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Vietnam Diorama

Derek Barrett describes his diorama of a damaged tank being recovered in Vietnam and shows how to make model palm trees.

It is based on the Academy Minicraft M48 and AFV Club M88 recovery vehicle. This model started out as something to keep me occupied when I was made redundant. Looking round my local model shop I wanted to build something a little out of the ordinary. Spotting the AFV Club M88 recovery vehicle in their NAM series, with etched metal parts and individual track links, I thought that it might give me a bit of a challenge and introduce me to a manufacturer that I had not tried before.

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Making the M88

What a delight the M88 was to build. It was the first AFV Club model I had attempted. It lived up to expectations, going together with ease, and not a touch of filler needed. There were only a couple of minor points of concern during construction. The first was the small footholds on the A frame. Several of these broke off during construction and were replaced with new ones made from wire.

Point 2, don't bother assembling the rams for the A frame, parts B5, B7 & B9 shown in stage 1. Plastic on plastic moveable parts rarely work and in this case broke away when I came to mate the A frame to the hull in stage 5. I glued the A frame to the hull when I had finished fitting the guide ropes, pulling the assembly tight while the glue set to avoid the ropes from sagging. Of course, if you were to make the model with the A frame folded or only partially extended, then you would have to allow the ropes to sag.

The last point of concern was the rigging of the pulleys in stage 9. There was no thin cord in the kit so I substituted some black button thread. However the weight of the pulley block was insufficient to pull the thread tight. I tried re-rigging it with wire and also stretched sprue but in the end went back to the thread, coating it in glue to stiffen it and weighing in down with a bulldog clip while it set. It was not entirely successful on the final diorama I looped a piece of chain through the pulley block and glued it to the front of the M48 to hold it tight.

The tracks were a dream to put together. They are the best I have ever made. They are assembled, without gluing, like real tracks and remain flexible and workable. So much so that even after finishing the diorama I have still not glued the tracks. There were enough spare links to allow some to be glued to the hull and to the M48.


Painting was by airbrushing Tamiya acrylics. An overall coat of Olive green was followed up with black to highlight all edges and joints. Finally a thin coat of Olive green was dusted over the entire model. This gives a nice faded effect that I have not been able to achieve by dry brushing or pastels alone.

The A frame Cables and areas of wear were given a light brushing with Humbrol Polished Steel Metalcote. By accident I found that some of the Metalcote got on my fingers and got transferred to the model. This left a nice metallic sheen so I carried on and burnished exposed edges with my fingers. (Very messy and not the easiest to wash off your fingers afterwards and my wife complained about the mess in the bathroom! I justify it on the grounds that it did look nice). I also used a cotton bud, soaked in Metalcote and left to dry, to highlight the edges of parts I couldn't reach with my fingers. I did this over most of the exposed areas of the model before giving it a coat of matt varnish.


Weathering was done by giving a wash of 'dirt' over most of the model to try to simulate the effects seen on photos of tanks that have travelled on dusty roads and been subjected to the tremendous tropical storms. To do this take some powdered pastel of appropriate tones, add enough water to make it more like dirty water than paint and liberally cover the model with a large paint brush. When wet it looks a total mess, with large brown puddles all over it. Any large puddles on edges, etc. can be removed with a dry paint brush or cotton bud. When it has dried, the dirt has collected in the recesses and edges. The advantage of this method is that if you are not satisfied with the effect you can wash it off and start again.

Some more localised dry brushing and application of thicker 'mud', this time a mixture of brown paint, Bicarbonate of soda and model railway grass, was spread over the suspension and tracks. The bicarbonate of soda makes the paint bubble and gives a nice 'earthy' look when dry. Finishing touches were the addition of various bits from the spares box, from the Italeri Modern Battle Gear (set 423) and Tamiya Modern US Accessory set (set 141).With the recovery vehicle finished it was time to look for something for it to recover.

Academy M48

Most of the pictures of Vietnam depict the M48A3 as the workhorse of Vietnam so I set about to find a kit. The only one I could find locally was the Academy Minicraft M48A5. This is superficially the same as the A3 and only needed the replacement of the main gun, which I fabricated from Brass tube. Almost all the photos of Vietnam showed that the M48's were very battle damaged during their forays into the jungle and this gave plenty of scope for some kit bashing.

