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How To Techniques

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An Introductory Course into Building Models
By IPMS Modeler: Jay Nakasone

Download pdf version

What are scale models?

Scale models are miniature replicas of machines, people, animals or even historical places or events.

Today most scale models are injection-molded in polystyrene plastic, and the parts are glued together with plastic solvent. Specially formulated paint is applied to assembled models. Complex markings such as aircraft insignia are typically provided with kits in the form of water slide decals.

The first plastic models were manufactured in the mid 1930s by Frog in the UK. In the late 1940s several American companies such as Hawk, Renewal and Lindberg began to produce plastic models. Today, there are over 100 model kit companies located throughout the world.

Multi-Media Kits

While injection-molding is the predominant manufacturing process for plastic models, the high tooling costs make it unsuitable for low volume production. Thus, models of minor and obscure subjects are often manufactured using alternative processes. Warning: These kits are for more experienced modelers.

Vacuum Forming is popular for aircraft models, though assembly is more difficult than for injection-molded kits. Heated plastic sheets are drawn over carved shapes to form the parts. The builder must cut each part from the sheet, trimming and sanding the mating edges for proper fit. The detail on vacuum formed kits tends to be softer than their injection molded counterparts. The process does not produce fine details parts like cockpit interiors and landing gear, so the builder must usually source these from surplus injection molded kits.

Resin-Casting is popular with smaller manufacturers; particularly 'aftermarket' firms (but also producers of full kits) and yields a greater degree of molded-in detail. However, as the manufacturing process is more labor intensive, and the silicone rubber molds used don't last very long, the price of such kits is considerably higher. In recent times, the latest releases from major manufacturers offer unprecedented detail, often including high-quality mixed-media (photo-etched brass, turned aluminum, and resin) parts.

Short-Run Models are similar to mainstream injected molded kits, but are made with cheaper low pressure injection molding equipment. The fine details are usually not as crisp, but with the inclusion of resin and photo-etch parts, these kit can look just as good. Like resin kits, the molds for short run kits don’t last long, hence the term “short-run.”

Tool Time

Basic Modeler’s Tools: A set of tools are recommended based on various factors such as state of skill and money: Beginner- A hobby knife, glue, a cutting table such as a inexpensive plastic cutting board. Other tools like a scissors to cut decals and a hobby snips to cut parts off the plastic “trees”. A set of paint brushes like large and medium round and flat brushes as well as pointed brushes in #0, #2/0,#5/0, and #10/0 sizes.

Intermediate modeler – Add to the Beginner’s tool set a assortment of hobby blades for the hobby knife, hobby putty to seal gaps in the model, a sander with various grades of sanding mediums. Also, a variety of paint brushes such as flat headed, a #20 / O pointed brushes as well as round headed brushes.

Advanced modeler – A electric drill (battery powered preferred) with various drill bits to Drill holes, a cutting wheel, polishing, and buffing wheels. A head visor with a magnifying and lighting lens. A airbrush and a airbrush painting “hood” area to control over sprays from the airbrush and/or spray paint cans. If available, a variety of plastic strips and shapes such as rounds, half rounds, flat strips in various thickness. These plastic pieces are used to fill gaps, scratch build pieces for one’s model. A cutting board with a small cutter similar to a paper cutter that can be bought in stationery stores.

Check Your References:

Scale models are miniature replicas of the “real thing”. While trying to imitate life reference pictures are invaluable.

There are many different sources of information. If you have access to a computer surf the internet.

How to Build Plastic Models

And while you are looking at those pretty pictures learn something about your model.

  • Who or what is in the picture?
  • What is happening in the picture?
  • Where is this taking place?
  • Why are they there?
  • How does it work?

Learning a little about the “real thing” will help you understand and have a deeper appreciate your model.

The Making of the North American P-51D

The iconic North American P-51D Mustang in 1/48 scale by Monogram (later released under Revell-Monogram) was chosen to be our display sample. The kit currently runs about $15.00. It is an old kit, first released in the mid 70’s. At the time it was considered one of the finest P-51D kits available and despite its age this kit still has some advantages in shape outline over its newer, more expense brethren.

