I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed constructing plastic scale models for just over 50 years now and in all of that time I have been rewarded with a hobby that has taught me many things and as time has gone on I have broadened my skills with each new build, whether it be with the actual construction of the kit or the airbrush painting or the use of a new technique for either over the years, on each occasion I have learnt something new which has enhanced my enjoyment of the hobby.
One of the skills that I taught myself some years ago was the 'black art' of vacuum-formed kit building. Back in the early 'seventies vac-form was a very new 'state-of-the -art' kit construction method which allowed modelers to build limited-run kits of aircraft, the types of which would never be popular enough to warrant full-scale injection moulding by the mainstream manufacturers. Along with the early signs of what we today call 'after-market accessories' vac-form kits became very popular with many modelers and it was perfectly possible to construct an aircraft kit that no-one else had and finish it in markings that were purchased separately from the kit itself, as very few of the early kits contained decals.
To construct one of these kits all one had to do was learn the new skill of cutting out each individual model part from a sheet of plastic card, the parts having been moulded on it by the pattern master making a series of scale parts and heating a sheet of plastic card until it became pliable and 'floppy', then placing the card over the moulds in a special machine and 'sucking' the plastic down over the moulds by the removal of air. The vacuum would do the rest forcing the molten plastic sheet tightly around the pattern moulds so that when it had cooled off, it would retain the mould shape; hence the title 'vacumn-moulding'.
As time went on, the vac-form kit became very highly detailed - much more so than the early offerings and at their zenith the expert manufacturers were releasing kits that rivalled the very best of the mainstream manufacturers or, in many cases, exhibited detail that was far superior, in which case in the hands of a skilled modeler an excellent, highly detailed, scale model would result.
Tips and tricks of construction were learnt by some and passed to others via the then only method, articles in scale modeling magazines or participation in a local model club; this was long-before the Internet came into being. It was perfectly possible for an 'average' modeler to acquire the required skills and turn out better and better results and to then take their whole building experience to a higher level. Indeed, given that one of the things most noticeable about a vac-form kit was the degree of finesse and delicacy obtainable due to the very thin, or fine, edges of the cut sheet and details that could be obtained from the vacform parts, 'fine' scale models were the order of the day, as a vast majority of the required detail parts were scratchbuilt by the modeler and an altogether more delicate appearance was possible.
Alas, as with all things, the vac-form began to become an outmoded form of manufacture; it was considered by many modelers 'too difficult' to build, requiring much more work to obtain the correct parts to glue together than just opening an injected scale model box and cutting the parts off of the sprue. It's nemesis was that it was leaning too far to the direction of scratchbuilding and away from what was becoming known as the 'ou-of-the-box' regime; buying a state-of-the-art injected kit that simply required gluing together, arriving at the painting stage that much sooner. The 'I-must-have-it-NOW' modeler had arrived.
By the late 'eighties most of the vac-from manufacturers had ceased production, mainly due to the fact that the vast majority of the possible 'non-mainstream' aircraft types had been molded in all the popular scales and the average modeler had had a go at it but never really caught on to the reason why the vac-form was so good. 1/72 scale - the mainly British scale, saw dozens of vac-form models available to purchase but the real impact was in 1/48 scale. This was the American modelers preferred scale, larger and more detailed than it's British cousin and therefore a whole different modeling 'ball-game' whether it be the construction, having to add more details into each model as everything is that more visible with the larger physical size or in the finishing, requiring better skills in painting and weathering to ensure that the finished aircraft replicated the real thing.
But one thing that did come out of 1/48 scale vac-forms was the simple fact that for the first time ever modelers were able to construct models of their favourite aircraft at a much larger size than ever before and for a long time that sustained the vac-form market; bombers and fighters were produced that never before had been available.
While all of this was going on, the injected plastic kit manufacturers tried another scale; 1/32, yet bigger still and by far the biggest yet. Kits of that size were revolutionary in their sheer size and details contained within them. For the first time we were detailing the pilot's seat to a high degree before moving onto another part of the cockpit. A swift coat of paint in a couple of colours into a tiny 1/72 scale cockpit was no longer good enough because with 1/32 scale everything was highly visible. It was huge....!
I well remember opening the very first 1/32 scale kit I purchased for the first time. It was the Revell Supermarine Spitfire Mk.1 and I was staggered at the size and complexity of it. It was far beyond what I had built up to then and made 1/72 scale look positively tiny next to it. The 1/32 scale ranges built up as time went on and most of the 'standrads' were issued, firstly by Revell and then by some of the Japanese kit manufacturers, particularly Hasegawa who at that time had a tie-up with the British manufacturer Frog and they all began to cover our favourites; Spitfire, Hurricane, Wildcat, Mustang, Me109 and so on. They were all moulded and issued for a number of years.
However, there was something missing. Something was not 'right' with these issues and the answer lay in the subjects. They were for the most part all single-engine fighters. Why? Well that was easy to answer; One, the physical size of the mouldings was as big as the current moulding machines could take and Two, the sheer costs of producing a twin-engined bomber were far greater than the sales return would ever be. The investment required to 'go large' was too risky for all of the then mainstream manufacturers. So, a huge 'void' was left...........
Enter One Man
In my personal opinion here in England, one man had the foresight to see a market, take a manufacturing process and fill it with massive kits. He was Doug Feeney. I met him on several ooccasions as I was a member of the same plastic model club I frequented. Doug had a marvellous talent for making masters for kit parts in 1/32 scale and then being able to mould them and produce a kit, which in effect consisted of several sheets of thick plastic card with all the kit parts moulded into it. Doug was then, and still is today, a very highly-talented scale model maker having cut his teeth making very detailed models in smaller scales prior to this. His production company was called I.D. Models.
Seeing one of these masters for the first time at the model club was simply astonishing, 'mind-blowing' as we say today and they were all the better for being mostly very accurate in shape and scale dimensions. Due to the complexity of the moulding process at that scale one of the features of the parts was that there was very little in the way of scribed detail incorporated into the master, therefore the parts when moulded exhibited all the hallmarks of 'scale blanks'. It was Doug's philosophy that he would provide the basic means to an end; accurate yet un-scribed parts that would form the basic 'canvas' for the modeler to add their own level of detail to. After-all, it was reasoned - quiet rightly as it happened - that anyone purchasing a kit of this magnitude not only could afford it but knew what they were doing and what they were letting themselves in for.
I saw Doug's range grow and grow and soon there were others joining in marketing their own brand of 1/32 scale vac-form kit. One such was Phil Wilkins. As John 'Tigger' Wilkes explains: "The Sunderland Mk.1 was not one of Doug's models, it was mastered by Phil Wilkins, who was and still is, a good friend of Doug. They had a bit of a bet to see who could do the biggest model and Doug won with the B-29 Superfortress!"
And so it went on. Just imagine the idea that one could actually purchase a 1/32 scale kit of a B-17 Flying Fortress, or that B-29, or one of the RAF WWII 'heavies' or indeed a Sunderland or Catalina flying boat. And the bigger the subject, the more work was involved in putting in the details - all scratchbuilt - into the cockpits, gun turrets and bomb bays. Even if one just wanted to provide representative details in those locations, it involved hours and hours of work which made the kits excellent value for money providing the modeler had enough reference material to work from and didn't get bored with the subject before it was finished. Then there was the task of working out what to do with it when you had finished it due to the physical size of the finished model.
So, there were a number of factors that one had to weigh up prior to making a purchase but the 1/32 scale vac-form kits showed the way years before the mainstream manufacturers considered their next move. Indeed, it's only in the past five years or so that we have seen injection moulded mainstream 'big' models released.
The vac-forms eventually died off for the reasons outlined earlier and today it's a rare to see an I.D. Models kit for sale at one of the many model shows and, frankly most of todays modelers don't have the interest to carry out what is virtually a full major scratchbuild at that scale, prefering a less demanding route to filling their display shelves.
John 'Tigger' Wilkes, another highly talented English model maker, recently aquired the master moulds of the extinct I.D. Models range and began restoring them to their former glory and has now gone into limited kit production of each of the aircraft types, as and when he is satisfied that the parts are of sufficient quality and are buildable in the right hands with his company, Tigger Models. He has put the 1/32 scale vac-form kit back onto the market and so the generation that grew up with them 20/30 years ago now has another chance to build them again and today's modeler has an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.
Within John's newly-released range were two kits that really piqued my interest; the Short Sunderland Mk.1 and the Consolidated Catalina. It just so happened that I have a very knowledgable flying boat enthusiast friend and as soon as I mentioned to him that the Sunderland was available and that it was the Mk.1, he just had to have it! However, he is not a modeler and he needed someone to build it for him.........well, I couldn't resist now, could I..?
So, I bought the Sunderland kit from John and began to trawl my flying boat archive for references. The task was to build this kit in what can be best described as 'eye-ball' scale as it is to be hung from the ceiling, not displayed on a shelf so no detail will be needed in the cockpit or gun turrets and they will be fitted and finished with glazing represented by a painted finish. However, the exterior will need to be finished to a high standard and the access hatches and doors, together with the portholes will need to be scribed on the hull. The wings will require fuel tank covers, ailerons and elevators and a number of other details, finishing with a decent paint job.
Ok, I thought, not beyond the bounds of possibility................so, given this I have decided to record the build as it goes along and to offer tips along the way where I am able. This is not going to be a 'quick-build' and I expect to break it down into many parts as I go so that the casual reader can keep pace with it and extract the maximum benefit with some building detail. So, without further ado, lets' get stuck in....!
The 1/32 scale Tigger Models Short Sunderland Mk.1
'Bloody big'..! No, 'MASSIVE'......were my first thoughts upon opening the box it arrived in. This is one big kit and it will take you by surprise the sheer size of the hull and wings. It did me, and I thought I was prepared for it. I mean, just how big can a 1/32 Sunderland be..? Answer, 'HUGE'.
I laid the parts out across my workbench and immediately realised that it filled it! Hold the hull up to your eyes, squint along it to see if it's warped (it isn't) and bang your nose as the other end hits the workshop wall as you turn it!
Having contemplated it for a couple of days I thought to myself that the simplest way to deal with it was to treat it exactly the same as if it was a 1/72 scale vac-form, just carry out the same build processes but allow for the larger size where required. So, instead of cutting out all the parts I mentally broke the 'beast' down into it's manageable sections; Hull, Wings, Tailplane, Floats, Cockpit and Turret Transparencies and finally, External Details and began with the hull, putting everything else aside for now.
|One half cut out, the other in its natural state. To give you an idea, that is a British Pound coin on top with a 3G phone alongside. Now do you see how big it is...?
The hull mouldings consists of port and starboard sides moulded in full length with no joins to make. The plastic card that they are moulded upon is quite thick yet very malleable so the process of cutting around the moulding and separating the hull from the sheet was relatively easy. The process for accomplishing this successfully is etched in the annals of vac-form 'folk-lore', that is one draws around the outline of the piece with a medium-point permanent marker pen (permanent because when you start wet-sanding, you want the black line to remain present rather than get washed away. Very important that, as what remains of the black line as you sand the edge of the part - in this case the hull - shows you exactly how much more plastic is left to remove before you get to where you want to be.)The act of drawing the pen is accomplished properly by holding the pen at an angle of roughly 45 degrees to the horizontal, with the tip of the pen nestling up against the piece itself. Then, just trace around the outline until you return to the starting point and join up the line. Do this for all the pieces that you want to cut out. I know a number of modelers that take the view that they will cut out all the parts of a vac-form kit before they start construction and keep the parts in a box or tin until required, thus getting all the cutting out finished with right at the start. Same with the next part of the process, the sanding of the piece.
Once draw around, the next step is to take a craft knife with a brand-new blade and begin to cut the piece away from the backing sheet. This is one of those tasks that can make-or-break the models construction and needs to be carried out with care, for a number of good reasons.
The first reason is personal safety; this is one of those tasks that if it goes wrong, you can end up cutting yourself badly. Proceed slowly, do not rush this step -that is the watchword here. I use a large handle craft knife for this stage because it gives me more control. I do not recommend a knife such as the Swann-Morten craft knife for this as the blades are too flimsy to cope with the thicker plastic of larger kits, .they bend and break and can inflict nasty injury. No, on a kit of this magnitude choose a bigger knife, albeit with a very sharp blade.
|One way of avoiding problems with corner pieces and bends - cut angles out. Notice the pen lines; that's where I'm making my next scores.
|Carefully begin the process of flexing and bending the plastic sheet under it begins to break away.
Now, with the knife at 45 degrees, and applying light pressure, slowly and smoothly let the blade follow the line. Do not under any circumstances try to cut through in one go; just allow the blade to score a line, and then go over it again lightly until you feel the blade scoring that cut line. The cut does not need to go right through and generally, depending on the 'hardness' of the sheet plastic, one pass is sufficient. The whole point behind this technique is that, once a score cut is present, any pressure applied on this piece of plastic at that point will cause it to break. And that's the point.
|Continue flexing and bending the sheet and 'feel' for it breaking away. Don't force it
|When you reach a score line, break the sheet away and remove it completely.
|Some of the sheet pieces cut away that can be saved and used as tabs to join other parts together.
|The sheer bulk of the hull stood across my workbench.
What you will be holding then is a bloody great half-hull piece with a very small left-over bit of plastic sheet residue on it's outer edges. This is removed by sanding along those edges and whilst doping this you will see the remnants of the black pen line. Sand back to where you can no longer see this; then STOP! That is far enough, and the thickness of the plastic sheet has been removed and the part is now exactly replicating the original master, in depth. You will need to constantly check the sanding as you carry out this operation as it is perfectly easy to sand too much off, thus making the part too thin (narrow) or you can sand too much from one place and find that when you offer up the opposite hull half there is a huge gap between the parts that will require some serious fixing and filling.
|That's a British Pound coin there on the bench!
This whole operation of cutting out and sanding is vitally important to the build of any vac-form kit and it pays to take your time on it. Think twice but cut once is the best watchword I can give you here.
So, back to the hull halves; following the foregoing methods the hull halves were cut out with no problems whatsoever. Indeed, I found that the plastic sheet used was very bendable and flexed and broke away from the moulding without any effort. At the end of this exercise I was left with a large number of plastic sheet pieces. Don't throw them away! Keep them and use them for making joining tabs at a later stage in the build.
|Nose-on, the hull looks a bit rough but there's nothing there that can't be easily sorted. Notice the wing roots, though? One's higher than the other. Ooopps! That's going to be a problem.........
|The underside of the hull looks good, matches nicely and won't need much work to look good.
Having completed this stage it allowed me for the very first time to roughly place the two hull halves together, affix them with pieces of masking tape and get a good idea of the sheer bulk of the beast. Doing this confirmed my first thought......it's bloody big!
Next Part: The sanding of the hull halves and constructing the internal bulkheads.