There has been a lot written about scale model making. For some it's a way for spending spare time, for others a sports discipline (if we're talking about radio-controlled model kits) and it constantly evolves. Speed of this evolution which happened since 2008 until today is very similar to the speed in which today's computers develop. There is rarely a week in which no new model kits, aftermarket detail sets or some kind of tool or paint isn't announced. Companies are in a state of permanent arms race with their products that deliver to the modelling market more and more new goods which facilitate working in our hobby. The choice is huge right now and it's growing bigger and bigger each day!
But we'll start from the model making itself as well as its types. When were the first model kits built? It's hard to tell precisely and for sure. If we mean building a miniature model from given parts, then probably it was during WWII. It was at this time, when two - quite famous - photographs were taken, which depicts German soldiers who are building a paper tank model right before the Kursk battle.
Of course they didn't do it for pleasure - it was 1943 and their task was to familiarize with the silhouette and overall look of the Soviet tanks that they would face in battle. As such - building a three dimensional model kit that can be viewed from any angle without distorting its proportions was a very good method. We can safely say that those were the model building beginnings.
First commercially successful company to produce plastic model kits was well known British Airfix. Company was established in 1939 and initially produced rubber toys. They released their first plastic kit after the war - in 1949 and it was a Ferguson tractor. Also an American Monogram company produced balsa kits of ships and airplanes in the late 1940's.
However it were the Germans with their paper model kits who were first and as such we will start our quick look at the different types of scale modelling from those types of models.
Paper model kits.
Many modellers started their adventure with this hobby thanks to paper model kits. It shouldn't come as a surprise given the seemingly limitless models available for making. Aircrafts, tanks, buildings, space rockets, spaceships, trains the list goes on and on...
You might be tempted to think that paper models are a great start in the model making hobby, but the case is, in reality, more complex than it seems. For starters paper itself is quite difficult to work with. Sometimes it stratifies, for modelling purposes it often requires impregnation, sheets with parts have to be strengthened by gluing them to a cardboard of required thickness and sometimes some gaps must be filled with putty and sanded smooth. On the other hand - those models offer many difficulty levels and the simplest ones often are no harder to make than the geometric shapes we all made in Elementary School (you did that, right?). Also - commercially available paper kits don't require painting as the camouflage and other colours are already printed on the parts, though sometimes a little touching up - especially on the cut or fold lines - is required when the white paper emerges. Also - the Internet is full of papercraft models that can be either cheaply bought or downloaded for free and then printed on a standard home printer. Of course when we start building paper kits and our skills will develop, there are more complex and difficult to build models. To have a better idea about what might await a modeller at the top of paper model complexity it's worth to search the Web for some 1/200 scale papercraft ships and see for yourself what marvels can be achieved from plain sheets of paper (using of course some insane skills, patience and perseverance)!
And don't the apparent frailty of paper fool you - some models can be really big after completion. Prime example could be a 1/33 scale B-52 bomber with a length 148 of and wingspan of 170 centimeters (that's 55 and 67 inches respectively!). It's so large that putting it on display or hanging under the ceiling is really a tough task! And yet - it holds together well and is a reasonably sturdy construction.
Papercraft models also evolved significantly in recent years - mainly thanks to advancements in digital printing technology and computer graphics. Recent paper kits are usually digitally printed, which improves their overall quality and the intensity of the colours. There are some downsides though - digital print is quite fragile and can be wiped off during forming of the parts. Remedy for this would be a later touching up (or even overpainting the whole model) or impregnating the print with a sort of varnish before starting to cut it out from the sheets. This print frailty is a reason why seasoned paper modellers prefer traditional, offset printed models.
There are also opinions that another drawback of paper model kits is its inability to form neat oblong or oval shapes (like e.g. gun barrels, wheels etc.). It is in fact a difficult matter and achieving a neat oval shape from paper requires some experience and skills, but it’s possible. You can find (also on the Internet) many examples of beautifully made paper models of cars with their trademark streamlined chassis. Papercraft models, especially more difficult ones, are not for the faint of heart and mastering it requires experience gathered through building several models.
