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.

KIV-3 Cover Shot Build Part 4

The model has moved forward quite a bit in the past few weeks. I’ve completed covering the fuselage, at least what shows for the camera shoot. I’ve worked on one wing details and added a nose cone. Finally, the cockpit has received some attention both in details and in its shape.


Wrapping the the fuselage with thin plastic sheets cut into panels just like a real aircraft resulted in a hand crafted look to the model. Not as precise as I would have liked, but then again, this bird is shot up and no longer in fighting condition. This lets me get away with some unevenness here and there. A nice little touch visible in the image below is the fluted cones as some kind of air intake or space intake or something. Anyway, they look cool.

On the green plastic lid at the stern I added some white colored pieces from a laptop keyboard to make that area more interesting. Oh and look, we have a tail fin. It’s a forward sweep design which makes the ship look like a funky Klingon knife or something. I built it like the main wings, sandwiching plastic together.


This version of the is a KIV-3 and thus has a slightly different look to it in some places than the smaller model. The wing tip canons are integrated into the wing better. I still have to scribe some panel lines in the wing, but the surface details are otherwise complete.

I love to put on the wings and take pictures because lets face it, the design is freaking cool. Did I mention that it was first drawn some thirty years ago? The shape is iconic, and timeless.

Nose Cone

My kids are building some flying model rockets and I decided to purchase one just for the plastic nose cone. At first I worried that the cone was too big. But now I think I like it that way. One thing was for sure, the angle of the cockpit walls was way off, as you can see in this wide shot.

I had to extend out the cockpit walls a bit to match the nose cone’s lines.

This angle of the bottom shows how off it was. I decided to just do the sides for now as that’s all that will be visible in the final cover shot. Below is the other side with the pilot sitting in there for scale.


After making the cockpit wider I went back in and attacked it with detailing. My boxes of model parts are pretty thin on small details so much of this is built from scratch stock and improvised.

At least now the pilot has some controls to grab onto and some interesting cockpit doodads. Painting will come next. I had to decide whether to make the canopy as long as the nose or to shorten it. I think you can see for yourself which direction I went with that. The interior will be gray and black and the dashboard area will be flat black.

Building the GA Sokol, Part 3

It’s been a while since I posted about this model. I’ve been busy with life and writing my next novel. Also, we’ve been using these models on the back covers of the paperback versions of the Star Saga novels. You should be able to buy these books next month at most online venues.

The Head

I decided to focus on the head for a bit so I could finish installing the fiber optics for it. Detailing the back and bottom happened first and now I’m moving on to the sides. The top of the head was detailed also. Below are a series of pics that show the head’s progress in the past month.

Back and bottom of the head as I detailed it with whatever was on hand.

This is the other side of the back of the head. Liberal use of computer components is evident, including CDROM cover plate, keys and other scraps of plastic.

This is the bow details coming together. Tank parts dominating here.

Back lighting my portholes after drilling them out. Not as even as I had hoped, but I learned a trick from Bill in the comments that I’m going to try for the other side. Use masking tape to form a guide to drill along.

These are the details on the bottom of the head.

Really happy with how the top of the head is turning out. Can’t wait to see it painted up so the details blend in.

The Body

This week I took a break from the head and worked on the engines and framework of the body a bit. I used the PVC pipe again for the star drives and then only the outboard ones. There is a center engine, but I planned to not show much of it, so I left the space hollow for electronics and such.


Above is the PVC pipes literally bolted to the frame box with screws.



This is on the work bench where she stands now. I used the corrugated plastic face of old server computers to hold the engines together and provide internal strength.


The yellow wires are intended for the lights that will be in the engines. They are not connected to anything yet.


This is the under belly of the model where I used some basswood strips to brace the engines to the main frame and take some of the stress off the plastic bulkhead. All of this will be covered with plastic soon.

That’s it for now.

Building the GA Sokol, Part 1

This is the third and final build of a Sokol named starship, from my Star Saga novels. The GA Sokol was designed and built just after the Great War in the Starveyors Era. So this is the first post-war starship design. It still looks very much like the wartime starships, but it has fewer main guns and smaller drives.


The first thing I built for this scratch built model is its mount. I used 1/2 inch PVC from the local hardware store. I also decided that I would only have four mounts. Top/Bottom and both sides. This is done with a four way adapter and some spacers.

I started by making the central bulkhead where the PVC mounts will be attached. I used Gorilla Glue to secure it to the plastic.

Then I just proceeded to build up the floor of the main superstructure around the mounting system.

