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Interview with Keith Ward    Friday, November 8th, 2013, by Omer Houston

When did you first take a liking to scale models?
Probably when I was about six years old; my parents didn’t have much money and I used to build models as well as I could, just from basic raw materials. My dad was a model builder and he built some nice models and I tried to do it. He showed me how to do things, how to carve a piece of balsa wood to look like an airplane. It was crude, really crude.

What was your first modeling experience? Can you think of that first item that you carved out or glued together?
I’m pretty sure it was a, I was trying to make a model of a Hellcat, probably today I would say it was maybe 1/48th scale, but it was bad! Hellcats shouldn’t have square corners!

Were your parents supportive of your modeling interests?
My dad was yes. My mother didn’t have any interest in it.

Did you have any brothers or sisters, or other family members involved in your modeling?
No, I have a younger sister, but she’s twelve years younger than me. It didn’t occur to her. My grandfather came over from Norway, and during the Depression, with his artwork he managed to maintain a family, which I think is remarkable back in the Depression days. He lived to be 35 years old. He was the Illinois state speed skating champion, a terrific athlete.

How did you acquire your building skills?
I took three years of metal shop, a couple years of wood shop, and I learned how to operate a milling machine and a lathe which I have. That’s helped me a lot. I learned how to weld. I have done some silver soldering—it’s almost similar to welding. I use that on my models. I work with stainless steel. If try to drill a hole in stainless steel with a regular drill bit, you’ll burn the drill bit. You won’t make a dent in the stainless steel. I enjoy the challenge.

I was in the Army for six years. I was in an armored unit, tanks, and I really did not develop any liking to build model tanks. I was kind of resistant all this time ‘til I built my tank destroyer. I thought, wow, something that wrecks tanks.

You have interests in model railroading. Would you say that your interests in modeling started with trains, or was it painting or sketching?
I had a serious hobby interests in model trains where I actually started working with cheaper versions of Lionel trains and trying to build layouts and such. It’s never left really.

What was the cost of a model kit back then?
I can remember buying my first plastic kit. It was a Revell 1/72nd scale P-39. It must’ve been under a dollar, because I don’t think I ever had more than a dollar.

Can you describe any specific feelings that you had while building?
My whole hobby activity is the challenge, especially in scratch building when you don’t know how you’re going to make some part. I just love the challenge of the build, the technical problems. When I finish a model, I usually just put it away. When I finish the model, I’ll look at it for a few days and then I cover it up and put it in one of my cabinets. That’s probably the last I’ll see of it maybe for a year.

With the type of builders you are, someone might think that you have hundreds of models stored away. How many models do you have stored?
I think I’ve got maybe a half dozen. I have train cars and train engines and that’s about it. I built a boat once and didn’t like it, a rigged schooner. I said, “this is crazy!”

Would it be fair to say that you consider yourself an artist?
I enjoy it. I’ve been published and I’ve sold paintings, so I guess I’d have to consider myself somewhat of an artist. I’ve done a lot of work for the IPMS.

(Some of Keith’s work includes numerous line drawings, pencil drawings, aircraft schematics as well as paintings.)

You mentioned that you build for yourself and for clients, and that you enjoy overcoming technical difficulties. Do you experience anxiety while working on a project?
No, I think with time and a little effort I may have to make several attempts at making something, but I enjoy it. I’ve thrown a lot of parts away.

When did you start building commissioned project for other people, such as the 1950’s Indy race cars you scratch built?
Probably about twelve to fifteen years ago, a friend of mine was building commissioned cars for an Indy car owner and he was getting bogged down with details on the cars. He was getting old. His hands weren’t working too well. He asked if I would take over. He told me how much money was involved, so I took over, in fact finishing the car that he was working on and when on to make some pretty good money. If you consider that twelve to fifteen thousand dollars for a car—of course I would work a year on it to do it and that was a lot of hours. I almost think I could get a job at McDonald’s and break even.

Would it be fair to say that you put 100 hours into the car?
A hundred?! More like a thousand. You saw that airplane I had, the one done for the EAA. I kept track of the hours on that and it was 1200 hours.

Would you say that your clients are particularly picky or hard to please?
No, I’ve never had any trouble. In fact I sold one car to a couple from the North Shore who bought the car as a piece of art. They didn’t care what it was. They didn’t care who the driver was. They just wanted it for the artwork, because of the colors and something it represented to them. It was red and white. I’m pretty sure it was a Ted Horn. I made four of those cars.

