Scratch-Building

Scratch-building Star Wars models is no small deal. It takes a great deal of planning and preparation to be able to pull off a project of this complexity. Ambition has been the downfall of many, so don’t start off on a burnout project like large-scale models of the Millennium Falcon or an Imperial Star Destroyer. Make sure it is a fairly simple model where you can hone basic skills instead of face insurmountable problems. If you have some modeling experience just dive in! Personally, I take great pleasure in building models while listening to the Star Wars radio dramas, drinking strong coffee and surrounding the work area with photos from the ILM model shop. It provides the perfect mood!

There are five major steps in the development of these models that should serve as a general guide through the process:

  1. Plan Your Model
  2. Mock-up Your Model
  3. Build Your Model
  4. Detail Your Model
  5. Paint Your Model

STEP 1: Plan Your Model
Try to find the best possible source of documentation and pictures for the model. Books like Star Wars Chronicles and the Art of Star Wars series have great reference material for most models. You can study the films for further details.

The construction blueprints should be drawn from the side, top, front, back and bottom to give the best possible basis for construction. Use a Xerox copier with zoom capability to get the pictures in equal sizes.

Let me give you one good piece of advice: If you are going to make a relatively large model – draw it on a small scale first. It is easier to assess the shape in a smaller drawing. Then enlarge it by redrawing it or using the Xerox copier. The more construction details you can flesh out in the drawings, the easier it will be to build the model.

Give some thought to the inner structure of the model and how it will affect the construction process. It’s an advantage to combine this work with the work on your mock-up model. What’s difficult to see in the drawings could very well be obvious in a simple 3-D shape.

Instead of constantly redrawing the original blueprints, it’s wise to use Xerox copies to sketch on. If you want to incorporate effects like lights or fiber optics, these should also be included in the drawings. Also, be sure to plan how the model will be mounted.

STEP 2: Mock-up Your Model
Once the initial blueprints are ready, you can dive into the world of 3-D modeling. Unless the model to be constructed is very simple, you should always do some 3-D sketching. (Those of you equipped with computers could experiment with 3-D modeling software.)

The best mock-up materials within the amateur’s budget are balsa wood, cardboard, copper wire and styrene foam.

Construct the basic shape of the model from these materials and step back to assess the shape. No details at this point. Use water-based colors and paint the mock-up in a neutral gray (shape is easier to assess in gray). If it does not give you the right feeling, it should be fairly fast and simple to adjust. When you are pleased with the look, you can go back to the drawing board to make the necessary changes.

STEP 3: Build Your Model
There are numerous techniques  you can use to build the actual model. Some of the popular techniques are as follows:

  • Vacuum-forming
  • Mold-making and casting of details
  • Engraving of surface panel lines
  • Modeling with epoxy putty and super sculpey
  • General working of the materials
  • Filling sanding and finishing

Every model requires a different approach. It may have to be constructed in two halves before it is assembled (Vader’s Custom TIE fighter), or it may have to be constructed from the inside out (Star Destroyer).

STEP 4: Detail Your Model
The detailing is the fun part of modeling. There are many sources of good details, but the best way to do it is to do what ILM did; buy plastic model kits of trucks, tanks and warships and go kit-bashing.

There are so many great details just waiting to be incorporated into your model. Try and mix parts from different kits and combine them using plastic rods and profiles. Your own imagination is the limit, and the biggest challenge is knowing when to stop. Once these details are painted it will amaze you!

In the scratch-building community, most people tend to believe that the only method of building a studio-scale replica is to use the same kits and parts that ILM did when they built the original models. I say you don’t have to do this. For me, the fun is in finding good parts to match the look of the originals. It’s closer to the feeling they must have had at ILM. Finding and purchasing original kits is time consuming, expensive, and in my opinion, quite boring. I do, of course, have a lot of respect for those who actually do this.

In addition you can buy sheets of plastic with pre-engraved patterns and lines, telescopic plastic tubes, molding silicones, casting materials and more. Pay a visit to you local hobby retailer and shop till you drop.

Step 5: Painting Your Model
The various techniques involved will eventually be subjected to special detailed features. There are plenty of books covering this subject, so check your local book store or your local hobby retailer.

The first thing to do is to give the model a base coat of gray to provide good adhesion and background for the base color. To give a feeling of depth to the details, these can be based in black.  When the base color is applied the black will appear as shadows. Be sure to mask out cockpit glass and other details not to be painted.

The model should then be painted with an airbrush or sprayed with spray box paint. Use only spray box paint of the same label or the paint may suffer from boiling, chipping and peeling! After working for so long on a model, this is the worst thing that can happen.

Mask out and paint areas with different shades or colors.

To simulate chipping and “wear and tear” effects, liquid rubber, silicon or mascol can be dabbled along edges and plate lines. Apply paint over the rubber and peel it off after the paint has dried.

After the colors are applied the model must be given a thin dark wash of turpentine and oil colors. The wash will float into details, plate lines and paint and really bring out the 3-D feeling.

The last step is dry-brushing. All details are brushed with a stiff brush with only a little light-colored oil paint. Note that the brush should be as dry as possible, so wipe it clean before you start dry-brushing.

Beware! Keep your health in mind when building models this way. Many of the materials and solvents can be harmful in large doses or over a longer period of time. Be sure to wear protective gloves, eye-protection or a filtered breathing mask where this is required. Epoxies can be lethal to those who are allergic.