Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sausage gravy and the slow demise of craftsmanship

Editor's Note: After you read this article, be sure to read my follow-up, Reconsidering cheating.

Having grown up in the South one of my favorite breakfasts is sausage gravy over biscuits. After I graduated and left home I enjoyed frequenting a little mom & pop restaurant when I was home on vacation, always ordering the gravy and biscuits. It wasn’t the best I’d ever had, but I liked the idea of getting home cooked food over the mass produced stuff served in chain restaurants. You can imagine my dismay when I peeked into the kitchen during one visit and saw the crew opening a can of pre-made sausage gravy. I never went back to the restaurant again. They were cheating, taking short cuts to satisfy their customers. (On hindsight that probably explains why I could eat breakfast there for around five dollars.)

Two weeks ago there was a brief but lively debate on the WingNut Wings Fans Facebook group when one of its members posted a link to LF Models’ new prefabricated wooden propellers. Several of us expressed our view that using these prop constituted something akin to cheating. One member said, "This is modeling equivalent of turning in homework that you didn't do yourself." He's right.

LF Model's propeller for the Albatros D.I-V, Fokker Dr.I and D.VII, Pfalz D.III, and Roland D.V and C.II.
To be sure, the propellers looks amazing, and why shouldn’t they? They appear to have been manufactured exactly like the real thing, with laminated layers of multi-color woods, shaped, and polished, complete with an aluminum hub. The “modeler” will spend more time removing the prop from the packaging than he will attaching it to the model.

As you might imagine more than a few modelers in the Facebook group will buy LF’s props, and predictably they defended their right to do so. I don’t begrudge them the desire to create a better representation of an Albatros D.III or Fokker D.VII, but I do believe that using these props removes a good bit of craftsmanship that forms the basis of scale modeling. Using these props is cheating. Period.

“Cheating?” said another member. "If this is cheating then so is using Eduard photoetch, Yahu instrument panels, and resin replacement parts.” And he’s absolutely right. When you use those products, you introduce elements into the model that aren’t the product of your mind and hands, and the your model then only partially reflects your skill as a modeler. You’re another one, two, three steps further removed from being an "artist" (not that modeling is art). Yes, there is a degree of skill required to properly clean up, assemble, attach, and paint photoetch or resin, but not nearly as much as creating those components yourself using plastic, metal, and other media. One of the modelers that inspired me early on, Bob Steinbrunn, used very little, if any, aftermarket and produced amazing representations of aircraft in scale. He, my friends, is a true craftsman.

Some of you reading this will take my argument to an extreme, setting up a straw man by suggesting that modelers should create their own paint and glue. Or scratchbuilding models completely, eschewing kits entirely. That might be true, but I’d make a distinction between products used to construct and paint a model and products used to replace or add components of a model.

Here’s the deal. If you use wooden props, photoetch, resin cockpits, and so on, it's okay. There are valid reasons for doing so, but admit that you’re cheating. It’s okay to take shortcuts to create the models that you want to display in your display case, but realize that a bit of your craftsmanship is lost in the process.

I’m a cheater myself. Look at the photo below, which shows a small selection of the canopy masks, resin, and gun barrels in my stash. I could mask canopies on my own (as I am for an ESCI 1/72 AV-8A Harrier), but Eduard’s and Peewit’s products make the painting process faster and the results more predictable, and that is important to me. And maybe those wooden props are important to you.

We're cheaters.

You can learn more about the LF Models wooden propellers here.


  1. How can you be a cheater on something that is a hobby? We have lost sight of what this is supposed to be, a relaxing time for you to do what you want in your vision. What is the difference if you can't donsomething and a friend helps you? Same thing. This is a hobby, not the Super Bowl. I like your posts, but this debate is ridiculous. Build what you want and how you want. Paint everything grey and put it on your shelf. Enjoy it. Use premade prope and put it on your shelf. Enjoy it. Just silly.

