A Beginner's Guide to Making Plastic Models Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Beginner's Guide to Making Plastic Models

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A typical modeller's desk.

Imagine this scenario if you will. A friend of yours has invited you over to their house. On entering you see shelves upon shelves and rows upon rows of small plastic vehicles, and hanging from the ceiling is an armada of tiny plastic aircraft. You duck and weave down the hall, and tentatively call out a 'Hello?' From a room somewhere nearby comes a muffled, 'In here'. You walk on, the heady smell of fresh paint reaching your nose. You then see your friend hunched over a tabletop, their shadow cast grotesquely against the wall from a bright light. A paintbrush in mouth, they appear to be stuck to a small piece of plastic. 'Be with you in a moment, just putting the cockpit of my Spitfire on.' Your head reels, maybe from the paint fumes, but possibly more so because you think that perhaps your friend has finally gone stark raving mad.

Not so! They're simply applying themselves to the fine art of model making. What are models? Some may be lured into thinking that they are something that fashion designers hang their clothes on, but proper models are miniature replicas of (most commonly) vehicles such as cars, aeroplanes, military machines or even science fiction subjects. Miniature reproductions of historical scenes from history or fiction (dioramas) are also available, together with models of soldiers and other famous people (figurines), dinosaurs and monsters, or just about anything from films and TV. Wargamers also tend to enjoy the making of models relating to their chosen game, but these are more often than not metal figurines, which is an entirely different kind of subject.

So, as is evident, model making is a very broad hobby, and can become addictive, even an obsession. Interested? This Entry will provide a rough overview and also a guide to getting started in the field of model making, focussing on the building of model vehicles (aircraft, tanks, cars, etc), as this is the 'meat and potatoes' of the hobby itself.

Getting Started

If you've never built a model before, choose an easy subject to begin with. One very obvious tip – so obvious that it tends to be overlooked – is to pick a model topic which appeals to you personally. This means you are less likely to run out of interest and motivation halfway through, and leave the thing half finished!

Don't go over your head either. It's no good picking up a scale replica of the HMS Victory to build when you've never made a model, and don't know a thing about boats. Or sailing. Or, more importantly, 'rigging'. Nor is it much fun to try and reproduce Han Solo's Millennium Falcon if you don't know your Wookie from your R2 unit.

Pick yourself out an affordable, good quality kit that takes your fancy - one with few parts and an easy 'skill level'. 1:72nd or 1:48th scale aircraft kits are recommended for beginners to modelling. 'Ah, "skill levels" and "1:72nd scale", what are you on about?' you may very well ask. Read on and all will be revealed.

Skilled Professional?

There are many manufacturers of plastic kit models, and some people will have heard of the more famous brands such as Airfix, Revell, Tamiya, Verlinden and Historex. Model manufacturers tend to grade their models according to complexity, and older modellers will remember that Airfix used a 'flying hours' system – the fewer 'flying hours' the easier the build. Airfix kits are still available, but the company did not produce very many new kits after it went into receivership in 19811.

Revell and Airfix now prominently display on the side of the model kit box a 'skill level' ranging from 1 through to 62; the lower the number, the less skill and experience necessary for building. For total beginners or very young children Skill 1 models are recommended, as they are generally of the 'snap together' variety and require no painting or glue. For older people (eight years and up) Skill 2 is recommended, which requires some glueing and painting. Then the skill levels go through to 5 or 6, described by one h2g2 Researcher as:

Insane, and contain[ing] sub-microscopic pieces.
For experts then, really.

As mentioned though, it's best to go for something you think you can manage. Don't go overboard either and think of building a kit then 'pimping' it up - or trying to 'modify' it mid-construction, unless you've practised and practised and know exactly what you're doing. For your first few kits, follow the instructions to the letter and you should be happy with the results, and shouldn't become discouraged. Plus you'll be proud to show off your finished model to friends and family without fear of embarrassment.

