Any model builders in the crowd?

Earlier this evening, our family watched the latest episode of James May’s Toy Stories on BBC America.

It’s basically a nostalgic look back on the hobbies of yesteryear, and a completely doomed attempt by a middle aged white guy to make them seem cool to the generation AFTER the Nintendo generation.

There was the model train episode, the erector set episode, and the modeling clay episode. All of which, apparently, go under different manufacturer’s trade names in England.

What? Other countries had their own versions of products? Go figure.

I enjoy the show because the inherently futile nature of James May’s quest to have kids tell him that, yes, what he did as a kid IS cool, is somehow fulfilling to me. It’s not Hamlet, but his utter cluelessness does qualify as a tragedy.

My son, on the other hand, finds this talk of toys on TV by stuffy adults interesting for it’s own sake, and we do our part by gushing over the awesomeness of what they do on the show. The model train show, for example, saw us explaining just how amazing the feat of a 15 mile working model train track was by comparing it to how far away his Grandma lives, and multiplying that by two.

Anyway, sorry. Follow the bloody link, that’ll tell you more about the show if you’re interested.

Mah point is, we watched it earlier this evening, and the topic was plastic model kits.

Well, hellfire, finally something I actually DID as a kid!

I loved putting together those damn model kits. Military planes and tanks were my subjects of choice. I was messy with glue, I didn’t have very good attention to detail, and much like Calvin and Hobbes, working canopies and landing gear, in my hands, quickly weren’t.

But that’s okay. At the same time, my other fascination was with fireworks. My stepfather sold ’em illegally out the back of a panel truck at the local swap meet. I, at the ripe old age of 12, used to actually be the one to drive the truck on my own down to the swap meet, which as I recall was held at the time at the Hialeah Race Track parking lot. this was before he became my stepfather; at the time, he was the guy that hired me to help stock shelves and work the register at his Five and Dime store, and I got the job to support my Pac-Man habit.

You know, come to think of it, my life has been filled with things that I would never let my son do in a million years, and that if I’m unlucky could still net me, or others, jail time. Maybe I need to start screening my memoirs.

I just fact checked myself. By god, I really WAS twelve when I did that. Wow. I hope my son never sees this; ain’t no way in HELL I’m letting that boy drive my car at twelve.

Where the heck? Oh right.

Plastic model kits and fireworks. It seems so obvious to juxtapose the two, doesn’t it? Who HASN’T stuck cherry bombs and M-80s up a jet’s tailpipe? C’mon, be honest. Or taken a shitload of bottle rockets, daisy chained the fuses and hot glued them to your jet’s wings to see if you could achieve powered flight.

Who else out there found out that what hot bottle rocket exhaust mostly does is melt airplane wings?

Ah, good times, good times. I still fondly recall taking the giant sized bags of plastic army men, planting them all over a huge dirt mound at the local construction site, adding tanks, and then mining the entire area with daisy chained firecrackers (Black Cat for preference) and lobbing M-80s at the stubborn ones.

Hmm. What the hell was I talking about before I got sidetracked into making things boom?

Oh right. Plastic model kits.

Our son watched the episode, and I could see the gears turning. I asked him if he’d like to build a model.

“Of course not, father, that is much too boring for me. I’d prefer a nice biscuit and a cup of tea.”

What do you think he said? He said YES!

So, he’s seven years old, and I haven’t built a model kit since I traded firecrackers for 40mm grenades.

What I do recall is Revell made a line of snap together model kits that were for beginners, models that didn’t require glue. They even had adhesive labels instead of the water decals.

I did a quick scan for plastic model kits on the internet, wondering if this was a hobby that has gone the way of the dodo, and found to my astonishment that there are thousands of kits and dozens of companies in the mix.

Too many choices, and no good places I found to find reviews from people NOT trying to sell me something.

So, I turn to you in the hopes that I might have some readers out there that still love building models, and have an awareness of the various levels of quality and sophistication (or lack thereof).

Anybody have any personal opinions on what manufacturers or brands would be good quality and skill level for a dad and seven year old to build together, with the idea that I really like my son to take the lead and figure these things out himself as we go, with my nudges? I don’t do the “let me take that and do it all for you as you watch” thing, you don’t learn anything that way.

