Best Model Airplane Kits

Updated September 2020
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

39 Models Considered
8 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
421 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best model airplane kits

Last Updated September 2020

There are model airplane kits for everyone, from small children to enthusiastic adults. In fact, one of the great joys of these models can be putting one together as a parent and child team. 

And your choice of kits is enormous: from accurate scale models of the Wright brothers’ first aircraft to the SR-71 Blackbird and space-age Northrop B-2 Spirit (Stealth Bomber). Combat aircraft are always popular, particularly those from World War II. There are also biplanes and gliders and wire- and radio-controlled kits. You’re certainly spoiled for choice! Everyone has their own preference when it comes to what type of aircraft to build, but you’ll almost certainly have several alternatives, and picking out the right kit isn’t always straightforward. 

We’ve been looking at the different types available and their characteristics so we can help you decide the right one to buy. Our recommendations both underline the variety and showcase the types of kits and the range of prices. In the following buying guide, we examine the most important questions in more detail.

The easiest model airplane kits to assemble are pre-painted and simply snap together — great fun for small kids. However, most modelers like more of a challenge and the freedom to personalize their aircraft.

Key considerations

Why are you building a model airplane?

Your reason for building a model aircraft will have a big impact on your choice:

For a child: If it’s to entertain a child (whether you’ll be working on it together or not), you want something with relatively few parts and a manageable size, so success can be achieved quickly.

For yourself: If you’re doing it yourself, you want to consider the size, detail, and level of realism you want to achieve. Some modelers make incredibly lifelike dioramas.

For flying: Do you want to fly your model airplane? You can choose from hand-thrown gliders, planes with rubber-band drives, and models with electric or gas motors. They can be guided by wire or radio control. There are various competitive events and full-on race series for some models, too.

Model airplane kit types

Simple: The easiest kits have preformed and often pre-painted components that simply clip together. These can be finished in under an hour.

Scale replica: The typical aircraft kits that perhaps most often come to mind are plastic models made by companies like Revell, Airfix, and Tamiya. These are scale replicas, usually 1:72, 1:48, or 1:32. They have 100 or more detailed components and differing levels of complexity. Many have features that can move, such as revolving wheels and propellers, undercarriages that can be retracted, even folding wings on carrier-based planes. A choice of paint schemes is often offered to mimic actual aircraft of particular combat squadrons.

Historical: Some modelers like to build collections of aircraft from the same period in history, perhaps American, British, German, and Japanese fighters from World War II. If that appeals to you, we suggest buying them all from the same maker. Minor variations in the manufacturing process can make a surprisingly noticeable difference in the finished model and might upset the appearance of the group.

Flyable: While you might think that kits for model airplanes that actually fly would be more complicated, that’s often not the case. These are frequently laser-cut from balsa wood (which is very light), with plastic used for things like wheels, and they can be very affordable. What’s more, many are suitable for all skill levels. Some mimic combat aircraft and others are copies of light aircraft like Cesnas that you’d see at your local small airport.

EXPERT TIP

If you like the idea of competing with your model airplane, you can try organized RC pylon racing, which captures the speed and excitement of the sport at a fraction of the cost.


Staff  | BestReviews

Features

Size

Scale and size are not the same thing. A 1:48 scale model of a Sopwith Pup (a tiny single-seater biplane from 1916) will be a very different size than a 1:48 scale model of a flying giant like the Boeing B-29 Superfortress! It’s always worth checking the finished size of the model.

Paint and extras

Decals are usually included in model airplane kits for things like insignia, but tools, glue, and paint or lacquer are not. Normally, the colors required are marked on the outside of the box, which can be frustrating if you order online and you can’t see what the box says. Paint sets are available that cover certain periods, though their authenticity varies. Modeler websites might also offer help.

There’s much debate about whether to paint before assembly or after. It depends on the type of aircraft and the effect you want to achieve. In many cases it can be difficult to paint small areas accurately once the plane is assembled — the cockpit or engine details, for example. However, if you’re painting a camouflage pattern that runs across wings and fuselage, making the pattern flow isn’t easy if you paint the components separately. There’s no right or wrong, and no need to do it all one way or the other. Do what you’re most comfortable with!

