The 4 Key Attributes of Kits – and the 2 Reviews Usually Miss

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 think it's vaguely criminal that Revell still charges money for this

I think it’s vaguely criminal that Revell still charges money for this

I moved on to Tamiya’s P-51B Mustang, and the experience of building a good kit was downright revelatory.

MUCH better...

MUCH better…

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.

On Engineering

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.

On Fit

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.

There’s no way this should work…yet it does

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.

 

5 thoughts on “The 4 Key Attributes of Kits – and the 2 Reviews Usually Miss

  1. Yep – in my experience poorly engineered kits unfortunately tend to have a price tag at the high end of the market. If you haven’t paid much for the kit and find it needs extensive filling etc. – then what the hell – it was cheap. When struggling to fill gaps and correct poorly engineered fit problems in a top dollar, I muse ‘Did the manufacturer ever take a production kit off the line, try to build the bloody thing and be aware of all the problems?’ The lump of plastic in my hands would suggest not. I begin to suspect some manufacturers don’t care and have an FICE attitude – they’ve got your money! If it looks vaguely like the full size aircraft then 80% of the kit builders will be happy – warts and all.

  2. I’ve got quite a large stash but as yet I have not added any Kitty Hawk kits. I’m not prepared to pay the high asking price for so called start-of-the-art kits that are notoriously difficult to build. What’s the point with all that lovely detail if you end-up destroying it all by filling/sanding etc. I know their newer releases are supposed to be improving but as yet, nothing’s tempted me. I would love to build their MiG 25, Voodoo and Jaguar but have seen so many builds online with all the build and accuracy issues that I’m not prepared to waste my time and money on them. It’s like Michael stated above, don’t these manufacturers build the kits after they have been produced? I suspect they do, some just don’t care.

  3. Agree. But I have to take you to task on the HK Mosquito. It’s not just the nacelles they cocked up, the contour above the radiators is way off and looks really obvious but the worst is the shape of the nose. It’s so far off it looks like a cartoon and that in turn throws off the canopy. It’s a nicely detailed extremely innovative kit but ahead of the main spar is totally ruined. I am by no means a rivet counter, quite the opposite in fact, but in my eyes the shape issue on this kit make it unbuildable.

  4. Getting back to the point of kit reviews, you’ve missed one major point, which is that kit reviews are generally offered in either “In Box review” or “A Build review”.
    A in box review is basically a complete waste of time, as it offers the reader virtually nothing that would enable him to decide on whether or not to purchase said kit based solely on his visual scrutiny of that kit. Writing that X kit has great detail, finely engraved panel lines, and what looks like a well detailed interior means nothing. Every kit today is designed via a CAD program. I can see what decals come with the kit on the company’s web site, Facebook, or a new item post on anyone of a dozen or more modeling sites. Needless to say I never waste my time watching a video in box review.

    The 2nd option is a review based on an actual build or a the least dry fitting the major components. Now one can get a feel for just how the model will build up. What difficulties will be encountered in the build, and what the finished model will look like.

    Nearly all kits designed over the last decade have been done with the aid of a CAD program, so scaling plans, or measurements taken from the actual aircraft should produce a close to in scale representation. This is a far cry from what we had in the 1960s through the 1970s. Heck, we were just glad to have another new kit in our preferred scale. Personally, I really don’t care if a model is 1 or 2 mm off in length and or width. Almost none are dead on in every measurement with the exception of maybe WNW form what I’ve read and seen, but you’re paying a premium price for that engineering. Not everyone can afford to, or want to pay that much for a model, so they have to settle on a lesser quality kit for a lesser amount.

    I completely agree with the application of said engineering into producing a kit that builds up well without major issues. To me that’s the most important part of a new model. If it’s engineered by modelers/designers, or management people who have actually built models or have a real understanding of what a model should and shouldn’t be, then the final product is usually of a much higher standard. If it’s the just the bean counters dictating the limits of what can and can’t be done within the limits of that builds budget, then all sorts of short cuts are taken to stay within that budget, and we end up with new releases of varying engineering quality. At Tamiya, Mr. Tamiya has a set of standards that must be met. The end result is a ultra high quality kit. Of course that quality has a premium price. Also these days only one new release per year per category is the best one can hope for, if that.

    I’ve often asked whether or not anyone actually tried to build said new release prior to it’s 1st run. If so what standards are they looking for, and if anyone really cares at that point? At Tamiya I’m quite certain they do. At Kitty Hawk, I really wonder. Many early Trumpeter and Hobby Boss kits are basically unbuildable, yet they were released for sale with the expectation that as a new company we would give them a greater leeway ,especially since the subject matter usually hasn’t been offered in model form before . Personally, I’m even more skeptical, and tend to stay away from new companies and their offerings, letting others take those shaky steps.

    There are several reviewers that I’ve come to trust based on their years of build reviews, and seeing their work. Otherwise, If I don’t know the reviewer nor his work, I usually don’t put all that much credence into their review

    Joel

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