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3 things I learned about the 40K hobby by building a scale model airplane

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Last summer I took my daughters to the Bong State Recreation Area in Wisconsin. The huge park offers miles and miles of trails to walk and ride, large camping areas, places to ride your dirt bike, and even a model rocketry range. During my stay I remembered that it was once an Air Force base, and is named after Richard “Dick” Ira Bong, the United States’ top leader of World War II. Active from 1941–1945, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the Pacific. By the end of the war, and before his untimely death as test pilot of one of our nation’s first fighter jets, he was credited with 40 air-to-air kills.

As thanks for the trip and a brief history lesson, my daughters gave me a model of their airplane – the P-38J, probably the best airplane of WWII and, coincidentally, among the very latest designs by the Japanese model-maker One from Tamia. It was also built in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and The Richard I. Bong Center.

I was touched, honestly, but also a little overwhelmed. I haven’t built or painted a model airplane since I was 12 – although I have spent the last several years in the hobby painting Warhammer 40,000 miniatures. Once I got into it, I found that taking some time to create something completely different was refreshing and educational. I also watched hours and hours of YouTube tutorials and fan-made guides along the way.

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So here’s what good old Dick Bong’s twin-boom Warbird taught me about the Space Marines — and the people who love them.

Model planes are found more expensive than 40 thousand

Turns out that where 40K is considered an expensive hobby, scale modeling can be a bit more expensive.

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You can buy a Tamiya P-38J for around $70 online, and probably less at your local hobby store. The board game-sized box contains everything you need down to the parts and pieces. Of course, this doesn’t include paint. The instructions list 28 different colors—a far cry from the six or eight I used on my last batch of Dark Angels. Most 40K tournaments have a three color rule, which means you must have three colors on each of your miniatures in order to compete at the table. Scale modeling, on the other hand, requires more precision to make each component look true to life – especially if you want to get into a competitive circuit.

Let us know that there is also a healthy ecosystem of aftermarket parts.

That video I found last year on YouTube – in fact the only one I could find that featured this kit specifically – rolled deep on these add-ons. The build video, created by a YouTuber called Details Scale Model, included a cast resin gun bay, etched brass inner wing components, and several different versions Aftermarket cockpit instrumentation. The stunner for me was learning that there is such a thing as three-dimensional, printed waterslide decals with raised features for all cockpit instrumentation.

Later on, I found a USAF F-4 Phantom decked out for the summer of 1967 – another aircraft I have a personal attachment to – by user 11bravo on The pictures are a little fuzzy, but the details on this thing are absolutely stunning. Their manufacturing throughout the years included many aftermarket kits, including replacement “seats (AMS), instrument panels (Quinta) exhaust nozzles (GT resin), Mk 117 bombs (VideoAviation), AIM-7 Sparrows (Brassin), AIM-9’s (brassine). Wheels (brassine) and canopies (airscale). I think the manufacture returned that least $350 in parts — plus Stock kit only, which costs $161.

Like Gunpla, it seems, your taste for detail when scale modeling is limited only by your budget. It’s a far cry from the $70 I spent on my primary Redemptor Dreadnought.

Same Material, Different Equipment

Most scale models are made of polystyrene plastic – just like Games Workshop’s kits. But the fit and finish of these components are completely different.

Space Marines are curvy little bastards, and their various components, such as shoulder pads and greaves, are layered in such a way as to hide the seams that join them together. This is not always possible in the world of scale modeling. One of the wings on my P-38J is made up of about five components – a two-piece elevator surface, a two-piece control surface, and a wingtip that goes into the end. All of these pieces have to line up perfectly or the seams will be visible. Making matters worse is the fact that some of those misalignments will only be visible if you put a coat of primer on top.

Solution? Lots and lots… and lots of sanding, something I’ve never really done with a 40K model before. that’s not necessary.

Close-up of the cockpit interior, from the manufacturer.

Photo: Tamiya

Close-up of the cockpit as assembled and painted by the author.

Photo: Charlie Hall / Play Gamez

I started with small sanding sticks—the flexible, emery board-like material—before moving to automotive-grade 1,000-grit wet sandpaper for the final base coat of paint. By the end I was polishing various different real metal colors with a soft cloth, swearing to the gods for not keeping my hobby space cleaner and more dust-free. It turns out that spraying highly reflective paint on a flat surface in a dirty basement isn’t the best way to recreate the gritty realism of a world at war.

In fact, there is so much sanding to be done on some model airplanes that scale modelers will often say “fuck it,” sand areas smooth, and then sand the details back into the polystyrene by hand. Scribing tools, as they’re called, allow you to cut fresh, deep panel lines in soft plastic, but require a steady hand to get good results. Meanwhile, the negative riveting tool allows you to replace the hundreds of individual holes that are meant to represent the fasteners that pin vintage warbirds together. Some hobbyists will toss away all those negative rivets, opting instead for elaborate positive rivet kits—dozens and dozens of custom-made three-dimensional waterslide transfers that run across every surface of the plane like a tattoo.

A shiny silver airplane on a lazy susan, a dirty rag in the foreground.

Sanding the third coat of metallic paint, then wiping it clean with a damp cloth.
Photo: Charlie Hall / Play Gamez

Blue and yellow tape on a silver airplane.

Masking and airbrushing are two skills I need to work on, and will require practice.
Photo: Charlie Hall / Play Gamez

However, along the way, I fell in love with Tamiya Extra Thin Plastic Cement. It’s low odor and incredibly sticky, which means you can rely on capillary action to glue the outside to the inside of the model – and it’s handy even when you’re doing intricate 40K paper-thin details. Builds and thrives with.

I also discovered how useful a good, sharp hobby blade can be for fine-tuning the fit and finish of a model before painting. After years of using the Games Workshop Moldline Remover instead of a blade, I’m not sure I’ll be going back anytime soon.

Mind that blade, though: my fingers have healed nicely, thanks for asking.

Best accessory for your hobby space

The best part of this little twist is that it got my kids involved in my miniatures hobby.

Both my daughters were inspired to get me that P-38J after I waxed about how unique the plane was over a campfire at the Bong Recreation Area. It meant something to him when I wandered into his room late at night over the last few weeks to show him the next step in drawing the process. They couldn’t care less about chains and plasma weapons, and that’s okay. But this little airplane was a creation we could share.

That’s how I made a new addition to my hobby space: a second chair. Now my girls have a seat at the table, a place to spend some time with me as I meditate and meditate on the inner workings of crafting a new and challenging craft. My youngest child is also trying her hand at making miniatures. First of all? her special edition from the female sorceress heroquest,

Scale modeling takes a lot of time, I’ve learned – like modeling for 40 grand. I might not be able to go camping for long periods in the woods with the family, but we can still have some great time inside. No screen required.

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