Earning Your (Modeling) Stripes

When I got back into the hobby my initial goal was to incorporate some new technique, or tool, or anything “new” into each one of my builds. At first it was photoetch, then resin bits, then some basic scratch building. After I got the hang of pre and post shading, I turned my mind towards a bare metal finish. After all, it’s just silver paint, right? More on that down below.

I watched some YouTube videos which mentioned the National Model Railroad Association Master Model Railroader award. This is an award given by a national association to those modelers who have succeeded at obtaining a number of varied and challenging achievements. To date there are only 650+ modelers who have achieved the award. I am not sure whether IPMS has ever debated having a similar ‘award’ or recognition. It would not surprise me if this has been proposed in the past. If it has, I wonder if there was any discussion about what the ‘achievements’ would be in order to qualify for the award.

Regardless of an official award, I believe there are certain skills or achievements that we modelers generally acknowledge as achievements in this hobby. I’m not talking about the mastery of basic building (no seams, no decal silvering) as these are things that are generally expected and within the easy reach of anyone who wants to do them. I am thinking of achieving certain projects or techniques that are difficult to master. Things that once achieved would get the nods of your fellow modelers because we know how difficult these things are to pull off.

Here is my list of key model making achievements:

The Perfect bare metal finish

A natural metal or bare metal finish seems like such an easy task when we modelers first start out in this hobby. But after that first attempt, which is usually just a coat of silver paint, we quickly discover that it is actually very difficult to make paint look like metal.

One quickly learns that no matter which method is chosen to replicate a bare metal finish, (and there are a lot of different ways to approach it) the key to pulling it off starts with the smoothest of surfaces and ends with a the careful application of paint or foil.

Anyone who has tried it will acknowledge the difficulty and will admire the result of a well done bare metal finish.

Perfect Mottling (Airbrush or otherwise)

The first (and only) live airbrush lesson I ever had was from an old model railroader. He had an external mix airbrush and used some weird and very stinky model railroad paints. The crux of the lesson was how to apply a perfectly flat coat of paint: Start the spray off the model, spray across the model at a uniform distance and speed and then stop the paint off the model on the other side. This is an excellent technique if you want perfectly painted brown boxcars. Otherwise it is rather limited.

The airbrush is an extremely versatile tool that allows us to go far beyond perfect monotone finishes. There are some true artists who can use the airbrush to apply very subtle paint in order to mimic the spray ‘mottling’ that was used on several real aircraft. That is very easy to ‘over do’ so you sure need to practice to get that technique down.

Scratch Building

Jorge Roberto Wolf’s 1/48 Catalina – photo used with permission.

Adding resin or photoetch to a model is one thing. Do that a few times and you understand that aftermarket alone does not elevate the model. Actually, it is very easy to mess up aftermarket parts and make the model much worse! One step beyond that is a multi-media conversion. That involves some real plastic surgery and, at times, some real engineering to get the tougher conversions to work.

However, I think stripes are earned when one researches the prototype, grabs the slide rule, makes plans and starts chopping styrene sheet and strip. There are various levels of difficulty but creating an entire cockpit where there were only blobs of kit plastic, completely plumbing a gear bay or creating a completely new model from balsa wood all count. It is not easy but when it is done right, it turns a lot of heads.

Completing a Vacuform Kit

At one time, vacufom kits were much more common than today. But, they are still out there. The benefit of these kits is they are generally cheaper than an equivalent injected molded kit and even though we are in a golden age of models, there are some planes that are available only as vacuform kits.

The downsides? There are a few. Assembly is very different than snipping parts off of sprues. Actually, there is a lot of skill involved in just getting the parts off the sheets. There are no locator holes and experienced vacuform builders spend a lot of time “engineering” the kit for strength and correct alignment. Interior structures like cockpits, gear bays and engines are usually bare so scratch building will be needed. Lastly, panel lines are usually ill defined if they are there at all so a good scriber, airplane plans and a steady hand will also be needed. However, once this is all done and painted to perfection, you will have a model that very few others will have. The fact it is a vac model will definitely earn you some appreciative nods.

I’ve only attempted one vac model and that ended rather badly. But that was a long time ago. When I see something like Bondo Phill Brandt’s Mercador over on Hyperscale, I start to think I should give it a try….

Creating A Diorama that “Works”

Found on thedioramaworld.blogspot.com – and there are many more to admire!

I can only define this by saying that the vast majority of ‘dioramas’ (and not vignettes) that I have seen may have had a lot of work go into them but do not look impressive. Most look like something done for a junior high school project. Some are hastily completed ‘scenes’ to showcase an ensemble of well done models. Sometimes you just see something that takes up a lot of space, involves a lot of quickly built models and figures that don’t quite stand properly.

I have also seen dioramas that work very well. Everything is perfect and it really draws in viewers. So what is the difference? The general consensus is that the diorama must “tell a story” which is a great starting place. But there has got to be a lot more.

