While I haven't seriously been doing Gunpla modeling long, and I don't consider the skills I've acquired so far to be anything but basic, I have nevertheless received rather undue praise for the simple work showcased on this little site. I believe anyone so inclined can easily build models equaling and exceeding the quality of my own — that is to say, anyone can become a good beginner.
My initial lesson in Gunpla basics came from Danny Choo's guide, which indeed covers most everything discussed herein. While I still recommend Danny's guide, neat-freak that I am I find it a bit disorganized and disjointed, and wanted to write a more linear, start-to-finish guide covering each step of my modeling process in order. Additionally, of course, one feels the urge to make one's own contribution, and it is my hope that the tidbits I've learned from my own experience so far will be of additional value.
The net is indeed vast and infinite, but one hopes this small scrap of jetsam may find its way to those looking for a straightforward and detailed account of the fundamental technique of elementary Gunpla modeling.
Preparing Parts for Painting
Perhaps the commonest question of the beginning Gunpla modeler is "Do I need to paint the model?" If not this, then certainly most often asked is "Do I need to sand the parts before painting?" This section will address these two questions in turn.
With the ever more impressive out-of-box quality of Master Grade models, questioning the necessity of painting is quite reasonable. Most MG kits produced recently come with all parts molded in the correct standard colors, and indeed look quite good without being painted at all. There nevertheless remain a number of good reasons to paint one's Gunpla. Most obviously, you may want your model to have a non-standard color scheme, as with my purple-on white Hi-Nu Gundam. Moreover, while newer MG kits may be completely molded in the right colors, older MG kits and High Grade kits often are not, and require at least some painting to have a correct standard color scheme.
Moreover, there are two fundamental reasons to always paint your Gunpla, even if it's already molded in the right colors, which I find compelling. Firstly, even though they are more and more well-placed and unobtrusive on newer kits, painting over clip marks is the only way to completely eliminate them. Secondly, the unpainted plastic of raw Gunpla parts often has a visible swirling pattern, an effect of the injection process (fig. 1). While this plastic swirl may be diminished or even eliminated simply by topcoating, once again the only way to be sure of a completely even appearance is to paint your parts.
Leaving a model completely unpainted will be discussed briefly throughout below, particularly in the topcoating section. My recommendation, in any case, is firmly that beginners get in the habit of painting their models regardless.
That said, there remains a secondary question: whether to paint pieces individually, or in groups before cutting them off the sprue. While individual preparation and painting of each part produces superior results, a good deal of time and paint can be saved by spraying whole sprues at a time, and covering the clip marks later. This was the approach I used with my first MG kit, Char's Zaku II. Painting the runners first, then trimming the clip points with a modeling knife after cutting the parts out, and finally painting over the clip points with the same paint after assembly produced a passing fair result (fig. 2). My lack of skill left considerable visible marring, however.
Assuming, however, that one wishes the clip marks to be eliminated, at the very least, after painting the sprues, one would need to sand and partially repaint each piece individually. Having tried this method, I found it easier just to prepare each piece, and paint them once.
The question of sanding has perhaps already been given an implied answer above. Needless to say, the procedure outlined below includes sanding each piece before painting as the crucial step which removes all traces of each part's connection points to the sprue. If one is disinclined to sand, however, the clip points can be cleaned up fairly well with careful use of a modeling knife. (Or even better with files.) One trick (which I often use for small parts, or pieces which end up in essentially invisible places, like the internal frame) is to gently scrape the knife edge perpendicularly across the surface of the part, after trimming the clip point down. This will shave off thin layers of plastic and even out the clip mark, but does still show through painting.
Essentially, the questions of whether to paint, and whether to sand before painting, are questions of how well you want your Gunpla to turn out. Contemporary Gunpla are nothing like the old models, which, like most other kinds of model kits, absolutely required gluing and painting to produce a fragile and more or less stationary finished product. My feeling is that it doesn't take very much effort to go the extra step to sand and paint your model, and on the other hand the increase in quality and finish gained by doing so is quite great. In the end it's not really a question of a right or wrong way to do things, but simply of your own heart's inclination. Even though building a decent Gundam model doesn't take much modeling skill (compared to traditional military or airplane or car models, for instance), it nevertheless presents the modeler with an opportunity to practice attending to fine details. Personally, I regard this opportunity as valuable.
More concretely, however, I just wanted to get rid of clip marks and end up with models that look better than the ones I already made, and thus decided to commit to sanding in addition to painting.
