If you’re of a certain age, you went through the childhood ritual of building a plastic model. Back in my day, it meant saving your allowance or waiting for your birthday or Christmas for that box with cool art of an aircraft carrier, jet fighter or bomber, Sherman or Tiger tank, Corvette or Camaro or a tractor-trailer rig.
Add some paint — when I was a kid, it was 10 bottles for a dollar — and a 10-cent tube of glue, put some newspaper on the dinner table to avoid that “oops” moment and, before the afternoon was out, you were probably making jet or engine noises and flying/driving/sailing your model through the air or across the floor.
The first model I ever saw was a Westland Whirlwind helicopter my dad was building, like the ones the Royal Air Force was using to pluck dumb climbers off the Cornish cliffs down the road from where we were stationed.
I still have a thin scar on my left index finger knuckle — a souvenir from using a pocketknife to cut parts off the frame for one of my first models. It didn’t hurt because I was having too much fun and I didn’t want to be told I had to stop building because it was unsafe.
Some kids discovered other things as they got older — sports, the opposite sex, music — and spent their allowance accordingly. Some of us discovered the same things but still kept a spot in our heart for fiddling with styrene parts.
And that’s where Nats — the International Plastic Modelers Society National Convention — comes in. It’s a chance for us longtime builders to experience the past and see the future of our hobby, which was everywhere in the ’60s and ’70s. You could buy a model at the supermarket, drug store, Woolworth’s, Sears, Penney’s. Paint and glue were also just about anywhere in your hometown business district.
Almost 50 years after I got hooked on the hobby, that access to kits has withered. The 75-cent P-51 Mustang and 50-cent U-505 submarine I began the hobby with … well, the last reissue I saw of that Mustang was $16. The U-505 kit? If I could find one, it would be an antique and quite possibly close to $100 on e-Bay.
This week is my third Nats. I’d read in Scale Modeler when I was a kid of the fabled Nats and the dedicated modelers who were scratchbuilding parts; masking and spraying their markings; mixing paint to match those Japanese, German, British and American camouflage colors; and weathering the finishes with exhaust and gun blast stains and paint chipping. By the end of the 1990s, the internet let me actually contact other modelers who were doing those things and exchange tips and references.
But Nats meant you could talk to those people in person, see their work up close and talk shop. And you could see how the hobby has changed since the first all-plastic kits appeared in the U.S. in the 1950s.
The vendor rooms at Nats are where you’ll find the hardcore modelers, and they’re where you can see how much the hobby has changed. Gluing and painting a model have become an exercise in chemistry and materials science. Enamels are slowly receding from the market as specialist acrylics and lacquers and urethane paints gain ground. The types of plastic cements and super glues make that 10-cent tube look like schoolroom paste.
No more 75-cent models. Those old kits whose molds started as hand-carved and measured wood masters turned into engraved metal molds have given way to computer-assisted-design virtual masters and computer-machined molds.
“Inexpensive” kits now can run upward of $40. Deluxe kits with cast resin part options, microfiber seat harnesses and photo-etched metal buckles, cockpit levers and instrument panels can start pricing north of $75. Molding is done in China, India, Poland, South Korea and Japan, with detail that was unimaginable five decades ago.
As we former kids got older and demanded more detail, better fit and extremely accurate decals, the kits became more complex and expensive. Combine that with the rise of video and then computer and online gaming, and it seems that maybe modeling has turned into an old person’s hobby.
At the end of the day, I’ll leave the Chattanooga Convention Center with my haul of aftermarket detail parts, special decals for an aircraft that most people never knew existed and maybe even a kit or two.
But when I start using those parts, I use the craftsmanship and patience that I learned from my father and from all the other modelers I’ve met over the years at hobby shops, through the internet and at Nats.
Nats is not just another show. It’s community, and it’s sharing knowledge and experience. And that’s how the hobby stays alive despite us getting older.
Mike Still covers Wise County for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]