W
Parts & Recreation

Parts & Recreation

Topics: ,
Locations:
Materials:

What makes people devote hours to the frustrating task of gluing together pieces so small you have to pick them up with tweezers? And does this obsessive hobby even matter anymore? To find out, a devotee of the art dives into Revell’s world of plastic models.

By JEFF GREENWALD


Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Ed Sexton, a former race car driver and a longtime manager at Revell, practicing his favorite hobby: building tiny plastic model cars.

My first plastic model, financed by weeks of snow shoveling, was Revell’s 1965 Gemini spacecraft. The kit had 93 parts, including two Lilliputian astronauts that I manipulated—with real envy—into the impossibly cramped capsule that would carry them into orbit. I remember bits of the process: the pages of the Long Island Press, spread over the kitchen table; the dizzying aroma of Testor’s glue; the UNITED STATES decals that seemed permanently attached to their backing until they suddenly slid off, in useless fragments, onto the painted plastic.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

A glimpse of the detail that our writer spent his youth striving for — in this case, on a 1933 Ford, assembled and decorated by a “professional” model-maker.

Over the years I built scores of models. I was a geeky adolescent outsider, sneaking into American pop culture through tiny plastic doors. While my peers were collecting Beatles singles, I exulted in the 1966 Batmobile that perched on my desk, honoring me with its silver rocket tubes and fine orange piping. A panoply of popular movie monsters snarled on my bookshelves. Each one had taken hours to assemble, but what else was I doing? Pong was still six years away.

Five decades later, in November, 2014, Warner Brothers re-released the entire original series of 120 Batman episodes. The news inspired an immediate visit to the neighborhood hobby shop, even though I hadn’t been inside one in decades.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

The engine, with each pin and piston individually painted by hand

In the 1960s and 70s, plastic models had sprung—as effortlessly as Pop-Tarts—from the aerospace programs, car designers and TV shows they mimicked. What were today’s inspirations? Once I arrived in the hobby shop, what amazed me most was that plastic models still existed—thousands of them, including a vintage Batmobile.  Yet unlike the models I built as a kid, most of these now bore a “Made in China” disclaimer. Even Revell, a company whose very logo looks like an American flag, had outsourced. But Revell’s home office was still in Illinois, apparently going strong. How could this be?

Gerry Humbert examines a mold for a Revell car. The areas for the car’s seats, grille and roof are visible in the foreground. The steel support rods keep the steel mold for warping as plastic explodes into the channels at 2,000 lbs. per square inch—roughly the pressure a submarine would experience 4,000’ under water, or the weight of 400 compact cars

Gerry Humbert examines a mold for a Revell car. The areas for the car’s seats, grille and roof are visible in the foreground. The steel support rods keep the steel mold for warping as plastic explodes into the channels at 2,000 lbs. per square inch—roughly the pressure a submarine would experience 4,000’ under water, or the weight of 400 compact cars

“VERY MUCH AN ART”

Sprawled over the flatlands some 30 miles northwest of Chicago, the boundaries of Elk Grove Village embrace the largest industrial park in the United States. More than 3,600 businesses have set up branches or headquarters in this former farming community. Next to Chicago itself, it’s the second largest manufacturing area in the country. Incongruously, the town still hosts its namesake: a herd of elk imported from the plains of Montana in the 1920s, now living in resigned boredom near the eastern edge of the Busse Woods Forest Preserve.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship magazine, Spring 2015

A wooden pattern model of a 1959 Chevy Impala, meticulously carved from basswood. These pattern models, about 2-3 times the size of the finished model, must contain every single detail that is going to be reproduced in plastic—from the dashboard dials to the pattern on the headlight glass.

Brian Eble, vice president of marketing for Revell—still America’s premier model company—met me at the breakfast buffet of Elk Grove’s Comfort Inn, hand outstretched. Eble grew up on an Illinois farm and looks like a middle-aged superhero: close-cropped gray hair, a strong jaw, broad shoulders. An avid builder as a kid, he spent breakfast waxing philosophical about how model making had changed since our childhoods.

“Take a model car,” he suggested. “They used to carve the originals out of bass wood, and fashion the mold from that. Now, of course, it’s all done with computers. But the magic is the same. You’re taking a real car,” he said, lifting his java, “and shrinking it down to the size of this cup.