I saw that BanBan apparently does some snap kit Gundam mech figures that look awesome, and Revell is doing snap tite Star Wars kits, and all sorts of craziness out there. And I think there were some dinosaurs available from someone.

Seriously, anybody got any knowledge of this stuff that could give us some guidance? I’d like to have some clue of what brands or kits to look for before I drag him into one of the massive local hobby stores and see him run RIGHT straight for the $300 precision scale models designed for the professional hobbyists.

I love that line. “Professional hobbyist”. Look, I’m Gallagher!

I asked him what kinds of models he’d want to try, and the categories come down to military tanks and spaceships.

Tanks and spaceships! [sniff]

I’m so proud!

Still, he didn’t know dinosaurs or giant robots were options, so I’m keeping my mind open. Or maybe it’s just that *I* want to build giant robots.

Either way!

33 thoughts on “Any model builders in the crowd?

  1. I’d recommend revells plane models for a “beginner”, they are pretty easy to build and manage to look good even if you don’t follow instructions exactly (I should know, those were the ones i started uilding around 7 :P) painting is the most annoying part though. a small trick: use water mixed with wood glue to glue canopies and clear plastic parts, as when it dries it doesn’t get milky gray even if you touch it with your fingers, as plastic glue mostly does. Oh, and NEVER build a model of a too small scale, sure it might seem easier that it ain’t so complicated, but those pieces are damned small.

    Good luck with model building 🙂


  2. Second the suggestions for Tamiya. Also, if you’re looking at Gundam, stick to high grade or better kits. Anything less than that doesn’t really have a lot to it.

    As for military kits, Estes is still huge today, and they do a bunch of kits, including some snap-tites. As mentioned, they’re not quite as high quality as glue togethers, but with a little bit extra time, modeling putty and some files, they can look very good.


  3. The James May series was one of the best things on British TV last year, and I’m so happy it got a showing in America. I absolutely adored the model train episode, which really took the challenges to a new scale (pun intended). I’ve never wanted something that was so obviously going to fail to succeed so much.


  4. Hi BBB,

    I’m a long time reader and now first time poster. I love the James May series – very nearly went along to the Lego house build which happened down the road from me!

    I’d like to suggest you look at the Games Workshop Model kits – they do Sci Fi and Fantasy kits – everything from cavalry right through to giants and then into tanks and space men. The kits come in a variety of “skill levels” – Take a look at the “Assault on Black Reach” box set – a load of infantry models, a space robot (dreadnought) and a bunch of other bits. And there’s a board game to play with as well!

    For a more serious kit there’s the Baneblade or Ork Stompa. Gorgeous looking models and super fun to build.

    Just my 2p



  5. From personal experience I’d go with the snap tite model kits from Revel. I had a ton of those as a kid and after the 2nd one I didn’t need instructions anymore. So they’re a good starting point for models. Too bad they didn’t have the Star Wars kits back then. I would have totally had those things hanging from fishing line from the ceiling in my bed room.


  6. Leather rucksack? Maybe your kid could make a key fob, sounds dumb but in 20 years he’ll still have it. I have one my mum had when she was at school.
    Waterpistol holster? Firecracker bandolier? Moccasins? Leather framed mirror? A chair, if you like carpentry too – or if that turns out a bit wonky, a go-kart.

    Listened to Vinyl Cafe? Unrelated but adorable.


  7. In my opinion you (BBB) have about 2.5k days left then your son WILL sit in your car driving around!
    That’s genes you cant avoid such things, so just get a good insurance before his 12th birthday :]

    Anyway i can remember sitting behind the steering wheel of my grandfather’s vintage car at the thanksgiving parade.
    That time i was something around 8 as i still was in elementary school.
    That was a VERY nice day for me.


  8. Wow, a lot of great suggestions and ideas here!

    As far as Estes model rockets, yep, I did that stuff when I was a young’un, but I judge that he’s a bit too young… and it’s hard to find places with a large enough field, AND a clear airspace overhead to legally launch ’em. I figure that to be a 12ish project.