Staging

If you want to go for a really high level of detail when creating a diorama, think about the staging as well as the aircraft itself. All kinds of terrain can be simulated. You can even buy model paints that look like rust! You’ll find lots of inspiration and advice online.

Clubs

If you’re thinking of building a model airplane to fly, you might want to get in touch with a local model airplane club. Members can be a gold mine of valuable information, and they’re probably more than happy to welcome new members and offer help.

DID YOU KNOW?

One of the major decisions when choosing a model airplane kit is whether you intend to fly the finished model. You can choose from gliders, rubber-band power, and electric or gas motors.

Model airplane kit prices

Inexpensive: Perhaps surprisingly, the cheapest model airplane kits are not plastic but metal, starting at under $10. The pieces are die-cut from a single sheet, popped out, and clipped together. These can be quite detailed, but they’re just plain metal. More realistic models that snap or screw together cost about $15, and popular 1:48 scale plastic kits that require glue start at just a couple of bucks more.

Mid-range: Between $20 and $60 you have tremendous choice: highly detailed plastic kits, balsa models, and even entry-level radio-controlled planes. There’s a wide range of aircraft types as well, so we suspect most people can find what they’re looking for in this bracket.

Expensive: Above $60 you get incredibly detailed 1:32 display kits that can be as much as $150. You also get large gliders and all kinds of powered model airplanes. Occasionally, there are kits that top $200, and pylon racing models can be $250 to $350, with the motor extra.

FOR YOUR SAFETY

Model aircraft fuel, which is mostly methanol, is highly flammable. Be very careful with its storage and use.

Tips

Making model airplanes is huge fun, so we don’t want to be killjoys with a big bunch of rules. However, a few guidelines can help ensure the best results.

  • Be patient. We know you want to start assembling components ASAP, but resist the urge! Read the instructions carefully, all the way through, before you begin. Make sure you have all the tools and parts you need. It’s hugely frustrating to have to stop partway through because you forgot something. Ready to go? Read the instructions again, just in case you missed something the first time around.

  • Choose a workspace where the kit can be left undisturbed. Many kits take several sessions to complete, and you don’t want to have to pack it up and get it back out each time.

  • Store parts in plastic containers. If there are lots of small parts, sealable plastic tubs or boxes (like those for fishing tackle) can keep them from being lost.

  • Don’t work on the kit when you’re tired. You’ll be eager to get your plane finished, but you shouldn’t work on your model when you’re tired. You’ll likely make mistakes.

  • Look online. The internet can be a great source of useful videos if there’s something in your kit that isn’t clear.

Flying your aircraft doesn’t have to be by radio control. Control lines (also known as U-control) are a cheap and simple way of piloting some models.

FAQ

Q. Are model aircraft paints toxic?
A. It depends on the type. Water-based acrylics are usually safe. However, many modelers prefer enamel, which is an oil-based paint. Those from reputable manufacturers are often nontoxic (and independently certified as such). However, the vapor can be unpleasant, so it’s best to work in a well-ventilated area. Cheap enamels may be toxic and are best avoided. As with any chemical, always check before ordering. If the manufacturer doesn’t make it clear, choose an alternative.
 

Q. What is aircraft dope?
A. It’s a lacquer, usually made of cellulose acetate, nitrocellulose, or cellulose acetate butyrate (it’s often called butyrate dope). It tightens and hardens the fabric coverings of certain types of aircraft bodies and wings. With model aircraft kits, it’s commonly used to cover the tissue paper used on gliders, turning that delicate material into a tough skin that doesn’t tear easily.
 

Q. Are there any restrictions on flying radio-controlled model airplanes?
A. Yes. At the time of writing, model airplanes are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and come under the rules for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). These regulations change from time to time, so it’s important to check the FAA website for the latest information.

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