For decades, model kits have gone hand in hand with mecha anime and video games. Maybe you grew up watching Gundam Wing or picked up Sakura Wars on the PlayStation 4! Now you want your own pint-sized mech to grace your desk or bookshelf. The world of model kits can seem daunting at first, but with a plethora of easy to pickup kits to choose from, and a few simple tips, you’ll be building your own squad of Zaku in no time.
THE TOOLS FOR THE JOB
If you wanna get started, you’ll need a few basic tools:
- A pair of nippers
- A sanding tool of choice
- A hobby knife (e.g. an X-Acto knife)
The nippers are there to cut the parts off the plastic “gates,” or runners they come attached between. Companies like Tamiya and Mr. Hobby sell their own specially designed nippers. You can also use wirecutters or side-cutters advertised for cutting jewelry from your local hardware and hobby stores (e.g. Michael’s). Just keep in mind you want something suited for working with (sometimes very) small parts.
As far as sanding goes, hobby companies make a wide range of specialized tools, but you can get very good results for an affordable price by going to the nail section of your local pharmacy. A basic set of nail files (a low grit one, then one or two finer grits) will work perfectly fine with any plastic model kit to sand away the small nubs nippers leave behind. And for a knife, a basic X-Acto style knife is suitable. Hobby companies also make small tool kits that come with a nipper, knife, and file all in one — such as the Mr. Basic Tool set from Mr. Hobby and the Tamiya Basic Tool Set.
WHAT ARE WE BUILDING?
For this article I’ll be covering plastic model kits, sometimes abbreviated as “plamo,” or “gunpla” if you’re specifically talking about the wide assortment of Mobile Suit Gundam models. There are also resin and vinyl kits out there, but plastic kits are a good starting point since they’re cheap, readily available, and easy to work with.
Most kits today from companies such as Bandai and Kotobukiya are “snap fit.” That means parts slot into each other — like permanently interlocking LEGO. So don’t worry about buying plastic cement or glue just yet. Bandai and Kotobukiya kits also come on pre-colored plastic or include decals (i.e. small stickers used for fine details), so they often look pretty good even without painting.
There’s no shortage of model kits based on anime, movies, and TV shows, but if you’re just starting off with making kits, my top pick is the 30 Minute Missions line from Bandai. 30 Minute Missions, or 30MM, are designed to be entry level model kits, with a low price range ($15 – $20 depending on the kit), modular design and swappable parts that make them highly customizable. They also have simple bilingual (English/Japanese) instructions that run down the basics of putting together these kits, so you can get the gist of what to do even if you’ve never made a kit before.
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30MM exists in a narrative vacuum, with no comic or cartoon tie-in (for now). It’s all just a loose story told through instruction manuals about aliens versus humans. Aesthetically, these 30MM kits are chunky little robots that are somewhat reminiscent of the Mobile Suit Gundam series (also from Bandai). You can assemble them straight out the box, which will look great, or you can treat them as a blank canvas when you get more confident with your skills and try detailing, painting, and kitbashing (combining parts from two or more model kits) — like this person here.
Zoids from Takara Tomy is another line of mecha kits that are friendly to first timers. A lot of the newer Zoids kits, such as the Ganontoise and the Wild Kabtor, don’t come attached to runners, so you don’t need to use nippers on them. Rather than humanoid mechs, Zoids are mechanical animals. They straddle a line between toys and model kits — using a motor gimmick that lets the kits walk. However, they’re typically less readily available than the 30MM kits.
WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT GUNDAM?
Mobile Suit Gundam, the beloved long-running series about child soldiers piloting primary colored killing machines, is the progenitor of mecha model kit building as we know it today.
These kits go back decades. And Bandai has been churning them out pretty much nonstop for fans young and old. You’ve got your Gundam Wing kits if you grew up on Toonami, the over-the-top and colorful Gundam Build Divers for kids, and the more old school leaning Gundam: The Origin kits. Gundam model kits are also split into “Grades” that indicate their difficulty level and complexity (and arguably quality), but like I said earlier, all of these kits are snap fit and made with colored plastic. You still on’t worry about paint or glue if you don’t want to!