    I also did a lot of leatherworking, knifemaking and gunsmithing, reloading, that kind of thing. I think I mentioned the reloading stuff a long time ago, in one of the storytimes. The knifemaking itself was fun, but I enjoyed learning to acid etch the blades more than the knifemaking part itself.

    The one thing I did that I really enjoyed, and was good at, that I miss is leatherworking. I even looked into Tandy dealers in the area recently, thinking about getting back into it.

    The problem is, I did leatherworking to make my own custom accessories for my knife making and gun collecting. I made gunbelts and quick draw holster rig for my Ruger single six and super blackhawk, holsters for various other pistols, belts of different styles, and sheaths for custom knives.

    I did make a pair of hawking gloves once after watching Ladyhawke and thinking they’d look cool, and I made a really crappy looking leather vest that sounded better than it turned out, but other than that… gun stuff and knife stuff.

    I don’t own guns or knives anymore. Well, okay, I do have a gun, and I’ve also got a firearm (lol), and I do have some knives, but I don’t go collecting ’em or messing around with that stuff anymore. No real interest in it. So, what the hell would I MAKE out of leather? Belts? I can only wear one at a time, and so can Alex. A purse? Yeah, I think Cassie would prefer picking a more fashionable style than I’d make.

    Too bad, really, I enjoyed leatherworking a lot, and it was a rather unusual hobby that I don’t see anyone else doing that much of anymore, and the mass produced stuff is, rankly, crap that falls apart. The stuff I made was freaking bulletproof.

    Model making sounds pretty fun.


  9. I used to assemble models of naval ships. I was *horrible* when it came to gluing and painting the things though, so I always found the process nerve-wracking yet somehow enjoyable. I was also always blown away by the people who managed to be accomplished at it.


  10. Oh, and I have been “working” on a model of the U.S.S. Constitution on and off for… 10-15 years or so. Same with a fairly large model of a B1-B.

    I’ll finish them eventually.


  11. I don’t think Captain Slow (aka James May, as he is known on Top Gear) is as oblivious as the shows make him out to be. I’ve only seen the Airfix, Meccano and slot car episodes, and I get the strong imprssion he’s very much aware of how geeky he, and all the rest of the stuff is. His lack of knowledge about Beyonce notwithstanding.

    (on a side note, it mentioned that James was only 44 in the Airfix episode. -he’s now 47 – but I was shocked that he’s that young. I had him pegged in his mid fifties at least)

    The show does get me rather nostalgic, and some of the feats they accomplish are truly mind boggling.

    As for the best palces for model kits, I can only repeat what others have said: any decent local hobby shop for starters, or even Wally*Mart as a last resort.


  12. Have you considered starting with some of the lego sets? I know you said your son enjoys playing with lego but unsure if thats just the bulk stuff where you can come up with whatever you want or if you have any of the specific sets that have to be built up? Might be a good start into this sort of thing?


  13. Like Melfina, I quite enjoyed the wooden puzzle dinosaur skeletons. Between those and my Origami obsession, I wound up more interested in *creating* models than putting together ones other people made. I made several original Origami models, fostering my math and art skills at the same time, and when “found art” and clay modeling hit hard in middle school art class, I ran with it.

    So unfortunately, I never did get into the “build this premolded model” scene; I was always off wanting to do my own thing. That said, I do love working in 3D, and it’s a lot of fun to make stuff that *does* something… like Rube Goldberg devices.

    …yeah, I was an odd kid.


  14. I have very fond memories of making model dinosaur skeletons. They were made out of wood, and more or less just slipped together. Since it’s been 20 years since I did any, I’m afraid I don’t remember that much about them, other than loving them to bits. Ooh, and painting them pink because my grandmother thought they needed to be more girly.

    Never did any planes or things like that, mostly cause I wasn’t interested in them but boy I loved dinosaurs.

    Good luck in your quest and let us know how it goes!


  15. I built model airplanes as a kid (F-16s, A-10 warthogs, etc), I also built Estes Rockets (do they still make those?!) and built crazy things out of legos.

    Now that I’m 32, I would not be opposed to doing any of those things as I’m still a kid at heart.


