What is Scale Modeling?
By Mike Gilsbach, ASMS Webmaster, IPMS #45357
One of the stated goals of the Austin Scale Modeler's Society
is to promote the hobby of scale modeling. Presumably, that means
attracting new people to the hobby. My intention with this article
is to provide the uninitiated, but interested reader with a quick
overview of scale modeling as a hobby.
What is scale modeling?
Scale modeling, at least in hobby terms, consists of creating miniature
representations (models) of larger subjects. While models may be
constructed from any material, most modelers use plastic kits that
are glued together and painted. Most people tend to think of model
airplanes, cars or ships. However, the subject that is represented
can be literally anything. Modelers build figures, tanks and artillery
pieces, dinosaurs, science-fiction subjects, landscapes, buildings
and many, many other things. Virtually anything real or imagined
can be the subject of a scale model. Take a look at the ASMS
photo gallery and you should get some idea as to the diversity
of modeling subjects that are available.
What does the "scale" part mean?
In order to accurately represent their subject, a model must be "to scale". This means that all of the proportions of the model match those of the real thing.
When modelers talk about scale, they are talking about the relationship
between the size of the model and the size of the object the model
represents. This is usually described as a numeric ratio like 1:72
or 1:48. This numeric ratio tells you that one measurement (inch,
foot, etc.) equals the second number of the same measurement on
the real object. For example, 1:72 scale means that 1 inch on the
model represents 72 inches on the actual subject. So, a 1:72 scale
model of a six-foot tall soldier would be one inch tall.
A number of standard scales have been adopted for various types
of models that more or less fit the size of the subjects they represent.
The table below shows a few of them.
|Type of Subject
||1:16, 1:32, 1:35, 1:72
|Tanks & Military Vehicles
||1:35, 1:48, 1:72
||1:32, 1:48, 1:72, 1:144
||1:16, 1:24, 1:25, 1:32
There are many other scales besides the ones listed above. In addition, many kits come in "box scale", which means that the kit was engineered so
that the unbuilt model would fit in a certain size box.
Modelers just build kits, right?
That is only partially true. Most modelers will at least start
with a manufactured plastic kit. These kits are available at hobby
shops, craft stores, toy stores and some large retailers like Target
or Walmart as well as from many online suppliers. They are produced
by one of the hundreds of kit manufacturers all over the world and
they vary considerably in both price and quality. While kits may
be purchased for as little as $5, some high-quality complex kits
cost hundreds of dollars.
A typical model kit includes the plastic parts of the kit molded
on sprues, or parts trees (see the figure below). The parts must
be cut from the sprues prior to assembly. The parts will usually
be molded in one color of plastic, though some kits come molded
in more than one color. If the kit has clear parts, such as windows
or headlights, those parts will be on a separate sprue of clear
plastic, as seen in the bottom right part of the figure below.
Unassembled model parts on sprues, or trees
In addition to the plastic parts, a kit normally includes an instruction
sheet, which gives you some background information on the subject
as well as detailed diagrams showing how the parts should be assembled
and painted. The kit might also include a set of decals for things
like numbers, letters, national insignia and other details for the
model. Finally, many kits include what are called multimedia items
(not plastic) that add specialized detail to the model. These may
include vinyl (tires and tank treads), aluminum or brass (gun barrels
and shells) and resin or photoetch parts (for highly intricate or
For many modelers, however, the kit is just a starting point -
a base on which to build. Modelers may add after-market parts or
decals. They may modify the kit to be a different subject, such
as an earlier or later variant of a vehicle. They might make their
own decals or scratch build their own parts. They may create a base
on which to display their model that includes scenery like buildings
or landscape or may combine several models to create a scene.
Even building a kit straight "out of the box", however, can have many challenges if you want to produce a realistic model.
What's involved in actually building a model kit?
Building a model can be divided into three main types of activity:
- Construction: The parts must be removed from the sprues and glued together. Parts must often be sanded to fit together correctly. Special attention must be
paid to minimize the appearance of seams where the parts come together because these often do not correspond to the seams on the real subject.
There are many types of model glues and sanding tools available for constructing a model.
- Painting: Models are usually painted to match the subjects that they represent. In addition to the overall color scheme, most models have a
variety of small and large details that need to be painted.
Paint may be applied with a brush or an airbrush. Most modelers
use some combination of the two as well as several sizes of brushes
for different types of detail work. Some model paints are also
available in spray cans. Model paints are usually either enamels
or water-based acrylics.
- Detailing: This can include applying decals, "weathering"
a model to make the subject appear used or damaged or putting
the model on some type of base or into a modeled diorama scene.
Various types of pigment powders may be used to make a model appear
dirty or rusty and there are a variety of techniques that may
be employed to make the paint appear chipped, faded, stained or
How do I get started?
If you have never built a model, or haven't built one in a very
long time, the best place to start is your local hobby shop. The
staff there will be able to help you choose a kit that is suited
to your experience level and to stock up on the supplies you will
need to build it. Check
out the Yellow Pages site to find a local hobby shop near you.
Attending a meeting of your local IPMS (International Plastic Modeler's Society) chapter is another great way to start or reacquaint yourself with the hobby.
The IPMS web site maintains a directory of local chapters.
Finally, there are a number of online discussion forums devoted
to scale modeling where you can ask questions of other modelers,
many of whom have many years of experience. These include the IPMS
Forum, the Hyperscale
Discussion Forums, and the Aircraft
Resource Center Forums to name just a few.
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