- High Grade (HG): Entry level level Gundam model They’re relatively small and easy to assemble, with fewer parts to worry about.
- Master Grade (MG): Larger and more complex. These often have an inner skeleton that you assemble and put parts over. They’re not too much harder than High Grade, and have bigger parts that may be easier for some builders to work with. They also have more parts than HG, so may still not be the best choice for first timers.
- Reborn-One Hundred (RE/100): They’re the same size as a MG kit, but don’t have an inner skeleton or as many components. Think of them as oversized HG kits.
- Real Grade (RG): Small (the same size as HG kits), but highly detailed and While space efficient and very detailed, not to mention a bit more affordable, the smaller parts make them a little fiddly.
- Perfect Grade (PG): Very big, complex, and usually very expensive.
- SD: Short for “Super Deformed” these are squat, cute, cartoonish kits that are easy to assemble. They’re also dirt cheap.
Bandai also produces kits based on franchises such as One Piece, Dragon Ball, Space Battleship Yamato, and Star Wars. If you’ve seen the game Sakura Wars on the PS4, or its new anime series, you can buy a kit of the Kobu Kai mech. While these are different franchises, quality in Bandai kits is generally consistent with what you find in Gundam models.
Kotobukiya has their own line of mecha model kits known as Frame Arms, as well as Frame Arms Girls. These are basically “What if these same robots killing machines were cute girls?” Much like Gundam, these are snap fit kits that don’t require paint and involve big robots. If you’re a Metal Gear Solid fan, artist Yoji Shinkawa designed the White Tiger and Black Tortoise kits for the Frame Arms line. Meanwhile, Kotobukiya also has its own line of Metal Gear Solid kits (the Sahelanthropus kit in particular is pricey, but nice).
If you have an itch for more video game related kits, Kotobukiya has also released models for the Mega Man games, Sega’s Virtual On, and From Software’s Armored Core — that last one being based on the studio’s robot battling series from before Dark Souls.
WHERE DO I GET THESE KITS?
Naturally, you should check your local area for any hobby stores and comic shops to support small businesses. If you don’t have any hobby stores nearby, Bandai has been pushing aggressively into the U.S. market, with many of the newer Gundam, 30MM, and Star Wars kits readily available at Barnes and Noble (which also sells a wide assortment of tools and accessories), Target, and Kinokuniya Books. Kits from companies such as Kotobukiya and Wave don’t have as much official distribution in the States, so you will probably have to look to more specialized retailers and importers such as Gundam Planet, Big Bad Toy Store, and HobbyLink Japan.
If you want to learn more, there’s a wealth of YouTubers from around the world that show off kits from mechs, tanks, minis, and more. Don’t be afraid to learn techniques from different kinds of modelers! And above all else, this is about having fun, so do what works best for you when it comes to building these kits.
I WANT TO TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL!
An easy way to give your kits more detail, but without opening up paints, is to use Tamiya Weathering Master. Weathering Master is basically like blush (DO NOT put it on your face), but for adding mud, sand, or a metallic finish on your kits. You can easily apply it with a sponge brush or even your fingers. Due to its soft consistency, you will need some kind of spray-on sealant to keep it in place — such as Top Coat from Mr. Hobby or Testors Spray Lacquer. To get an idea of what weathering can do, here’s a 30MM kit assembled straight out of the box and another one I spruced up with Tamiya Weathering Master, some old decals, and a matte top coat. No paint was used.
If you can’t get your hands on Tamiya Weathering Master, you can achieve a similar effect by getting ordinary soft pastels, scraping them with a knife, then applying the powder to kits with your fingers or a brush to give the kit some shading and detail.
Finally, if that’s still too daunting, you can buy fine-tipped model markers (some even branded with Gundam and other series). You can use these to add definition to the many outlines and greebles found on most model kits for a more authentic look. And it’s as easy as tracing! Combined with the weathering affect, it’ll really make your models pop more than ever.
Best of luck, builders!