Model Making As Sculpture


Gallery I  Naturally Finished Wood Models
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The original model sculpture found in this site may require some explanation. The still evolving style of the work goes back some 35 years to the first all wood, naturally finished model which I did, but its real roots lie in a wood kit model which my father built for me in 1944. It was a Strombeck-Becker B-17 and he finished it "bright" or naturally, with varnish. Many years later when I was given an example of this kit in its original box, I learned that Strombeck-Becker had, among other finishing recommendations, suggested that the model simply be varnished to show off the quality of the wood in the kit which they proudly described as the finest Western white pine. Of course, I don’t think Dad, a wood worker of considerable talent, ever finished wood in any other way.

From the WW II period on, I have built wood models, mostly static display or "solid" models, but also card models and, for a time, plastic kits. A problem with kits of any kind, however, is that most of the really interesting and creative modeling work has already been done and one is left with the less satisfying task of merely assembling and finishing another’s creation. More importantly, one is stuck with the perceptions of the original model maker and his conscious and unconscious conventions of what a model is. None of that ever satisfied my imagination, sparked by an aesthetic attraction to the subject at hand, be it an airplane, a ship, a locomotive…anything. My real interest was and is in the perceptions and meaning inherent in the subject. One of my favorite models, in this sense, was one fashioned out of left over roofing shingles at my grandfather’s house one hot summer day in the late Forties when I watched a DC-3 drone lazily through a cloudless Kansas sky. I had to build a model airplane. I had to touch the beauty of that moment. The model itself probably never much transcended an accidental assemblage of the shingles I found. I was only 8 or 9, but the meaning of that model, my youthful attempt to represent a part of the world I understood that day, lingers on in the remembrance of my youth. It formed a part of that reality in which I stand today.

We fashion a good part of the world of meaning, our world, with the experience of our touch. This is one of the reasons I have come to refer to my work as "model sculpture." Sculpture represents, that is re-presents, parts of the every day world to us so that new and different meaning is found. Indeed, is grown. When we reach out into the world given us, touch it and re-form it through the aesthetic impulse, we give it new meaning and thus we learn more about what is out there. That is what sculpture, art, does.

The foregoing necessarily requires a few remarks about "scale" models and their relation to sculpture. I have heard too many experts and organizations defining what a scale model is and what it is not. Let me state up front, if it is not already clear from the proceeding, that I do not do "scale" models. Actually, I am not sure if anyone really does, depending on how that term is defined. If "scale" means a particular proportion of the original subject, larger or smaller, then the model should be just that, an exact proportion of the real subject. It would look the same, sound the same, weigh the same, taste the same, smell the same and it would feel the same, just in proportion. It would have to be of the same materials and perform the same, just in proportion. I am not aware of any "scale" model that even attempts to proportion all these characteristics, although some large radio control models have a go at several of them. A working miniature steam engine or automobile might come closest. Probably only a one to one reconstruction of the original subject is all that would truly do because I think even the notion of proportion itself introduces artificial characteristics into an attempt at true presentation. That is, my own relation to a proportion of the real subject is different than my relation to the real subject itself. Think of looking at an HO scale model of the Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 locomotive on a table top and then standing beside one of the real things! Even a true proportion of this subject denies an essential characteristic of the real subject: its astonishing massiveness.

An exact one to one reconstruction, however, would not be a "scale" model. Thus conventions of one sort or another must inevitably be introduced. These are usually visual, although they could easily as well be tactile or olfactory…just imagine that for a moment! If it merely looks like a proportion of the original, it is a "scale" model. But this is a retrospective convention, that is, it adds nothing new to our idea of what the original object is, or was. It simply tries to faithfully reproduce a proportion of a single sense impression of that original. Thus the common idea of the nature of a "scale" model is a pretty limiting and, at least to me, uninteresting concept. I think Robert von Neumann in his The Design and Creation of Jewelry says it clearly:  "Few artisans in history were able literally to mirror natural objects with tasteful results.  Even then fantastic virtuosity of technique was necessary to compensate for the breaking of essential aesthetic laws against the slavish copying of nature."  Sculpture, art, attempts a far richer re-presentation of the given subject as it consciously attempts to discover new meaning beyond it.

