Parts & Recreation
May 3, 2015 2:50 PM   Subscribe

“Parts & Recreation” by Jeff Greenwald
“What makes people devote hours to the frustrating task of gluing together pieces so small you have to pick them up with tweezers? And does this obsessive hobby even matter anymore? To find out, a devotee of the art dives into Revell’s world of plastic models.”
posted by ob1quixote (45 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This is cool! That second (?) pic with the model mold in the foreground gave me serious perspective-shock for a minute, too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:01 PM on May 3, 2015

Er, the fourth pic.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:02 PM on May 3, 2015

Just built a snap together USS Enterprise (TOS) with my son last night. He's been carrying it around ever since!
posted by jabah at 3:11 PM on May 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh man, Revell kits. I loved them as a kid and probably lost more than a few brain cells from that damn glue.
posted by octothorpe at 3:17 PM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

the UNITED STATES decals that seemed permanently attached to their backing until they suddenly slid off, in useless fragments, onto the painted plastic.

I only built two or three plastic models as a kid, but I remember the decals as causing the most frustration, by a wide margin.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:52 PM on May 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

The decals are one of those things you seriously need that scalpel-like X-Acto knife for.
posted by localroger at 3:54 PM on May 3, 2015

My older brother was a fairly compulsive model-builder as a kid. He only made model airplanes, and I had forgotten that they even had cars and other things. I made a couple of snap-togethers as a little kid, but I never made the transition to the glue-together ones the way he did. At some point, I think when he was 13 or so, he decided he had grown out of it and was going to get rid of all his models, which had previously been the main decoration in his bedroom. For a grand farewell to his collection, we made these elaborate crash scenes with all his models, and then he took pictures of them and tried to make the pictures look realistic. I remember taking little plastic army guys, chopping off their limbs, and painting the stumps with red paint so we could pose the figures hanging out of cockpits. I think we finally got in trouble when we tried burning one of the models to get a realistic post-crash look and set off the smoke alarm.

We were strange children.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:41 PM on May 3, 2015 [14 favorites]

Oh man, Revell kits. I loved them as a kid and probably lost more than a few brain cells from that damn glue.

Maybe they shouldn't have made that glue smell so good
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 5:01 PM on May 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

Where have I wasted hours of my life and never actually bought anything? I'll just drop this here.

Old Plastic Model Kits
posted by lagomorphius at 5:04 PM on May 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

We were strange children.

Not strange enough. If you were strange enough, you'd have put the pictures on the Internet somewhere and provided a URL.
posted by localroger at 5:18 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I pretty literally lived and breathed (deeply) model making when I was a kid. Revel, Monogram, Airfix, AMT, Tamiya. I would come staggering out from my room after a full day closed in there with that tube of glue. My first serious high, and I wasn't even aware of it.

I kept a scrap box of unused parts and would put together my own whacked-out creations when I had enough parts saved up.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:27 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you prefer space ships, mecha and steampunk, try: industria mechanika
posted by poe at 5:31 PM on May 3, 2015

My friend Shane used to build World War 2 fighter models. The summer after we graduated from high school, we took them and a shotgun out into the woods and took turns shooting them into pieces. It's a wonder we didn't accidentally kill each other.
posted by goatdog at 5:35 PM on May 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

I kept a scrap box of unused parts and would put together my own whacked-out creations when I had enough parts saved up.

So what was it like working for George Lucas in 1977?
posted by localroger at 5:47 PM on May 3, 2015

I was really big on the Revell 1/32nd scale airplane models & the Monogram 1/35th scale military vehicles when i was a tween. I had 8 or 10 planes hanging from my celing for a while, and a friend & I went all-out with a couple tank dioramas. We did a desert scene with a Tiger tank that we did lots of realistic battle damage to -- that was fun.

I forget where we got our tips & tricks, but we learned to heat & bend fenders, use hot needles to make bullet holes, etc. Seems like there must have been magazines devoted to that sort of stuff -- taking it a step further than just building the kit. I recall tips on how to realistically paint on dirt & rust, how to make the extra stuff that soldiers would have added to their vehicles, like makeshift armor, sandbags, extra gas cans, etc.

