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Fundamentals of Car Modeling

Roundtable 2: Basics

Fundamentals, detailing dilemmas, and more
Q: When our club holds its annual judged shows, the first thing we look at are the "basics" of building: removing mold lines and ejection-pin marks, sanding seams, etc. Sometimes a car has a ton of aftermarket stuff, and nice paint, yet loses out because attention to the basics was lacking. I think too many newer builders tend to overlook these simple details. -Dave Kessler

Juha Airo: I believe this is a common problem worldwide; we suffering from the same thing in my area. As for an easy solution, I believe there isn't one. One should always stress the importance of good basic modeling techniques, in each possible instance.

How to politically-correctly tell a person that his/her model did not place despite a major investment in aftermarket items, but with poor basic techniques, remains an open question.

Tim Boyd: I build all types of models and all types of styles, from straight-out-of-the-box to a top-end ultradetailed model every few years. The one thing these models share is removed mold lines, sanded seams, and - depending on how visible they are - filled injection-pin marks and smoothed manufacturer markings.

These are the most basic elements of building a model the way it was designed, and these are essential steps in finishing the model so it replicates a 1:1 car.
Pay Covert: The fundamentals - preparation, painting, and execution - are at the very heart of good modeling. These form the foundation for a great model. All modelers should learn these skills before advancing to more complicated aspects such as adding aftermarket parts, scratchbuilding, and the like.

One of the reasons I prefer the IPMS (the International Plastic Modelers Society) judging program is because it factors in fundamentals first, then considers advanced techniques. All modelers are judged equally from the start.

Think about it: what's the use of going to great lengths to wire and plumb a model when you haven't even mastered the art of a slick paint job?

Bob Downie: Beginners lack experience, and many times don't know the basics to look for. They're going to learn this by seeing or being shown examples of how experienced builders handle the basics. It's up to experienced builders to show them, as these techniques aren't exactly easy for someone to learn in a vacuum.

Model building takes patience; builders get better with practice and experience. Everyone has to start someplace.

Tim Boyd advocates detail-painting an engine as an inexpensive way to improve its looks. His V-8 Flathead shows what can be done with a bit of paint and sound technique (see feature in Contest Cars 2005).
Jim Drew: The basics of contest model building are (and shall always be) cleanliness - whether it be mold lines or simply dirt and dust. Builders who want to win need to pay attention to this first.

I have had to stop a couple guys while we were doing the judging, as they were paying too much heed to a model with a large quantity of aftermarket parts. Even though the car was done up with a bunch of photoetched goodies and carbon-fiber this-and-that, it was covered with shelf dust and glue boogers.

This preference for doodads over quality kind of made me nervous, as I'm sure this type of judging is probably going on at more than a few contests.

Mark S. Gustavson: Until a modeler can handle the basics, that person shouldn't move on to the upper-echelon concerns of modeling. A model that does little but conquer basic craftsmanship should prevail over a model with lots of aftermarket stuff but still displays seams, parting lines, ejection pins, manufacturer logos, and the like. Ideally, a contest model would display basic craftsmanship and lots of detail - but first things first.

Ken Hamilton: There's no substitute for basic craftsmanship. However, overlooking the simple details isn't limited to new modelers. At times, even the most experienced builders can get so engrossed in constructing a cutting-edge model that they jump right to the hard stuff and overlook basics that require just as much attention.

To keep focused on those basics, I recommend building an occasional kit-stock model. No aftermarket parts, no super details. Just concentrate on correcting the kit's flaws, and building the cleanest model possible.

Mark Havican: Ask yourself this question: if you were to buy a new car at the local dealership, would you sign on the dotted line if the interior was crudely finished or had mold marks on the dash or door panels?

An analogy that I like to use is the construction of a building: you cannot have a quality building without a solid foundation. No amount of fancy architectural details can mask shoddy craftsmanship, inferior materials, or the lack of quality control.

Given the quality paints, tools, and aftermarket parts available today, it is relatively easy to lay down a nice paint job or add all sorts of nice, shiny gizmos to our models. Remember, though, that beauty is only skin deep, and sparkly baubles only distract from the real problems underneath the surface.

Evan Hermel: In any contest, proper attention to the basics will always do better than any amount of add-on widgets. My reaction as a judge has often been, "all that work, and he forget to remove the injector-pin marks." The attention to removing basic and innate flaws from a model is the first step in turning a model into a scale automobile.

I fill in seams and unwanted depressions by using superglue and baking soda. It always helps to have several different grits of wet-or-dry sandpaper for sanding and polishing (320, 400, 600, 800, 1,000, 1,200, 1,500, and 2,000). Remember that not only do seams need to be removed, so do the marks left from the abrasives.

