User ProfessorLaser is a prolithic poster of scratchbuilt spaceships on reddit. I asked if they could walk me through one of their builds, and they replied with a detailed build journal for one.
In their own words:
ProfessorLaser: I like it because it’s a mix of simple design and careful detailing.
The designs of my spaceships aren’t my own. I plan on doing my own design at some point, but so far all the builds I’ve done have been re-creating spaceships that have only existed as either 3d models, or images. This one in particular I found on reddit, and originally drawn by user yetanotherpenguin (who’s also @penguinkstudio on instagram).
I actually find that it’s a lot of fun to attempt that kind of build, going just from the images and reference material, and turning them into something tangible and real that I can hold in my hands. Trying to re-create something like that really gives me an appreciation and understanding of a design in a way I don’t think I could get any other way. All the little details that otherwise would go unnoticed, or that blend with the background are things I have to consider while re-creating it, or it would just be “off” in a way that you’d recognize, but maybe not know why.
When building, I almost always start with a guide that I draw in Affinity Designer (An alternative to Adobe Illustrator, so a vector illustration app). I’ll start with my reference images, and sketch out the basic shapes that I want to cut. Because they’re in the drawing app, I can play with the scale and the size, comparing things and making sure they line up well before I do any actual cutting. The actual transforming it into a 3D shape from the 2D guide happens mostly in my head. For more complicated builds, though, I’ll draw a top down, or front on view as well. For this one they weren’t necessary since it’s a pretty simple shape. You’ll notice that the guide isn’t an exact re-creation of the ship– Instead, it’s all the shapes I want to have, laid out on top of one another so I can see what parts needs to be the same length.
Once I’ve got a guide all laid out, I print it out in a couple sizes, just to get a sense of how big I want it to be, and pick one that I like. In fact, I can say that one of the most powerful tools I use for scratch building is a printer. (Before I bought one, I was literally just tracing the shapes off of my computer screen. I would not recommend doing this.) By printing it, I can firmly tape the guide to a piece of styrene with some masking tape, and cut straight through into the plastic. This way, I get cutouts that are as close as possible to the shapes I want.
Once I’ve got my basic shapes, I get to gluing them together. For this it’s usually a mix of CA glue, and Weld-On acrylic cement. Styrene absolutely dissolves when exposed the weld-on, but it’s great for tricky little corners, or just getting a quick tack weld to hold two pieces in place. For really sturdy connections, especially if they’re hidden, I like to use CA glue with baking soda thrown onto it. The baking soda works as a kicker for the glue, and to give it a little more structure to act as a gusset. The result is a pretty ugly bond, but if it’s somewhere inside the model, that’s no problem.
As for curvy bits, I still haven’t broken into fabricating my own compound curves. I suspect I’ll need to assemble a vacuforming rig if I really want to work with that. For one-dimensional curves, however, thin plasticard takes to being bent surprisingly well. As long as you’re careful not to crease or score it, I’ve been able to get some wonderfully smooth curves just by folding it into the shape that I want, no heating required. For particularly stubborn curves, I’ll heat it very carefully with a lighter to help it set, but that’s a bit of a dangerous game. Or, it is if you value having fingerprints, at least.
Smooth or curved edges are even easier. I had a lot of trouble initially because I kept trying to free-hand a blade along some curve that I had included in my guide, before I realized I could make a series of straight cuts, then sand it smooth. I have a whole bunch of cheap nail files in different grit sizes that work great for this kind of thing. Sanding is actually a huge part of my process. Even with the guides, the shapes I cut aren’t going to be exactly perfect, or line up as close as I want them to. The fix for that is sanding. And then sanding. Then sanding some more. Then sanding with an even finer grit just to be sure. A build can go from looking pretty gnarly, with all sorts of mismatched edges and weird bits sticking off, to smooth and perfectly lined up after a good amount of sandpaper and elbow grease.
Once I’ve gotten the basic shapes put together, it’s time for the best part: Greeblies. I don’t have a particular philosophy when it comes to the detailing. Mostly it’s about finding bits that look like they go together. Tubes lead to boxes or thrusters, dots or little lines go next to each other to make a corner seem less empty, that kind of thing. Most of my favorite greeblies come from either WW2 era tanks or artillery kits, but I’ve found all kinds of things that work. I’ve used bottle caps, necklace clasps, wire crimps, aquarium tubing, and even an old ripcord from a beyblade launcher in my builds. This model is pretty light on details, so most of the bits came from a model tank, but there is a half of a fabric rivet on there as well.
Adam Savage’s videos on scratch building spaceships are what inspired me to start.