The Timeless Joy of Scale Model Building

A model of a Lockheed Constellation built from a non-standard scales nearly 60 years old. Back then, most models were designed to fit a very specific box size. [Courtesy: Terry Moore]

This holiday season you can be sure that someone reading this story will either receive or give a scale-model kit as a gift. 

There’s always been a link between general aviation and scale modeling. So much so that in the early days of Popular Aviation Magazine (which would later become FLYING Magazine), there were pages dedicated to instructions for building a scale-model aircraft. Sometimes it was text, sometimes there were blueprints telling the reader what to do with the balsa wood and tissue paper or fabric to achieve the design depicted.

The first plastic model kits appeared in 1936, made by Frog, a company in the United Kingdom. American manufacturers Lindberg, Hawk, Varney, Empire, and Renwal would enter the market in the late 1940s, with World War II military designs being the favorites. Today, there are more than 100 manufacturers of polystyrene (a fancy word for plastic) kits on the market and sold around the world. This becomes apparent when you open the box and find the directions are in four different languages in addition to having pictograms to aid in the build process. 

A 1/48th scale of a B-24 Green Hornet. [Courtesy: Terry Moore]

A Lifelong Hobby

Model building tends to be a hobby that stays with a person throughout their life. And like most hobbies, memories are made in the process.

Terry D. Moore, 71, still remembers his first model: 

“It was a toy rocket that cost 25 cents and a cereal box top,” he said. “I didn’t like the fact that it was all white, so I went to the store next door to my grandparents’ farm and bought a bottle of red paint for the launch rail.”

Veli-Pekka “V.P.”  Pelttari, 53, from Lieto, Finland, recalls staying up all night at the age of 10 to build a model Boeing B-17G he received as a Christmas gift. 

“Benefits of Scale Modeling”

Model building teaches life skills, such as how to follow directions, how to identify components, and how they fit together in the bigger picture and how to complete a task. Model builders tend to be creative problem-solvers. Those with access to 3D printers often manufacture their own components or specialized tools for the project. There is also the added bonus of learning how to do research—every person contacted for this story mentioned different methods for getting information about a particular aircraft, model kit, or technique. Model building can also help you develop an interest in full-size aviation. It’s rare to find a pilot or mechanic who hasn’t built one.

“I got the Airfix A Bit’ O Lace kit for Christmas (we here in Finland get our presents on Christmas Eve) and didn’t get to bed until it was ‘done’ at about 4 or 5 a.m.” 

As he recalls, the finished model was covered with his fingerprints and “the landing gear collapsed under the weight of the plastic airplane, and without painting the kit at all, molded in silver plastic, it looked nothing like the rainbow of 447th BG late war markings on the fabulous box art, but it was still my first Fortress.” 

When he became an adult, Pelttari took a break from model building until 2017 when he joined an online British modeling forum. These groups are filled with modelers showing off their projects, both in progress and finished. The members tend to be very helpful and supportive of one another. When one of the members showed off a P-51 Mustang with a squadron code close to Pelttari’s initials, he did a search to see if his initials had ever been on a real aircraft. He learned his initials had graced a B-17G known as Dream Baby. He knew he had to build it as a scale model. 

“That became my first B-17 built in 30 years,” he said. 

A look at the NorthWest Scale Modelers show at the Museum of Flight in Seattle in February 2020. [Courtesy: Tim Nelson]

Modelers and Museums 

Scale modeling is more than putting pieces together and painting something. Meticulous research happens to make sure the finished project is “correct.” For many, the research can be the best part of the project. With the invention of the internet, research is much easier than it used to be.

“Know Your Scales”

The two most popular scales for model aircraft are 1/48 and 1/72. 1/48 scale is sometimes referred to as “quarter-inch” scale because 1/4 of an inch on the model equals 1 foot on the real aircraft.
1/72 scale means 1/6 of an inch represents one foot. Therefore, one inch represents six feet on the aircraft.

With a few keystrokes, Pelttari learned Dream Baby was part of the 381st bomb group stationed in Ridgewell, England, from 1943 to 1945. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had used the base until ’43 when the Americans came over with hundreds of B-17s. When the Americans left in ’45, the base reverted back to the RAF. The base was deactivated in 1957 and most of the military buildings demolished—with the exception of one of the structures that housed the hospital. Today, this former hospital building is the home of the Ridgewell Airfield Commemorative Museum. 

The stories and history of the 381st are kept alive through the museum and through their digital presence, especially on Facebook. The children and grandchildren of men who were stationed at Ridgewell share information and photographs. This helps the museum and the scale modelers, and sometimes, the model builders get to provide help to the museum. 

