I became a news reporter for the Marine Corps in the early 70s. I'm now retired and write on a wide variety of subjects in my spare time.
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.
Compu-Smart from London UK on June 06, 2020:
Blake, Wood glue Evo stick is best.
This is my car I made and the link is 100% correct.
blake on June 02, 2020:
what glue is the best to make matchstick models?
Leramic on October 07, 2019:
John do you recommend any good websites where I can obtain some designs? I've built my Eiffel Tower which is very detailed and now I'm excited to build more. I don't want to use out of box kits I would like to build something unique.
Bryn Davies on June 16, 2019:
Some amazing matchstick model s it is my hobby so it is really interesting And I would like to post some of my own
Alan on April 20, 2019:
How do you make a wheel out of matchsticks ?
Compu-Smart from London UK on November 28, 2017:
Oops, its this URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA2FBLCW4VQ
Compu-Smart from London UK on November 27, 2017:
I finally decided to upload my matchstick car to Youtube.
I hope you like just as much as World famous matchstick modeller Patrick Acton
JIm Bradley on November 10, 2017:
Tried to join up but my face book info was not recognised. would like to know how to join matches end to en, have tried all sorts of methods except the right one.
Sarah on October 06, 2016:
Help cant figure out then norfolk windmill sloping roof
Andy on January 29, 2016:
Been dying to make a model for ages I've got the time got the model and don't understand the instructions help please. It's an Oil Rig Supply Ship thanks.
Compu-Smart from London UK on October 18, 2015:
to make a perfect wheel and without bending any matchsticks, make a matchstick long block which is 6 inches long and4 cm squared. Then cut into 8 pieces at angles which are all the same size. and then glue them together which will make a hexagon shape. Then hold together using cotton by wrapping it around the hexagon shaped circle. Then sane inside and outside and it will be exactly round.
Now, The measurements I made will make a wheel that size. Depending on the size you want, just add or reduce the measurements.
A useful thing to do first it practice and do a dummy run with cardboard.
I wish I could upload my matchstick car which is the best model I've seen and I've seen a lot in real life and online.
PS. Let me know if you understand or need more help.
Matty on October 17, 2015:
Wow I love them all that is some time taking building there!! But I need help on how to make a wheel from matchsticks for my truck I'm building haha love hand crafted stuff it time consuming
Compu-Smart from London UK on July 15, 2013:
I made a matchstick model of a 1926 Royal Bugatti Coupe. It's about 22 inches long and 8 inches high. It won a competition and I sent Patrick Acton a picture. He said it was amazing and told me to contact Ripley's to see if they wanted commission me to make them some because Patrick does not sell his models anymore. I have yet to contact them.
Also, my model has many round parts including the steering wheel and wheels etc and I have never bent or soaked any match stick. Meaning, you "don't" need to soak matchsticks to make round/curved objects.
@Dawn Temple & @Carlyburns. To make that curved roof. just cover a piece of paper or card with the matches. Make sure they are all matched in one direction. Then glue the matches on the other side in the same direction. Once dried, you can bend into the shape. sometimes, a matchstick from certain positions may have to be removed from the places you obviously cannot bend. I hope this helps.
PS. I would like to think I am also the world's best matchstick modeler because I have never seen any model (other than Patricks) in real life and online :)
carly from peterborough on March 18, 2013:
im having the same problem as dawn temple. its my first ever matchstick build and im so disappointed that i cant figure this out! the Norfolk Windmill instructions are not clear about the Grain Store Sloping roof. please help arghhhhh
Dawn Temple from Norwich,Norfolk on February 04, 2013:
Hi I have just started on the Matchstick Model Kits but got abit stuck,hoping someone could help, it's my first time having ago,I'm making the Norfolk Windmill and can't seem to work out how to do the Grain store Sloping Roof,can anyone help.Thanks Dawn. email@example.com
andy on September 13, 2012:
Were can i get plans for match stick. Motor bike my email is Andy firstname.lastname@example.org
BlissfulWriter on February 04, 2012:
That's amazing. The models are much larger than I would have thought. That titanic model is so realistic too.
seamusog on January 07, 2012:
What is a 'do it all' machine please?
Where would I source one?
very interesting site, looking forward to learning some valuable info.
Many thanks, seamus.
john back on January 07, 2012:
reading the box of matchstick models, it says they contain the cards to form the model.
would the cards form the model, and the matchsticks the outer shell ?
my thinking was to buy a matchstick model of the mary rose ship, cut larger cards to make a larger model.
grovsey on December 26, 2011:
hi there is there FORUM where people chat about this stuff as im just getting into it myself and would love to gain some tips ect
John Young (author) from Florence, South Carolina on August 16, 2011:
Jazz,PVA (Poly Vinyl Acetate) also known as craft glue is what most use It dries in a just few minutes, is easy to clean off fingers and other surfaces while still wet and starts white so you know where you have put the glue but goes invisible as it dries. PVA is a water-based glue and does not contain dangerous solvents. You may have to do a little additional sanding.
Jazz on August 15, 2011:
Do you have any suggestions for removing the residue glue from the finished model?
Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on June 22, 2011:
These are seriously impressive constructions. What an interesting practice!
grayghost on June 17, 2011:
What an interesting hub! I hadn't heard of matchbox modeling before this. The creations are amazing, and kids and adults both can be involved. I need to get with the grand kids on this one. Thanks!
John Young (author) from Florence, South Carolina on June 16, 2011:
Go For It dude!
JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on June 16, 2011:
This is really cool! I agree with Nell Rose; fantastic pictures. I would love to make one of these matchstick projects. Voting Up and Useful!
John Young (author) from Florence, South Carolina on June 16, 2011:
Nell, thanks for the vote and nice comments.
Nell Rose from England on June 16, 2011:
Hi, this was great! what fantastic pictures, and the history of matchstick models, we made a matchstick old fashioned caravan years ago, and for the life of me I have no idea where it went! cheers nell