Need help with choosing the best scale for your aircraft model-building adventures? I’ve got you covered. I’ve prepared a short guide that’s aimed especially at beginners, but experienced modelers may find it useful too.
A scale is the ratio of a model airplane’s size to the size of the original subject. So for example a scale of 1/10 would mean that the model airplane is ten times smaller than the real thing.
Plastic model kits come in various scales. The three most popular scales for aircraft kits are 1/72, 1/48, and 1/32. There are of course others, and we’ll cover them a little later.
What Factors Should You Consider When Choosing the Scale?
There are several factors to consider when choosing the right scale.
The Size of The Original Subject
The size of the real aircraft you are wanting to build should be one of the most important factors to consider. Modern aircraft tend to be incredibly large. If you don’t have enough storage space, you probably should not consider building jets in a 1/32 scale. I personally prefer my models to be smaller than 50 cm / 20 inches.
Here’s a summary of scales I would recommend for various subjects:
- Modern jets – 1/72 or 1/48 – I prefer 1/48, but some jets can be huge
- Modern bombers – 1/144 or 1/72 – Keep in mind that a B-52 in 1/144 scale will still have a huge wingspan of almost 16 inches
- WWII fighters – 1/48 or 1/32 – I prefer 1/48
- WWII bombers – 1/72 – this is a good scale for larger bombers such as the B-17G Flying Fortress but some smaller bombers are great in ¼8 scale as well
- WWI fighters – 1/48 or 1/32 – WWI airplanes are tiny compared to modern subjects
- Airliners – 1/144 – 1/144 is the golden standard for airliner model kits
This is of course a general overview and there may be exceptions where it would make sense to choose a different scale.
Your Skill Level
This is more of a factor for beginners to consider as most experienced model builders will be able to choose pretty much whatever scale they want.
This is my personal opinion, but I feel that complete beginners should not start with the biggest kits available. Instead, it is wiser to choose something small and easy to assemble. Chances are you will end up not liking the result of your first build.
I would recommend starting with either a 1/48 fighter if you are into WWII aircraft or a 1/72 modern jet.
How Much Free Time Do You Have?
Building models airplanes properly requires time and patience. The amount of time needed for completing a model correlates with the size of the model. If you don’t have a lot of time then it may be a good idea to choose a smaller scale. The 1/72 kits can often be completed in a couple of days.
Bigger models can take a lot more time to finish. Modern jets in a 1/48 scale can take weeks or months to complete. The longer it takes you to build a model, the more likely you are to lose interest and place the unfinished plane on the so-called shelf of doom. I have a lot of models waiting on the shelf of doom. Please, don’t be like me 🙂
The bigger the model the bigger the price you are going to pay. If you are starting out and don’t want to spend a lot of money on a hobby you are not sure you will like, then your best bet is to choose a smaller scale model kit.
Here’s a comparison of prices of modern jet kits:
- 1/32 F-4J by Tamiya – approximately 140 USD
- 1/48 F-4B by Tamiya – approximately 100 USD
- 1/72 Phantom FGR.2 by Airfix – approximately 30 USD
Of course, there are also price differences among brands and Tamiya is always going to be more expensive than Airfix. Sadly, Tamiya does not produce Phantoms in a 1/72 scale.
Availability of Model Kits in Given Scales
This factor is simple. If no one makes a model of an aircraft in a chosen scale, then you either have to go for another scale or wait until someone produces such a model kit. And depending on the subject, this may take years or even never happen.
Another case is the quality of available kits. Sometimes, you have your favorite aircraft but there’s no one making a high-quality model kit of the said aircraft. As an example, just a couple of years ago, there were no high-quality, well-fitting kits depicting the F-4 Phantom II. If you wanted to build the Phantom in the 1/48 scale, your pretty much only option was the old Hasegawa kits. And now, we suddenly can choose from the beautiful modern kits made by Tamiya, Zoukei-Mura, and Academy.
Your Age and Health Condition
As we get older, our eyesight tends to get worse. For those with bad eyesight, it may be easier to build models in larger scales. Although large-scale models also come with many tiny parts, they may be easier to assemble. The same applies to those who may have shaky hands or other problems with the motor system.
If you suffer from anything mentioned above, chances are it would lead to frustration if you were to go for something like a 1/144 scale model. Hobbies should be fun and not frustrating, so going for a bigger model seems like a better option.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most popular scale for model aircraft?
Historically, the 1/72 scale was the most popular scale among aircraft model builders. Recently though, the 1/48 scale has seen a huge rise in popularity. Going by the build threads on popular model-building forums such as Britmodeller.com and various Youtube channels, the 1/48 scale might have already overtaken the 1/72 scale in popularity. Moreover, there seem to be many more new releases 1/48 scale than there are in the 1/72 scale. This may indicate that this scale is becoming more popular.
Why are large-scale model kits more expensive?
Bigger aircraft model kits are more expensive than their smaller counterparts. Larger parts take up more volume. This increases the costs of raw materials, packaging, and shipping. Larger model kits are also more detailed which means the designers must spend more time designing the kits.
Larger kits cost more but also take more time to assemble so that may also be a factor when deciding on a scale. As a result, you would most likely build fewer 1/32 kits than 1/72 kits in the same timeframe. So the overall costs could end up the same. The thing is, most model builders suffer from GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) and they end up buying more model kits than they will ever be able to build anyway 🙂
Is sticking to one scale a good idea?
Many model kit builders have a favorite scale in which they build their models no matter the subject. This approach has both its pros and cons. The main pro is the fact that their models all share the same scale. This allows you to easily see how the different subjects compare to each other in terms of size. If you place a SU-27 model next to an F-16 model, you’ll be amazed at how much bigger the SU-27 really is.
The main con of sticking to a single scale again relates to the size of the subject you are planning to build. As with the SU-27 example, there are airplanes that are simply huge and it may prove difficult to find a good display place for the completed model.
What are the benefits of a large-scale model airplane kit?
The main benefit is that large-scale models are generally more detailed than models of smaller scales. They offer more detail and realism in their design and construction, which is really appealing to some people who love model airplanes.
Because the larger scale allows for more detail, some parts don’t need to be simplified as much during design. When the aircraft model is designed at a larger scale, many elements such as the cockpit, landing gear or engine exhausts can be more finely seen.
How do I calculate how big a model will be in a given scale?
Before we dive into calculations, you should know that many manufacturers have the model dimensions printed on the box or mentioned on their website. If you’re able to get the measurements from the manufacturer, it may be a good idea to do that instead of calculating them yourself. This approach can save you time and energy.
There are a few things you need to know about how to calculate the size of your model. First, it is important to know how big the original subject is. The easiest way to find out the dimensions is to head over to Wikipedia.
Let’s say you are looking to choose the best scale for the F-14 Tomcat. Wikipedia says the dimensions of the F-14D variant are:
- Length: 62 ft 9 in (19.13 m)
- Wingspan: 64 ft 1.5 in (19.545 m)
- Swept wingspan: 38 ft 2.5 in (11.646 m) swept
So for the 1/48 scale, you just have to take the numbers and divide them by 48. The Tomcat in 1/48 will have the following dimensions:
- Length: 15.7 in (39.6 cm)
- Wingspan: 16 in (40.7 cm)
- Swept wingspan: 9.56 in (24.3 cm) swept
The same calculations apply to other scales as well.