Closing the topic of paper model kits, it's worth mentioning that these days - similarly like in plastic model kits - there's a lot of aftermarket accessories and details available for them like laser cut wooden structural parts, turned metal details, laser cut ship railings and many more.
Plastic model kits.
Here matters seem to be a little simpler. A box with assembly instructions, decals set (usually waterslide type) and the model parts on sprue(s) that are made by injecting molten plastic into the metal mould at high pressure. Pictorial instructions would guide even the first time modeller through the building process pointing out all of the possible variations in build and indicating proper decal placement and painting. Plastic model kits have gone a long way since their debut in 1949. Kits became bigger, more detailed, sometimes featuring moving parts after assembly or even lighting. Parts themselves became cleaner (so requiring less preparation before gluing them together) and their fit vastly improved, to the point that some manufacturers are regarded playfully by modellers as making "self building kits'“. Which of course is an advantage for the beginning modellers. Nowadays adding some photo etched details to the plastic model kits is becoming an industry standard. Some details in certain scales are simply impossible to replicate faithfully using injection technology and that is the place where a thin sheet of brass, on which parts are chemically etched come into modeller's aid. Those details are mostly used to make fine representations of e.g. instrument panels, seatbelts, mesh coverings and other delicate details. Widely used are also details cast from polyurethane resin, which allows easy replication of very complex shapes. Although, truth be told, with current advancement in moulding technology the quality and detail level of some recent models is on par and sometimes even better than of some resin aftermarket sets. Nevertheless accessories cast in resin can be in a form of a whole aircraft cockpit, underwing armament or even whole so-called conversion sets, which provides complete sections of the models (e.g. hulls or tank turrets) to create some rare or unique variants that are not available as a separate plastic kits.
An interesting subtype of plastic model kits are resin cast models. Instead of styrene, they are cast in aforementioned polyurethane resin. Such models are more demanding and require some skills and experience. Resin itself, while allowing a greater amount of details to be cast in a single piece, is much more brittle than the styrene and requires more care while handling. Also they have to be cut out of their casting blocks, which sometimes can be very large. All of this while handling finely cast pieces with many details! It's worth noting, that the resin dust that forms while sawing the parts off their blocks is harmful and a mask should be worn for protection while cutting. Resin parts are glued together using CA adhesives (popular Super Glue, Krazy Glue or similar instant adhesives) and as a result - modeller has very little time to properly position the parts together before the glue dries. And when put together - alignment correction is near impossible without breaking the bond completely. These days resin model kits are usually made to fill in the gap on the market with rare or unpopular machines that have very little chance to be commercially produced by larger manufacturers. Mainly because of the fact that such investments have little chance of paying off. Resin kits are thus sometimes the only chance to have a scale miniature of an interesting vehicle or aircraft, usually well detailed. Because they are relatively easy to produce, but cast in low quantities - while offering a good amount of details and interesting subjects - they tend to be more expensive than plastic kits.
Popularization and commercial availability of consumer grade 3D printers revolutionized the scale models market in an unpredictable way. It is now possible - either using ever growing libraries of ready projects or by making them on your own - to 3D print virtually any model accessory needed, be it a fine detail, conversion piece or some diorama elements. Also a mother model can be digitally designed and 3D printed for later reproduction as a resin cast, which vastly improved the quality of such accessories. Finally, digitally designing plastic model kits using CAD became an industry standard which speeds up the design process while also enabling the creation of such detailed surfaces and well fitting parts that was impossible before. It also enables a 100% truthful translation of the project into the machines which produce moulds.
As you can see - there's a lot to choose and consider in plastic model kits and surely everyone will find something suiting their interests. From micro model kits of airplanes in 1/700 scale to big sets in 1:16 and even larger scales. Of course the price rises with the scale, but there's so much to choose from that it’s easy to find something fitting a budget.
