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The Hobby of Making Plastic Model Airplanes

By Andrew Burgon /
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October 7, 2014


My new model, the Tupolev TU160.  A Russian supersonic bomber capable of conventional or nuclear warfare. I look forward to assembling the 153 parts.

My new model, the Tupolev TU160. A Russian supersonic bomber capable of conventional or nuclear warfare. I look forward to assembling the 153 parts.

Making Plastic Model Airplanes is Fun, Enjoyable and Educational

Making model airplanes can appeal to people on different levels. The history of planes is a fascinating one that can be educational as well. Others who aspire to be pilots or have a keen interest in avionics find that it’s a way to connect with their passion. Some love to reference pictures of the aircraft and strive to make their model as realistic and authentic as possible. For example, someone assembling, painting and decorating an A-10 Warthog may have a particular one in mind like the one that took down an Iraqi helicopter during Desert Storm. You know, the one assigned to the 511th TFS! Putting all the parts of a plane together can be an engrossing pastime that can give you a sense of being productive and creating something. You end up with a plane that represents a sliver of history that rewards you every time you see it.

Model Plastic Airplanes: What to Look For

For those wanting to get into the hobby I suggest you get on-line and expand your knowledge on the different kinds of aircraft there are. You have a lot to choose from. Military planes like jet fighters, helicopters and transports. Private jets, commercial jet planes and amphibious aircraft. I recently bought a simple 33 piece model of a Boeing 747-400 only to fall in love with the Russian supersonic bomber, the Tupolev TU-160 which has 153 parts. I also encountered a dozen other planes that I liked. Needless to say, the Boeing 747 is going to be in storage for a while.


If you are patient a little homework beforehand could net you the most satisfying experience. How good is the model you’re tempted to buy? Are the instructions on putting it together clear and precise? What has the experience of other people been like? A quick search on-line will probably be able to tell you everything you wish to know and help you determine which brand you want to buy.

Difficulty level and the time it takes to assemble, paint and decorate the plane are also important considerations, too. Fortunately, this is the kind of hobby that caters to all skill levels and fits any budget.

Scale of the Model

Model planes come in different sizes and come in confusing ratios!

The Boeing 747-400 I originally bought is 1/300 scale.  That would be like saying if the model was one inch long then the original would be 300 inches long.  Another way would be that if you put 300 of these models together it would be the same size as the real thing. Let’s put it to the test.

The Boeing 747-400 is 231 ft 10 in (70.6 m) long. The model is 9 1/4 inches long. Going back to what I said before let’s do this calculation. 9.25 inches x 300 inches = 2775 inches. When you divide it by 12 (12 inches equals 1 foot) we find that we get the original size of the airbus.

Personally, I ignore scales! The box tells me how long and wide the model plane is and I know how long the plane is in real life. That’s all I care about. Let’s move on! Good bye, scales!

Product Details

If you love history especially in relation to the plane you wish to buy a historically accurate plane with an authentic look right down to the markings on the plane may be important to you. Models of a particular plane may be made by several different companies. One of them may have the model you need. With the Tupolev TU-160 I found all the models of it in the store then chose the one that appealed to me most.

The Craft of Making Plastic Model Airplanes

There is a huge divide between the enthusiast and someone who just buys a plane on a whim and puts minimal effort in building a plane. A well put together plane is nothing short of a triumph of craftsmanship and there are a surprising amount of things that you need to be mindful of.

The following are suggestions for newbies who seriously want to pursue this as a hobby.

1. Shopping

If you are a new to the hobby you may have purchased your plane and realized when you got home that there are other things you need to buy. Below is a list of things a serious enthusiast would consider buying. Some of them could possibly be found around the house.

#1. A strong piece of plastic. A garbage bag would work just fine.
#2. Masking tape / Liquid Masker
#3.  Paint
#4. Modeling sandpaper fine and coarse
#5. Brushes
#6. Magnifying glass
#7. Plastic cement glue and white glue
#8. Modelling knife / small shears
#9. Airbrush
#10. Decal setting solution
#11.  Pencil with an eraser on the end
#12. Tweezers
#13. Decal setting solution
#14. Scissors
#15. Tissue paper
#16. Modeling putty
#17. Cotton wool buds
#18. A special paint solvent specially formulated for the hobby.
#19. Paper towels
#20. Alcohol (91%) used to mix with acrylic paints if necessary.

2. Watch a Serious Hobbyist Build a Plane

If you’re a newbie to the hobby don’t just rush into making a plane. If you take the time to watch one good video you will learn a great deal and it will be reflected in the end result. Check out the video below courtesy of the Incaland Interactive Youtube Channel.

3. Research & Referencing

Do a google image search on the plane you intend to build. Some hobbyists find themselves attracted to a particular event in history and their plane turns out to be a replica of a plane that say served in the Vietnam War.

Mentally absorb the instruction manual. Grasp what needs to be done before you set out to do it. You may find that the more expensive kits have an alternate set of paint schemes and sometimes even parts. Know ahead of time what your plane is going to look like.

4. Aircraft’s Configuration

Some hobbyists are very detailed. Is the cockpit and landing gear up or down? Air-brakes or thrust reversers extended or retracted? If it’s a military aircraft will the weapons be on the plane or on the ground in front of it? Will the aircraft be weathered or not?

If there are many details to your project consider writing them down as a checklist.

5. Diorama or Accompanying Elements

Do you want your aircraft to be stand alone or accompanied by other objects? Perhaps a ground crew attending to the weapons rack. Mechanics under the aircraft. A landing strip. A building. Other military aircraft parked near it. There are so many options.

