Plastic Model Scale Kits for the Beginner

frog kit

The building of plastic scale-model kits began as a hobby during the 1930's when English company, Frog, released their first range of 1:72 scale aircraft models. This quickly expanded to America in the 40's, as many automobile manufacturers were already having simple miniatures created for dealers to use as sales aids (cars were often sold quickly, making a salesfloor difficult to maintain). Before too long, demand for hobby kits was far outstripping the need for sale-centric miniatures.

Many of today's well-known model kit brands were established by the 1960's, with most kits now coming from Japan, the UK, the US and Germany. Over the years, and with advancements in materials and manufacturing technologies, model kits have evolved into highly detailed representations of their full-sized counterparts, with kits available for almost any subject and often in a range of different scales. Two very popular Brands to look out for in the kit hobby world are Hasegawa and AMT.

The most popular models have always been those of aircraft, followed by other military vehicles, and then cars. For many people starting out or returning to the hobby, a favourite classic vehicle, like a plane, car or motorbike is a great way to get your hands dirty. Another popular outlet is the building of spacecraft and other machinations from popular media, like Star Trek or Star Wars, and there are even kits available to build prominent movie and comic book characters. Whatever your tastes, there's almost certainly something you'll love to build.

What is a scale and how does that work?

A scale consists of two numbers separated by a slash or colon, as in 1/72 or 1:72. These numbers represent the completed size of the model in proportion to the full-size item it is based on. In the example of 1:72, the finished model would be 72 times smaller than the full-size subject, so if a full-size plane is 72ft long from nose to tail, a 1:72 model of it will be 1ft long when finished (the same applies to width, height, etc.)

Scale guide

When considering the finished size of a model, the larger the number on the right, the smaller the model in proportion to its full-size counterpart. For instance, the same plane above in a 1:144 kit would be smaller than the 1:72 kit (actually, in this example it would be precisely half the size). On the other hand, a model of the same plane in 1:32 scale would be over twice the size of the 1:72 model. If this seems like a jumble of confusing numbers, don't worry, this handy graphic should make it easier to understand.

The scale of your model is important for a few reasons, chief among these being that the bigger your finished model is, the more space you'll need to store it; finished models, especially when highly detailed, are very fragile, so a big model will need a big space out of harm's way.

Among other scale considerations is the number of models within your chosen scale. In model vehicle kits, especially military vehicles such as planes, helicopters and ground vehicles, 1:72 scale is by far the most popular. This means that if you build a plane and a tank from separate kits -and even separate manufacturers- they will be in proportion when you put them on display next to each other.

Another quite popular scale for planes is the larger 1:32 size, but bear in mind, although it's a popular scale, there are nowhere near as many kits in 1:32 as there are in 1:72. That means that if you decide you want to build a lot of kits that are in proportion with one another, your choice in 1:32 will more limited. This isn't the end of the world, and many modellers build across all different scales, but it is something worth keeping in mind.

Do children's model kits exist?

There are a number of model kits offered specifically for children, along with a wide range of less complex kits that are suitable for both young people and adult beginners. U.S company, Lindberg, for instance, has a number of educational anatomical model kits which could be an ideal route for children to begin model building. Another, simpler option is the 'snap-together' kit. Snap-together kits are obtainable for children's cartoon characters as well as popular films. Some do require minimal gluing, but most do not, and they often come completely painted, ready to be played with after building.

Some traditional model kits come with several paints, a brush and glue included. These can make great gifts for children and are a great, cost-effective introduction to the rewarding hobby of model-building.

How do I tell how difficult a kit is?

Some manufacturers do display an indication a of a kit's difficulty on the box, but a lot of kits won't have one. Another good indicator is the number of parts needed to complete the kit. It's important to understand though, that, while the number and size of the pieces in a kit can certainly make a kit more time consuming and tricky to build, the overall difficulty of a kit is mostly dependent on how far you are willing to go for the sake of realism. Processes like scraping and sanding parts for better fitting, painting very fine details, applying decals, weathering and even adding extra parts yourself all add to the difficulty of a kit, but are largely decided by you, the builder.

So, pick the kit that inspires you the most and take it as far as you want to go; one of the beautiful things about model kit building is that you get to do what you want and, to a large extent, included in that is how difficult or easy you want it to be.

I've never built a kit before, where do I start?

Inside the box

After considering the model type and scale, by far the most important element of the decision-making process should be picking a kit of something you really like. Depending on the level of detail you intend to add, you could be spending weeks or months, on and off, with the same model, so it pays to be working on something you'll enjoy. A great side benefit of spending a bit more time on a model and paying extra attention to details is that you inevitably end up finding out facts and trivia about whatever it is you're building, and that's even better if it's something you had an interest in before-hand. Subjects like the Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane, Ford Mustang muscle car, or the Royal Navy's HMS Bounty are always extremely popular, with an array of different kits to pick from.

What Comes in the Box?

The majority of your kit's box will be taken up by the pieces of injection moulded framework that all of your model's components come attached to. A piece of this framework is called a 'Sprue'. A typical model may have 2 or 3 sprues with another smaller one for any transparent parts (like windows or lights).

You'll also typically get at least one set of 'decals', small printed graphics on a sheet that are applied to give precise logos, lettering and details to your model. These need to be cut out carefully and then placed in a little lukewarm water in order to separate them before they are applied. This youTube video shows a very simple method for getting excellent results with your decals.

You'll also get a sheet or booklet of instructions relating to the components on the sprues. These instructions are typically quite well illustrated and annotated.

There are some kits available that also include glue, a brush and a small selection of paints relevant to your kit, but most do not. It's worth remembering that, while some paints may be included, you might still want to buy a few more if you intend to make the kit more realistic.


model kit tools

There are a few very basic tools which you will rely on throughout a build, and they shouldn't cost you much.

  • A craft-knife. Most people use X-Acto knives or Swann Morton scalpels, both of which are high quality, durable and relatively cheap. Please remember to be incredibly careful if you're not used to using one of these -even if you are! Be particularly careful when changing blades in these knives; having replaceable blades means they are easy to keep very sharp, but if you're not careful when changing blades you can cut yourself. Of course, if you're under the age of 18, do not use a modelling knife without adult supervision -you have been warned.
  • Tweezers are also very useful. There are several different types and you may find yourself wanting a variety as you progress, but in the beginning a decent pair of any design will do.
  • A cutting mat or stable surface to cut on. Cutting mats are usually 'self-healing', which means they last longer than a simple plastic sheet or rubber. A cutting mat won't move around while you use it either, which is preferable.
  • Glue. There are several types of glue out there, but if you can only choose one for now, go for the type that has a long needle type nozzle to allow precise application (you'll get less fingerprints that way!).
  • Paints. When I was younger, model kits were painted with enamel paints, but most people now choose acrylic paints instead. Many of these are easier and safer to use than enamels, and cleaning equipment after painting is easier too.
  • A paint brush or two. Any small, fine-tipped paintbrush will work for general painting and one with a wider tip will make painting large areas easier. Don't forget to clean your brushes after you use them, otherwise they won't last long. If you use acrylic paints then warm (not hot) water will be sufficient for cleaning.
  • Paper towels are very useful if you get a bit glue or paint-happy and you may already have something suitable around the house. Wiping excess glue or paint with your fingers tends to spread the problem pretty rapidly. They're also very useful for soaking up excess moisture when applying decals.

Extra Tools That Aren't Necessary, But Will Help

  • Sprue-cutters/side-cutters. These allow you to apply a lot of force to a small cutting area, ideal for precisely cutting through unwanted plastic moulding on sprues. Some people would put these on the basic tool-kit list as it's much easier, quicker and safer to use this type of cutter than it is your craft-knife.
  • Modelling masking tape. You can use ordinary painter's tape, but the model variety isn't just hype. Good modelling masking tape tends to adhere better to kit parts while being easier to remove. It's also available in narrower widths making it much more user-friendly for modelling.
  • Sticky-tack, toothpicks and wooden stirrers/lollypop sticks. Yep, modelling can be a pretty inexpensive hobby depending on how you approach it. Being able to stick smaller model components to a 'handle' of some sort is very useful, and all of the above are useful in this regard.
  • A pin-vice and a set of micro-drills can be very useful for deepening detail and helping with the fit of awkward parts.
  • Sandpaper, sanding sticks or a jewellers file. These are all really useful for getting parts extra tidy. The better the surface of a component, the better the finish you'll get once you've painted it.

A Note on Airbrushes

An airbrush uses compressed air to 'atomise' paint into a very fine, controlled mist. This means that a very fine layer of paint can be applied which will dry quicker and, with practice, be free from any streaks, runs or, more importantly, brush marks. As you delve deeper into the rabbit-hole that is kit building, you'll notice more and more builders using an airbrush. The advantage of an airbrush is most noticed when painting large, smooth panels; the side of a car or the wings of a plane will benefit massively from being painted with an airbrush versus a paintbrush, for example.

Owning an airbrush represents a significant investment of money and time; you must also have a suitable compressor, filter and cleaning equipment, and you also have to learn how to use the tool itself. For these reasons, many modellers will not start out with an airbrush. Don't worry if you haven't got one, just enjoy your first few kits and then you can decide if it's a tool you'd really like to acquire.

We hope you've enjoyed this slightly deeper look into model kit making. Maybe you've been inspired to give this excellent hobby a try for yourself, if so, let us know in the comments box below, we'd love to hear from you.