Parts may be removed from the sprue simply with a modeling knife if no other tools are available. When I began modeling, this was my method, and on the whole there's no real problem with it as long as you're using a good knife. One must be exceptionally careful, however, when cutting pieces from the sprue, not to damage the parts. Sometimes bearing down on a modeling knife stresses the part being cut out, and can even snap delicate pieces. (Char's dome-piece lost a chunk in this way; fortunately I found it, after it went flying, and glued it back in place.) Moreover, some kits (like the Hyaku Shiki or metallic coating Sazabi) have surfaces very susceptible to scratch damage, and even normal Gunpla can be scratched easily if your blade slips.
It was actually building the MG Hyaku Shiki which prompted me to invest in a good pair of Tamiya modeling clippers. These are flat on one side so you can clip right up against a part's surface. Don't skimp on this tool; cheaper ones are available, but they won't perform as well. Consider your clippers a valuable investment in every model you'll make. Besides, a good pair probably doesn't cost as much as a single MG kit.
Gunpla are born in little bits connected to a plastic tree called a runner, or more properly, a sprue. When clipping parts out from the sprue, it's best to first clip a little ways away from the part itself, so there's a little bit of connecting plastic left on the part (fig. 5).
Those bits of extra plastic left at the clip-points are called flash. After first clipping a part out, go back over it and clip off the remaining flash, snuggling the flat side of your clippers right up against the surface of the part. If you're used to using the clippers, you can clip close to the part from the start, rather than making two passes, but it never hurts to take extra time to do this sort of thing more carefully.
Usually the clip-points will still be a little uneven, even after being clipped off up close. Use your modeling knife to carefully trim down that last bit of flash, but be careful not to cut too deep. If you'd rather play it safe, you can just sand or file the last bit of flash off rather than trim it with the knife.
Gunpla parts need to be sanded with very fine abrasives to leave a finish smooth enough that no rough texture will show through the paint. Tamiya makes handy sets of graduated finishing abrasives, each containing three grits of paper. I've found their "fine" set, which contains 400, 600, and 1000 grit abrasives, to be suitable for Gunpla. They also make an "ultra-fine" set, and while I haven't tried it myself, no doubt starting from the fine set's 400 grit and working your way through six grades would produce a superior finish.
In any case, starting with the lowest grit abrasive, sand the clip-points smooth, then go over the same spot with the next grade up. Make sure to sand out all the abraded area left by the previous grade. By the time you get to 1000 grit, the part's surface will be quite smooth indeed.
I'm in the habit of using small squares of each grade of abrasive, cut out from the main sheet, to have better control and get as much use out of the sandpaper as possible. Cut yourself a new square whenever the old one's too clogged up to be effective. Some people attach bits of sandpaper to popsicle sticks and the like to make their own sanding tools. (Note that if you're sanding clip marks off of parts you painted already, your sandpaper will clog much more quickly on account of the paint.)
As an aside: If you're not painting your model, lightly sanding the whole surface of your parts with the highest grade sandpaper may help reduce the visibility of the plastic swirl mentioned above. It will also help achieve a more even finish, even if you're planning to topcoat the whole model. Note, however, that even well-sanded clip points may still leave visible marks, especially on darker plastics — white discolorations resulting from stressing the plastic when clipping. Once again, the only way to completely eliminate the traces of clip points is to paint over them.
Painting and Inking
I'm in the habit of preparing and painting the parts for a whole section of a model at a time, and inking the pieces as I assemble the model. While I actually prefer to prep and paint all the pieces of a kit before even beginning assembly, at present I don't have a good way to keep the parts organized such that I'll know which piece is which when putting the model together. (By the third Zaku ver. 2.0, however, I was familiar enough with the kit that jumbling the parts up didn't matter.) Regardless of how much of the model you get ready at one go, it's probably best in any case to ink each piece individually so you can be sure to get into any spots that may become hard to reach after assembly.
Once you've prepared your parts, it's time to go outside. (Maybe someday I'll have a nice fume hood and won't have to worry about weather getting in the way of painting, but for now it can't be helped.) Thus far, I've used a pair of pliers to hold each piece while I paint (fig. 9).
Some parts, however, can be difficult to grasp in such a way as not to get in the way of the painting, or moreover may be rather tricky to set down to dry without messing up your fresh paint. Building some contraptions to hold your parts for you may ultimately be the best way to go. (Such things can also be bought, but where's the fun in that? Besides, you'd probably need a whole bunch of them.)
In any case, when you're ready, lightly spray back and forth over the piece from different angles, taking care to cover the surface evenly. Different paints behave differently, so avoid spraying too heavily or your parts might end up overpainted and goosome-looking. Get to know how your paint is likely to behave.
I've found that the spray paints Bandai makes, the aptly-named Gundam Color Spray line, are the best-behaved. They go on easily, dry very quickly, and are quite forgiving in that even if you spray a bit too much, the paint will dry well, without obscuring the details beneath. Additionally, most of the common standard mobile suit colors (like the Zaku greens, or Char's particular salmon pink and maroon) are conveniently available. Finally, these paints take ink very well. On the downside, it seems like their range of colors is fairly limited, and I don't think they make any metallic sprays.
When I can't find Gundam Color Spray in the color I need, I use Tamiya's spray cans. They've got a broad range of colors, with lots of subtle variations and many lovely hues, including gorgeous metallics. I've found, however, that some Tamiya paints go on much more thickly, and are less forgiving when drying, making it easy to lose details in the paint if you spray too much. Some also are a good deal more glossy than others, and certainly more so than Gundam Color. Finally, some don't take ink very well, particularly those nice metallics.
Once painted, carefully set your parts down on a piece of cardboard or newspaper to dry. Once again, sometimes a piece can't sit without resting on a painted surface, and it may be best to devise a stand to hold your parts during painting and while they dry. (Just some wires with a bit of blu-tac at one end, stuck into some foam glued to a board would probably do the trick.) Different paints take different lengths of time to dry, and it's always better to give parts more time than too little. Before long you'll get an idea of how long it takes various paints to dry. Most only take 20 - 30 minutes, but again, it never hurts to wait longer.
Using a special paint pen to highlight the panel details of your model's pieces is called sumiire, or inking. Bandai makes a line of fine paint pens in a few varieties and many colors called Gundam Markers. The skinny ones, about the size of a normal pen, have a fine-point nib, and are suitable for panel lines and similar fine details. While these are available in several shades, I find black works fine for everything. You might consider using a grey pen for panel lines on white parts if you don't want those lines to stand out quite as much. I've also seen, for instance, blue inking on white parts' panel lines, which gave the model a subtle appearance from farther away.
There are also fat Gundam Markers, the size of a big permanent pen, which rattle because they've got ball bearings in them. These have a wedge-shaped tip like a sharpie, and are useful for all kinds of other details, such as mobile suit eyes and metallic detailing. If nothing else, keep a silver one around for adding some nice touches to booster nozzles and weapons.
As mentioned above, I like to ink each piece as I assemble the component at hand, but one could just as well ink all the pieces first, then assemble.
So, here's our pretty little piece, wonderfully free of clip-marks. Just painting the parts goes a long way to make a model look better than out-of-the-box, but inking is the quintessential step which brings out the fine detail of a model and sharpens its overall appearance, rather like the lineart which underlies animation.
If you've not painted your model, you should at the very least ink it. With many new models already molded in the right colors, just inking and topcoating can produce a nice result. However, take note that ink doesn't take all that well to raw plastic, and smudges easily before being fixed by the topcoat. Having a better surface to ink is yet another reason to paint your models.
Inking is probably the most demanding part of the modeling process in terms of fine motor skill. There's hardly anything to it to explain, but it takes a steady hand and a bit of patience. When putting the nib down and inking a line, let the contour of the piece itself carry the pen as much as possible, and just follow the line. Many panel lines are actually inset in the plastic, and so this is fairly easy. Be careful when setting down and lifting up the pen not to make any accidental marks.
If you do make a mistake — and you will — don't worry too much about it. Stray ink marks can usually be at least partially rubbed off with a quick thumb if you catch them before they dry too much. You can also use a plain old pencil eraser to clean up any excess or slips. Finally, if worse comes to worst, you can judiciously apply a little thinner (or nail polish remover — anything that's primarily acetone), though this will also probably take the paint off. If nothing else, repainting the part should give you a fresh start if needed.
Even if you don't make any mistakes, you may want to use an eraser to clean up the inked lines afterward if you think they're too thick. Keep in mind that while Gundam Markers have a pretty long life, the nibs on the fine-point variety get worn down and less fine the more you use them, and eventually may put down more ink than you like. Cleaning up panel lines — especially inset ones — will get rid of the excess ink, leaving a crisp, super-thin line.
Sometimes you'll need to decide how extensively you want to ink your kits. That is to say, while many details obviously should be inked, others are not so clear. A raised portion on a piece of armor, for example, will create an angle which could be inked, or could just as well be left alone. Experiment a bit and find out how much inking you like to do. Personally, I enjoy inking most of all, and tend to do as much of it as a kit's details reasonably permit.
Now that the part is inked, I add it onto the component I'm working on, and ink the next piece, one by one, till the chunk of the model at hand is complete.
And there we have it. During or after assembling a component, additional inking may become necessary for details like the seams where armor plates come together. Keep an eye out for these as you're building.
In addition to inking, adding a bit of metallic detail to your model makes quite a difference. Use those metallic Gundam Markers, or just good old metallic paints and a fine brush, to spruce up and highlight your model's interesting mechanical details.
My favorite such detail is the insides of booster nozzles and verniers. Painting the insides red, as they often appear in the anime, is a fine choice, but I have an especial fondess for rendering them in gold. The gold Gundam Marker does a good job of getting the inside of the nozzle, then I go over at least part of the outside with silver. All in all, this treatment stands out quite nicely.
Gunpla internals — or at least the parts of the internal mechanics which are showing — are worth touching up a bit with some metallics when it comes to things like pipes. Newer Master Grade kits have incredible internal detail, and displaying your model with some armor removed can be very impressive if the guts are nicely detailed. (Admittedly, however, I usually limit myself to detailing parts of the internal frame which end up being visible when the model is completely dressed.)
While just painting and inking your model will put it a good few notches above an out-of-box build, a little weathering will add subtle depth to your kit's appearance, and put it in a class beyond pristinely painted Gunpla. While the objective of weathering can be to achieve a beat-up or dirtied look, it need not be. The basic weathering technique of shadowing — adding a little darkness around the edges, as it were — accentuates the three-dimensionality of a model by brining out its edges, much like inking brings out inset lines and other concave details.
While many skilled modelers use airbrushing, paint and ink washes, and other advanced techniques to produce weathering effects, simple weathering can be done with these handy compacts. Each contains three different weathering compounds and an applicator. Daub the applicator into the compound of choice, rub it onto your model, and you've got fairly instant weathering. The stuff can be removed easily with a quick wipe if you put on too much or decide you don't like it. Once topcoated, it's sealed quite well.
In Gundam's case, I just want some basic shadowing. I applied the "gun metal" compound from the C set compact to the edges of arm on the right, then went back over with a damp paper towel to wipe the compound down. The result is a nice depth, which adds a great deal to the model's overall appearance.
These weathering compacts also offer a good range of rust, sand, grime, and grit if you want a model that looks like it's been getting down and dirty. My Wolfgar Zakus have been weathered to reflect their desert deployment.
Take note that while these compacts can accomplish simple weathering with ease, they're no substitute for some of the more sophisticated methods out there. My reliance on them so far is a reflection of my limited experience: when it comes to weathering, this is as far as I've gotten. There's much more to be learned, and if you want to achieve an effect beyond the scope of the weathering compacts, then pursue it.
This is another area in which I have minimal experience. Creating good-looking damage — whether from battle or just wear and tear — isn't too hard, but at the same time can become rather advanced modeling work. The most I've done to date is some very simple scratches and dings (fig. 17).
This damage was all done simply by carving up the pieces with a modeling knife before painting, then silvering the wounds. A darker weathering compound was applied around the damage to create a semblance of burns. If you have a small power drill on hand, it could be used to produce nice bullet holes by first drilling in (or through), then using a sanding bit to widen the entry point. Sanding bits could also be used to add chipped or worn down spots to a model's armor.
Basically, anything goes when it comes to creating damage — just be careful not to harm the integrity of the model (unless, of course, that's what you mean to do). Combined with weathering, a little damage can give a kit that well-loved look, adding greatly to its personality.
Topcoat is a clear spray which protects and seals the paint, ink, and weathering on the model underneath. Since it comes in gloss, semi-gloss, and flat varieties, it also adds an overall texture to the model. I tend to prefer matte topcoat, but occasionally I'll use semi-gloss when I want a suit to look a little shinier.
If you've taken the time to paint and detail your Gunpla, there's no reason not to take this final step to finish the job and give it some protection from wear. If you're fond of posing your models often (as I am), then topcoat is a must to protect you kits from your grubby mitts.
Applying topcoat is just like spraypainting. It's best to coat each component of your kit — limbs, torso, head — individually, to get better coverage. (If you topcoat the whole model at once, you might have trouble getting the part of the legs under some skirt armor, for instance.) If you're concerned about coating the joints completely, so that all of the frame which becomes visible when a limb is flexed is coated, you may need to make extra passes with the joint flexed and unflexed.
Also note that you may want to mask off some parts — like transparent visors or other shiny parts — if you don't want them fogged up by the topcoat.
Like paint, different topcoats behave differently. I've ultimately settled on Mr. Hobby water-based topcoat. It's proved reliable and well-behaved, a generous coat drying and sealing quite well. The other variety of topcoat I've used in the past (also produced by Mr. Hobby, oddly enough) has given me some consistent trouble (see below). As always, you'll need to see for yourself what kind of topcoat produces results to your liking.
Topcoating Suspended Parts
As with painting, sometimes there isn't any good way to set a component down to dry without fouling up the fresh coat. This tends especially to be the case with completed weapons and accessories. In such cases, tie a loop of thread to the component and hang it out to dry, as it were (fig. 18).
I actually hang the piece up, then spray it while it's already suspended. The spray tends to send the component spinning a bit, though, so make sure to get an even coat.
Topcoating Raw Plastic
If you've decided not to paint your model, topcoating it is one way to mitigate the plastic swirl mentioned above, and give the finished product a better texture. If you're happy with the colors in which your kit comes molded, and don't mind the clip marks not being completely eliminated, then a lick of topcoat over the assembled components will still go a good way toward improving the overall finish of an out-of-box model.
Both of the Zakus in fig. 19 have been coated with flat topcoat. While I did paint most of Char's Zaku (on the right), I didn't paint the dark grey parts, such as the chest plate. Saki's Zaku (on the left), on the other hand, has had the grey chest plate painted. As you can see, the end result of painting versus not painting is fairly comparable. (Note that Saki's Zaku also has been weathered slightly. In addition the two models were coated with different varieties of topcoat, and while both kinds were matte, that used on Char's Zaku seems to be a little flatter.)
I still advocate painting, for the reasons discussed above, but it should be kept in mind that you can still produce a fairly well-finished model even without painting. Sometimes a kit is already molded in a color that would be difficult to match without mixing your own paint, or perhaps there are only a few pieces in a certain color, and you'd rather not get a whole can of paint. (Don't tell anybody, but I didn't paint Gundam's yellow parts.) Whatever the reason, if you decide to leave a few parts or an entire kit unpainted, topcoating will give you a better final result.
Beware, however, that some kinds of topcoat seem not to take well to raw plastic. The Gundam Ez8 in fig. 20 was assembled sanded but unpainted, and the topcoat used reacted badly, producing a snowy white coat on some parts of the model, particularly the backpack. Sanding the topcoat down resulted in a so-so weathered look. Regardless of how the mess was salvaged, however, the topcoat's behavior was unexpected, and I feared to use it for some time afterward, lest my models be ruined just when they should've been finished.
With the topcoat I use now, I haven't encountered any similar problems, on raw plastic or otherwise. The other kind seemed only to have this problem on unpainted plastic, but went on fine over painted parts. Just take note that some topcoats may not do so well over unpainted models. If you're going to leave something unpainted, just be sure your topcoat won't react badly.
Gunpla modeling has become more enjoyable for me the more I've striven to improve my skills, such as they are. It's a rewarding pursuit in that regard because fairly minimal effort is necessary to go from sloppily building a kit out-of-box to painting it nicely and giving it a good finish. Beyond, of course, lies the difficult world of truly professional modeling, a realm of artistry and fine craft which no doubt is not so easily entered. Yet, the difference is still just a matter of how far you want to go, and of what you'll put in to go to those lengths.
I haven't been at this hobby very long, nor have I entered into it all that deeply, but nevertheless my desire to do better on the next model has driven me to explore new techniques and put more into the work. At the same time, I'm not a professional, and I'm not bent on building competition-worthy Gunpla. I'm just building for my own enjoyment, and my drive to improve isn't one which seeks to produce the very best results possible, but simply those which are satisfying. For a simple hobbyist, I believe this is the proper attitude to take.
For the sake of other beginners who feel the same desire to improve, without being pressed beyond the simple pleasure of Gunpla modeling, I offer this description of my own methods. I hope it won't be thought presumptuous for someone so inexperienced to do so.
If you've got any questions, I'd be happy to hear them. Please feel free to contact me for clarification or further explanation of anything mentioned herein, with specific queries about a particular project, or just to talk Gunpla.