Saturday, June 28, 2008

Building Better Models

Today I'm releasing the first installment in my series of highly professional, superbly researched, and impeccably true public service articles on how to build better scale models - or how to build your first one, should that be the case.

The first step in building a model is getting a model in the first place. The best method is to go to a local hobby shop. Since the Internet has killed the majority of local hobby shops, "local" means a drive of at least a hundred and sixty miles, so pack a lunch and a change of underwear. The hobby shop will be hard to find. One of my favorites lies between a tattoo parlor and a pawn shop; another one is next to an insurance agency that gets so little traffic you can actually see cobweb-encrusted mummies propped up at their desks.

Plan on spending approximately six hours at the hobby shop, because it's important to look at everything, even things that don't interest you at all. If you find a rack of beef jerky, examine the beef jerky carefully - there's no way of knowing what you might learn from it, and maybe someday someone will ask you to make a 1:1 scale model of a strip of peppery, bold beef jerky. It could happen. The general rule of thumb is that you should stay in the hobby shop until the person you brought with you (your spouse, or significant other, or just some random guy you're giving a ride) gets so bored he begins to scream.

It's best to buy a kit that doesn't interest you at all. If you wanted an airplane, you should buy The Visible Man instead. If you wanted The Visible Man, you should buy a tank. The main goal is to avoid producing any kind of enthusiasm or excitement, and nothing prevents enthusiasm quite like building something you don't like. Be sure to look at the 1/700th scale battleships, which are so full of small parts they can test the patience of Job, and the Airfix soft-plastic figures are good because they're almost completely impossible to work with.

We’ll assume that you really wanted to build a model of an airplane, which really means that you bought a model of a sports car instead. You earn style points if it’s imported and expensive. You’ll know you’ve got a good model kit on your hands when the guy who runs the store raises his eyebrows and says “Wow, I don’t sell many of those.”

No model can be built without "the stuff". You'll need glue, so make sure to buy six different sorts. Model builders often refer to glue as cement, so you'll want to buy several kinds of cement as well just to be on the safe side. The longer the health-and-safety warning on the side of the bottle, the better the glue is likely to work. Most models list somewhere on the outside of the box a list of paint colors you'll need to build the kit properly. These lists always refer to paints by item number, but the item numbers refer to a line of paint only available in Outer Mongolia and portions of Madagascar, and there's no way of knowing what color "A194" is. When in doubt, assume that every color is "Deck Tan". Once you've got enough Deck Tan to finish your model, you'll need tools. The general rule of thumb is that you need tools sharp enough to lop off your thumbs. You should plan on spending eight times more money on tools than on the model itself. The nature of the tools doesn't matter. Buy a pipe wrench if that's what interests you; what matters is how much money you spend, not what you get for the money.

Now take the model and the bags of "the stuff" home and have a gander. Peel off the plastic and savor the first heady inhalation of polymer-rich air that comes out of the box, redolent of carcinogens and industrial toxins. Now open all the plastic bags that hold the parts, and experiment with getting the now-empty bags to stick to the cat by static electricity. The cat, fatally attracted to boxes, will attempt to curl up inside the upside-down box top, but if you keep sticking the bags to him, he'll eventually get pissed off and go lay out a hairball on your shoes.

It's important to lose things. I especially recommend losing the instructions, the decals, or the clear parts. Bonus points are scored for losing all three. It's best if you lose the instructions in such a way that you find them 30 seconds after finishing the kit incorrectly, or if you find the decals just moments after decorating your jet airplane with scrapbook stickers. If you can't lose the instructions, the decals or the clear parts, try to convince some small but critical part to fly off the sprues and get lost behind the headboard and the wall. The part should be small enough to be impossible to find, but important enough that the model can only barely be finished without it, and even then only by using cramming a piece of wood into the void and covering it with whole rivers of super glue.

Soon it's time to start. First rub the runners on the cat to ensure that every part of the model sports at least 30 cat hairs. While handling the parts, be sure to eat plenty of microwave popcorn and fried zucchini strips, and be sure to rub the oil all over everything, thus producing a filmy paste of cat hair, grease, salt and butter substitute on everything. Now using a pair of scissors or a butter knife, cut all the parts off the runners - since you've already lost the instructions, the part numbers are irrelevant, aren't they?