Alternate kits of the P-51D: There are currently more than 30 kits by over 10 different manufacturers in scale from 1/144 to 1/24. Not all kits are of equal quality and fit.

Tamiya P-51D 1/48: The current best 1/48 scale P-51D is about $30. Compare this kit with the Monogram kit. It has recessed details with options:

  • Choice of open or closed canopy
  • Optional pilot figure
  • Positionable flaps
  • Positionable rear radiator flap
  • Choice of exhaust stacks
  • Optional 108 gallon paper drop tanks
  • Optional 500 lb bombs (two)

Other Kits of the P-51

  • Monogram P-51B 1/48: Oldie but goodie, even older than the Monogram P-51D
  • Bandai P-51D 1/24: It’s BIG
  • DML P-51D 1/32: One of the newer kits in “big scale.” Hasegawa P-51D 1/32: This is a 1970’s kit.
  • Revell P-51B/D 1/32: These are also 1970’s vintage.
  • Airfix P-51D 1/24: It’s BIG and very detailed. Airfix P-51B/D 1/72: An old kit dating back to the 1960’s.
  • Hasegawa P-51D 1/72 “IDF”: Solid 1/72 scale kit, but the Tamiya is better and more expensive
  • Platz P-51D 1/144: It’s so tiny

The Journey begins here.

Stage 1 – Inspection and Planning

After opening the box, a careful inspection of the kit parts is done. In the modeler’s mind the following questions are addressed:

Is the model complete? (Especially kits purchased second hand.)

  • Is the kit free of defects?
  • How do the parts go together?
  • What markings will my completed model have?
  • What tools, supplies and references will I need?

Advance modelers may ponder these additional questions:

  • Should the construction sequence be modified?
  • How accurate is this kit?
  • What modifications will I make?
  • Will I use “after market” components or decals?


  • Make notes of your decisions and plans.
  • Read the Instructions – doing so prior to diving in saves a lot of agony later
  • “Handle with Care” – Clear Plastic parts are more brittle and can be easily scratched.
  • Wash the parts with a weak solution of dish washing soap to remove mold greases.
  • Check your reference books. If you can get photos of the real thing, that would be even better.
  • Have a container to store your project between sessions.
  • Protect your work area with from spilt paint, glue, etc. (for family harmony).
  • Lots of fresh air and light..

Stage 2 – Part fitting, cleaning and initial painting.

After reviewing model instructions, begin by carefully removing parts from the plastic sprue by using hobby knife or snips. Clean up model parts by systematically removing excess mold lines, flash and other deformations. Careful use of your hobby knife, files and sand paper is useful here. Be prepared to use hobby putty to fill unsightly sink holes and ejector pin marks.

Take the time to test fit parts. This is called “dry-fitting.” Not all models fit together perfectly. Discovering complex fit or bad fitting parts before you glue them is important. Sometimes a change in construction plans will be needed. “Dry fit twice, glue once.”

Painting models generally begins from the inside out. Paint model interiors before assembly to avoid being confronted with inaccessible areas after assembly (i.e. the aircraft cockpit). Use your references to pick out painting details.

Sink Mark: When plastic parts are thick or removed too quickly from molds, there may be local shrinkage. If a sink mark is on a visible section of a part, it should be covered or filled.

Mold Lines / Flash: Imperfectly fitting molds allow excess plastic to form lines or ridges on the edges of parts. As molds are used over an extended period of time, the wear begins to show in the form of more flash. These are easy to remove with a hobby knife, but be careful that you don’t remove actual kit detail.

Ejector Pin Marks: There are small, flush-fitting pins that pop out to push newly formed parts out of the mold. Unfortunately, these little pins are not always as flush with the mold as they should be. The result is you end up with little circular indentations or raised areas on the model. These marks are usually found on the inside of parts. They can be annoying if found on detail, like landing gear struts or the inside of doors.