When we weren't doing that, we were playing Panzerblitz.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:49 PM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think we finally got in trouble when we tried burning one of the models to get a realistic post-crash look and set off the smoke alarm.

We were strange children.

If that's strange, I don't know what normal is. They ALL eventually "crashed." We had the fire dept. called on us by a neighbor for a tank explosion (several fire crackers + gas, I think) one time. Whaaat. It was on the driveway concrete, for Christ's sake! What could go wrong?
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:53 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was so awful at making models. Once an older cousin of mine helped me build a Pontiac Firebird, except I was tired of waiting for him to go through all the instructions so I built the engine first, not realizing you had to build it in place and now would no longer fit in the car. Another time, I managed to spill liquid cement all over a Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane, giving the side of the plane a much more melted-looking texture than the faux canvas-and-rivets pattern it was supposed to be. Even when I decided to buy an airbrush as a 17-year-old and finish one last model for a school project, I only managed to get good enough with it to paint giant swaths of grey paint across the hull of a World War II-era carrier. Eventually it died of neglect after I tried foolishly to paint my computer case a hideous shade of metallic orange in university.

And yet, for all that, I'd love to build models again. If they're still around when I retire, I'd open up a hobby shop and fill it with aging compatriots talking shop over German panzer designs and the right way to chrome a muscle car hubcap, just like all the hobby stores I used to visit when I was a kid. And then I'll complete the project I've had in my head since I was a teenager: building Interstate '76 dioramas until the day I die.
posted by chrominance at 6:20 PM on May 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I can tell you from experience that an M-80 is the perfect size for exploding a model airplane to smithereens.
posted by double block and bleed at 6:22 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

poe, if you like that, you'll love Maschinen Krieger
posted by butterstick at 6:29 PM on May 3, 2015

Yeah, the water decals were a huge pain in the ass. The trick is to make sure the surface is absolutely clean and the paint is cured, cut them out with an exacto and use a wet brush to nudge them into place.

Awesome model painting tip: If you pick up some metallic paint on a popsicle stick or coffee stirrer or other small flat object, you can apply it to the corners and edges of, say, a tank model to give a very realistic metallic look, as though the paint had weathered and worn off.

Bronze, flat brown and rust colored paint can be thinned and/or dry-brushed for rust and corrosion or drips. You can also use the popsicle stick method for rusty edges/corners.

Also, if you think that model airplanes and cars are hard, they used to make model kits of mecha that actually transformed like transformers/robotech toys.

Robotech/Macross and various other mecha cartoons have/had whole lines of models that are basically the same things as the toy versions, except made out of ABS, styrene or wonkier plastic, complete with stuff like metal gears, hinges, ratchets or other pivoting points and nylon or teflon bushings and bearings.

There are also metal versions of a lot of these too.

I remember seeing (much more expensive) kits that had mecha/robots with insane details like articulated hands/fingers that you were expected to assemble and paint.

I got way into that stuff, because it was soooo much more difficult than a dumb old plane or something, and it offered a lot more opportunity and reason to do weathering, battle damage, kit-bashing and greebling. Hell yes that fully transforming Macross Valkyrie with battle armor suit needs a fuckton more missiles glued on to it.
posted by loquacious at 6:53 PM on May 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

I loved the Revell snap-together kits! I once made a "Pepsi" '70s style custom Ford van! It was enormous! I was never very good at the glue kind of model, though. I had a Stegosaurus that went together pretty well, but I didn't paint it because I thought the irridescent raw plastic looked cooler. I also had an X-Wing that I broke because I wanted to play with it like a toy.