So there you have it: a box of loose parts. All you have to do is stick them together in the right sequence. You can use the picture on the box top as a guide, or you can proceed on a more creative and intuitive approach, simply gluing things together at random until all the parts are used up. Critics will complain that your Corvette model should have four wheels or that the seats should be right-side up and facing forward, but ignore them. It's your model, after all! Be sure to use plenty of glue. If a little glue is good, a shitload of glue is great. If it begins to ooze, smear it around with your fingers and wipe the excess off on your shirt, on your lips, or on the outsides of your nostrils. After an hour or so of this, your brain will begin to malfunction as volatile chemicals in the glue clog the neurotransmitter receptor sites in your synaptic gaps. This is normal, expected and desirable, and the fanged blocks of cheese that you think are coming out of the wall and attacking you aren't really there.

At some point you'll end up confronting the small, missing, and critical part. Any small but critical part can be replaced with a length of bamboo skewer and nobody will ever know the difference. Simply break it off at about the right length and glue it in there. Use two or three chunks if it seems righteous.

Now it's time to paint the model. Open your can of Deck Tan paint, but don't stir it. We want the paint to go on in smooth, even layers, and only calm, well-adjusted paint will do that. Stirring the paint just agitates it and makes it ill-behaved. Grab your paint brush and paint everything Deck Tan. The paint probably won't cover well, so apply lots of it. Don't be afraid to pour the paint over the model if necessary, and while the paint is still sticky, eat crackers over it. Long, smooth strokes are better than short, choppy strokes. You may find it convenient to use a roller or a Wagner Power Painter, but be sure to securely attach the model to the ground with a tent peg before hitting it with the Wagner as the impact of the paint can send the model flying into the next yard.

As the paint dries, your common sense will present objections like "I don't remember tires being Deck Tan" or "I don't think the engine should be Deck Tan." Ignore these pointless snivels. If the Flying Spaghetti Monster didn't intend us to paint everything Deck Tan, He wouldn't have given us Deck Tan with his noodly appendage. Besides, it's now 10:34 PM and it's too late to drive back to the hobby shop and buy a can of Battleship Grey, and the only other paint you have in the house is that scanty quarter-of-an-inch of sage green in the bottom of the Behr can that's currently holding up the half-broken drain trap under the sink. Best to leave that sleeping dog lie.

It will take seventeen days for the thick layer of Deck Tan paint and cracker crumbs to dry. Leave the model in a dry, cool, well-ventilated spot where plenty of lint and cat hair can drift down onto it. Periodically test the paint's progress by attempting to press thumbprints into the roof, hood and door panels. When you can no longer impress deep, indelible thumbprints into the paint, it's safe to handle. Now is the time to detail paint the model. Since you've lost the instructions, you won't know what details need to be painted. And since the cats have long since clawed the model box top into tattered wreckage, you can’t rely on the box art. Instead of relying on the instructions or research materials, simply eye the model and ask "If I were this model, which of my various parts would want to be detail-painted?"

Detail parts should be painted either Burgundy or Deck Tan. The advantage of Burgundy is that it presents a vivid contrast to the Deck Tan main coat. The advantage of Deck Tan details is that no touch-up painting is ever required. Another advantage of Deck Tan details is that one can paint with a stick or a Q-tip without anyone knowing the difference.

In our next issue:

Decals: The Finishing Touch, or the Curse of Mephistopheles?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Workbench Views

An overall view of a part of my workbench. It's a delirium of stagecoach parts, scantily-clad women and toothpicks.

Part of my collection of spray paint, craft paint, useless decals, MEK, and complete crap.

Marshal Dillon would flip: here we have a desperado with an unnaturally stubby pistol apparently gunning down horses, a bottle of Micro-Sol, and a pickle jar full of mineral spirits gone a lovely amber shade.

Academy 1/144th B-47E Stratojet on the simulated Distressed Benchtop. Note the bowl of Lloyd's, for those times when only barbecue will fuel a late-night modeling session.

