Restoration of an Aurora 1/48 Zero

July 1, 2014 – 2:27 pm

By Eric Freese 

Box photographs courtesy of www.Oldmodelkits.com

 

Virtually anyone I meet at an air show, museum, or the local hobby shop has a list of their favorite planes, ships or cars.  Personally, I can’t get enough of the Zero.  I put it among my top ten favorite designs because it is pure fighter, perfectly proportioned in line and form. 

The ‘classic’ Zero is the Aurora 1/48 kit in yellow plastic.  Once common in the 1950s and early 60s, it has become a rare collector’s item today.

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Various issues of the Aurora Zero (click any to enlarge)

 I enjoy ‘classic builds’ and restoring older kits, but the Aurora Zero has been conspicuously absent from my collection.  Recently I wrangled a deal to buy a pre-built version.  There was no box, just the model, but I was thrilled at the prospect of finally getting one!

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Aurora Zero in ‘as found’ condition

 

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Detail photos (click any to enlarge)

 I had the option of disassembling and fully restoring it or just a thorough paint removal, and work up from there.  She arrived a little worse for wear, but easily fixable.  The wings were hanging loose, the main gear had come off, but it was complete apart from a missing tail wheel.  I decided on a restoration to the “classic” natural yellow finish.

Before we get started, please note that this article deals with potentially dangerous chemicals.  I cannot over emphasize, especially to kids who have never dealt with these products, that extreme caution and personal protective gear is essential.  Follow all instructions from the manufacturers regarding safe handling and disposal of the chemicals.  Kids…get a parent to supervise these procedures!  NEVER, EVER combine any two or more products!!!

 

Disassembly

Disassembly is a big step toward restoration.  Bleach can sometimes be successfully used to break down the old tube glue.  After an overnight soak, the parts usually just fall apart.  It does not seem to whiten the colors of the plastic.  For example, I once had a Cessna 310 that was a mess, a real ‘glue bomb.’  Even after 24 hours submerged in the bleach, it held color just fine after 24 hours of submergence.  But bleach is dangerous stuff if it is not treated with care.  Be sure to use it in plenty of ventilation and with eye and skin protection.

The Zero was fairly loose, so I disassembled it without bleach as best I could into sub-components.  When it came to the cowling, I messed up.  While trying to ease it free by gently prying away behind the cowl flaps, I proceeded to crack off a bit of a cowl flap.  Great!  Nothing would budge the cowl and the fuselage was bonded rock solid as well.  Clearly it was time to fall back and regroup.  The bleach beckoned me, “Use ME, use ME…!”

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Zero disassembly (click any to enlarge)

 I’m pleased to say that I actually used some gray matter first.  I walked away for a cup of coffee and pondered the situation.  Careful inspection revealed that the cowl was mounted to a firewall on the fuselage.  If I tried a bleach soak of the fuselage, I was headed for real trouble.  It was basically a sealed system.  It would take a long, long time to get it free- if ever.

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(click any to enlarge)

Stripping

As the majority of this very simplistic kit was already apart, I put the bleach away.  For paint removal, I brought up the big guns…Oven Cleaner.  (Note: leave the clear canopy for a different treatment later.)  I pulled out my safety glasses, rubber gloves, a clear Pyrex bowl, a stainless pan and a glass lid.  I rounded up spare newspapers to protect the deck and glove and glasses to protect me!  This is supposed to be fun…remember?  But don’t worry, its coming! 

Fumes from over cleaners are vile.  They will choke and even gag you, so I advise using a paint mask as well.  When spraying, do it outside, make sure no pets or plants are in range and watch where the breeze is so the fumes are carried away from you.  I hosed the parts thick with cleaner, put all in the pan and closed the glass lid to reduce evaporation and still have a way to observe the action.  Now it was safe to take it inside from the winter night.

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Stripping with oven cleaner (click any to enlarge)

About 30 minutes in, I donned the gear and headed for the kitchen sink.  Armed with gloves, glasses, and an old toothbrush, I proceeded to gently scrub away at the old paint and decals.  The nasty goo began to yield a yellow color of plastic here and there.  It was slow going, but I was getting there.  I rinsed all parts and studied this bird.  It needed another treatment.  Alas, back to the porch! 

Try, try, again!  Another 20 minutes or so, back to the sink for more brushing…and this time I got smart about the final stubborn bits that were hanging on.  I looked up and saw a scrubber sponge with the plastic abrasive “wool” on one side.  Ah…DONE!  We learn as we go.  When the parts were finally clean, I rinsed them and washed the gear, sink and everything else.  Exercise care because the oven cleaner is very aggressive!

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(click any to enlarge)

 

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Beautiful original plastic!

Finally, I could see canary yellow plastic everywhere!  It was like a new kit sitting on the towel.  Now I’m getting excited!   There are not a lot of parts to deal with.  The wings and horizontal stabilizers are solid (not split) and that made them easy to work with.  The fuselage was simply two halves. There is no cockpit and the cowl was still stubbornly glued on in front.  I set aside the gear and doors then removed the drop tank.  The tank also refused to come apart.  At that time I noticed that the inboard gear doors are molded as part of the left and right tank halves!

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Aurora Zero belly tank

Canopy

I headed for the hobby room as there were more chemicals in store.  The canopy was given a heavy coating of Turtle Wax brand chrome polish.  Note: I use gloves here and it has a slight ammonia odor.  The chrome polish gently attacks old paint and gently polishes the canopy as well.  A long submersion in DOT 3 brake fluid (often many days) works well as an alternate.  I used a Q-tip swab to coat the canopy, then sealed it in a small plastic container to soak.

