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Thursday, 1 December 2022

Airfix Modelling

New Month Old Post (first posted 14th August, 2014).

In 2009, I came across a magazine called ‘Down Your Way’ which published pieces submitted by readers. I was dismisses of most of the content, which was unjust because the best way to improve one’s writing is to write lots, and getting something into print gives the ultimate encouragement. Teenage Son had the right attitude:
    
“Well, if you’re so good, let’s see you get something in there.”

The result was ‘Airfix Modelling’, published the following year. It may not be entirely accurate, especially with regard to the present day, and there are other things I would change too, but I have resisted the urge to tinker. It seems to be trying too hard to entertain. I also dislike the captions used in the magazine (“model boyhood”, “glued to a hobby”) which were added by the editor.

It was, in effect, the start of this blog, although it did not appear in this form for some years. 


January 1, 1965.  Friday. Made F4 UID Corsair from Airfix, and also a station booking hall.
January 2, 1965. Saturday. Made Airfix station platform.

Most of us remember Airfix, the make-it-yourself model aeroplane kits. There were also ships, vehicles and even, it seems from my diary, railway buildings. The Airfix company flew off the ground, so to speak, in 1955, in a World War Two Supermarine Spitfire. It sold well and became the first of an enormous product range. For a couple of decades, Airfix was a very profitable business. Its faithfully reproduced, 1/72 scale models, came as injection-moulded plastic ‘trees’ of parts that slid and rattled enticingly inside their sturdy cardboard boxes. You broke off the parts one by one and glued them together with clear, stringy, cellulose adhesive, which the instructions called ‘cement’. You squeezed it out of a metal tube, releasing an exhilarating chemical vapour. 

Some parts, such as wings and the fuselage, were fairly large. Others, like the engines, fuel tanks and ailerons (to be an Airfix modeller you really had to get to grips with aero-terminology), were smaller, but still easy to handle. The tiniest parts, such as the pilot’s joystick, the propeller shaft and the machine gun barrels, which in the finished model were all supposed to move forwards, backwards, up, down and round in a realistic manner, usually ended up glued firmly to your fingers in a horrid sticky mess. You knew you were going to be spending the next couple of hours peeling rubbery ‘cement’ from your fingertips, nails, nose, hair, ears and any other exposed and unexposed bits of the body it had managed to stick to. 

You could always spot inexperienced Airfix modellers by what appeared to be globs of mucous matted into the sleeves of their jumpers. The best way to glue very small parts was to apply minute amounts of ‘cement’ with a pin or matchstick, but you needed to have progressed beyond the novice stage to know that.

Kits were graded according to difficulty, but that was not as helpful as it seemed. The easiest kits, with the largest parts, were also the smallest models. What boy, no matter how young and inexperienced, would truly want to build the smallest and easiest models, when the largest and most difficult had the most impressive pictures on their boxes?

For me, the ultimate was the Short Sunderland III Coastal Command’s Fighting Flying Boat, which came in a massive box with an all-action painting of four powerful engines, roaring away on a high-mounted aerofoil above a magnificent white hull, banking to the right on the lid. Once I had one, my younger brother had to have one too. It took my Dad ages to make it for him, about three months of sticky fingered Sunday afternoons, and the ruined sleeves of several jumpers.

You could literally spend weeks making Airfix aeroplanes, and that was only the first stage. Next came painting. The paints were in tiny containers. One brand was Humbrol, a Hull company that had originally made paint for bicycles. Their paint came in delightful tiny tinlets, with little metal lids you prised off with a coin, just like real full-sized paint tins. Airfix’s own brand was in little glass bottles, like nail varnish bottles with a brush fixed to the underside of the screw top. I liked gold and silver best. They looked dense and sparkly against the glass of their bottles, and glittered as they flowed from the point of your brush. 

Sadly, there was not much call for gold and silver. The largest aircraft surfaces, such as the wings and fuselage, tended to be green or blue. I found it impossible to apply the colour evenly over these large areas. I was so disappointed when, after painting a Dornier Do217E, one of the first models I made, a splendid World War Two German bomber with realistic rotating gun turrets and elevating barrels, it dried as patchily green as a forest canopy from the air. 

My disappointment was replaced by disbelief when my mother, with real enthusiasm, exclaimed, “Oh Tasker, it looks just like a real one!” Whether it really looked like a real one in camouflage, or whether she was just trying to cheer me up, I still do not know. 