Academy 1/144th B-58A Hustler on the same Simulated Distressed workbench. Note that technically speaking it isn't done - the canopies are not yet installed - but other than that, I'm done.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Academy 1/144th B-47E and B-58A

I just finished this pair of small-scale SAC nuclear bombers today. I picked them mostly because they looked like they would be fairly easy to assemble and paint, which is mostly true. The kits are pretty good, with restrained recessed panel lines and even, in the case of the B-58, a hint of interior detail, visible only if you pose the clamshell canopies open, which I did.

The decals were pretty well printed and reasonably tough, but they didn't stick worth beans unless Micro-Sol was applied, in which case they stuck too well! Not up to Academy's usual standards, were the decals, but I only fatally ruined one, a black wing walk stripe on the Hustler.

I painted them "AMC Sterling Silver" from the Testors two-part lacquer collection, paint really intended for model cars, but the silver works pretty well for polished aluminum too. It's a hair too sparkly and ends up looking a bit grainy, but under regular room lights it looks good, and it dries quickly and it's tough. I've yet to damage it with handling, and that's an excellent quality for models that I basically built while sitting in bed and resting my chest.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Collection Anxiety

In my not entirely casual reading of model magazines, it often seems to me that to be considered a world-class modeler, you have to specialize. That is, you have to have a defined "collection" that on the one hand allows you to hone techniques specific to that collection, and on the other hand which comes to be more of an oeuvre than a mere collection. I'm reminded of guys like Paul Boyer, who does US combat aircraft in 1/72nd scale, or Bob Steinbrunn, who did breathtaking 1/48th scale WWII aircraft, or Tony Greenland, whose 1/35th scale German WWII armor is astonishing.

At least once a week I issue what amounts to a personal press release about how I'm going to adhere in the future to some sort of collection rule. From here on out, nothing but spacecraft! From here on out, nothing but figures! From here on out, nothing but small-scale armor! I occasionally refer to these pronouncements at fatwas, but since I know they won't stick and I'll violate them just as soon as I possibly can, well, why risk blasphemy?

I just don't seem to have any modeling self-discipline at all. My model collection currently includes aircraft in scales from 1/32nd to 1/200th, warhips from 1/2400th to 1/72nd, figures from 9mm to 200mm, dinosaurs, spacecraft in paper, styrene and resin, small-scale armor, large-scale armor, 1/24th scale cars and trucks... The point isn't that I'm a wonderfully eclectic modeler who refuses to be bound by convention. No, the point really is that in modeling terms, I'm no better than a magpie, easily attracted by shiny objects and prone to collecting things that don't do much to advance my primary mission.

But what is my primary mission? When pressed for a short answer to the question "What sort of modeler am I" (and who among us hasn't been confronted by a knife-wielding thug in a dark alley who demands to know what sort of modeler we are?) I usually describe myself as an RMS modeler - that's "rockets, missiles and spacecraft".

RMS has strange rules, among them the fact that a nuclear-armed missile is as legitimate as a deep space probe. But never mind; we accept that missiles are just spacecraft of a different sort, and we get on with it. But the agony of being an RMS modeler is that the glory days of RMS modeling are long since over with. All those great kits from the Olden Days exist now as nothing more than fond memories, though every now and then Revell or Glencoe dusts off a mold and reissues something Decidedly Cool. To keep busy in RMS modeling, you've either got to dip into the world of spendy garage resin kits (which I have) and paper (which I also have done, at least until my Epson printer developed cyan constipation and the screaming black squirts, and all because I had the nerve to try to print out the planet Mars.)

RMS in the end is kind of frustrating. The only kits available in hobby shops are various iterations of the Space Shuttle, and they cloy after a while. How many Columbia memorial kits can you really do before the Flying Spaghetti Monster says "Enough already"? Every now and then a reissue will provoke a flurry of activity on my bench. But unless you're prepared to pay big bucks for imported resin or build paper models, RMS just isn't active enough to keep a relatively productive magpie busy. And there's no way of knowing exactly what shiny objects will take the bored magpie's eye. One month it was 1/72nd scale torpedo boats. Another time it was HO-scale model railroad buildings. 25mm Dungeons & Dragons figures keep making comebacks, like Rocky without the theme music and or the heavy scent of Ben-Gay. Dinosaurs! I've gone through a couple of dinosaur phases, and a third one is starting, based on the observation that there are now five unbuilt dinosaur kits in The Pile.