  • Never twist or break parts off the plastic trees (“sprue”); it may damage the part.
  • Test fit all your parts before gluing. Time spent here will save you grief and effort later.
  • Some kits require you to drill holes to install optional parts (again, read the instructions).
  • For aircraft, don’t forget weights to balance the model. A jet that sits on its tail is unrealistic and embarrassing. (Just ask any aircraft loadmaster.)
  • Be careful not to confuse similar parts. (i.e. left and right landing gears may look alike but fit differently). Try to avoid removing parts until you need to. Use a permanent marker to write the part number on the part to avoid mix-ups. Write on the insides of the parts where possible. Always remove marks on the outside of the model with alcohol prior to painting.
  • When cleaning your parts look at your references. That bump you just sanded off maybe a radar antenna or alignment pin for another part.
  • Save the sprue. Heat and stretch sprue to make antennas, wires, details and to plug holes as ejector pin marks.
  • Learn how to drybrush and how apply washes to enhance painting detail.

Stage 3 – Subassembly and more fitting

Real aircraft, ships, tanks and cars are constructed from major subassemblies. Building a model is no different. The kit begins to take shape as major subassemblies are glued together. This in some ways resembles an actual aircraft factory.

At each stage careful fitting and adjustments are made to reduce the amount of filler to be used later. Be careful to check the alignment of major components. Your model will look odd if one wing tip is lower than the other.


  • Watch your alignment of major components, otherwise you model may not be square and even. References and drawing will help here.
  • Alignment pins provided by the kit manufacturer don’t always fit. Experienced modelers cut the pins off kits to ensure perfect alignment, but must rely on their own skill to accomplish ensure a perfect fit.
  • Thin sheet plastic shims can be used to improve fit.
  • Small fragile parts are best left off until painting or even after detailing to reduce risk of breaking.
  • When gluing parts together beads of melted plastic will appear at glue joints. This is a sign of a good joint, and acts as a filler. Sand the bead down flush to the model’s surface after the glue has dried.
  • Filling of difficult to access areas should be done at this stage
  • For large model parts additional plastic card backing or brass spars maybe needed to reinforce weak plastic joints. Plan ahead.

Stage 4 – Filling and Surface Inspection

Careful dry-fitting done in the earlier stages begin to pay off. Use filler to hide holes and cracks between ill fitting parts. For holes that exceed 1mm consider using plastic shims cut to size.

Careful rescribing of detail lost from sanding can be considered. Light scoring of your hobby knife or specialized scribing tool on the model surface will do the job. Be careful when scoring over fillers. It is easier to replace recessed detail than raised detail. This is why models with recessed detail are preferred over raised detail.

For natural metal finishes, the model surface should be buffed smooth for a flawless surface. Even small scratches will be seen under the metallic paint.

Wash your model to remove fingerprints, and sanding residue. Some residue will collect in the model details, so use a small brush or even a toothpick to aid in cleaning the model surface.

This stage and the next stage maybe repeated several times just to get it right.


  • When sanding seams use making tape to protect adjacent detail.
  • Some hobby fillers can be removed by acetone/fingernail polish remover. Test solvent on sprue or the unseen parts of the model.
  • Micromesh and polishing sticks (found in the women’s hygiene section) can be used for a smoother finish
  • Cyanoacrylate (C/A or “super glue”) can be used as a gap filler, but it should be sanded immediately. Super glue is very hard when fully cured, and is harder than plastic.

Stage 5 – Masking, Priming, and Painting, oh My! (repeat)

Mask off completed parts of the model, like the cockpit and canopy. You can use wet tissue paper, masking tape, masking fluid, Saran Wrap, etc. Always check to make sure your mask does’t lift paint or mar the surface of your model. Duct tape - good for MacGyver, NOT GOOD FOR MODELING!

A light coat of primer is used to even out the finish of your model, and highlights any blemishes and scratches missed earlier.

Many kits have a painting guide which show what colors to use. These will either refer to specific manufacturer’s paints, or the numbers for the paints used on the full sized vehicle (Federal Standard FS#, RLM, RAL, etc.)

Colors look different under different lighting conditions. Many manufactures lighten colors to give the paint a “scale” look. When painting multi color camouflage start with the lighter colors first.

