How To Build Gunpla For A Competition

Gunpla competitions can be a fun way to test your modeling chops. Nobody knows this better than Tex Merquise, a competitive Gunpla builder who we’ve been following ever since we saw her award-winning Vincent Van Gouf custom build. In the first post of her two-part series, she offered tips for entering competitions. In the second post, learn about Tex’s suggestions for how to build Gunpla on a competitive level. 


Now that you’ve decided which competition you want to enter, you might think it’s time to get building. But there’s one crucial move that comes before that. It’s so important that I’m going to go ahead and put it in all caps and in its own paragraph:

READ THE CONTEST RULES. 

Seriously. It’s one simple step that can save a lot of heartache in the long run. A firm grasp of the rules will help you plan out your build, give you an idea as to how the contest will run, and allow you to formulate and ask questions to the organizers that might not be fully outlined. 

To start, I’ll cover some basic event rules to be wary of from my own experiences. Here are some questions to keep in mind while you read through the contest guidelines. 

Can I submit a Gunpla I already built?

A lot of contests will have a conception parameter set for the model you can submit, meaning that when you’ve built a Gunpla kit comes into play. While reading the rules, you’ll want to look for the answers to the following questions—or else ask an organizer.

  • Can I enter something I am already working on? Or does it have to start brand new in the box?  
  • Can I enter a kit I’ve finished already? What about a kit that has previously won something or has been entered in another contest?

In my experience, most contests do not mind when you’ve built your Gunpla, but don’t want you to re-enter a kit if it has won something before. Standard protocol is this: if your kit places at an event, you can’t enter it again at the same event, regardless of the year. Certain International Plastic Modellers Society (IPMS) chapters have specific rules about entering kits that have been placed at their national competition, so look out for those in particular.

What size does my finished Gunpla need to be?

Always be sure to check if there are any size restrictions on entries for the contest. For example, the Gundam Builders World Cup (GBWC) states your model cannot be larger than 50cm x 50cm x 50cm. This isn’t some arbitrary size: finalists that make it to Japan have special cases their models will need to fit into.

No issues here! Now I know what size travel kit to get, too.

Being purposeful about the size of your build will also help you determine how you plan to travel with it later—not just getting it to a competition, but setting it up there as well. It might not need to go in a GBWC case yet, but some scale modeling shows have limited table space. Some will ask that you notify the showrunners ahead of time if your model exceeds a certain size so they can accommodate your work accordingly. IPMS, specifically Nationals, requires this. Everyone and their mother will be trying to squeeze their kit onto one of those folding picnic tables, so size is something to take into consideration before you even start. 

And if you do find yourself trying to make room for your Gunpla at one of these shows, under no circumstances should you ever touch or move another builder’s model without their permission. Speak to a staff member if room needs to be made on the table, they’d rather help you than remember you as the person who broke someone’s model.

The signs are everywhere.

By when do I need to submit my Gunpla?

Getting back to the rules, one thing all these contests have in common is they all have a deadline. Be sure to know when the contest ends. That could mean a certain hour that your kit needs to be on a table before judging, or when its photos have to be submitted online. Deadlines are set to give judges ample time to go through entries and prevent time advantages. 

Knowing the submission deadline will also help you decide if you have enough time to participate in the contest. Chances are you’ll have other obligations besides building: Family, friends, school or work (lucky duck if you have the ability to build “full time”). It’s almost a right of passage to pull off some Eleventh Hour work: applying decals the night before, blasting the AC hoping your paint dries just enough in the car on the way to a show, gluing pieces together on the subway so they’ll stay on “just long enough” for you to go back and fit properly. Budget your time accordingly or suffer the consequences.

Believe me, I’ve been there before. I procrastinated for so long on my Tallgreygoose build that everything that could go wrong went wrong. I definitely thought I could pull an all-nighter after pre-SCGMC festivities had begun. While I tried to pull it off, an old wise man appeared and asked if I’d be happy about submitting it and my answer was “No.” It was a moment for me to realize the caliber of work I expected from myself. So give yourself ample time to allow yourself to submit your best work, something you’re proud of.

What kind of materials can I use for my build?

Some contests have limitations on the types of material you’re allowed to use. It might be part of a challenge to force you to get creative, or an actual restriction from using a competitor’s product. This is common with branded events, usually promoting a specific franchise or product.

