Panel Lines: Do They Even Exist?


My recent rant against egregious panel line shading has drawn quite a hefty response. Plenty of voices of support…and of butthurt and defensiveness. A few who have mistaken the entire thing as some kind of condemnation of all pre-shading.

And then there’s Tom, who left this comment earlier today.

Good grief. Black basing, pre-shading, post-shading, it’s all so much unrealistic bullshit. Especially if you’re building a scale airplane.

I grew up around aircraft, and I fly them. Please, someone, show me a photograph taken at 1:48 or 1:32 scale distance and show me plainly perceptible “panel lines” on any aircraft that’s not dirty. (Yes, I saw the F-18, it’s an anomaly.) Anyone who understands aircraft knows that airplanes are clean. The panels on even well-used aircraft, when seen at scale distance, are almost imperceptible unless the light is just right.

The obsession for showing off “panel lines” is ridiculous and unrealistic. The time taken to highlight them is time wasted to depict something that doesn’t exist in nature.

Stop it. Please.

I like your moxie, Tom! No beating around the bush, no sir!

I didn’t grow up around aircraft. Nor do I get to fly them. But I did go to air shows as a kid and I had all the Desert Storm trading cards. The entire set, Tom! I go to museums when I get the opportunity. Oh, and I have this thing called the internet. If you type the right things into it, it shows you pictures! Even of aircraft! See:

Shit...I must've typed something wrong
Shit…I must’ve typed something wrong

Scale distance? Who gives a shit about scale distance?

This is one of those concepts that just isn’t meaningful in the least. When you go to contests, there’s no SCALE DISTANCE – DO NOT CROSS line.

But fine. The maximum image width on this blog is something like 800 pixels. On the average computer monitor at a typical viewing distance, that’s not really even 1/48 unless we’re talking about smaller props like a Dewoitine D.520. So let’s say that any image containing all or most of the aircraft is fair game as some kind of proxy for scale distance.

Anyone who understands aircraft knows that airplanes are clean

Oh, Tom. Under ideal conditions, yes, aircraft are clean. They’re lovingly cared for and kept safe from the elements in well-lit hangars and “no crew chief would ever!” rules apply. Up the operational tempo, though, or forward deploy aircraft where they don’t get to sip lattes in their nice shelters, and cleanliness falls by the wayside. Even the F-117, whose stealth properties could be thrown off by bird droppings, can be seen less-than-clean in many pictures.

Oh dear...are those...visible panel lines? Don't tell Tom!
Oh dear…are those…visible panel lines? Don’t tell Tom!

Are panel lines even real?

According to our friend Tom, panel lines “don’t exist in nature”.

So I’m going to take up the challenge: Please, someone, show me a photograph taken at 1:48 or 1:32 scale distance and show me plainly perceptible “panel lines” on any aircraft that’s not dirty.

Well, first of all, aircraft get dirty. This is borne out in plenty of photographs, many of them taken of Hellenic Air Force planes. But to keep things on the straight and level, I’m going to stick to “not dirty” aircraft.

Follow closely and see if you can spot the panel lines!

War Theatre #12 - France - Airplanes North American P-51 Mustang figher plane over France. Mustangs served in nearly every combat zone. P-51s had destroyed 4,950 enemy aircraft in the air, more than any other fighter in Europe. Also used for photo recon and ground support use due to its limited high-altitude performance.
No panel lines here! Oh, wait, shit…
Here too. But maybe it’s cheating to use bare metal finishes?
This P-39 can’t exist because anyone who knows aircraft knows they’re clean.
Resto-jobs from a 2008 airshow. Are those panel lines I see?

Okay, but maybe it’s just that World War II aircraft were slapped together pieces of junk. Tolerances can’t have been all that good, right? More modern aircraft, they don’t have panel lines.

A left front view of a Marine Attack Squadron 322 (VMA-332) A-4M Skyhawk aircraft parked on the flight line.
Yeah but it's a helicopter and they don't count because reasons
Yeah but it’s a helicopter and they don’t count because reasons
Yeah, but this one’s clearly seen some shit.
I even went to pains to find a clean Tornado. Not easy!

What about something that’s just completely babied. Like an F-15E Strike Eagle?

