Buying a plastic model kit for a kid

Wow, this is a really loaded issue. What’s a sensible “first model” for a kid who starts at age 4, like I did, or age 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14… Get it wrong and your gift will be uninteresting because its too simple, or uninteresting because too daunting (or requiring too many skills). Revell, Revell Germany and Testors in the USA are all promoting “easy” kits for beginners. Hasegawa once had a line of small, cheap, easy kits, and Heller had a separate “Cadet” range to this very end. With minor exceptions, the entire Matchbox model kit product line that was created in the 1970s and 80s was aimed at beginners.

Here are some postulates I think cover the decision space:

The younger the child-

the fewer pieces needed;

the lower likelihood of paint being needed;

the GREATER the need for good kit engineering and easy fitting of parts;

the GREATER the likelihood that the existence of the object depicted will be a surprise!

the GREATER importance of “play value”- moving pieces, tough construction that doesn’t break. lack of thin bits that might injure or break

So you want a high quality kit that makes a good toy when completed. The old Monogram 1/48 (aka ‘ 1/4″ scale ‘ – ie 1/4″ = 1’) airplanes; Car kits with hoods that open and engines inside, ships and boats that float (!!!). In the old days, smaller model tanks with molded rubber tracks and motors inside had pretty good play value. Lack of ‘drivability’ limits the play value of today’s scale model military vehicles.

The younger child will view building anything as aspirational, and will have all their attention consumed by cutting a dozen or two dozen pieces off the runners, matching them to the instructions, trimming and generally getting the pieces to fit, gluing it together and applying the decals with a glass of water and their fingers. They will need a Helper for the first 1-5-10 kits they build.

Tool kit:
Parent, grandparent, qualified sibling or friend, or other helper. REQUIRED.
Fingernail clippers will do for cutters and a file.
Moderate-tack/long release masking tape to hold the pieces together while the glue dries. 3M’s line of blue masking tapes are perfect.
Future floor wax. (aka Johnson’s Kleer)

Clip out the parts as needed, not all at once. The nail clipper and file is fine get the parts ready to assemble.
Fingernail sanding sticks are a nice luxury, as are diagonal cutters and a real file or two, but the whole job can be done with clippers.
Coat the clear parts with Future floor wax inside and out and non-toxic tube glue or the liquid equivalent (Testor’s blue label) can be used to firmly attach the clear stuff without messing it up. Liquid non-toxic cement is flammable but not poisonous… that’s a neat trick!

The older the child:

The more they’ll enjoy assembling larger numbers of parts.

The more likely they’ll want to paint some or all of the pieces; (HOWEVER, for a first model, not having to paint the whole things is real advantage, at any age)

The more likely they’ll have aethestic and or knowledge-based opinions about what kit to build.

50 to 100 pieces are fine for a first model for a teenager; (13 and above)

Buy a car kit molded in more than one color- white body, black and silver engine and fiddly stuff. Vinyl tires are supplied black and don’t need to be painted. In airplanes and ships, pick something appropriate to the gray or white the kit will be molded in. In the old days, kits came in white, silver, olive drab, light blue, red, yellow, orange, black, etc . Monogram and Airfix were particularly adept at this, and the late, lamented, Aurora. Lots of US car kits were molded in white because the builder would have the least trouble paint it any color they liked

Some prefer the good guys, some prefer the bad guys. Pointy planes or biplanes with the pilot sitting out in the breeze. Some kits will be an education, something they’d never seen before, but in the area they care about, they’ll know what they want.

So, OK, what do I recommend??

If you really want moving features, go for Legos. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Technic’s, Mars Mission, Underwater, sports, cars, trucks, airplanes, real Mars Rovers, Space Shuttles, cars and motorcycles, whatever. I find there is less play value in the Bionicles because mostly what they do is pose and shoot something and the relatively large pieces limit possiblities. Consider them as aimed at the under 8 crowd. Anything with hinges and the like make good basis for toys.

