Monday, October 27, 2014

5 hard truths about scale modeling

Like any endeavor or hobby, scale modeling is full of challenges. Here are five hard truths about our hobby that you need to accept.

1. There are no “tricks”

Is there a trick to scribing around external fuel tanks? Are there any tricks to painting instrument panels? Is there an easy way to paint ejection seat handles? These questions have recently been asked in one form or another on the forums. All too often I see modelers looking for easy solutions or “tricks” to the challenges of building, painting, and weathering models, and with few exceptions I find myself wanting to be brutally honest and tell them that nothing is easy.

My favorite example is modelers looking for a trick to paint the eyes of a figure. There are none. It's fucking hard. No, decals don't work. You need a high-quality brush, a steady hand, and practice to apply the white of the eyes, the iris, the pupil. If you’re looking for an easy solution, you’re going to be disappointed.

2. There’s always someone else better than you

A few months ago someone wrote on ARC that the last time he’d entered a contest he saw that other models were much better than his. Welcome to the real world. No matter what you do in this life, someone is going to be better than you, make more money, own nicer things. For example, I exercise regularly. Many of the guys in the gym are stronger than me or can run farther than me. So what? I have my own path to follow based on my body type, my genes, and my fitness goals. Comparing myself with other people only sets me up for frustration.

Same thing applies to scale modeling. I’m a good modeler, but there are others much better than me. That doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the hobby. Changing your mindset from intimidation to inspiration will make you a happier and potentially better modeler.

3. Airbrushing is difficult

One of the most difficult skills to master in our hobby is airbrushing. It’s easy to ask questions about paint preferences and thinning ratios, but ultimately you have to spend a lot of time with your particular airbrush/compressor setup, different types of paint, and dozens of experiments with thinners and thinning ratios to discover what works for you. And once you find that perfect formula, you’ll still need to spend a great deal of time learning how to apply the paint to the model so that it’s not too thick, too rich, or out-of-scale. If you’re new to the hobby, expect this process to take several years, at least.

4. Models are expensive

I remember balking at the $21 price tag of the first Hasegawa 1/48 F-4 Phantom that I purchased in the mid-1980s. Today that would be a bargain, even for a 1/72 scale kit. We need to face the harsh reality of our hobby today: kits are expensive. We can debate price relative to accuracy, but it is what it is. If models are too expensive for you, find a new hobby or do what most of us do, which is to wait until they go on sale or you can find one up at a contest. The incessant complaining about prices is pointless and annoying. And frankly, I believe the hobby is still a good value relative to other ways you could spend your money.

5. Figure painting is a completely different hobby

Have you ever tried to paint a pilot for your aircraft or paint figures for an armor diorama? It’s hard, right? I built plastic models – aircraft and armor – for years before I first attempted a figure. When I did, when I started using artist oils that most figure painters use, I realized that figures have practically nothing in common with plastic models.

If you’re looking to incorporate figures into your models, be ready for a steep learning curve or be willing to accept figures that detract a little from your otherwise excellent craftsmanship.


  1. This is regarding #4 "models are too expensive",,,,,,I agree with you completely, people could give that a rest any time now. There is a whole interlocking set of online forum topics that would cut the traffic by a significant amount if people would just really think about what they are saying. Before I go on, I have a stash, and I have tastes that made me order things and pick them up when I still had an LHS to go to. (fair disclosure)

    It gets to me a bit to constantly hear "models are toooooo expensive" from people that then post photos of 100, 200 or 500 models stacked up in their storage area. They bought most of them online because a kit was 1, 2 or 5 dollars cheaper than that "robber baron" that owned their LHS. (he showed them, though, he's gone now) Then you are standing there talking to this modeler at a contest,,,and he is trying to figure out if poster paint is cheap enough to afford,,,,,to paint that 1962 Renwall collector's item he just bought at the collector's price. Here's what I would like to say to those guys, sometime,,,,,,,,but, it is considered rude.

    "Pony up, Cupcake,,,,,,,,,kits cost money, quality paint costs money, cement that works costs money, producing decals costs money, blades and brushes aren't free, buy a book now and then instead of waiting for all the info in the world to get pirated and posted on Wiki,,,,,,,and go look at what it costs to try and run a 1973 Mustang for car shows" (I chose the 1973 because it was once sneered at by car nuts as being an "emissions car" instead of a real hot rod)

    Well, back to the hundreds of kits in the stash for a while,,,,,,,,I have my eye on a new release Whoop-dee-do, I want to order one like I saw window shopping in the Hobby Town this weekend,,,,,,,,,,I think I can save $3 by getting it online, they ship in only 2 days, you know, I sure am glad that Hobby Town is still open.


    1. Thank you for the substantive response, Rex. You make a lot of good points...and it's good to know that I'm not insane if others share my thoughts. :)

  2. Steve... Thanks for this very well-articulated and directed wisdom.

    If You don't mind, I'll be sharing Your thoughts... with the World!

  3. Brilliant and well done. Nailed it.

  4. But why is kits so expensive? its really simple process for the factory to manufacture, just regular injection method, and then into a box

    1. Once the manufacturer has the mold made, sure, the production cost is not that steep. It's the precision mastering of the mold, the planning of the parts and how they fit together, in scale, and in a way that minimizes issues like punch marks and gaping seams, that causes the cost of the molding tools to be so high. This is why Wingnut Wings kits are a bargain at $70 each, and bagged sprues of old Airfix and Frog kits are a ripoff at $5 each.

  5. "You need a high-quality brush, a steady hand, and practice to apply the white of the eyes, the iris, the pupil."

    But herein lies the problem, and maybe, yes, a 'trick'. Is the white of the eye really white? How often is it actually visible? My college painting prof was fond of saying "Paint what you see, not what you think you see." his is not so much a trick, as an admonition to be mindful. Very rarely, if ever is the sclera plainly visible at a distance of more than a meter or so. As modelers, we are tasked with painting the interaction of light with forms, not just robotically color-matching and applying, so, we have to use our aesthetic judgment to decide what to slavishly depict, what to suggest, and what to omit. My advice to all is "Don't paint so you see the whites of their eyes!"
    Apologies, just a personal pet peve.

    1. Well said and point taken! Most modelers, especially armor modelers, would be well advised to not attempt painting the whites of the eyes for their 1/35 figures, which tends to be most modelers' weakness. I'll have to try that myself the next time I add figures to a tank.