You then had to apply the ‘decals’. You and I would call them ‘transfers’, but the instructions always called them ‘decals’. Looking this up now, I find it is short for decalcomania, derived from the French ‘decalquer’, a ceramic decorative craze from the 1870s, but let us stay with ‘transfers’. They came on a card from which, when moistened, you could slide the transfers on to the model. 

You positioned the German crosses, the RAF ‘roundels’ (red, white and blue rings to you and me) and other markings, exactly as they would be on the original, a finishing touch that made for a highly realistic model, although not realistic enough for some. Perfectionists took things a stage further using a repertoire of illusions, such as filing the bottoms of the wheels flat to give the impression of bulging pneumatic tyres.

There was just one overriding, inescapable problem with Airfix models. They did not actually fly. They were not that kind of model. You could only pretend to fly them. Holding them in your outstretched hand you could, climb, dive, yaw, pitch, roll, bank and loop around the living room, making terrifying explosive sounds and screaming engine noises as you machine-gunned the family cat. Mind you, Sooty the cat had his own ideas about that and was pretty adept at leaping acrobatically up from the floor and smashing the model out of your hand with his teeth and claws, gouging out a couple of strips of flesh in the process. What would Churchill have given for air defences like that in the war? Enemy bombers ferociously snatched out of the air and disembowelled by batteries of enormous furry felines. The Battle of Britain would never have happened, and Churchill’s ‘never in the field of human conflict’ speech would have had to be completely different.

Alternatively, you could admire your models standing on the bookcase in your bedroom, until they got squashed beyond recognition by a busy mother with a pile of sheets and blankets. Or, you could hang them from the ceiling with invisible threads of black cotton, except that the Short Sunderland III Flying Boat was so heavy it would have necessitated a length of steel cable, a Bob the Builder safety helmet, and a rolled steel joist up in the roof. You could end up with a couple of dozen models suspended in perpetual dogfights all around your bedroom, until one day, when light had rotted the cotton, and you had imperceptibly grown a few more tenths of an inch taller, you inadvertently nudged one with your head, sending it crashing to the floor in a plume of accumulated dust that hung thick in the air like smoke, as you accidentally tripped on your model and trod it into the carpet.

To be truthful, there was not a great deal you could do with the finished models. The interest was in the making of them. It taught you patience and perseverance, and gave you confidence in the use of terms like fuselage, ailerons and landing gear, admirable qualities and skills even today. 

It seems hardly anyone makes Airfix models these days. The activity fell into decline from the late ‘70s and the company went bankrupt. Ownership of the rights went through several financial crises and takeovers, with at one point Airfix being owned by Humbrol, the paint company. You can still buy the kits, but at prices that in 1965 would probably just about have bought you the real thing. Those who do still make them are as likely to be adults as children. A fifteen-year-old boy who made model aeroplanes today would need to keep pretty quiet about it to avoid being beaten up at school. 

Maybe the increase in the cost of plastics contributed to the decline, or maybe it was more down to social change and the emergence of computer games. One thing that did not occur to many of us in 1965 was that for some fifteen-year old-boys, breathing cellulose vapour would become an entire pastime in itself, rather than just a small part of the pleasure of model making.

I remember the American Corsair fighter mentioned in the diary as the last model I made. The first had been a Fairey Swordfish, an early World War Two torpedo biplane with fiddly wing struts. But other parts of my diary show that by fifteen my interests were poised to move on, from making models at home to more outgoing things in the real world, although I know now I still had some way to go. 

“You still have,” said Teenage Son, unimpressed.
 

[Originally published as ‘An Essential Piece of Kit in a Model Boyhood’ by Tasker Dunham in Down Your Way: Yorkshire’s Nostalgic Magazine, Issue 145, January 2010, pages 46-48. ISSN 1365  8506. Country Publications Ltd., Skipton, North Yorkshire.]
 

28 comments:

  1. Saw new Airfix kits in Aldi - No Glue Needed - they just click together - sees like sacrilege.
    I made the station booking office too, for my sister's train set

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    1. A cross between Airfix and Lego! I sometimes wonder whether Britain's decline started when Lego became more popular than proper nuts and bolts Meccano.

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  2. Oh goodness me. So many memories there of my little brother painstakingly building and painting his Airfix models then hanging them from his bedroom ceiling. You had to be under 4 ft tall to cross his bedroom floor without knocking them all down.

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  3. Brother was too old for Airfix, so it was Mecano, but husband can talk about the planes he made - at length.!!!!!!!!

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    1. Goodness. I'm sure he could get a guest spot on a blog somewhere.