Size DOES Matter

Models come in different scales. 1:72nd scale means the ratio of the model corresponds to it being seventy-two times smaller than the original vehicle. Many aircraft and military vehicles come in this scale, or the larger, more detailed 1:35th (mostly tanks and armour) or 1:48th (aircraft) scales. When completed, these sized kits are generally small enough to fit on a common bookshelf, although, of course, larger vehicles in real life mean larger models. A P-51 Mustang is naturally going to be dwarfed by a B-17 Flying Fortress, whether side-by-side in reality, or side-by-side on your hall table as models.

There are many different sizes of model to find though, and it is best to start reasonably small, such as 1:72nd aircraft, 1:35th tanks and armour or 1:48th aircraft, strange as that may sound. Bigger models often have massive amounts of detail; for the beginner (particularly younger children) this can became frustrating and boring, especially when you've to paint all the numbers on the altimeter in three different colours before you can even start putting the cockpit together on your new model airplane.

Scale can be a matter of personal preference though. There are hardcore modellers out there who have gone so far as to work in 1:1 scale. Yes, making a life size model! In the Monty Python's Flying Circus spin-off, 'Ripping Yarns' - Tomkinson's Schooldays, the hero, Tomkinson (played by Michael Palin), recounts his life at one of England's most sadistic and terrifying public schools. Tomkinson briefly finds escape at the School Modelling Club, but his teacher (played by Terry Jones) quibbles at his choice of modelling topic and the scale he has chosen to work in. Alas copyright laws prevent citing the scene in full, but in a room full of schoolboys quietly working on 1:72nd or 1:600th model ships, Tomkinson is extremely conspicuous on a gantry halfway up the side of a full-sized Icebreaker, adding the final touches with a welding torch. In true Monty Python style, a shouted debate ensues on the limits of modelling as a hobby, culminating in Terry Jones fulminating:

'If it's one in one scale, Tomkinson, then it's not a model, it's an ICEBREAKER! Now get it melted down for scrap this minute!'

A Small (or rather LARGE) Digression

1:1 scale modellers do, however, tend to be energetic, outdoor types with money to burn, time on their hands, and an engineering background. They might start with a Russian Red Army surplus T-60 tank, for instance, and remodel the exterior so that it is indistinguishable from a Second World War German 'Tiger' tank. This is then rented out to film studios and TV producers who have learnt that only three 'Tiger' Tanks are preserved anywhere in the world, and only one is actually capable of moving under its own steam. The lack of authentic preserved German tanks is a headache for TV and film producers, who are creating for an informed audience, and who know that if they use anything other than what appears to be the real thing, their film will be slated for lack of accuracy. The days when a filmmaker could do The Battle of the Bulge with American Army General 'Pershing' tanks pretending to be 'King Tigers', or A Bridge Too Far with Dutch Army 'Leopard' tanks pretending to be German 'Panther' tanks, are long gone. Film-goers are too knowledgeable to be conned like that any more, and any film or TV series needing authentic-looking German armour has to get it from somewhere. That's when the 1:1 scale modellers step into the breach3.

Anyway, back to the topic in question.

Just Looking?

The next step, once you've decided on the type of model you'd like to make, is to go to a model shop and peruse the range of models available, and to then get your supplies. There used to be many specialist model shops, but with a drop-off in sales many stores diversified into selling general toys and computer games. As a result model shops can be harder to find, but every medium-sized town will have one at least. Check out the small advertisements in the back of Military Modelling or Military Modelcraft International (the big-selling hobby magazines and 'trade press' for professionals).

'Craft' stores may also carry a good selection of models - it's always worth looking - but the small, dedicated model shop is where you are most likely to find staff who are modellers, know the hobby, and can put you and your interest in touch with each other; also, many of these stores will often be pleased to order models in, even from small and obscure suppliers.

Once you have selected your kit, it's vital that you collect all the necessary equipment before you head home and eagerly tear everything open. There is nothing more frustrating than opening the box with anticipation, only to discover you've run out of flesh-colour paint and have to get the bus back into town before you can start work on giving life to the pilot/driver's face.

