Thomas Garbutt is Castle in the Air’s paper model builder at-large, constructing Pellerin paper models at his home in New York City and shipping his finished work for display in our gallery. Thomas has been sharing tips and techniques with us from his years of paper model building. In this installment, he offers up his thoughts on how to select which model to build.
by Thomas Garbutt
Where to begin? The question itself has a daunting ring to it, especially in the world of paper model building with its wealth of available subjects, models, complexity levels, and scales.
The most obvious consideration when selecting a model to build is your own curiosity. Choose a model that interests you. Model building can take a long time, especially when you are just starting out, and you’ll want to work on a model that can hold your attention. A common mistake beginners make is to think that they’ll be able to finish. Also think about what you’re capable of in terms of space, both workspace and display area. How big will the finished model be? An airplane with a 36-inch finished wingspan sounds impressive, obviously, but do you have room to display it? If your finished model is going to be a gift, then make sure the receiver has adequate display space as well.
After thinking about space, it’s also important to consider time. A common mistake beginners make is to think that they’ll be able to finish everything in one sitting. Paper model building can take up a lot of time, and it’s easy to underestimate how long a project will take. When I was young, my mother taught me the value of setting goals—this is a lesson that applies very well to paper model building. One of the first things you’ll learn in this hobby is the importance of learning to crawl before you walk. A photograph of a finished model can lull you into a false sense of what you can accomplish quickly. Over the years, I have found that models are really nothing more than a series of smaller assemblies (also known as “sub-assemblies”) connected together to make a whole. This is where goal-setting comes in handy. If you set yourself a realistic goal each time you work on your project, then it will eventually get done. Say to yourself, “Today I am going to cut out and sort all the pieces for my model,” or “This session is all about just gluing together the seats for my model Ferris wheel.” Such goals give your time a specific purpose, something concrete to accomplish. When you reach that goal you’ll feel good, and you’ll be more likely to want to continue working next time and ultimately finish the piece.
Another benefit of setting sub-assembly goals is that they let you tell yourself it’s okay to stop work for the day. Building paper models can become addictive—all of a sudden it’s 3am and you have no idea where the time went. Do this often enough and you’ll eventually burn yourself out. Your model will sit on the work table for several months becoming an annoyance, until one day—to relieve the guilt you feel every time you look at it—you simply throw everything away.
If you’re having trouble deciding what sort of model to construct, consider trying a building or monument, whether contemporary or historic. These work well incorporated into landscapes or other dioramas, in railroad layouts, or as part of a dollhouse setting. If you enjoy making a particular building, perhaps you’ll be encouraged to make complementary models to go alongside it and assemble a miniature scene out of them all.
Paper models are available in many scales. The word “scale” is confusing to some new builders, but all it means is how large the finished model will be compared to its real, full-sized counterpart (known as the “prototype”). Scale is represented in notation form, such as “1:8.” Such notation is understood to mean “1 inch on my model is equal to 8 inches on the prototype object.” Sometimes the scale notation isn’t used and a model is referred to as one-eighth (or 1/8) scale, or “one-eighth the size of the real thing.” All these references mean the same thing. The standard scale for a dollhouse is 1:12. Simply put, it means that 1 scale inch equals 12 inches in real life. An adult male in that scale could realistically be approximately 6 inches tall. Of course this applies to scale feet as well—a room in a dollhouse measuring 1½ scale feet across would represent an 18-foot room in the house it is modeled on. Popular scales, in order from smallest to largest, include 1:144, 1:72 (the most common), 1:48, 1:32, 1:24, 1:16, 1:8, and 1:4.
I hope this has taken some of the mystery out of how to select which paper model to build. Once you have gathered your supplies, designated a large enough workspace, and given yourself a realistic sense of how much time the model will take, go ahead and make your selection and get started.
Previous lessons in Thomas Garbutt’s series of paper model building tips and techniques include his thoughts on gluing, cutting, and clamping. Our interview with Thomas Garbutt on his experience working with paper models can be read here.
Browse Castle in the Air’s selection of more than 300 vintage French paper model reproductions.