Author: Bill Zuk
Date: 11 Mar 1995
Address & Phone:
39 Barbara Crescent
Canada R3R 2Y4
Tel: (204) 895-4539
The following re-posting is a 10 part model course that was presented last year to an Air Cadet Squadron in our city by IPMS Winnipeg.
This 10 part series was originally posted during February, 1995 on rec.models.scale. There were some cross-posting to other modeling forums on America On Line and Prodigy (provided by other "net users". One correspondent suggested that the series be converted into a FAQ or archive and I will consider that possibility. The original course notes also included diagrams and illustrations which are not part of this posting. I may be able to provide them at a later time when I can work out how to scan and post images. Thanks for all the comments and interest that was expressed during the posting of this model course.
Bill Zuk (a lowly librarian in my other life...)
"...from the sublime to the ridiculous, there is only one step"
(Napoleon Bonaparte, on his retreat from Moscow)
Once it is constructed well and painted accurately, a model kit today is a miniature replica. The main difference between a toy and a model is the model builder who takes the time and care to build a model to look real. If you have never built a plastic model kit, what you purchase is actually a complex set of detailed parts that have been designed to fit together precisely. The manufacturer typically provides an instruction sheet (or manual in some cases), often including suggestions for ease of assembly along with color references for markings and color schemes to be used.
Selecting your first model takes into consideration a number of factors: What scale should be used? Models are miniature replica that are scaled down versions of the real thing. In aircraft modeling, you have a choice over the popular 1/72 and 1/48 scales along with larger 1/32 and even 1/24 scales. Smaller scale aircraft in 1/144 or smaller scales are also available. The general rule is that the larger the scale (1/32 or greater), the more detail you will have due to the model kit being much larger. What complexity do you want? Many model kits now have complete interiors and fine detailing but at a price not only in money invested in the it but also in the time needed to finish a complex kit carefully. Finally, what subject do you want to model? Although we will concentrate on plastic scale aircraft models, there are many different types of aircraft models available. The choice is even greater when you realize that there are also cars, trains, figures, tanks, spaceships, buildings, animals,etc., etc. to choose from.
Model building is a skill to be learned but with help and practice, it can also be a skill that is fun to learn. The actual construction process is basically a two-stage process. The model kit is 1. assembled by gluing parts together and then 2. painted or finished. Having a guide in the form of a more experienced modeller may be much more useful than any of the model kit's information sheets. The skills you learn in building your first models will result in each future model project becoming "much better" and more realistic. Having a chance to improve your models through displaying or even entering competitions hones your skills even more quickly. Above all, remember, it's the fun of modeling that really counts. Don't be overly critical of your own or others first efforts, everyone starts that way! If you do want to go on improving modeling skills, it's your decision, but it will take a little time and effort.
The basic tool/material list is:
Here is a list of all the kind of easily obtainable tools and a suggested use in modeling:
scissors (cutting decal sheets), nail clippers (separating parts on the sprue), toothpicks (to replace small plastic parts, to hold parts like wheels for painting or for stirring paint), swizel sticks (for paint stirring and mixing), dental picks (just ask your dentist for old picks which are great for cleaning up filler and carving plastic), kitchen cleansers (for washing plastic parts), small plastic or glass tubs or containers (to hold parts, for decal solutions and paint mixing), transparent plastic tapes (for masking or for holding parts), plasticine or clay (for holding parts and weight distribution), black ink (for detailing parts such as panel lines), and tweezers (great for holding parts and positioning them). There are many other items that you may find and adapt to modeling. Just add them to this list.
The big challenge is to learn to use each of the tools and make the most of them. Remember the old adage "A good workman (or craftsperson) never blames his tools".
Finding more information is required to build a precise replica. The kit instruction sheet/guide may be only one place to go for information. If you need model building information, you may find that a general source such as a book or magazine may help. If you require exact details about your modeling project, then specialized research may be necessary. The best source of information is a first- hand collection of data such as seeing the original item in person to take notes, drawings or photographs. The next best sources are specialized research materials such as manuals, photographs, interviews and other second-hand sources. After these sources are reference sources such as books, magazines or other materials that cover the subject in a more general manner.
Model building can be a set of skills to be learned but with help and practice, it can also be fun to learn. If you find that you also can benefit from a group of friends getting together to talk and learn about modeling, consider a model club. Having a model club may be much more useful than any model kit's information guide. You can share experiences, swap stories as well as parts and tools and find that you will gain much more from modeling!
These parent organizations can put you in touch with local IPMS chapters which are the most common model clubs. The following, for example is the model club to which I belong:
You will need a room with a flat working space- the larger the better. Avoid bedrooms if you can, as they are too dusty for painting. Most often a garage, basement room or recreation room will be the work space but a custom-designed room will be the best! You will also need lots of light, preferably from windows or from a high-intensity light. Try to find an area where you can work for several hours without being bothered as you may have to leave glued or painted parts in place overnight without moving them.
Protect your working area by spreading a newspaper or drop cloth under the model. This will protect the table surface from spilled glue or paint. Read the kit manufacturers instructIons carefully before starting and familiarize yourself with the way the kit will be assembled.