    1. Hi Clark. “Cheating” is probably a strong word. Maybe “taking shortcuts” would less pejorative. No matter the word we use to describe the use of aftermarket, taking shortcuts diminishes the craftsmanship that is, IMHO, an important element of the hobby. I respect you and those who might disagree. Regardless, I appreciate your reading my blog!

  2. It's only cheating if you don't declare its a after market item and quietly claim its all scratch built.

  3. For those of us who've been around model making for more than a few decades, there's definitely a 'before' and 'after' the proliferation of after market products, a.k.a 'cheats' as . I am delighted to use modern aftermarket parts and finishing supplies, and also welcome the overall increase in modeling quality and accuracy we now enjoy. But I am still inspired by the arguably greater inventiveness and craftsmanship that it took to do great modeling in that 'before' period back in the 70s and 80s--the work of Shep Paine for Monogram Models' tip sheets particularly comes to mind. I won't stop using our modern model building gimcrackery, but I still think good modeling can still happen more or less straight out of the box.

    1. Well said, Steve. I’ve been building models since 1982 and have seen increased reliance on aftermarket, and I include myself! I just hope that each of us will, every once in a while, build a model without aftermarket to assess the level of our skills.

  4. Hold're talking about buying a box of prefabricated parts and gluing them together to make a plane or tank and are now complaining that buying other prefabricated parts and using those instead of the original parts or as extra parts to the kit is cheating... something is amiss with your logic...

    1. Adam, you make a good point. I guess I would counter that we should (maybe) draw a line somewhere. Is it the use of photoetch? Pre-painted photoetch? Pre-made wheels for cars? I’m not sure, but at what point do we call ourselves “model assemblers” rather than “scale modelers?"

    2. I think that's really it. Parts are parts. When you compare a good kit, say one that comes from Alfred Wong, for example as compared to a crap kit like the Aliens Dropship from Protos models, then there is really a huge difference in quality of "starter parts." Is it cheating to get aftermarket, photoetch, etc..etc.. for the protos Kit but not cheating to buy an Alfred Wong kit? In the end, it's all a definition of what we're doing. Personally, I've done everything from scratch building up to superdetailing a very high quality kit with other high-quality stuff.

      What is "cheating?" What is "better or worse" than what other people are doing? I think what this comes down to is comparison of one person's craftsmanship vs another's.. and that is all about judgement. And that has no blanket definition or application.

      I'd say that everyone who doesn't fabricate their own parts is some level of a "model assembler".. by definition of the words. Others will take offense to that because, well, they consider themselves modelers. And, for me, that kind of conflict is stuff we just don't need in the hobby. Have fun.. do your thing. What Joe or Jane or I do, or how we do it, really shouldn't be affecting the enjoyment of the hobby for anyone else. Should it?

    3. I appreciate your comments. I wrote this with my eye on the hobby as a whole, emphasizing how important the element of craftsmanship is to what we do.

    4. I absolutely agree. I mean, Craftsmanship is what we do, right? I guess that, to my mind, the materials don't really matter quite as much as what we do with them. For me, modeling has always been a combination of wanting the subject and how well I can model that subject. For instance, I'm a big "Battletech" fan and I have a collection of 1/60 gaming scale 'Mechs. On my display shelf, I have 1 toy that was repainted to a realistic look, 2 rare resin kits that I modified to add lighting and cockpits to, and a fourth that I fully fabricated from scratch. Each one of these subjects pushed some aspect of my modeling skills to the limit. Painting and weathering "Black painted armor" was what I did with the toy (Warhammer/Destroid Tomahawk).. etc..etc.. you can see where I'm going. When I look up and see these four 'Mechs in the display Dio.. I'm proud of the work for them all.

      Like the prop mentioned in the original post. The part is just another part. It doesn't require finishing, etc., but on the other hand, that prop then sets a standard for the level of detail and finish for the rest of the model. Obviously, when displaying the work, the modeler isn't going to say "I built that from scratch".. but still will have a subject they are proud to display.

