Expert Airfix modelling advice by Chris Ellis, former editor of Airfix Magazine
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From my point of view, I was luckier – if that is what you can call it – than most of today’s young modellers, by being a schoolboy (well under 10) when World War II was at its height, so I saw and heard all types of warplane, Allied and German, around the clock. We all had spotter’s books and read avidly the aircraft magazines of the day. And there was the bonus of ‘Wings for Victory’ weeks when real aircraft, usually war weary battle veterans, went on display to raise funds for new aircraft. The first aircraft I got really familiar with at one of these events was the Hawker Hurricane Mk I, where the officer in charge of the display – a veteran squadron-leader with an eye-patch – sat in the cockpit and explained all the controls and instruments to visitors who climbed steps on to a wooden platform rigged over the wing alongside the cockpit. I remember at the time being astonished by how big the aircraft seemed compared with seeing it in photographs and flying overhead.
Later I made similar ‘Wings for Victory’ visits to a Spitfire Mk V and a Fairey Albacore biplane torpedo bomber, which was a good deal bigger than the fighters. I have many other memories of those days, of course, including an indoor display of crashed Luftwaffe aircraft, where the rather distinctive and sinister smell of the dope and fuel lingers in the mind to this day. These are just a few highlights from a continuous stream of events which fuelled our enthusiasm and excitement and there was always something new to see. I could, for example, show you exactly where I was standing on the way to school on the morning of 6 June 1944, when an RAF Mustang roared in from seawards, low over the town, and gave us the first glimpse of the distinctive black-and-white recognition stripes on its wings and fuselage, which had been applied to all Allied aircraft overnight for the D-Day invasion.
I mention all this because it leads directly to the first and most important of the ’10 Things’ –
1. Enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject
Obviously, if you were not already interested in the excitement and drama of flight, and warplanes in particular, you would not be buying a model kit in the first place. And it’s also true that you could simply assemble the kit, paint it, stick on the transfers supplied, and put it on display. But you get much more out of any model hobby if you study the subject in connection with it. If you are already an aircraft enthusiast you won’t need me to tell you this, but if you are a newcomer to the hobby start reading some relevant books and magazines. Try your local public library if your budget is limited and, of course, there are useful internet websites. The Spitfire is a good model to start with and there are plenty of highly detailed publications on the aircraft, though this is true also of other significant types. There are several well-known feature films featuring Spitfires, too, but from a reference point of view the images are not always to be relied on, with such anomalies as the wrong mark, the wrong markings, and bogus squadron codes to confuse those not fully familiar with the subject. However, such films as The First of the Few and Battle of Britain are certainly good for conveying the historical context and atmosphere of the times, so they are still well worth seeing (and owning on DVD or video). But there are also some good documentary films, too, on important aircraft types and these give valuable detail and information for modellers. In the case of the Spitfire the most useful and interesting video I have is the Thorn-EMI Spitfire produced by Garry Pownall, which is superbly comprehensive and includes extracts from instructional films, all the key developments and actions, and ends with a pilot’s-eye flight in a preserved Spitfire Mk IX. Get hold of this video and watch it, and I’d be surprised if you did not immediately want to rush out and buy a Spitfire kit!
As noted above, I’m just old enough to remember World War II aircraft in service, and that definitely made me a life-long aircraft enthusiast. But as is well-known, interest in World War II and the equipment of those days has never diminished, and succeeding generations are just as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as the old-timers. There are numerous museums – all the well-known ones – where you can see Spitfires on display really close-up, as well as all the other classic warplanes of past times. And there are numerous air displays each summer where, again, classic aircraft are shown, and flown. You can never know enough or see enough and even I keep coming across new information or new ideas. I go to the Goodwood Revival Meeting each year, mainly to see the historic cars, it’s true, but there is always a fine air display as well with the chance to get up close to perfectly restored aircraft. About three years ago the full-size replica of the Spitfire prototype, K5054, was there, something I’d never seen before, and I don’t remember the original either! I might mention here that my young grandson, who is the same age range now (5–8) that I was in late World War II, got to sit in the cockpit of a K5054 (and quite a few more aircraft since) and shows the same excitement and interest that I remember from his age. He has also made his first Spitfire kit from the Airfix range, got other Spitfire models, and his own copy of the Spitfire video. And he was born in the present century!
So you are never too young or too old to be an enthusiast, and aside from all the foregoing I suggest a scrapbook or ring binder to collect notes, photos, cuttings and so on to back up your interest and, indeed, a camera to take to air shows and museums and, maybe, even to photograph the models you make.
2 Get a proper tool kit together and keep it safe.
This may sound obvious, but I’ve come across beginners who buy a kit – or are given one as a present – find they have no suitable tools and either break off the kit parts with their fingers or never make the model. For the average plastic aircraft kit you need the following: a craft knife with some spare blades, a razor-saw, pointed tweezers, two or three small files, including a round ‘rat tail’ one if possible, some emery boards, and some fine glasspaper. Additional useful items are an Archimedes drill with selection of fine drills, a small pencil or fine marker pen, and a small screwdriver or two. These extra pieces are most often needed when you are more experienced. While modern kits are highly detailed, there are still older ones around where such details as pitot tubes or radio aerials, etc., need to be added, which is where the Archimedes drill comes in to drill the locating holes. If you come to do any conversion work later you may need to mark out cut lines and so on.
Complete sets of tools are sold in model shops, but all items noted here are available separately at model shops or from stalls at model shows, so you can make up your own choice of tools. Safety is important, so any purchased loose tools should be kept securely in a box. For many years I have used the traditional metal school geometry boxes, which are still sold in stationery shops today.
3 Build up a stock of necessary paints, brushes, and adhesives before you begin.
Adhesives are most important for assembly work, of course, and most will be familiar with the tubes of polystyrene cement sold in all model shops. But even more important is liquid poly cement, sold in small bottles, sometimes with a brush built into the lid for application. Where this is not supplied, use a paint brush kept specially for liquid glue. In general, you can make a much neater job of assembly using liquid poly rather than tube cement. As a basic example, you just hold the parts to be joined correctly aligned and run a brush full of liquid cement along the join. Hold it for a few seconds longer and the job is done without any nasty blobs of cement being squeezed out along the join, as can easily happen with tube cement. Tube cement still has its uses, though, such as cementing ‘out of sight’ pieces in place where the cement won’t be seen, such as cockpit seats on brackets in the fuselage or undercarriage legs into sockets in the wheel wells.
Paint is a material you buy as you need for any given project. Some ‘beginner’ kits come with suitable paints for the model, plus a brush, which is handy to get you started. Paint is still available as ‘plastic enamel’, sold in tinlets and covering all the common camouflage colours needed for aircraft models, but the trend of recent years is to use acrylic paints. These are water soluble so brushes can be cleaned in water, making life easier for beginners and youngsters. Brush cleaner (white spirit) is needed to clean brushes used with plastic enamel. Most makes of model paints cover very well in just one coat, but, as with all model work, don’t rush it and be prepared to apply a second coat where needed.
The other item that is useful to have is plastic filler. You might well need this later if you get round to more advanced conversion work, but it is useful, for example, on older kits, where you sometimes find unwanted ‘dimples’ or rough edges that need filling in. As with tools, keep all paints and adhesives, plus brushes, secure in a box and make sure all lids are tightly fitted so that the paint does not dry out.
4 Don’t rush it.
With the excitement of getting a new kit there is always an urge to get on with construction right away. But it is much better to take the time to familiarise yourself with the instruction sheet and relate the moulded kit parts to the diagrams. Very often there are sprue charts enabling small parts to be identified by number. Hence leave all the parts on the sprue until needed in the assembly sequence. Cutting all the bits from the sprue before you’ve looked at the instructions is a good way to lose key pieces and end up frustrated. It may be useful to check out reference books to find the actual subject of the model (if it’s a well-known type) so you know exactly how the finished model should look. Most kits have a slip to return if parts are missing or poorly moulded. Checking out the kit first should enable you to spot any defects.