The following are the general assembly steps to model kit construction:
Be sure your brushes are soft. clean, and flexible, and keep them that way by cleaning with brush cleaner or mineral spirits. Bottle paints should be stirred completely with a stick handle or toothpick, spray paints must be shaken thoroughly- you can hear the agitator ball in the can. Two types of paint are usually used- oil-based enamels which spread thinly and spray very well and water-based acrylic which are easy to clean up and cover very well. Paint thinners that are matched to each of these types of paints will also have to be used. Follow these steps in painting:
Decals will usually come with model kits but you can purchase additional decals to make your model more realistic. Some decals are stick-on but most of them are water-slide decals which have to be attached with the following method:
("sprue" (aka parts tree) = the tubular plastic branch that your parts came attached to.)
There are many materials and pre-molded parts available for adding your own small details to models, but one of the most basic is the left-over plastic in your kit. The sprue or parts tree is the tubular plastic branch that your parts came attached to. If held over a candle until it is soft, it can be stretched to make threads of different thicknesses. These are useful for making aerials, flying wires, spark plug cables, etc. Take both ends of the plastic in either hand and place it about one inch above a candle flame but not close enough to catch fire. Be careful. When the plastic has started to distort, it can be pulled apart with an even motion. Hold apart until the plastic cools. With practice you will get the thickness and length desired.
Generally it is the small details that add the most realism to models. Some standard examples:
Constant handling is a problem for a model that is not protected in some way. Little details such as aircraft landing gear, AFV machine guns, and ship masts will soon snap off if people pick up the models. Mounting your model on some type of base so the base, rather than the model itself, can be handled and moved about is a solution. Hardware, craft and hobby shops sell wooden plaques with fancy beveled edges that come suitable sizes for most models. Plaques can be finished with a simple paint job or with the same kind of sanding and varnishing you'd give a piece of furniture. A thick piece of clear plastic also can serve as a base if the edges are beveled and sanded to give it a finished look. Larger models can be mounted on plywood or plastic bases cut to fit a model's dimensions. An inexpensive picture frame with the glass taken out can also serve as a nice display base. The model can sit on its own weight or be held in place with pins or fine wires. Placing a group of models or figures onto a base that has texture can also create a diorama setting. Whatever base you choose, it will enhance the appearance of your model and enable you to handle the model without touching any of its delicate details.
Once you have finished your model, how is it going to be displayed? If you have seen models in a museum, they would probably be in a glass case. You could buy a glass case, or a cabinet or bookshelf with a glass front, but it is not necessary. A box can serve as a display case if you have at least one side as a see-through panel- use a picture frame and glass for a quick display case. A clear plastic box can also serve as a good place to store models but these kind of cases tend to obscure details. Once you have decided how you will display your models, you will need to decide where you wish to display them. A few models could even sit outside a case on a windowsill or mantelpiece, as long as the models will not be in the sun or on a heated surface as heat will warp plastic and sunlight will cause paint to fade. Ideally, models should be displayed where the most people will see and appreciate them, however, due to the possibility of accidental damage, it may be wise to keep your models in a room or workshop when they are not being viewed by visitors.
Cleaning a model is important as dust is a perpetual problem. A dusting and, later, a thorough cleanup. may be needed. A large soft brush or a photographer's puff brush available at photo supply stores make good tools for large areas. Use a small, fine-pointed damp paintbrush to work around the tight and delicate areas that you can't reach with the puff brush. Vacuum clean around, but never directly on the model while you are blowing the dust away so that it doesn't settle back down. If the model has collected sticky dust, you may be able to remove the dust with a cotton swab sprayed with household Endust or Windex on a cotton swab to scrub away the sticky residue that can accumulate on a model, particularly one in a home heated by a forced-air gas-fueled furnace. Monthly dusting should keep your model clean enough to last for years. Residue that has set over a period of time may have to be scrubbed away with a brush or cotton swab dipped in lighter fluid which is a solvent for nearly every type of paint, however, so you will have to be careful to dissolve only dust and not paint. A bath in a saucer of detergent will be enough to wash away most residue and dust. All of your models need such a cleaning periodically. Don't forget to wash the detergent off or it will dry to a tacky, dust-catching finish. Repair any broken parts using quick-setting cyanoacrylates to reattach any parts which may have broken off the model, A coat of paste wax will help to protect the finish on car models or you can add a protective coat of flat clear spray to your military models.
The airbrush can be described as a "mechanical paintbrush". By placing paint in an attachment to the airbrush and then applying some kind of air pressure, the modeller can achieve anything from pencil-thin lines of color, to uniform coverage of broad areas. Subtle tonal gradations are easy to achieve, and the modeller or artist can mix their own particular paint shade to produce any color scheme.
The most basic type of airbrush is an external mix spray gun. These are usually siphon fed with air blown through the brush and over the paint outside of the brush. The spray is less fine than most airbrushes. Internal atomization type of airbrushes (where paint and air are mixed inside the airbrush) are more common. In a simple single-action airbrush, the trigger can be pressed for air and the amount of paint (i.e. width of spray) must be preset by adjusting a knob on the end of the airbrush body. In the more complex double- action type, both air and paint flow through the airbrush. The trigger can be pushed down for air and pulled back for paint, controlling the ratio of paint to air and allowing the artist to control the width of the spray while painting.
