The International Plastic Modelers Society has been around for over 50 years, and has gone through many changes. In the earliest days IPMS was just a mimeographed newsletter - a way for modelers to share information before hobby magazines existed. It quickly grew into a network of local clubs and contests, and played a big part in shaping the hobby.
IPMS has always been open to all kinds of modeling, but before long it became clear there were two schools of modeling: those focused on building strict replicas and those building hypothetical subjects in a more stylized way. Military modelers typically fell into the replica builders, while auto modelers leaned toward the more creative side. IPMS - in the way their contests were judged - leaned towards the replica school. At the time modeling was incredibly popular; it was easy for auto modelers to split off and start their own clubs and the separations weren't always amicable.
I’m not going to dig up 40 year old dirt about who said what to who. Most of today’s modelers either weren’t born or were trying to figure out the mysteries of elementary school when that went down, and I think it’s time to move on. I’ve got a much simpler and practical goal in mind: I want car modelers to come to IPMS model shows - especially my club’s show - and have a good time and leave wanting to come back the next year. If that makes a few car modelers decide to checkout an IPMS club meeting, so much the better.
I think a big step in that direction is to correct some of the misunderstandings about IPMS and IPMS contests, and hopefully that will make everyone a little better prepared and a little more comfortable entering one. And maybe a little more understanding of why at the end of the day some models win, and others don’t. I don’t want to come off as some elitist IPMS dweeb telling car modelers how they should build. For most of us modeling is what we do for fun - you should build for yourself first. But for those car modelers who want to compete at IPMS shows, I want to explain what it takes to do well. I’ve judged cars at lots of IPMS shows - including at IPMS National Conventions - and I see a lot of automotive models with amazing work that don’t make the first “cut” because of little things that could have been easily fixed. If you want to do well at an IPMS show, I think the info here will help.
Without further ado…First the Rules. There is a perception that IPMS contests are well defined, strictly regimented processes with lots of rules and procedures, all run with military precision. The reality is a little more complicated. If you poke around on the main IPMS website at ipmsusa.org, you should find a list of things labeled as rules. Some important details:
- IPMS only enforces these rules at the IPMS National Convention. This is the big, once a year IPMS show and contest held every summer at some location that rotates around the country - this year its Phoenix. This is the only IPMS contest that you must be a National IPMS member to enter (anyone can pay general admission just to go in and look around). National IPMS membership costs $30 per year, and registration for the convention is another $50 or so. It's a multi-day event, so add on 3-4 nights at a hotel plus restaurant meals, and then there will be a lot of really good vendors there to tempt you - it can easily become a $1000 outing (car pooling and sharing a room with a few friends can help keep the costs down). A Nats is also a lot of fun, and I highly recommend you go at least once if you can.
- A few of the rules specify administrative things like who can enter (for the National Convention, only paid-up IPMS USA members), the age brackets for the junior categories, and what kind of models you can not enter: sexually explicit figures and various “adult” subjects are not allowed (there are a lot of subtleties covered in lawyer-ese written by an actual lawyer; you should read the rule if you think it might affect you, but it's more a figure thing than anything likely to affect car modelers).
- Most of the things referred to as rules are really definitions of the many (100+) categories in the contest. For example, there are a number of categories for “Out of the Box” models and “Scratchbuilt” models and those names don’t necessarily mean what you might think. At one time this terminology was a little fuzzy, leading to too many “spirited discussions” during judging; the latest version of the rules go into painful detail.
- One other twist comes at the very end of the rules: the IPMS Nationals is a no-sweeps contest. That means that in any category, you can only win 1 award (the Nationals is always a 1-2-3 show so that means a 1st or 2nd or 3rd place award). And that means it can be in an entrant’s best interest to spread their models around multiple categories, which can involve a bit of gamesmanship that I’ll talk about a little later.
Gaming The Automotive CategoriesAs I mentioned above, at many IPMS contests you can improve your chances of winning an award (or winning multiple awards) by entering your models in more than one category. This is often possible regardless of what kinds of models you build because some categories are defined by subject and some by how the model was built (remember that local contests will generally have fewer categories and other variations in the rules, so everything I’m saying here may or may not apply outside of the National Convention). For example, most IPMS contests have some sort of Street Stock category for models representing cars (mostly) as they were built by the factory. Many IPMS contests also have a Curbside category, where the judges don’t look at the bottom of the car or under the hood (the model can’t be displayed with the hood open either). Practically any model car can be entered in the Curbside category by simply leaving the hood closed, so if you’ve built two factory-stock models, you can enter one in the Street Stock category and one in Curbside.
