Modeling How-To: Detailing Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts about detailing your scratch built starship models. Part One is here.

Kit Photo Buckets

Every time I get a new model kit in I make a point of photographing the parts trees and then collecting them into a bucket for later use. This lets me refer back to where a part came from in case I need to get that kit again. I spend way too much time on Google Images searching for similar model tree pics for models that I’m interested in purchasing.

Here’s an example of a photo bucket for a model kit I’ve used.

This bridge on a tank model was a gold mine for great parts to use on a warship.

When the model parts are molded in light colors, use a dark background. When they are dark, try and use a lighter background color. It’s no more complicated than that. I don’t spend a lot of time on it and I include a picture of the front box art so I can order it again.

For each model that I scratch build I have to asses whether my boxes and boxes of kit parts is going to cover it. Not only in volume but in type of parts. For instance, tank kits are great for mechanical parts but you always wind up with 200 road wheels that you never use. So, do I really need another tank kit? Maybe I could get a boat kit or a train or here’s a wild hare, how about a truck accessory kit? Believe it or not, I’ve used all of these examples.

Boat kits are awesome for starships that are the same scale as the boat, in this case 1/350.

Generally, if you are replicating the used car look of ILM models you need lots of mechanical pieces to include pipes, boxes, gears and grills and engine blocks. The trouble is, if you just slap them on your model without trying to integrate them correctly you wind up making a model that people look at and go, “Hey, that’s a tank cannon, right?” This is not good. You want your detailing to imply actual mechanical devices that do something. Form follows function. Is that a flapper thingy that pops up from the fuselage? Maybe it needs a hydraulic activator arm under it. Starfighter engine? Maybe it needs some pipes or tubes around it like a jet or rocket engine. I’m not suggesting that you know what every piece does, only that you make the viewer think that it does something.

Strips of plastic on the body remind the viewer of wing strakes on fighters, while plates behind the cockpit remind one of armor.

This is where we cross over from amateur modeling skills to pro level skills. The best models make the viewer think, “Damn, that looks real as heck. Like it could take off and blast a TIE fighter into a million shiny pieces.” Detailing can go a long way towards suspending the disbelief that you’re looking at an actual machine rather than just a model.

Truck parts and pipes used to build the interior of a 1/32 scale starship bridge. They suggest a working, mechanical ship.

That same bridge in the finished cockpit, complete with weathering and lights.My creations are usually built to be photographed for my book covers. So I build them with that purpose in mind. My models don’t have glass cockpits and sometimes they are unfinished when viewed from behind. Why detail and paint what is never seen? So far I’ve only done this once with a large scale KiV-3 model for the cover of The Rising. Usually I complete the model because I never know from what angle I’ll be taking the picture. Or I want to give myself options to photograph it from any angle.

Here you see more than one mount point inside this fighter using a block of RenShape and set screws.

My models always have more than one mounting point and each mounting point has to be hidden from the eye. Display models typically only have one mount on the bottom or through the engine exhaust. But I need the flexibility of multiple mount points. This is why models are more like movie models or Studio Scale models. Typically a model is built to the scale needed to photograph or film it. Most of them are much bigger than you’d first expect. Some of the Star Wars models were measured in feet not inches and they weighed hundreds of pounds.

The massive Star Destroyer model built by ILM for The Empire Strikes Back.

I can’t build my models that big. I’d have no way to move them and no room to store them! So I usually stick to 1/350 to 1/32 for starships and starfighters respectfully. Sometimes I’ll build a smaller fighter in say, 1/72 or even 1/350 or a larger fighter in 1/24 scale to show off more detail.

The large scale KiV-3 model’s cockpit was super detailed because you can see it on the cover quite well. Behind it is not even finished because you would not see it.

Non-Kit Parts

Don’t limit yourself to just model kit parts. You can use any plastic or even some non-plastic parts. I prefer solid plastic pieces and not flexible pieces that are more rubbery, because they don’t stay glued on. I have boxes of greeblies that are collected from all aspects of my life. If it looks interesting, I’ll save it and maybe I’ll use it or maybe not.

Can you ID all the non-kit parts used in the cockpit from above? Even a hair beret!


Up until about a year ago my go-to blue was Tester’s Model Cement in the iconic red tube with a white cap. I used it to glue ALL THE THINGS. However, it was not the best tool for gluing tiny, detail pieces.

Standard Tester glue is my old faithful.