“Here’s the question,” he said. “How do you infuse craftsmanship into a modern industrial fabrication process? I think of wine. Nobody questions that wine-making is an art, even though people aren’t stomping on grapes anymore. It’s become a highly technical process—but people still pay hundreds of dollars for a well-crafted vintage. Model making is the same. What we’re doing at Revell is highly technical, but it’s still very much an art.”

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

The Computer Assisted Design (CAD) specs of Revell’s new 1929 Ford Model A street rod, show here on Senior Engineer Ron Rowlett’s screen, detail each of the model’s 125 individual parts down to an accuracy of one three thousandths (0.003) of an inch.

When I was a kid, in the 1960s and 1970s, plastic models were new and exciting. They were hi-tech, with their sleek molded parts and luminous decals and metallic paints. I studied and built them religiously, and this visit to Revell was almost a pilgrimage for me. But I wondered if it would be a pilgrimage to a faded shrine.

In days past, building a PT Boat or a spaceship was almost a shamanistic exercise—a way to take possession of a slice of history, or a heroic fantasy. In the late 1960s, when I was gluing together my Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, those vehicles were actually rocketing into space. To build them was to be a part of that adventure. Today, of course, you can join multiplayer games in which you feel as though you actually serve aboard a starship, battling aliens at the edges of the galaxy.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Senior Engineering Designer Ron Rowlett holds up a “test shot”—a rough draft in plastic—of Revell’s 1929 Ford Model A street rod. The CAD specs on his computer were designed by Rowlett and sent to China, where the model’s parts were manufactured. They were then shipped to Revell and tested for accuracy and fit.

Those two worlds, it turns out, aren’t mutually exclusive. Kids may be addicted to their devices, but they still love working with their hands, either alone or in groups. In the mid-west, organizations like 4-H and Future Farmers of America are more popular than ever. And in tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area, there’s a growing backlash—among affluent techie parents—away from iGames and toward nostalgic hobbies that involve all ten fingers. For adults, the gleefully mocked Ikea kits are reintroducing tens of thousands of white-collar workers to the satisfactions (and head-banging frustrations) of assembling cool stuff from instruction sheets.

As this restless new customer base emerges, model makers are waking up. Some see the potential for a new Golden Age, where plastic model making (and we’re not even talking about Lego, whose movie grossed nearly $470 million worldwide) makes a comeback as The New Cool Thing.

Models have a long history, and the surprising truth is that they’ve never completely faded from the scene. The first—created by the Monogram company in Chicago during World War II—were made of balsa, and the final product was a painstaking replica of carved wood, fabric and dope. (“Dope’ was a thick vanish painted onto the fabric covering the wings of model aircraft. And yes, you could get very high sniffing it—thus the descriptor’s evolution to the evil stuff now sold on the streets.) Revell was formed a few years later, in California. Then, in 1951, Revell launched the first all-plastic model: a luxury 1910 Maxwell automobile.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Test shots for Revell’s new 1929 Ford Model A street rod, showing different ways to customize the engine. Early test shots are molded in gray plastic; the final draft is molded in white

But model making as we know it didn’t explode until the late 1950s, when plastic became a universal medium. The science of injection molding allowed companies like Monogram and Revell to create—to mass produce, in fact—any design that amused them. Some of those early models included Revell’s 1959 Helios (a “nuclear powered lunar landing craft”), along with Monogram’s Superman (portrayed knocking down a brick wall with his fist) and, of course, Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel. Revell even produced, incredibly, a scale model of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, complete with different arms to “strike idiotic poses.”

In 1986 Revell and Monogram merged, and the factory was moved to Illinois.

Today, hobby shops—like the venerable Ace Hardware in Berkeley, California, thriving since 1963—continue to sell plastic model kits to kids and hobbyist adults. Gundam (characters from a late-1970s Japanese animated robots series), World War II tanks, and 1970s muscle cars arrive weekly. Model makers are challenged, but they’re not losing as much ground as one might thing. A niche market is still a market—and these days, even niches can be pretty big.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Larry Lyse, Revell’s Sr. Director of Design and Engineering Graphics, retired in January 2015 after 44 years with Revell and Monogram, another model maker. He’s holding the first model he ever worked on: a Black Widow Ford Model T Pickup. Though this avatar of the model is recent, the box art is vintage: a smiling waitress at a drive-in diner, carrying a tray holding a hamburger and soda to a James Dean-like character leaning flirtatiously out of his ‘rod.