My dad didn't make models as a kid, and I didn't have any friends who did, so I had to figure it out on my own. I couldn't. I didn't learn the "use a toothpick to daub on the glue" trick until I was in may late 20's, putting together Ancient Hittite figurines for a tabletop wargame. So my glue models were these oozing wrecks, and I was peeling dried Testor's glue off my fingers for weeks.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:00 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ahh, my dad got me into these (well Airfix) in a big way when I was a kid. I still remember a bunch of them - Saturn V rocket, HMS Ark Royal, Lancaster bomber, and so on. You could get totally lost in the construction and painting.
posted by carter at 7:04 PM on May 3, 2015

It's strong enough - always use Elmer's glue applied with a toothpick when fastening clear canopies. Found it out only after much frustration....
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 7:25 PM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I grew up across the street from the head designer for Monogram-Revell and his garage was an unbelievable treasure trove of plastic models! To a ten-year-old obsessed with airplanes and model building it was almost too much.

He would often give me reject kits he brought home from the factory (I had, at one point, maybe sixty 1:72 scale B-36 Peacemakers to play around with) and once he even gave me what he claimed to be the original prototype 1:48 scale B-29 that he designed, built, and then custom modified to look like Bockscar. I had it for years but then sold it to another ten-year-old at a garage sale who I can only hope will continue the tradition one day.

All those B-36's eventually ended up on fire in my driveway while I made explosion noises, as that is the only fitting way for one to dispose of plastic model airplanes.
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 7:28 PM on May 3, 2015 [9 favorites]

My poodle got wobbly when I was building models from a combination of glue and enamel paint fumes one time. Ventilation was a distraction.
posted by jadepearl at 7:31 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's this bar in town I don't go to much, because it's kind of a bro-y scene, but, man, they make the best Wobbly Poodle I've ever tasted.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:19 PM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

My dad was fantastic at these models — one of his childhood friendships was largely based on inhalant abuse and tiny airplanes — and I always feel like I disappointed him by not being good at all with the fine motor control required.

I do have to take a swipe at the article at one point, though: (“Dope’ was a thick vanish painted onto the fabric covering the wings of model aircraft. And yes, you could get very high sniffing it—thus the descriptor’s evolution to the evil stuff now sold on the streets.)"

"Dope" comes from the Dutch "doopen" (to dip), and was used as drug slang for liquid opium as early as 1889 (source).
posted by klangklangston at 9:28 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

In my youth I built many, many Revell, Aurora, Lindberg, AMT, etc. kits. I'm quite sure that a great number of them were/are valuable collectors items. Most of those I owned are, of course, long gone, being lost during the general chaos of childhood. A great many, though, met a far more glorious end by being taken to the local playground and blown to flinders by whatever contraband fireworks we could obtain. Between the utterly willful disregard for basic fireworks safety protocol and the long term exposure to 60's era plastic cement/paint fumes (often practically simultaneously), it's a wonder I made it past 4th grade.
posted by TDavis at 10:31 PM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of his childhood friendships was largely based on inhalant abuse and tiny airplanes

I went to a military school when I was a kid, and a guy in my barracks was expelled out for huffing white out. I have no idea how he got caught. I just remember some cadet officers dragging his dazed ass down the stairs, sandwich baggie of correction fluid in tow.

Meanwhile my roommate spent hundreds of free hours in a model glue haze, making plastic Titanic after plastic Titanic.
posted by clarknova at 10:31 PM on May 3, 2015

And yes, you could get very high sniffing it

Man, Testors Dullcote.

my precious
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:31 PM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

My brother was always the bigger plastic model person, but I did a few when I was a kid. I always ended pretty disappointed that after the paint and decals were applied, my model never looked like the picture on the box.

So of course I doubled down and built a few rubber band-powered balsa planes. These were fairly large (maybe 2-3 feet nose to tail), frame made of balsa and covered with doped tissue paper. To assemble them, you had to pin all the parts in place on top of a pattern - almost like a dress pattern - and then glue them down. Each individual part also had a true scale drawing on a separate sheet because while most of the ribs were die cut, they still needed some additional shaping and the spars all had to be cut by hand from balsa stock.

The kits all looked like they were dead stock from the 50s, but I had fun with them. Never flew terribly well, though - I was never confident enough in my construction skills to really tension up the rubber band.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:58 AM on May 4, 2015

I forget where we got our tips & tricks...

