3 things I learned about 40K by building a scale model airplane

Over the summer last year I took my daughters out to Bong State Recreation Area in Wisconsin. The massive park offers miles and miles of walking and riding trails, large camping areas, a place to ride your dirt bike, and even a model rocketry range. During my stay I was reminded that it was once an Air Force base, and that it’s named after Richard “Dick” Ira Bong, the United States’ top ace of World War II. Active from 1941-1945, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions over the Pacific. By the end of the war, and before his untimely death as a test pilot for one of our country’s first combat jet aircraft, he was credited with 40 air-to-air kills.

As a thank-you for the trip and the brief history lesson, my daughters got me a model of his airplane — the P-38J, perhaps the best airplane of WWII and, incidentally, one of the very latest designs by Japanese model-maker Tamiya. It was even made in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and The Richard I. Bong Center.

I was touched, honestly, but also a bit overwhelmed. I haven’t built or painted a model airplane since I was 12 — although I have spent the past several years getting back into the hobby of painting Warhammer 40,000 miniatures. Once I dove in, I found that taking some time off to create something completely different was refreshing — and educational. I ended up devouring hours of YouTube tutorials and fan-made guides along the way, as well.

So here’s what good old Dick Bong’s twin-boomed warbird taught me about Space Marines — and the people who love them.

Model planes get way more expensive than 40K

Turns out that while 40K is considered an expensive hobby, scale modeling can be a fair bit more pricey.

You can pick up a Tamiya P-38J for about $70 online, and likely less at your local hobby shop. The board game-sized box contains everything you need as far as parts and pieces. Of course, it doesn’t include paint. The instructions list 28 separate colors — a far cry from the six or eight that I used on my last batch of Dark Angels. Most 40K tournaments have a three-color rule, meaning that you need to have three colors on each of your miniatures to compete on the table. Scale modeling, on the other hand, requires much more precision to make each component true to life — especially if you want to get into the competitive circuit.

Come to find that there’s a healthy ecosystem of aftermarket parts as well.

The video that I found on YouTube from last year — literally the only one I could find that showed off this kit in particular — rolled deep on these add-ons. The build video, made by a YouTuber called Details Scale Models, included a cast resin gun bay, etched brass internal wing components, and multiple different versions of aftermarket cockpit instrumentation. The stunner for me was learning that there is such a thing as three-dimensional, printed waterslide decals with raised features for all the cockpit instrumentation.

Later, I found a USAF F-4 Phantom decked out for the summer of 1967 — another plane that I have a personal attachment to — by user 11bravo on Britmodeller.com. The pics are a bit fuzzy, but the details on this thing are absolutely stunning. His yearlong build featured multiple aftermarket kits, including replacement “seats (AMS), instrument panels (Quinta) exhaust nozzles (GT Resin), Mk 117 bombs (VideoAviation), AIM-7 Sparrows (Brassin), AIM-9’s (Brassin), wheels (Brassin) and canopies (Airscale).” I estimate the build set him back at least $350 in parts — plus the stock kit itself, which goes for $161.

Like gunpla, it seems, your taste for detail when scale modeling is only limited by your budget. It’s a far cry from the $70 I spent on my games-workshop.com/en-US/Space-Marines-Primaris-Redemptor-Dreadnought-2020″>Primaris Redemptor Dreadnought.

Same materials, different tools

Most scale models are made of polystyrene plastic — just like kits from games Workshop. But the fit and finish of these components are completely different.

Space Marines are curvy little bastards, and their various components, like shoulder pads and greaves, are layered in such a way as to hide the seams that join them together. That’s not always possible in the world of scale modeling. One of the wings on my P-38J is made of roughly five components — a two-piece lift surface, a two-piece control surface, and a single wingtip that goes on the end. All of these bits have to be lined up absolutely perfectly or the seams will show. Making matters worse is the fact that some of those misalignments will only be visible once you’ve put a coat of primer on top.

The solution? Lots and lots and lots… and lots of sanding, something that I’ve really never done with a 40K model before. It’s just not necessary.

Photo: Tamiya

A close-up of the cockpit by as assembled and painted by the author.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

I started with tiny sanding sticks — flexible, emery board-like material — before moving on to automotive-grade 1,000-grit wet sandpaper for the final base coats of paint. By the end I was buffing various different true metallic hues with a soft cloth, swearing to the gods for not keeping my hobby space cleaner and more dust-free. Turns out that spraying highly reflective paint onto a flat surface in a dirty basement isn’t the best way to re-create the gritty realism of a world at war.

In fact, there’s so much sanding to be done on some model airplanes that scale modelers will often just say “fuck it,” sand areas down smooth, and then sculpt details back into the polystyrene by hand. Scribing tools, as they’re called, allow you to cut fresh, deep panel lines into the soft plastic, but getting good results requires a steady hand. Meanwhile, negative riveting tools allow you to replace the hundreds of individual holes meant to represent the fasteners that pin vintage warbirds together. Some hobbyists will just sand all those negative rivets away, opting instead for elaborate positive rivet kits — dozens and dozens of custom-made three-dimensional waterslide transfers that go on literally every surface of the plane like tattoos.

A shiny silver airplane on a lazy susan, a dirty rag in the foreground.

Sanding the third coat of metallic paint, then wiping it clean with a damp cloth.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Blue and yellow tape on a silver airplane.

Masking and airbrushing are two skills that I need to work on, and will require practice.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Along the way, however, I grew to love Tamiya Extra Thin Plastic Cement. It’s low odor and incredibly viscous, meaning that you can rely on capillary action to glue the inside of the model from the outside — and it’s also handy when you’re doing complicated 40K builds with paper-thin details and flourishes.

I also rediscovered how useful a good, sharp hobby blade can be for tweaking the fit and finish of a model before painting. After years of using a games Workshop Mouldline Remover instead of a blade, I’m not sure I’ll be going back anytime soon.

Mind that blade, though: My fingers have healed nicely, thank you for asking.

The best accessory for your hobby space

The best part of this little diversion is that it got my kids involved in my miniatures hobby.

Both of my daughters were inspired to get me that P-38J after I waxed on about how unique the plane was over the campfire at Bong Recreation Area. It meant something to them when I wandered into their rooms late at night these last few weeks to show off the next step in painting the process. They couldn’t care less about chainswords and plasma weapons, and that’s fine. But this little airplane was a build that we could share.

That’s how I ended up making a new addition to my hobby space: a second chair. Now my girls have a seat at the table, a perch from which to spend some time with me as I meditate and cogitate on the inner workings of a new and challenging bit of crafting. My youngest is even trying her hand at painting miniatures. First off? Her special edition female wizard from HeroQuest.

Scale modeling takes a lot of time, I’ve learned — just like modeling for 40K. I might not be able to spend the long winter camping in the woods with the family, but we can still spend some quality time inside. No screens required.

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