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Explaining Scale

An understanding of scale is fundamental to scale modelling and fortunately the basic principles are easy to understand.  This article explains the principles of scale and the reasons for the many different scales available to modellers.

Sulaco 1/2400th

This model of the Sulaco from the movie ‘Aliens’ is 1/2400th scale.  This is a very small scale made necessary by the huge size that the spacecraft represented in the movie

The Basics of Scale

The scale of a model is expressed either as a ratio e.g. 1:35 or more commonly as a fraction e.g. 1/35th and indicates the size of the model compared to the original object that it is replicating. For example a 1/100th (1:100) scale tank has dimensions exactly 100 times smaller than the original.  If the original tank was 10 meters long, the model would be 10 cm long at 1/100th scale.

A model that is 1:1 scale (or 1/1th scale) would be obviously be exactly the same size as the original.

Practical Considerations

Strictly speaking, all dimensions on a scale model should be reduced in size in accordance with the scale being used.  The overall height, width and depth of every single part of the model should be reduced in the same proportion compared to the original.  In practice, this does not always happen.  Sometimes a part of a model may be deliberately out of scale to make the model appear more realistic, or for practical reasons.  This may seem odd and the following two examples explain why this is done:

  1. On a sailing ship, the thickness of the sails may only be a few milimetres.  A typical scale for a sailing ship is 1/144th and at this scale the thickness of the sail should only be a fraction of a millimetre.  Even if a model sail this thin could be produced, it would be very fragile.
  2. An armoured vehicle is usually adorned with hundreds of bolts and rivets.  At 1/35th scale, which is probably the most popular armour scale, every bolt and rivet can be faithfully reproduced although they will be very tiny.  However, on a 1/72nd scale tank, details such as bolts at the correct scale may be too small to be seen by the naked eye and certainly too small to produce.  To be totally accurate, all of this detail should be left off because it could not be seen.  However, if this was done, the model would look very simple and ‘toy like’.  Thus most modellers will include these details even if they are ‘over scale’.  Sometimes there is a conflict between ‘scale accuracy’ and ‘apparent realism’ and most modellers in these cases will choose realism.

The general rule is that as far as practical modellers will try to keep to scale, but the prime aim is to make the model look realistic.  Where scale and realism conflict, the latter will normally win.  However, the final choice is always up to the individual modeller.

The Proliferation of Scales

Scales Compared 3 This photograph compares a 1/35th scale model with a 1/72nd model.  Although the models are of different subjects their real size is very similar.  The 1/72nd scale Warrior on the right appers to be much smaller that the 1/35th scale ‘Piranha’ on the left because of the relationship of dimensions to volume.  This is why smaller scales are much easier to build up a collection and put on display.

The second article about scale lists most of the popular scales currently being used and it can be seen that there is a huge number.  The reasons for this are both practical and historical.

Practical Reasons

Scale model armoured vehicles can be found at scales ranging from 1/6th to 1/144th and part of the reason for this is that some modellers prefer to make big models, some prefer small models and some like a variety.

Some modellers like the challenge of a really big model with hundreds of parts, where every detail can be faithfully reproduced.  These models have the disadvantage of being expensive, difficult to store and take a long time to build.  Other modellers prefer small scales and this may be for practical reasons such as cost, ease of building, display and storage etc.  Another reason for choosing very small scales is that some modellers like the challenge of reproducing every detail in a very small model.  Building in small scale is not necessarilly an easy option and some of the better small scale models have the same number of parts as their larger scale big brothers.

Another practical reason for different scales is the size of the original that the models are based on.  Warships are often built in scales of 1/350th or 1/700th because warships are generally very, very, big.  If one tried to make a 1/35th scale model of a World War II battleship it would probably not fit into most modellers’ houses.  This is the reason why the larger the size of the original the small the scale that will tend to be commonly used.

Ship modellers tend to work at scales of around 1/350th, aircraft modellers work at 1/76th or 1/48th depending on the type of aircraft, armour modellers hover around 1/35th scale and car modellers tend to use 1/12th scale.  It is just common sense.

Historical Reasons

Scales Compared 1 The 1/35th scale Piranha and 1/72nd scale Warrior compared side by side again.  From this angle it is easier to see how much smaller the 1/72nd model is.  It is possible to put the same level of detail in the smaller scale model as the larger one, but it requires immense skill as some of the parts are miniscule.

Scale modelling grew up over a period of time from small beginnings.  Different manufacturers all over the world began to produce injection moulded plastic kits and there was no real reason for them to coordinate their efforts, so they produced models at scales that they each felt appropriate.

Thus, one manufacturer might be producing a range of aircraft at 1/76th scale whilst another might bring out a similar range but at 1/72nd scale. In the early days of the hobby standards were much lower than today and the exact scale did not seem so important.  Some models – particularly those of cars and fictional subjects (such as science fiction craft and monsters) did not even quote a scale.