6. Cleaning the Parts

Finally, we get to pull out all those lovely plane parts of their sprues. Due to the manufacturing process there may be a little oil or dust over the parts. This will interfere with the adhesion of paints and glues. Bathe the parts still on their sprues in a shallow basin for several minutes. Use your hand to agitate the water and maybe even use a small clean sponge to clean the parts. Rinse them and dry them thoroughly with a paper towel.

7. Painting the Small Parts of the Plane

It is so much easier to paint the small parts of the plane while they are still attached to the sprues.

8. Separating Aircraft Parts from the Sprues

Use a small pair of scissors, shears or a hobby knife to separate the parts from their sprues. Then use a fine knife to smooth over any excess plastic where the sprue use to be connected.

Keep the long sprues as they can be used to stir paint and then thrown away.

9. Glueing Parts Together

Always ensure that the contact points are clean. Check to see that the parts fit well before you try gluing them together!

In the case of plastic cement you want to be conservative in it’s use. It’s potent stuff. If used too liberally it can make things slow going and even harm the model.

If there are two parts you need to bond together only apply plastic cement to one of them.

Dealing With Challenges

You may encounter certain challenges when building your model aircraft.

Gaps Between Parts

Gaps between parts is one of the reasons why you want to make sure parts fit together well before applying glue.

Option A is to try and readjust the parts for a closer fit.

Option B is to place a little modeling putty in the gap and smooth it over. It will harden and you can smooth it over again if necessary. This is also a substance you need to be conservative with. Removing excessive amounts of it later may result in you damaging the model.

Clamping Parts Together

Certain parts may need to be clamped together for a short while. This can be done by using things like elastic bands, cloth strips, clothespins, plastic clamps and masking tape. The green, soft wire I use in gardening could also be used to do this.

Clear Parts like Windows or Canopies

Use white glue for this. Plastic cement can have a nasty effect of fogging them.

10. Painting the Plane

Give your model plane a wipe over with a cloth. If you have been handling it a lot your fingers will have left an oily residue on it.

Give the container of paint a good shake by firmly striking it against your palm a number of times. Open then stir well. You can take one of the longer sprues and use that as a stir-stick.

You may need to mask certain parts of the plane so that it doesn’t get paint on it. There are two ways to possibly deal with this.

The first is to use masking tape that is shaped to cover the area you wish to protect. It’s probably a good idea to remove some of it’s stickiness by applying it to some other material, taking it off and applying it to the area of your plane.

The second way is to use a liquid masker. This helps you deal with small or awkward shapes on your model. Simply apply it to the area you wish to protect and wait for it to dry. After you have painted the part wait for it to partially dry then remove any of the paint that made it’s way on the protect area. There is a tight rope balance here. Remove the unwanted paint after it has dried on the target part may result in damaging your paint job. Doing it too early may result in runny paint making it’s way to the area you just cleaned up. Good luck! A cotton wool bud and paper towel should suffice when cleaning the masked area.

Brushes are fine for painting small parts but are less than ideal for painting exteriors or large surfaces. This is because they leave striations in the direction of brush travel. I suggest you get a few different brushes.

Airbrushes are great for providing an even coat of paint over a surface. Do watch an experienced person on Youtube using an airbrush before you attempt doing it yourself the first time. You need to keep the airbrush perpendicular to the surface your painting. It should also be at a fixed distance and be sure to paint in one direction only.

Weathering Your Model Airplane

To make the plane more realistic or match a reference photo some weathering is done to it. This can be done with the eraser on top of a pencil. Simply thin away the paint in some areas. Another way is dry brushing where you only use a small amount of paint. This is often done by applying a small amount of paint to a brush then brushing off any excess paint onto a piece of paper. If you are doing this for the first time you might like to try the effect on a piece of plastic first.

* If you are fearful of making a big mistake in painting your plane consider buying a cheap model airplane and using that as your guinea pig to try out the different techniques I’ve touched on. As well, you can cut up an ice cream bucket into strips and keep them handy in case you wish to experiment with weathering effects.

Removing Part of a Paint Job That Didn’t Turn Out Well

For different reasons you may wish to remove the paint from a certain area.

For small areas you might do this by using a small, sharp knife to scrape away the paint. I prefer to use a special solvent. To do this you simply use a paintbrush to apply the solvent to the area you wish to remove the paint from. Wait for the prescribed period of time then use a paper towel to soak up the paint.

Applying Decals to a Plastic Model Airplane

Ideally, it’s best to leave this till the day after you have assembled and painted your model plane. You want to make sure it’s bone dry.

a) Cut-out the decals carefully.
b) One at a time, using a pair of tweezers dip a decal in warm water for 15 seconds or so until you feel the decal will be able to detach itself from the backing paper.
c) Apply some decal setting solution to the area of the plane you want to put the decal on.
d) Slide off the decal from the backing paper directly onto that part of the plane.
e) Place some setting solution over the top of it. Gently do this so the decal doesn’t move. If there is any excess setting solution or water use a tissue to carefully remove it. Reapply setting solution if you find the panel lines of the plane are interfering with the bonding process.
f) If you happen to see bubbles appearing on the decal you can use a needle or the point of a hobby knife to deal with it. Then apply some more setting solution until the decal is flat on the surface of the plane.

Keep in Mind

When dealing with solvents, paints and glues do so in a well-ventilated area. Turn on a fan if need be.

Small parts may pose a danger around small children so work in a neat and tidy fashion and check the floor for fallen parts if you have young children.

Scissors and knives should only be handled by people who can use them safely.


Building model airplanes is a rewarding pastime on a number of levels. Check out the planes that interest or inspire you. Buy the model plane, tools and other things you need and get cracking!
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