10 Tips for Scale Modeling

Written by Rob Caso Scale As seen in the Spring 2019 issue of Park Pilot

>> My 10 tips for scale modeling are assuming that you are building, but many of these also apply to ARF aircraft.

1. Buy a plastic kit. The availability of accurate, plastic models is almost overwhelming.

2. Buy a book. Okay, maybe get the book first—and use the internet for research.

3. Get a good three-view drawing. If you chose a good book in tip number two, you have already done this.

4. Model a specific airplane. Most contest-winning aircraft are of a specific airplane within a given type.

5. Identify the hard-to-make stuff such as pilots, engines, machine guns, wheels, and canopies. Size your model to fit what is available or what you feel you can make or already have.

6. Determine the weight and power estimates up front. Review aircraft that are similar in size and arrangement—including ARFs—and use this as a starting point for your model. Optimize the airplane’s power so that it’s just enough. For electric-powered models, MotoCalc (motocalc.com) is a great tool.

7. Follow prototypic construction. A. Understand how the full-scale aircraft was built. Build the model to facilitate the surface detail that will be added later. For open cockpit aircraft, build in the prototypic detail as part of the initial construction. B. Build the structure to accommodate how you intend to fly the airplane. Eliminate plywood wherever possible. Even popular light plywood is more than three times heavier than balsa. If you must use plywood, consider using thinner wood, especially for laminations to balsa. Cross-grained laminations of hard balsa are almost as strong as plywood and are much lighter. C. Incorporate modern materials and technology with the old. Many of my models incorporate nitrate dope (old school) and 3D-printed parts. A piece of 1/8-inch carbon-fiber tube weighs roughly as much as a piece of 1/8-inch square hard balsa, yet it is many times stronger.

8. Hide RC equipment. Nothing to me looks worse than exposed RC equipment such as screws, linkages, motors/engines, servos, and control horns.

9. Make your model “field friendly.” A. Ensure the accessibility of key systems; use magnets to secure hatches and cowlings. B. Make things reliable; use Loctite on fasteners and fiberglassed key joints.

10. Don’t rush the finish. A. Determine key details—generally the engine and cockpit—and build these to a high level. B. Learn how to properly finish a scale surface. C. Learn how to paint and weather. D. Next to a scale engine, a pilot is perhaps the most viewed detail on an aircraft. It also adds the human factor: “That’s where I would sit.”

11. Okay, one more. When you finally get to fly it, fly a scale model like a scale model.



Learning to airbrush is an essential scale modeling skill.





When a good plastic kit becomes available for an airplane that Rob likes, he gets it.





The Focke-Wulf Fw 190 is a well-documented subject. There are many three-view photos and much specific airplane information available.





The fabric covering at the nose of this Stearman’s fuselage was masked and filled to emulate aluminum skin.





Although it’s a tight fit, the elevator pushrod for the Bulldog is buried in the tail.





The sprung landing gear on Rob’s Bulldog was built similar to the full-scale aircraft and works just as well.





Although Rob scratch-built the machine gun, the rivets are from a model railroad supplier.





Except for a wire trailing edge, the stabilizer on Rob’s Hansa-Brandenburg W.12 was built like the full-scale airplane.







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As an avid RCer and builder of plastic models, I know that not all plastic models are created equal. Walk into a shop selling lots of plastic kits, and you'll find 50-year kits made using 50+ year old molds sitting next to ones that are state of the art-- all in shiny new boxes. Some examples: The Revell 1/72 scale P-51 and P-39 date from the early 60s, and are very inaccurate, shape-wise. Back then, "detail" meant rows of grapefruit-sized rivets, all over the plane. Airfix is another common brand, with widely divergent quality. Some kits date from the early 60s, while others are recent releases that are way more accurate.
Before investing a lot of work using a plastic kit as a reference, I'd check the reviews on the plastic model sites/forums.....!

I would add another "tip" to the list. To get you inspired and know what to shoot for, attend a premier scale event like Top Gun, NASA Scale Masters or the scale competition at the NATS. The level of detail and the work put into each model must be seen up close to begin to understand what it takes to compete at the highest levels. The article did not emphasize the importance of documentation of the subject aircraft. Even if the builder is only showing it at the local field, pictures from the internet of the subject supporting the model can put the WOW factor with the finished model.

Good to check online forums for the proposed airplane build. Most reading this article will want a plane that will fly with radio control. There are many plans/kits out there that have not been proto-typed or tested after building.
Best to find that out before you start/buy. There are plenty of airplanes that will require a lot of skill, experience, determination, and above all, patience to build. Find something that fits your experience and fun quotient.

Inlaying balsa sheeting, heavily painted covering material, "overkill" power and battery packs, and adding scale working details and retracts to a SMALL model can seriously increase it's stall speed and make a small scale model hard to fly and land gently. Small details and trim that do not increase wing loading significantly can make a simple model look more "scale-like while retaining good flying characteristics.

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