Drawing Instrument panels for Model Aircraft

Scale models of all sorts are flying at club airfields all around the world, in varying quality, finish and detail. They form a colourful and eye-catching segment of the modelling world and in many ways, are the foundation of the modelling sport that we now enjoy. Since the early days of human flight, man (and woman) has striven to produce a scale model of his/her aircraft, sometimes before the full size version has even flown. These models serve many purposes, from graphically detailing a flying machine, to proving that it indeed will fly – and everything in between, and whether or not the model is intended to fly, the level of detailing often demands at least some attention is paid to the cockpit and its fittings.

The amount of detail that is to be included in a flying model is of course determined by the builder in most cases, by considering the modelling skills, time available, desired level of scale detail, availability of kits and parts etc. In past years (decades) there have been various cockpit kits and graphics available, again in varying degrees of scale fidelity and cost, but there is also the DIY method that can be pursued, and that is the reason for this article.

A couple of years ago, a friend purchased an expensive and otherwise excellent ARF of the P51 Mustang, but was disappointed to see that it had a VERY basic and highly inaccurate instrument panel graphic to be included in the cockpit. He asked me if I could do something about it, so I got to and drew one for him in CorelDraw.

After a short while on the computer, I had produced the following (still inaccurate, but much better) panel graphic for him.

It was the same size as the supplied decal and still a 2D drawing, but when printed on good quality sticker paper, it worked very well indeed.

Later, I found another ARF with a poor panel, and although this one at least had a little more shape and accuracy to it, there was still a great deal to be fixed.

Finally, a large ARF of the Pitts Special came my way, and its panel also needed some work, although it was commendably accurate in basic layout and scaling. However, having flown the full-size Pitts, I knew with certainty that I could not possibly use the kit graphic, and produced another to be substituted. At the same time, I made up an aresti schedule to be added to the panel as an accessory. Why not? There are many opportunities for improving the scale detail even on an ARF!


So where do we start? Really, the best source of information is the actual aircraft you wish to represent, and for modern aircraft, or even some museum examples, this is quite feasible. However, you may be stuck with books, photos and internet searches, and still may not get all the detail you would prefer. Having said that, there are many ways you can “fudge” an instrument or panel in your model, and it is only in the more dedicated projects that you need 100% accuracy anyway.

Typical photo that may have been obtained at the local airport, or via an internet search. It will provide a general “feel” for the instrument panel shape and layout upon which to build. However, it is not clear enough to be used for constructing an accurate panel on its own.    

Individual instrument graphics are often available on the internet, or you may have photographed them yourself. In any case, they can be used for drawing highly detailed images for later inclusion in the panel. Just make certain the actual instrument used is not out of place or of a different era to that of the aircraft. In many restored aircraft, you will find modern instruments and radios, but not the other way around. 

Scale and Fit

Your new instrument panel will naturally need to fit in your model, and if you have an ARF sticker sheet  or perhaps a drawing on the plan, you can simply trace over the panel and use that to develop your masterpiece.  Keep in mind that most manufacturers and designers tend to take liberties with the smaller details, so they are often of no real use in designing your replacement panel.  I’ve seen commercial instrument panels that contain modern electronic instruments when they are supposed to be representing much older aircraft – even WWI fighters! Sometimes, I think the artist is just having a laugh and wondering if we will notice!

This is the shape of the full size Bellanca 8KCAB Decathlon instrument panel. Your model may or may not have the same shape, but it is often a good place to start.

Very often the model’s instrument panel graphic has absolutely no similarity to that of the full size. In this case, the decal shape was quite a way off!

Once you have the outline to size, it is time to begin populating the panel with your instruments. Let’s make certain that they will all fit in the available space and desired arrangement if at all possible.

Typical instruments now come in standard sizes, either 3.25 inches (83mm) or 2.5 inches (64mm) in diameter. Also, radios are now standardized at 6.25 inches (160mm) wide by 2 inches (50mm) high. There are exceptions of course, so check your documentation to be certain.

This figure shows the basic 8KCAB instrument panel, populated with outlines of the instruments and radios we need to draw. In this case, the instruments and radios are to scale proportions and fitting quite well.

