How to Choose What You Need for Building Model Aircraft Kits – the Beginner’s Guide

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The selection of model kits available today is vast and diverse: the sizes, assembly difficulty, and richness of details can cater to the demands of every model enthusiast, often even surpassing their expectations. This is also true for the prices: although the famous Airfix kits, which allowed millions of modelers around the world to “cut their teeth,” are now becoming scarce, it’s still true that for the price of two or three packs of cigarettes, you can find very decent 1/72 scale kits, rich in detail, and presented in beautiful colored boxes, complete with instruction sheets, varied decals, and optional parts.

best model airplane kits

From a small 1/72 scale biplane, you can then move on to kits up to 1/24 scale; you can even go as far as 1/72 scale reproductions of some large aircraft, with the model’s wingspan easily exceeding 50 cm! The price of these models, of course, increases proportionally with their size, as do the time and tools needed to achieve a satisfying result.

With the market offering numerous alternatives, it’s clear that everything depends on the attitude you bring to model building, which, from any perspective, provides undeniable cultural value. Indeed, you cannot assemble and refine a model without having at least a vague idea of the aircraft’s history and its use; this is precisely what turns a few glued pieces of plastic into a realistic reproduction. Therefore, as we have seen, it’s essential to seek reliable sources of documentation to have as much information as possible about the aircraft you want to build. However, once started, plastic model building rarely remains a simple hobby. After randomly choosing and assembling two or three models, you usually feel the need to bring some order to your activity to better select your subjects, to plan for tool development, and to think about how much time you want to devote to plastic aircraft. There’s nothing left to do at this stage: the contagion of “morbus plasticus aeroplanis” has struck, and all you can do is surrender.

Without ever forgetting that it’s always better to start with simpler and less expensive subjects to gain experience, it’s advisable to choose a specific aviation theme beforehand.

Choosing an aircraft

To create a collection of plastic models, it’s necessary to follow a guiding principle. It’s not possible to buy all the models, even if sometimes you might want to, and it’s not very aesthetically pleasing to see a lineup of 1/72 scale fighters, 1/24 scale jets, and 1/144 scale civilian aircraft. The initial choice must be made based on the time you want to devote to this activity and the financial resources you are willing to invest. You can range from “low-end” model building (an occasional evening and an expenditure of a few tens of francs) to the pinnacle of the art, virtually without limit; depending on the level of activity, the modeler will purchase a small or large number of models, of low or high complexity, and assemble them on a corner of a table or in a specialized “workshop,” with basic or, on the contrary, very comprehensive tools.

If the demands increase, fear not: the model building is a modular activity, allowing you to easily offset any previous expenses. On the other hand, if the enthusiasm doesn’t catch on, the few accessories and brushes will always find some household use.

For a beginner, an interesting theme might be single-engine fighters from World War II, replicated in a 1/72 scale. There’s no shortage of variety, the models are generally inexpensive, not difficult to assemble and decorate, and once complete, they don’t take up much space. You can also choose more specific themes, some of the most classic being Luftwaffe fighters, 1930s civilian aircraft, 1970s combat jets, and U.S. Navy planes. The choice is by no means limited.

Keep in mind that the narrower a theme, the more important it is to gather good documentation, and at the same time, the harder it is to build a large collection. Fortunately, aviation history and competition between model manufacturers offer a wide range of options: consider that a single fighter, like the Messerschmitt Bf-109, can lead to a vast collection due to the number of its versions and the even greater number of models dedicated to this aircraft. Moving on to larger-scale models requires more motivation; however, they represent a significant leap forward in quality, which inevitably means investing more time, money, and patience than before. Where a few evenings were once enough, hundreds of hours now become essential; where one or two brushes sufficed, an airbrush must be purchased; and where a quick glance at the box’s colors was enough, it is now necessary to analyze and compare the information available in documentation books and specialized magazines.

As you can see, it’s all about time and money: the skill and experience needed to create beautiful models will follow, usually on their own.

The Modeler and Others

Meeting other modelers, comparing creations, and accepting criticism is undoubtedly the best way to improve and grow your own experience. Across France, you’ll find associations or clubs for plastic modelers, some of which have their own organization and meeting place.

Sure, nobody likes to see their work “demolished by a tribe of hypercritics,” but beyond this psychological reaction, group analysis of a model is the most reliable way to spot flaws and shortcomings. Moreover, a club allows you to find documentation, exchange useful contacts, and stay informed about the industry’s latest news.

If you happen to live (a rare case!) in a place without a club or association, you can always subscribe to their newsletters and specialized magazines, both French and international. In short, to be a good modeler, you need to communicate, exchange, and compare. The worst professional mistake a modeler can make is to isolate themselves.

The Scale

This diagram provides the actual dimensions of four models at four different scales.

The scale, as we’ve seen, is the numerical value that indicates the reduction factor of a model compared to its subject: for example, we measure the wingspan of the real airplane and the model, divide these values, and the result obtained (the division ratio) is the scale, meaning a number that indicates how many times an airplane has been reduced. Specifically, if the real airplane has a wingspan of 10 meters or 1,000 cm, and the model has a wingspan of 10 cm, the reduction ratio is 100, meaning that each dimension of the real airplane has been divided by 100 to obtain the model. Usually expressed as 1/100th, this ratio indicates that the model is 100 times smaller than the real airplane.

All of this is very simple when talking about metric scales, but it is difficult to understand why 1/72nd or 1/24th scales exist. In fact, the concept itself does not change: the two numbers still mean that any dimension taken on the model will be multiplied by the denominator of the scale on the real airplane.

The scale provides enough information to deduce the size of the finished model; however, it is important to remember that the smaller the denominator, the larger the model. The scale is also very useful when choosing a model kit, as some unscrupulous manufacturers tend to put increasingly larger boxes on the market to “catch the eye” of potential buyers; once purchased. However, these boxes turn out to be more empty than full!

Plastic and Glues

“Plastic” is a generic term that indicates various materials, each with various uses. In model-making, the quintessential plastic is polystyrene, a polymer of styrene that is easily vacuum-molded and allows for fine and well-sculpted details. Polystyrene can be easily cut and filed without melting from the heat generated by friction, and it easily supports enamel and filler. On the other hand, it is very sensitive to many solvents (acetone, benzene, etc.) that deform and soften it. This very characteristic makes gluing easier; indeed, simply dissolving the surfaces to be joined slightly with a solvent and applying gentle pressure results in a lasting and solid bond. Naturally, an adhesive suitable for plastic is required: the most common and suitable type is liquid, which is generally applied with a small brush, sometimes included in the bottle. For some stronger, invisible bonds from the outside, tube glue, also called cement, can be used, applied with a needle or toothpick, and never directly from the tube.

For attaching transparent surfaces, “universal” glues or two-component glues are particularly useful, as they do not melt the plastic but form a thin layer of adhesive between the two surfaces to be fixed. However, for this very property, their general use is discouraged: the bond could easily break later in case of impact or pressure.

Polystyrene intended for potential modifications or conversions is sold under the name of plasticard, in sheets of various thicknesses. On the other hand, if it comes in small square or round-section bars, it’s called plastirod. Other bars, designed for special uses, are transparent and referred to as plastiglaze.

Another source of raw materials for assembling kits is leftover parts from previous models or from damaged models that would be discarded.

Regarding this, it’s essential to reiterate a golden rule: never throw anything away because sooner or later, the scrap box will provide THE piece you were looking for.

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