Drew Hierwarter: The basics are so important. When I judge a contest, that's the first thing I consider.

Is the model cleanly built? Are there glue spots, fingerprints, scratches in the paint, wrinkles or bubbles in the decals? Do all four tires touch the table's surface, and are they straight-up-and-down and pointing in the proper direction?

It doesn't matter if a model has $100 worth of aftermarket parts on it; if the basics aren't there, I move on.

The first thing I do when I start any new project is to remove the mold seams. It only takes a few minutes with a sanding stick or some fine sandpaper. When assembling the chassis and running gear, I always set that up on a piece of glass. I make sure all four wheels are touching the glass and are straight.

I wash my hands a lot, I work carefully, and I avoid getting paint or glue my fingers. It wasn't always so, but over the years you train yourself to not let things get messy. If you just can't keep that stuff off your hands, there are many different styles of affordable disposable gloves on the market.

I use products like Microscale Kristal Kleer or Elmer's Glue-All for attaching clear parts. It dries clear and does not fog like other adhesives.

Alex Gustov: The "basics" are very important for a good-looking model. I would never leave mold lines or other flaws on the model - especially on the body. What's the point of spending hours to paint, polish, and rub paint into a beautiful paint job if it's plagued by pin marks, mold lines, and flash?

I dry-fit parts before assembly - not only to check parts fit, but to see how the model is engineered. Many good kits have ejector-pin marks in inconspicuous places, and mold lines that will be partly or completely hidden during assembly. Dry-fitting reveals the areas that will require some work.

I usually remove all parts from the trees, carefully file and smooth all tree-attachment points, then sand all mold lines with a medium-grit sanding stick. Then I fill all visible pin marks, etc. with filler or putty, and sand smooth. I wet-sand all the parts again with fine-grit papers, wash them, and let them dry overnight before gluing subassemblies together and painting.

I typically start assembly only after all parts are prepared and painted; this usually results in a clean-looking model.

Matthew Usher: Some beginning modelers concentrate too much on adding aftermarket details; I'm most impressed by superclean straight-from-the-box builds. "Box Stock" is one of the first tables I check out at a contest.
Q: How do you efficiently organize your parts box (including specifics on small parts and how they are categorized, and where large parts, like chassis and bodies are stored)? -Mark Dolittle

JA: Smaller parts are organized in plastic drawers. The departments include wheels (different drawers for alloy-type wheels, wheel covers, and nonchromed wheel inners), several drawers for engine parts (oil pans, intakes, pulleys/fans, valve covers, air cleaners, exhaust manifolds/headers, engine blocks, smaller engine parts like carbs, oil filler tubes, starters, etc.), steering wheels, batteries, clear and red clear lenses, chrome head/taillights, and rearview mirrors.

Slightly larger parts like radiators, firewalls, suspension components, dashboards, and engines with glued block halves are kept in slightly larger plastic drawers of their own.

Large parts, like entire interior buckets and similar interior parts, are kept in their own cardboard box.

Components like entire chassis, parts cars, and assembled junkers are kept in their own large cardboard boxes, mostly unorganized. It's easy to acquire parts cars and junkers for future use, but the most time-consuming aspect is to disassemble them properly and store each part in a logical place.

TB: I wish I did a better job of organizing my parts boxes. I have three storage units, originally manufactured for nuts and bolts and the like. They share clear plastic drawers, with space for labeling the contents of each drawer.

More recently, I've used the boxes that the local photography store uses for the slides they develop for all my articles. I mark the contents on the box ("392 Hemi from AMT/Ertl Boss Nova") with a grease pencil. I pitch the slide boxes when the projects inside are completed.

There is a tradeoff here, of course. Would you rather spend your time building, or setting up a beautifully organized parts box? I vote for building!

PC: I use Tupperware containers of all sizes. My parts are loosely organized, but you can be as picky as you wish about sorting parts and putting them into whatever size container you need.

BD: By keeping similar parts grouped together. Wheels/tires in one area, engine parts in another, interior parts in another, exterior items in another. Some parts bins are marked as to their contents.
MSG: Hardware or variety stores sell relatively inexpensive cabinets with individual clear plastic "drawers" that can be labeled with white stickers. Individual drawers could be divided into engine type/size (e.g., Ford small block, Chrysler Hemi), suspension pieces (vintage Ford drum brakes, disc brakes), interior components (individual drawers for bucket seats, dash board, consoles and so forth), exhaust systems, and the like.

Larger pieces (frames, unibody platforms, bodies) can be stored in inexpensive/commercially available light cardboard boxes that can be purchased from companies that just sell boxes. It's important to correctly sort the parts and then correctly label the drawers and boxes. An initial investment of time in sorting, storing and labeling will pay huge dividends in the future!