Most of the damage was to the front end and the track guards so, before assembly, I made some appropriate alterations to the upper hull. The kit needs some work to remove the brackets for the Korean side skirts so I was a little more brutal and cut off the front and rear ends of the track guards. The front end was cut away to leave the mounting brackets in situ on the right hand side. After filing to shape these were heated and bent to represent damage.

The rear parts were kept and used as templates for the construction of replacements from shim material I put in the spares box some years ago. It is thicker than normal foil, about the thickness of thick paper, and is easily worked. Using the rear track guards as a former, I pressed the foil onto them and using an old ball point pen, outlined the shape and detail from the original. The new pieces were later super glued to the hull. Normal handling of the model during painting and building the diorama caused these new pieces to get bent and distorted. Where they bent the paint chipped off, leaving the bare foil showing through, giving a more realistic appearance than I could have hoped to have got by trying to do it.. I tried the same technique and replaced a couple of panels of the track guards from the same material.

In other places along the track guards I made small cuts and bent the track guards with the heat from a small soldering iron. Other nicks and cuts were made with a heated screwdriver and scalpel. The light guards, C21 & C22, were heated and bent before fixing in place. That was the extent of the damage inflicted and the rest of the model was constructed as per the kit. I wanted to show one of the tracks off to give a reason for the recovery operation and so painted and made up the tracks before trying to fit them. The tracks are of a soft plastic 'rubber band ' type and were very hard to get to fit. So much so that when I fitted one of them the drive sprocket A8 - A9 broke away from the hull. This gave a very lop-sided appearance that further enhanced the 'battle damaged' appearance which would definitely require the assistance of a recovery vehicle.

Painting of this model followed the same technique as the M88 although even more mud and dust was applied. The spares box was raided again for items to dress the tank and make it look more workmanlike. The sandbags were made by wrapping small blobs of Plasticine in tissue paper. This allowed them to be moulded to the contours of the model.

The diorama

Now on to the diorama. That took longer to make than the models. Before starting any diorama I like to find a suitable box to put it in when finished, as most of my models end up in the attic after completion. For smaller models, I use the boxes that office copier paper comes in. With care these can be cut down in height and one side opened out so that the model will slide in. The lid keeps everything in place and reasonably dust tight.

In this case I found an archive storage box that would allow a larger base to be made. A piece of 10mm Plywood was the start with a 20mm thick piece of expanded polystyrene foam glued and pinned to cover the base. Another offcut of foam was fitted diagonally on one corner to give some height. Laying the models in approximate positions, I marked a track and roughly cut out a ditch, which the M48 could have veered into. The rest of the foam was contoured before a layer of interior filler was worked all over. Whilst still damp the plaster was worked over with an old toothbrush to give an impression of a rough track.

Some small pieces of foam were coated in plaster and set in the bottom of the ditch. The two models were introduced to bed them in and to create some track marks. At the same time a small piece of cling film was placed over the front dozer blade of the M88 and a mound of plaster worked round it to give the impression of the blade pushing earth aside for the blade to dig in and give some purchase when the winch was used.

The model's tracks were carefully washed off before the plaster set on them. When the filler had dried I coated the entire base with diluted PVA glue and covered the area round the ditch and mound with model railway grass. Clumps of grass made from an old 50mm paint brush were pushed into the base along the ditch and mound. Other foliage was made from paper. The entire groundwork was then airbrushed with appropriate shades. I tend to use gouache for scenic work as it is easy to intermix many shades and overpaint whilst still wet to give subtle blends of colour. The ditch and an area of the track were given several coats of Johnson’s Klear to simulate water.

Palm Trees

The tricky bit was to make some convincing Palm trees. In the jungle they can grow to an immense height. They can be over 30 metres high with long leaves that almost touch the ground. As they grow the older leaves turn brown and fall off. The locals use the leaves to make thatch for their houses and weave the fronds into pickets to keep their animals in. I wanted to put one large palm on the mound at the back to act as a frame for the diorama, with some smaller ones along the front to give the impression of looking through the jungle to see the scene revealed.