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  4. My 3 or 4 year older brother used to make model planes with engines that flew - radio controlled. Many a Saturday was spent on Epsom racecource with the aroma of Castro R - I think that was what it was called.

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    1. I always wanted to make ones that flew, but never got beyond the elastic band stage.

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  5. I have a strong liking for Spitfire pictures and Spitfire models. Something else that I collect.

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    1. A lot of people think it was a very special aircraft.

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  6. I only made two models from kits in my youth -- a World War II tank and the Starship Enterprise. Both were fun to do.

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    1. Yes. It was always a question of what to do with them afterwards. Two was ok, but it was easy to accumulate a lot more.

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  7. Nice to see you back after your break. Your old article brought back memories of winter evenings fiddling with Airfix models, getting glue everywhere and making an utter mess of the paintwork and the transfers. Next time you write about models could they please be 36-26-34 and dressed in tight bathing costumes?

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  8. I used to make miniature scenes, loved the woodwork, turning on my small lathe. Wood glue is perhaps easier than cement glue. Children were introduced to lego from fairly early on which was less fiddly but developed during my son's growing up to produce working models.

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    1. It must be far more satisfying to have the freedom to make one's own parts on a lathe rather than to assemble ready-made parts.

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  9. I loved the bit about the air defense cat! I would have done the same in Sooty's place.
    So you are a published author in "Down Your Way". I have never read that magazine but often saw it advertised in The Dalesman.
    As for building models, I was quite good at making buildings out of cardboard and paper, or fully furnished and decorated rooms in a shoe box, for very small dolls. The fun was in the making, not so much in the playing; I can't remember ever having played much with my creations.

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    1. I suppose all these models were dust-gathering early versions of Sims and the like.
      Yes, the magazine was an offshoot of Dalesman, now re-absorbed.

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  10. We had plenty of Airfix and Balsa wood models hanging around the house when I was a child (and the smell of the Airfix paint) but we were mostly a Meccano family. I joined in with the Meccano but never with the Airfix or Balsa wood kits. Our inventions were brilliant.

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    1. Meccano was brilliant. Much better than Lego, probably because it was more difficult.

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  11. I don't remember Airfix brand, but we certainly had modelling kits! My brother made cars, trucks and ships, with many toothpicks being used as glue applicators. Years later my ex-the first, a soldier, made model planes in various sizes, some were huge and were hung from the ceiling in the boys bedroom, one was on a stand on top of the TV, which back then was a huge piece of furniture, others were on shelves in the living room. When cyclone Tracy demolished Darwin, many families with children were airlifted out and housed in tents in the huge carpark space and football oval of the Army Base we lived behind. K took down most of his planes and took them to the camp for the children, while the rest of us Army wives gathered clothes and toys our kids had outgrown and sent them along too.

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    1. We lose something these days with most of these things being on computers. We gain things too, but real modelling kits taught you a lot.

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  12. Although not an Airfix brand, I spent hours putting together a B-17 model for a speech class at university many years ago. It was, in part, a way to pay homage to my father's WWII bomb group. I used the model to tell the class a true life story about a friend of my Dad, a tail gunner in his bomb group. While the gunner's plane was in flight formation at about 13,000 ft over Belgium, another B-17 above them was shot down and fell into his plane, severing the tail section from the main body of the plane. He survived the fall--passing out just before hitting the ground. He woke up several days later in a British field hospital--the sole survivor from the aircraft. The name of the plane? Mr Lucky. Making the model and telling the story to a students who had little to no knowledge of planes and/or WWII history was a way of remembering the many sacrifices made by those who served.

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    1. I think you commented on the tale I told about my dad's Panora photograph - he survived the war because of having had polio whereas his friend died. The bombers were truly terrifying.

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  13. Firstly please may I say it's good to see you back. I've hardly been blogging for a good while and have only just read why you've been absent from Blogland. The fact that you are back is a good sign. I was diagnosed with potentially terminal cancer in 1997 and am still here fit and healthy (and still receiving treatment) so I hope that we will be reading each others blogs for a long while yet.

    I was a Meccano boy. My maternal Uncle worked for the company in Liverpool (the place of my birth). I've only ever made one Airfix model and I made a complete mess of it and was so disgusted I never tried another.

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    1. The less that kits do for you, the more satisfying they seem to be.

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  14. You're back. This brought back memories. My father and my brother working together to assemble 'hot rods'. They were very painstaking, and the glue certainly was -er- exhilerating.

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