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Zero canopy (click any to enlarge)

Fitting and Assembly

I proceeded to file away the rough deposits of glue on the wing tabs and where the wing root mates to the fuselage.  An all-important test fit showed that the left wing would not allow any dihedral at all.  Considering that the plastic was so brittle that the cowl flap snapped away, I was not going to try bending the tab.  I filed away a bit of the tab top and it helped a wee bit- but not enough.  So I dug away at the inside of the fuselage alignment slot.  After opening the upper edge a bit and repeated test fittings, it came out perfect.   I then glued the wings and used a weight to ensure the proper angle while the glue set.

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Next was the tail assembly.  There were no major no issues- just file, test fit and glue.  In only minutes, the Zero was 90% done!  The canopy called to me and I tackled the paint removal along the frames- or not.  Gently scrubbing away with Q-tip swabs, I tried in vain to get it 100% paint-free.  30% was a more realistic goal since a 24 hour soak barely phased it.  In the end, the paint was cleaned off the areas that needed to be clear.  I wiped it down, polished it bright, rinsed and then used a Q-Tip to glaze it in Future floor wax.

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I never try to push a model but work within the limits that it imposes.  As the canopy was a 50 year-old, clear, brittle, piece of plastic, I didn’t push it.  I would have to paint the frames anyway. In this case, less is more.

 

Display Stand

Now it appeared that I had a side project ahead- scratch-building a clear display stand support stem.  I had an Aurora diamond-style clear base, but no upper stand arm that mates to the model.  So I used the stem from the P-40 stand to pattern a new layout on paper.  To cut it from plastic, I used an X-Acto hot knife.  Kids, get an adult to help with this part!  This tool is like holding a snake.  It can blister you in a second, or left unattended, even burn down the house!  Using the knife, I very carefully and slowly cut a matching stem from a brittle, old CD cover.  Two hours and three tries later, I finally had one that did not break while removing the small side tabs.  Now I have a stand…and no blisters!

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Making the stand arm (click any to enlarge)

 Decals, Final Assembly& Paint

Careful filing and gentle sanding for fit, followed by a careful paint job, (to match the box art), will yield a “classic build” of a classic plastic plane.  How classy is that!?  Decals of course are spares, scraps and black strips for the tail numbers and the wheel wells.  As this was pure raw plastic, and no putty to fill seams, I had an interesting minor issue to tackle.  How to paint without paint?

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(click to enlarge)

The wheel wells “needed” to be black inside…but Aurora never created an “inside.”  It’s just implied on a 1950s solid wing.  If I painted the wheel well outline, paint would probably wick into the wing-fuselage gap and ruin the yellow finish.  So I avoided paint by just using some strips of black decal right over the gap.  Don’t have any black decal?  Sure you do…just paint some black along the unused side of any decal sheet, let it dry awhile and cut to shape.  Done!

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Next up was the gear. Since I had a complete display stand now, I had every intention of putting it to use!  So I chose to angle the gear “coming up.”  This is similar to the “Mustang Madness” P-51 kit build article.

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(click any to enlarge)

Now I was in the home stretch with the painting of the canopy frames.  Since this had (and still has) silver applied to the frames, I had no choice but to repaint the frames silver to pull it all together.  Remember that a canopy really needs TWO colors, the primer or raw aluminum paint (as seen from inside the canopy), and the outside colors. Actually, a correct Zero would have a metallic blue finish inside which was a tinted sealer / varnish over alclad. 

Once the canopy was sealed with Future and dried, I did NOT relish masking a very deeply scored canopy and hand painting several coats, so I opted for the easier way.  I applied thin strips of yellow decals for frames.  This resulted in good coverage, no runs, no seepage under a masking and arrow straight lines.

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Conclusion

Make no mistake; this does not depict an authentic Zero. It depicts a 1950s/60s style Aurora model kit.  Please refer to the two P-38 models below… both built in raw plastic, but different.

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 This is a somewhat later version of the Aurora Zero.  The first version lacked ‘accessories‘ and detail; this one has the landing gear, drop tank and boiler plate rivets.  I speculated that the period style stand would have been the “diamond” style base.  The Japanese flag came from a ship decal and the “Zero-Sen” text from an old Monogram Zero decal sheet.  It works for me because I am thrilled to finally add this bird to the Aurora WW II fighter collection!  Now… do I put it in FRONT OF the P-40, or BEHIND the P-40?

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One key note here- this is “classic build” restoration.  That means do whatever works for you.  There are no hard and fast rules here.  I chose to go with just the raw plastic color, no putty, no (overall) paint job, just 60’s style trim colors…as I would have done it back then.  Paint it the way you want, or no paint at all!

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The total project time was about eleven hours and I loved every minute of it!

Times given exclude soaking or drying times…just labor.  I estimate it took

  • About two hours to disassemble and
  • Two hours to apply stripper and scrub off same.
  • Three hours to file, sand and scrape clean all parts
  • One hour for assembly overall.
  • Two hours for painting
  • One hour for decals 

After years of wanting, waiting and hoping, she is done.  I can’t stop seeing her and grinning.

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Materials List

Testors brand oil-based paints, basic colors of red, silver, black, yellow, brown, tan, and copper, (exhaust stacks). The two extra touches were homemade black decal trim for wheel wells and tail numbers.  Also a big help in breaking up the monotony of solid yellow wings and fuselage were the thin black lines. I used a “Micron” .02 micro pigment ink pen.  These are available at any good art supply/craft store in the art department.

Chemicals

Bleach (cancelled for this job), Easy Off oven cleaner, Future floor wax, Turtle Wax brand chrome polish, cyanoacrylate (Crazy Glue), “white -glue” (Elmers) for the canopy, Micro-Sol decal setter and various oil-based paints and thinner.