Building Plastic Model Aircraft – Conversions and Superdetailing
by Brandon Hamiter
Most modellers begin their modelling career by building model aircraft straight out of the box, without adding more details than what’s already included in the kit. But more experienced modellers like to create something that is beyond the standard kit, something that nobody else has.
Although it may appear hard at first glance, converting a kit (sometimes also called kit-bashing) does not necessarily have to be a very complicated business. For instance, cutting off and repositioning the control surfaces of the aircraft (ailerons and rudders) is an easy conversion that will make a model look more “alive”.
(By the way, to cut straight lines through plastic, use regular sewing thread. If you work carefully and slowly, you will be able to make a very clean and straight cut.)
Another easy conversion can be as simple as adding extra ordnance to the aircraft, like missiles or targeting pods not included in the kit. If there are pilot figures provided, I usually cut off and reposition the arms and the head, so that the pilot appears to actually do something, like saluting, working the radar or checking his kneeboard map, instead of just sitting in the cockpit like a dummy.
Many parts that are not quite in scale can be replaced by more authentic looking pieces. A thin plastic sheet or a piece of copper usually looks much more realistic than the antenna, pitot tube or actuator rod it replaces.
Trailing wing ends and landing gear bay doors are usually much thicker than they should be, and I always sand them to a more correct thickness. This will really make the model appear much more appealing.
Transparent plastic parts can be easily modified. Canopies and windows can be sawn (not cut) in two to display them in an open position. Head-up-displays can easily be substituted with tiny parts cut from the negative film (you know, that transparent part that comes before the photos). Gun barrels and exhausts can be drilled up. As you see, there are many things that you can do quite easily and which will make the model more believable. You should feel free to experiment as long as you are happy with what you’re doing.
Some kits offer the modeller a choice of versions. Quite often there are a number of parts that are not needed for the certain version you choose to model, but don’t throw those extra parts away! Even if they are not used for your current project, they may come in handy whenever you do a conversion in the future. You would be surprised to know how many parts can be used in other model projects – and not just generic details, such as drop tanks, bombs and missiles. Also keep your unused decals, preferably in a binder where they are safe from sunlight and humidity.
For more advanced conversion projects, you can purchase additional replacement parts, such as new ejection seats, weighted or “bulged” wheels, complete cockpit sets and engine details.
These parts can be purchased in specialist hobby shops or over the Internet and used to extend the detail level of a model to far beyond what is possible with the parts provided in the kit.
A model that has been enhanced with additional parts to display such a wealth of detail is called a super detailed model. Super detailing will not only result in a more impressing model but in a true work of art.
Resin and metal
Often third-party accessory parts are made of resin, which is a polyurethane material. Just as regular styrene plastic, it can be used to create parts with incredible detail, but it doesn’t require the same expensive and advanced technology as the injection moulding process.
Be warned though – working with resin material is much more difficult than working with the styrene parts that were included in your kit. Large parts, such as wings and stabilizers often have no positioning lugs, and you will have to glue them butt-end to the fuselage, which is much more difficult. And since regular model cement does not work with resin, you will have to use superglue. The resin parts are often marred by trapped air bubbles which means more sanding and filling work. The material also has different sanding characteristics than plastic.
If you wish, you can even create your own details by using RTV material (room temperature curing vulcanizing), but this method is not for the occasional modeller or for the faint of heart so I will not describe it any further here.
You can also buy white metal parts or photo-etched parts like this beautiful cockpit set from Eduard in the photo below.
If you wish to display your model in a more interesting environment, you can build a complete diorama or a scene from real life. For instance, you can create a diorama of two or more aircraft being prepared for flight, with crewmen climbing onboard and ground personnel hoisting bombs or attaching missiles to the wing pylons.
Building dioramas is a challenge on its own because it will require all the model building skill and imagination you have.
There are lots of diorama accessories to be purchased separately, from human figurines to buildings and tow trucks, but you will have to create some additional detail from scratch. If you are skilful, you will be rewarded with an interesting and believable scene from real life – like this scene featuring a crash-landed Bf-109.
It is up to you to decide upon the level of complexity for your model building and conversion projects. You can start from building a model straight out of the box, or you can select to add some new metal seat-belts or a photo-etched instrument panel if you wish. If you are really skilful and brave, you can even choose to build a whole model from scratch. The most important thing is that you are happy with your modelling. And don’t forget to have fun!
- Modelling Tools
- Glues and Cement
- Painting Techniques
- Applying Decals
- Weathering Basics
- Filling and Sanding