Take the example of artistic oil painting. That requires a lot of skills: the painter has to have imagination and imagine a creative scene as well as the skill to mix and manipulate the paint. This is the same with dioramas. The builder has to have a lot of talent: model building, scenery, imagination to create a scene and the ability to pull it off. These individual items need to ALL be done at a high level or the diorama just doesn’t work.

A Flawless Model

Can a model have absolutely no mistakes? Perfectly sprayed paint with not a single dust molecule hitting the surface? No single slight wrinkle on any decal and all the decals in perfect placement and alignment? Every drop tank and weapon mounted with precision?

I have come close on a couple of occasions but perfection has eluded me. On most occasions I see the issue well beyond the time where it could have been easily fixed and it is usually in a location where only a very discerning eye could pick it up. Given the the myriad of things that can go wrong with a model and our relative strengths in building them, perfection (whatever that term means relative to model making) is a difficult-to-impossible thing to achieve.

Final Thoughts

Whether or not an official scale modeling award is called for and what it would entail is probably the subject of some other post down the road. When it comes to earning our stripes, I think there are a lot of impressive achievements we can work towards in this hobby. The best thing is that no one is keeping score and sometimes there is just as much fun in the journey as there is in getting to the destination. I’ve named a few of these “hard to get to” achievements off the top but I am sure there are others and I’d love to read your thoughts on them.

7 thoughts on “Earning Your (Modeling) Stripes

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  1. Chris,

    I can’t figure which direction this article is coming from. You open with the suggestion of an award for excellence, but conclude by writing: “The best thing is that no one is keeping score and sometimes there is just as much fun in the journey …”

    I’m reminded of an (apocryphal, I’m sure) story about the origins of the official football team at Harvard back in the 1800s. The president and deans thought the game would be a distraction and frivolous, but the coach convinced them that it was good for the health of the students and school spirit. The president relented and the thrilled coach added: “Great, I think we will be at the top of the standings this year.”

    To which the president, aghast, replied: “You keep standings?”

    While what you suggest is admirable, it would apply or be of interest to way less than .01% of modelers, is my guess.

    À chacun son goût.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi John – I’m not suggesting the creation of an award as much as I am wondering if something like the NMRA Master award was ever discussed and what qualifications were proposed. I am suggesting there are tough-to-master skills that we admire and acknowledge as achievements in this hobby. But no one has to pursue them.


  2. The idea of creating a similar award is appealing. As someone who used to do HO Southern Pacific model railroading, I’m familiar with the NMRAMMR and even met a fella back in the early 2000’s who had achieved that level of craftsmanship and the award/recognition. It gives us something to strive for and be recognized by others in our hobby world. There are other examples of the concept as well; achieving Eagle Scout status, all the media awards like Golden Globes, etc., or becoming a publicly recognized Subject Matter Expert on something, etc. Another upside to this is a way for folks who have no hope of placing at the NATS (like me) to still be able bring their game to the highest levels and be recognized for their achievements. Like Jeff Groves just said in his comment above “…I doubt I’ll ever make a perfect model” which would be the in one place (i.e. the build) culmination of all the skills outlined in the narrative. But perhaps, like Jeff said, getting them all together in one build is doubtful for most folks-it does not mean in any way the modeler is somehow deficient. So this award for modelers would allow people to be recognized for having amassed the ability to execute the aforementioned techniques to perfection without worrying about getting them all together in one build. Perfection throughout an entire build is for people who compete at NATS (as an example, not saying it’s the only reason for the NATS or peoples motivation to build and improve themselves), this award allows the rest of us who are very good to still have a high honor to strive for. I like the carrot of this idea and don’t really see any sticks associated with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I can certainly agree with you on those skills! Sadly, I have mastered a big, fat, “nunuvum”. I am always amazed when I see people who do, though!

    For me, Modelling is about interacting with a subject I love. It’s taken 30+ years to get me to this mental point, but I no longer worry about if it’s “perfect”. I want to do what I want to do to a kit, be it in terms of accurizing, scratching, etc, and I want to get a paintjob that’s close to what I envision.

    I already know it won’t be perfect. I don’t let it bug me anymore, that’s all! I don’t want to to a bad job, and I always aim to get better, but there are some things I just don’t enjoy, don’t want to learn and just, thus, take a pass on.

    For me, modelling is about enjoying the subject, even if the result (or the starting kit, in so many cases) is not perfect.

    That’s the real great thing about modelling – it can be whatever you want at whatever level you want.

    While I don’t know (and personally wouldn’t care) about how such awards could be handled, I think for the folks for whom creating a perfect model is a goal such an award could be both motivation and distraction. It might cause as much over-overzealousness and obsessiveness that it may end up being counterproductive!

    Regardless, if everyone builds how they want and enjoy the outcome, then the hobby itself is the ultimate reward, in my mind!

    Liked by 1 person

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