The Art of Building

Building is grossly underrated in this hobby.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to put on my slippers, reminisce about bagged Airfix kits, and bemoan the lack of ‘beZiK MolDeriNg SKizz’ and ‘Millennials’ like some bitter old guy. I assume all modellers have basic modelling skills and, frankly, they are a given and not some super power only a subsect of aircraft modellers possess.

I’m not talking about competent clean building, I’m talking about the art of building. Building to a very high level to make a unique and far more interesting model.

The Fun Bit

In luddite-grandpa’s days (pre-2000) kits could be a chore. You had to put a lot of work into getting a decent result, just to get the thing together in a good clean build. Added to that, the standard of detail on most kits up to the late 90s, was not great. If you wanted sharp, crisp, scale detail, you needed to learn to scratch, or to use PE well. Kits in the last 20 years, and especially in the last 10 years have come a hell of a long way, and its now possible to build a very sharp, detailed kit right out of the box.

This has lead in many cases to people focussing purely on painting as a way to drive their modelling forward. It is certainly true that there is a lot in painting and weathering to learn, to practice and to explore, and I am not here to say that artistic painting and finishing is a bad thing. its a freaking awesome thing and I love looking at it, reading about it, and doing it.

But along the way, building has kind of been side-lined. Its seen as the thing people do to ‘get to the fun bit’.

I am here to tell you it can be the fun bit, and more than that, it can make your painting and finishing even more fun.

Make it Yours

If kits are so much better now, why are we even talking about this?

Kits are much better, but they are still not as good as they could be. There is still room to improve kits, either as conversion, correction, or just super-detailing. Building can be a major way you can add distinctiveness to your model and make it unique. Kits are a mass-produced thing, and most people building them will build them out of the box, and to one of the schemes in the box.

You don’t need to be constrained by the box. Make yours different. Make your model, Your Model.

How you do it is up to you, you can add PE, 3D parts, wire, scratch, your options are almost limitless, so long as you can open your mind to all of them, but make your model unique. Look for period photos to find unusual features, or damage or anything out of the ordinary that you can replicate.

Stretching Your Canvas

As some of you will know, if you listen to the Sprue Cutters Union, I went to art school (drink). I practiced painting and printmaking, so you could say I am a painter by training. But I also learned the value of preparing your surface to paint. Your model is your canvas, if its not on your model, you can’t paint it; so even if you are all about painting: good, interesting, unique building, gives you a good surface to paint and lots of stuff to pick out, highlight, shade and otherwise show off your painting prowess.

Yes, you can make a model unique looking with how you paint it, but if you rush to paint, you are denying yourself 50% of the distinctiveness your model could have.

Simply put:

Good building + excellent painting = good model

Excellent building + good painting = good model

Excellent building + excellent painting = outstanding model

Building vs Painting

There is a common argument in modelling, “are you a builder or a painter”. This is going to ruffle some feathers, but so be it.

You should be both.

Finally, to slay a myth that perpetuates among certain modellers, good building is always important, whether you scratch, add AM, whatever it is: clean building and seam elimination is always a must, because you can put lipstick on a pig, but it will still be a pig. Make your surface ready for your paint: Build well.

About Chris

I'm Chris Meddings, Modeller, Author, Publisher of Modelling Books, Podcaster, and armchair wannabe thinker
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12 Responses to The Art of Building

  1. Bruce Culver says:

    Most excellent advice. With my aged eyesight, I have to paint smaller details on their sprues or at least pre-installation, so I have decided in building some new acquisitions I am going to attempt to add as much new detail as I can to make them stand out and look more complete. New techniques (God willing, some of them might even be successful), and the desire to make each model unique for me should make this exercise enjoyable.

  2. Marcin Witkowski says:

    Just in point. This is what I call complete and consistent project. Whole package. Make it unique and different from other in the same subject. Try to climb above.
    Improove. Make yourself better in what you are doing and not only loose another few sq centymetres of your shelf with another OOB kit. That’s why my build takes so much time. But after all I choose to build and paint one (in someone opinion) great model than ten or fifteen even perfect nowdays kits which will look almost the same as kits of the other guy.