Drawing the instruments

Now here comes the exciting part! For those who are interested in drawing the instruments using their computer,  there are several ways you can go. Adobe Illustrator, or CorelDraw are the best as they are vector-drawing packages, and your resultant drawings can be scaled down or up without changing the quality of the final result. If you choose to use a raster-based programme, such as MS paint, Photoshop or CorelPaint, then the images will be much less flexible in their output scaling. I will use CorelDraw for these examples, but the techniques are transferrable to Illustrator if you have that available. A note also on versions – you don’t need to have the latest and greatest (horribly expensive) version for this work. Go ahead and find an older version on EBay or somewhere similar and you will find that even a ten year old version will do far more than you need.  As long as your computer can run it, go ahead and use it.

Luckily, our instruments are basically circles with components generally drawn using more circles, squares and rectangles, so no great skill is needed. However, you will find it useful to work in layers, so a working knowledge of them will be useful, though not totally needed.

Let’s start by opening a new page and importing the desired photo of the instrument, in this case an altimeter. We will also set up guidelines that intersect in the centre of the instrument, and set “snap to guidelines” in the “view” menu. Now, using the ellipse tool and holding down the SHIFT+CTRL keys, we click at the guideline intersection and hold the left button down while we drag the circle to the outside of the instrument. We now have the outline, in this case shown as yellow. Now, repeat the process, this time stopping when the circle touches the outside of the instrument markings as shown in the figure. Make the outline a different colour – in this case I’ve chosen red.

Note that we don’t colour it at this stage – we simply want it there to form the basis of our drawing, and a tool for what comes next. Now, select the rectangle tool, and draw a tall, thin rectangle at the top position and ensure that it is centred on the vertical guideline and just touches the red outline. This rectangle can be coloured, but needs no outline.

Now draw another, smaller and thinner rectangle at the top position, again centred on the guideline. This will be one of the smaller markers. Double-click on it to bring up the rotate menu, drag the rotation centre marker down to the guideline intersection, select a rotation angle of -7.2 degrees, and rotate it. While it is still selected, rotate it again by the same 7.2 degrees, but this time select 3 copies. You should now have four green rectangles, equally spaced and rotated, and generally conforming with the photograph behind.

Now comes the magic of computers – Select the large (red) marker and all four smaller (green) ones and group them. Double-click on the group to bring up the rotation menu, drag the rotation centre to the guideline intersection, and then select a rotation angle of -36 degrees and 9 copies. When you select APPLY, you can see the instrument face suddenly completed.

Select all the groups while holding down the SHIFT key, and group them all together. Delete the red circle and admire your handywork. It should look like the figure here.

Now you can go ahead and add the numbers and any text you see on the actual instrument face. In this case, I’ve made them yellow, and you will note that the font is not precisely the same. I’ve used “Arial” as it was very close and in the size I’m expecting to print this instrument, nobody will notice the difference.

Note also that in this image, there is text printed on a sticker on the instrument glass, so we wouldn’t add this text until later. It is also interesting to note that on this particular altimeter, the 7 and 8 are not directly next to their respective indications as there are a series of numbers and indications for the “Kollsman Window” that is used to indicate the barometric datum. Of course it is not necessary to understand how this works as we are only drawing a close representation, and if you choose, you may even prefer to leave this feature off the instrument altogether. It is your choice after all.

Now, go ahead and colour the rear circle black, and the numbers and indications white. At this point, your altimeter face is ready to print and use if you want to make needles to put on top of the face and behind clear plastic. This will be covered in a future article. However, we will assume that you will have the needles printed on the instrument so it is complete in 2D. That’s next.

Needles and Pointers

A needle is basically a modified rectangle, so let’s begin by drawing a rectangle of the required size and proportion. Convert it to curves (ARRANGE menu). Select the SHAPE tool on the sidebar, and use it to double-click in the middle of the right-hand vertical line. You now have an additional point (or node) that you can drag out to the right and form a point. Basically, this is your pointer completed.

If you wish to be more accurate, add a black circle to the other end and group it with the pointer. Drag the combination to the centre of the instrument face and repeat the exercise for the other, shorter needle.

The altimeter face is now basically completed, and you can leave it there if you wish, or continue to add further detail as you see necessary. 

Add it to your panel outline, and you have the first instrument finished. Now, I probably didn’t mention it earlier, but this process is somewhat time-consuming at first, but with practice it becomes much faster and the finished results are always very satisfying.

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