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The Joy of Scratch (and Kit) building

       In this day of shake-the-box kits it would appear that scratchbuilding is becoming a lost art.  We do not believe this for a minute.  Although the percentage of hobbyists who build most of their models is becoming a small minority, the hobby has grown so much over the past forty years that it is very likely that there are actually MORE hobbyists interested in model building now.  Sales of building materials and detail parts appear to bear this out.  We may no longer have to scratch build anything, but there comes a time when no manufacturer makes what we really want to fill that space or makes that freight car we just have to have.  And with all the time saving kits available to us now, before we know it our layouts are finished enough that we look for new building projects to work on.  It may be that we had enjoyed the construction enough that we miss the work, or it may be that we would like to improve the quality of some of our present models.  Or maybe it's just the challenge of trying something new, of actually making something with our own hands.  Visitors love to see a few models that they don't recognize as being built from such and such a kit.  And a kit can be transformed into something altogether different with a scratch built addition or two. Kit bashing offers another option. Many structures can be built more easily and rapidly with parts from kits, but this is not always true.  Accurate models of specific prototypes are usually best not built from kit parts, but often close approximations can be.

        As is usually the case, practice makes for improvement.  Using a construction article or a craftsman kit for a first model is an excellent idea, since much of the thinking has been already done for you; the kit even provides the materials.  The first models you build may be crude, but this is how you learn to build better models.  The contest winners had to start somewhere too.  It's wise to start with small, simple models to build confidence and technique.  But remember that larger is not always more difficult.  Buildings with square lines and few windows are usually the simplest, as are box and refrigerator cars. There are commercial models of every imaginable type of rolling stock, at least in HO scale, so first time modelers may wish to start with a structure.  Modelers who are interested in scratching or kit bashing rolling stock often turn to traction or narrow gauge for this reason. Since structures do not have to operate; there is also a great deal more leeway in construction.

        Many fine pieces are built exclusively from styrene, but plastic is not always the best choice for a building material.  Very strong models can be rapidly built from styrene with a minimum of interior bracing, but there are often times when the textures of wood and paper lend themselves to easier finishing, saving enough time and improving the quality sufficiently to offset the benefits of rapid construction.  The adhesives and scrap from wood and paper have the distinct advantage of being non- toxic and.  These materials can often be found around the house for free. While nothing looks quite so much like wood as wood, nothing resembles metal as closely as styrene.  In some instances only metal is malleable enough, and it's hard to duplicate a metallic finish with any other material.   Often models are built from hybrid materials, and over time you will learn your preferences for the task at hand and the adhesives and paints you are most comfortable with.  The same task may often be approached in several different ways.

        While it may be prudent to base your first attempts on published blueprints or construction articles, there is no reason to limit yourself to only the designs of the prototype or others.  With a little experience, it's no big deal to draw your own from photographs or from your imagination.  They don't have to be publishable- just neat enough to show you how to lay out the sides, openings, and roofs.  And there is nothing wrong with changing your design in mid-stream.  After all, you are the architect; you're not limited to what is available commercially.  If a better idea comes along, go with it.   You can be sure if you thought of a design for a structure, someone somewhere has already built a full scale version of it.

 .  Other than pride of ownership, scratch and kit  part building can provide many hours of enjoyment at a creative, manual avocation, and the intangible rewards of being able to say “I made that myself”.  Plastic kits can be quite inexpensive and scratchbuilt models are often completed for pennies: a good way to have hobby fun between paychecks.  Who knows?  Maybe you'll grow enough to consider writing an article yourself, giving a clinic. Or perhaps entering the convention contests and gaining points towards an achievement award.

I found a neat way to make awnings that would work in almost any scale.  The only problem with my method is that stripes would be difficult. I used a single layer of Kleenex tissue and sprayed it with green Krylon enamel. The paint gives the tissue strength and color and, at the same time, it still retains its flexibility so you get that natural sag. I just draped it over a music wire frame (FL)

       For cutting wood door and window openings- apply masking tape to the back of the wood to prevent splitting. Drill tiny holes in the corners before cutting will also prevent splitting. Use a sharp chisel (or X-acto chisel blade) and a mallet to "die-cut" openings.   Since overlapping window and door moldings hide the cut edges, they don't have to be neat, and the nice laser kit openings work no better than the bumpy ones we cut ourselves.  (ES, Middletown, CT)

 Ann writes:

Do you have any suggestions for "re-gluing" a plastic structure that has been broken on the seam, and the seam won't match back together because of the CA glue + zapper has made the seam rigid?? I don't know if I am being descriptive enough.

If you mean that the joints have been built up with layers of glue, this can be easily fixed (depending on the depth of the glue) by sanding (wet or dry paper works best used wet) or cutting with a hobby knife. Chances are you will no get a perfect match and have to do some filling. If the parts look OK when fit together as they are now, a styrene "splice plate" can be glued behind the joint to reinforce it without any sanding. The splice plate will, in any event, make the joint much stronger and not need the regluing it had needed in the past. 2. I purchased city classics Tile Front; Art Deco; and Iron front building kits. We do not have these types of buildings on the West coast. Any ideas for paint schemes or a reference book for pictures. I assume the sides and back are painted in a brick color. But haven't a good idea for the fronts.

Tiles and art deco styles tended to use pastel earth colors and pastel contrasting highlights. Almost any color could look correct. Iron fronts were painted almost any color, dark monochromes being common in the present day, but bright and intricate decoration was commonplace when they were younger, especially during the early twentieth century up to World War One. Both styles tended to use a great deal of color, so let you imagination run riot. as a reference, tile and deco buildings would not be commonly built until the 1920's whereas iron fronts could be found almost anywhere after by the 1880's.

I've discovered into plastic columns at a cake decorating store ( I'm a BAKER by trade).  They are six sided, tapered come in 4" 7" and 9" sizes. You might want to look around the store they have quite a lot of plastic parts that might be useful. Most stores are listed in YELLOW PAGES under CAKE DECORATING SUPPLIES" RPK

Need a square glue joint on a building, bridge or just about anything else? Try LEGO blocks! LEGOs have become invaluable to me. They can be built up to fit just about any application, be it squaring up the sides of a building or making sure a tunnel portal is square to the track, Or even setting up ribs on an airplane wing. Use Wax Paper between the blocks and any CA or epoxy glue joint or you will end up with a real mess!


An excellent simulation of a gravel roof can be made by mixing fine sand (we get ours from the highway department) and fine Campbell's or Woodland Scenics cinders. Two parts of cinders to one part of sand seems to work about right. Glue to roof with white glue or use bonded ballast method.

  When using gravel (or other) roofs, don't forget to flash chimneys and other joints. A good oxidized copper color is obtained by mixing Polly-Scale Metallic Green and Reefer White. Folding the flashing into an angle and applying just as the prototype will also hide flawed roof joints.

  A computer and an ink-jet or laser printer is invaluable for printing signs for models. If an ink- jet sign is coated with Polly-Scale Flat Finish weathering will not run the color. It is not possible to use George Sellios's technique of dulling the sign with steel wool. The waterproof seal will be broken and the inks will run profusely. Use pastels for dulling instead. This does not appear to be a problem with laser printers or color copiers.

Clunky window castings can be made to look quite delicate with this trick. Paint the windows flat black and then paint only the front surface (not the thick sides) with the window trim color. The window sash will look great. This does not work well with buildings that have lit interiors- BD, Pomfret, CT

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