KH: First of all, Mark, you're assuming that we're organized! Speaking for myself, that couldn't be further from the truth; however, there comes a time when an assortment of extra parts needs to be stored in a logical manner.

I generally rely on small, multidrawer bins normally used to store small screws, nuts and bolts. These bins are typically available at most hardware stores and home centers. Each small drawer (which usually can be divided into smaller sub-compartments) is a perfect storage area for engine parts, tires, hubcaps, seats, or just about any other model car part. Label the ront of each drawer with its contents, and you're in business.

For larger items like bodies and frames, Tupperware or similar stackable, sealed containers work well. Now, if only I could remember where I put them ...

MH: I don't use a "parts box" per se. I purchase freestanding plastic drawer units at the discount store, and organize my aftermarket parts, decals, wiring, and the like in those units.

If I pirate parts from a kit, I generally leave the rest of the parts in the kit box instead of combining them with others.

EH: Head on down to Michael's (or similar crafts/art supply store), or any decent office supply store. You'll find many different kinds and sizes of see-through multicompartment storage boxes.

I use several storage boxes with drawers, and a rack on and around my workbench to house all of my tools and supplies. Kits and bodies? Into the closet with them!

DH: When I started writing "Bench Racer" in 1995, I quickly realized that I had to get organized. I bought a bunch of inexpensive cardboard bins, then I built a shelf unit specifically for them from cheap lumber.

Each bin has its contents labeled on the front. I separated things like Monogram Winston Cup floor pans, engines, interior parts, tires (both regular and drag slicks) in its own bin.

For small parts, I got one of those plastic hardware organizers with little clear-plastic drawers. In this I have separate drawers for valve covers, intake manifolds, carburetors, blowers, fuel injectors, driveshafts, etc.

For the really big stuff, like bodies and large-scale parts, I bought several inexpensive cardboard "banker's boxes" at the local office-supply store.

AK: I don't have a big parts box, simply because I have never messed up a kit to the point that it was not buildable! So no big parts, such as bodies and chassis frames, for me .

But I do have lots of small parts; I have a small case I bought at Container Store that has removable walls so I can make my own compartments.

I usually sort small parts in categories: engine and engine bay parts, suspension and exhaust system, interior, exterior, wheels and tires, and all the rest.
Q: For us novice builders, what would be the best way to start detailing our models? Would it be the engine compartment (wires, hoses, and such), or the interior (flocking, paint, etc.)? The cheaper, the better; any extra cash I have, I try to save to buy more kits. -Shane Schaper

JA: Detailing may mean adding various, even costly, aftermarket items, but one can achieve a relatively detailed end result by taking full advantage of basic building and painting techniques, plus maybe a few generic aftermarket items, usable for several projects.

As for the areas to start to detail first, I'd go for the interior. On most cars, this is more visible than the engine compartment, needs fewer individual aftermarket items, and most importantly, less research material or knowledge how things are organized on a 1:1 car (compared to correct routing of wires in the engine compartment). Basic flocking and proper usage of Bare Metal Foil and matte, semigloss, and gloss paints and some minor washes work wonders in the interior, especially if you're on a budget.

The next step to additional realism could be the addition of generic aftermarket gauge faces & bezels.

As for the engine compartment, I'd suggest first the addition of only major wires like heater hoses, plug wires and battery cables. Material for these can be sourced relatively cheaply from the aftermarket or from scrapped electrical devices such as old computers.

TB: Given your budget constraints and self-desribed status as a novice, I'd vote for doing some basic engine detailing. Start with sparkplug wires, then add details on subsequent models.

I'd also recommend you try what I call detail painting - using different colors of paints to make the existing kit parts look more lifelike.

Investing in a single tube of black flocking will provide you with enough material to do more than a few models, as virtually all cars that offered carpeted interiors offered a black or white-with-black interior color option.

PC: Plug wires and seatbelts are two simple ways to add detail to a model. Scale plug wire and photoetched seat belt buckles (or harnesses for race cars) aren't that expensive and can make a world of difference in the engine bay and interior. From there, the sky is the limit.

Adding wiring and hoses is a simply way to really dress up an engine compartment, as Andy Kellock showed in "Bay Views" (February 2005 Scale Auto).
BD: That depends on what type of model you are building. If it's a full-detail kit, you might want to focus on the engine. If it's a curbside, focus on the interior.

I find interiors easier to detail, as painting techniques and flocking, even adding seatbelts, seems easier to me than drilling holes and adding wires and hoses under the hood.

For novices, focusing on the basics first, especially body prep and paint and a clean building style, is more important than how many parts you can throw onto a model.

