Wow!! Cool robot!!!
On the hottest days of summer 2021, I was looking for a good hobby to pass the time in the great indoors, preferably something that didn’t require me to stare at another screen. I’d long been Gunpla (a portmanteau of “Gundam plastic model”) curious: I was a fan of many of the anime and manga on which the models are based. I love building Lego sets. I’d even bought a Gunpla kit right at the beginning of quarantine and promptly forgotten it in my closet. Getting into Gunpla seemed like my fate, but would I truly enjoy it or only find it frustrating?
I opened up my RX-78 Gundam and was relieved to discover I didn’t need glue to hold it together. The finished model was shockingly posable, like an action figure. It was also colorful, right out of the box, no painting needed. And best of all, it was fun to build!
That was a little over a two months ago. Since then I’ve built
six, seven, eight Gunpla, three display stands, and purchased way more kits than I care to admit publicly. Building Gunpla is an engaging, tactile hobby that lets you work with your hands and make something cool.
Just be forewarned: Gunpla have a tendency to multiply very quickly!
Table of contents
- Why should I build Gunpla?
- OK, I want to get into Gunpla!
- A TOOL!?
- Wait, what’s a runner, why does it have a gate, and who’s stressing out all this plastic?
What’s a Gunpla?
Gunpla are action figure-sized plastic model kits based on the long-running giant robot anime and manga series Gundam. The term is also the trademarked name of Bandai’s line of models, though much like the word “Kleenex,” Gunpla as a descriptor has come to encompass products made by other companies including non-Gundam robots like Evangelion. Beyond Bandai’s Gunpla line, there are also non-robot plastic model kits for Dragonball Z characters and even a stunningly accurate Cup Noodle model kit.
What sets Gunpla apart from many plastic models is that they’re surprisingly articulated and highly posable. They’re much more like action figures than a statue. If a Gundam transforms into a space plane in its anime, its Gunpla likely does too. Gunpla also come in a variety of sizes and often include more accessories than a single figure can hold. These include beam sabers, bazookas, and even separate spacecraft.
Why should I build Gunpla?
You might find Gunpla a fun hobby if you enjoy building Lego sets, playing construction games like Minecraft, or watching giant robot anime like … Gundam. Building Gunpla is a pleasurably tactile experience. The pieces often snap together with a satisfying click and fit together even more perfectly than Lego bricks because the majority of pieces are precisely engineered for that model. It’s also a relaxing indoor activity that’s quiet and slow paced but also gives you a genuine sense of accomplishment.
It’s practically meditative the way you go about locating pieces, preparing them for building, and snapping them together. Often I’ll put on a podcast or some chill music while I build, and pretty quickly any stresses or worries my mind couldn’t stop thinking about fade away. I’m in the Gunpla zone.
There’s a reason that Gunpla building videos have become their own genre on YouTube. The engineering on some of the more advanced kits is truly a marvel to behold, and if you don’t believe me here’s former Mythbuster Adam Savage having his mind blown as he builds his first model. Gunpla kits look sick, they’re impressively intricate, and building them is just fun.
They’re also affordable, with beginner level kits selling for around $10 to $20. They don’t require any glue to stay together, and the majority of Gunpla builders never paint their kits because they look great out of the box. If you’ve put together a Lego set or even an Ikea bed frame, then you can probably build a Gunpla. Even advanced kits aren’t necessarily that much harder. They just have more pieces and require more time.
OK, I want to get into Gunpla!
Hold on a second! First, you need to get a tool!
A TOOL!? I thought you said this was an easy hobby to get into!
It is, I promise! And technically you can get away without using this tool on your first kit. That’s what I did, because I also didn’t know I needed tools, but I could have easily broken a piece and it made my model messier than it had to be. Plus, using the tool is more fun!
OK, what’s the tool?