A UNIQUELY AMERICAN INDUSTRY

Revell currently releases about a half dozen new models each month. These include products that have never been made before, as well as previously released models—like a 1949 Mercury wagon and USAF F-105—that are upgraded with new parts, and renamed. Car models account for about 70% of Revell’s sales, with planes at 20% and ships at a modest 5%. But there are the odd cash cows: perennial best-sellers like Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon™.

During my visit, a new Revell product – a 1929 Model A Ford “Street Rod”—was nearing completion, the culmination of nearly four years of development. Like many such kits, this one will include a choice of parts—different steering wheels, front grilles and tiny gear shift levers—to give diehard enthusiasts the option to customize their cars. The people assembling and painting these models are not inventing original works of art, or course. But like chefs reimagining a classic cheeseburger or bands covering Chuck Berry, they’re putting their own spin on emblems that define our culture. And though I couldn’t yet take one home and build it, the Model A would introduce me to an industry that still feels uniquely American.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Brian Eble, Revell’s vice president of marketing, holds a B-17 Flying Fortress, a 1:48 scale model of the plane that took the air war to Germany and Japan. Prior to joining Revell, Eble owned three Kung Fu schools.

Even though Revell has joined the outsourcing exodus, the denizens of Elk Grove are the ones who visualize, create and perfect those models. They labor in small offices or shared workspaces, their desks littered with blueprints and plastic model part “trees.” Stacks of boxed fighter jets and vintage Bel Airs fill the corners. At first glance Revell looks like a corner of Santa’s Village. It feels like it, too. The people at those workstations seem to realize that, for all the technicalities and snafus they faced, their basic business is about having fun.

There were three old-timers at Revell during my visit: Ed Sexton, Ron Rowlett and Larry Lyse. Between them, these technicians and designers have had a hand in nearly every model the company has produced since 1971.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Intricate schematics illustrate the position and number of each plastic part of the Ford Model A, as shown in this blueprint for the model’s “tree.” This pattern will then be cut into both sides of the steel mold using computer numerical control (CNC), which captures every detail. “The art of laying out the mold is somewhat of a black art,” says mold wizard Larry Lyse, who has had a hand in nearly every model Revell has created since 1971.

With his peppered hair and no-nonsense blue eyes, Ed Sexton could pass as the Sheriff of Elk Grove. Sexton is a former sports car driver and pit stop boss who, before joining Revell in 1994, raced Formula Fords and open-cockpit Sports 2000s. It’s part of his job to decide which of the world’s seemingly infinite array of land, sea and air vehicles deserve to be immortalized in plastic. Apparently, the old hot rods (some call them “street rods”) like the 1929 Ford Model A were, and remain, some of the most popular.

After World War II, old jalopies from the 1920s and ‘30s were abundant; car lovers would buy them, drop in modern V8 engines, soup up the bodies  and turn them into sexy roadsters. They still do, with legendary hot rod builders like Boyd Coddington and Chip Foose spending enormous sums on their iconic roadsters. These guys are bellwethers for Revell. “The modeling community tends to have the same likes and dislikes as the full-size car builders,” said Sexton. “Since Revell never really had a good Model A street rod, we thought this would be a good idea. It’s probably the most complicated kit we’ve made in 30 years.”

Thirty years have brought a lot of changes to the industry, so more complicated is not necessarily more difficult.  Technology has accelerated the fabrication process, but the fundamentals of creating models, Sexton told me, are the same. “Most still start with what’s called a ‘pattern model’: a large-scale, 1:10 replica of what the plastic model is going to look like. It’s usually hand-carved—out of bass wood and other materials—using knives, chisels and sandpaper.”

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Hobbico purchased both Revell and Monogram, America’s premier model makers, in 2007. Revell Germany, a strong company in its own right, was acquired in 2012. The company also owns Estes, which has been making solid-fuel rockets for hobbyists since 1958—the year Explorer 1 was launched into orbit (which was a year after the Russians’ legendary launch of Sputnik).

From the 1950s until about 15 years ago, the Revell plant did everything. The intricate pattern models were made in Revell’s fully equipped woodshop, the steel molds cut and tested on-site, and the polystyrene model parts stamped in leviathan banks of multi-ton molding machines.