Over time there has been a tendency for scales to become standardised as the market has become more globalised and dominated by a few large manufacturers.  However, manufacturers still surprise us.  Up to 2004, military vehicle (MV) modellers had two main choices of scale, 1/72nd and 1/35th.  At the end of that year, Tamiya announced the introduction of a brand new scale that at 1/48th was bang in the middle of the two and tried to capture the advantages of each existing scale.  The 1/48th scale had been popular with aircraft modellers for a long time, but this was effectively a new scale for MV modellers.

Since then Tamiya have been churning out new models in this scale at a prolific rate and other manufacturers have begun to do the same, so in the space of a couple of years a new scale has appeared and been accepted.

Why does all this matter?

Perhaps for some modellers this is only of acadamic interest.  Some modellers will choose each individual project without any overall plan depending on their fancy.  Building a 1/700th scale warship may be followed by a 1/12th scale racing car.  There is nothing wrong with this.

However, a large number of modellers tend to buld to a plan.  They will prefer to stick to a certain genre such as aircraft or marine subjects.  Some modellers become quite specific and may only build WWII German Armour, or even may have the aim of building a model of every type and colour scheme of Spitfire fighter aircraft every built.

My Preference

Personally,  I prefer to work with 1:35 scale for armour. The reason why is that the size of the details and the models themselves are just right. Finished model once completed are perfect size to reveal enough details but do not take up too much space in the display cabinet. Even 1:35 figures are joy to paint and are detailed enough to paint even – say eye pupils.

As mentioned above, Tamiya has recently released 1:48 scale for tanks, but am not too keen on it. Too small in my opinion.

With aircrafts, I prefer to go with 1:48 scale but this is mostly due to the fact that I mostly paint fighters. WW2 fighters in 1:48 scale are mostly ~20 cm long – JUST RIGHT. This scale is also big enough if you want to do some alternations like open few hatches/covers, insert aftermarket engine, etc.. There is something ‘magical’ when you start opening the hatches and exposing the plane internals. This really takes your modelling onto the next level. I will write more about this in later articles.

I haven’t done many 1:32 scale planes but will do some in the near future. TAMIYA has released nice ZERO, SPITFIRE and MUSTANG all in 1:32 scale which judging from the reviews are really NICE! Lots of details and superbly engineered.  It would be a sin for a modeller not to have one of those babies in his/her collection.

My Grudge

I do not know why, but since 1:32 is close to 1:35, I have always wondered why aren’t 1:32 planes actually sized to 1:35. This way the planes would fit beautifully in the dioramas together with 1:35 scale figurines and armour.  Few times I have looked for the 1:35 scale planes but the choice is very limiting. Only BRONCO does 1-2 model planes in that scale. Pity I say!

Your choice

If you are aiming to build a collection, whether it be tanks, warships or motorbikes then you will probably want the majority of examples in your collection to be the same scale so that they can be compared and displayed together.  In this case the choice of scale is important and you may wish to consider the following in your decision:

  1. Cost – the larger the scale the more you are likely to have to spend on each model.
  2. Time – larger scale models generally require a larger investment in time.
  3. Availability – what is the availability of your chosen speciality in each scale?  Also in addition to the basic models how many ‘after market’ manufacturers make accessories and detail sets for your chosen scale?
  4. Storage and display – before you embark on a collection of 1/32nd scale aircraft you have better have a large space reserved to store and display them.
  5. Satisfaction – what size and level of detail model do you most enjoy making and what size will you get most satisfaction from when you stand back and look at your completed project?

In the second article on scale, we will list the most popular scales for different subjects -stay tuned!

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About Kris


  1. Hi Kris

    I am new to modeling and I have to choose were to start and what ratio to work with. I am not looking at a specific type of model. I wish to build between small and average sizes so that I can have a collection. The most important detail for me is the detail itself. I want to build the most detailed intricate models that will give a real challenge and make me have the accuracy of the real thing. Understanding the limitations up to a certain degree, who should I buy from and just how do I know I have the level of detail I am looking for. I could really use your expertise.


    • Hi Mr R,

      The choice of a model really depends on what you like- WW2 planes, WW2 tanks, cars, figurines, ships, etc.. I would suggest that you choose something that you enjoy reading about.

      Regarding the scale – this is my preference – 1:35 scale armour and 1:48 scale planes. I find 1:48 armour scale to be too small to show details. Same with 1:72 scale planes. On the other hand 1:32 scale planes are usually quite large and do not fit into a display cabinet easily.

      Again this is just me. I am sure that lots of other modellers think differently.


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GRAB YOUR FREE STEP-BY-STEP VIDEO GUIDE !Here you'll find the BEST on the web video tutorial on how to make 1:48 scale WW2 German jet. In our friendly step-by-step video guide we cover topics like: drybrushing, applying washes, applying decals and many more. Do not miss out - WE GUARANTEE THAT YOU WILL LEARN SOMETHING NEW!!!!New GraphicName: Email: We respect your email privacy