A pair of hobby nippers, which are designed to carefully and efficiently remove the pieces of your Gunpla from the runners. Sure, you can twist these out with your fingers, but that’ll make your model look a lot rougher. Some kits also have tiny pieces that could easily get broken if you remove the pieces that way. Nippers make it easier to avoid ugly plastic stress marks and trim away as much of the plastic gate as possible, which is critical in some of the more advanced kits.
Like any hobby tool, there are high end and midrange options, but you can start using a sub $10 pair. There are other tools worth investing in later, but this is the one you need upfront. If you really don’t want to invest in nippers before trying out the hobby, you can always use a pair of wirecutters on your first kit, but you’ll definitely want some hobby clippers eventually.
Wait, what’s a runner, why does it have a gate, and who’s stressing out all this plastic?
Runners are the plastic sheets that the pieces of a Gunpla come packaged in. Unlike a model airplane or miniature from Games Workshop, each kit includes a few runners in different colors. This is why Gunpla models really don’t need to be painted. But it also means you need to be a bit more careful with the bits, since you won’t be laying on paint to hide your mistakes. Typically, the larger or more expensive a kit is, the more runners and colors it’ll include. That results in more color separation (Gunpla fans love color separation) and fine detail in the finished model.
Each piece is held in the runner by a couple narrow branches of plastic. The very end of those branches is what’s called a gate (or sometimes nub). This is the part that you’ll be clipping off to remove a piece from the runner. The plastic is stressed and turns white if it’s not clipped correctly.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, at least a bit. Before you start building you need to buy your first Gunpla.
OK, I got some nippers, but how do I buy a Gunpla? There’s so many!
If you’re a fan of a particular series, picking out a Gunpla should be pretty easy. The more popular a Gundam series was, the easier it will be to find Gunpla models based on it. Kits for newer series, like Mobile Suit Gundam Seed and Gundam Build Fighters are widely available, as are older series like Gundam Wing and the original Mobile Suit Gundam.
If you’ve never seen a Gundam series before and aren’t willing to watch a few movies beforehand, you can always just pick whatever robot looks coolest to you. Gunpla are varied in style and color, so it shouldn’t be hard to find something that suits your vibe.
Grade and scale
The most important thing to know when shopping for Gunpla is the grade and scale of the kit. Grades define the complexity and sometimes style of the kit, while scale describes its size compared to the size of the actual robot it’s based on. So a 1/100 scale kit is 100 times smaller than the actual robot would be and typically measures in at around 8 inches tall.
You can usually find the acronym for the grade on the front of the box. Most online stores will categorize their products by grade, which makes things a lot easier. You may see some other words under the grade, like Universal Century, or a Gunpla with the grade HGAC. These extra words and letters describe the timeline the Gundam is from, which is helpful for fans looking for models from their favorite series. Universal Century refers to the timeline the original series was set in (as well as many subsequent series), while HGAC means High Grade After Colony, which refers to the Gundam Wing timeline. There are a lot of Gundam timelines, but you don’t need to know about these to get into Gunpla.
Here’s a quick description of the five most common grades.
HG (High Grade)
HG or High Grade kits are typically 1/144 scale or about 4 to 6 inches tall. This is probably the most common grade and the best place to start for a beginner. While some more obscure series don’t have kits in the other grades, almost all of them have HG kits. The builds are typically straightforward, with few (if any) stickers and decals. Prices range from $10 to $40.
MG or Master Grade
MG or Master Grade kits are 1/100 scale or about 7 to 9 inches tall. These are more complex than HG kits, with finer details, higher quality color separation, and even more impressive articulation. While these kits typically include lots of stickers and decals, much of the improved color separation and detail comes from the intricate layering of multiple colors of plastic. It looks impressive and makes the build even more satisfying as it comes together. Prices range from $35 – $100.