      So, all that to say - does the proliferation of aftermarket really diminish the skillsets of craftsmen, (and -women) or does it inspire and draw in modelers, encouraging them to try things they might have feared to try..etc. ?

      Just some thinking here..

  5. For items such as this Prop, or buying pre-assembled and painted bombs,,,,,that could be considered "cheating", I guess.

    But, for some aftermarket items, those are actually complete kits in their own right. You have to assemble and paint them, and get them to fit into the model. Complete resin and etched cockpits come to mind here, and if you then add the superdetailed and painted seats, and instrument panels from another source, something like a two-seat cockpit becomes Four kits shoe-horned into the original plastic model kit.

    I just think that the word "cheating" is a hard thing to apply to what is basically a 3D version of a "paint by numbers" set that has to be assembled before the painting starts.

    And we have to keep in mind that the beautiful models that we miss so much were often kit-bashes,,,,which means the donor kits were that era's version of aftermarket parts in the first place.

    To me, cheating would be having the Four modelers above each assemble and paint a sub-assembly for me, and then "I built" the model by adding their work to my finished masterpiece, with me taking all of the credit.

    But, using a Hasegawa Phantom, with an Aries cockpit, Eduard weapons, Quickboost seats, True Details wheels, and then painting them with paints that Aeromaster did the color research for, with Furball decals that Geoff already researched, and tying that all together with my glue and airbrush is not "cheating",,,,,it is just building a model. I don't think adding pre-painted RBF flags changes that to "cheating", it is just saving some time.

    If we take the "cheating" path too far, then decals, correct paint, profiles in books, color photos, line drawings of parts,,,,all of that was done by someone else, too. (even if every item was verified by the modeler himself)

    Besides, sometimes just getting the aftermarket parts to even fit the host model is far more work than gluing the "stock" kit parts together. Hardly a short-cut, which the word "cheating" implies.

    1. Y’know, I can’t disagree with you that some aftermarket are “kits” in and of themselves. For example, I’m currently trying to sell a photoetch set for the Stryker because it’s too complex for my modest skills, so even though I *could* say its use is “cheating” I could also admit that assembling it properly involves a whole set of skills that are as fundamental as filling a seam or scratchbuilding a seat.

      On an unrelated note, I always thought it would be interesting to have a contest category where one modeler built the model and another painted and weathered it. Must contact the IPMS leadership!

  6. That IPMS model idea sounds interesting, Steven.

    It would a smaller version of those models that "travel around the world" to get built by a bunch of people, with each doing a few areas of it.

    And in a separate comment to your answer to Adam, I've always called myself a "model assembler", or kit builder. It saves others the step of calling me that, lol.

    And it is what I really think people want to be, when the flaw detection starts with a new kit. Deep down, I believe they wanted to just open the kit and have an accurate replica without any extra work to correct things.

    I'm perfectly content, and have been for 52 years now, to just "assemble" the kit, and then paint it by the numbers. That is my main hobby.

    1. I agree. Everyone approaches the hobby differently, and our individual enjoyment changes over time. I'm slowly getting to the point where "just assembling" a kit is fine for me so I can build a larger number of models in the 20 or so good years I have left.

  7. You've created quite a stir using the word "cheater".

    I for one am happy to admit that I am an assembler and that I use as many convenience items - paint masks, etch sets, resin aftermarket items, turned barrels etc - in my builds as possible.

    As someone who builds kits predominantly on commission these days, the convenience items allow me to get through a build a lot quicker, add a level of detail I personally can't be bothered replicating and ensures that my customers get as accurate a representation of the real thing as possible.

    It is then up to me to finish the model in a representative scheme of the real thing, which sometimes can be far more challenging and rewarding than the actual build. So anyone who can produce an item that makes my job a lot easier will always get my money.

    As for competitions, as long as the modeller has declared the items that they have used to improve their model, then I don't have a problem with that. For me the skill is in the final product and if it looks the goods, then it gets my vote.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Agreed, I'm seeing now how the convenience factor is very important to a lot of modelers. And as I approach 50, even to me, too! :)