In the past few years I’ve come to really appreciate Gorilla Glue. I use it for binding metal, and wood to plastic or PVC. This stuff is magical. It doesn’t stink, in fact it’s odorless. It takes about thirty minutes to dry a night to cure. And it’s easily available at hardware stores. LOVE this stuff. But it does have a tendency to expand and explode out from under where you put it. But I can deal with that now and it doesn’t bother me.

Need to glue wood and plastic or metal and plastic or PVC? Gorilla Glue is golden.

Whenever I come across a troublesome piece of plastic I go back to that magical red tube of glue from my childhood. Tester cement. Below is a starship frame with gray plastic and white strips of styrene. The gray stuff, will not take a decent bond with cement. You have to sand it dull to give the glue something to hold onto and you need to use some kind of Cyanoacrylate based glue.

Oh look, it’s good old Tester cement!

My latest favorite glue for model pieces is Revell’s liquid glue with a metal tube applicator. It’s not found on the shelves in US based hobby stores. I order it from Amazon and it comes from Germany. I now reach for that glue more than any other glue for attaching greeblies. It dries clear but can leave clumps if over applied. However, it does put the glue where you want it pretty accurately. And that is pretty awesome. I’d love to get a syringe with a metal tube instead of a needle. I know they are out there, just need to find one.

Revell’s liquid model glue is my new favorite. But what’s that in the background? Testers cement. *sigh

Finally, I’ve been using Mr. Cement’s liquid glue which comes in a clear square bottle with a blue brush cap. This is comparable to Tamiya’s Extra Thin liquid cement. Apparently everyone building kits switched to these and didn’t tell me. Using capillary action, it goes on sloppy and then evaporates from around your part. I’m not a big fan of this stuff yet. But it’s growing on me. Check back in a year to see if I’m using this more than the Revell liquid.

Here we see all three glues in one shot. Also, just off camera right is, you guessed it, Testers cement.

Size and Details

The golden rule for detailing is: the bigger the ship you are modeling, the more detail you show. So if you are building a starfighter, don’t get too detailed outside of the cockpit. You can show panel lines, but not tiny ones. Keep them consistent with airplane panel lines at the same scale. If you are building a starship, you can have some larger panels but then also show much smaller ones that are perhaps smaller than a man in size. Ships are made from smaller parts and larger parts. So go hog wild.

Starfighter panel lines are usually larger at 1/32 scale.

Here are larger panel lines on a Swift model. It looks very much like a modern jet fighter.

On this warship model 1/350 scale, you can see medium sized panels and small panels. This works to help create the scale of the model.

In the warship model above, you can also see smaller plastic pieces as well as larger pieces to the left, on the ship’s neck. Use larger pieces to cover larger areas that have lots of machinery. Use smaller pieces near windows and such to once again, create the impression of scale.

Another thing to keep in mind about panel lines is that you should make some of them angled and some could follow the lines of the vehicle. Look at airplanes and ships and other Sci-Fi models for ideas and patterns that look natural.

One last note on smaller size panels. There is another method of detailing related to scribe panels and that is added panels of different thickness. It’s important to not use raised panels that are too thick for the scale of your model. I’ve built many fighters and sometimes I used strips of styrene that were far too thick for the scale of the model. This breaks scale and looks poorly to the trained eye, much less the untrained eye.

Look at the strip above the wing root. It’s way, way, way too thick for the scale.The strips of plastic below the model are much thinner and would have been preferred to the thick one I actually went with. In fact I’d even go so far as to say that just about every raised panel on this model is too thick for the scale. How do I know this? I’ve built a lot of scale models in my life and I know what looks right. It’s a feeling based on years of experience. If you have no experience building scale models then you won’t have that eye for what looks right.

So why did I use that thick strip on the above model? I was covering the sloppy wing root area gaps. Sometimes even people with lots of experience can screw it up.

Corvette Draft One Complete

Yesterday morning the house was quiet with everyone asleep, so I wrote the final two scenes in my latest novella, Corvette. It feels good to have that behind me. I was thinking it might stretch out to be a novel, but at under 50K words and about 215 pages, its a decent sized novella. Corvette is my attempt to write to a market and create a prequel to the Star Saga. The structure and tropes that I used are similar to what is selling right now in Military SF. I hope to have it out in ebook form early next year.

Right now my writing sprints are focused on the second draft of K’nat Trap. This is the novella that I wrote earlier in the year and its set a few years after Starstrikers, Book 4 of the Star Saga. Looking forward to making the changes my beta readers have suggested and tightening up the second draft. With any luck, it will be out before Corvette, sometime next year.

In other news, I’ve nearly completed the K’nat fighter model for use on the novella’s cover. Here are some shots of the model on my bench.

