Build Your Own Universe: the Wonders of Scratchbuilding and Kitbashing

37 MinutesWhen I made my pilgrimage to the Star Wars exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum fifteen years ago, it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. No, not to get my picture taken next to Boba Fett or to marvel at Luke’s Day-Glo orange X-Wing flight suit. but to see if there really was a Champion spark-plug sticker on the Millennium Falcon.

There is. It’s right behind the top of the cockpit window.

For while other visitors marveled at Ralph McQuarrie’s legendary concept art or ogled Princess Leia’s gowns, a small cadre of young fans like me spent their time circling the cases containing Han Solo’s ship and the fearsome Star Destroyer, scrutinizing every detail on their surfaces, and calling out to each other things like: “Revell Bismarck rear superstructure over here,” “Monogram B-52 engine pods,” “I’m pretty sure that’s an M46 Patton tank chassis,” and “are those F-14 landing gear struts?”

For we were kitbashers and scratchbuilders, and these were our David and our Pietà.

Kitbashing, as its name suggests, is the art of recombining parts from many models to create new ones. Scratchbuilding, likewise, is the art of creating models entirely from scratch, often using parts from models alongside found objects like shampoo bottles and ballpoint pen guts. While these forms of scale modeling have a long and illustrious history in science fiction films, what’s not as well-known is that they have large, thriving communities of practitioners today.

Kitbashed Star Trek Starship

Even in the age of CGI, scale modeling using plastic, resin, and other materials is very much alive and well — and the vehicles that these imaginative creators are building are as detailed, intricate, and mind-blowing as the best science fiction story. They are visual invitations to entire universes of possibility. Take a moment to visit the galleries on the two elder statesmen sites of the community: Starship Modeler and CultTVMan. You’ll be impressed, amazed, and not a little awed at the patience, skill, and imagination freely on display.

The science fiction scratch and bash community is wonderfully open to people of all levels of skill. Beginners are welcomed and encouraged with the same enthusiasm as veterans who make models for movies (yes, some directors still prefer the Old Ways). Suggestions are always constructive, and it is truly a “big tent” — people who hold wildly differing conceptions of Federation starship design fundamentals can still appreciate each others’ work, and people whose designs adhere strictly to intricate technical and engineering backstories will gladly exhibit their work alongside people whose primary interest is the aesthetics of line and color.

The Mecca of science fiction modelers — kitbashers, scratchbuilders, monster modelers, diorama builders, and people who build straight out of the box (or “OOB” in modeler parlance) — is WonderFest Hobby Expo, an annual summer convention in Louisville, Kentucky. It is the family reunion of the modeling clan, and the models on display will blow your mind.

Kitbashing has come full circle in the Maschinen Krieger ZbV 3000 universe of master designer Kow Yokoyama. The designs for combat spacecraft and armored fighting suits in this dark-future setting are actually based on kitbashed models. So that means half the fun of building a Ma.K. kit is identifying the kitbashed parts that were used to make the prototype.

Makes me feel like a kid again, my nose pressed to the glass as I stare wistfully into the bowels of the Millennium Falcon, looking for that Champion spark-plug sticker.

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