Capt. Timothy Morris, in rear, and Maj. Stephen Damico fly their F-15E Strike Eagle during a training flight from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, on Thursday, Aug. 3. The jet, of the 492nd Fighter Squadron ÒMadhatters,Ó was part of three-ship formation that flew to an area off the southwestern coast of England to practice surface attack training techniques. This training mission enhances aircrewÕs air strike skills without the need to drop bombs or shoot their 20 mm cannon. Captain Morris, a weapons systems officer, is from Bohemia, N.Y. Pilot Major Damico is from Greenville, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)
Maybe that’s just a bad angle?
Okay, but what about like *really* clean planes. Like the ones that don’t get dirty.


T-38 Talon

But wait, what about a prototype stealth drone with a curved composite skin and barely any panels to speak of?


The Verdict

At this point we could get into a deep philosophical discussion about how we don’t actually see anything, and how it’s just our brains interpreting tiny electrical impulses from these gelatinous photo-receptive sacks that we call eyes.

Or we could just say…yes…panel lines do exist in nature. Are they more prominent on some aircraft than others? Yes! Are they nearly invisible on a few – like the F-106 Delta Dart? Totally! Are they frequently overdone on models? You bet!

But to wade in and proclaim that they don’t exist in nature (lol) and that the entire exercise of depicting them at all is bullshit, ridiculous and unrealistic is not only wrong on the face of it and easily refuted with copious photo evidence – it’s also condescending and dickish. Hence the reply in kind.

Happy modeling!

31 Comments Add yours

  1. I earn my dollars operating an A320 from one end of our great nation to the other. The airplane is clean. The airplane makes more money for its evil corporate overlords if its clean skin uses less fuel. Its customers are happier if ther chariot is dirt free. And IT HAS PANEL LINES.

    I read your blog on this topic and during my very next preflight inspection, actually stood 60 or 70 feet from the tail section and………Yep. Doog’s right. I can see the subtle things he’s talking about. They’re not prominent, but they are clearly visible on an otherwise “clean”, white, glossy skin.

    My opinion, and there’s no scientific data here, is that pretty much any panel joint, gap or hole aft of any type of pressurized hydrocarbon will cause verrry, verrry tiny bits of dirt (like our pigment powders, only cheaper) to collect, and thus darken the border between those joints, gaps and holes.

    In modern airplanes those hydrocarbons will be jet oil and hydraulic fluid. On older airplanes motor oil was plentiful. Interestingly, I don’t think fuel leaks actually contribute much to the buildup of dust. I only write this because fuel leaks are considered serious and get fixed quickly. And fuel, even jet fuel, tends to evaporate rapidly enough to prevent dirt build up.

    So panel lines are most certainly there. It’s just a question of how seriously we want to model them.

    1. Mark ostler says:

      Yeah, fair call doogs, just on the subject of panel lines, I am going to try something different on my 1/32 Mk 8 spit, being an Australian, I like the shark mouth paint jobs on the late spits we acquired. I want to try your pre shading approach, but Id like to get a staedler pencil and grind the tip sharp on sand paper, mark the prominent panel lines before applying your pre-shading technique. I use tamiya enamels exclusively, floor polish for clear and will use tamiya gloss with flat base to dull the shit out of it. Hope things work out this time as tamiya panel line accent did not yield the results that I’d like to achieve; my last corsair looks a bit sad. Yes and tamiya decals fully suck, hope they work on the shark mouth version of my spit… Any how, keep up the magnificent work and all the best from a fellow Aussie modeler! Oz

  2. Made my smile on this dreary morning 🙂
    These are not the panel lines you’re looking for.

  3. Rob Marsh says:

    Building models is an art and requires artistic licence and artistic imagination and interpretation. We are not building replicas, we are building something that shows off our artistic talent.

    1. Doogs says:

      Honestly I’m a bit tired of the whole “art” thing. To me it gets used all the time as a dodge from real discussion. Writing is an art. Painting is an art. My kids bring home noodle art from school. The term is so broadly applied that it strikes me as essentially meaningless.

      I can only speak for myself, but I’m not building anything to show off my artistic talent. I build because I enjoy it. And I tap into my artistic talent to try to make a bunch of plastic look as close to a real thing as I can. I find more challenge in that than in using my artistic talent to do whatever the hell I want.

