For as many interests as I have, I know that as I get older some of them may become less appealing. For example, I’m not going to have much in the way of reflexes and hand-eye coordination in my 60s. Therefore most video games will likely be out. I always thought that when I got old I’d probably fill those gaps with something new. I’ve been intrigued with model building for awhile now, and I think it could be one of those hobbies that grabs hold of me down the road. Enter Billy 55 model kits.
The good news is, you don’t have to wait until you’re old to build these! They’re actually really intricate while being just challenging enough to feel rewarding. If you’re interested, read on! You’ll find everything you need to know in order to get started.
Where to Find Them
These are kits that I found while on vacation in Japan. They were in the gift shop of Osaka Castle to be exact. There were about a half dozen to choose from and they were all presented as complete models housed in glass cases. Just looking at them I could tell these were probably right up my alley. They weren’t plastic, snap together model kits like you see so much these days. They also weren’t so intimidating that I didn’t feel like I’d ever finish them. On vacation I’m always looking for something beyond the usual t-shirt or trinket as far as souvenirs. Billy 55 model kits turned out to fit that sweet spot of being unique and truly worth lugging home.
It turns out you can actually find these on Amazon as well. This is a good thing since Billy 55 does not ship internationally from what I can tell. The packaging includes a nice foldout brochure with all the models you can buy. However, when I translate the brochure or their website, I don’t see any options to ship outside Japan. Amazon, and to a lesser extent, eBay, seem like the best choices to import these.
Each kit will cost somewhere between $35-75 depending on size and intricacy, and I would plan on spending about $60 for most of them.
Unboxing (or in this case, unwrapping)
Each kit comes packaged inside a plastic bag, so they’re not the best “shippers” admittedly. However, I have transported two of them halfway around the world in a packed suitcase and had another shipped to me from likely about the same distance, and nothing was damaged. Suffice to say that I would not let the packaging deter you from ordering.
Inside you’ll find the aforementioned brochure, most or all parts required (more on that later), and instructions. This bring us to a couple of possible sticking points and how to get around them.
Things To Be Aware Of
The one big challenge when assembling Billy 55 model kits is the instructions. They’re actually pretty well-detailed, but there’s one issue: they’re in Japanese. This can lead to a lot of confusion when you sometimes need to make precise measurements or can accidentally cut a paper item incorrectly.
Unfortunately there are no translated instructions that I’m aware of. There are ways to navigate this though while still having fun and completing your model successfully. For one, I use Microsoft Translator on my smartphone. It’s free, though it only works well about 30% of the time. This is likely due to the stark differences between English and Japanese more than it is a fault of the app. The app can be a quick fix in some situations though, so I always try it first.
The other option is to go to HMS2’s YouTube channel and follow along step-by-step. He’s done videos for probably 15-20 different Billy 55 model kits. Chances are yours is one of those kits. You can choose to follow along exactly or simply consult the videos when you get stuck.
These videos are a godsend just before you get frustrated or make a decision that could mess up your model in some way. At this point I’m used to knowing exactly when there’s no chance I’m going to reason out what the instructions are trying to tell me. When that happens, I go straight to the videos. If not for these, I may not be writing this and my interest in these kits might have evaporated, so keep his channel in mind throughout the building process.
What You’ll Need
If possible, you’ll want a wide surface on which to assemble your model. There will be a lot of snipping, gluing, and a little painting, so it’s best to choose somewhere that you’re comfortable doing those things. As far as size, a typical coffee table or larger would be ideal. I personally use my new but fairly inexpensive coffee table in my game room. Accidents can happen of course, but on the whole you should be okay as long as you have enough room.
You also want a nice hobby mat to actually build your kit on. These will usually have measurements on them too, which helps when cutting certain lengths of materials. It’s nice to have various tweezers, scissors, etc. around too. Everything you might need is included in a package like this set from Rustark. You can also buy things individually and make your own choices, though obviously the cost will likely be a little more.
You won’t need all the tools you buy, but you’ll be surprised at the uses you find for some of them, even if it’s a one time thing. Other than that, some Elmer’s glue rounds out the basic tools you’ll need. One word of advice: do NOT buy model cement instead of regular glue. Many Billy 55 model kits have stain that you apply onto wood. If you use model cement, the stain will not absorb where the glue has seeped, so the look won’t be optimal.
Beyond the basic tools, you may find that some actual model kits don’t include a thing or two that you need. These items are typically toothpicks, chopsticks, and tin foil. These are all relatively easy to acquire, and if you don’t have any chopsticks, it’s a good excuse to order some Chinese food in order to get ahold of some. Having these on hand can be important depending on the model, so it’s not the worst idea to have them somewhere in the house to save yourself a trip. I’ll leave it as a surprise in terms of what these items are used for, but they’re usually for simple structures that weren’t 100% necessary for the manufacturer to include themselves.
Defining Medium Difficulty
You may have read all this and viewed the pictures above and thought “this looks a little hard”. Of course, if you have some experience with modeling you may thing they seem a bit easy. I suppose that might make sense given that I’ve already pegged these kits as moderately difficult. I haven’t built many models in the past though, so I’ll explain a little further on the difficulty level.
One thing you probably need to have when building these is a light hand. At first you’ll just be gluing big boards together to create the walls of a house, shop, or whatever. Later on though you’ll have to cut things out with an Exacto knife and apply just a little bit of glue to things without globbing. As long as you take your time and use a ruler for straight edge cutting, it’s really no problem, but it’s something to be aware of.
At a casual pace, these models probably take a few hours total to complete.. I usually work on them for 30-60 minutes at a time while watching TV. I might even sit down and complete a single task, spending only 10-20 minutes on it that day. This takes a lot longer than it could obviously, but it allows me to take my time, do it right, and get the most for my money. You can definitely finish one of these models in an afternoon with no distractions. I just personally enjoy slowly building one over the course of a couple months. There’s no hurry, and you should err slightly on the side of caution and go slower unless you’re an old hand at this sort of thing.
If you’re still a little intimidated, I would say that everything involved in these kits is absolutely do-able. You may need to occasionally consult a video, but otherwise there’s nothing to fear. As you’ll see in my upcoming articles about these kits, it’s best to start small. Choose a kit that is smaller in size and lighter on the details. This will give you a good entry point and probably save you a little money compared to the larger kits.
If you think they might be a little easy, I would maybe suggest woodworking as a hobby in general. You could make all kinds of cool stuff without having to conform to a kit’s design. Or look into models that require a lot more painting and personal touch, like battleships, airplanes, or tabletop figurines.
I would say that Billy 55 model kits are the perfect activity if you’re simply looking for a new hobby to try. If you like being kept busy or doing something that slowly builds to a work of your own creation, these are great. There’s not much to buy to get started, and once you have those things you’re pretty much set. If you have a table or area to dedicate to something like this, it’s really fun to see how far you’ve come for weeks or months.
In the near future I am going to do separate articles on the two kits that I’ve already built. I also plan to do a step-by-step walkthrough of the Eel Shop in the pictures above which I have yet to start building. If you enjoyed this I hope you contemplate giving one of these models are try. If you’re still on the fence, stay tuned for more!