Vacuform Aircraft Modeling – Part 1

Part 1 – Personal View

As a child, I thought of a ‘model kit’ as a box of injection molded plastic parts attached to molding ‘runners’ or ‘trees’ (commonly called ‘sprue’), molded in a ‘color’ to match the desired paint scheme with a sheet of decal ‘stickers’ and instructions.  I usually just ripped the parts off the sprues and then (mostly) glued ’em together using stringy, sticky tube ‘cement’.  Then I sometimes slapped on some paint and applied the decals.  As I matured in the hobby, however, I started reading modeling magazines such as “Scale Modeler” and “Fine Scale Modeler” which showed other ways of putting things together.  I also noticed (typically small) adverts for ‘vacuform model kits’ of various intriguing subjects.  These seemed mysterious and exotic when compared to the Bf109 & Mustang kits in which I usually dabbled.  So, as a newly recruited IPMS/USA member (which REALLY opened my ‘modeling’ eyes!) I ordered a 1:48 scale B-58 Hustler vacuform kit from Combat Models.  It wasn’t cheap compared to my usual fare and it looked daunting at the time with all the thin-shell molded parts on the large ‘backing’ sheets of white and clear polystyrene, white metal wheels & legs and NO decals.  It more reminded me of my one  serious attempt to build a large scale balsa model (a Ju87 ‘Stuka’ from a Guillows kit) than a plastic ‘kit’.  However, I was so inspired I tried my hand at it anyway, following the instructions best I could – until Monogram issued their injected kit!  Further reading and practice led me to a few conclusions about vacuforms:

  • One, building a vacuform model is NOT something for a ‘beginner’.  They are not really more difficult for the average modeler – just more ‘advanced’.
  • Two, the quality of vac ‘kits’ can vary widely.  Some vac kits are absolute ‘bears’ (which is probably why ‘vacuform’ is usually a separate contest category) while others were beautiful multi-media kits.
  • Three, how well a vac turns out depends on the care and skill of the modeler – as does any other model!

    1:48 P-3 kit from Tigger Models

Over time, I have found the vacuform kit ‘industry’, with its relatively low tech, low cost tooling allows makers (who are often individual enthusiasts themselves) to offer a wide variety of unusual subjects in unexpected scales.  For me, this is the primary attraction of vac kits – the weird, surprising or huge models that can be realized (how else a 1:48 scale P-3 Orion kit?)

Countering this is often the challenge of scratchbuilding details, no decals, bad fit, poor engineering, sloppy molding, missing major components (such as engines and landing gear…) and, well, you get the idea.  But for every poorly implemented kit there are some really wonderful productions that feature great fit and engineering along with photo-etched brass (PE), white metal & resin parts plus beautiful decals and fascinating instructions.  Basically, vacuform kits were amongst the first ‘multi-media’ plastic models around other than wooden ship models (if we ignore the first plastic & wood kits such as ‘Speedee Built’.)  For me, it didn’t take long for some product lines to stand out either as really bad or really good.

For example, the most basic kits were produced by Airways, Combat Models (now carried by Roberts Models which offers some detailing parts), Contrail (molds now held by Sanger), ID Models (out-of-business but molds held by Tigger models), Execuform and Exact-Vac much of which had basic moldings, sometimes poor quality control and lacking refinement in fit and detailing – though some were excellent starting points for unusual subjects.  Better kits were produced by such as RareplanesSanger (which inherited the Contrail molds in addition to their own products), Sierra Scale Wings, Wings 48/72, Esoteric and Frank ModelBlau (aka Airmodel) while the best are from Falcon, Koster Aero Enterprises (KAE), Aeroclub, MPM and Dynavector, all of which were typically produced as full multi-media kits with injected molded, resin, white metal and PE parts plus decal sheets.  In a way, vacuform kits showed how market forces and individual innovation could improve the standard for a product even as vacuform makers went head-to-head with ‘mainstream’ injection-molded producers.  However, it was apparently for naught, as the modeling hobby was contracting in the face of other pastimes as youngsters became immersed in the digital age – so it didn’t matter how good any kit was when plastic modeling was deemed too tedious, too boring.  The hobby became even more an ‘industry’ and fell victim to the shrinking marketplace as all commercial concerns must.  Vacuform kits, overwhelmed by mainstream release schedules unheard of previously, continue to seemingly ‘fade away’.  Ironically, most vac kits are no longer the most expensive option but rather the cheapest – understandable when the latest injected kits have part counts in the hundreds instead of the tens of yesteryear.  Additional pressure comes from the mature ‘resin kit cottage industry’ that has addressed the ‘weird and wonderful’ niche market pretty well, though resin kits often take the lead for cost.

