Building Matchstick Models
Building matchstick models is becoming an increasingly popular hobby. It would be even more so if people knew a little more about it. The term “matchstick,” however, is a misnomer. Combustible matchsticks are usually not used, at least today. A special type, which can be readily purchased at any art and craft shop, is used.
Although actual matchsticks were used in the hobby’s infancy, the heads were usually trimmed off. However, sometimes they were kept on if the design called for a particular shape or color effect. Matchstick models can be made from ready-made kits or from scratch.
Matchstick model building is a relative newcomer to the world of hobbies and is thought to have originated as a pastime of naval prisoners during the early 18th century. The art form is limited only by the builder’s imagination. There are many varied categories and almost nothing that cannot be built.
A few projects built by enthusiasts include such things as the Empire State Building, Titanic, Golden Gate Bridge and many others.
Patrick Acton, a college career counselor, is considered one of the best matchstick model builders in the world. Many of his works have been purchased by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” museums. Edward Meyer, vice president of Ripley’s exhibits and archives, said “I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say Pat is the best we’ve ever seen.”
Acton built his first matchstick model in 1977, a high-steeple church, at his kitchen table. In the beginning he was just trying to find something to while away cold Midwestern winters. “But it slowly became a passion,” he says.
Since then, Acton has constructed over 60 models of buildings, ships, animals and people. A few of his creations include: Pinocchio, the USS Iowa battleship and a 200,000-stick Challenger space shuttle. In fact, Acton had created so many models the farming community of Gladbrook, Iowa built a museum for his work.
Unlike conventional plastic model building, matchstick projects can take years. It’s not uncommon to hear of people who have spent anywhere from 1 to 30 years on their models. So, as you can see, this is not an endeavor for the impatient.
Matchstick models can be made by people of all ages from simple school projects to the complex. Though the complexity and designs may differ there are guidelines that remain the same.
You will find the hobby much easier if you have the right tools. A good tool kit should contain at least the following:
- Small 1" paintbrush
- pointed pliers
- flexible knife set
- small square
- small G-clamps
- small files
- side cutters
- straight edge
- matchstick cutter and sandpaper
It is also a good idea to have a small rechargeable 'do-it-all' machine. You will also need a cutting board to protect your table and a sponge, water and towel to keep the glue from drying on your fingers.
Next, you need a design. These can be obtained online or in matchstick modeling kits. For the more talented, personal designs can be drawn. If you elect to draw your own use a reference picture to get the correct scale and dimensions.
Models can range in complexity from basic shapes to more complicated structures. It’s best to plan the model from the inner to the outside beginning at the base. For simple basic shapes or designs, planning is not always necessary. If using a kit, read the instructions and become familiar with what parts need to be made and in what order. Remember, there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts will stick out like a sore thumb in the end results.
Now, it’s time to begin actual construction by cutting the matchsticks. There are several ways to cut them. Cut at an angle to form joints or trim the bottom to make themshorter. Matchstick cutters are recommended for young children for safety.
“Paint” the glue on the matchstick, stick it against another and gradually work up. Then allow glue to dry and gently sand and file. This should always be done with care. When “cladding” a pre-cut card former, glue the card, not the matchsticks. With a paintbrush, spread enough glue for about 10 minutes of cladding time keeping it damp so it won’t dry out. Place flat sections under a heavy flat object and allow 4-5 hours drying time.
Things can become a little more complicated when making certain odd shaped pieces, like circular objects. This should be done using a length of tube the same size and diameter of the piece you are making. Line the outside of the tube with paper but don’t glue it to the tube. Matchsticks should be glued to the paper. The tube can be removed after the glue has dried and the piece has been sanded.
Some pieces such as wheels may need “bending.” If this is the case, the sticks must be soaked. Experts advise up to 24 hours, or at least overnight at room temperature. The sticks will then be pliable enough to form the required shape needed.
Before starting to assemble your model, have as many sections made as possible.
Sand the sections with coarse sandpaper across the grain first. Finish up using fine sandpaper with the grain. Sanding blocks, can be made with short pieces of wood, cut to shape with a good quality sandpaper glued to them.
But, be careful. After all, they are only matches.