The Role of Models






The sound coming from the kitchen table started as a groan, stayed in back of the throat as a teeth-clenched yyyynnnghhhh, hit crescendo with the yowl of a cat in heat. In the interest of pandemic sanity, my husband dug out a model kit bought a few years ago on a whim, and instead of all plastic parts, there are little photo-etch details.

“That sounds pretty,” I dare from a safe distance. “What’s photo etch and why is it evil?”

A rant ensues. Something about how you have to paint the bright shiny metal anyway so why not just use plastic to match the rest of it. How photo etch needs a special kind of fancy glue and you have to shape it yourself and God forbid you should use pliers. How you need special model-making tweezers (his voice drips with sarcasm) that do not have a serrated edge. Oh, and now people have stopped using those friendly little jars of enamel paint and they spray the parts, which would mean buying some spray gun thing and cleaning it every time….

A wifely confession: At first I suspect Andrew is just blowing steam. Then I check online and find rants just like his. “It’s official…I HATE working with Photo Etch!” one guy writes, describing “tons of intricate bending” and nothing in the instructions to tell you what order. “Is it really worth all this aggravation? Oh and then there’s the CA glue! How … HOW do I keep gluing random bits of scrap plastic to my elbows?”

Another sighs, “Somehow I managed to model for 40 years without it.” He, too, refuses to use “fancy benders,” suggesting instead a pair of wood chisels or a combination of razor blade and #17 Xacto blade, flat chisel type. More advice, this from the other side of the Atlantic: “Treat the stuff like a bleedin’ cobweb.”

I read off tips: Use a #10 hypodermic syringe, keep rolling pins of assorted diameters, put a very small bead of well-used Blu-Tak on a toothpick to hold tiny photo etch parts in place, buy a special file to remove excess metal. …

He looks up and sighs. “Don’t forget all the ‘aftermarket details’ you can buy.” Being Jewish and a historian, Andrew appreciates the need to make the historic Nazi logo, now illegal in Germany, an aftermarket option for the purists. But he rolls his eyes at the tiny planks of wood you can add to your ship’s deck (which I would buy in a heartbeat, being far more interested in décor than artillery).

“It’s called a kit,” he snaps. “That’s supposed to mean everything’s in it. This has just become a racket.”

I think of my beloved Legos, which are now so elaborate, prescriptive, and prefab that they seem no more creative than paint-by-number. I liked it when there were just a few different colors, shapes, and sizes, and I was supposed to take it from there.

We do complicate things. Is this just capitalism? American excess because we came to a land of abundance and are still trying to fill it, overdoing and supersizing everything? Or just progress? I suppose sophisticated model-makers welcome all these new media, techniques, and options. They “raise the bar,” one site notes, “for competition within modeling clubs.” But Andrew only meant to do this for fun. And in today’s world, it is hard to find a hobby that stays fun.

You start with a beginner’s list of supplies and keep buying, advancing and refining your needs, and soon you are spending more time researching gear and shopping for it than you spend doing what you set out to do. It is a rare hobby that does not turn into a time-consuming money suck. We outfit ourselves as though we are hiking to the North Pole, assembling what the Brits call “kit” (but to Andrew’s point, is well beyond the kit). Along the way, the fun vanishes.

Or does the outfitting become the fun? It certainly makes fewer demands of us, holds fewer risks. Ordering takeout is way more pleasant than cooking something that might end up a disaster. When I decided to try watercolors, I spent weeks stalling, buying different brushes and pigments and papers. Browsing a museum gift shop is always more relaxing than studying the exhibit itself: You sift, deliberate, succumb, and leave with a pretty little paper bag of reward.

But if you are looking for something that will absorb you for hours at a stretch, offering just enough challenge, paying off with contentment in the moment and a little burst of pride at the end—you have to work hard to constrain your own experience and resist all the complications that commerce shoves at you.

The first model kits were the simple Frog Penguin 1:72 scale airplanes made in 1936. But the first model-maker of note was Leonardo da Vinci, who shrank his ideas to scale and constructed them with exquisite care. No fussy materials or after-market add-ons.

On a photo etch supplier’s website, I find a clue to the new mixed media: “Metal etching is more cost-effective than other machining processes because it allows for more complex designs with intricate features. Increasing design complexity often doesn’t result in increased production costs.”

Follow the money.

Follow, too, the consumer’s needs. In “The Commodification of Self,” Joseph E. Davis describes the modern shift from a life shaped by institutions to a life driven by self-expression. We are our own projects now. And “we judge the quality of our inner experience through identification with the things we buy.”

All of us except my husband. I search for a company called Just One Glue or It’s All in the Kit or maybe Oldtime Models for Curmudgeons. Then my eye lands on something I did not expect.

“Honey, wait!” I call. “You don’t have to go through all this. Now they have virtual kits. You can cut and assemble and paint everything online—you don’t need any real glue at all.”

This time I recognize the noise coming from the kitchen table. I have watched enough PBS nature docs to know what a wounded grizzly bear sounds like.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.