  16. You just dredged up one of my best childhood memories, me and my dad assembled a literal basket case of parts into a working traxxis hawk RC car, raced it and won a few trophies when i was in jr high. I still have the car, and trophies 15 years after highschool.. It was a sad day when i was driving the car in the parking lot and hit a curbing… i snapped the passenger side front axle. I have been unable to find a replacement. (but haven’t been looking all that hard.)

    sadly, I don’t know of anyplace nearby to race my little car or I would be doing that. it was a great parent/child event.. I was the driver, he was the pit crew.

    let me tell you, the lexan body shells they put on those things are almost indestructible. I saw one of those cars get airborne and land outside the track like a meteor, there was not a scratch on it.


  17. Here in Indiana, there are many shops that are devoted to “Hobbies” and have R/C stuff and a ton of model kits. My sons and I go there from time to time to pick up things to do and look at the awesome things we can’t afford but would love.

    For slightly off topic, I hope there are a very high percentage of readers that do things like this with their kids. Hands-on low-tech bonding (NOT bonding your fingers together, hopefully – although those do make some nice memories) activities. Even if it isn’t model building, do something with your kids. Give them stories to tell their kids.


  18. In my experience the snap-tite kits are generally not that high quality – but for a beginner they are definitely easier and will look good enough at the end.

    Do you have Johnny’s Toys in your area? I haven’t bought model stuff in a long time, but when I did that was where I went.

    And I do remember, for a high school geometry project, strapping a model rocket engine to the bottom of a model of a B1 bomber and launching it directly at a brick wall. Of course, it promptly went airborne, did a complete vertical loop… two or three times… after the sweep-wings flew off right after liftoff…


  19. I can personally vouch that the gundam models are awesome for kids, I made tons of them in my late teens. The directions are very clear (even if in japanese sometimes), plus the models come with sticker decals but you can also take the time to paint them with all kinds of resources on guides on how to paint them. As a bonus with some well places glue they are as sturdy as any action figure, so he’ll love it even more than some silly batman figure off the shelf.

    Another suggestion for giant robot models is looking into the zoid series of models ( not only are they snap fit style, they also have motors to make them walk and pose. these are a little more involved than your standard snap fit models but nothing me has a teenager couldn’t handle so a father/son combo won’t have any problems. Once again they come with stickers but its also encouraged to paint them too, and like before a few dabs of glue on the looser pieces can make them into sturdy actions figures that move.

    To give you a scale of how long it takes to build these so you can have an idea of the scale of the project: The standard gundam models it usually took me 2-3 hours to put one together while the zoid models would take a good 4-6.


  20. Quality wise you want Tamiya or Hasegawa. My preference is for Hasegawa.

    However, I’m not sure what their range of models suitable for 7 year olds is like.

    The last models I made were things like F-14’s and F-16’s in 1:48 scale and were in the 30-40 euro range iirc. The Hasegawa kits are incredibly detailed and accurate. I can’t remember having to secure the wing sections with pegs or rubber bands to get them flat enough to glue together like I did with Airfix and Revell kits when I was younger.

    Also, for glue, dont use the tubes. Use the brush on stuff that is in solvent (Liquid Poly Cement). The brush on stuff causes the plastic to melt or soften slightly and when it hardens again the two surfaces are fused together. Makes for much cleaner models than the tube glue.


  21. Hey BBB,

    No idea about model kits I’m afraid, but I live in England and thought you might like to know that James May also co-hosts Top Gear, which if you weren’t aware is a BRILLIANT car show starring 3 lunatics who do insane and hilarious things (like driving Mini Coopers down a ski slope and seeing how far they’ll jump). Anyway it’s suitable for all ages and it makes awesome watching, check it out if you haven’t already!


  22. While i was young i had just about a whole room of those model kits (always military planes/helo’s… yes yes i wanted to be a fighter pilot. Damn glasses prevented me from it).

    And when i started there were no snap-on kits, all there was were the normal ones that required glue. Luckily i had a handy father that helped with the more difficult parts and let me muck around to learn myself.

    Not sure how it is in America, but here we can get a large variety of kits from toy stores.

    At 1 point i bought a snap-on kit when they came available and tested it myself. And i must say they work kinda neat, and are great starter kits for kids. Can’t say i tested several brands, but the ones from Revell were very good. Clear instructions, not too many parts and deliver a good looking model.
    Everything should be clear enough for a 7-year old.