Today the pattern models are made by Chinese craftsmen, who may never have seen (or even imagined) an all-American hot rod. Everything depends on the information they get from Elk Grove. The 2D specs and diagrams that Revell sends to China have to be incredibly accurate—down to one three-thousandths (0.003) of an inch. This means (with a ’68 Pontiac Firebird, for example) that Sexton’s team has to start by finding a meticulously preserved example of that car. Sometimes, this involves a nationwide-search. Once it’s located, they travel to the vehicle and take hundreds of detailed photographs, cataloguing every tiny part—and the car as a whole. (For newer models Revell designers get a break, because car manufacturer often send the company complete specs.)

“But street rods are different,” said Sexton. “They’re individual expressions of craft. There’s really no single, definitive example. A ‘perfect’ 1929 Ford Model A street rod didn’t actually exist.” This forced the Revell team to go searching for the car’s myriad parts, and create 2D drawings of all those parts. The company’s design team then created what’s called an “exploded drawing”: a roadmap of what each part of the model will look like, and how they’ll all fit together. (In this case, they had taken a car with some 2,500 parts, and condensed it into a model kit with 125.)

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Sexton at his workbench in Northbrook, IL. As Revell’s Sr. Product Development Manager Sexton helps select Revell’s new models.

Once these drawings were received at the Chinese plant, the overseas craftsmen used them to create a 3D pattern model of the car, at 1:10 scale. The Chinese team then did a 3D scan of the pattern model, and sent the files back to Elk Grove—where they ended up on the screen of Ron Rowlett, Revell’s Senior Engineering Designer. Rowlett, who has been with Revell since 1978, studied the 3D scans of the pattern model to make sure they were accurate in every detail.

At this point, a sometimes maddening “call-and-response” process begins. After Rowlett designs all the individual plastic parts of the Model A on his computer screen, he sends the 3D schematics over to China. The Chinese factory then molds all the individual parts, creates the full model kit, and ships this “test shot” (think of it as a first draft, in plastic) back to Revell. Rowlett uncaps his glue, puts the model together, makes note of any problems (and there are always problems), and sends revised schematics back to Guang Dong. And so it goes, back and forth, until perfection is achieved.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Sexton zeroes in. In the foreground, with a base coat of silver, is a tiny driver figure. “I do most of my painting with a combination of paintbrush and airbrush,” Sexton says.

This long-distance dance seemed a far cry from the company’s early days, when Revell’s technicians and designers worked cheek to jowl to ensure each model was perfect. I asked Rowlett if anything is lost in translation. “It’s not the same as seeing a design first hand, and touching it in real life,” he nodded. “And you have a greater chance of something being missed. Like a given shape on a car body. We grew up in a car culture; they didn’t. So they might overlook something we’d catch right away.”

One result of the long-distance relay is that there are more test shots than there use to be—which can add from six to eight weeks to the process. Even so, Rowlett says, “The big advantage is the cost—and the fact that we no longer have those types of skill sets in the States.  There are still some highly detail-oriented pattern model makers, sure. But they’re retired—or very hard to find.”

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

A close look into one of Ed Sexton’s display cabinets shows a collection of Formula One Ferraris. Sexton’s home, in a suburb of Chicago, is filled with nearly 1,000 models. Though his wife Ruan is a sports car enthusiast (they met during his race track days) their 21-year-old son, an IT major, doesn’t share his father’s passion.

I sat with Rowlett’s at his workspace, watching him scrutinize the latest test shots of the ’29 Ford.  “It’s more than seeing if the pieces fit,” he said. “We have to make sure that every detail we put in the design package is in the test shot—whether it be a dial in the dashboard, a tail pipe or a firing pin.”

Some models go through a dozen test shots. The Model A had been through five; the next version Rowlett would receive would be the last, ready for its 2015 release. With this ‘final draft’ of the street rod approved, Ron would give the go-ahead for the final, indelible and most unforgiving step: final release of the giant steel molds for production of the finished models.

INDUSTRIAL IKEBANA

Most of the Revell building is hidden behind anonymous doors. One steps from the carpeted meeting rooms and modern offices directly into a cavernous warehouse, lit by skylights and smelling of fresh oil. Towers of dull metal blocks—some the size of toasters, others as big as bank safes—line reinforced shelves, and form steel monoliths between forklifts and heavy machinery.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

More from Sexton’s collection

These blocks, called “tools,” are the original steel dies for almost every model Revell made prior to the mid-2000s, when manufacturing moved overseas. Many are for tiny, clear parts, like windshields or cockpits. The bigger tools weigh nearly a ton: These are complete injection molds for battleship hulls, fighter plane fuselages and space shuttle bays, and there are hundreds of them.

