Build first or paint first? It’s a question that has haunted plastic model kit builders for generations.
There are pros and cons to both approaches, and ultimately it comes down to personal preference and to the specific project you’re working on.
My personal preference is to build as much of the kit as possible before painting. That means I’m not blindly building everything at once only to discover that some areas of the model are going to be difficult or impossible to paint.
Being able to determine what to paint first and what to build first comes down to experience and understanding the kit you’re working with.
Different models require different approaches
The approach to take with your kit will also vary depending on the type of model you’re working with. Not only does it matter whether you are building a jet or a tank, but also the specific kit.
There are of course many different types of models, and I will try to briefly explain the approach often taken for the most popular ones.
Airplanes in general are nearly impossible to assemble 100% before painting. It might be theoretically possible with airliners that lack inner details but with other types of airplanes, you will need to paint the cockpit before fully assembling the model.
Once you’ve got the cockpit painted you are often good to go with the rest of the build before painting the rest of the model apart from perhaps the landing gear. Still, it’s going to depend on the specific aircraft and the kit you’re working with.
Most AFVs such as tanks, tank destroyers, and armored cars can often be built almost to completion before switching over to painting.
Some model builders prefer to paint some parts or subassemblies separately from the rest of the kit. These parts may include tools and accessories such as shovels, barrel cleaning rods, fire extinguishers, machine guns, and many others.
It is also common to paint the tracks and wheels separately from the rest of the model. This allows for better access to all the nooks and crannies that would be difficult to reach once the tracks are installed. But know, that if you are planning on doing some heavy weathering, many of these nooks and crannies will be covered in mud and dirt anyway.
Cars and motorcycles
Most car and motorcycle model builders prefer to paint parts and smaller subassemblies separately and then assemble the model. Just like with airplanes, it would be virtually impossible to paint the insides of the cockpit once the model is fully assembled.
The chassis is often built almost to completion before painting. This allows for smooth paint application with no visible color variations between the parts. The paint is then followed by a clear coat.
Ship models are usually built and painted as subassemblies and then put together. Building everything first would make it difficult to paint some of the areas of the model.
Also, ship models are usually quite large and tend to include a lot of fine details that are very easy to break. Therefore handling the whole model during the painting process is generally not a good idea.
Check the instructions first and make a plan
It’s vitally important that you check the instructions that come with your model before you start painting or assembling anything.
Even if you are an experienced modeler, it’s always best to take a quick look at the instructions to ensure you familiarize yourself with any special steps required for the specific model you’re working on.
Although some manufacturers have instructions that are no better than steaming piles of garbage, most provide clear and concise guidance.
Based on the instructions alone, you are often able to make a pretty good guess about whether it is better to paint a part or subassembly separately or when the whole model is assembled.
Keep in mind that although instructions will tell you what color to paint each part, it doesn’t mean you have to paint that part immediately.
TIP: When it comes to car model kits, it’s a huge time saver when you separate parts that will be the same color and paint them together. For example, the chassis, hood, trunk, side mirrors, and spoiler often are the same color and can be painted together.
Which parts should be painted separately?
Any part that you deem difficult to paint when glued to the main model should be painted separately.
This includes but is not limited to:
- Tiny parts that are easy to break off such as pitot tubes and antennae on airplane models – glue these last
- Parts that cannot be painted after assembly such as intakes, intake fans, cockpit parts, etc.
- Parts that would be difficult to mask with masking tape
- Parts that get obscured or themself obscure other parts when painting such as tracks and wheels on an AFV
Which parts should not be painted separately?
Some parts of models should not be painted separately before assembly unless you don’t really care about the final appearance of your model.
- Parts that will require filling and sanding – for example, jet fuel tanks almost always come in two halves that require filling and sanding after they are glued together
Remember, glue can ruin your paint job!
If you decide to paint a part separately from the main model, be very careful when gluing it on later.
Glues or cement used in plastic modeling can ruin your paint job in two ways:
- The glue can react with the paint and cause the paint to lift off
- The glue can leave a residue that will be hard to remove
To avoid these problems, use only a small amount of cement, and apply it sparingly to one surface only.
If using super glue, use a toothpick or other sharp object to apply the glue to one surface only.
Thin cement such as Tamiya Extra Thin, can wreak havoc on your paint job if not used carefully. Extreme care must be taken when using these products on painted parts.
What you paint with is also important
There are multiple ways to paint a model. You can use a paintbrush, an airbrush, or spray cans.
I prefer to use an airbrush whenever possible. But that might not be the best method for beginners, as airbrushes are quite expensive tools and require proper ventilation and a respirator.
Paintbrushes are the most traditional way to paint a model, and they’re still widely used today. If you are planning on using a paintbrush then be aware it may be difficult to reach some areas without smearing paint on other areas. Think landing gear wells of airplanes.
Spray cans are also a popular way to paint models, especially car models. The main advantage of using spray cans is the speed with which you can paint a model. The main disadvantage is that it is difficult to paint small details with spray cans and using masking tape can leave a prominent step between the areas painted in different colors.