What if I make a model using sculptural or prospective conventions? That is, in making the model I consciously reflect my own understanding of its subject’s meaning in several relevant ways which point beyond the model itself and project that understanding to the viewer. In researching the history, I could gather into my understanding something of the character of the times of the subject, the purposes and limitations of the designer, her aesthetic projections, the artistic tastes of the era, the perceptions of those interested in the subject, the paintings and drawings, advertising posters, photos and models of the period. Maybe I could understand the pride and joy and/or the horror and pain of those associated with the subject. Presume that I bear these ideas in mind as I choose or draw the plans, choose or find the materials, select tools and procedures and evaluate the compatibility of details of finish. Now I come to project a meaning, albeit my interpretation, of how my model might actually reflect a greater or broader reality about the original subject than that of which a merely accurate visual convention might allow. In so doing, the model could then become something to be valued in and for itself.

I frequently think of how Michelangelo's David might fare if judged by typical current conventions of "scale" modeling. He chose a difficult to work material not really reflective of his subject, and he didn’t paint it so the color is all wrong. Inspection of the work very close up shows a lot of rough, unfinished cuts and the eyes are anatomically pathological. Since Michelangelo is portraying a specifically definable subject, it would be fair to evaluate him on how well he did it vis-à-vis accurate presentation. The judgment is in: He did it maybe better than anyone has ever done it, or ever will do it. But what did he really do if his "scale" modeling techniques were so questionable? Well, he expressed a complex set of perceptions and projections about the meaning of his subject, man, which rise anew in each generation of viewers. And he did it by creating conventions, then forcing us to reconceive our own conventions about David, about beauty, about ourselves. That is art.

Now, it is doubtless presumptuous of me to even mention Michelangelo in an essay explaining the way I go about doing model airplanes, but since the latter are probably different than what you might expect to find when the term "model airplane" is used, it is best to explain as clearly as possible what I am thinking. I’m calling on old conventions not much used in modeling now, massaging others and maybe trying to create a few new ones in order to satisfy myself that I’m doing something humanly meaningful. And, yes, it is a real stretch to try to fulfill such a large and important purpose by building model airplanes. Model airplanes, otherwise, can be so prosaic.

So, then, let us take the Hawker Hurricane model pictured in this site. Why was it done that way? It certainly does not look like a conventional model of that subject for there is no paint and it is not the right color nor does it even attempt to reflect the materials from which the original subject was built. But it is fairly accurate from a dimensionally proportional standpoint. I reviewed numerous sets of drawings done from the Forties up to the present. I chose not to build in the dimensional and shape errors from sixty year old perceptions of the subject (but I have done just that on other models). Generally, unless there is a compelling reason not to, I like to stay faithful to the designer’s vision of his lines for there is almost always an attempt there to be aesthetically satisfying. This is usually most obvious in the earliest design studies and prototypes of aircraft. Later exigencies often compromise this original impulse. Of course, I cannot say this of aircraft designed more recently as computers seem to have no inherent aesthetic sensibility. Or care. Younger generations may not share this judgment nor even understand why it was made.

I reviewed several hundred photos of the Hurricane even though I already knew the specific aircraft I was to portray, that of Canadian ace Willy McKnight. I wanted a good feeling for the airplane as well as to discover nuances of shape and movement of line. There is, of course, a subtle presumption in photography and despite all the perfectly clear photos of pristinely restored Hurricanes, few really evoke the era of the aircraft.

Contemporary photos, mostly black and white, show the aircraft in its actuality, that is, in its historical environment, softened by flat paint scuffed with use or on muddy fields cloaked in wisps of fog and impending smoke and surrounded by grim and frightened youth, some smiling bravely. Most would rather be anywhere but where the camera found them. The romantic is mostly in retrospect even if there was an exhilaration in some of the flying as American John Magee expressed in his famous poem, High Flight. Flying for the British, Magee died in his Spitfire in December of 1941.