But even so, there are certain types of modeling that I simply don't do. Some of them are just too much work, like sailing ships, customized car models, and superdetailed anythings. Others simply aren't shiny enough. I figure over the years I've built an entire geschwader of Me-109s, and enough Spitfires and Mustangs to give the Allies command of the skies, and I just don't need more. And I also refuse to subscribe to the Esoteric German Tank Of The Month Club, and I personally find aircraft carriers unrewarding.

So what am I to do? Shamble along with no coherence and order in my collection and building habits, or go to some expensive spa in the hills of New Hampshire and take the Collection Cure? Eh, well, as much as I'd like to see New Hampshire someday, I think I'll settle for a messy collection.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


It's been a long time since I worked on a model. In fact, this week is the first sustained model work I've done in a long time. Why the break?

For one thing, sometimes I just do that. I once spent about four years without so much as touching a model, and I didn't really miss it. It's not uncommon for me to take a month or two or three off. Not common, but not uncommon. It seems that I develop a sort of ennui over what I'm working on - oh great, another Me-109, can it get any more novel and exciting than that? - and I just quit. Then after a while, some fanciful thing will catch my eye and I'll find myself back in my chair. The four-year layoff was ended by, of all things, the Airfix Hs-123 biplane ground attack plane (I find the Hs-123 and Hs-129 inordinately interesting). This latest hiatus was ended by a Monogram F-101 Voodoo, mostly because the idea of adding a Genie-armed airplane to my collection tickled my fancy.

For another thing, open-heart surgery affected how well I could sit in my hunched-forward workshop posture. For a long time I couldn't abide sitting that way at all, and it's hard to do detail painting or sand out filler when you're leaning back on a pile of pillows in bed. Modeling isn't much fun when you know that you can only sit at the workbench for five minutes. Five minutes! Cripes, some days it takes me five minutes to find a knife! These days I'm able to sit at the workbench for usefully long periods of time without whimpering, but it's taken a long, long time to get to this point.

Quitting smoking affected my enjoyment of pretty much everything, including modeling. It was no fun to sit at the workbench, where I used to chain-smoke relentlessly, and think about how bad I wanted a cigarette. But since it's been almost a year since I quit, the urgency of the desire to smoke is tapering off and I can sometimes slip into a frame of mind where I just don't think about cigarettes - so long as nobody smokes around me.

So here I am. I can sit longer, and I can sit longer without fixating on cigarettes. So I'm slowly coming back to modeling, though it'll be a little while yet before I break out the airbrush again.

Hobbycraft 1/32nd Sopwith Camel

No photographs today; my camera battery is dead and photos will have to come later. Besides, I didn't think this model came out all that well. The kit actually wasn't bad. The main knock I had was that the struts didn't seem to meet the wings at the right fore-aft angles, but it's possible I screwed that up myself, seeing as how I generally make a hash of biplanes anyway.

What's most interesting about it is that I started it over a year ago and then lost interest in it and left it sitting in an open box in my garage for a long time. This is usually the kiss of death for a model - if the squirrels or roadrunners don't make off with some of the parts, and if it isn't so heavily colonized by black widow spiders I just throw it away, then the decals decompose in a crazed patchwork of cracks.

But when I finally got back to it, I found that not only was it still complete, but the decals even worked! They were a bit crispy and I managed to break one of them, but I was able to shove it back together and I was frankly astonished at the toughness of the Hobbycraft decals.

As I said, biplanes aren't my bread and butter. In fact, I almost never build biplanes, though I do have a fatal weakness for the Revell Sopwith Triplane. I know going in that any biplane I build is not going to turn out too well, so I often adopt a six-footer outlook going in. No rigging, brush-painted, perfunctory interior, no particular sweat over the precise shades of paint meant to represent P.C. 10 or clear doped linen, that sort of thing. The last biplane I really sweated over was a 1/72nd scale Re-8, which turned out pretty well before it fell upside-down to the ground and came apart in a ball of stretched-sprue rigging.

So I did my Sopwith Camel as a six-footer, and it'll do. The machine guns were relatively undetailed, and the interior seemed sparse given the scale, and the decals weren't particularly crisply printed, but it came out all right, especially for having sat out in the open for a year.