So I ask you, Dear Reader, to consider what is the relevance of vacuform molding to *your* modeling?  Realistically, even the most die-hard injection molded kit ‘builder’ may be faced with a vacuform canopy (at the very least.)  Clear parts have long been replaced with thinner, clearer vacuformed versions whether home-made or purchased.  Something about NOT looking through a scale 6 inches of ‘glass’ just seems to enhance a model!  Yet, because the part must be cut away from its base plastic sheet and then trimmed to fit, many experienced and otherwise adventurous modelers will cringe at the thought of dealing with those flimsy little pieces of plastic.  This ‘fear’ is so pervasive that a duplicate part is usually provided – just in case the first attempt is botched.  Which brings me to my main thesis for this ‘workshop’ series.

Vacuform kits are truly much like any other model kit.  As long as you know what to do, the experience of building a vacuform can provide the same pleasure and sense of accomplishment – perhaps more – as any other model kit.  Do not fear the vacuform, rather embrace it as the road less traveled.  To do so can give the unusual, weird and wonderful a place “on your shelf” – if you are so inclined.

Go to Part 2>
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8 Responses to Vacuform Aircraft Modeling – Part 1

  1. rp mcmillen says:

    I build almost all vacform 1/48 the last one was Combat models C 46 and still working on the Cant Z 1007 and on the bench now is a Aero Form He 100 d 1

  2. Marc Racine says:

    Great article, really enjoyed it. I have been building plastic kits for over 40 yrs, just recently started building resin kits and now have built my first vacuform very successfully (vintage 1/72 “Airframe” Bristol M-1 C). I was petrified of screwing up but came to realize that my many years of experience which included minor scratch-building was very useful. I have been building strictly 1/72 WW1 kits to amass a collection for public display in local museums and fairs and to teach the history behind the planes and pilots. I have built 107 so far and have about 150+ more waiting to be built, including a dozen or so vacforms from Airframe, VacWings72, Formaplane, Joystick models and Esoteric, to name a few. I also have been commissioned to build a few kits such as a 1/32 scale Sopwith Camel that the son of a WW1 pilot asked me to build to commemorate his father’s service in that war.

    • RBeach RBeach says:

      Marc, I hope to have another installment done soon. Hard part is choosing a model to use to illustrate the process!
      Feel free to post some pictures of your work if you wish, or if you already have something online let us know where the pictures are! Thanks…

      • Marc Racine says:

        Check out the site, I have pics of about 120 finished kits, including 2 vacuform kits I just finished; Wings72 Lohner L and Joystick models Sopwith Batboat 1a.
        [Edited Marc’s website link to point to his Facebook page as he intended. Click his name to go to the site… RBeach]

  3. phil says:

    This article is like showing Jaws before asking folks to sign on to ocean snorkeling tours. But that is reflective of the Societal mis-concepton of the artform.

    • RBeach RBeach says:

      Phil, I appreciate you taking the time to remark on the article though I could have hoped for more specifics. I didn’t realize I was being as negative as I apparently came across to you. I thought my concluding paragraph would have addressed my viewpoint clearly enough – but I will look over things again. Also, I’m glad I could support your own bias against IPMS – I was beginning to think my brainwashing had worn off!
      Seriously, as you are obviously a skilled vac builder (going by some of your work seen over on ARC), I would like to have some constructive commentary on my write up. I am a vacuform kit proponent and hope this series will highlight just how enjoyable building a vac can be. As always, this is open for *you* to write up a post as well – just need you to create a login account and we can set you up for authoring your own articles.
      Regards, Robert

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