      1. Erik B. says:

        Welllllll, Maybe it’s not truly art, but more artisan, in that you use materials on top of the kit you bought to make a model look realistic or otherwise breathe a realistic atmosphere. To do that well, you have to know your materials and tools. As such a modeler has regularly to emphasize details like the diameter of brake lines or accentuation of panel lines to let them look “right”. Sort of like the “overdone” make-up that stage actors on Broadway wear. And what does look right? I’m afraid that will always be subjective and up to personal taste!

      2. greg says:

        I used the term artistic, building models isn’t necessarily art but it takes artistic ability during the building process to create a decent result

  4. Tim says:

    Great article,…… the way,the USAF Thunderbirds F16’s have panel lines,and they are fettled and petted and caressed by their devoted ground crew better than any military aircraft I know.
    Have a great day.

  5. Howard Kilburn says:

    Holy moly….panel lines ain’t real?!!!…that must mean the Beech 200 I fly is a loose collection of. rivets…,s a sobering thought!
    As for aircraft not getting dirty….did anyone tell the F14 Tomcats!!!

    1. Doogs says:

      F-14s clearly don’t exist…or aren’t airplanes. I’ll have to refer back to my Desert Storm cards to see what they say.

      1. Howard Kilburn says:

        Ha ha, excellent Doogs!!

  6. Orion says:

    And honestly, who cares about if it’s real or not? Modeling is a form of art. As a person who mainly builds armor, I use a lot of color modulation. Is that realistic? Absolutely not! No way in hell is painting the tank to look as if it was getting hit by an actual light source anyway realistic. Except it’s an artistic preference.

    I absolutely love to have thick dark panel lines on planes. I think planes with panel lines look great because it helps break up boring surfaces. This is from an artistic stand of view.

    Now to out right claim that panel lines are BS and not real is just on the whole other spectrum. I understand if you don’t like them because the type of over done stuff I’d do isn’t your cup of tea. But to say they’re not in nature; wow.

    Great article!

  7. Joel says:

    The issue of whether to depict panel lines or not has been going on for years. What Tom was alluding to was that a 1/48 scale aircraft model even looked at up close and personal, should be what one would see if they were at the same angle but 48 ft further away. So, in essence the panel lines would look much smaller, and not nearly as noticeable.

    When pin washes came on the scene, black was the most often used color that led to a every panel line or recess just being way too dark and intense. I know, because when I came back into the hobby that’s exactly what I did as well. Gradually I saw how unrealistic that looked, and began to decrease the intensity by using a darker shade of the color that the panel line is going through. I’ve even started to change the color some what as the base color changed. the effect is subtle, yet I feel more convincing.

    There are those modelers that feel that the actual panel line effect is caused by the sunlight reflecting off of the lip of the panel, so you should only see panel lines that are at a certain angle to the light source. In real life this certainly works, but I feel that in modeling it just doesn’t look quite right. Yet how do you justify a shadow that goes around lets say a vent on a piece of armor a full 360 degrees since that shadow is caused by the angle of the light. Looking straight down would for the mose part negate the shadow.

    Others have already pointed out that some of the recessed panel lines are caused by oil, grease, dirt, etc., and I completely agree, but not all. It certainly depends as to where those panel lines are.

    I personally like the panel line effect as it’s closer to realism then without them. Same for realistic type of operational effected weathering.

    BTW, Doog, are we permitted to post a picture or two to show what we’re referring to? If so, is do you use the IMG from a hosting service?

    1. Doogs says:

      Yeah, the issue of whether and how much to depict panel lines is a a long-running debate, sure. To me, it comes back to references and doing my imperfect best to get somewhere near an approximation. The nature of light has a role to play for sure, as does the fact that aircraft kits already have panel lines on them, and if you don’t do anything with them they end up looking extremely toylike.

      Not sure entirely what you mean about pictures – that’s fine by I don’t know if WordPress supports actual embeds. Links would probably have to suffice.

  8. Joel says:

    I missed phrased the straight down concept. I meant to say that the light source from straight overhead would cause an even light completely around the vent, but that the shadow effect would have been basically negated.

  9. Jaden Smith says:

    How can panel lines be real if our eyes aren’t real?

    1. Doogs says:

      How can we know our eyes are or aren’t real? How can we know that anything is real? Modeling as solipsism…

  10. nicelyb says:

    You’re spot on here, Doogs. I think the bigger problem, for a lot of people (myself included), is keeping panel lines themselves in scale, especially when we get into smaller scales. It’s not too much of a problem with 32nd scale, and not really 48th for the most part, but when we start getting into 72nd and smaller that panel lines shouldn’t really be visible. I saw a video a week or two that really went into detail with this and it’s an interesting technique. I don’t remember the exact dimensions used in the video, but a real-life panel line was something like a 1/16th-1/8th inch. Taking that to scale it ended up something like .0032 inches.

