independent Thermal Viewer. The one on the LeClerc is rather unique looking and is a visual identifier of this tank. The part included in the kit is the right shape and the right size, but is oversimplified and not accurate if you want to show it open, which is the way I wanted it displayed. I carved open the kit piece with an X-Acto knife, and then filed the opening square. I then made a "base" for the sights out of .020 sheet plastic cut with a circle template. Once the part was sanded to fit, I glued it into the CITV where the bottom of the opening meets the rounded portion of the CITV base. The next step is to make the interior walls out of .10 sheet. In order to do this, I took measurements of the opening, and the depth of the interior of the CITV. Once this was accomplished, I cut the sheet with a straightedge, and trimmed to fit. I fudged on this a little bit, and actually glued the sheet to the inside lip of the opening, so I wouldnt have any gaps that would be difficult to fill and sand. With a box now inside the CITV, I began building the sights. The thermal viewer is a square unit that is on the bottom of the CITV, and I made this out of a chunk of thick Evergreen strip cut in a miter box, and then sanded to fit. The day sight is a round telescope, so I made this from an appropriately sized section of K & S aluminum tubing, cut in the miter box. Once the tube was sanded square, I super glued it in place and painted the interior flat black. After the camouflage was painted, I made the sight glass from 5-minute epoxy as described earlier. The sight glass for the thermal viewer was made from the exposed 35mm negative film as described earlier. Once the sights were finished, I added the CITV to the top of the turret.
When the main gun was assembled and sanded in Step 43, I cut the end of the barrel off with a razor saw. (The muzzle was too thin in cross section, and not perfectly round.) After sanding the barrel square with a Northwest Shortlines True Sander, I then replaced the end of the main gun barrel with a section of K & S aluminum tubing cut in a miter box. After insuring the new muzzle was perfectly square, I very carefully super glued it to the barrel. Needless to say, the alignment of this piece has to be perfect; or else the whole barrel will look funny! Once this step was done, I added the muzzle reference sensor, and completed the gun assembly. Also at this time, I drilled out the opening in the 50 cal co-ax barrel with a pin vise. Once the camouflage was painted, I added a drop of flat black in the opening to provide some depth. The kit supplied 7.62mm machine gun can also use some extra detailing. I made the sight post from plastic strip, and then added the charging handle, barrel changing handle, carrying handle, and mount-locking lever from stretched sprue. I found a 7.62mm ammo can from Verlinden in my spares box and used it after I added a mounting frame made from Evergreen .010.x.020 plastic strip. Once painted, washed, and dry brushed, I glued the machine gun in place after the camouflage had been painted.
Nailing down the colors for the paint finish was not an easy task. Almost every reference photo I had showed a different paint color or sheen that was difficult to match. In addition, the French dont use the standard NATO colors, so I could not buy anything off the rack at my local hobby shop that was premixed. In the end, I used Model Master French Earth Brown, Model Master Medium Green, and Model Master Flat Black. The model was painted free hand with a Badger 150 Airbrush, following the kits painting guide, as it appears very accurate. The colors mentioned are pretty close to the references I have, but are not perfect. If I built the model again, I would custom mix my own colors. After the camo was painted, I dry brushed the exhaust with Model Master Non-Buffing Gun Metal to bring out the texture. The tow cable was painted the same way. Once the base colors were dry, I sprayed the areas where the decals would go with Model Master Gloss, and while I had the gloss out, I sprayed the mud flaps to make them look like shiny rubber. As previously mentioned, this model was made to reflect a vehicle out of the factory, so no other weathering was done.
I used the kit decals for the bumper codes only. As mentioned they are the worst I have ever seen! No matter how much Solvaset I used, they just would not stick. I ended up applying the second set of markings with diluted white glue, and that did the trick. (I completely ruined the first set) The bridge classification marker was left off, as well as the unit name, as I did not want to mess with either!
After decaling, I dry brushed all the detail with Model Master Sand mixed with the base colors. Once the dry brushing was complete, I added the antennaes from K & S Steel wire, making sure they were straight. The final steps was to spray the entire model with Polly Scale Flat, and when dry, glue the model to a stained base. This model took me about 150 hours of work spread over a 1 year period. I liked the kit, even though it has some flaws and fit problems. I am looking forward to building the United Arab Emirates version in the future, but that one is a ways down the road after I complete my Tamiya Type 90, and my Korean K1A1.
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