As an example: Kitbashing. Mixing and matching parts from multiple models is very popular in Gunpla and one of the many freedoms that comes with it. This leaves endless opportunities to mash up components from all your favorite mechs as you see fit, but the rules of a contest may not allow third-party or non-Gunpla parts in your creation.

The Re:Rising Gundam. A canon kitbash.

If the rules are not clear, ask the party putting on the event. As with any contest, be sure to pay attention to items or elements that are not allowed to be displayed in a build. For me, when I’m working as a judge, it is also the clearest indicator whether or not someone paid attention and read the rules… and the easiest reason to disqualify someone.

Does my Gunpla need to adhere to a theme? 

Themed builds are popular for a lot of contests and meant to help get the creative juices flowing. Think of it like a dress code. It could mean there’s a specific model type you have to use, a certain series or faction, or simply what scale the kit has to be in. 

A while back, the Gunpla Builders Association had a ‘Cannon Fodder’ contest where your base model had to be a mass-produced suit. While I wound up not entering, it did provide the foundation for my Vincent van Gouf.

Vincent van Gouf, 2018

The first build event the Gunpla Girl Gang hosted for its members had the theme “Just Communication” where the only criteria was that the kit had to be from Gundam Wing.

Just Communication Event – Icarus Wings of A Boy That Killed Adolescence AKA The Laziest Thing I’ve Ever Done, 2019

At the Southern California Gundam Model Competition, the show sets a yearly theme to provide inspiration. It also allows you to enter your Gunpla into the Best Themed Build category as well as your general category. So you can double-dip on your efforts to win!

For the Gundam Builders World Cup (GBWC), the subject of a theme is treated much differently. In this case, it’s the message you are attempting to convey through the elements of your build. In other words, whatever you’re trying to show the judges with your Gunpla, is your theme. It is the story you are trying to tell with your entry and how well it’s expressed.

What will the judges be looking for?

Me, eager to find something wrong on that Barbatos.

This is a great question, and as an occasional judge myself I feel especially qualified to weigh in. While the judging styles can vary from event to event, I’ll be elaborating some criteria that I’ve come across while being judged and judging events.

Idea/Concept

“…Your idea or concept is just as important as your execution” 

WeatheredAZ, frequent Australian GBWC Open Champion

Judges will be looking for originality in your concept development. I promise you, someone somewhere already put feathers on a Wing Zero Custom, designed a GunEZ holding up a bridge, and built a “Last Shooting” diorama. While they are fan-pleasing, judges have seen recreations of iconic scenes dozens of times before. Thinking outside the box (or TV screen) can help you stand out! Reimagining a scene (and a famous work of art) helped develop my GBWC 2019 entry and led to creating a GM Head Ground Type Gundam that got revenge on an Acguy. (Keep scrolling for pictures of the finished build!)

GBWC 2019 concept sketch

Concept is everything for me when it comes to Gunpla, especially for competitive building. Coming up with the idea I want to see in Gunpla form is what inspires me to build. Discovering ways to bring that idea to life is what fuels my process and keeps me motivated. 

The theme of your build will also affect the overall look of your competition piece. Is your Gunpla a shiny new suit, fresh off the category line? Cruising through space? Or is it weathered and worn from battle? All of these are factors to consider when finalizing your concept.

Craftsmanship

The saying “walk before you can run” applies to Gunpla building as well. There are basic skills a builder should be able to execute before entering a competition:

  • Nub Removal – Nubs are the leftover bits from when you cut your Gunpla off the runner. They should never be visible in a competition.
  • Seam / Mold Removal – Seams are the lines that form when you attach two sides of a part together. They may also be leftover from the plastic injection mold during production. Either way, they should never be visible in a competition. Thoughtful engineering has led to seam lines being integrated and hidden within newer kits, but rest assured that if it’s not supposed to be on the surface, someone will find it. Typically fixable with some plastic cement, sanding and elbow grease. Hold the headlight fluid.
Your primer will tell you what spots you missed. No judge wants to see this on your kit.
  • Gap filling – As nice and as smooth as Gunpla kits are to put together, the fit isn’t always perfect. Sometimes gaps exist between parts that should be cohesive on a kit. This depends on the shape and age of the model, but either way it will need to be filled. Styrene, putty, or a combo of both can help you here.
Cavities filled on both an older SD Acguy and recent SDCS Frame, prior to sanding.