Willy McKnight was young and full of spirit. He had lived through the debacle of France in 1940, and experienced the demoralization of his squadron. But, later, under Douglas Bader, whose Hurricane he sometimes flew, he fought through the Battle of Britain and scored numerous victories. He was a hunter, a killer. He was a good pilot, but reckless and was seriously reprimanded by Bader for carelessly destroying a trainer aircraft. Yet McKnight was proud of his prowess and proud of his Hurricane, marked LE.A. He painted on both sides of its fuselage in large but unpracticed strokes the upper half of a skeleton. The skull had frightening eyes and one arm was extended pointing to his victim, the other holding the scythe of death. Perhaps it was simply his sense of humor, but I know of few, if any, more grim examples of "nose art" on WWII aircraft. Willy McKnight died between those two gruesome images, unseen by his wingman, during a "rhubarb" fighter sweep over occupied France in January of 1941. The exact circumstances of his death and the whereabouts of his remains and that of LE.A are unknown. On the model, I burned in the skeleton figures and its acrid smell gave me an unexpected, ominous jolt. On such little moments are meanings opened. The burn marks remain on the model. Yet, as a whole, the model, in its rich and colorful finish, reflects McKnight’s pride in and idealization of his mount as well as his aesthetic sense. It also reflects other characteristics of that time.

Why wood for the model? Well, I am a woodworker. But there is more to it than that, for a wood model, especially a naturally finished wood model, is in recognition of some of the best model work of the Thirties and Forties. Wood has been used for models for literally thousands of years, and those models that have survived from all periods show work both of the imagination and of extensive detail and accuracy (for example, the 18th Century British Admiralty models). Many of these models, if they use paint (or gilt) at all, use it in support of the carefully selected and naturally finished wood. Some models use contrasting woods and/or grains to illustrate detail. Sometimes, as in the case of prisoner of war models from the Napoleonic era on, other materials were inlaid to represent detail. I once restored a beautiful little model of a Stuka dive bomber built by a German POW in Canada who used a colored paste of sawdust filled into marking details relieved in the birch of the model.

During the Twenties and Thirties and into the Forties, aircraft company model shops produced naturally finished models in wood with metal, mostly brass, components for wind tunnel, training, display and presentation purposes. While the late Thirties and early Forties introduced solid cast pot metal as well as solid plastic models, the best of the presentation work was in wood and, in the case of the Doering brothers’ models at Consolidated Vultee in Downey, CA, beautifully worked tin and aluminum sheet. The Curtiss model shop on Long Island produced fine models in wood and metal and, after the war, Bell’s model shop went into series production of all the Bell aircraft ever built and did these models in wood, albeit painted. Similar work went on in other aircraft companies of the period. One series of wood models date from 1944 and were done at Consolidated-Vultee in San Diego. These were large, solid walnut models of PB4Y Privateers and B-32 Dominators with brass fittings. I restored one of the B-32s (photos in Restoration Work) and found that the original wood worker had used the natural grain on the wood to follow the curves of the model. An oil finish was used. It was beautiful, care taking work.

During WW II, the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics published 90 sets of patterns and instructions for high school students in the National Model Building Program to build wood recognition models for the armed services.Illustrated here is Serial No. E-1, 2-6-43, the Vought Sikorsky F4U-1.  See a model made from these plans. These sheets form an extremely interesting history of our nation’s evolving perception of what our aircraft and those of our enemies looked like. For example, the first drawings of the Japanese Zero looked more like our P-35 with elliptical wing and tail surfaces. By 1944 when the last was published, they gave a fairly accurate representation. Books were written about how to build these models, and at least one state, New York, published a manual showing how to set up shop jigs and procedures to help students mass produce the models. Many of the model kits of the day were simply wood supplied with a copy of one of these pattern sheets. That is what the Strombeck-Becker kits were, except that the wood supplied was accurately pre-carved. It is still fun to build models from these patterns. For a good part of a generation of youth in America, this was modeling.

In Great Britain private companies, using techniques similar to those in the American program, produced most of the wartime recognition models used there. In addition, beautiful wood display and presentation models were built in Britain in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. Woodason Aircraft Models, Heston Airport, Middlesex, was one of the leading companies of the day. In 1943, V.J.G. Woodason wrote The Art of Scale Model Aircraft Building that has become a classic and a basic reference for fine model woodworking.