    Now there’s no way we’re really going to get something that fine onto a model. But we know the panel lines are still there, so we need to have them there, but we need to keep them from being blown out.

  11. Prop Duster says:

    Well, now I feel vindicated; if panel lines don’t exist, thus panels don’t exist, thus My paint coating on My model IS perfect…Ahhh, so good to be me… (KIDDING, if you read this far)
    Trying to refrain from “proving” the “reality of..” or “it always has/hasn’t..” is like dancing on the head of a pin ….Possible, but not likely for most of us.

    So do what you feel is right and listen to your inner modeler……and Doogs

  12. Tom (butthurt) Huxley says:

    Well, gosh Doogs, you got me. I’d love to be able to reply with photographs of my own models (few, I admit) and appropriate examples in extremis from a variety of IPMS contests, but I can’t here.

    I’ll err on the side of hyperbole that “panel lines don’t exist.” Of course they do. You certainly made that clear! Ooh, my butt sure does burn! My complaint is the exaggerated degree to which panels and indentations are often depicted. As you noted in your original post on the subject, “panel lines on some aircraft certainly do get filthy. But look closely. It’s never just the panel lines. And it’s very rarely all of the panel lines. The paint itself gets battered and dirty. Panel line pre-shading (and post-shading) totally misses this, and creates something that looks exaggerated and fake.”

    Any model airplane already has out-of-scale engraved panel indentations. Emphasizing that only makes the result even more unrepresentative of the real thing, particularly given the scale. Joel’s reply understood perfectly what I was getting at, “that a 1/48 scale aircraft model even looked at up close and personal, should be what one would see if they were at the same angle but 48 ft further away. So, in essence the panel lines would look much smaller, and not nearly as noticeable.”

    I’m not interested in emphasizing what’s already an unrealistic representation of a real aircraft. The panel lines molded into the plastic will show up very nicely anyway, and in a more natural manner than pre-shading, black-basing, or what-have-you will accomplish.

    You know, it’s your model. Do what you want. Just don’t ask me to congratulate you on how well you recreated the Grand Canyon on your F-14.

    1. Doogs says:

      Tom! Thanks for the reply! I kinda wish you’d put this forward the first time around – as it’s a vastly different point and one that I think is truly worthy of discussion, but your earlier comment did make excellent fodder for a post, so, benefits either way.

      Regarding panel lines – they are certainly larger on kits than they are on most actual aircraft. But that’s true of all kinds of bits on models. Most canopies would be what, 3, maybe 4 inches thick? Most control sticks would be as thick as the end of a baseball bat or more. To me it’s one of the limits where realism butts up against reality.

      BUT…just leaving panel lines alone presents its own problems. Because they are overscale and because light plays with them. The Hasegawa N1K2 in my original post is a perfect example of this. The panel lines are extremely evident, and because nothing is done with them, they stand out IMO even more and make the entire thing look toylike (that and the totally monotone nature of the paint work). Panel lines can certainly be overdone, but they can also be underdone. Getting to a balance is a new challenge with every kit.

  13. willpattison says:

    Tom, you remind me of a little kid who is throwing a fit because he’s not allowed to watch his favorite Saturday morning cartoons… But it’s actually Friday. I’m honestly not even sure what it is you’re upset about. Maybe you should do what Doogs did and carefully think through, then articulate an actual position.

  14. greg says:

    Panel lines don’t exist in nature? True. Rocks and trees don’t have them. I suppose aircraft, by that logic, don’t appear in nature either. Airplanes are made up of panels therefore they must have panel lines. Some very pronounced, some less noticeable. But dismissing them completely when modeling aircraft either makes you lazy, artistically challenged or your modelling skills just suck.

