Style, Tools, And The Chase For Growth

When it came to home repair type stuff, my dad was a minimalist. Our storage room had some tools, of course,the usual suspects being represented: hammer, screwdrivers, a few socket wrench parts rolling about. There was also an old drill, a small electric chainsaw, and a few varieties of saws. That was about it.

Of course, dad never took on many home improvement projects. If something came loose, he generally got out a couple of nails, his hammer, and simply nailed it down. When he did take on a simple project, it pretty much involved what could be done with some scrap 2x4s and plywood. Nail it together, maybe add a few screws for strength, and go on about your business.

Our storage room that ran along on side of the carport – half of which was my model building area – was full of splinter-laden shelves and workbenches. None were entirely squared up, all were a bit rough, but every one of them had enough nails and screws in them to stay in place forever.

Welcome To Wonderland

One afternoon I was visiting a friend’s house. We were sitting in his room, building models, discussing Lego, and generally being pre-teen boys in 1978. At some point, he got that excited look a kid gets when they have big news. “Hey! Want to go see my dad’s new workbench in the garage? It’s really cool!” Knowing that garages often contained really cool stuff, I of course said yes.

We ran through the house to the garage, with a brief slowdown for him to say “Heymomwe’regoingtogarage!”, and we were back to full speed. She may have said something about “Be careful”, but we’d already cleared that room and were on to the next.

The door to the garage was in their laundry room. He paused for a moment and smiled at me, as if to say “prepare yourself”, and opened the door. Reaching just around the door edge to turn on the lights, we stepped into the dark garage as the fluorescent light bulbs began to flicker to life.

A New Reality

As I stepped into the garage, I suddenly felt very small, as though walking into an ancient hallowed cathedral. The concrete floor was neatly swept, and painted a neutral gray. Around the back and far side walls, sturdy wood formed a continual workbench. All had been built by hand, using gorgeous hardwood. It was all sanded smooth, with no rough edges anywhere. On the walls behind the workbench were neatly aligned pegboards, with all manner of tools lined up as though in parade formation. Above those pegboards were cabinets, made from the same wood as the workbench – all sanded smooth.

In the middle of the garage were various work stations – band saw, drill press, lathe, table saw… others I had no idea what they were. Off to one side there was a large vacuum cleaner. In places there were vents hanging down, looking like bigger versions of what we had over our stove. “What are those?” I asked.

With a grin, he flipped a switch on the wall. Suddenly a sound like a jet engine began, not too loud, but very distinct. Raising his voice above the din, he said “It’s an extraction fan. It sucks all the dust out of air!” How cool was that?

His mom popped her head in the garage, alerted by this new sound. I suppose when two pre-teen boys head into a woodworking shop, and noises start, it’s cause for alarm. He quickly assured her… “it’s OK mom. I was just showing Jon the fan system.” With a nod, she replied “OK. Why don’t you turn that off, and y’all come on in for dinner. Your dad will be home soon, and after we eat, maybe he can show Jon how some of this works.”

The Quest For Tools

While modelers often spend more time buying models than actually building them, I think there is a quest beyond that. At just about any model show, people look through the stacks of plastic and resin kits, and often go home with a large stack. I suppose as long as there are modelers, that’s the way it will be.

However, when you look over at the vendors selling tools, it’s a different story. People aren’t just looking. They’re asking questions, Comparing options. Checking with friends. While a modeler may go to a show with a notion to look for this or that kit, the pursuit of the tools of the trade is generally pursued from the mindset of “show them ALL to me.”

And no wonder. Having a wide variety of tools at hand makes the hobby more rewarding. While some may ask what the purpose is in having 5 different varieties of hobby blade types, in that situation when you need that one specific blade, it’s nice to have it standing by in the drawer. (Now remembering it’s there is another thing entirely… 😉 )

So tools are a very important part of the hobby. You can never have enough.

“A Tool By Any Other Name…”

Convincing a modeler to try a new tool, even if there is only a 7.23% difference from an existing one, is an easy task. “It will do {insert cool function here} better than anything else!” Oh, it’s better? Sign me up now.

For some reason, if the focus shifts to a technique or style, quite often the nose is turned up. “I already know how to do that. Anyway, that style is way too overdone.” Or underdone. Or just plain different.