If you want models to play with, Revell’s tugboat is pacific in nature, floats well in a bathtub, can be painted in bright colors or left plain. The PT boat and flat-bottomed ships all float pretty well. The round-bottom Essex-class (or “Battle Of Midway”) aircraft carriers need to be carefully balasted. Lindberg or someone has a fishing boat which might once have been Aurora’s Soviet Spy Trawler…. Some big cargo vessels are out there too.

Any smaller airplane can be a fun toy in the bathtub or pool, if balanced more or less correctly (1/3 back from the leading edge of the wing). But ships are better.

Probably my fondest memories of moving parts models are

1) Revell’s 1/72 F-111A/B. Swing wings that move in and out. VERY fiddly landing gear that fold up and retract OR come out and and support the model. Crew escape capsule that can be removed from the model. Radome comes off and a somewhat generic radar dish is inside on the front of the fuselage.

Monogram (now Revell-Monogram)’s 1/48 scale
TBM Avenger,
SBD Dauntless,

Both have folding landing gear and a deploy-able tail-hook. Both have a pilot in the front and a gunner in the back, with a gun that moves. Both originally dropped their main weapons- the TBM dropped a torpedo when you flicked open the bomb-bay doors. The SBD dropped a bomb with the little displacing gear to keep it away from the propeller, operated by a tab that stuck out the bottom of the fuselage.
In the 1970s or 80s the bomb in the SBD was changed so it didn’t come off anymore. Since the torpedo just fell out when you open the doors, it may still work.

If you prefer a more peaceful working feature, paint your TBM in bright colors- white or silver with yellow, red trim,, with a big number on the tail, the wing tips and the engine cowling. Wad up a piece of very thin silk, red or pink, about the size and shape of a old school basketball player’s sock, and let it represent the “water” dropped by air-tankers fighting a forest fire.

The big differences between the kits are that the TBM has wings which might fold if you’re pretty good and follow instructions closely, and the SBD has 5 dive brake panels which opperate simultaniously. Sweet!

Tamiya’s early 1/12 cars- with a motor in the motor and a gearbox in the gear box and a suspension that works. I built the Matra MS-80 and it had two AA cells where the driver’s legs should have been. The steering wheel turned the front wheels, the suspension went up and down, the motor drove the back wheels through driveshafts with real universal joints… and the tires were hollow and smelled like real tires. AND the compltete engine and transmission could be removed from the rolling chassis.

Monogram’s (Now Revell-Monogram’s) other US Navy and other WWII planes with moving parts are: (all 1/48) F4F Wildcat,
F6F Hellcat,
F4U Corsair,
SB2C Helldiver,
Messerschmidt 109,
Mitsubishi Zero,
P-51 Mustang,
Supermarine Spitfire
Hawker Hurricane.

All but the Wildcat have landing gear that fold up, most of the Navy subjects have folding wings. The TBM and SB2C have opening weapons bay doors, the SBD, SB2C and TBM all dropped weapons originally, but that feature was disabled in the 1970s or 80s. (boo!) The SBD has opening dive flaps that all work together (5 panels) and are way cool. Later 1/48 models, the de Havilland Mosquito, TBD Devastator, bombers and jets had more details and less moving parts. An age had ended.

Lindberg’s Me-262 WWII German jet had folding landing gear and opening hatches over the cannons in the nose. They had a number of less detailed 1/48 jets with moving parts, along with a B-17, He-111, Mitsubishi BETTY and B-58 Hustler in somewhat odd scales with moving landing gear, etc. The B-58’s folding mechanism is fun to play with and you can detach the underslug bomb and fuel tank, and open the hatches for the 3 cockpits. But WWIII atom bombs have less play value that you might have expected. Monogram made a near-1/72 B-66 with a single bomb, no doubt nuclear, and it suffered in comparison to the 1/48 Navy planes.

Monogram’s 1/32 P-51D Mustang, available in colored plastic or as the Visible Mustang with a clear skin, went two better with retracting landing gear where turning a wheel made all threee legs and wheels move, and the doors open and shut. There was also a fiddly deal to hang a bomb under each wing and release them separately. The canopy also slid back, and in the ‘visible’ version, besides a motor to drive the landing gear (in the base) there was a motor in the plastic engine to turn the propeller. How cool is that?? But its hard to build, hard to make work and harder to keep working. Legos are more fun. Sigh.