Stephen Coulson, a scale modeler from the U.K., is putting the finishing touches on a B-17 Tinker Toy that will soon be displayed at the 381st Museum. Coulson has had a fascination with the U.S. Army Air Forces, specifically the Eighth Air Force, since boyhood.

Tinker Toy came about when I visited the museum at Ridgewell in September. After a long chat, I arranged to build a B-17 model for them,” Coulson explained. 

Coulson has been periodically posting photographs of the work in progress on the 381st Facebook page. 

According to a museum follower identified as the son of a man who was stationed at Ridgewell, Tinker Toy, a Lockheed-built B-17F, had the reputation of being a cursed ship because no crew that flew on her made it home without at least one member getting wounded or killed. The aircraft was lost in action over Bremen on December 20, 1943, when a German Bf 109 collided with aircraft head on, killing seven members of the crew. A Google search for the aircraft uncovered several photographs of a very battle-damaged airplane. All the photographs are in black and white, which presents a challenge when you are trying to get the color scheme just right, Coulson said. 

The B-17 is one of the favorites, if not the favorite WWII aircraft model to build. It’s hard to find a military aviation buff who hasn’t built at least one. Of the 12,731 B-17s built between 1936 and ’45, only a handful are left today. Most are on static display at aviation museums. 

The more famous aircraft—the ones used in movies such as Memphis Belle or the ones that still make the airshow circuit such as Sentimental Journey, Texas Raiders, and Aluminum Overcast—are often the ones you will find depicted on the covers of model boxes, but with a little research, the model builder can turn what’s inside into pretty much any B-17 they want.

Many model makers invest in air brushes for smoother paint jobs, specialty tools to create oil streaks and weathering, and (popularly) using flame to heat up the business end of a Phillips head screwdriver, then jamming the tool into the model to create flak damage. 

During Women in Aviation week at the Museum of Flight, the NorthWest Scale Modelers supplied aircraft for display. [Courtesy: Tim Nelson]

Kit Bashing

Kit bashing is a practice of taking parts from different models and turning them into something new.

It can be great fun to get partially completed models from garage sales and thrift stores and the like and turn them into things designers never imagined—like a P-51/dune buggy that looks like something Mad Max would drive, or something that resembles the love child of a starship and a tank.

Getting Started

It doesn’t take much dexterity or engineering knowledge to get started in scale modeling.

Pre-colored models and models that snap together are good choices for younger model builders because they do not require glue or paint. Although the kits may not be very detailed, the idea at the beginning level is to generate an interest and not create a barrier by frustrating a beginner with a kit that is too complex.

“Where to Get Kits”

If you are lucky enough to have a hobby shop in your neighborhood, they often carry model kits. Kits can also be ordered from online retailers. Don’t forget to get glue and paint to finish the designs. Pro-tip: Use white glue when attaching clear plastic parts, like windscreens, because it dries clear. Model glue dries opaque.

“It is a hobby and supposed to be fun,” said 50-something Tim Nelson from Seattle. Nelson has been building models since he was around 7 years old. 

“It’s important to start simple and avoid turning a beginner off with a totally frustrating experience. I think it’s also important to match a kit with a budding modeler’s interests—for example, the Star Wars universe offers a plethora of kits of many subjects and skill levels.”

Nelson describes scale modeling as “a terrific, lifelong hobby that builds broad and deep interests, develops fine motor skills, enhances problem-solving capabilities, and results in a great circle of friends.” 

He is a member of the NorthWest Scale Modelers. The club takes part in an annual model show at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, and there are opportunities for year-round display as the club 

has an agreement with the Museum of Flight to stage a recurring series of themed displays in the museum lobby. 

“It’s been a great way to let the museum present ever-changing content, while we modelers get to show our work and promote the hobby—a true win-win,” said Nelson, who is partial to the 1/72 scale which he says has the broadest range of kits available. 

“For most subjects, it’s a practical, manageable size and it allows me to avoid getting bogged down—most of the time—in minutiae and super-detailing,” he says, “However, you can get as detailed as your heart desires and your eyesight allows.”

Tips For a Successful Project

• Designate a workspace with good light.

• Read the instructions before you begin.

• Have the proper tools ready to go (Exacto knife, sandpaper, or emery board for removing rough edges, etc.) before you begin.

• Work over a drop cloth to avoid glue damage to tables.

• Wash the model with mild soap, rinse with water, and then let it air dry before beginning.

• Test fit all parts before applying glue.

• Build bracing jigs out of alligator clips, cardboard, or binder clips to hold parts during construction.

• Use painter’s tape to mask off areas during painting.

• Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.
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