This is a 3rd Generation Votainion starfighter and appears in Starstrikers and K’nat Trap. It has a standard engine and two NexGen space/time drives that let it move through space and time for short duration.

It’s quite the challenge to paint and weather an all black fighter. The canopy in these shots is just primer gray. Eventually it will be painted.

GCU Griffin

This weekend it was cool outside so I busted out the blue screen and a finished model and took some pictures of it. That of course led to some Gimp action with some pretty background images. Since my brother was visiting, he got a chance to watch me photograph the model and then helped me tweak the photos in Gimp. The results are below for your viewing pleasure.




The Blood Empress on Pre-Sale

I still have three more books to release in the coming months. This month it’s the novella, The Blood Empress about Empress Nykostra the leader of the Votainion Empire. If you’re reading along in the Star Saga this book chronologically goes between Books 2 and 3. But since those books are not out yet, you can read this one as a stand alone. Book 2, The Rising comes out in December and I’m pushing to get Book 3 Counterattack out in January. Lots of reading coming your way soon.

In the mean time, order up your copy of The Blood Empress now and then you can sneak away after turkey diner and read it while the family argues about politics.


Sokol Refit

Spent some time this weekend installing a mount on my first starship model, so I can photograph it for future book cover art. The process involved cutting away a hole and then sticking in a piece of wood with a 1/4 20 screw base. After that was dry, I then had to cover the wood with plastic and some tubular detail and paint. Below are the results of the retrofit.


I made no effort to cover the actual mount point hole, because this is on the bottom of the model and would rarely if ever be seen. For a model that had no mount at all, I can live with that.


After the paint job.



On the bench, belly up on blocks of wood to protect the antennas on the top side.


Finally a look at my recently cleaned off desk in the garage. I resurrected my old Macbook to act as a browser for social media. I also hooked up an old DVD player and my old Sony 13″ TV so I could watch movies in the garage. Or maybe just listen to them as I work.

GCU Sokol Size

(Revised the scale from 1/350 to 1/500.)

I calculated the scale of my GCU Sokol model and came up with 1/500. So this beast is about 330 meters long and can house about 1,000 crew. It’s slightly larger than the 1701-A Enterprise and a bit more than half as long as the original Battlestar Galactica.

The huge windows kind of make it look like a cruise ship. So I’ll be changing them to the round port holes, the same size as the SS Sokol. Speaking of the SS Sokol, it’s about 180 meters long and also 1/500 scale. In SF terms, its a tad bigger than a Corellian corvette. That’s the ship seen fleeing a Star Destroyer at the start of Star Wars Episode IV.

The third version of the Sokol, the GA Sokol, will be the same scale and come in around 200 meters long. It will have fiber optic lights for the port holes but they will be the same diameter as the round port holes on the SS Sokol.

Here’s a chart that I found on the web and hastily added the Sokol too. (Click to make larger)


Studio Scale Model Observations

Kate Donaldson via Compfight

I’ve been scrutinizing pictures of the studio models of Star Destroyers that ILM built for the original Star Wars trilogy and some other famous Studio Scale starship models. Some observations follow. If you’re not into modeling, you can just ignore this little geek out moment.

1. The original 3 ft long model used in A New Hope, is not near as awesome as the six foot model built for Empire. Its details are less integrated into the whole and more easily identified as battleship and tank parts. Still, the opening to E4 remains epic and iconic. Imagine how long that shot would have been had they used the Avenger model?

2. The six foot Avenger model is a masterpiece. The greeblies are more disguised and purposeful. I also think the the model is better covered by such details.

3. Both models are not very weathered. I realize, space and all, but basically, they are just painted a light gray. No streaking, meteor hits or battle damage. Also, no repairs under progress, like the new Galactica implied so well.

4. The original Galactica model was and still is, awesome! I also like that it used colored panel lines in odd places and was “weathered” a bit.

5. People actually try to guess the model parts on these studio builds so they can reproduce them. Crazy. And kinda cool, I’ll admit. Although personally, I have too many original designs to keep me building until I die. No need to recreate what someone else did. But I would imagine that the original modelers are flattered.

6. Someone needs to do a forum with pictures that describes how all these studio models were mounted and the internal structure of them. How do they use metal tubes and keep the model from spinning around? I’m just not getting that from the older pics. This guy’s reproduction is the best documented mounting system I’ve seen so far.

7. I’d also like to know more about how fiber optics are used inside these models. It looks like a nightmare to thread a six foot model with fiber. Perhaps there is a how-to out there on the internet that I should look at.

8. Some kit bashed greeblies are cool as is, but when the modeler takes the time to make it look like it has a purpose, they look even better. Personally, if I can see that you just glued a Panzer top to your model, I consider that a bit of a fail. Make it look like it was shaped that way for a reason. Disguise it with other parts and make it blend into a whole.

9. This guy’s Tantive IV model is amazing. Also, the original was extremely well done in regards to number eight above. In many ways it reminds me of the Discovery from 2001 A Space Odyssey.

10. After looking at all these fantastic models, I can’t wait to get back to my GCU Sokol build.


Spaceship Camouflage

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of camouflage on starships. When I was in college, I had a collection of Star Trek models, the old-school original series versions, back when they were affordable. I painted one of my modified Enterprises with the disruption camouflage used by allied battleships in the North Atlantic during WW2. I wish I had a picture to show you, it was one cool looking starship. Below are some pictures of ships from that era so you can get an idea where I was coming from.

The above picture is the USS Radford from WW2 sporting a Measure 12 scheme.

This is the SS Empress of Russia a troop carrier with the Dazzle scheme.

These paint schemes were designed to make ships harder to see on the horizon. The bold shapes helped to break up the lines of the ship, making it harder for submariners to see them. In space, one would think that scanners or some such would replace visual acuity for tracking enemy ships. But some schemes could also help fool scanners, much like the mysterious black material that coats modern stealth fighters and bombers.

For the smaller starfighters though, they can easily be painted up, especially if they fly over jungle planets in low orbit or even in the skies of earth-like planets.

Terror Diver

In my novel, Starstrikers, I have the bad guys using camouflage on their starfighters. Above we see a Terror Diver starfighter with no camo, but a funky red skull design on the  nose. I love that image it’s alien and yet familiar.

This is a model I built of the Votanion Stratofighter from Starstrikers. These were primarily atmosphere fighters and had my unique patterns intended to help mask it over the jungle planet of Tomungia. I figure starfighters would use grays and black when in space, but land based fighters would still use the more colorful blends to fool human and alien eyes.

Reemer Fighter

The last pattern I want to show you is from Starforgers, the first book of the Star Trilogy. The Votainion fighters in that era were called Eight-fighters by the humans and KIV-3’s by the Votainions. The bottoms of the KIV-3’s had a version of the Dazzle camouflage of WW2. Again, the idea was to confuse the eye as to which direction it was traveling and to break up the pattern of those monster big wings.

The last picture I have for you is of a tiny model that I made when I was a kid. It’s a Votainion Interceptor ship from the novel Starstrikers. These had black invasion stripes on their noses, also culled from WW2, and splotches of browns, greens and blacks along the body to break them up a bit. Interestingly, the allied fighters in Starstrikers had no camouflage.

Early Fleet Starships

Interstellar travel in the time before the Great War was limited to long journeys with nuclear powered starships. The military began experimenting with tunnel drive starships and production on them was just getting started when the war broke. The first successful tunnel drive starship was the civilian run exploration ship SS Bourke. The Bourke was lost in space with all hands under mysterious circumstances.

SS Bourke

The second tunnel drive starship was the SS Sokol and the third was the SS Kelley, both Federation military ships. The Sokol was considered a battlewagon, the largest starship in the fleet’s inventory. While the Kelley was a modest sized cruiser of the same class as most of the inner system military starships of the fleet.

GCU Sokol

GCU Sokol was the first Class A starship of the nascent Alliance star fleet.

Starship Comparison Chart

SS Sokol, SS Kelley and Votainion warship. This size comparison chart shows both Alliance military vessels and the Votainion warship of the same period.

Early Votainion Warship

Votainion warship close up. The Votainion warships were more advanced and they tended to travel in three groups of three, or nine total. Not coincidentally there are nine houses of Voton and each house provided its own warship to the armada.

Votainion Warship Head

Votainion warship head only. The Engineers designed their warships with “heads” that could separate from the main body. This was not done to save the crew, but rather to save the Engineers who navigated the warships and maintained the complicated internal systems. The warrior class were not considered brilliant enough to maintain their own warships.

Pirate Ships from Starforgers

Pirate ships. An area of space in the Outer Rim known as the Trade Triangle was home to countless bands of pirate ships. There were too many for the Stellar Rangers to effectively control and often these pirates acted in groups to go after regular Federation trade ships. Flaming skulls on their sides marked the bolder pirate ships. All of these pirate run ships were former trader ships and cargo carriers. Most of them had been modified with weapons to intimidate cargo captains.

The Revenge

The Revenge was the best known pirate ship of the day. Details of the Revenge and its captain are revealed in the Starforgers novel.