These are fundamentals for any scale modeling competition and will always be looked at closely by both judges and spectators.

Painting

While one of the fun things about Gunpla kits is that they come with the plastic colored and ready to build right out of the box (called straight-building or snap-building), in a competition if your model is not painted, it will likely be out of the running. Whether you’re painting your Gunpla to be anime-accurate or giving it a custom color scheme, keep an eye out to avoid some of the following and help your Gunpla stand out from the rest:

  • Messy paint – You want to avoid paint pooling on the surface or developing a bumpy texture on your paint (called Orange Peel since it resembles the skin of an orange).
My first custom kit and all its Orange Peel glory. 2nd Place Beginners at SCGMC, 2017.
  • Uneven coverage – Paint of the same color that isn’t applied consistently. This can happen whether you are spray-painting or hand-painting, so you always need to watch for it.
Uneven paint application on the legs of the Tallgreygoose, 2018.

Modifications

Judges will be looking for these special additions that when executed properly can give your Gunpla an edge and stand out from the competition:

  • Physical – Details such as scribe work and pla plates can add a lot of visual interest to what would otherwise be flat planes of your kit. This can also refer to additional armor that may be scratch built, armor kitbashed from another model, or parts that come from a conversion kit. Really, anything that changes the structure of your base kit counts as a physical modification.
HG Acguy arm added to the SD Base. “Tubes” added around the neck. Scratchbuilt arm turbine.
Cannons added to the head.
Styrene accents added to the SD GM Head.
  • Electrical – Wires and batteries and bulbs (oh my!). The addition of moving parts, lights, or even sound is a surefire way to make a kit stand out. Some Gunpla models come with LED options already, but that wasn’t always the case. A lot of builders had to get creative if they wanted a kit to light up… and still do! (Check out Gunpla 101’s tutorial on adding LED lighting to any kit.) Lights can be used in many places besides the obvious: rather than simply light up the eyes of a Gunpla kit, you can use lighting to simulate a booster activating or an explosion going off. But don’t just leave the wires hanging out. It will distract judges and make your build look unfinished. Find a way to hide them within your Gunpla or the base.
I used the chest cavity and hollowed-out head of the Acguy to make room for the flickering eye and cockpit lights.

Finish

Your finish is more than just the topcoat; it’s the finishing touches of your entire kit. From decals to the final clear coat to seal the deal, there is a lot of quality control to keep an eye out for in the final stages of getting your Gunpla competition ready.

  • Decals – While they’re not my favorite part of building Gunpla, decals offer an additional level of detail to your Gunpla. In most competitions, waterslide decals are the standard as they don’t look like a sticker slapped on and allow a more “realistic” look when applied correctly. Be on the lookout for decal silvering: where the edges are visible and look “silver” due to air trapped between the decal and the surface of your Gunpla.
How it started (2017) vs. How it’s going (2020), decal version.
  • Weathering – If your goal was to make your Gunpla look worn and damaged from battle, did you overdo it? More importantly, given the environment or the story you’re trying to tell, does it make sense? Too much weathering can take away from all the hard work you’ve done. Too little and it looks like an afterthought. The trick is to find that balance and apply weathering effects in the appropriate spots.
Submarine hull photos were referenced when determining how to ‘weather’ the amphibious mobile suit.
The backstory of my build has the GM Head dragging the Acguy out from the water. So I applied mud where I felt the suits would come in contact with the ground.
  • Visible fingerprints – Self-explanatory and comes from handling your Gunpla before the paint or clear coat has dried or the oils on your hands leaving residue behind. (I’ve done this. It sucks.) What’s the best way to prevent this from happening? Wear gloves!
A fat-fingered, but fixable, wet visor.
  • Base – For my competitive builds, the base is just as important as the Gunpla that is on it. It is the vessel for your Gunpla and another opportunity to bring it to life. While Action Bases are easily accessible, rarely do I feel that they help enhance a kit aside from providing some variety in positioning on a shelf. If you choose to build a base, it should have the same amount of care as your kit. Emily’s mesa diorama tutorial is a good example of this. Creating custom bases for your Gunpla helps to provide narrative and tell the story, the theme, that you’re building on. It should be cohesive with the rest of your build and not detract from it. Even the wrong color Action Base can draw a judge’s eye away from your kit. Choose, or customize, wisely.
A wet, marshy base for my 08th MS Team-inspired build.
Fin.