What build would you say you enjoyed the most?
Probably the one that I have now, the Ted Horn car. That started out as a commissioned build and the fellow who’d commissioned it passed away, so I decided to continue and keep it. That’s probably the best model I’ve ever built, probably the best model I ever will build. So, it’s going to remain in the family.

Which one would you say you enjoyed the least?
How about Bluebird bus? It’s not that complicated to build. It’s going to be upfront in the museum train layout, so it has to be good.

(For this project Keith received materials that were particularly challenging to build at museum quality.)

A lot of us in the club have seen you bring scratch built 1/32nd scale WWI aircraft to the club meeting. How long does it take you on average to complete one?
From scratch I probably give myself a half year to build it in casual, spare time. Some of the new kits I can probably knock out in a couple weeks.

What are your favorite paints, glue and thinner to use? Are there particular brands?
I use Tamiya acrylics, and I used to use Badger acrylic. For brush painting now I use Citadel paints. They are just incredible. They only sell them at the Game Stop stores where the guys are making miniature battles and things. It’s fantastic and I love it.

In your experience, which are the best kits to build straight out of the box?
The Wingnuts kits. I think that’s pretty much recognized by most of the guys that are building models. Guys that could never build a World War 1 model before are finding that these are easy to make and everything fits. The instruction manual is a book. It’s great.

What subjects would you enjoy seeing from kit manufacturers and in what scale?
Boy, I don’t know what they haven’t put on the market yet. I mean, this is the best it’s ever been. You can get great 1/72nd scale kits from all the way up the line. I have no problems at all.

Are there any particular improvements you’d like to see the kit manufacturers commit to, maybe photo etch?
I’m not a big fan of photo etch. I’ve found that it’s actually difficult to use. They’ll have you make a little box to go on an instrument panel, and the box is a sixteenth of an inch thick, an eighth of an inch on each side—just cut a piece of plastic to that size. It’s quicker and faster, easier to do. I find myself that I almost have to solder all the photo etch together. It’s hard to glue.

I found a good super glue. It’s called the original super glue with rubber in it. It’s flexible super glue. The dispenser it comes in is great. You can actually get a little tiny drop out of it, and it’s never clogged on me. The applicator is made of rubber I think. You can flex it. It’s strong. I really like it. It’s called the Original Super Glue with Rubber. You get it at the hardware store.

Is there such a thing as a hobbyist owning too many kits?
Yes, I’ve known collectors. I knew someone who had a room full of collected kits, from the floor to the ceiling, all four walls and then he was putting racks in the middle. I think he had a standing order with Japan Hobby. Whatever they came up with in 1/32nd scale they would send him at least one. But he didn’t build a lot of models.

Are you ever strongly influenced to buy a kit based solely on the box art?
No, I don’t care if it comes in a plain brown box. I make my decision by reading a lot of kit reviews on the Internet. The reviews explain any problems a kit might have.

You have been head judge in many model contests. What areas in contest models need the most improvement?
Paint. I’ve seen nicely constructed straight models with orange peel all over the paint, and a lot of it seems to be that they’re applying a dull coat and they must be standing three feet away from the model when they spray it. That’s the biggest area that needs improvement.

The new models go together quite well. They practically align themselves. One thing that’s missed frequently is looking straight down on an airplane. I’ve seen tails and wings that were twisted in relation to the fuselage.

By the way, I judged out at the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas, these are radio controlled scale models. This was a contest for money. The winner would get $3000. You had to be a previous winner in your category, RC scale anywhere in the world. We had people from all over the world there, and this was a contest in which I was chosen as one of the three judges. It was a big deal. Circus Circus casino promoted this. At the end of the contest the winner was decided and the contestants gave the judges trophies.

Do you have any suggestions on how to interest today’s youth more in building models?
I think that Make and Takes are the best. I used to buy easy kits for my grandson. We sat and built them. He really got into it. You can’t expect them to walk into a hobby shop on their own and pick out a model and try to build it. You almost have to hold their hand.

How would you say modeling has improved you as a person?
It gives me an outlet to really think creatively. I enjoy the challenges. I enjoy the company of other model builders talking the same language. I like it. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.

Are there any builds that you would like to do that you haven’t already done?
The British Army desert jeep. The most common color they were painted was pink. The desert in north Africa has a pink to it.

In addition to serving in the Army, Keith has done many other interesting things. In the early 70’s he built and raced a Kellison kit car. He also raced for 10 years in the midgets outlaw series at WillowBowl, Arcola and Galesburg speedways. He’s a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and was awarded first place in their static scale competition in 1979.

View photos of Keith's work

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