Butthurt Prevention Note: This hobby is highly dependent upon preferences and perspectives. What follows is my own. Yours may differ. And that’s totally fine.
When I first came back to modeling, I figured I’d start with something simple and cheap. So I picked up a Revell SBD Dauntless. Maybe, once upon a time, it was an innovative kit. But by today’s standards – or even by the standards I was accustomed to as a kid – it was a piece of trash. I quickly christened it the Fail Dauntless and consigned it to paint mule duty.
I moved on to Tamiya’s P-51B Mustang, and the experience of building a good kit was downright revelatory.
Since that time, I’ve completed 46 kits (I had to go count!). And I’ve learned a few things.
I’ll be talking about some of those learnings over a handful of posts. Let’s start off with this:
My definition of a “good kit” is hardly ever touched on in reviews.
Kit reviews generally look at two things – detail and accuracy. To me, those are only about half of what makes a good kit good. In fact, I’m willing to give up some of both if other aspects hold up.
To me, the quality of a kit rests on four attributes:
Accuracy – Is the kit dimensionally accurate? Does it get little things correct, like the shape of propeller blades?
Detail – Level and quality of detail. This can vary quite a bit, and of course has all kinds of crossover with accuracy.
Engineering – How is the kit designed to go together? Are we talking fuselage halves, or four different fuselage segments? Are panels left open? Are you obliged to install landing gear legs early in the build?
Fit – Does that engineering pull through into a kit that actually fits together, or is it “too big for its britches”?
The last two, to my mind, are absolutely essential in a good kit.
Show me any subject that’s been kitted and I’ll show you engineering challenges that had to be overcome. This is doubly so when the manufacturer is trying to squeeze multiple variants out of a mold.
Consider, for a moment, two elements of HK’s 1/32 B-25 kits.
The first is the wings. In 1/32 scale, the B-25 is a large aircraft. Too large to be easily maneuvered on a workbench. So HK came up with a snazzy slide-and-lock mechanism for securing the wings to the fuselage. This way they could be painted separately and added toward the end of the build, greatly easing the experience. A lesser kit would have used some kind of standard tongue-and-slot engineering.
I could point to numerous similar examples…from simple wing spars in Tamiya’s P-47s to the torsion bars in many modern armor kits that allow the road wheels to move and accommodate uneven surfaces.
HK makes another smart move in accounting for variants by keeping the nose separate. This way, a simple swap of a few sprues makes it possible to produce a standard B-25J with the glassed bombardier’s compartment, a strafer version bristling with eight .50 cal machine guns, or a B-25H gunship packing its huge 75mm cannon.
Now…the dicey part of the B-25 setup is fit. But it’s just a single contour.
An example of poor engineering? Kinetic’s F-5B Freedom Fighter.
With this kit, you have to worry about four major points of fit as the fore and aft fuselages slot together – the spine of the aircraft, the curves of the air intakes, and the flat bottom of the aircraft. All with no real provisions internally to guide the pieces into a proper fit. On top of those four points of concern, there are also the wing’s leading edge extensions, and the consideration of copious detail all over this area of the airframe.
The results? Assloads of filling and sanding.
This kind of crude engineering shows up in a lot of older kits, for which I have an easier time excusing it, since technology has come so far. But it also shows up in a lot of what I would call “junior varsity” manufacturers.
And with them, it pisses me off.
I know there are plenty of modelers out there who love a challenging kit. For me, though, I want kits designed with passion. I want to see the evidence that the right way to tackle a tricky join kept somebody up at night. And the surest indicator of that, to my mind, lies in the engineering.
Fit…well it’s pretty self-explanatory, right?
Here’s the thing, though. While fit does go hand-in-glove with engineering, it’s also its own thing. You can have a kit that’s poorly engineered that fits, and fits well. And you can have kits with really smart engineering that just can’t deliver on fit.
To me, it’s easy to tell which one you’re dealing with when you’re building.
The poorly engineered/good fitting kit usually elicits skepticism – “there’s no way this is going to go well” – and then surprise when it does. A great example of this is Zvezda’s Lavochkin La-5.
The well-engineered, poor fitting kit is the opposite. It starts with confidence – “oh, this is going to work out nicely”, and then shifts to surprise when you have a big old trench of a gap in the wingroot. I’m looking at you, Hasegawa P-40s.
Best of Both Worlds
The best kits combine engineering and fit to surprise, delight and engage. And only a few manufacturers really manage to pull this off consistently – especially while keeping the other factors of detail and accuracy well in hand.
To my mind and in my own experience, they are:
Tamiya – Of course. And particularly with anything they’ve done in the last, oh, fifteen years. There are some older kits that have problems. And there are some questionable reboxings of other manufacturers’ plastic. But it doesn’t get much better than their 1/32 Corsair or their 1/48 P-47. A lot of their armor can come in for praise, too, but a good chunk of their run is getting dated now, and lacks certain engineering features like torsion bar suspensions or one-piece barrels that are becoming more the norm.
Wingnut Wings – Masters of their domain, pure and simple. I have yet to hear of a single Wingnut kit that’s poorly thought out or that just doesn’t fit.
HK Models – While HK has been dinged for certain accuracy flubs – the shape of the B-25’s propellers or the tread pattern on its wheels or the shape of the Mosquito’s engine nacelles, in terms of engineering and fit they’re really hard to beat.