  15. mistercomment says:

    There’s no doubt airplanes having panels. There’s no doubt that when two panels meet and
    aren’t welded, there is always some kind of “distance” between them.
    So why the heck, seriously – heck -, is everybody talking about “dirt” when talking about panel
    lines? It’s never BEEN about DIRT. It’s shadow.Very small gaps or slight overlapping makes them
    cast some kind of shadow. That’s why you see them. That’s why I use hiiiighly thinned black
    and put em into the most prominent panel lines. It – has- never – been – about – dirt. That’s why
    you see Panel lines on CLEAN aircraft. And maybe, if panels are really close and nobody ever touches
    them, there’s….. dirt. Oh, alright. I guess it’s about dirt too. It’s the same about rivets. Even cleaned
    rivets on a shiny metal airplane can be visible. Because they cast shadows and tiny alterations of the light that’s thrown back. Thanks for reading.

    1. Doogs says:

      It can be dirt (or exhaust or other particulates), too. Humidity, rain, leaking oil, leaking hydraulic fluid, they all make crud stick in crevices.

      1. mistercomment says:

        Sure. Not arguing that. When there’s dirt in the game, there’s dirt in the game. But most people
        use the “dirt” argument on clean aircraft. You can still see panels though. And the Lines. And that’s
        because of shadows. If panels are perfectly aligned with absolutely no gap, no chipping by handling and newly painted, you won’t see them, of course (this being the theory). But since panels are always two things put together, there must be something in between. And if there isn’t, usually the edges are rounded down. There’s always something for the eye to perceive. And this is why I think that a panel line wash is justified most of the time. Maybe not everywhere, and certainly not a strong one. But I very much like a light panel line accentuation…..

  16. Dave Haine says:

    Just gonna weigh in here…

    The whole is/ isn’t is missing the point somewhat-
    civilian aircraft ARE kept clean- for all the reasons previously stated, aeroplane manufacturers also do their best to angle the skin joining surfaces, to minimise trenches and edges standing proud- even Boeing (the past masters of the overlapping joint- especially along the fuselage). Aeroplanes are sprayed whole, everything in place, with anything not being painted masked off. The paints used are generally high-build, self-levelling, which means they also act as a bit of a filler too, so any panel lines are generally filled up to a very, very shallow concave- think even shallower than a well-grouted tile joint in your bathroom.

    Hatches and opening panels are a different thing- even on the best maintained aeroplanes have chipping around the cargo/ baggage bay doors… If you’ve ever met a baggage handler you’ll know why!

    I haven’t yet found a totally clean military aeroplane, and I defy you to ever find a clean Tornado! (The reverse thrust doors just chuck exhaust gases all over the back end, and up the tail- the 737-200 had the same trouble, although on the centre of the fuselage). Matt paint is a bugger for fading and will never fade uniformly- hence the F14 always looking ‘grubby’

    So the question then becomes what are you trying to portray? Shadow lines? Then a darker shade of the base colour is probably best- I always think black is too stark for shadow lines.

    If you’re portraying a well used military aircraft, then a brown/black wash on certain areas to indicate the oily crud that will build up in any depression, grey-black to indicate gun-smoke crud build up.

    ….BUT, the over-rider to all this is… this is what I like- doesn’t make it the law. I just don’t like over-emphasised panel-lines, but it’s your model- do what the hell you like.

  17. Dane says:

    Taking a plastic kit, building it, then painting and weathering it to resemble a real life aircraft is an art form. Yes there are access panels, and panel lines on an aircraft. It just depends on your own preference and creative artistic ability to accurately depict your subject. Sometimes weathering a model is taken to extremes. The object is to build what you like. If you want a dirty, weather beaten aircraft. Go for it. It’s your model!

  18. Miguel says:

    Interésting , given this discussion, which is moré realistic for overlapping panels, more modern engraved or older proud lines

  19. Roger Ramjet
    It boils down to a choice between PRETTY and PRETTY REAL.!
    In competitions, there needs to be two classes, realistic finish and artistic finish.
    For 1/72 aircraft most panel lines except for those servicing panels affixed with large fasteners need to be filled in with stretched sprue and the wing and fuselage sanded smooth. After an undercoat which may reveal a need for further sanding or filling, apply camouflage colour(s) then a glosscote and apply decals.Apply another sealing coat of clear and when dry lightly scribe with a sharp pointed blade any prominent panel lines that usually show up on photos.
    A light pin wash is now optional with obligatory clean up and light sanding of any raised panel lines caused by light scribing. A matt finish requires Dullcote or similar and a gloss finish probably requires a satin finish in this scale
    It’s like an artist choosing to be Rembrandt or Salvador Dali

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