After looking at various photos of palm trees and trying many experiments I came up with the following method. Fold a sheet of A4 dark green paper in half 3 times and cut through the layers with a sharp scalpel in half of a spear shape along the fold. One end should be slightly broader than the other. This will give you 4 leaves. Repeat several times as you will need at least 16 leaves for a convincing tree. Vary the sizes of the leaves a little. For a large palm tree they need to be about 150 to 200 mm long and about 70 mm wide. Perhaps 100 to 150 mm long for a smaller one.

For the larger palm I made some of the leaves in orange paper to simulate leaves turning brown. The reason for using coloured paper for the leaves is that the edges will not need touching up after cutting. Next, from Maplins electrical component shop, I got a reel of 22 swg Tinned Copper wire. From this I cut approx. 300 mm lengths that I glued along the folds of the paper, making sure that the free end of the wire came away from the broader end of the leaf. I then airbrushed them a dark green on both sides, with the underside rather darker than the top. Some shading of an orangey brown was applied along the edges of some of the leaves to suggest that these are dying. The leaves cut from orange paper were also sprayed in varying shades of brown to yellow. Look at a winter fallen leaf to get an idea of the colours. As I had used matt paint for the leaves, I gave them a coat of Klear to make them more shiny.

Now for the really boring bit. With a fresh scalpel blade, a cup of coffee and lots of patience take each leaf in turn and make a series of cuts across each side of the leaf. The cuts want to be about 1mm apart and stop about 2mm from the wire. This takes a long time and can be very tiring. I found that I got bored after doing a couple of leaves and stopped for the night. Don't worry if some pieces fall out. Real palm trees often look very battered, particularly the older ones that are starting to die and fall off. I actually pulled some of the leaves about a bit to suggest more wind damage. It took the best part of three weeks to cut all the leaves.

With the edge of a steel rule and your thumb curl the leaves from the centre to the edge so that they curl under. When you have enough leaves to make a tree, start to gather the free ends of the wire together. The brown leaves need to be in the centre and the others on the outside. Hold them together with pieces of adhesive tape, ensuring that the undersides of the leaves face outward at this stage. Now take some long strips of paper about 1 cm wide and glue and bind the trunk of the palm in a spiral fashion from the top downwards.

The trunk of a palm tree is actually very rough with hairy edges as it is made up of the ends of the leaves that have fallen off. However, at this scale the effect is not very noticeable and, anyway, I could not think up a convincing way of replicating it.

Paint the trunk a dark brown and dry brush the edges with black and orange. Now you can bend the leaves downwards to form the palm shape. On many of the larger palms the longer leaves hang down and touch the ground. The newer leaves start off almost vertical and curl over under their weight. When satisfied with the shape it was put to one side while I made the smaller one using the same method. Some much smaller ones, about 60 mm high were made next. The method was the same but this time I painted them a much lighter green and made the cuts in the leaves about 10 mm apart.


Lastly came the figures. These were a mixture of Italeri, Dragon and Tamiya figures with only slight alterations to their poses to suggest people working rather than the fighting poses presented in the kits. On one of my visits to the model shop, I couldn't resist a Dragon set of Viet Cong fighters that could be added to the edges of the diorama to suggest a scouting party coming to investigate the scene. The female with her bicycle was put on the track as a local girl on her way back from the market. As I had just read an article on figure painting I tried painting these figures in oils and am reasonably satisfied with the result. Like everything in this world, practice makes perfect, so I shall have another go later. The rest of the figures I had already painted in Humbrol Enamels.

Finished, at last!

In all, this diorama took over a year to complete (in between boring things like getting a new job and keeping the family going) and I am rather pleased with the overall effect. Like all modellers I keep seeing areas that I would like to change but I’ve now moved on to something else. The finished diorama has received some very favourable comments. My brother-in-law, a modeller himself, even offered to buy it off me if I wanted to sell it. I have also received the ultimate accolade - my wife likes it. Like, I suspect, most modellers partners she just gives a very non-committal “Yes dear, very nice.” to my models. This one she actually praised (mind you, she still won't let me display it and it has joined the others in the attic for now).

Photos are by the author.

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This model was selected to be displayed in the Milton Keynes Art Gallery as part of their 'Defining the Times' exhibit. It is possibly the first time that a scale diorama, not as part of a larger piece of art work, has been displayed in a gallery of contemporary art (unless anyone can prove me wrong).

Last updated 08 December 2007

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July 2009, Milton Keynes Scale Model Club