RG or Real Grade kits are 1/144 scale or about 4 to 6 inches tall. RG kits are intentionally not accurate to their anime or manga versions. That’s because “real grade” kits’ whole schtick is that they represent what the Gundam would look like in “real life”. This is ridiculous and it rules, because it translates to more fine details, color separation, and moving parts. Even the plastic feels high quality. Essentially, real grade kits have Master Grade level details in a High Grade size. Prices range from $30 – $100.
While RG kits are extremely cool, some of the first kits suffer from problems colloquially referred to as “early real grade syndrome.” The issues mostly relate to pieces being too loose, which can be annoying when you’re trying to pose your Gunpla. It’s especially bad when they’re small, easily lost pieces. If you’re concerned, you can always check what year RG kits were released.
SD or Super Deformed kits don’t have a set scale because as the name suggests, these models intentionally warp the size and scale of Gundam’s with exaggerated body parts, typically in a “Chibi” style. That said, they usually measure in at 3 – 4 inches tall, with complexity more akin to high grades than master grade. Prices range from $10 – $30.
PG or Perfect Grade
PG or Perfect Grade are 1/60 scale and are at least a foot tall. These are some of the biggest, baddest Gunpla around, with exquisite details, extensive color variety, and genuinely impressive mechanisms. That’s why Perfect Grade kits start at $200 and only go up from there.
OK, I’ve got a Gunpla. How do I build it?
Follow the instructions, honestly. They will refer to individual pieces by a letter and number. The letter refers to the runner and the number refers to the specific part in that runner. Pro tip: It helps to organize your runners in alphabetical order for quicker part locating.
Use your nipper to clip out the piece, but don’t nip it directly out of the runner. Instead, leave around a quarter inch of the gate or nub still attached to the piece. Then you can carefully clip the rest of the gate completely off once you’ve removed it from the runner.
More advanced builders might use a hobby knife to do this step, as nippers can still cause plastic stress marks, but that isn’t something to worry about as a beginner. However, it may be best to avoid kits with lots of dark colors, at the start, as these show stress marks more easily.
As you build, you’ll notice some symbols pop up in the instructions. You’ll quickly internalize what these mean, but it’s important at first to go slowly and double check each one (they should be explained at the bottom of the instruction page they appear on). They explain when to do things like flip a piece over, or which tiny part of the nub you’re supposed to trim off, and which part stays.
Assembly can take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours, depending on your skill level and the model’s complexity, but it’s easy to break up the build over a couple of sessions because the instructions are divided by body part. You can build the head and torso one night, the legs and arms the next, and finish up the weapons and accessories the night after.
The instructions should be clear enough for you to build without any other guidance, but you can always find more detailed building guides on YouTube.
I’ve had a ton of fun building my first Gunpla, but now what?
If, like me, you are a nerd, you’ll probably enjoy displaying your Gunpla on the shelf. It’s easy to pose them into action scenes, and the included accessories give you lots of fun options. You can also purchase a display stand, which can be a plastic pedestal or an armature that will give you tons of dramatic posing possibilities. If you’re not content with merely having your Gunpla on display, you can always get into Gunpla photography!
If you want to get more creative you don’t have to immediately jump to painting. Panel lining is an extra level of detail you can add to your Gunpla that’ll give it a little personal touch. Gunpla models have intentional grooves in the plastic that are meant to look like separate panels of metal and you can use very fine tipped markers to make them stand out. Panel lining markers are cheap, and the results can be surprisingly dramatic. There are advanced ways to panel line a Gunpla, but panel lining markers are super easy to use and a cinch to erase and redo (check out this great tutorial video to see what I mean).
The truth is that once you’ve built one Gunpla, you’ll probably either know it’s not the hobby for you, or you’ll become hopelessly sucked in. There’s definitely a strong collecting aspect to Gunpla, which is exacerbated by the way Bandai sells limited run special editions on its website. Collect enough models, and you’ll discover some of the universal connectors they share that allows you to mix Gunpla together, an activity known as kitbashing. There are also tons of reviews and how-tos on YouTube that can also keep you entertained between builds.
Best of luck, pilot!