Larry Lyse (pronounced “lease”), who was then Revell’s senior director of tooling and graphics, walked me through this metal mausoleum. When Lyse started out as a Junior Draftsman in 1970, Richard Nixon was President. Telephones still had rotary dials, and humans were visiting the Moon two or three times a year.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Thousands of steel molds, some the size of refrigerators, fill Revell’s Elk Grove warehouse. This essentially an archive for nearly every plastic model Revell produced from the late 1950s to the mid-2000s—from the ’64 Chevy Impala to the Star Wars™ Millenium Falcon. A treasure trove of Americana and personal nostalgia, the warehouse feels like a hybrid of Fort Knox and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

We approached two gargantuan molding machines, each the size of a small yacht. Bins of granular plastic pellets, the raw material for the model parts, stood nearby. Each machine can be fitted with any of the steel dies, fired up for mass-production, and force-fed raw plastic. But these two machines were relics, kept only for testing purposes. They were all that remained of the 44 that thumped and roared in Revell’s Morton Grove factory two decades ago—when designers and molders worked together right here, and every Revell model was Made in the USA.

A two-piece steel die of a Blue Angels F-18 Hornet fuselage lay open on one of the dormant machine’s decks, gleaming and precise.  A million years from now, I imagined, alien anthopologists will find these indestructible relics and include a miniature version of homo sapiens in their textbooks. “The steel mold,” Lyse nodded quietly, as if reading my mind, “is the legacy of our designs.”

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

From the Wolfman to Dracula’s kindred vampire bats, Revell’s back rooms are filled with assembled models that recall (at least for this writer) a childhood well-spent.

Until the 1990s, the steel molds for Revell’s injection machines were cut on-site with a machine called a Pantograph—a sort of glorified key replicator. While a technician followed the curves and lines of a three-dimensional pattern model, steel-cutting tools would mirror these motions precisely, shaping a block of metal. Today, the mold cutting is done in China by computerized numerical control (CNC). This system works from files created by 3D CAD (three dimensional, computer assisted design), with zero loss of detail. It’s a near-perfect translation: from an ethereal digital file into gleaming steel.

Lyse (who retired, in January, 2015) embodied the heart and soul of the model making craft. Like J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Manhattan Project, he could step into any job at Revell—from accounting to package design—and do it almost without thinking. Even Lou Aguilera, Revell’s charismatic VP and General Manager (a generation younger than Lyse, and a skilled model-builder in his own right) admitted that it will be impossible to replace him.


Ed Sexton (from left), Larry Lyse and Ron Rowlett

Ed Sexton (from left), Larry Lyse and Ron Rowlett hold a model of Revell’s USS Cobia, a Gato-class submarine first built by the US Navy in 1943. Lyse, center, retired from Revell in 2015 after 44 years.

All craftsmen have their special powers—the single steps in the process where they seem to possess an ineffable gift. For Lyse, it’s the ability to design a steel mold in which the injected plastic flows into all the right places in exactly the right measure. It’s not an obvious skill. Most of us have seen plastic models: The pieces come arrayed on rectangular matrices called “trees,” from which one twists off tailpipes, fenders, and retro-rockets. What we take for granted is the skill involved in designing the tree so that—during the molding process—each interconnected piece, both large and miniscule, fills with the proper amount of molten plastic goo. In the case of the ’29 Ford, there were dozens of parts that could be malformed, from the tiny exterior door handles to the front shock absorbers.

“The art of laying out the mold is somewhat of a black art,” Lyse told me. “It’s magical to place all your parts so that they are served at the same time by the injected plastic. And this,” he said, “comes only from experience.”

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Revell technician and mold manager Ken Funk examines a steel mold prior to a test. When the mold is ready, hot liquid plastic shoots in at 2,000 tons per square inch of pressure. The force is so great that, without support rods, the steel could actually warp. Once the plastic has cooled (in about 30 seconds), the two sides open and hundreds of release pins—which Funk examines here—pop the parts out of the mold.

Once the two halves of the steel die are compressed together on the injection machine, the liquid plastic—heated to 500º F—shoots in under enormous pressure. It travels first through runners, then through smaller openings called “gates,” which become the fragile nibs that connect each part to the tree. This takes just two seconds—and in that time the plastic has to reach every cavity in the mold.

