Aviation of Japan's Texas correspondent Mark Smith has very kindly shared these images and a very useful build report of his stunning Fine Molds 1/48 scale Mitsubishi A5M4 'Claude' - Type 96 Carrier Fighter (Kyu-roku Shiki Kanjoh Sentoh-ki -九六式艦上戦闘機), popularly referred to as 'Kyu-roku Kansen' (九六艦戦). This kind of detailed 'build chat' is rare these days but used to be a staple of the older modelling magazines and it is refreshing to be able to enjoy again. Over to Mark then:-
"After many years without a new tool A5M4 Claude kit in 1/48 and within the space of a few months in 2017 modelers had a choice between excellent examples from Fine Molds (FM) and a new company, Wingsy. It was great news on all fronts: each has its advantages, and both build into convincing replicas.
"The Wingsy and FM kits both have excellent detail where it matters most: the cockpit and that big radial Kotobuki engine. With its inclusion of photoetched details, Wingsy’s cockpit is better and more accurate, if a little more trouble; Wingsy’s surface detail was a revelation, superior to FM’s effort as well, and its canopy has less optical distortion in that topmost pane with all the corners. My goal when I selected between them, however, was the simplicity of the build. For that reason I chose Fine Molds because after dry-fitting the engine and cowl assemblies of both kits, FM appeared to have a clear edge in this area for design and fit.
"One way the FM kit is different from ‘old school’ molds is in its limited mating surfaces for several assemblies; in playing with their Karigane / Ki-15 Babs kits, released not long afterward, the same approach is apparent. It’s a trade-off that comes from the very fine tolerances necessary to mold parts to ‘scale thinness’ - so that complex assemblies like engines and cockpits, and the spatial arrangement of their elements, can be represented more faithfully. Ironically, part of the challenge stems from their exact fit, something about which few builders complain. Often the seam between dry-fitted parts looks like a panel line, even to the point of matching those surrounding it. I used Tamiya Extra Thin Cement to glue parts together, but in a couple of instances finding a good place to put it and ensure a secure join without fouling that uniform ‘panel line’ was difficult, since the gluing surfaces are often tiny. I had to redo things in a couple of places. Wherever the builder can back up such a seam in an out-of-sight place with Gator’s Grip or a similar flexible glue, is worthwhile. This includes the fuselage top decking between canopy and cowl; the separate cowl flaps (the circular manifold directly beneath is commendably faithful but leaves hardly any room to secure them); the three-piece engine cowling stuffed full of guns and powerplant, and the cockpit assembly. These areas require much careful handling in building and detailing. They are not robust assemblies, especially the cowling and powerplant, and it’s worth shoring up parts from the inside wherever possible.
"The pattern of the wiring harness, not always quite symmetrical, was largely modeled on Russian photos of a captured Claude, and three other Japanese photos that helped provide some info. The harness was fashioned from soldering wire, which is great stuff for any kind of bend, holding shape, and accepting paint. It looks busier than most single-row radials because of the bracing that was bolted out in front of the cylinders, and the air scoops between cylinders at ten and two o’clock. I’ve noticed similar cowl bracing on British types of the same period, like the Blenheim and Hampden. Maybe it kept vibration down enough for the pilot to retain his fillings! The braces ran from the reduction gear housing to the inner edge of the front cowl ring, so had to be installed last. I stole this photoetched piece from the Wingsy Claude, the only piece of it I’ve used, as the Fine Molds kit omitted it.
"I prefer to be able to work on the cockpit sidewalls separately before the fuselage halves have been joined. Building a shell like this to fit into the assembled fuselage from beneath, where the ‘sides’ are just the longerons and ribs, is not as enjoyable. It’s not a bad as building a ship in a bottle, but unfortunately it might be good practice. It also limits the chance to easily add certain details if wished. It’s not a new approach anymore, though, and both kits use this method. To FM’s credit the stringers and ribs fit flush, though they look heavy for the scale. Those Russian photos that once appeared online included some flash-lit cockpit shots that, if not comprehensive, are excellent, looking like they were taken at Grumman or Douglas! (Or maybe they were indeed comprehensive, and I’ve only seen a few).
"Even without a cockpit enclosure, the interior ends up tough to see easily, except for the seat with its adjustable bracket, and some of the cockpit floor area (synonymous with the upper wing). The instrument panel is well inset under the coaming, and the sidewalls slope out of vision. For me, hough its basic form carried through to the Zero cockpit, Claude’s office is not as inherently busy or interesting. The most obvious payoffs to improve the kit here are the beautiful aftermarket Yahu instrument panel, the addition of a seat harness, and an improvement to the clunky-looking molded-on throttle assembly. The Yahu panel is a light bluish green or turquoise that puzzled me until (and this is just a guess) I noticed the old Maru Mechanic #28 cockpit painting of Claude. It was this artist’s style to vary colors significantly to express light and angle, and this may have been an extreme example; in any case I was able to repaint it in Mitsubishi Interior Green by dropping some thinned Elmer’s Glue in the recessed dials before re-spraying the panel, which preserved those lovely dials. I didn’t feel like detailing the area behind the seat, somewhat visible through the oval opening in the bulkhead, so placed a fine mesh screen some distance behind the bulkhead - the one with the oval opening - backing the seat. It’s a cheap dodge, but I may resort to it again! Oddly both kits omit all the various equipment and structure behind the seat, unlike the Tamiya newer-tool Zero 22 and 52 kits.
"Take care with fitting the seat and its bracket, as the join is iffy. Within that oval cockpit opening, misalignment would be distracting. After test-fitting, hey, I got that one right. Next day, however, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I combed the workbench, rifled all the little boxes in the big box . . . then I saw something green on the floor. The coveted assembly. Somebody had stepped on it, and misalignment was the least of its problems. This moment brought to you by Ambien. Know your window.