Revell’s B-24 Liberator, 1/72 scale, had movable flaps and retractable landing gear, along with the usual moving turrets. Airfix’s B-17 main gear could fold-up. Revell’s 1/72 B-17 had bomb-bay doors that opened.

Tamiya made a small number of 1/25 tank kits (Tiger, T-34, others?) that had operating suspensions and separate track links- super cool to drive around on wrinkled bed covers, but very complicated and expensive

Any car kit with rolling wheels has good play value- the Revell Snap Together kits in 1/24th scale are very nicely detailed and roll well when completed. The recent Hasegawa and Tamiya car kits have soft plastic retainers that trap a pin (The pin is on the wheel for Tamiya, on the hub for Hasegawa) so they can theoretically roll, but in practice, are simply movable. They can be removed to admire all the fiddly brake and suspension bits though…

For older kids, detail and scale accuracy are more important that moving parts. Seeing how its built is as interesting as Brrrrrraaaaaawwwwww play. Here’s where Tamiya’s Formula 1 and Sports Car models really shine- the ones with opening engine covers and so forth are just packed with bits and pieces, and they tend to come in a tree of body color parts, a tree of silver parts and a tree of black parts, along with rubber-like tires. No paint required!

Here are a pair of the old Revell 1/72 scale Hawker Hurricanes, the second or third kit I built as a kid, that I experimentally put together with just touches of paint here and there, and decals (the black one) ; and one with NO paint (the light gray one). I put decals on the light gray one but they all fell off!, so I used some white glue on the decals for the black one…

A pair of 1960s Revell Hawker Hurricanes

If you click here you can see the kit parts and a couple of steps during construction, including when everything is taped together and glue is drying.
More later, happy modeling!

11 responses to “Buying a plastic model kit for a kid

  1. Wow! I really appreciate your knowledge of model kits. Maybe you can help me. I remember how much my brother enjoyed putting together plastic models when he was young. I wanted to buy a kit for my 9 year old grandson and planned to put it together with him. I can’t find those plastic kits anywhere. I live in Danville. Where can I buy a simple kit for our first attempt at this?

    • Hi Dianne,
      From Danville, your three closest and best-stocked plastic model kit sources are:

      The hobby shop on Golf Club Road, Pleasant Hill, across from Diablo Valley College, just beyond Sun Valley Mall; I think it may be closest to you.

      Berkeley Ace Hardware one block west of UC Berkeley on University Avenue; Almost certainly the widest selection of kits

      Hobbies Unlimited on Manor Blvd. across from Andover St. a few blocks Northwest of Washington Blvd and 880 in San Leandro. Probably the easiest place to find a good kit for a beginner.

      A fourth choice is less than 10 minutes off the freeway between Berkeley and San Leandro (use the 23rd Avenue exit)- Toy Safari on Park in Alameda has an interesting but limited range.

      You could visit any one of these in an hour or less if you avoid rush hour traffic. If you want to use public transportation, the Pleasant Hill and Berkeley choices are closest to BART- Berkeley to my certain knowledge. For Pleasant Hill you’ll have to take BART to Pleasant Hill BART and ride the bus a while, or take BART to Concord (further trip, more $$$) and take a shorter bus trip.

      If you’re going to help, and I strongly encourage you to help, pick a subject that your grandson will enjoy and that you’ll enjoy. Remember that snap-togethers assemble quickly but aren’t as detailed… AND are intimidatingly-well painted where they are painted at all… Cars with rolling wheels might be a good place to start, or Revell’s recent set of Star Wars snap togethers with pre-painted details. But a 50 to 100 piece 1/48 or 1/72 airplane or 1/24 car, lots of cutting and gluing and putting together, maybe not so much painting, would be where I would start.

      Except, get Future Floor Wax and protect the clear parts, and maybe lightly overcoat the decals to protect them.

      Here’s what I’ve seen with first-timers I was coaching:

      1/72 Hasegawa F4J US Navy Phantom II fighter jet. Black and green paint used for tires and pilot suits, overall gray plastic was left gray. I helped, lightly. The 4th grade boy was delighted and now builds car kits on his own.

      1/32 Hornby snap-together car l- soft non-styrene plastic resisted overall dark blue paint the 5th grade boy wanted to apply, he ended up happier with:

      1/32 Revell Snap Together Mustang/Camaro/Corvette. Quickly snapped together, decorated with stickers and off to bhe played with. Help from a peer.

      1/72 Hasegawa US Navy S2 Tracker. 5th grade boy had a great time painting all the colors for the cockpit and everything that needed to be black (tires, propellers) He was mostly done in the 2 hours or so he worked, with slight assistance from me.

      1/72 Monogram P-51B Mustang – 3rd grade boy assembled with the help of his mom, got all parts together in 2 hour sitting. (Equivalent to 1/72 Academy kits in the $10 range). With mom’s help, Future floor wax was painted onto the clear parts, and when it dried, was sanded off the edge where the glue should hold and thus the clear parts were glued on, never to fall off, but with no awful glue marks or fingerprints, etc. 3rd grader was DELIGHTED and couldn’t wait to show grampa.

      1/43 Heller/Airfix european sedan (Leyland Princess) painted with love by a 2nd grader, Red, camo green and beige, black, purple… Completely painted over the course of several years, it has never been assembled.

      1/144 Saturn V NASA Moon rocket. Some 1st stage engine assembly, some paint, still far from done.

      1/72 screw-together “quick build” (or whatever) fighter planes – 10 or so parts. Satisfied 3rd and 4th grade kids, but6 although quickly completed and attractivly painted, not so much for the kids to do, and not great play value either.

      1/35 Israeli Merkava II with mine clearance rollers- far too complex (200+ parts) for the 4th or 5th grader it was given too. He painted some of the black parts and glued some pieces, but never completed it when adfult help (me) was gone.

      1/48 Mr Mulligan or Beech Stagger Wing: single engine big pieces Interior and many other places painted b7 6th grade girl, but also never finished.

      1/144 SAAB Grippen, built by a 7 year old and his mom. She did most of it, but they worked together and seemed happy with the unpainted result.

      I hope this helps!


  2. Hi, ‘m 16, and I just got into building model planes. I have so far done a P-51, a P-40 and a Me-262. Those were hand-painted. For Christmas, I got an airbrush, and have been practicing with it when i have time (school has conspired to eat up my free time). I would like to get a nice model to finally use my airbrush for a model. I just don’t know what company to choose.

    I wanted to do either a German or Soviet plane from World War II. Do you know of any companies that make relatively easy models for me to build?


    • Hi Tyler!
      WWII German or Soviet is a huge range- from some really nice, reasonably in-expensive Revell Germany, Revell-Monogram, Italeri, Airfix, Hobby-Boss, Toko/Roden and the like, to really superb kits like Accurate Miniatures Il-2 and Yak 1s, Eduard’s FW-190s, Academy’s recent offerijngs and the large range of Hasegawa and Tamiya kits. It sounds like you are serious and take pride in your work, so get a reasonably nice kit, 1/48 or 1/72, and have at it! You can always practice on the inside of wings and fuselages. There are a lot of schemes and a lot of variations. Among Soviet planes, remember that the old 1960s Airfix box art showing more or less British green and brown on Soviet planes are simply wrong. Bright spring green and nearly or actually black was popular in the spring and summer. Lots of research material is now available, and of course there are 2 generations of WWII German airplane markings research and references. You can’t go wrong with the Eduard 1/48 FW-190, the Academy 1/72 Il-2 or Me-262, Hasegawa or Tamiya’s offerings in either scale. Check the Modeling Madness review site, Internet Modeller, the clubs in your neighborhood, Fine Scale Modeller magazine and web site.

      Have a great time and post a photo of your work!


  3. Thanks, I’ll post a photo once i get it done. Still need to find time to head to the hobby shop.

  4. Hey, I finally got out to the hobby shop. I got a sweet hasegawa 1/48 BF-109 F. It’s nice. Plus, i replaced all my enamels with acrylics (it was expensive. I’m lucky i had saved up and had a gift card). I’m gonna do a kinda desert-camo pattern (the kit had north africa decals). I’ll post some pictures when it’s done!

  5. Hi there! Hoping you can help me with your vast model knowledge! 🙂 While not exactly a child, my boyfriend hates the painting part of the model process. He worked on the EA-6B Prowler while in the Navy and has mentioned that he would love to build the model, but not have to deal with painting. I have been looking for a no or minimal painting required Prowler model for his Christmas gift, but so far, no luck….any suggestions? Thanks!

    • Dear Meg,
      This is a great question. I have a 1/72 Hasegawa kit I’ve half painted, I’ll finish painting it and you can have it in time for Christmas. It will need some touchup after assembly, but only a little. I haven’t glued anything, yet. It would be an honor to lend a hand. Muilti-tone gray or light gull gray overall or with white underneath?

      That said, when I was a kid I just glued them together, maybe painted tires black later. My father was a former balsa model builder and built ship models for both of us :^) He’d let the gray plastic be the primary color for the sub or aircraft carrier and added no more than a coat or two of the glossy “model paint kit” colors.- Black, silver, red, yellow, white.
      Its a gift to be able to do a little and enjoy the result. Could your boyfriend or the two of you togther do that?

      Modern EA-6Bs are gray, sometimes three different grays but gray it is. Most of the interior is gray too.

      I would think
      flat black/dark, dark gray for tires and instrument panels,
      white for landing gear and wheels and gear wells, marker lights
      tan/green/olive drab for seat cushions,
      Red, and blue-green for wingtip lights,
      Red and yellow markings in the cockpit,
      sand/buff/light yellow for fiberglass antennae covers
      Silver for landing lamps, engine intake lips, landing gear struts
      metalilc gray/steel/burnt metal for engine exhausts.
      could be put on in a day, and would look nice.

      Painting the canopy framework gray and black would be a step up from that.
      So would putting on the decals after it was all glued together.:^)

      I’d be happy to contribute a simple paint job with lots of bare gray plastic if you’d prefer that version.

      Hasegawa’s 1/72 kit, $20 or so) Revell-Monogram’s 1/48 kit ($45 or so) are very nice. There’s a new 1/48 kit from China – no doubt even better and priced so. DMLO/Dragon make a 1/144 kit with simplified cockpit and crew… $6-10, maybe $15 for a double kit…

      I can’t think of a prepainted kit but you might look- search for “EA-6B” and “Pre-painted”
      There are a lot of display models out there. Its possible.

      Let me know if you’d like me to send you a pre-painted Hasegawa kit, I’ve got a couple of them, no problems. Simple or fancy, your call. Squadron number, ship, year, make it pretty easy to figure out what the colors should be. Or send a photo. Decals for his squadron(s) may be available.

      If you can find your local IPMS club (ask at a hobby shop) you might find someone locally who could do the same for you. October is not too late to set this up for Christmas…


  6. I’m a beginner and already built a tank with 144 parts. That was my first 1/72 scale tank. Royal Tiger Henschel without painting Didnt exactly like the detail on that one. but very nice for a small kit. Got several other models built. I’m a horrible modeller. I put too much glue sometimes. I’ve learnt my lesson 😦
    I’m gonna take a more serious role in these holidays. 455 parts to build with PE parts meaning super glue needed. Aw this is taking too much money.

    • Welcome to the wide world, young Jedi. 144 parts in a 1/72 kit not enough detail for you? Ouch! Separate tracks? Remember, its a hobby, its fun, build what you want, how you want it. If you want the photo etch, yeah, super glue. Word of advice? Don’t count on superglue being super. Put the part where it should be, anchor with a bit of blue painter’s tape or similar, then wick tiny amount of glue between part and what it glues to. (drop of glue on toothpick or dressmaker’s pin, for example). Then leave it alone.
      Good luck!

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