Tools of the Trade

Before you even begin making a model, ensure you have the following:

  • A model kit (yes, you will need to purchase one, or have one bought for you as a gift...).
  • A clear flat surface to work on, in a well lit and ventilated area (it's worthwhile getting a small table lamp to aid in lighting needs).
  • A scalpel or small hobby knife (ensure the blade is sharp) for separating your model parts from their plastic sprues - this will also be useful for finer operations later on. Some modellers prefer nail clippers or scissors for this, and these are recommended for younger modellers as they are much safer, and it saves money on buying new blades all the time.
  • A cutting mat, or at the very least, a small off-cut of wood or a ceramic tile. You need something to cut against that will allow you to safely use some very sharp blades. Let's face facts, plastic is the enemy of sharp knives. Nothing blunts a razor edge more than polystyrene or polythene. However, a dedicated cutting mat is the best choice, for several reasons. It treats your blades more kindly than wood, ceramic or glass would, it is non-slip (an often under-appreciated quality) and, finally, it spares damage to any important surface, such as a dining table, that might otherwise accumulate unsightly razor scratches and tool gouges. In these circumstances, the careless modeller is sure to acquire gouges of a different kind, from anyone to whom the table surface is precious, most often a mother or significant other. So get a cutting mat - it spares much grief.
  • Glue. Polystyrene model cement is usually supplied in little tubes in a kit box, and can also be bought separately. It is recommended as it has a thicker consistency than Superglue - so is much better for glueing, and is far less messy. Polystyrene cement actually 'welds' the parts together rather than merely sticking them, so too much glue will result in an amorphous and irretrievable mess. Be especially careful and thrifty when glueing clear plastic parts, as any glue will 'frost' over clear plastic if too much is used. Also highly recommended are the bottles of glue that come with a needle applicator - these are very handy as well. Steer clear of other types of adhesives until you are more experienced.
  • Paints. There are two types: enamel and acrylic. They come in small bottles or tins, with most modellers prefering enamel paints4. Acrylic is water based, whereas enamels must be thinned with turpentine. So you will also need some 'turps' if you choose to use enamel paints. Which you should. The kit should have a list of recommended paints supplied with it. Make sure you have an adequate supply, and the right type. Paints for models are much like any other paints; there's matt, gloss and metallic - you really don't want to paint your Sherman tank model in gloss green as it will look horrible! If you can, and you intend to make a variety of models, stock up on paints. And buy two or more of the colours you use more readily. Military modellers will have an endless supply of greens, browns, and 'gun-metal'. And don't chuck away used tins when finished, as they'll be useful as mixer pots in the future.
  • A few paintbrushes. You will need a large surface brush, then some fine detail brushes. Brushes come in numbers to show how big they are; 1 upwards are large surface brushes, with 0, 00, 000, 5/0 and 10/0 being for fine detail. 00 is a pretty good all purpose size. You can pick these up from hobby stores; a hardware shop will sell you paint brushes but they might not do the job intended, and be a trifle large for your purposes.
  • A flat-nosed screwdriver. Essential for opening paints. And other stuff.
  • Two small glasses - one for water, one for turpentine. These are for you to put your paint brushes in to clean them.
  • A rag. To dry your brushes, or just generally clean up any kind of mess.
  • Fine-grade sandpaper, for sanding 'burrs' off parts, and useful for cleaning up edges where kit parts come together after glueing. A useful extra buy is a packet of needle files. Coming in a variety of shapes and textures, these versatile files may be used for cleaning, fine shaping, opening up location holes, etc, and certainly justify their cost.
  • Cocktail sticks, or toothpicks. These have an amazing number of uses, such as fine painting tools, putting wheels on for ease of painting, and getting enamel paint out from under your fingernails before you eat dinner.
  • A small pair of sharp-point tweezers for picking up small parts, and a pair of scissors for cutting out parts and transfers.
  • Elastic bands, or hair bands. Elastic bands are invaluable for holding parts together while the glue dries. This is particularly useful in keeping the two halves of an aircraft fuselage together.
  • 'Blu Tack'. Helpful in sticking small parts in to keep them from going astray, testing fits of parts before glueing permanently, and sticking cocktail sticks in with parts that have been painted so they can dry properly before handling.
  • For adult modellers, a tea-light candle and a cork with a needle in it can be useful also. Heat the needle in the candle flame and use it to make additional holes - you'd be amazed how many times you need to open out holes or put them in different places, especially if the kit has optional parts such as under-slung missiles or fuel tanks, or, as occasionally happens, the manufacturer neglects to put holes where the instructions say they should be.
  • Patience.

