Beginner's How-To Guide to Plastic Modeling

Knowing Where to Start and What to Buy

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Are you looking to get into plastic model kit building? Or is your child interested in trying one out? Building a model kit is one of the most rewarding hobbies – and in our opinion, the best. No other hobby allows you to recreate scale models of real-life (or fictional) items with such detail. Yet, picking up your first plastic model kit can indeed be daunting. With the number of available items to purchase, just trying to figure out what to buy is overwhelming. On this section of our site, we guide you through the process, from the first time you step into a hobby shop, until your build is complete and you’re ready to grab another kit.

What is a plastic model kit?

A plastic model kit is a scale model that consists of unassembled plastic parts, and is available in “snap-together” form or for assembly using plastic glue. Plastic model kits are replicas of various subjects, ranging from military (aircraft, ships, tanks) to science fiction (Star Wars, Star Trek, space), from model cars and trucks to figure models.

Plastic models are generally produced using a process called injection molding. A model kit manufacturer will create a “tool” (two halves of steel plate that have been engraved with the shape of the kit’s parts). They will then press the two tools together and inject liquid styrene plastic into the engraving. When the plastic cools and hardens, the parts are popped out of the tool. This becomes one “sprue” of parts of a model kit.

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Building plastic model kits is a classic, yet modern hobby that has progressed with the evolution of technology in manufacturing. Although people have been building model kits for many decades, the newest model kits being released are of the highest quality we have ever seen. There is more detail in the molding, which allows for you, a brand new modeler, to enjoy yourself even more as you improve your model-building skills.

Model kit building is a great next step for a kid who loves to build Lego or other similar building toys. It is also a great hobby for someone who loves DIY projects and is looking for something new to try. Although model kit building is often a step up, it is a natural progression for someone who loves to work with their hands and create.

How do I know where to start?

A great first step is to go to a local hobby shop (or, if you don’t have one near you, browse the model kit section of your favorite online hobby store). The best way to get started is to first determine what subject you want to build. Next, you want to determine what skill level is best for you. Finally, you want to choose the scale (size) of the kit, and ultimately the specific kit itself.

The subjects that are available to build are endless. If you like military-type kits, take a look at the model aircraft, model ship, or model armor (tank) sections of the hobby shop. If you like cars, look at the model car and model truck section. If you like sci-fi, look at the science fiction section. If you want to build figures, venture over to the figure models, where you have your choice of military figures, civilian figures, or even sci-fi figures.

Also be aware of the size of a model kit. Most model kits are sized by “scale”, which is the size of the kit relative to the actual item. For example, a 1/24 model car will be 1/24 the size of a real car. So if the real-life Ford Mustang is 188 inches long, the 1/24 kit will be about 7.8 inches long. The same goes for military kits. The smaller the number in the scale, the larger the kit will be (relative to the item). So a 1/48 P-51D aircraft will be larger than a 1/72 P-51D. However, a 1/24 model car will be much smaller than a 1/72 B-52G – the B-52 is that much larger in real life. Be aware of the size of the model kit you are looking at. When all else fails, simply Google the size of the real-life vehicle and divide it by the scale!

Once you’ve determined what category is best, you can sort through the piles of kits and grab one that is of interest.

What level of kit do I want to buy/What levels of kits are there?

Within each subject of the model kit section, you can narrow it down based on other parameters such as skill level and size. If you are buying a first model kit for a child, you will probably want to start with a snap kit, of which there are three main types.

The first is a Quick Build kit, made by the manufacturer Airfix. These kits use brick-building technology (similar to Lego), yet when completed, have a smooth, curved exterior that looks like a typical model kit.

Another type of beginner model kit is a Build ‘N Play kit, made by Revell. These kits are usually about a dozen pieces or so, and can operate as a toy when completed (for example, the car can roll around without breaking, in contrast to a regular model kit, which cannot be played with once completed). These kits can also be taken apart and rebuilt.

The final and most popular kind of beginner model kit is a classic snap together kit. Although no glue or paint is needed to assemble and complete, these kits are slightly more challenging and are the last step before jumping into glue-together kits. Once together, these snap kits do not come apart (without bending or breaking the plastic). But the extra challenge is great for kids who are ready to test their skills at the next level.

Once you have mastered snap kits, or if you feel you (or your child) are too old to start with snap kits, you can jump right into glue-together kits. As a general rule, a model kit will always require glue and paint, unless otherwise stated on the box. Model kit skill levels will vary based on the number of parts and how difficult it is to put together. Be sure you are comfortable at one level before trying to move up to the next. Trying to build a model kit above your skill level will only leave you frustrated and annoyed. Model building is fun – be sure to get the appropriate kit so you have the best experience!

I’ve picked out my kit – what else do I need to buy?

Depending on what kind of kit you bought, you will most likely need some tools, supplies, and/or paints. Any kit from a snap kit up to an advanced kit will require you to purchase a hobby knife and a pair of sprue cutters, or “nippers.” The cutters will help you remove parts from the sprue cleanly, while the knife will provide you the medium to “clean up” the parts. This can include removing “flash” (the small line of plastic that sometimes appears at the point where the two sides of steel molding met), shaving down a part to make it fit better, or removing any piece of sprue that is left on the part.

If you are buying a glue kit, you will need some plastic hobby glue, paint, and paintbrushes. If you are just starting out in the model building hobby, don’t overbuy. Purchase basic glue, a few bottles of paint (or even a prepackaged paint set, if the colors fit what you are building), and only the tools absolutely required to put the kit together. Don’t worry about making the kit look professional – use your first few kits as a learning process to help you better understand the skills and techniques necessary to complete a build. As you progress, there will be dozens of helpful tools and supplies you may want to buy – masking tape, modeling putty, sandpaper/files, tweezers, etc. Your local hobby shop or online store will be able to help you grow into some new materials and tools to match your skill level.

Most model kits will list the paint colors required, either on the box or in the instructions. Ask your hobby shop or online store to open a kit from the shelf and let you know what colors you need to purchase.

Remember, when you are first getting started, you don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of money on tools. Start with the minimal amount needed to put a kit together. If you really enjoy the hobby, you will slowly increase and expand the tools and supplies on your workbench over time.

How do I put it together?

Every model kit comes with instructions, usually with pictures, that detail exactly what parts to use and in what order. Parts are numbered, usually by sprue and number (e.g. A5 would be part 5 on Sprue A). Simply follow the instructions and progress through the steps, remembering to walk away from the kit as paint or glue needs to dry, to allow the model to solidify before handling it in future steps.

Past that, how you build the kit is completely up to you – and that’s the beauty of the hobby! Feel free to be creative, in terms of trying new techniques, using your own color scheme, or even which decals you apply to the kit. Though many modelers like to recreate a specific version of a vehicle exactly as it appeared, there are no rules that govern how you build. As long as you are creating something and having a blast at the same time, you’re doing it correctly.

I’ve finished it – what do I do now?

What are you waiting for? Go get another kit to build!

We are always looking to chat with newcomers to our hobby. If you are looking to enter the plastic model kit building hobby, give us a call! We are happy to help guide you through the process and ensure you purchase the proper type of kit. You can email us at info@megahobby.com or call us during business hours toll-free at 888-642-0093.