  3. Damian Rigby says:

    Great advice Chris. I consider myself a competent average modeler and try to stretch myself in some way on each build. Add some scratch detail, refine the construction more, make some modifications to add interest, get that gloss paint finish just right or the faded paint or rust tones a bit more realistic. One day I hope to bring it all together so I can sit back and look at the finished product and just smile 🙂

  4. Jon Tabinor says:

    Do you think that the emphasis on painting and finishing has also perhaps been caused by the rise of paint and finishing product companies?

    Twenty-odd years go there wasn’t a lot of painting ‘stuff’ out there, but technology and innovation, plus some very active marketing has changed that. It’s only natural that when you push stuff at people, and tell them that this will let you ‘finish your models like a pro’, they use it. As result the excitement becomes, as you say, getting to the painting. The slight downside (I stress –in my opinion here) is that one unintended result is that a lot of models look ‘the same’ because they use the same products and techniques.

    Things to help build and detail sort of stopped with PE and resin, and that was a while back. Both have reputations as tricky to master, and more importantly often require the base kit to be modified to take them (daunting if you are less experienced, or don’t want to risk physically butchering your kit). Ergo less appeal to the modeller that just wants to make something that looks good and they are proud of.

    Now with the advent, and move towards maturity, of 3D printing and CAD, there’s a new builder’s mate around. Parts are accurate, will fit or even wholly replace kit parts often without the need to make tricky cuts. 3D printed parts aren’t miraculous of course, but I think they appeal to the modeller used to the newer ‘instant fixes’ in paint and finishing products, in a similar vein. It’s a quick way to add kerb appeal. And that’s a good thing for many modellers (I mean Reskits wheels for example- just lovely and an instant improvement of most kit parts, for a very modest risk).

    So now we have the ability to detail and finish using bespoke products designed for modellers (often by modellers). Scratch building will still have uses and adherents, but in truth I can’t see it ever being anything other than an occasional tool of last use for many modellers (otherwise it would be far more common today than it is).

    What’s needed to wield all these fine new things of course is practice. Perhaps we should move away from the jaded ‘basic modelling skills’ trope towards a new idea that we as modellers need to develop ‘competent or tailored modelling skills’. And for that practice, not endless new product, is needed.

    • Chris says:

      I think the move in emphasis to painting and finishing is a multifaceted thing. On one hand, its because kit manufacturing has developed so far that modellers really only need ‘basic’ skills like parts clean-up, a bit of seam filling and knowing how to apply glue, to get a very decent model. In addition we have access to far more subjects that ever before, so the need or desire to scratch or convert, is not so strong as it was 20, 30 or especially 40 years ago.

      On the other hand, painting and finishing 30 years ago used to just mean applying a base coat, adding some detail painting, applying decals well, and calling it done. Finishes are infinitely more developed and involved than they were in Verlinden’s heyday, and he revolutionised the hobby with his finishes. So there is a lot more to do now in finishing than there was 30 years ago.

      Do the products and their marketing make people concentrate on it? I don’t think so. I think they make people feel these finishes are something they can do, but when I go to telford, that level (or type if you prefer, I’m implying no superiority of weathering) if finish is still very much in the minority. These products are popular enough to sell, but not the dominant force in the market or in influence in the hobby.

      “one unintended result is that a lot of models look ‘the same’ because they use the same products and techniques.”

      There is a homogenisation of style at the moment, but I think its the internet that has caused that. Actually, that’s a subject I am already developing for a future blog…

      As for add ons… 3D is going to be the end of resin, and scratch. Our generation may be the last to use white styrene to make parts for our kits. Younger modellers will scratch-print (as David Parker puts it), but ironically this may mean an explosion in creativity and individuality in models, as it allows anyone with some talent and experience of design (and they are learning it at school) to design anything they can conceive of. With 3D being so democratised, I already think it is not commercially viable as an aftermarket business (look at the massive proliferation of companies making 3D tracks) so I think it is more likely people will mostly just design for themselves, making the one-offs.

      What we need, is ambition. the skills are learnable to anyone. The vision is what will allow modeller to separate their work from others. Its creativity that we need if we want diverse models.