Putting It Together

Before you start making a model, set aside a place to work. Ensure you won't be interrupted, and that your equipment is safe away from young children or pets. Model making is the sport of the individual on most occasions, so it is you and you alone who should look after everything. Once you have your kit you are ready to Open The Box.

Inside there should be all the parts in plastic bags, plus instructions, transfers, and maybe paints and glue.

Read the instructions thoroughly before starting (children under 10 will need adult supervision).
That way you can plan out your model making properly. The kit parts will be moulded on to sprues of plastic, so you will need to cut each part off carefully as you need it. It is often best to paint very small parts on the sprue, particularly those that are going inside the model, as you won't be able to paint them once they are in!

Open the instructions up and start, funnily enough, with section 1. Each of the pieces should be numbered, eg A3, B7 etc. The letter will correspond to a sprue, the number to a certain piece. Cut off the pieces and shave off the little 'burrs' on the pieces using a file or fine sandpaper - a needle file may be used to rub the cutting point smooth and hide all trace that it was ever connected to a sprue. If using a knife, place the sprue on the cutting surface and press the blade downwards on the join. You might be able to twist the piece off the sprue. Be careful though, as you can damage pieces this way, so it's best to remove it in the standard way.

When removing parts from their sprues you may also come across a problem known as 'flash', particularly with older kits. This is where a thin web or film of plastic appears where it shouldn't, and needs to be gently trimmed back to the line of the original part. It is usually self-evident which bits are flash and which you need to keep, but proceed with caution, being sure to check how the part appears in the instruction leaflet. Anything on the part which is not on the drawing in the instructions is flash, so you can remove it safely.

When you remove parts from sprues make sure you put them aside carefully. It's a wise idea to put very small pieces on a plate or other container so you know where they are. If your model kit has clear plastic parts (such as cockpit canopies or 'windshields') keep these 'glass' parts in their bags in the box until needed, lest they get covered in paint or glue and are ruined. Some model makers use the upturned box lid, but some prefer not to do this as you can't use the box lid art for a reference tool to aid construction or painting. When putting your kit together, take your time and keep the parts neat and tidy. And don't throw anything away until you've finished - you never know if that tiny little piece of plastic you thought was rubbish is in fact integral to the final construction. Most importantly, don't try and do it all in one sitting. Pace yourself.

Keeping It Together

When building your kit, keep referring to the instructions. If a piece is to be glued, it is normally indicated by having a symbol next to it of a tube of glue, or a simple white circle. Use glue sparingly, and if you can, apply it with a cocktail stick or needle applicator. Polystyrene cement can come rushing out of the tube, so it's an idea to squeeze some out onto another surface, such as an old jam jar lid, and then apply it to your model using your chosen applicator.

Too much glue can, unfortunately, lead to things coming 'unstuck'. Fingers, paper, hair and anything else you don't want attached to your model can, suddenly, find itself all over your pride and joy if you don't take care with the adhesive. Remember, plastic models are often quite delicate too, so never force anything to fit - just be careful and take your time.

Don't be discouraged by mistakes - even experts with years of experience make amazingly stupid errors of all sorts. One h2g2 Researcher has stuck the jet nozzles of an Me2625 kit on back to front, and didn't realise until completion. Needless to say there were some choice words used on discovering this little inaccuracy.

Painting & Decorating

Usually in the back of the instruction leaflet, there is the painting advice. If there is nothing to be found to show what colours to paint your model in, use either the box art or some other relevant reference material to help you achieve accuracy (if accuracy is what you are after). If there is a painting guide within the instructions, in most cases each shade on the picture will represent a colour, which is on a key or 'legend'. The colours are sometimes signified by a letter or number, which then corresponds to a colour chart included, in most cases, at the front of the instruction leaflet.

The instructions will probably tell you the rest but, as mentioned, don't forget that there are countless sources of references to be found if you want to try something a little different, or to ensure you are doing your model justice. If you build up your own reference library concerning your chosen topic over time, you will likely become quite the expert in the field. A modeller is often a font of knowledge on the models they make, and as such can make up an integral part of a pub quiz team (as long as they're old enough to enjoy a pint).

