I have to admit: this post has been one of the harder ones to write (and to find images for). The content is not controversial but I am trying to make a comparison which is difficult to support with data. That said, in no way is this post meant to be a declaration of a ‘correct’ way to enjoy this hobby or a criticism of how someone might want to pursue it.
This is purely an observation and it was instigated by something Model Buddy Ian said while we were Zoom building during lockdown. Of course, when modelers get together there can be a lot of opinions flying around. We were discussing that the focus these days seems to be in finishing and weathering models and there is less emphasis on the construction side of things.
The more I thought about it, the more it started making sense.
Back in the day….
Let’s step back for a second. I picked up my first model in the early 80s. Back then scale models, even the more expensive ones, were not as refined as what we see today. The engineering was limited and modelers had to either accept or correct gaps, warped parts, steps and misaligned parts.
To get anything close to a decent result, these models required elastics, clamps, putty, bondo, acetone, rasps and various grades of sandpaper. In some cases, prayers to higher beings were required and even then, well, there were a lot of model airplanes lost in action.
The focus in the hobby at the time was very much about construction techniques to overcome the challenges in actually getting these models together. These techniques involved fixing the warps with boiling water, clamping the wing roots to the fuselage, filing down the trailing edges of the flying surfaces and wet sanding a pound of dry putty. All done with the modest goal of making a model without gaps and steps.
But then, if you didn’t plan ahead or you were not careful during construction, you were likely looking at a model with alignment issues: Were all wheels touching the ground? Were the wings level? Was the rudder leaning to the side? Was the landing gear wonky?
Having a ‘keeper’ at the end of the build was all about completing a model without gaps, with level wings, with landing gear that was true and to somehow preserve or rebuild panel lines.
My friends, that was hard to do.
Back before the internet we modelers turned to magazines and books to seek out solutions to these build challenges. I can recall articles on making construction jigs, tips on how to align the various parts of the model, how to fill gaps and not lose detail, and on and on. I pulled out a few of my favourite Finescale Modeler issues from the 1980s just to look back to these fun times. The December 1989 issue includes the following articles devoted to construction:
- IJN Shinano in the Showcase (Awesome model with scratch-built components)
- A conversion of a Stuart into an anti-aircraft tank
- Soldering metal parts
- Modeling a B-17
- Building a cast metal figure
- Converting an Orion to an Electra
The closest thing to a ‘finishing’ piece was one about how to prepare (clean) the model for paint. I think I can safely say that modelers who came up during these times had a focus on construction. And it could be they still are of the view that model construction is an important element, if not the most important element of model building.
Kits Got Better & The “build part” is faster
As we all know, with a few exceptions, newer kits are better kits. Not just in the surface detail or the rendering of almost prefect reproductions of every knob and switch in the cockpit. I am talking about the quality, specifically the engineering of these model kits. This aspect has drastically improved over the kits of 30+ years ago.
Improved kit engineering has changed everything. Those wonderful new releases from Tamiya (Spitfire, 109, Lightning and the Tony) make it almost impossible to not have a perfectly aligned and level model without much fuss at all.
What was remarkable about the Fine Molds Babs was when I set up my square to see where the adjustments would be needed to get alignment of the wings to the rudder and to check the level of the wings and tail planes, everything was perfectly aligned and level. Nothing more was needed except to simply follow the paint and decal directions.
As well, how often do we read in a review about how fast the model ‘fell together’ and that no filler was required? Some builders are quick to point out when their build of a newer kit required “no putty or filler or anything!” and were surprised the build part was over so quickly.
With a few notable exceptions, these new kits are miles better and easier to build to a “well constructed” standard. So, this ‘trend’ is away from a construction focus and towards a finishing focus makes complete sense. I know there are a whole bunch of builders who believe the ‘fun’ starts as soon as the primer is dry and the painting can begin. Actually, I often feel this way too.
I have even heard some builders mention that the model construction part is tedious and a real chore. Some have gone so far as to say that if it was possible to buy kits that were already built, they would be interested because all they care about is painting and weathering.
If you wander over to Fine Scale website or page through any recent issue, you will see there are a lot of finishing articles and discussions about how to use finishing products. As well, a few of my favorite Tamiya Model Airplane issues have pages of detail and step-by-step pictures on how to paint, weather and finish the model.
Another reason for a shift to finishing is because of the volume and availability of quality finishing products. As well, and probably more importantly for most of us, the ease of finding free video demonstrations on how to use these products.
I think I can safely say there is a current focus on finishing techniques over build techniques and for the reasons discussed in this post, this shift makes sense.
Does this mean anything?
No, not really and there are no absolutes. There are modelers who continue to accept the challenge of slaying a fifty-year-old dragon and are able to weather it to god like perfection. Some “new mold” models are real dogs to build and yes, there will always be those who just race to paint. Its all good.
Then again, it could be this new focus on finishing that has led some modelers to believe the “contest rules” at model shows are out of date. Some point to specific examples where the participating models in an IPMS show lack the creativity, “realism” or “character” of the models that that seem to be par for the course in shows and contests in other parts of the world. In other words, judging is all about measuring “build quality” and not necessarily the finish of the model and that encourages modelers to play it safe and enter bland models.
I can see this argument to a point. The problem with that argument is that a good model should always be in the running to place and, if you take a look at the rules, finish is very much an aspect of judging. You could say it is right behind construction:
“Judging. Models will be judged for skill in construction, finish, realism and scope of effort; accuracy may be used as criteria for determining final ranking for similar model subjects.”
– IPMS 2019 National Contest Rules
For what its worth, 99% of kits built will never be entered into any competition and are built for enjoyment. I firmly believe the only standard anyone should pursue is their own standard. People enjoy this hobby for different reasons.
However, when a model is entered in a contest, no matter how much character or perfection is demonstrated in the finish or weathering, this is a hobby where we must first build something. It still makes sense that solid construction is a factor. The great news is that modern kits make that standard easier than ever.
Many have shifted their focus from building to finishing. Do I think this is wrong? Not at all. In many ways it can open up a whole new dimension in model building and maybe even attract new builders to the hobby.
Turning back to those articles and videos on applying various finishing products for a minute; do they sometimes strike you as less about teaching technique and more about selling product? I understand the point of promotion so I’m not going to call out any manufacturer, but a recurring theme has been that modelers should to only use certain products in certain ways or risk the model being hopelessly mediocre. There is no way that is true.
What do you think? Am I right or am I missing something? Do you focus on painting and other finishing steps? How about weathering product producers hawking product? Do you miss your putty monster days? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments.