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From the opposite end of the workbench

…the twisted ramblings of a ship modeler.


Are you a HARDCORE modeler?

I’ve talked about ship modelers in the past, being the most prolific of all the modeling realm…and for the most part, with a few notable exceptions, this is quite true. If ship models were easy, everyone would be doing them instead of Tiger tanks and P-51s.

I traveled to the North American Military Figure Exhibition in Valley Forge, PA, this past weekend. I brought with me my Nichimo Kagero, with the hopes of getting an honorable mention, but realistically, I was putting something on the table just so I wasn’t another oogling spectator.

The Valley Forge show brings on average, about 1000 military figures, some kits, some sculpted, and a few hundred master craftsmen and painters…these people are the best in the WORLD, not just my little corner of the country.

Now, without getting a big head…I can honestly say I do pretty well at competitions…hanging around with the likes of Bob LaPadura, Gary Kingzette, and dozens of other incredible modelers has paid off. But…this time, walking into that event, I was humbled…no, I was humiliated… I was way out of my league.

As I walked around and stared at the INCREDIBLE work on the tables, I couldn’t help but overhear a couple of guys talking about figure painting…they were admiring an incredible Apache Warrior figure by some EXTREMELY talented gentleman from Naples, Italy. Since I know nothing about figures, I was stunned to learn that he not only painted the figure, he hand carved it. Well, this started me to thinking…either this person has NO LIFE whatsoever, or he was blessed with a talent that most of us will probably never have, myself included.

So, off we go…

What makes you a ‘HARDCORE’ modeler? Is a self imposed title like “Master Mutant”, or is bestowed upon you by your peers? To me, it works both ways… I am a hardcore modeler. I build everything, I compete, I win (sometimes), I research my subjects, I have a large collection of kits, and most of my free time is spent in some aspect of the hobby.

In a manly, chest-thumping sort of way (remember the final scene from Platoon?) I’m a modeler’s modeler, as are most of us who hang around this smelly old shipyard.

But these people have taken it a step further, they’re not only hardcore modelers, they’re artists with TALENT. They create a 3 dimensional snapshot of a person, a moment in time, and they convey a story… But wait, that’s what we do as modelers, right? Yes, in a way, but we are focused primarily on inanimate objects, machines… Our machines are expressionless, there’s no emotion, only some rust, chipped paint, and weathering. These folks capture emotion, expressions…and their figures can convey pain, sorrow, anger, joy, and tell you a story. That my friends, is true talent.

So getting back to us, what makes us hardcore modelers? How do we differ from one person to the next? Well, there’s three kinds of modelers…assemblers, model makers, and artists. Some are stronger in one area than the others. An assembler takes a kit, and builds it. He’s happy with the results, and moves on to another kit. A model maker takes a kit to certain point, then diverts from the norm and does something different, a conversion, extensive photoetching, and even simple scratchbuilding. An artist is both of these, and more. An artist takes a set of plans, and by looking at 2 dimensional drawings, sees a 3 dimensional object. An artist doesn’t care if there’s photoetch available, or aftermarket parts.

Ok, so where are you going with all this? Damned if I know…but I’ve always said, that no matter how good you are or think you are, there’s someone better not far behind you. I met dozens of those ‘someones’ this past weekend, and I was inspired, awed, and humbled by their work.

But they were figure painters and sculptors, so unless you want to be a figure painter or sculptor, you really don’t have anything to worry about, right? Wrong. This weekend, I met a fellow named Bill Liebold. Bill works for Lockheed/Martin, and is their resident modeler, doing prototype and trade show ship models.

As I walked into the show, I was taken back by 3 modern warships in a fairly large scale sitting on the table. A model of the IJN Kongo (the oversized Burke type), a model of the USS Preble, and an Arleigh Burke. Due to their size, I knew immediately that these were scratchbuilt. After I got my eyes plugged back into my head, I realized that I was looking at art, not model ships. Any one of these three models could have easily taken Best Ship at ANY IPMS Nationals, and I openly say they would be Gold Medal at the Mariner’s Museum competition. Nah, come on…nothing is that good…there’s always something wrong. Well, if there was, I couldn’t see it, and neither could the judges, because he took a Gold Medal in the Advanced category.

In my conversations with Bill later on that day, I learned he built in ‘box scale’. When Lockheed tells him to build a model to fit a 4 foot long case, that’s what he builds. I also learned that everything he does is scratchbuilt, even the photoetched is custom drawn. He doesn’t use any commercial parts, because where can you find Harpoon mounts or a CWIS in 1/256 scale? Not to mention, most of his models end up in some pretty impressive places, like the shipyards where the real ships are built, in corporate headquarters, the Naval Academy, Pentagon, and places like that…

In reading the placards placed next to these models, I noticed something that completely pushed me over the edge…the average model took him about 110 hours to build. One Hundred and Ten hours to create a masterpiece, and I was spending 300 hours on the piece of crap Amati U-boat, or 150 hours on the Nichimo Kagero…with results nowhere near as spectacular.

I stood there taking pictures of these beautiful ships, and everyone who passed by had the same expression of awe, and made similar comments…”Beautiful, exquisite, incredible, talent.” That’s what started me thinking about this whole thing about being a hardcore modeler.

I rank Bill a TEN on the Hardcore Scale of Modeling. Me, I figure I’m somewhere around a Seven or Eight. I scratchbuild, I build from plans, and do my own photoetch or resin casting when I have to. On average, I think all serious ship modelers fall somewhere between a 5 and 7, most of us are happy to add some rails and let it go at that. None of this has any relation to ability, or lack thereof. Modeling skills can be learned, otherwise, we’d all still be using Testor’s square bottles and building Revell Missouris.

There’s a long list of people in that top tenth percentile, and I’ve added another one to the list of modelers that I hope I can one day share company with. Some modelers dislike these guys, ‘cause they win all the time’, or because ‘I’ll never be that good’. Personally, being a competitive spirit, these folks are opponents (in a nice way). Their work motivates me to try to build as good as they do. It should you as well. The ability to cut a piece of plastic, glue to another, and turn it into a part is a simple process. Like anything else, it takes time, practice, patience, and research to make yourself better at whatever you do. This is precisely why I’m not a pro golfer, baseball player, race car driver, or adult film star. J

Don’t ever become complacent with your models, or your modeling abilities. There’s always something more to learn, some new technique or trick that puts you over the top and makes you that much better. The biggest thing is patience, and not settling for second best, especially if you know you can do better.

When I asked Bill how he scratchbuilt such incredible models, he simply replied, “One piece at a time”. I guess that sums it up…

Oh, and by the way, to give you an idea about how tough the competition was at this event, my Kagero (for the first time) didn’t take a Gold, but I did come away with a Bronze Medal in the Advanced Category. Bob LaPadura, whose IJN Furutaka won at the Nationals in Virginia Beach, came home with a Silver in the same category.

Bill Liebold took a Gold.

Now, quit your whining and go build a model. It doesn’t have to scratchbuilt, hell, it doesn’t have to have photoetch if that’s what makes you happy. It can be an old Revell Missouri painted with Testors square-bottle paints if you want it to. Do what makes you happy. If you want to be a better modeler, then start asking folks like Bill Liebold how he does it. You’ll be surprised, it’s not as tough as it looks.

If you haven't already seen Bill's incredible ships that I've been ranting about, check out today's update.


Jeff Herne