Yet the argument can be made that a style, technique, or even material is just as much a “tool” as a knife, scraper, or paintbrush. 

Tools in the “hardware” sense are essentially a thing used to accomplish an other thing. Drilling a hole, clamping two parts together, or cutting away some plastic are all things that contribute to the final look. The combination of the modelers skill, imagination, experience, and a certain tool all converge in a way that results a desired end.

The same can be said for styles and techniques.

So What’s The Difference?

An example of what I’m getting can be illustrated by looking at what is often referred to as “Spanish Style”. While this particular look is prevalent in most genres by other names, it’s most often associated with armor and aircraft in Western modeling thought. And while there are variations, it is generally an aesthetic that uses light, shadow, contrast and highlight in a more exaggerated, artistic way.

The general idea is not to make your model look like it does in a black and white, grainy photo, or even as it would appear in real life at 1:1 scale. Rather, various media is applied to greatly accentuate the parts of the model. Color modulation is often used as the base for later effects, introducing “false” light effect that when viewed alone may look extremely jarring. But as more layers are applied, the modulation is toned down, yet still sets the stage for those later effects.

Quite often panel lines will be given very contrast-rich treatment. Paint chips may be multicolored to simulate multiple dimensions and depth. Layer upon layer of streaks and rain effects may be added to contribute to a varied, patchy, dirty look. 

It is most definitely an artistic choice. Some modelers really like it, others don’t. 

Getting To The Point

Of course, I get it when someone says “I don’t really care for that style.” In most instances, they’re not saying it as an indictment on modelers who use it, or even on the quality of the work being viewed. (Note I said in most instances…)

However, another phenomenon I’ve observed is that more often than not (in my own experience, of course) the modelers take the preference to the point of missing out on the use of technique as a tool. They see the full end result, and think “I don’t like the overall picture”, yet in doing so, many times they tend to also reject the techniques that make it happen.

And I think that can hamper a modeler’s growth.

Seeing Styles As Tools

The key, in terms of extracting something useful from a style you may not favor, is to see it not so much as a style, but as a set of tools. Exploring how a modeling style is done may not change your overall preferences for a final look, but with regards to technique, there is almost always a payoff.

In my own work, when I adjusted my thinking to see the elements that make up a style as simply additional tools in my toolbox, a new world of finishes was opened up to me. While I had a good grasp of many techniques, I unconsciously wrapped them into the “style” I preferred, which I guess you’d call “generic middle aged aircraft model style”. 🙂 When I first saw a “proper” Spanish-style aircraft, my first thought was “that’s overdone”. And I almost let it drop there.


I looked closer, and I saw a few things I liked. The way oil stains, chipping, and other effects were presented – though overdone in my thinking at the time- were still very good. In fact, I had to admit it was better than my work. Somehow my pea brain awoke, a neuron fired, and the thought hit me… “Collectively those are a style. Individually, they’re just tools.”

It was an important “A-Ha” moment for me. (Not the 80’s band… 😉 )

Diving Into Learn

The first thing I did was search the nets of the interwebs for tutorials. I found out there were quite a few, and that research led to further videos and books. As the process of exploring that particular style unfolded, it was a Matrix-like moment. If you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ll recall at the end when Neo suddenly sees the world as computer code. It no longer dominates him. The tables are turned, and he sees it all for what it is – just code.

In the same way, my hobby eye was opened up to seeing past the whole to the parts. In that endeavor, everything became a question of “how many?” How many ways to make an object look rusty can I find? Or grimy? Perhaps chipped. Dissecting that style turned my building on its ear. I’d gotten to a point where I thought I knew a great deal. Yet that one little notion – style as a tool – had me leaning over the iceberg and seeing that 90% of its mass was underwater. 

And because I was not inexperienced in the hobby, I took what I already knew, and what I had freshly learned, and began to experiment. Variations began to emerge – some useful, some not.  Those variations could be combined with other elements to produce even more variety.

I felt as if I’d both started over completely and launched to a new orbit at the same time.

Getting Started

I spend quite a bit of time on hobby related social media. Probably more than I should. And almost daily I see some variation of the statement “I don’t like that style”. And I totally get that… there are some styles that I know just aren’t me. They don’t fit my preferences. But what I try to urge people to do is to look beyond the surface, and dig deeper into it. Look at the elements. Examine them for value. In almost every case you’ll find something that can improve or refine a technique you’re already doing.

A great way to tackle this head on is to look around for a style you know is not a favorite. Perhaps even the polar opposite of what you like to do. For instance, maybe you like doing very clean, precise models. The thought of layers and layers of weathering may be anathema to you. Maybe just the opposite is true – you’re a “mud” guy, and the notion of “shiny” doesn’t fit.

But if you start digging into how that other style is done, it almost inevitably forces growth. You’re doing things you’ve perhaps never done, moving out of your comfort zone.

In my own experience, I found going a step further really kicks things up a notch – do an entire model in that style. As someone who generally builds weathered models, I’ve found producing a clean, precise finish can be quite challenging. The methods, products, and tools are applied in a different way. I’d always thought it was just “don’t weather it”. But I found it’s far more complicated. Yet the growth that occurred would have never been possible had I not deliberately tackled something very different from my norm.

Full Circle

My friend’s dad gave me the grand tour of their garage and all of its wonders. He even grabbed some scrap wood and showed me how to use many of the tools – safely, of course. I always knew that there were more options available than the simple, low-tech, duct tape-and-bailing-wire method my dad used. But I never would have imagined all that was available had I not been given a glimpse of what was possible. 

Tools in our hobby are not just physical things we can hold. They can be techniques, products, and even notions. And while every style may not be a favorite, all of the layers that go into it may contain a gold mine of technique that can lift your work to another level, and open up new variations you’d have never imagined.

So the next time you see something that’s not quite what you warm up to, zoom in close. Look at the parts that make up the whole. Ignore the forest and see the trees.

You may find an entirely new tool set right there on the forest floor.



8 responses to “Style, Tools, And The Chase For Growth”

  1. Speaking of tools, I have (among other things) the older 1:48 Italeri Viggen kit (2785 ) with raised panel lines and I thought it would be fun to rescribe the kit after removing the raised panel lines everywhere (I also bought the aftermarket nose and will maybe get an aftermarket chair + pilot if I can find it + uuh aftermarket missiles). I’ve seen others try rescribing this model and it didn’t look too good imol, and after playing with some plastic and various scribing tools, including three sowing needles, I concluded that rescribing seems possible, but tricky to get a nice result for all kinds of scribed lines.

    Then, I remembered Paul Budzik’s video on the subject and I will try what he suggested some time back. Simply scribe new panel lines into a primed surface. I tried something similar with a hand pained model, and the scribed line looked very nice and it was much easier to scribe than having to churn into plastic. Straight lines might be not-hard-to-make with some proven scribe tool, but one also has curved shapes and smaller circles as panel lines as well. I have yet to airbrush over such type of scribed line to get see the final look, but I think it will look nice and subtle, as the scribed line will be less deep than a regular scribed line into plastic this way.

    I’ve never liked fancy painting techniques for tinting, but the idea is growing on me. Although one might get a certain look/style, I think I will eventually want to explore some things to try get a more nuanced coloring on the surface and this would be appealing to me, yet hopefully the paint work still looking realistic (for avoiding a plain/dull looking model).

    Another fun aspect of the hobby for me, is working with styrene (plastic). I’ve got the old Airfix torpedo boat and fixed a lot of things already on that model, enhancing detail and correcting things. For example, being careful, one can reposition window openings in the hull, and insert a piece of styrene pipe, to get a clean looking window opening. Styrene should meld with “regular” plastic, but other types of plastic might require super glue. One ought to take care to not contaminate ones work area with plastic dust, and probably a good idea to wear a dust mask if things get a little out of control while working.


  2. Great article!!!!


  3. B-b-b-b-b-but it wouldn’t get THAT dirty! 😉


  4. Robert Campbell Avatar

    I always try to do at least one new thing on each build… Sometimes it works as expected, sometimes not… sometimes its a colossal failure (I’m good at these), but i always try to learn.

    My motto is, give it a try… The worst thing that can happen is that I’d have to do it over or leave it and move on to the next challenge…


    1. That’s the way to do it! (The try part… not the colossal fail… 😀 )


  5. Robert Campbell Avatar

    Sometimes the fails become – what if’s…


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