How to Pack and Travel With A Gunpla Competition Build

A Gunpla all cleared for a flight.

Let’s assume time has passed and non-essential travel is permitted again. You know which competition you want to enter. You’ve honed your skills and finished building your Gunpla and now you’re ready to show it off… but how are you getting it there? Is this a local competition or are you traveling across the country to say… the Southern California Gundam Model Competition (SCGMC)? I’ll share some tips from the last time I traveled with a Gunpla to compete in an event. Here are the factors you’ll need to consider when taking this show on the road.

Portability

This is probably, no definitely, something you should consider in the designing and construction phases of your Gunpla. Mapping out how your build can be broken down into sub-assemblies versus being transferred as a whole will make your life easier and stress-free when it comes to traveling for competitions. This applies to the base (or diorama) as well.

Proper Packaging

You spent all that time building your Gunpla, and it sure would be unfortunate if something were to happen to it. This isn’t a threat, it’s reality: prepping your kit for travel will help protect all your hard work and alleviate some of the stress that comes with it. 

For short distances or local shows sometimes some clean shop rags, tissue paper, or bubble wrap around your kit may do the trick. You can carry or pack it into a Tupperware or plastic storage container for light travel. When it comes to padding materials, I avoid using newspaper directly next to your model, as the ink might rub off on your kit’s finish. Use it after you’ve wrapped your Gunpla in some unmarked material.

This worked once and only once for me.

The further your kit is going, the more protection I’d recommend. Also, if it’s a build for a highly-competitive event like the GBWC, where you’ve invested all this time and work into your Gunpla, you don’t want to chance it. Especially if you’re doing heavy travel, like on a plane. For this I’d suggest padded containers, like the ones you’ve probably seen in movies transporting super-secret gadgets. They’re usually airtight containers, lined with foam that you can cut to custom fit your Gunpla either whole or in parts and come in a variety of colors, material and sizes including carry-on approved sizes! You can even use the plucked foam as additional padding. Pelican and Apache protective hardcases are the most popular plastic suitcase models I’ve used.

Prototype GunEZ Packed to travel; pilot on the side.
Brutishdog and Scopedog mildly disassembled for fit.

Personally, I do not check my model bag while flying. We’ve all had our luggage manhandled and in a sadder condition than we’ve dropped it off in—or worse, missing. The last thing you want to discover when you land is that your Gunpla is doing laps on a carousel at another airport without you. Remove all possibility for error and bring that bad boy into the cabin.

Regardless of the size or type of container you use, I’d suggest adding a fragile identification on the shell of your carrier to prevent anyone from rough handling it as well as some contact information on the outside (and inside) in case it does sprout legs on its journey.

Everyone arrived safe and sound at the Bandai Hobby Pop-Up in Downtown Los Angeles.

GBWC finalists are asked to leave their models to display at Gundam Base in Japan for a few weeks, along with instructions and material for Bandai to ship it back to their builders. You’re going to want to be as thorough as possible when packing a build, especially if you have to rely on another party to assemble/disassemble it in your absence.

Preparing For The Worst

Even with all this preventative work, accidents can happen. You can prepare for this by having a touch-up kit for some quick fixes:

  • Glue
  • Tweezers
  • Sanding Sponges
  • Extra batteries/bulbs if you have light modifications.
  • BluTack to keep a stubborn piece still.
  • Maybe some small bottles of touch-up paint if you’re able.
A quick little go-bag.

Hopefully, this wall of text has provided you some insight into constructing Gunpla for competitions. Maybe it’s even given you the courage and motivation to enter into your first show ever! Fair warning, it’s kind of addicting. Either way, you’re going to have a great time not just showing off your Gunpla but meeting other Gunpla builders, getting to know them, and creating alongside them. I look forward to seeing your best work and hope our paths cross at an event soon. Stay safe and have fun building!


Tex Merquise is an avid Gunpla builder and mech enthusiast. She is involved with many Gunpla-oriented groups such as the Gunpla Builders Association, Those Gundam Guys and the Gunpla Girl Gang; a welcoming and inclusive community that encourages, supports and collaborates with lady Gunpla builders from all backgrounds. Tex’s latest project is producing Build Alongs; free make-and-take workshops for children who are interested in scale modeling. Originally held in person but in the meantime has shifted online to accommodate families who are working and learning from home. Feel free to connect with her @TexMerquise!

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