I started building scale models as a boy in the mid 1970s. It was a fairly common pastime back then. Demand for injection molded plastic kits was robust enough that you could find them everywhere from department stores to your local 7-Eleven. For discriminating collectors the best place to buy models was a specialized hobby shop. Prices there were usually higher, but the selection was better. In a really good shop, the manager knew the craft well enough to give useful tips on assembly, painting, and detailing techniques.
The popularity of scale modeling has declined steeply since those days. Kits have all but vanished from department stores, and the small hobby shops specializing in them are an endangered species. The growth and ubiquity of computer gaming accounts for most of this, but rising prices have also played a part. Boomers and Gen Xers comprise the great majority of the customer base. The demographic trend is clear: the hobby, at least as these older generations have known it, looks certain to fade away with them.
While the hobby yet lives, I’ve taken it up again after a 10 year hiatus. The subject is a 1/72 scale Me 410. Working on this little “Hornet” in the evenings, I reflect on the present state of scale modelling, its particular rewards and demands, and its value, both aesthetic and practical.
Scale modeling may have dwindled to a minor pastime, but it has improved dramatically in some ways, thanks to advancing technology: Better tooled kits, aftermarket resin and photo-etched metal parts, laser printers and special paper for printing custom decals, and most recently 3D printing, which enables the hobbyist to create new parts or replace poorly molded or broken ones. Internet resources are considerable, not just for online purchase of the models themselves, but also for supplies, customer reviews, and how-to videos. Videos have real caveat emptor value: you can see how a kit will come together before deciding whether to buy it. In these respects it is a far better hobby than it used to be. And the ranges in price, subject, and scale remain broad enough to keep things from becoming more expensive and elaborate than your budget and display space will permit.
This is a mentally and (somewhat) physically challenging hobby. Assembling, painting, and detailing models trains the eye in observation, the fingers in deftness, the mind in analysis and planning. Research deepens one’s understanding of the history of the real person or object the miniature represents. The precision skills you acquire are readily applicable to other crafts: architectural models, museum dioramas, practical effects in film making. There is opportunity for fellowship and mentoring if one joins a club (e.g., a local chapter of the International Plastic Modellers’ Society).
The hobby requires patience and self-discipline, to say nothing of inventiveness and improvisation when things go wrong in assembly, or when the best materials and tools aren’t available. Becoming better at modelling requires taking calculated risks. For example, when you’re learning to simulate weathering, rust, oil stains, exhaust streaks, or battle damage, improper execution can mar the paint job or the model itself. Like any venturing beyond one’s comfort zone, this improves confidence and motivates you towards further growth.
Finally, this is a hobby that preserves and promotes Western civilization. Models, correctly done, are fine conversation pieces and fit decoration for a study or game room. They can be a form of visual storytelling, particularly as dioramas. They stimulate the imagination. They attract the curiosity of children, especially boys, providing teachable moments for imparting knowledge and virtue (“Your great-grandfather flew one of these.”) They are private memorials, safe from the vandalism and destruction to which our public monuments are now subject.
Such are my loftier musings as I set to work with glue, knife, putty, and sandpaper, squinting at the unfolded instruction sheet before taking the next step in the process. With luck, I’ll have a small piece of history sitting on the shelf several weeks from now.
Update: Here is excellent video giving the history of the three biggest American plastic scale model companies: