Monday, May 21, 2012

Paper Model Building with Thomas Garbutt

Thomas Garbutt is a lifelong paper model builder who contacted Castle in the Air after we listed our selection of hundreds of French paper model reprints online last year. He has since begun constructing some of the models for display in our store in Berkeley, California. In this interview, Thomas shares some of the tales and techniques from his own experience working with Pellerin models.

You can browse the selection of Pellerin paper models on Castle in the Air’s Online Shoppe at

Castle in the Air: How long have you been working with paper models? How old were you when you began, and what were some of the first models you worked on? 

Thomas Garbutt: It seems like I’ve been doing something along the lines of model-making since I was a kid. I do remember my first balsa wood airplane. It was a Spitfire, balsa construction and tissue-covered. They never really looked like the photo on the box no matter how careful you were! The tissue covering was always a nightmare to put on, and even after you managed to get it on it would never quite dry taut the way the directions seemed to suggest. Either that or the wing would end up warping severely. I guess I just persisted.

I also remember making a Thanksgiving Day table arrangement with my mother. I was probably in third grade, and the directions were from a magazine like Good Housekeeping or one of those magazines that were popular in the 1950s. The arrangement was made out of construction paper and the results seemed to be much closer to the actual finished project shown in the photo.

I didn’t really get hooked on the true paper models until I read an article about them in FineScale Modeler in the early 1980s. I ordered a 1:33 scale model of a Vultee P66 military WWII aircraft and put it together, and the results seemed to be very satisfying. Back then I was involved in giving very elaborate birthday parties for children, and I ended up making quite a few models to use as displays hanging from the ceiling of our party facility.

I made the Ford Tri-Motor from Peter Zorn, along with the Spirit of St. Louis. I also did many of the Alan Rose ones, too—Titanic, San Francisco streetcar, Saturn V rocket, Hindenburg. They worked well for display because of their size—the scale was quite large. 

How did your model making change over the years? What innovations did you introduce? 

It’s hard to know exactly how things changed over the years. I think like anything in life, the more you do something, the better you become at it. One thing I learned early on was to pace myself. Every time I would work on something I would set a goal to accomplish, something that was realistic to finish in an hour or so. Doing this made it easier to finish the more complicated models without getting overwhelmed with the complexity. I advise model makers to think in terms of subassemblies, then use those to connect together as they finish whatever model they might be working on.

Also, don’t be afraid to try techniques you think might work for you. White glue, for example. I found that Sobo works well because it seems to have less water in it than Elmer’s Glue-All. Aleene’s Tacky Glue is also another good brand to try.

I was recently looking at an advertisement from an online art supply store called Mister Art ( They had a glue there I wasn’t familiar with called Aleene’s Clear Gel. I bought a small bottle and thought it might work well for glazing openings to replicate windows, and it turned out to be great! The process is simple as well. Cover a piece of foam core with Saran Wrap and glue the window frame down on it. Take the Clear Gel and place a small amount in the window opening, then use a toothpick to push the glue to the edges all around the window frame. Let it dry overnight. The glue will not adhere to the Saran Wrap, but instead just peels away from it. I did notice that the Clear Gel needs an additional day to set up firmly. It makes great windows, though.

Another trick is to use epoxy resin, which is great for strengthening models. I have soaked entire models in epoxy and they come out looking like tin toys from the 1930s. This process requires some practice and some trial-and-error. If the paper is not heavy enough the resin will make it look translucent when it dries. Also some of the glue lines will show up as well. You can solve this problem by first spraying the model with several coats of spray fixative or clear lacquer. Let it dry thoroughly before proceeding to the epoxy stage. If you find the epoxy a bit thick to work with, you can use equal parts of epoxy and denatured alcohol mixed together instead. Cover any workspaces with wax paper as the epoxy will not stick to that. You will find that you will have to move the model several times while it dries, as the epoxy tends to puddle at the base and will dry with flat spots if you don’t keep moving it. 

Your career was as an arts teacher and a sculptor—how did model making tie in with your professional life? 

They both seem to have melded into one. Model making is like learning the alphabet and grammar. Once you have those tools, you can write sentences, poetry, short stories…whatever. We pick up skills every time we make a project or a model and after a time the skills just become tools we can use to solve a problem.

What led you to find the Pellerin reproductions available through Castle in the Air? 

That was simply a serendipitous moment during an internet search. I always thought that someone should reissue those models because they are really beautiful and the variety the company produced was quite staggering.

One thing I found humorous was the fact that Pellerin models were originally produced as an inexpensive children’s toy. I defy any child to construct one of them using 19th-century technology. I have built many of them and taken countless hours to complete them. It certainly doesn’t help that the directions are nonexistent, and that what writing there is is in French! You do enough of them, though, and the directions really become superfluous, because you need to reinforce all the subassemblies with mat board anyway to make them rigid enough to work with. 