You probably got them from Shepherd Paine's Diorama Tips that came with the Monogram Models.
posted by marxchivist at 6:17 AM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

These days the glue can be replaced with a very thin plastic solvent, used with an applicator. You don't get the high, but it is much easier and cleaner to work with.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:41 AM on May 4, 2015

My brother actually took a class on making model planes at the Boys and Girls Club. I, on the other hand, took International Cooking. Highly gendered, but I think I ultimately got the better end of that deal, because he doesn't make model planes anymore, and I can still cook.

This does seem like a hobby that could be revived because of the internet. Not only could people exchange tips, but they could show off their models and modifications and whatnot to people who would really appreciate them. Someone needs to make Ravelry for plastic models!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:41 AM on May 4, 2015

ArbitraryAndCapricious: "Someone needs to make Ravelry for plastic models!"

The name would be pretty obvious: Revellry
posted by Rock Steady at 8:12 AM on May 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

The only thing you can get new anymore at 1/32 scale is cars. Cars are ok, but airplanes are more fun. I'd build some WWII fighters if I could find them at the larger scale.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:51 AM on May 4, 2015

The past couple years have been great for 1/32 scale aircraft.
posted by Tenuki at 10:52 AM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

My brother was the big modeler in our house, and he used to get Fine Scale Modeler magazine. I think he subscribed well into his 20s. He also used to get the Squadron catalog which I loved to read even though I only built a few kits to his dozens and dozens. Back then it was a mostly black-and-white affair printed on pulp paper. It was one of the few places you could get Japanese kits, since many hobby shops didn't stock anything but Revell.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:42 PM on May 4, 2015

"This does seem like a hobby that could be revived because of the internet."

Oh, they already do. I'm a model builder, and it never died out. There are LOTS of forums out there that one gan get information and tips from. Hyperscale is the place to start, there are lots more out there.
posted by Mcable at 1:17 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a 1:24 scale Tachikoma (from Ghost in the Shell) kit that I've been saving for a rainy day or thirty. The box has great art and looks really good on the shelf though... and the parts look so nice and clean and orderly in their sprues and plastic bags, it almost seems a shame to unpack them and inexpertly slop glue and paint all over them.
posted by rifflesby at 2:13 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, there used to be a hobby shop down on Broadway in Newport - the Glass Workbench. It was a stained glass supply store, as that was a fashionable hobby in the late 70's. To make ends meet, they started carrying model railroad stuff, and then Role Playing Games and Tabletop Miniatures. It was a very happy place for nerds! I bought my Battletech stuff there. That saw them through clear to the '90s, when the comic book shops started to get the RPG stuff through their comics distributor.

But the first "non-glass" hobby product they brought in were scale plastic models.

Over the years, they've been kicked further and further up Broadway as Newport became a ritzy destination, and they lost product lines as they went... the RPG stuff was first. Then the RC stuff. Then, sadly, the stained glass, and then the tabletop miniatures games.

Finally, they're no longer The Glass Workbench, they're no longer in Newport, though on the same road, down in Middletown, where Broadway is called West Main Road.

They have a smattering of model railroad stuff...

...and walls and walls and walls of plastic scale models. They have display shelves in the shop windows for their customers' best assembled models to be displayed.

Model making is a lot more robust than most of the traditional non-digital nerd pursuits these days.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:03 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

The past couple years have been great for 1/32 scale aircraft.

Yay, but holy crap those are expensive! I did a Revell Mosquito bomber when I was a kid, & they want $135.00 for one of those new ones. Yikes!
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:18 PM on May 5, 2015

Thank you all for your comments. I'm really glad you enjoyed my story, and that you got to "meet" some of my heroes at Revell! And I agree with most of you: Modeling is here to stay.
posted by Jeffji at 11:54 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

A few years ago, I started building a tank model. The first model I've done in a very long time. I'm about halfway through because life is busy, but I'm really enjoying using Rust-All to make look used.
posted by plinth at 6:19 PM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

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