    So i’d advise on getting one of those.

    Hope you can get something out of this 😉


  23. The most wonderful, addictive place in the Twin Cities….

    Any kind or level of model you could want. I haven’t built one in years, but I made a kerjillion models growing up, mostly airplanes and some model rockets (Plus trying to engineer some small Estes Rocket engines onto a plastic model…. Siiissss. Crasssshhh!) oooohhhh I just looked on line and Estes has an SR-71…squeeee! oh, wait, what was I saying….?

    I created a minor scandal in my hometown in the sixties, when I, a <> !GIRL! was the big winner of a local hobby shop’s model building contest. My dad kept the winning B-52 (He was an Air Force Officer) I built in his office until he passed on in 2002.

    Good times.


    Arrive with plenty of money and time


  24. Hey BBB,

    Wow….talk about fortuitous blogs….heheI’ve recently bouaght a house…….with a garage of my own(the wife has the house part!!) and….in stoarge is bunches of kits……planes,cars,and what-nots. As now I have a place to build and eventually display the finished products I have been ppicking up “Fine Scale Modeler” again…….great magazine (you know thos ethings they print on glossy paper with pictures and articles in them…lol!)…and there is listed in the back a selection state-by-state of local hobby shops. I would suggest picking the magazine up from a local Barnes and Noble type of bookstore as a resource that you can hold AND take with you to the retail store. Anyways…..there are still several types of the snap-tite kits available……cars…planes etc. Wal-Mart still carries them too! along with the already colored/painted bodies and minimal parts kits of cars and planes. My pewrsonal suggestion would be to visit a local hobby shop and talk with the proprieters for more advise… may even have a local chapter of the IPM – International Plastic Modelers club. On another note……there are certain ’80s songs that …when I hear them….they evoke the smells,feelings, and general wholesomness of my days of youth as a preteen/teenager prior to high school…..maniacally (sp?) kit bashing stuff to create awesome sci-fi style creations (a car parts Terminator for one!!) Case in point that Phil Collins and other Phil song “Easy Lover”….I hear that and soon “smell” the glue and paint and body putty, as I had a radio going for backround noise……..It is wild how our senses work like that!!!
    Sorry for the “bearwall”…..but…..I have “discovered” that I have a few snap kits in my “collection”…..I will be introducing my own boys to the hobby shortly…….a 3.5yr old….11 yr old…and 13 yr old……..ahhhh this will be fun!!! 🙂 So your plea for assistance really struck a chord!!! hehe
    …….and please…..keep blogging……I for one enjoy your writing. I like to think that knowing you in person, I would enjoy the verbal “bearwalls” and debates as well… !

    Gekkoracing Reno,NV


  25. I just got a model to do with my son a few weeks ago, he’s 9. We went with one imported from Japan, because, well, we like anime and there’s something fun about putting mecha together. We haven’t DONE it yet oweing to the instructions being in japanese, but we’re very much looking forward to it once I get a friend to translate it. 🙂


  26. Shame you’re not out here near San Francisco. We’ve got a hardware store that has an entire (large) floor of hobby department. Miles of train layout, model kits stacked to the ceiling, etc.


  27. Seeing as noone has yet said anything to help you in your quest, I just thought a comment for pure moral support was in order… sadly in my country we dont have that sort of things, so I have no help to give whatsoever.

    What I can say, is that we ALL battletested toys with things that went “kaboom”. so.. you are not alone in that, and on that subject may I suggest watching the “mythbusters” if you like seeing people making things explode (the closest thing to goblin engineering I’ve seen on TV) those guys are Goblins in Human Suits (thats why the are so damn ugly)

    Anyways, went a bit offtopic… good luck on your search


  28. I just went through this with my son (8), and looked off and on for several months for model kits. Some places to check…

    1) Michael’s (yeah, the craft store) at least in my area actually stocks a good number of kits.
    2) RC Car/plane shops had a few, this varied wildly from a store that had 3-4 kits, to one that had a whole front and back of a shelf of various things.
    3) Model train shop. We have one near our house that has all sorts of train stuff, but two good isles of model supplies (paints, glue, sandpaper, etc). They said they used to carry a few kits but stopped.


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