Category Archives: Model Making

The 5 Secret Weapons in Plastic Scale Model Making

By Chris Bucholtz

Scale modeling is often viewed as a child’s hobby – until the viewer lays eyes on a model built by an accomplished builder. With immaculate construction and a flawless finish, the beginner might wonder what it takes to get a realistic result.

Part of it, of course is practice. A modeler with twenty years of modeling under his or her belt will have a bigger bag of tricks to draw from than a newcomer, and will have learned ways of correcting mistakes that can only be learned by experience. But there are a few things that can help modelers of any experience level up their games instantly – and they’re probably available within a few miles of your home.

Here are five tools for scale modelers that make a huge difference in a hurry:

1. Cyanoacrylate glue

Cyanoacrylate (CA) glue is better known by the brand name “Crazy Glue,” alth,ough you can get a more useful form of it from your hobby shop – and in greater quantities at a lower cost. It can replace old-fashioned plastic model cement and even liquid cements, and its benefits go beyond its fast-setting tendencies. Unlike model cements, it doesn’t shrink as it cures, and it can be sanded. That means you can join parts and then use additional CA glue to fill seams. If it’s sanded within an hour, it’s very workable and can be smoothed to the same texture as the surrounding plastic, and you seams will disappear.

It’s sold in different viscosities, from thick to very thin. The thicker glue dries more slowly, allowing you time to position parts. Thin glue can be run along seams using capillary action. Apply it with a bit of wire twisted into a small loop to maintain control.

And, if by chance, you stick your fingers together, CA glue is dissolved by acetone – the main component of nail polish remover.

2. Flexible files 

Once you have a seam to address, you’ll need to clean it up. Sandpaper is useful, but for real control, head down to your local cosmetics store. Hobby shops sell flexible files — for a hefty markup. Fortunately, flexible files got their start as tools for manicurists. They’re ideal for modeling because they allow you to apply pressure while conforming to the contours of the model. On round surfaces, this is important – a metal file could very easily leave an impossible-to-fix flat spot.

Pick up files with several degrees of roughness for coarse work, and for finishing grab a three-or four-coarseness polishing and buffing file. Good ones will enable you to sand out seams and restore the plastic to its original smoothness – even with clear parts.

3. Flush cutters 

Most modelers know they should cut parts off the sprue trees with a knife or scissors. Unfortunately, those tools can often leave behind “spurs” of plastic that heed to be sanded down, or, worse, they can remove chunks from the part. The answer to this problem is a simple tool that had its start in cable installation: flush cutters.

These are scissor-like tools with blades arranged to cut on a single edge, and are beveled on the sides of the blade away from the object being cut. This design allows the modeler to get the cutter’s blades right against the part, so when it’s removed from the sprue tree very little material is left on the part. A little sanding, or a little trimming with a hobby knife, and your part is ready to use. The amount of time you’ll spend on cleaning up these attachment points – or fixing divots left by knives or scissors – will be greatly reduced.

4. Airbrush 

Few things in the hobby evoke so much anxiety as your first airbrush, but once you have this tool you’ll wonder how you got by without it. It is the tool that allows newcomers to the hobby to apply first-rate finishes over large surfaces, like a car’s body or a plane’s wings, without leaving brush marks, and there are some effects you can only achieve with an airbrush.

Airbrushes vary in price from $50 to $250, but a good-quality brush, like a Paasche VL or an Iwata Eclipse, can be found in the $125 to $175 range. You’ll also need an air supply in the form of a small air compressor (although some modelers prefer to use a refillable CO2 tank).  The investment may come to around $400, but if they’re cared for properly they can last for decades.

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Here’s why an airbrush is great: It can apply a thin, uniform coat of paint over a large area quickly and with great control. As with any skill, it takes a bit of experience to perfect your technique, so practice on paper before working on a model.

If you buy an airbrush at a hobby shop, make sure that they explain some things to you. You’ll need how to clean your airbrush, how to thin paints properly, and whether you’ll need any additional accessories to get the results you want. This knowledge will jumpstart your airbrushing experience.

5. A local model club

Here’s one that you can’t run out and buy – but it may be the most important item on the list. There are hundreds of scale modeling clubs across the U.S., and their meetings are the best place to learn new techniques, avoid mistakes, and benefit from the knowledge of previous generations of modelers.

The International Plastic Modelers Society (IPMS) ( has over 215 chapters across the United States. The military vehicle-oriented Armor Modeling and Preservation Society (AMPS) ( boasts more than 40 chapters. There are countless independent auto modeling clubs across the U.S. Nearly all of them welcome newcomers to their meetings.

A good club meeting will center around a “show and tell” of both recently completed models and in-progress work. This allows newcomers to see techniques they’d like to try – and to speak to someone who’s already using that technique. If a newcomer brings in a project and describes a problem he’s trying to solve, he’s likely to get several helpful pointers that can help him avoid suffering through the trial-and-error that his fellow modelers have already survived.

Nothing beats a club meeting as a source of good information, mentoring, and inspiration to keep building. For a newcomer, it can mean the difference between a passing interest in the hobby and a lifetime passion for scale modeling.


Chris Bucholtz has been building models for more than 30 years. A national-award winning modeler, he’s the managing editor of the International Plastic Model Society Journal and the creative director of Obscureco Aircraft, a manufacturer of resin detail parts for model planes. A technology and business journalist by trade, he’s also written three books about World War II aviation.



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