This list of examples could go on to include work in most industrial countries. German model makers produced lines of large wood model aircraft and very well detailed tanks for their armed forces and some of the company presentation models that survive are exceptional works. In Japan, exquisite wood and metal, some silver, models were produced in this period. One of the most appealing models I have ever seen is a model of a Zero with about a 10" span which appeared to have been carved from cherry wood. The model is nicely, but simply detailed with subtle lines scored into the wood in addition to the use of shallow reliefs. If there was a finish, it was applied lightly.

The Hurricane in wood thus reflects a tradition current in its era, but it grows upon that tradition. Many of the fine mahogany and walnut models of the Twenties and Thirties have worked or cast metal parts, usually brass. Over the years, the wood has darkened and brass parts have gained a fine patina. Brass parts on my models are not coated so that they, too, will develop this patina of age. However, I know of no old aircraft models that use variously grained and colored woods and veneers in contrast to illustrate markings and details. There are a few contemporary model makers doing this, most notable among which are the "mosaic" solid models in Japan. Of course, ship models have reflected this technique for hundreds of years, both for practical and decorative reasons. If any of the old, naturally finished model airplanes had colored markings, they were usually hand painted.

Further, the older airplane models, while accurate in shape, were often not adorned with much secondary detail. Emphasis was on the lines of the aircraft, the woodworking skills displayed and the quality and finish of the wood itself. The Hurricane has more detail than many of the wood period models. With the use of stain to indicate the camouflage pattern and the variously grained inlaid markings, the model can compare well to painted models in terms of colorfulness. Of course, over the years, these natural colors will deepen and become richer, depending on the type of finish used. Usually, this is what is wanted. On the Hurricane, clear lacquer was used for eventually it will take on the tone of the old photographs, dark and soft, and thus reflect more fully its meaning in the environment of its period. Other models are finished in tung oil. A few have been finished in modern polyurethane in an effort to stem excessive darkening that might lessen inlay contrasts.

The wood used in the Hurricane is that used on period models of the Twenties to Forties: mahogany, walnut, birch. Ship model builders have traditionally used many more specialty hardwoods. The Hurricane also has ebony, holly and several types of dyed veneers as well as brass in its construction, and, except for the brass, this goes beyond the typical period model.

So then, can the naturally finished wood models found in this site be called sculpture? I am more comfortable labeling them "model sculpture" for they go beyond typical conventions for "scale" models, yet retain faithful dimensional proportion. They reflect the era of the subject in terms of modeling technique and materials, yet add original touches which call for further deliberation by the viewer about the materials, workmanship, purpose and meaning of a probably already well known subject. I think they are models and they are sculptures. As John Magee in his sonnet High Flight goes beyond mere telemetric reporting of forcing a machine into the air and as Frank A.A. Wooten goes beyond mere engineering diagrams in his pencil drawings and paintings of airplanes, these models aim at a more complex re-presentation of their subjects than a simple visual proportion of mere empirical fact.  The attempt at a literal representation of the subject is not the purpose of my work, nor of "art" in general, as I understand it.  My work is a conscious interpretive effort.  Of course, all models are an interpretation.  It is just that most modelers do not intend this.  To the degree that they fail to be merely literal, their work is interesting.

It would be well to quote Frank Wooten from the introduction to his How To Draw ‘Planes, first published in that fateful year of 1941:

People sometimes ask me why I paint aircraft. I can never give them a satisfactory answer as I know they would not ask the question if they could appreciate aircraft as I do. We are slow to acknowledge beauty in mechanics; the locomotive is almost dead before it has become easy to look at, though it has lived a hundred years….

The aim of my book is to try to put before you the aircraft of today, to show you how to appreciate their inherent design, and how to express what you see and feel about them (italics mine).

It has been my experience since childhood that the mechanical has been an expression of art, and that art best expresses the human meaning of the mechanical. My model sculpture is a conscious attempt to do that.

Yet, all that said, I am left wondering how exactly Michelangelo might have handled a model sculpture of David’s motorcycle….

Doug Emmons
Spring 2003