It is recommended that you paint the parts as you assemble the model, and use a little artistic license if you like. Using a large brush, paint the large areas as shown within the instructions, or reference material. Wait for the larger areas to dry, then move onto the next areas, and so on. Remember to mix the paints well, and paint with as few brush strokes as possible. Clean out your brush after each colour used and remember to replace the lid. Then move on to the smaller areas, using the fine detail brush for those. When the painting is completed and dry, you can start applying any transfers.


Before applying transfers (or decals) to your now painted, and hopefully dry, model, first make sure that the area is clean of dirt and grease. Then find your transfer/decal sheet. Each transfer is numbered. If you look back through the instructions, there will be numbers corresponding to the transfers. The transfer numbers will be in another type of symbol or shape - it will tell you at the front of the instructions. To apply a transfer, cut it out carefully with scissors, making sure you don't cut through any other transfer. Place the transfer in a bowl of warm water for about thirty seconds, using tweezers. Slide the transfer onto a knife, then onto the model, using a cocktail stick (not the one used for glue) to position it in just the right place. Then get a clean brush, dip it in water, wipe off any excess and brush it over the transfer, taking care not to pick up the transfer with the brush. Do this for all the transfers and leave to dry.

More advanced modellers tend to supplement transfer sheets with other tricks of the trade. Dry-rub 'Letraset' transfers, for instance, are useful for serial numbers and brief texts, such as vehicle or aircraft 'names'. And if your modelling favours a nation whose national insignia is angular and straight-edged - German crosses, for instance, or the Finnish hakaristi - why not try painting it on? With a steady hand, or failing that, masking tape, nothing is impossible. Really advanced modellers aren't daunted by roundels (RAF insignia) or the Yin/Yang symbol6, which is possibly the most difficult of the lot.

Once all the transfers are applied you have the option of applying a coat of dull or gloss varnish to ensure the paint and transfers on your model don't come off with handling. If you choose to apply this then leave your model to dry at least 24 hours before handling again. Once this is done you are finished. Your masterpiece is complete and you can show it off, either in your bedroom or somewhere pride of place for all to see!

Modelling Out of Hours

If you like modelling, you may want to join a local club. There you'll likely find lots of other modellers7 and have a chance to show off your finished work, which is a much more enjoyable way to go about your hobby than modelling in the wilderness. Never be ashamed of your skill level; no one will ever tell you it's really bad. In fact, a lot of people will be impressed by your finished models, and you might even get a ribbon or little cup, plus some prize money to go out and buy more models.

Don't get discouraged if you see that other people's work is better than yours, because each thing you build is a work of art, and getting really good takes time. Keep at it and before you know it you'll be an expert - and you could even find work from your hobby. The film industry in particular is always on the look out for modellers to help with special effects-related designs and so forth.

As you get to be a more confident model maker, why not increase your skill and try using specialised equipment such as airbrushes, and also making your own models from scratch. This is a great way to spend time, unwind and relax, but above all, have some fun. As one h2g2 Researcher recalls:

My first one was a Hawker Hunter - a black kit - which was a birthday present from my big brother. I also remember building the classic Airfix Lancaster, and a Catalina Flying Boat.
Happy Days!

If this Entry has sparked a desire to make models, which has in turn become an obsession, you may like to read the following Entry Further Tips For Beginners to Plastic Model Making for extra ideas on how to get more out of your model making. Enjoy!

1However, Hornby, who later bought the Airfix name, revitalised the brand in 2007/08.21 through 4 for Airfix, and colour coded too.3Take a very close look at the film Saving Private Ryan or the TV series Band of Brothers, preferably in the company of somebody who is knowledgeable about German tanks. That convincing-looking 'Tiger' is actually a Russian-built T-34 with a makeover, while that StuG III Assault Gun started life as a British Army troop carrier. And that Hanomag 251 troop carrier? Oh yes, that's just a wood and fibreglass shell on a Land Rover chassis. But convincing, aren't they?4Humbrol being the brand of choice.5German jet aircraft of the Second World War.6Used by the Korean Air Force.7Some sociologists use the classification 'dorks'.

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