It’s a form of industrial ikebana. If the mold has been designed magically enough, every piece on the tree—be it the Model A’s oil filter or the Mummy’s cobra—is rendered perfectly. The mold then cools, the two halves pop open, and release pins jolt a neatly formed, finished tree into a bin.

Back in his office, Lyse showed me the first model he ever worked on: a reissue of “Black Widow” Ford Model T Pickup, which Revell first released in the early 1960s. As he admired the painting on the box (a James Dean-like scene of the car pulled up at a drive-up diner), I saw 43 years of craftsmanship—and teamwork—mirrored in his eyes. “A kit like this…” He shook his head. “It’s the sum total of all our knowledge.”

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Release pins for two very small steel molds. Some molds are made for single clear or colored parts, like windshields or cockpits. Others, weighing nearly a ton, are complete injection molds for large-scale battleships, spacecraft and fighter planes.

MODELS OF OBSESSION

As Brian Eble accompanied me out of Revell that afternoon, I stopped again to admire the perfect display of jet fighters and dune buggies in the glass cases near the entrance. “My models didn’t look like this,” I confessed.

The display case examples, Eble explained, had been built by “professional” modelers and shipped back to Revell. They were the acme of what each model could be, commissioned to be photographed for each kit’s box art. These craftsmen were on the far edge of the tinkerer bell curve. While most novices start building between the ages of 6 and 12, Eble said, the hard-core enthusiasts range from their mid-teens “to age 80—or even 90. And some of those people are doing things that are just scary.”

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Ken Funk inspects one of the last injection molding machines still at Revell’s Illinois plant. Two decades ago, 44 such machines pounded out plastic model parts by the thousands. Today, all of that manufacturing is done in China; these machines are now used only for testing.

I didn’t have to go far, it turned out, to find people doing scary things. The following evening, when I joined Ed Sexton and his wife for a pizza dinner at their Northbrook home, I got treated to a cornucopia of obsession.

For starters, Sexton’s personal collection left me agape. His craft room (a converted bedroom) showcased hundreds of scale models—mainly European racing cars, along with other bizarre figures such as Rat Fink and Marilyn Monroe. Black-and-white photos of Sexton in his Formula Ford days adorned the walls; in one he appeared with legendary driver Mario Andretti. Sexton’s own crash helmets were arranged in a long row atop a display case.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Irma Wattanasupachoke, hired in 1979, is the only female Product Development Technician at Revell. A self-described “tomgirl,” she proved her worth decades ago by assembling a Harley Davidson model test shot—without the instructions. “The men were amazed,” she laughed. “My boss said, ‘Wow! Irma, I didn’t know you could put things together!’” Here she is holding a cup of raw plastic pellets, which will ultimately be molded into a model—like the ‘67 Corvette in her right hand.

A partially assembled Corvette sat on Ed’s work table beneath a large round magnifier, surrounded by fine-tipped brushes and scores of tiny paint bottles. Ed leaned over the model. There was a tiny driver figure inside. Its eyes and lips were individually painted.

Down in Ed’s basement, the collection expanded exponentially. Banks of metal shelves were crammed with more than 500 police cruisers, dune buggies, James Bond sedans, model motorcycles and jets. Each had been crafted, assembled and finished in a state of Zen focus: a geek meditation with tweezers, air brush and single-hair paintbrushes. I told him that his models astonished me.

“There are a lot of guys who have collections like this,” Sexton said, with a dismissive shrug. I believed him, having spoken to one such modeler earlier on the phone.] Joe Sojka, a Missouri-based cabinetmaker and one of Revell’s master model makers, told me that he has assembled Revell’s most maddeningly complex kit—a scale replica of the three-masted USS Constitution, with 1,223 pieces—five times.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

From left to right: Ed Sexton holding a Lockheed Ventura PV-1 patrol bomber; Irma Wattanasupachoke with a ‘67 Camaro; Larry Lyse with a ‘50 Olds coup and Ron Rowlett holding a ‘57 Chevy Bel Air.

Two other such guys soon rang the doorbell. Both were members, like Sexton, of GTR (Grand Touring Racing) Auto Modelers, a regional chapter of the International Plastic Modelers Society (IPMS). The group holds monthly meetings, which typically gather about 10 modelers.

First to arrive was Gerry Paquette, a recent retiree from the IT department at Allstate. He’d been building models since 1959, and had brought along an exceptional example of his craft. It was a 1:25 scale 1956 Chevy Del Rey, painted a precise pale lavender that Chevrolet called “Evening Orchid Mist.” Miniature foam dice hung from the model’s rear view mirror, a nod to Paquette’s flair for detail.


Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Alien archeologists, if they ever discover the Revell “mold room”— which holds historic steel molds for almost every Revell model created for nearly half a century—will likely imagine us much smaller than we are, piloting miniature aircraft and cars and looking something like Frankenstein or the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Building the model had taken him more than 100 hours. Lifting the hood, he showed me how he had accurately “wired” the firing order of the plastic engine’s eight cylinders. Exact photo reproductions of popular car magazines from September 1968 (each about a quarter-inch square) lay across the car’s rear seat, belying the meticulous choreography of their positions. Finally – crowning each of the front door’s wire-thin, perfectly scaled lock stems – were tiny red dice, echoing the pair on the rear view mirror. Paquette had hand-crafted each one to scale, at 20 thousandths of a square inch.

Chuck Herrmann, a supply-side analyst, arrived shortly afterward. He’d built his first model, the HMS Hood, back in the 1960s. Herrmann’s show-and-tells were a 1926 Ford Custom with two colorful miniature surfboards on the roof, and a Porsche 934—painted and decaled to be an exact replica of the car raced by the legendary driver George Follmer in 1976.

Back in my own model-making days, the main enemy was the glue. It got on everything, and melted whatever it touched. (For a complete illustration of what this is like, read “Building My Own Private Model,” an account of my attempt to revive my old hobby.)

But in building these cars, Herrmann and Paquette explained, an aficionado might use as many as five varieties of glue: oft-abused methylethylketone, which essentially melts plastic parts together; cyranoacrylate, or “super glue,” which forms a strong but brittle bond; epoxy, where sheer strength is required; good old white glue; and, for those tricky transparent windshields and headlights, jeweler’s watch crystal cement, applied with a fine brush.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Joe Sojka Jr. paints Revell’s 1:72 scale German U Boat Wolf Pack submarine. Completing this model took the expert builder about 30 hours.

And then there’s the paint. Expert model makers will use upwards of 200 bottles. Many of the shades are bought from car manufacturers, or mixed to match long-abandoned finishes. And don’t forget the decals, some so tiny and fragile that applying them requires the skill of a neurosurgeon.

COULD REVELL TAKE ON LEGO?

After I’d admired these models, the subject of discussion turned in an obvious direction: the future of their craft.

At recent modelers’ conventions the big attractions have been the new 3D printers, which are capable of reproducing plastic parts in exquisite detail. It’s a tremendous growth industry, with the potential for huge changes. The day may come, for example, when Revell sells you an iModel online, and you make the parts yourself, on your own 3D printer. “But you can’t quite do that yet,” said Sexton. “That’s a little way away.”

To my surprise, none of the modelers I spoke with believe that 3D printing is a threat to the industry. You can already buy pre-assembled models; they’re called toys. True model making is a hands-on process. The kids and adults who want to actually build, paint and customize on their own will continue to buy the technically accurate, quality-tested kits from the professionals—provided, of course, that the professionals keep making them.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Rob, the “MadModelr” Glucksman, based in California, builds and paints many of the cars that Revell uses as models for their box art. His color collection includes around 500 bottles, including these scores of automotive paints—some more than 30 years old—and vintage Testor hobby paints from the early 1960s.

While there’s not a lot of research on the model industry available—a new study is scheduled for later in 2015—recent figures provided by Fred Hill, past president of the Hobby Manufacturers Association in Philadelphia, indicate that the sales figures for plastic models are actually growing, albeit slowly. This is a quasi-miraculous fact for an industry built around a hobby that’s nearly 70 years old. The big International Plastic Modelers Society events, like their 2014 National Convention in Virginia, draw more than a thousand visitors and entrants. And Revell, as well as Monogram, are still key players. “The old ones we knew, growing up, are still around,” says Hill.

But my initial concern—that the tie-in between models and real life has been slipping away—is also part of the challenge. For the craft to stay current, the models have to catch up with popular culture. “It’s going to mean keeping the young generation aware of kits, and keeping the spark alive,” Hill said, “using social media as advertising. Because hobby shops are not on every corner, like they used to be.”

Most important, Hill adds, they have to be current kits – like Virgin Galactic’s Spaceships, tricked-out Mini Coopers or the snazzy new all-electric motorcycles. A 1929 Ford may fascinate middle-aged hot rod enthusiasts, but an Android-toting 12-year-old is unlikely to pull one off the shelf. (I personally miss the character models—like Revell’s Gemini Astronaut, and Monogram’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. And I can easily imagine a plastic replica of Lady Gaga, her Meat Dress draped over her curves like The Mummy’s rags.)

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

And still more paint…

The fact is that most kids still love construction toys, the challenge of a puzzle, and using their opposable thumbs for more than tapping, swiping and texting. Winning them over is the trick—and the impetus behind Revell’s “Make ‘n Take” program, in which hundreds of free plastic-model kits are distributed to “young builders” at the big car and hobby shows each year. It’s one thing for a kid to gape at the new Ford Mustang on a rotating, floodlit stage; it’s a potentially life-shaping experience to take home a model of that car and build it, from the wheels up.

“Somebody on the outside might think that model building is dying off,” says Lou Aguilera, Revell’s vice president and general manager. “Why? Because this industry has been catering to the kids who were building models in the 1960s and 1970s.” The packages may say ‘Age: Grade 8,’ but we’ve continued making products for those kids as adults.” And those adults—Aguilera didn’t need to say it—are literally dying off.

“Look at Lego, and how fast they’ve grown,” Aguilera says. “That’s kids using their hands.” Lego kits, he points out, have actually become more like plastic models—the pieces are less blocky than they used to be, more detailed and streamlined. “It’s our goal to start designing products specifically for that younger generation.” A lot of the interest in models today, he says, is actually from women: young mothers trying to coax their kids away from tablets and smart phones.

It’s a healthy trend. Several scientific studies have found evidence that the simple act of making things—anything, even something as simple as knitting—reduces depression and improves psychological well-being. “Physical activities that involve our hands,” noted Psychology Today,  “particularly activities that produce tangible products,” awaken up the brain’s pleasure centers, increase our focus and lift self-esteem.

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

Joe Sojka and Joe Sojka Jr. in their office in Hillsboro, Missouri. Both were master builders and pattern makers, for Mongram and Revell. “Between my Dad and me,” says Joe Jr., “we have 115 years building and carving models.” Joe Jr. has built the USS Constitution—Revell’s most complex model, with more than 1,200 parts—five times.

Revell used to have three skill levels, with #2 being the kits I built in my early teens. Now there will be five, the first requiring no glue or paint at all. The idea is to hang on to the company’s traditional demographic—an age span the Hobby Manufacturing Association generously defines as 26-60—while introducing a new generation to the craft. That, Aguilera says, is where the opportunity lies: Many kids have never even heard of plastic models. To further their efforts, Revell acquired the license to the new Disney Star Wars movie, and has a whole line of new products coming out to match. With the right marketing, the company hopes, the craft will seem as cool to them as it did to me, back when I raced home to assemble my Apollo 11 lunar lander kit.

“Kids today know all about technology from birth,” said Aguilera. “It’s nothing new to them. But building a model? That’s new. That’s something they haven’t seen before. So it’s almost like we’re reintroducing this product that’s been out there for 70 years.” Aguilera laughed. “We’re like a 70 year old start-up!”

Revell's world of models | Craftsmanship Magazine, Spring 2015

After years of designing and testing, Revell’s model kits are ready for market.

A PHYSICAL STORY

On my final evening in Elk Grove I took myself to a multiplex and saw a 3-D animated feature call The Book of Life. The movie is a vivid tale based on the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Each of the characters, human and animal, takes the form of a colorful wooden puppet. I loved it—I love animation in general—but what I loved most was learning that Jorge Gutiérrez, the film’s animator and director, had first worked with a team of folk artists to create actual wooden puppets, which were later “rendered” as life-like heroes and villains.

Model-making, I realized, is not going away. Even with the advent of 3D printers, the craft will stay with us in some form—whether it’s a suburban modeling club building legendary hot rods, or an animation studio creating wooden horses for a fairytale fable. “All the world is made of stories,” begins the narration for The Book of Life. There’s no better way to tell some of those stories, even today, than to build them with your own two hands.

Jeff Greenwald (@strangetravel) is a writer, photographer and performer. Photos by the author.

© 2017 Jeff Greenwald, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: April 30, 2015

Topics: ,
Locations:
Materials: