This month’s Sprue Cutters’ Union question pokes the perennial hornets’ nest:
“Is scale modeling a dying hobby?”
Groan. It’s one of the most common – and most tiresome – rants one encounters in this hobby. It seems true, therefore is is true, right?
“Modeling is dying” is a fallacy borne out of a tangle of self-reinforcing cognitive biases. It seems true, so therefore it must be true. But it’s just as off-base as “kids these days…” rants. Scale modeling is alive and well, and I would argue, doing better than it ever has before.
I’m not going to muster a full defense of the hobby here – Jon has already done a brilliant job of that and I’m lazy. Instead, I’m going to aim at a few of the main misconceptions…
My local hobby shop closed. Clearly modeling is dying.
WRONG. The collapse of brick-and-mortar retail is not unique to modeling. The number of small retailers laid waste by Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and other big boxes over the last two decades has to stretch into the tens of thousands. The rise of the internet and ecommerce has only made the situation more dire. It’s not just the mom-and-pops, either. National chains are getting taken out left and right. Borders. Circuit City. Linens-n-Things.
Hobby shops are just in a crummy position. Think about it. Modeling (even if you roll in RC stuff and trains and rockets) has always been and will always be a niche hobby. For a given geographic area, there just aren’t going to be that many modelers. Most cities I’m aware of – if they have any left – have one or maybe two decent hobby shops. The market literally cannot bear any more.
Hobby shops also suffer from high inventory demands. There is so much stuff in this hobby. Glues, brushes, so many paints. Kits, decals, masks, PE sets, resin sets. Books. All of that stuff costs money, but may not move for months (if ever). I’m pretty sure there are still kits on the shelves at my LHS that have been there since I first walked in the door nearly five years ago. That’s a crushing burden for a brick-and-mortar retailer. Meanwhile, the online operations can house everything in a warehouse, and negate the market density problem by drawing on a national or even global customer base.
Modeling isn’t dying. It has moved online.
Modelers are old. And we’re all going to die. Clearly modeling is dying, too.
As Genghis Khan once said, “bullshit”.
The way some people grouse, you’d think everyone who put glue to plastic was doing so with one foot in the grave. But that’s simply not the case. Jon at The Combat Workshop conducted an informal poll, and the average age of those who responded was 40. Hardly at death’s door.
What does exist, as evidenced by countless introduction posts on forums, is a modeling gap. A lot of us wander off in our teenage or early adult years and only come back to modeling once we’re well and settled. Which makes total sense. Modeling is a hobby for the settled. It takes a certain amount of space, and a certain amount of routine. Those two things often vanish as we discover girls (or boys), cars, go to college, get careers up and running, get married and start families. I know they did for me.
Kids these days don’t build models because (insert old man gripe).
One common refrain I hear is that kids don’t build models because they’re too busy playing video games. Well, what if I told you it’s possible to do both? I grew up just as video games really hit the mainstream. I had a Nintendo and a Sega Genesis and played Doom on my parents’ PC. And I built models. Hell, I’d say that video games actually got me more interested in models. The best flight sim of all time, Aces of the Pacific, is literally what got me into building World War II aircraft. Today I imagine the same is probably true for kids playing World of Tanks or War Thunder or the countless Battlefield games.
Kids these days do build models…it’s just that modeling is a solitary, secluded and niche hobby.
Today’s model kits are too complicated for kids.
The hell you say. Look at video games from 1990 and from today. Modern games are exponentially more complicated, and kids take to them like water. Lego sets are infinitely more complicated, and kids figure them out. If you think today’s models are too complicated for kids, you’re seriously underestimating said kids.
Today’s model kits are too expensive for kids. When I was a kid I could buy (insert some old shitty kit) for fifty cents!
Today’s kits are more expensive, but a lot of them aren’t. Revell’s 1/32 Bf 109G-6 can be had for like $25. Plenty of 1/48 and 1/72 kits fall well under that.
The Hobby is Alright
I honestly don’t get where the doomsaying comes from. It feels like a combination of cognitive biases that screw with our rational thinking.
So, in addition to the refutations above, here are some thoughts on why the hobby is doing better than ever.
The Internet Community – Modeling is a solitary hobby. When I was a kid, I only knew one other kid who build models with any kind of effort. I knew no adults who did. My only regular connection to the larger modeling world was the occasional issue of Fine Scale Modeler. When I came back to modeling in 2010, holy crap. The internet community around this hobby is amazing. The knowledge gained and shared has brought me further, faster, than I’d have ever thought possible. And not just in terms of building techniques, but overall subject knowledge and even purchasing knowledge. This is huge. The modeling community is more connected and engaged now than it ever has been before.
Ecommerce – Hand in hand with community is the ability to buy modeling things online. I love my local hobby shop and they do their damndest, but you can only stock so much product, so the vast bulk of my purchases come from the internet. And the selection is amazing…I can order kits and paints and decals and microtextile seatbelts and god-knows-what from all over the world. I’m no longer constrained by what a few distributors happen to stock, or what my local retail options have room for.
The Knowledge Worker Conundrum - More and more of us do more and more of our work behind desks, at computers. With that comes a well-documented desire for physical, creative hobbies. The desire to do something with our hands. That could be gardening or playing music or woodworking. I have colleagues who restore old guitars or run laser-engraving businesses on the side, or who count wrenching on their motorcycles as a relaxing weekend. Modeling is as much a beneficiary of this innate desire as anything else.
LIDAR and 3D Design – The manufacturers are getting better at designing kits as well. In the past, kits might be designed from photos and best guesses, or maybe from measurements taken of an actual, physical specimen. But nowadays they’re straight-up scanning the things. Airfix recently showed off how their using LIDAR to scan whole aircraft and using those scans to design kits. This is a big deal as it ensures far better accuracy with less room for error. 3D CAD design and improvements in the precision of injection molding also make it possible to design kits with massively improved tolerances, resulting in the near-magical detail and fit of kits from Wingnut Wings, Tamiya and others.
3D Printing – Last but certainly not least is 3D printing. Personally, I don’t think we’ll really ever get to the point where we’re just downloading kit plans and printing them at home. There will probably be a few manufacturers who pursue a “print on demand” type of strategy, but 3D printing remains significantly more expensive than injection molding. Where 3D printing is revolutionizing things, however, is in the design phase. Nowadays, test shots can come off the 3D printer to correct errors before molds are cut. And small aftermarket operators can work off CAD files to create staggeringly accurate masters that can then be reproduced in resin versus having to be carved and sculpted.
3D printing also may well have a niche in providing items that can’t be produced any other way. A great example is this amazing set of 3D-printed, workable Hotchkiss tank tracks. I’m still getting my head around how such a thing is even possible, but one could easily imagine this kind of tech replacing cumbersome indy links on future tank kits.