JD: You hit me where I live; I enjoy building as cheaply as possible.

The engine compartment seems to be the first thing that grabs people, after the overall look of the vehicle. A lot can be accomplished with just different shades and colors of paint under the hood.

You can take a tip from military modelers and darken the model's primary colors and use that to add more shadow to recessed areas. This can be done by overly thinning the paint and bleeding it into the nooks and crannies. Conversely you can add highlights to edges and the tops of curved areas by drybrushing lighter shades of the part color.

Adding simple wire and hoses with craft wire is always a plus. You can make simple sparkplug boots with larger-diameter wire insulation cut in short pieces and slipped on the plug wire. Try winding a single strand of ultrathin wire around a needle and then cutting it to length for use as a return spring. Get a roll of aluminum repair tape and cut thin strips for use as hose clamps.

Just use your imagination. If you see it in a picture, try replicating it with everyday materials.

MSG: Start slowly and then "ramp up" as you achieve additional levels of detailing. A mixture of moderate engine details (correctly wired ignition wires, hoses, and the like) matched with similar interior detailing (flocking for carpet, dashboard painting/decals) would challenge you in two different venues, without burying you in the intricacies of higher-end detailing, as you build confidence in your modeling skills.

KH: "Detailing" isn't always synonymous with "adding extra parts." You can detail a model at virtually no extra cost by simply correcting minor flaws, cleaning mold lines, and executing a fine paint job. This would be most noticeable on the interior, where you could highlight dashboard (gauges, radio, etc.) and other details (door handles) with paint alone.

However, your question obviously refers to adding parts other than those supplied with the kit. The choice in that case would be the engine compartment, where a simple set of plug wires and a few hoses would add a great deal of character to your model; however, if you do that, I suspect you'll also want to add some extra parts to the interior.

MH: Why not both? Detailing your models doesn't have to be expensive, and you can use lots of "found items" to trick out your model.

Where you start depends on the type of models you prefer to build. If you are building hot rods with exposed engines, then I'd say you should detail the engines. If you like to paint and build curbside, then go for interiors.

If I had to pick only one, I'd start with engines; they're usually more visible and easier to see than an interior. You can drill out a distributor and add inexpensive ignition wiring without having to spend money on an aftermarket unit. Radiator and heater hoses are easy to do, and add a lot to a finished engine bay.
"Use your imagination. If you see it in a picture, try replicating it with everyday materials."
EH: Start with what you're most comfortable doing; I wouldn't go out and buy a lathe if I still didn't know the basics of wiring an engine. You can go a long way with wiring - it adds a ton of life to a model - so I'd start with that.

Radio Shack sells rolls of "wire-wrapping" wire. You get a lot of scale-sized wire for a small amount of cash. Look for obsolete electronic appliances in thrift stores; these often have lots of useful wiring of different sizes.

Also remember that an investment in a pin vise and drill bits will last a lifetime.

DH: The cheapest way to start detailing your models is with the paint you already have. There are many model car parts that represent a subassembly. You can make things like that look much more realistic by painting what would be separate parts on the 1:1 car in different colors. I'm not talking about some red and some yellow, but varying shades of Testor's Metalizer, or maybe some flat in one area and gloss in another.

Start looking at the 1:1 car with a critical eye, and you will quickly see that there are many small details molded in place on your models that could be "picked out" with just a touch of paint from a brush.

AK: It really depends on the type of models you build. If you build convertibles, and models with lowered side windows or opening doors, a detailed interior is important. So you may want to start adding flocking or seatbelts.

Floor mats and instruments are also simple and effective ways to detail interiors. Replace thick shifters with wires or pins; add some Bare-Metal foil to accent dash and door panels.

In the engine bay, start with simple spark plugs, then add distributor coils, maybe a hose or two, or a set of pulleys and a belt. Don't try to add everything at once. Start with a few small things, and when you master them, add more detail to your next model.

Now, about the "cheaper the better" part of your question:

There are some cheap things you can use to add extra detail to your models, and by all means use them: wire from an old telephone cable, old guitar string, parts from an alarm clock.

But do spend some cash on detail parts; most are really worth it. Some things you just can't make by yourself, and if you really need something for your next model, the aftermarket is the only way to go.

All modelers buy more kits than they will ever be able to build. So why spend money to buy kits that you might never build, and not buy aftermarket/detailing parts to make the kits that you are building right now much better?

MU: Adding detail doesn't have to be expensive. A spool of ignition wire goes a long way, and the same goes for flocking - especially if you stick with a basic color like black or dark gray.

Take a look at the wire that's available at Radio Shack and at the hardware store, too. You'll probably find some that's just right for sparkplug wires or heater hoses.


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