Railroad model kits
Model kits of trains were and still are very popular. Simply the perspective of building your own train station and even a whole railroad line is very attractive and draws people to this branch of modelling hobby regardless of their age. Here - manufacturers and hobby shops have a lot to offer. Locomotives, cars, railroad tracks, crossings, buildings, scenery, foliage and miniature figures are readily available in many popular model train scales like H0, TT, G and others. In Europe, the market is dominated by few main companies like Roco and PIKO if you are searching for rolling stock and Faller, Auhagen or Noch in the field of buildings, scenery and other accessories.
Nowadays railroad modelling uses IT technology to a full extent. Recently produced models often include a digital decoder, which enables programming different drive parameters, use of realistic sounds and opportunity to have several engines on one track circuit, which we control independently. You can also expand your railway almost indefinitely and thanks to the digital systems have full control over turnouts, signals - even schedule departure/arrival times! Of course - such digital benefits come with a price, which often can be quite high. It also requires some time learning how to use the full potential of digital systems in railroad modelling. For modellers, who feel a little overwhelmed by the complexity of the digital control, old-fashioned analog systems are still available and the locomotives sometimes offer a function to be upgraded to the digital standard. Analog systems are also suitable for those, who don't need to build very complex track circuits or have a lot of locomotives to control at the same time. No matter though - analog or digital - railroad modelling is always very satisfying. Modellers who have a lot of room for their railway or maybe a large yard might want to see at the G scale (roughly 1:22,5), the most popular is a H0 scale (1:87) and if you have very limited space, it's worth considering railroad models in TT (1:120) or N (1:160) scale.
Radio Controlled model kits
From railway modelling to RC models the distance is not as far as it might seem. Radio Controlled (RC for short) model kits, especially those that are replicas of real machines are a whole new ballgame. Often built from scratch using self made plans based on available technical drawings. Such models are a pride and joy of their makers and an object of admiration by others. There's a wide variety of parts available for modellers to choose for their perfect model - electronic modules, servos, gears, complete engines - both electrical and miniature combustion ones - battery packs etc. Of course, there are also simpler solutions like ready built models, which only requires charging their batteries to be able to enjoy them. There are also static, plastic model kits which can be converted into RC ones. In this field of modelling 3D printing also comes in handy as it gives the possibility to create unique parts for our project, unavailable to make by other means. And taking control of an RC model kit, no matter a tank, car, aircraft or boat - is an extraordinary experience that's very satisfying.
Making 1:1 scale models
First of all - yes, making 1:1 scale models or replicas is a thing and can be considered as a part, albeit very narrow and specific, of model making hobby. Having enough experience, resources, tools and experience there is no problem in building a real life replica of a given subject. And in this category falls people building static or working replicas of vehicles, cars or aircraft as well as those who make whole armours, outfits and accessories of fictional characters from movies, video games etc. Also here there's a wide spectrum of elements that are now easier and faster to make using 3D print technology at the same time being able to easily design very complex elements (like the Iron Man's helmet visible on the picture below).
It is also worth noting, that depending on the material we are working with, such 1:1 scale model making might be more difficult than making typical model kits, as many details, like e.g. different material textures have to be faithfully recreated on plastic.
Educational model kits
Recently, a new type of model, balancing on a line between a traditional model kit and a toy appeared. Those are mostly wooden, laser cut educational models of different vehicles or mechanisms. Usually built in a see-through form might not appeal to everyone.
Despite their original form, they very well present principles of mechanics and physics. Being mostly aimed at children - they develop interests in science and motor skills - the latter being basic for succeeding in making scale model kits. And in the end - their quality is so high, that they can be used as a very original room's decoration.
Scale modelling is definitely in its golden era right now and there are no signs that those times will pass anytime soon. So we, modellers can only wait what pleasant surprises await us in the future - be it interesting model kits, new tools or other products. Yes, it's true that our budget might suffer from this, but let's be honest - there is no saving on someone's passion. Maybe it's truism, though the problem with truism is that they are, well... true.