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Adventures in Scale Modeling

Wednesday, August 17 2016


Post by Tom Serafini


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You've heard it before: “scale model builders are geeks, overgrown kids playing with toys, or the kids who sit in the house alone all summer while their friends are out playing”. Actually, people who build model airplanes, model car kits or ship models are not geeks (well, ok, some of us are - myself included and I'm proud of it) or overgrown kids, we are artists and dreamers and builders. We are future engineers, designers, mechanics and electricians. We are the people responsible for the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star. We are the special effects pioneers who brought a mechanical shark to life, chased Indiana Jones with a giant ball, and made you believe you were seeing the actual Titanic sinking. If you build models, you're in good company.

Adventures in Scale Modeling

In fact, if you take a close look at the Millennium Falcon and the X-Wing fighters from ‘Star Wars’, you will see pieces from your favorite vintage model kits used to add details. George Lucas calls them "greebles" and they are everywhere. The space station Deep Space Nine from the series of the same name and the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC 1701-E from ‘Star Trek’ were filming models – so was Deckard's police car from the cult sci-fi classic ‘Blade Runner’. If you visit the Smithsonian, you will see the actual filming model of the U.S.S. Enterprise used in the original TV series. It's a model, a big one, built by modelers just like you. We're not only artists, we make our own kind of history.

Scale model kits are more than just gluing plastic together to make a car or an airplane. They’re an opportunity to learn history, learn about how things are made and to learn what you're made of. It takes patience and skill, reinforced through the process of following instructions and organizing your thoughts and actions. It facilitates critical thinking. It's also a legitimate art form that inspires creativity and sparks the imagination. Yes, a model tank is a piece of art created by a unique set of hands.

When I tell people my hobby is model building, they imagine me sitting at a bench gluing my fingers together, which sometimes happens (once, I crazy-glued a tiny tank part to my teeth and couldn't find it until I looked in the mirror later that night). However, what I'm really doing is getting lost in the subject. The instructions offer a brief history of what I'm building, so I get to learn when and where it was made and why. This creates a setting - a stage in my mind - and when I begin the process, I imagine myself in that setting. I'm on the race track or the deck of a ship or in a spooky laboratory in an old castle during a thunder storm.

Scale modeling is also the process of learning and practicing a craft just like a carpenter. You're working with your mind and hands to bring forth something from nothing. Your first kit isn't going to come out like the box art. The paint won't be as shiny, the weathering won't be as eye catching and your colors will probably be off. My very first kit was an Aurora Frankenstein monster that I painted pink and green with bright red lips and purple boots - I was six, okay? And no, I don't have pictures of it.

Another time, I botched the high-gloss black paint in a ‘57 Chevy I spent a month building. To strip the paint, I submerged the entire model in paint thinner (not realizing it softens plastic). Three days later I pulled an amorphous glob out of the bucket. Once, I read that using a food dehydrator which applies heat, helps paint to dry faster. I dropped in a freshly painted ‘68 Roadrunner and watched in horror as the entire body bent into an angle that defied geometry. All lessons learned and experience accumulated.

I'm currently working on the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ kit from Moebius Models, and I can bring to bear every lesson I've learned about how to build scale models over the years. After you've amassed a pile of misfires, you get right back to the bench and start anew. You do it again and again. You read reference materials, you experiment on old kits, you learn as you go and you get better and better. That's how you learn and grow as an artist and as a person. And you lower the heat on your dehydrator.

When your technique improves, your work improves. There is an amazing sense of satisfaction when you get a "miles deep" gloss finish on that Porsche 918 Spyder model car you spent all that time on. You're so tempted to continue but you realize there's a point where it's as perfect as it's going to be so you stop. You take a step back and you did that. You did it with your skill and imagination and the patience to make art from a bunch of pieces of gray plastic.

I've been building model kits for 40 years and every time I sit down with a new kit, I learn something new. Someone once asked me why, if I've been doing this for so long, my models don't look perfect? Because I'm not building for perfection, I'm building to learn something new and different: a new weathering technique or a different approach with my airbrush or new kinds of cement. This process of learning translates to every other aspect of my life. It helps me problem-solve by giving me a foundation in organization. It helps me follow directions and realize that in Life, each little part contributes to the whole of whatever project I'm working on.

Model building is also something great you can do with your children. My father used to sit and patiently watch me as I glued parts in the wrong place, spilled paint and spread glue on the entire surface of a windshield. He never said anything but his guidance helped me understand that - while gluing a tank barrel to the hood of a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon may look cool - it's not really accurate. We'd spend hours together and I learned patience and perseverance from him through the hobby of modeling.

Why build plastic scale models? Because there's a whole world of creativity and imagination in every box just waiting for you to dig in and explore. It's an active exercise in growth and learning, and it's an art form that promises something unique to be discovered and shared with every build. It's all there waiting for you!

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