How do the Pellerin models compare to newer types of paper models? 

To me, these models are really the gold standard. I just love the esoteric nature of them, plus they give a real window into the 19th century. Of course, there are other famous European printers as well that are up there with Pellerin. The German firm J. S. Schreiber comes to mind, along with Wilhelmshaven ( Both have been in business since the 19th century and have created some beautiful models of castles as well.

I also like the toy-like quality of models produced by the Polish firm called Maly Modelarz. They tend to focus on military models, too, but when finished their models have a sort of Louis Marx and Company tin-toy look to them.

As a rule I tend to stay away from the military topics, at least the more modern ones. Some of the pre-WWII stuff is interesting from a technological viewpoint to see how things evolved. You can get quite a good basic understanding of a particular machine by building a model of it. You get a real feel for how the various parts interact. 

What is your process for putting together a Pellerin model? 

The first thing I do is to acquaint myself with all the various pieces. I will study a model, first just looking at all the pieces and trying to assemble it in my head. Once I understand where all the pieces go, I then cut up the model into sections so I can scan them into my computer for reference and also to be able to reprint any pieces that I might cut the wrong way.

I usually begin with the base and work up or out from there. I also need to think about how to reinforce the framework, finding places where extra support might be necessary. I like to reinforce the base and the sides or walls, depending on the model. Mat board works great for this, as it is rigid yet cuts easily with an X-Acto knife, too. If you have access to a frame shop, you can ask them for the smaller pieces of mat board as they usually throw them out. Foam core also works, but I find the thickness of it a little too much to deal with, plus you need a new blade to cut foam core cleanly.

When you decide to embellish a model, what might you use? 

This is a classic example of the axiom, “The ends justify the means.” In other words, whatever works—use it! I keep a clip file of images on a memory stick. Great places to find vintage images are online auction sites. Hake’s is a great one (, as is Heritage Auctions (, which has very high-resolution photos. Other online resources include university library websites which often have great online images that can be downloaded, especially in Europe.

Sometimes model makers have to think outside the box. For example, scale snow can be made by grinding up Styrofoam packing parts. They seem to be everywhere on recycling day. You want to use the more fine-grained Styrofoam for this, not the kind that looks like compressed BBs. Break the Styrofoam into roughly one-inch cubes and put them in a blender until it is about one-third full. Add water until the container is nearly full, then pulse grind and then regular grind. Pour the results through a strainer and let dry. It is best to use a dedicated blender for this process, one you won’t be using to blend food. To apply the “snow,” lay down spray glue first, then sift the snow over the glue before it dries. You can build up layers by repeating this process. Sand can also be applied the same way, to give a nice dry landscape effect. 

What advice would you give someone new to paper model making? What are your favorite resources? 

Start off with something that interests you. Don’t try to finish it in one sitting. Make sure you have a good X-Acto knife with (and this is critical) a sharp blade. As soon as you feel the blade start to “pull” when cutting, change it! Buy a box of 100 blades—you can usually get a good price on eBay. A metal straight-edge is also necessary. Wooden clay sculpting tools make great scoring tools as well, although a dull kitchen knife works well, too. Pushpins are good for making tiny alignment holes when you need to score a line on the backside of the paper. Blue masking tape (the kind used by housepainters) is great for use as a temporary clamp. It stays put, yet removes without pulling the ink off the paper. Office supply stores will have several sizes of paper clamps—they work great for holding parts together while you wait for glue to dry. Flat toothpicks are good for spreading the right amount of glue on parts.

In general, always be on the lookout for anything that you think might work. Hardware stores are always good places to look, especially in the nuts-and-bolts or washers section. Rubber o-ring washers make great steering wheels for cars. The braided fabric handles from shopping bags are good for car tires, too.

Needless to say, the internet provides a huge wealth of all types of scale models that can be downloaded, printed out, and assembled. I use 65-pound pale cream cardstock, which seems to be a little warmer than just white.

The all-time, number one, hands down website for unusual, esoteric, vintage models is Agence Eureka ( This is a French site that is definitely worth exploring. The woman who runs it is so generous in posting her archive of vintage models, all free to download and build.

Many thanks to Thomas Garbutt for taking the time not only to teach himself the art of paper model making, but also to answer these questions about his work.

Browse the selection of Pellerin paper models on Castle in the Air’s Online Shoppe at


Unknown said...

Excellent interview! Beautiful work!

Piper said...

What a wonderful story of how this artist got hooked on model making, and how to get started yourself. Many of his tips can be used by anyone making art out of paper!

Sharon said...

Thank you so much for this informative interview! I appreciate all the helpful tips. I have purchased several of your Pellerin models and would love to see more of the theatres.