This shows the progress I made in the first day. The mount is about in the middle of the whole model, for balance purposes. Maintaining a rigid superstructure will be paramount as this is also where the pass through flight deck will be and all my electronics.


This area is less thought out right now. I originally was going to build up two separate tubes using plank on bulkhead construction. Now I’m leaning towards building the bulkheads of all three engines as single panels. It will all make more sense when I actually build them and show you next time.

Meta Data

I’ve started a spreadsheet that will track hours worked, costs and parts used. I hope to have a very accurate picture of what it takes to build these starships when I’m done with this one.

To this point: 5 hours, $27.91 in plastic and PVC parts.

Building the GCU Sokol, Part 13

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13

Starboard Details

This weekend I finished up the starboard sides with details on the stern gun pod and the main guns. I went with a single gun turret on top and will put another on the bottom later.

Here’s the finished stern gun pod. I tried to match it to the port version as much as possible and allowed for some variation due to repairs and such. The plan is to put thin panels on top of the black PVC tubes. That will come later on in the build. I’m particularly   fond of the thin line of details above the gun ports.

This is the start of detailing on the starboard main gun decks. The rails are up and now on to the gun pits. Computer nerds may recognize the tan piece as an old rail for PC cases. The washer is protecting an open gun port.

Here we are mostly complete and looking a bit smoother than the port side. I like to make the sides a bit different, again due in part to maintenance and upgrades in progress.

Ignoring the pretty star pattern of spray paint on the black engine tubes, this is the detail inside the area behind the gun deck. I think we can stick some more tidily bits in there yet. Yes, that’s the handle of a disposable razor (green).

This is a top view showing both completed stern gun pods. Starting to come together. That empty area behind the top secondary deck is where I’m going to build a hangar deck and launch pad for the squadron of starfighters that are based on the Sokol. I know, insane.

Going Inverted

Reason you don’t glue the head on until you’re finished; so you can use the neck to hold the model in a vise while you detail the bottom. That movie slate was built by yours truly for use in a feature film from my past. I used to be an Assistant Cameraman.

Bottom’s up!

Working on the keel. Staying traditional with scoring and panels. A few details where I can get away with it and keep it flat.

Close up of the panel scoring on the bottom of the keel. I’ve only just started this process, so things will change. I stowed the kids bikes in the garage, which means I can get two cars inside and still have room to work at my bench. You can see my portable heater on the cement floor in one of these shots.


Building the GCU Sokol, Part 10

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

Part 11 | Part 12

Detailing the Head

In the past 24 hours I’ve focused most of my efforts on the bow and bottom of the Sokol’s head. I’ve used parts obtained from my good friend Nate’s old Warhammer models for most of this detailing.

You may have noticed the swank new cutting mat. Yeah, it’s fine. I also worked hard on the bottom of the head. I added two gun turrets to the bottom, along with tracking sensors. One of the sensors is exposed for maintenance.

It’s a bit hard to tell in this pic, but I also scored some lines on the bottom and then added little square pieces of plastic. The orange piece is a greeblie acquired last week from the dollar store. It makes a great lower deck.

The last thing I started, but didn’t finish was the port main guns. I was able to add some strips of detail to the top and bottom and added some struts and greeblies. But most of this will get covered by armor plates. I’ll show you what I mean after I build it.

Building the GCU Sokol Part 7

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

Part 11 | Part 12

Coming Together

Spent pretty much all day in the garage building this beast Sunday. Thanks to super glue and sharp knifes, I made some decent progress. Built up the head of the starship and most of the main superstructure. The biggest parts are done, but there are more large parts that still remain.

This is the head going together. The hole for the neck was drilled out with my new variable speed hobby grinder. Can’t recommend one of those enough for scratch building models like this. That’s the grinder holding up the parts drying.

This is the damage you can do with the grinder, when you need to get those large holes bored out of the thick plastic. Nothing like burning, grinding plastic to get you going in the morning.

The main body needed some modeling putty and then a good sanding. That washer is surrounding a hole cut out for a main gun. Most of the guns are closed or covered, this one and one on the other side are open to reveal the canon barrel inside. Detail. Love it.

This is looking at the mains and the details therein. Three parts make up the nozzles; OJ bottle lid, Scotch tape center and the cap to Vitamin C tablets. There will probably be more details added later, but since I had these already built, I glued them in place.

Here’s the finished head attached to the body. The last thing I glued on was the cover on the front of the superstructure. I’m trying to get the body blocked out before the cold chases me out of the garage. I can detail the model inside.

The next thing I need to work on is figuring out how to mount it and building a jig for it to set in while I’m detailing it. Thinking of using a wooden jig that could end up being the base for the model. Always something.