The air pressure can be supplied through a variety of means. Cans of compressed air are silent, easily portable, simple to use, inexpensive for occasional use but for regular use are expensive, and the air pressure goes down as the can gets empty or cold. Compressors are more commonly used and can include the following types:
After selecting an airbrush and source of air pressure, the first thing for a beginner to do is to practice mixing a diluted paint/thinner mixture that will flow evenly from the airbrush. Generally, a thinner mixture is needed compared to that of brush painting. The combination of thinned paint, air pressure and nozzle setting of the airbrush has to be determined for each application. As more skills are learned, the modeller will be able to use the airbrush to create very accurate looking paint finishes on any type of model.
A periodic airbrush cleaning is necessary (some modellers prefer to clean after each use) . Often spraying a solvent through the airbrush is all that is needed but a breakdown of the airbrush can help eliminate problems of paint buildup. Useful solvents to clean an airbrush (after taking it apart) are methyl hydrate (commonly used solvent) or lacquer thinner (great for stubborn cases but be careful as some airbrushes have internal seals that would be affected).
Why get into the area of scratchbuilding or making your own models? Basically, even though plastic kits are available for most modeller's interests, there are still examples of subjects that are not offered by manufacturers, a need to improve upon current models and the chance to create special bases for a completed model. In all of these areas, scratchbuilding techniques are needed.
The simplest scratchbuilding involves "kit-bashing"or the mix of parts from various kits to create a new version of the original kit. Some plastic kits offer the modeller a choice of versions with "3-in- one" or other types of kits. The optional parts that are provided allow you to change the basic model. Keep all the extra parts even if they aren't used right away as they can be the start of a parts box. It is amazing how many parts can be used in other model projects.
Accessory parts are also sold by many manufacturers, most of them small, independent companies that are called "cottage"or "garage" companies. These accessory kits are often matched to a particular model kit already in production and can include additional detail parts, decals or a combination of these materials. Although sometimes costly, accessory parts can help you create a more impressive model. Entire kits are also sold as either vacuformed plastic or resin (sometimes other materials are also used such as paper or even fiberglass) that are often low production runs and can require an experienced or advanced modeller.
However, if you are making a unique model or wish to convert an existing model using available materials, scratchbuilding techniques are then employed.
The availability of plastic building sections from a company called Plastruct that were designed for architectural use can give a modeller a variety of useful shapes and forms. Plastruct structural shapes include tubes, angles, I-beams, stairs and even figures. Some plastic railroad modeling accessories for diorama building are also useful.
Other types of plastic include Styrene plastic which is sold in sheets in both translucent and clear by plastic suppliers and can also be found in many hobby shops. The sheets are inexpensive and easy to cut and shape. Thin, clear sheets can also be used in vacuforming new parts for replacing kit windows or canopies. Acrylic plastic is much more brittle and is harder to form but has applications in bases or specialized purposes. This material is very expensive and is more difficult to find.
Resin is now the choice of most cottage manufacturers when they turn out accessory parts or models. The casting of a master part in materials such as latex or RTV (room temperature curing vulcanizing) products is also possible for an individual modeller to create a new part or duplicate an existing part. Resin or even metal can be used as material for the cast. The cost and time involved in the procedure makes this method more suited for the experienced or advanced modeller. The use of fiberglass which is a cloth soaked in resin to form a sheet or shell is another advanced technique. The durability and strength of fiberglass is offset by its expense and the need for a well-ventilated, clean workspace (as the process is extremely messy and the fumes from fiberglass are dangerous).
Wood and paper are also extremely useful materials in scratchbuilding. Balsa wood is a soft and easily shaped wood that has been used for a long time in creating shapes for flying models. Sealing the balsa wood before painting is important. Harder woods are also useful as they have a finer grain and are easier to paint. Many modellers still use wood as their master for resin casting or vacuforming. Paper can be easily shaped and in thicker sheets can also be useful as a structural material. Whole models made out of paper can be very effective in making a miniature, especially buildings. Other materials that can be used in scratchbuilding include foamboard which is an inexpensive sheet of plastic and foam material sandwiched together which is useful for bases and other applications, plaster of paris or papier mache for creating shapes on a diorama base. Metal sheets or tubes are also another good source of material for modeling projects.
The first step in scratchbuilding is in designating which parts can be built with sheet, rod or other available parts. Then drawing out plans of the parts to be made or modified helps to make a list of small projects. Some of the most common methods of scratchbuilding include vacuforming or casting in resin new parts. Unless a modeller builds a vacuform machine or creates a casting box, there are commercially available units but these are very expensive. Using ingenuity, the scratchbuilder can proceed but as indicated, this is an area of modeling that requires some experience and patience, as it is a life-time learning process!
... and don't forget, have fun!
a. plastic scale models
b. remote control (RC) models
c. flying models
d. railway models
c. military subjects
a. assembly and construction
c. finishing (decals, other finishes)