Seven years ago, Kolkata-based artist Basu Roy chanced upon a scale model kit of a World War II era German fighter aircraft from the British brand Airfix, which makes kits for everything from cars and tanks to aircraft. Roy saw the kit online and purchased it. “I didn’t know exactly what it was but I bought it,” says the 32-year-old.
The instinctive purchase pushed Roy, an electrical engineer who has worked as an investor in the cryptocurrency trading market, towards the hobby of building scale model figures—small but exact replicas of bigger objects. His theme of choice, fuelled by a childhood passion, was aviation. “I have had an inclination towards aviation since my school days,” says Roy, who works from his home studio in south Kolkata’s New Alipore area. In the early 1990s, Roy’s father, who was in the Military Engineer Services, was posted in Palam, Delhi. “The Palam Air Force Museum was very close to our house and I used to visit it often. My father used to take me there to see all these aircraft.”
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A year ago, he sold his first model. “That’s when I took the firm decision to make this a full-time thing and started curating an Instagram page that showcased my work.” Today, Roy has a collection of around 200 scale models of Indian Air Force and Navy aircraft as well as planes from the World War II era. He also designs tanks, armoured jeeps and trucks with beautiful precision—these kit models are made of styrene, a kind of plastic. Over the last seven months, he has sold more than 30 scale models, with a starting price of ₹15,000. His Instagram page today has close to 8,000 followers.
Scale model building and designing requires time, patience—and the appropriate tools. The first step is finding the right kits, the bare-bones of objects like aircraft. Roy imports them from popular brands such as Tamiya (a Japanese brand often considered the gold standard in scale model kits), Eduard (a European brand) and Zvezda (a brand from Russia). They can cost between €20-50 (around ₹1,700-4,250), plus shipping charges and customs duty.
These kits are based on blueprints, LIDAR scans and 3D-scanned images of actual aircraft and scaled down to industry standards of scale. For example, the most common scale for aviation subjects is 1/72, which means the model is 72 times smaller than the actual object. “They break it down into different parts. A kit can have anywhere between 70-80 to 700-800 parts,” says Roy, who assembles and paints them, using tools like an air brush, fine-detail guns and tightly wound cotton buds for decals (decorative prints or stickers) for the finishing touches to ensure utmost accuracy. “With LEGO, you can just join pieces together…. With these kits, you need to apply putty, plastic cement and sand the seam lines (with sandpaper). It’s quite a bit of work before you arrive at the finished product.”
Roy ensures every model is painted as accurately as possible, combining colours from his 250 bottles of paint—acrylic, and, sometimes, lacquer. “A US Air Force aircraft, for instance, can be painted in two different shades of grey, which is different from RAF (the Royal Air Force) or the Soviet or Russian Air Force. I have more than 20 shades of green, blue and grey alone,” he adds. Most of Roy’s models are finished in a “weathered form”—a style of finishing intended to depict wear and tear on an aircraft or vehicle. This includes a fading paint effect, showing dust and mud on the body or wheels of a vehicle, etc.
To ensure accuracy in his models—including armaments and cockpits—Roy hunts for reference photographs of aircraft online. He keeps in touch with other modellers on online groups and forums, people with experience in the aviation sector, and relies on his large collection of aviation-themed books. Online communities of modellers from around the world, instructional YouTube videos and digital resources have helped him become a self-trained artist. “You can refer to them as much as you want. But you have to keep practising,” he says.
Roy says scale model building is still finding its feet as a hobby in India. But on the professional front, there is no lack of demand for the finished products. The majority of his customers are collectors who have their own die-cast collection and often come back with more requests. Aviation is immensely popular, says Roy, and collectors often have unique demands. “The father of one of my clients was in the navy. So he often goes for navy-themed objects. Of late, younger people, in the age group of 20-30, are showing interest as they intend to start building their own collection of these figures,” he adds.
The popularity of these products presents its own challenges. Since Roy has been working alone, it can be difficult to keep pace with orders. “A client can best expect a model in 45-90 days, depending on its complexity. With some customers, it’s a long-term deal where I make six-eight aircraft for them over a period of time,” he explains.
Roy, who keeps a ready-made collection too, now intends to hire more artists or interns and diversify his portfolio, by building dioramas, ship models and vintage automobiles from the 1950s-60s. “I plan to expand in the near future. The biggest challenge right now is scaling up, not a lack of demand.”