      Of course, a lot of people just want to build a model, and thats cool too.

      • Jon Tabinor says:

        I suspect you may be right about the end of white plasticard scratchbuilding (although it would be interesting to see how much scratch building is done to convert, or just to add details), but
        I suspect that for many buying a print file and 3D printing it at home will be the future – designing a part, parts or a kit might be too time consuming for many who just want to build a physical thing. And that will revolutionise the hobby – or at least lead to old timers in the 22nd century bemoaning the lack of “Basic 3D printing skills” among the younger generation of cybernetically-augmented modellertrondroids

        I do think that advertising might have played a bigger part than you though. When I was at school in the 80s, everyone wanted to do Verlinden dry brushing or dioramas in the Shep Paine style. That was because they published books and their stuff was in magazines, and that’s how it was also advertised of course. Similarly nowadays the amount of adfomercial/ infotainment articles online and in print and YouTube stuff that there is now MUST be having some effect, or they wouldn’t do it surely?

        But yes the internet too as a general propagator of styles has had a massive effect, if only because that old standby of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery still seems to ring true.

        What we need, is ambition. the skills are learnable to anyone. The vision is what will allow modeller to separate their work from others. Its creativity that we need if we want diverse models.

        That’s interesting because it gets to the heart of what someone wants from the hobby. It’s a pretty much solo pastime, so does it actually matter if Bob in Luton’s King Tiger looks like Ramon in Valencia’s, or Hàoyú in Shanghai’s as long as each modeller is proud, or happy, at what they’ve built. I suppose what I’m asking is does it matter if models aren’t diverse? I mean for a competition then yes I’d imagine- you want to stand out: but for the ‘regular’ guy or girl that just wants a few hours break from work, or the kids, or the stresses of life is it just enough to open the box and build what’s there? (or for ‘future-regular-guy-girl’ 3D print the parts and build them). Creativity doesn’t have to always be ambitious does it- it can just be taking satisfaction in doing something you know, and doing it well. I’m not saying ambition is bad, just that it may not be the sine qua non of every modeller.

  5. All good points. A good model has to be built well and painted well, they are both part of the same process in making a good model kit. I think it might be more the case with older kits than with newer ones because there is less to the kit being built and so more emphasis has to be on the painting. For example, having decided that I want to make a model of a Bristol Bulldog in that lovely crisp polished metal and doped linen
    finish, the only viable option is the 1969 Airfix kit. For it’s age it is a pretty decent kit but to make it work, the building will be relatively pain free with a touch of scratch building because there is no aftermarket stuff (according to Hannants), but the painting is enough of a challenge to have me thinking twice.

  6. Warren says:

    Another nice, thought-provoking post Chris. Thanks.

    Right now I’m stumbling along trying to resurrect old modeling skills (that weren’t that great in the first place) and learn some new ones. My re-entry into the hobby, over the last 20 years, has been in fits and starts for too many reasons to list here. As a result, any skills I build up have gone stale. I’m working on three 1/72nd a/c kits in a small batch build, and I’m still on the interior. I’ve had individuals state, with supposed authority, on SMCG that I’m just wasting my time. Really? If I’m relearning how to cut styrene to scratch-build, gluing PE, applying tiny decals, using setting solutions, enamel washes, etc. for something “a judge will never see”, but yet it’s developing my skills, is it a waste of time? Only I can determine what does and doesn’t waste my time, it’s mine to do with as I please.
    However, to the point of your post, my efforts at building up these cockpits are so I can make these builds mine. They won’t be like anyone else’s builds. In the end I’m refining my skills so that I can be a better builder.

    • Chris says:

      to be fair, you are preaching to the choir with me lol! I am a firm believer that any modelling polishes your skills, and whether or not someone can see it when it is done, is irrelevant. After all, is modelling about what you do, or what others can see? Is it about making models, or showing models? Certainly, showing is part of the hobby; but to me, if you are building to show, something is not right.

      And you are right, you are making it yours. Very few others will do what you are doing, and those that do will inevitably do it slightly differently. Keep making it different!

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