Zen and the Art of Building Model Kits

Since I rediscovered the joys of building model kits a few years ago, I have wondered on more than one occasion why I find this hobby so absorbing? I don’t enter competitions, I certainly don’t try to sell the finished kits and I don’t even tend to show them to anyone other than my long-suffering wife who, I suspect, has come to dread hearing the words “Hey, look at this…” 

So, why do I do it? This ramble represents my thoughts about this hobby and what I like about it. You may agree. You may not. Either way, please do feel free to add your comments.

So, why do we do this?

On the face of it, the process of kit building is more than a little absurd. A manufacturer carefully produces a scale representation of a particular aircraft, vehicle or ship. Then, they spend a great deal of time, effort and money breaking this down into component pieces so that we can buy it and build it back up into something (hopefully) resembling what they started out with.

This is a perfectly reasonable 1/76 Churchill by Oxford Diecast. If you buy one of these, you won’t get glue on your fingers or paint on the carpet. But, IMHO, you won’t have nearly as much fun either.

Now, wouldn’t it cut out a great deal of mucking about if the manufacturer simply gave us a complete model instead of a box of parts? And if they’d paint it too, then I could avoid getting the marks on the carpet that cause my wife so much distress. But there’s the thing: the mucking about is what this hobby is really about. I don’t know about you, but I generally lose interest in a kit as soon as its finished. This is clearly about the process, not the product. But what is it about building and painting a kit that gives so much satisfaction. I suspect there are several parts to the answer.

Learning about what you’re building

I love learning new stuff, particularly on topics I’m already interested in. I suspect most people are the same. And if you’re building a kit of, for example, a Panzer III Ausf. L, well, you’re going to want to know what a Panzer III is and how an Ausf. L version is different. And how and where it was used and consequently, how it was painted and used.

That’s the Fleeting Cloud camouflage pattern. Not a lot of people know that.

That applies to any kit you’re building. One of the kits I have most enjoyed building in the last 12 months was the Tamiya Chi-Ha. Partly, that’s because it’s a decent kit but it’s also because, when I started out, I knew very little about Japanese tanks. Learning about this tank led me to discover, amongst many other things, something called the “Fleeting Cloud” camouflage pattern. I shared that particular interesting fact with my wife, though she seemed surprisingly ungrateful.

You’re an artist!

However much we might want to deny it, if you go past basic construction and painting, creating tiny versions of large aircraft, vehicles and ships is an art form. Unless you’re building in 1/1 scale, you can’t simply paint a kit in precisely the same way as the original and expect it to look right. Colours look different at small scale as do things like the effects of light and shadow.

Particularly if you’re working in a small scale, you have to consider these things. That’s why techniques like dry-brushed highlights and washes that emphasise shadows can make such a difference to how a finished kit looks. They aren’t there on the original, but once you have tried them, you won’t go back to flat painted kits.

Dry-brushed highlights and an oil wash to bring out the shadows. Does that make this Italeri Marder III a work of art? I’m not certain, but it’s about as close as I will come.

And while there are lots of guides available, the amount of this type of work (plus things like paint chipping and weathering) are entirely up to you. You’ll be working with acrylic and/or enamel paints as well as oils and pastels to achieve an effect that looks right to you. Face it, you’re an artist! And that’s hugely satisfying.

Making them better

Few kits are perfect out of the box, particularly if, like me, you have an interest in older kits. These often lack detail or sometimes they’re just plain wrong. I actually enjoy the process of researching how accurate and complete a particular kit is and in trying to improve it if I can. I’m not aiming for 100% accuracy, because I’m not even sure that’s attainable.

The Airfix 1/76 Tiger from 1964 is pretty crap by modern standards. Even with a few improvements, it’s only marginally less crap. But for reasons I can’t really explain, I enjoyed the process of trying to make it better.

But I do think there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in attempting to improve a kit. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m less enthusiastic about some recent kits. They’re just so damn good that there is really very little you can do to make them better. I think that’s why I often find myself drawn to cheap-and-cheerful older kits that give me some scope for adding my own improvements and extra details.  

Be in the moment

Finally, we come to the Zen part of this article and what is, for me at least, one of the least recognised joys of model building. One of the concepts explored in Zen is mindfulness, sometimes called “being in the moment”. There have been whole books written about this topic, but the basic idea is simple: you give 100% of your attention to what you’re doing right now, without being distracted by thoughts of the past or future. And there’s actually good evidence that this is good for your brain, helping you to reduce stress, reducing the effects of depression and helping you to sleep.

In today’s hectic world, actually spending time wholly thinking about what you’re doing now is rare: we often do something while thinking about what we’re going to do tomorrow or worrying about what we should have done yesterday. Mindfulness is about escaping this. Of course, you can find mindfulness in lots of ways. I used to race and ride motorcycles, and those activities pretty much demand 100% concentration at all times. Because if you don’t you’ll end up bouncing down the road or track. A good ride on a fast bike can leave you feeling clear headed-and relaxed. But a failure to achieve that can lead to additions to my already extensive scar collection, so now, I get my mindfulness fix through model building.

This person is preparing to paint the roadwheel tyres on a 1/72 Panzer IV. Probably…

Whether you are painting the frame on a canopy of a small scale aircraft, or the roadwheel tyres on a small scale tank, or just about any other aspect of building a model, you are giving all your attention to what you’re doing. That’s why a good session of kit-bashing can leave you feeling relaxed, more positive and less stressed. And that’s why I believe that kit-building is a Zen activity.

What do you think?

Related Posts

Confessions of a born-again kit builder

Growing up with Airfix kits

3 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Building Model Kits”

  1. Honestly, I 100% agree with every single word in your post, up to and including the wife comments! When it comes to scale models, I am back to a boyhood hobby. I also like to research the actual vehicle modeled and place it into a diorama setting that tells a story.

    Currently, I’ve been enjoying working with older kits as well, and I will add little bits, but most of the time I build them out of the box, as I mostly enjoy the painting and weathering!


  2. great post Steve. It’s absorbing, creative, challenging and satisfying. And it’s never ending! i think the excitement for the hobby that began as a younger person is still strong. Unwrapping cardboard boxes, reading instructions, sniffing solvents……. the list goes on. I am not sure any other past time includes so many different skills, facets and avenues to go down.


  3. “I generally lose interest in a kit as soon as its finished” — Yes!! A bit sad, but true. “there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in attempting to improve a kit” — Cheers, but that’s not me; I just like putting stuff that looks cool together, with accuracy very low on the priority list. To each his own! “This person is preparing to paint the roadwheel tyres on a 1/72 Panzer IV. Probably…” — Ha ha! Exactly!! Thanks for these perceptive musings…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s