"After a rebuild session for the seat and bracket, main parts fit very nicely and did not require filler except for ‘operator error’ in a couple of places, which happened when I dropped the model from two or three feet while painting it on the porch; epic fail for the coat-hanger jig. With a new airbrush and a new bottle of Alclad II, things were going so very well until they weren’t, when the airbrush started spitting grainy paint. I rotated the model to see how much of it was affected, and plop, onto the deck. Much of it had to be sanded back to primer, and what had to be redone is mostly in Tamiya Bare Aluminum, which I liked a lot – but like the Alclad, whew, the fumes. (Timothy Leary’s dead. No no no no . . . he’s outside, spraying Alclad). It’s hard to know for sure which Claudes might have had an ‘anodized’ finish with a slightly golden or yellowed metal surface. I had not made up my mind about that decision until these airbrushing difficulties, but afterward decided to leave well enough alone.
"I think the superb Lifelike Decals used were critical to the model’s final appearance. They came from Sheet # 2 of their 1/48 Claude trio, and depict W-121, an aircraft from carrier Soryu, a real clothes-horse, date uncertain. As usual, proprietor Keishiro Nagao’s notes unpack his ‘best guesses’ and the rationale for such, when certain details can’t be absolutely verified, listing all the sources and their page numbers for each aircraft on every sheet. For those who cannot read Japanese, what a benefit, and a standard to emulate. The maintenance stencil on the cowling’s left side is not called out; it’s from another Lifelike Claude sheet, and provisional on my part. The only known photo of W-121 is a profile view of the right side, and I like the look. As finely printed as they are, these decals are easy to position and tough enough to stay intact when you get things wrong the first two or three times! They responded well to Micro Set. I sprayed the tail with Tamiya Flat Red, which was also used for the hinomaru, as I wanted the two to match. With a semigloss coat, I like the shade. I toned down the brighter red of the fuselage decal stripe with red-brown pastel powder to bring it a bit closer to this shade (the closeup photo of the razor-sharp Houkokou inscription across the fuselage shows its original brightness).
"Dead Design masks were used for hinomaru, canopy framing, and wheels. Those are wonderful products as well, and they fit. Buy and use them with confidence. I’ve been underwhelmed by the aftermarket response to the Babs and Claude releases from larger companies like Eduard and Aires, which to my knowledge have so far completely ignored both the Fine Molds and Wingsy Claudes Modelers of 1/72 and 1/48 Japanese aircraft owe a debt of gratitude to companies like Lifelike, Dead Design, and Rising Decals who provide some alternatives for easier building. Keishiro, Jan, and Mirek combine passionate research, knowledge, and expertise to bring us some very specialized items. Why should Luftwaffe modelers have all the fun?
"After decal application and another clearcoat came surface effects with watercolors and pencil, along with some pastels here and there. Fine Molds’ panel surfaces have slight contrast in their sheen. Seen in oblique light, on bare plastic it makes a lovely and subtle effect. I don’t know how one might preserve it throughout the painting process, as doing so would certainly enhance a natural metal or anodized finish; I couldn’t. The panel line detail is not too heavy-handed, and riveting, where present, is quite nice, but FM is mean-spirited with it, as if they started but decided against it – you just get a few in certain spots, the most concentrated in the bottom center wing. The Wingsy parts, however, like their Sonia, are quite evenly and finely riveted across all surfaces, with finer panel lines than FM as well. It made me wonder which kit I should have started!
"I thought I would try to add rivets in a few places with a Staedtler mechanical pencil, sharpening it during the process by rolling its point on a pad. “A few places” got away from me after I decided to emphasize wear at the wing roots and couldn’t fade it back as planned. Easier imagined than executed. After I enlarged the canvas for it, the problem was consistency: it would look so nice after a certain evening’s work . . . until for some mystical reason I couldn’t do it neatly the next. It’s forgiving, however, and those little Tamiya cotton swabs, just damp, will remove it easily. It must be sealed at some point with an overcoat of course to withstand handling.
"Most importantly, I finished it before I dropped it again – that’s the key. And as often as I was disappointed with something along the way I like the result, which came from reminding myself that if I could only get it in the display case, those things soon wouldn’t matter much. And they didn’t. Thanks to Nick for the chance to share it here, which was also a spur to getting it done. The model is dedicated to a matchless friend for four decades, Mike Quan, who passed away earlier this year. I miss you already, Mike."
The carrier Soryu carried 18 Type 96 Kansen in two Buntai (divisions) of nine aircraft each, the first commanded by Lt Tamotsu Yokoyama (W-101) and the second by Lt Muchifumo Nango (who from March to July 1938 was also acting Soryu Hikotai leader). From April 1938 one Soryu Buntai was detached to operate from land bases in China and in July 1938 became the fighter cadre for 15 Ku. The regular pilot of W-121 is unconfirmed (but may have been Lt Kiyoyo Hanamoto who was the 2nd Buntai leader from December 1939 to October 1940), although other aircraft of the unit were flown by such notables as Petty Officers Matsuo Hagiri (W-102) and Hideo Oishi (W-103). The 'W' tail code was carried from December 1938 to November 1940 and the donation ceremony for Houkoku-307 was held on 7 August 1939 at Haneda, Japan. In September 1940 after a period of fleet exercises Soryu returned to blockade operations off the south coast of China, cruising between Hainan Island and Amoy (now Xiamen), a strategic port in Fukien (now Fujian) province opposite the Taiwan Strait.
With special thanks to Mark for sharing these images of his superb 96 Kansen and the build report.
Image credits: All photographs © 2020 Mark Smith