5. Paint as many small parts on the sprue as possible before you begin assembly.
This makes painting much easier. Such parts as tyres, wheel hubs, undercarriage legs, dashboards, cockpit seats, bombs and rockets, crew figures, and so on are much easier to paint while you hold the sprue than trying to do it while holding a tiny part in tweezers. Any gap in the colouring that may arise from the small area where the part is attached to the sprue can be touched up after assembly.
6. Careful preparation
Take care when cutting all parts from the sprue, file smooth the point where the part meets the sprue, clean off any moulding imperfections such as ‘flash’ along the edges of the part, and ensure all parts align correctly before cementing them together. Very young modellers need adult assistance and supervision here, but it is worth pointing out that there are some simple kits, ideal for youngsters, which largely ‘click’ together and don’t really need any cutting or filing.
7. Some kits have optional parts for two different versions.
For example, a recent Airfix 1:48 scale Spitfire kit has parts enabling you to make it up as one of the first production Spitfire Mk Is with the first Spitfire squadron, No. 19, in 1938, or else a Battle of Britain version of 1940. Different props, different cockpit covers, and different markings are included. You need to make the right selection, of course, and I plan to make the 19 Sqn machine from this kit the next Spitfire model I make. With a bit of experience behind you, you can make detail changes yourself to simpler kits, such as cutting the cockpit and setting it in the ‘open’ position, or cutting out the ailerons and re-cementing them slightly ‘drooped’, and so on. Photographs of real aircraft, particularly in wartime, can show evidence of worn paintwork, exhaust staining, partly obliterated markings, repair patches, and much else. This is where your references come in, for a modeller with some experience can reflect this sort of thing in the finish of the model.
8. Keep a ‘spares’ box.
Talk to any modeller of some experience and you will hear mention of the ‘spares’ box. In essence this is any suitable container where you keep all or any parts left over after the model is complete. This might be the optional parts not used in completing the Spitfire kit mentioned above, any unused crew figures, unused bombs, or whatever. Put any unused transfers from the kit in an envelope. Even the better pieces of sprue can be kept. In no time at all you start to build up a useful stock of spare parts that may come in useful – sometimes years later – for detailing or repairing other models. In other words, don’t just ditch all the unused bits when you finish the kit. To the spares box you can also add oddments like wire, pins, plastic studs or anything that looks as if it could be useful for model detailing.
Related to this, most modellers of experience have a stock of card, plastic card, or plastic strip. This can be used later in conversion work, or possibly in scenic work if you set up a model on trestles for having its engine changed, to give just two examples.
9. If any model gets damaged by accident, repair it immediately.
It is fatal to leave it for the proverbial ‘rainy day’, for by then the broken-off parts may well have ‘disappeared’ or the model has suffered more damage while resting unloved upon a shelf. If you have a well-stocked spares box, of course, you might find you can replace missing parts, but don’t count on it!
10. Think about storage.
Keeping lovingly made aircraft models neat, clean, and undamaged, and at the same time nicely displayed, is a major challenge in the hobby. Dust and damage are the enemy of models displayed on open shelves or bookcases. Hanging them on cotton from the ceiling is even worse. Don’t even consider it. Years ago I bought a cheap four-shelf sliding-glass-door bookcase, added more shelves between the deeply spaced book shelves, and this holds over 100 1:72 scale model aircraft, safe and sound. For smaller scales such as 1:144 and 1:100, old shoe boxes make a safe storage, with tissue between the models. Obviously you can’t display them in a shoe box, but the collection takes up minimal space that way. Larger scales, like 1:48, present more of a problem. If you have the room, the bookcase solution is fine, but my relatively few models to this scale I keep in the modern clip-top Useful Boxes, the clear plastic ones that stack.
Take your pick from these ideas, but, above all, have fun and good modelling!