​​Tim Bongard

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Imagineering: The fusion of Craftsmanship and Illusion



Scratchbuilding & Detailing Pump Panels


            A lot has changed in our hobby over the last 25 years or so. It’s hard to believe that it was that long ago when I penned my first column in the Model Firehouse, but as much as some things have changed, much remains the same. This is especially true when it comes to one of the most critical details of any model firetruck or piece of heavy equipment where some form of a control panel is a key visual element. In building a good model, the name of the game is and always has been how to replicate the real item as accurately as possible in miniature, but it is as much slight-of-hand as it is craftsmanship.

            I learned this a long time ago from Bill Devins who is a master craftsman and modeler in IPMS circles. At the time, Bill would scratchbuild 1/72nd scale aircraft from the 1920s and earlier and his work was simply amazing – at the highest levels of craftsmanship. But he also had an incredible knack for fooling his audience too. One time he held a wing he had built up to the light allowing the ribs inside to be clearly seen through the translucent wing covering – all made of thin sheet plastic. Building in that tiny scale is nuts to start with, but ribs in the wings? Aw, come on! I shook my head and asked him how long it took to build in all the detail and he explained that what I was seeing was actually thin stripes of paint along indentations scribed into the inside of the wing with a dry ballpoint pen. The pen left a raised ridge that looked like a rib was pushing out against the tight fabric of the wing, while the stripe of paint looked like the top or bottom of a rib. There was not a single rib in the wing, but you could not tell by looking at it. Instead, you swore the wing was full of them – and it took only a few minutes, a ruler, old pen and a little paint to pull the miracle off.

           Since then, pump panels for me have become the place where a good chunk of my fire apparatus modeler’s magic and illusion take place. And the passage of time has only made the magic easier to create, and easier to do in a wider variety of scales, all with a higher level of fidelity. So, with that in mind, it’s time to revisit how to go about building an accurate pump panel.


           One of the keys to doing a successful piece of fire apparatus is the idea that you add a lot of detail to the model to properly fit it out. But knowing that, I’m always amazed when modelers grab their cabinetwork and start adding all the panel detail directly to the cabinetwork. It seems a little crazy and a really risky way to do something so intricate. Instead of building the panel right on the cabinetwork, try building the panel as a separate piece that is then added to the cabinetwork later. Doing it this way makes the panel a model-within-a-model so to speak, but it also allows you to mess it up without messing up the rest of your much bigger model. And I can tell you from experience, working on a small, flat panel is far easier than having to work on the cabinetwork and everything attached to it. You’ll see from the photos that follow that I usually pin a thin sheet of plastic cut to the size of the panel needed and painted the appropriate color to a piece of thick balsa wood and use this as my “artist’s canvass” where I can add all the detail I want progressively in layers. I also have gotten into the habit of preparing more than one panel, just in case I manage to screw up the first one. This is an especially good practice for two reasons: it insures that the color of the panel matches the rest of the model and I won’t have to worry about what kind of paint or what specific shade I used. This may not be much of a worry on a modern panel made of polished aluminum, but it is a concern on older rigs where a good part of the panel is the same as the cabinetwork and body of the truck. 

         Once the panel is completed, I set it aside and wait for the final assembly of the model. Over time, adding the control panels have slid further and further back in the building process until they are now one of the last major items I add to the truck prior to completing the model.

          Seeing the prototype as a collection of shapes and parts -  Any pump panel, new or old, is simply a collection of gauges, dials, lights, handles, and controls. On the real thing, each has its own function and the panels are designed to help the engineer or operator efficiently operate and control the rig. As you look at the real thing, you gain a sense of how the controls are grouped together and why, so as you replicate it, you should give the viewer the same sense that the controls are arranged in a deliberate fashion – that means having enough detail on the panel to create that illusion, but the builder needs to remember that illusion is all it is. Labels don’t need to be exact – you probably won’t be able to read them anyway – they just need to give the illusion that they are. Handles or valves don’t need to work or even be exact, but just give the illusion that they are. This is especially true of gauges. Most of my early fire apparatus models are full of gauges – most out of airplanes – but you might never know it. Being careful not to include an artificial horizon gauge or something obviously airplaney insured not breaking the illusion, which is as important as creating the illusion to start with. 

          The photos in this first set show the intake and discharge sides of an Air Force P-12 pumper model that illustrates this point. None of the items in these photos are fire apparatus model specific. They are actually bits and pieces and parts gleaned from other modeling sources or from the sewing basket. The photo of the real Mack pumper from Surf City, New Jersey follows with some shots of the cabinetwork and the blank panel. This will be the “canvass” our artwork will take place on.

     The driving force behind this how-to is really simple: I had several models that were waiting for panels and it seemed like a good time to explore the new materials out there that we all have access to today in 2017. Ink Jet printers can now help us produce decals that make detailing a pump panel far easier than before. The advent of photo-etch made finding bezels and panel sections much easier as well, and 3-D printing also helps a great deal in adding fidelity to the model. By fidelity I mean “Truthful” or “Faithful” replication of a part – kind of like being able to get parts in HD (High Definition). Instead of the globby replicas of years past, 3-D allows us to make parts that were nearly impossible to make in 20 or 30 years ago. And when parts like this are added into the visual mix a viewer sees, it raises the overall craftsmanship of the model moving the model from “toy” to “replica” to “masterpiece”. So the motivation is, as it was when I first started writing The Model Firehouse, to show folks how to build detailed items like this and to get you to believe that you can do this too, even if you’ve never done anything like this before. If you have, and if you’re an old hand at this, perhaps this article and articles like this will prompt you to revisit not only how you do your craft, but get you to think about it at a deeper level. After all, life is a scratch building project.