Airfix isn’t the only company that makes construction kits, but like Hoover and Biro, the name means the same thing. Before robots took over the world Airfix kits were the go-to hobby for millions of kids.
You could build anything with an Airfix kit (although a lot of the stuff I’ll describe in this post could have been produced by someone else such as Revelle or Tamiya.) Yes, anything: aeroplanes, ships, space ships, cars, bikes, tanks. . . . Between 1972 and 1992 I probably made them all.
They weren’t easy to build. Unless you were happy with a Spitfire that looked more like a coal fire, they were fiddly, breakable, and occasionally the parts didn’t fit properly. But when they were done there was a sense of accomplishment as if you had just conquered Everest. To do it right though, you needed to overcome several logistical problems:
You couldn’t stick these things together with Sellotape or Pritt Stick, you needed polystyrene cement. Polystyrene cement came in small tubes and possessed a grudge against the world. You had to prick a hole in the cap and then with a combination of air pressure and bloody mindedness the glue would bubble out and be off, an unstopable outpouring of gelatinous contempt. It stuck to everything except the Airfix kit and dried into a hard crust until your fingers looked like unpeeled prawns.
The experts didn’t use the ‘point and squirt’ method of applying glue. Too many fused fingers had taught them that you should squirt the glue onto something else like a matchstick and apply the glue from there. And once the perils of polystyrene cement were defeated the Airfix world became a much brighter place. You were ready to paint.
A typical Airfix kit might have cost £2.50 in 1976. But once you had discovered the camouflage was three different shades of mustard, a spade five millimetres long needed a full tin of Tobruk Grey, and various other components were Amazon Sepia, Deep Green and Hyacinth Yellow (along with their reference numbers) the cost of paints came to £149.75. The real thing was probably cheaper to buy.
Humbrol paints were expensive. You had to buy a full tin for the smallest item because the last tin you bought in that colour had been left with the top off and was now a solid block of Amazon Sepia. The paints were oil based and ruined millions of brushes because you couldn’t stretch to a bottle of turps. And you pretty much had one chance to get the paint in the right place. The Royal Air Force never operated Hyacinth Yellow Spitfires to my knowledge.
But the experts had the answer. Paint the parts before you start building the kit. It was obvious in retrospect. And when you started the methodical progress through the skeletal frames of the engine fans, tank tracks and driveshafts you’d discover the need for Erratic Pale Vermillion, and another 50p bus ride was needed to buy another £2 tin to paint a part no bigger than a thumbnail.
Painting complete, glue tamed, construction finished, you were ready to apply the decals. The stickers; except they weren’t stickers. The decals were made from a forerunner to graphene. One atom thick these things required warming in water and then they would magically glide from their backing sheets. You then had thirty seconds before they dried – before the strong nuclear force took over from the weak nuclear force – to get that decal in its correct position. Fail and you were doomed. Your decal-less tank was now in breach of the Geneva conventions on the rules of war.
The big no-no was to apply the decals before you painted the kit. A mistake I made on a Spitfire in 1973. No one has hands steady enough to paint around a decal and even if you used an airbrush the paint would still look like a raised manhole cover compared to the impossibe thinness of the decal.
Over the years I read books, looked at photographs and noticed the experts had realised things get dirty, especially mechanical things, and all Airfix kits were mechanical objects. I started to filth-ify my tanks, smear the windscreens of rally cars and then clear the areas swiped by the wipers. I should have had barnacles on the galleons, but you couldn’t buy 1:96th scale barnacles from the toy shop.
You could exhibit your completed kit on its stand, or impaled on a shaft in the case of aeroplanes, but the experts displayed their stuff in dioramas. Blown up farmhouses surrounded by tiny Werhmacht soldiers or the Flying Scotsman half out of its train shed in a miniature 1970s world of cloth-capped engineers and Gaberdined onlookers.
I can’t remember the last kit I built. It was probably an old sailing ship. I went through phases: planes, tanks, cars, planes again, galleons, trains (including a train, the City of Truro, bought from a gift shop in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.)
I still have a Renault rally car on a shelf at home, but the rest are gone. Thousands of hours of work, millions of gallons of Humbrol paint, tonnes of toxic glue that never breaks down of its own accord. No evidence of any of it apart from a continuing urge to build things either from cardboard or from words.
Airfix kits scratched a creative itch and ultimately rewarded effort and concentration with something tangible. At the same time they drained the wallet in a drip drip fashion as insidious as the dripping of the glue. But they were always worth it.