If after painting your model the results are not satisfactory, return to stage 4 and repeat as often as needed. The general rule is to take half the scale of the model and add that percentage of white to “full size” colors. For example, a 1/48 scale model would use 24% white (48/2=24) mixed in with colors matched to the paint used on the real thing.


  • Some colors (red, yellow and white) are inherently transparent. Build up color intensity by applying multiple layers of paint rather than one or two heavy coats. Consider a base coat of flat white prior to applying these colors.
  • When laying down paints with different solvents, make sure the solvent does not interact with the lower layer.

Stage 6 – The future of Decaling, or How to get that painted-on look

Water Slide Decals are basically thin sheets of paint with a clear backing. Tiny air bubbles under the decal can destroy the illusion of that painted on look. This is called “silvering.” Look at the stage 6 example below and see if you can spot the silvered decals.

Use clear gloss paint (or Johnsons “Future” acrylic floor wax) to create a smooth undercoat which will reduce air bubbles under the decal.

Decal setting and decal solvent solutions will help the decal adhere to the surface of the model and conform to molded details. After the decals have dried, seal with the final clear coat. Use Matt or Semi-gloss clear paint to recover the non reflective look of painted surfaces.

Some decals are translucent. If a decal straddles contrasting colors, the demarcation line may be seen through the decal. Some after market decals include a second white decal underlayment to reduce the translucence of decals.


  • Johnsons “Future” acrylic floor wax is great stuff to prepare your model’s surface for decaling.
  • Do not apply decals onto “matt” painted surfaces.
  • Do not rush. You could accidentally move a decal after placement, ruining it. By now you have invested a lot of time, so exercise caution!

Stage 7 – Weathering and Detailing

Some modelers stop here, satisfied with their results.But the next stage may look easy, but it’s not. The subtle differences between a good model and a great model is weathering and detailing.

Shading can but done with pastel chalk and thinned oil paint washes. More advance modelers use pre-shading and post-shading with airbrushes, and oil paint dot filtering techniques. These techniques require planning and are started in stage 5, with the initial painting. Look at pictures of the real thing to get an idea of how and were to weather your model.

  • How much is too much?
  • Should there be paint chips and wear?
  • Where does the oil and soot collect?
  • To add battle damage or not?

Stage 8 – Journey’s End, or just the beginning of your next model.

Model building is a learning process. You’ll get better with each project. In the end there is no single way to make a scale model. Each kit is a new adventure.

Be Creative!

IPMS and IPMS members enjoy sharing their experience and joy of creating new projects with each other. It’s the fastest way to improve your craft. Join Us!

A Step Beyond the Basics:

Many modelers recreate historical events by building Dioramas, miniature landscaped scenes built around one or more models. They are most common for military vehicles such as tanks, but airfield scenes and ships plying the seas are also popular.

Conversions use a kit as a starting point, and modify it to be something else. For instance, kits of the P-51D are readily available, but the P-51D was just one of many sub-variants (i.e. early P-51D without rudder fillet). An ambitious modeler can modify the kit by altering its features, adding pieces, and so forth, to make a unique model not available as a commercial kit.

Scratchbuilding is the creation of a model "from scratch" rather than a manufactured kit. True scratchbuilt models consist of parts made by hand and do not incorporate major parts from other kits. These are rare. When parts from other kits are included, the technically correct term is called "kit bashing." Most pieces referred to as "scratchbuilt" are actually a combination of kit bashing and scratchbuilding. Thus, it has become common for either term to be used loosely to refer to these more common hybrid models.

Kitbashing is a modeling technique where parts from multiple model kits are combined to create a new model. For example, the effects crews on the various Star Trek TV shows frequently kitbashed multiple starship models to quickly create new classes of ship for use in background scenes where details would not be particularly obvious.


Online Videos

Below is some videos of our club Trips and Events. Enjoy!

Windward Mall Show 2003

IPMS Gun Show

IPMS Japan Trip 2005

IPMS Japan Trip 2002

IPMS Gun Show: August 2003




Building your own shop light