It can get stranger. Many IPMS contests have some sort of Out-of-the-Box (OOB) category for models that are built without any aftermarket parts or major modifications - just what comes in the kit box built according to the kit instructions. Usually you can use whatever decals and paint you want. Here is the confusing thing: you can use all of the photo-etch and resin you want if you start with a multi-media kit that includes all that stuff “in the box”. The only catch is that you must provide the instructions that come with the kit as proof that you built the model “out-of-the-box”. Many contests take that rule about the instructions being there pretty seriously; even if the model is obviously out-of-the-box, it will get moved to another category if the instruction sheets aren’t there.
Even if you build two basic Revell kits straight out-of-the-box, you can enter one in the OOB category, and the other in the “regular” (not OOB) category. Because of the way IPMS judging works (see below), a true out-of-the-box model is not at a big disadvantage to one with all the detail parts added.
A word of warning: While literally everyone uses this strategy, I have seen it backfire. I’m going to leave out the details to protect the guilty, but here is what happened: a modeler brings an Italian supercar, a gorgeous build with the best parts from a number of different kits to get all the details right, finished with a beautiful coat of red paint. For whatever reason, it is entered in Curbside, which is perfectly within the rules, and the model rightfully takes first place. Comes time for the judges to vote on Best-Auto, and no one gives this model much of a look, because… a lot of the work in this build is not all that obvious and the judges are too tired to read the build-notes on the registration form, and it is entered in Curbside which some judges think of as a “soft” category.
I argued this red sports car should be Best-Auto until I was sure the other judges were going to work me over and toss me out the back door so they could get on with the show, and then I watched them award Best-Auto to a nicely weathered commercial vehicle that appeared to be a much more ambitious model, but was a mostly out-of-the-box build of an obscure kit. Then the Internet lit up with car modelers saying “man, those IPMS guys just don’t understand car models”. So read the category definitions very carefully, plan out where you want to enter the models you’ve built, and if you’ve got a really nice model, be sure to enter that one in one of the mainstream categories.
1-2-3 vs Open JudgingMost IPMS contests use classic 1-2-3 judging. The models are grouped into categories of roughly 15-20 models, and a team of judges picks the best, second best and third best of each group to take home a plaque. All of the 1st place winners are then considered by all of the judges for the overall Best Automotive award. The head class judges will then discuss and vote for which of the Best-of-Subject winners will then become Best of Show.
Even a small IPMS contest will usually have 5 (or more) automotive categories with 3 awards each, so a fair number of models can go home with a plaque or medal. Seems like a fair system, and it is simple and easy to run. 1-2-3 judging is the system that IPMS officially endorses; it is how the contest at the IPMS National Convention is organized, and probably always will be. And it is how the majority of local IPMS shows are run.
The problem with this style of judging is that at a big show the competition can be a lot stiffer in the more popular categories. If four really good modelers enter a popular category (say they all enter ‘32 Ford Coupes in the Hot Rod category) one of them is going home with nothing, even though their model may be practically the same in build quality as the 1st place model. Which model takes 1st (and so goes on to compete for Best Automotive and possibly Best of Show) will come down to a mostly subjective judgement by a 3 man judging team. Meanwhile some less popular category may end up with just 2 or 3 poorly built models entered, and yet one will be a “1st place” model.
An alternative to 1-2-3 judging is the so-called Open system, also known as “Chicago Rules” or G-S-B judging. This system is similar to that used at many art and photography competitions; it was adapted by figure modelers years ago, who introduced it to the armor modelers, who were copied by everyone else. An Open Judged event is more of a group evaluation than a contest: the top tier of models earn a gold medal, those that aren’t quite as good get a silver, those with a few more problems get a bronze, and everything else gets no award.
In Open Judging there are usually only a few categories, and they don’t really matter much: each model is being evaluated on its own merits, based on the same criteria as used to choose the top models in a 1-2-3 contest. Most Open Judged events add an element of true competition by considering the gold medal winners for Best-of-Subject awards (Best Automotive, etc), and then picking a Best-of-Show winner from the Best-of-Subject models just like at a 1-2-3 event. In my hypothetical example where four modelers all bring really nice 32 Fords, all four can earn gold medals. And perhaps more importantly, all four models will be considered by the full automotive judging team for the big Best Automotive award. This is the kind of judging used at my chapter - Three Rivers IPMS - annual show.
Just so you know, there is a variation of Open Judging where each entrant receives at most 1 medal for their best model, regardless of how many models they enter. This variation is used largely to limit the number of medals the contest hosts need to buy, but there is also a bit of philosophy: a gold medal recognizes a top tier modeler; receiving 2 or 3 (or more) gold medals doesn’t mean they are a better modeler than someone who built only 1 really good model. Often the medals at this type event are a little bigger and fancier than at a show where every model can take a medal. As always, read the contest info carefully to figure out exactly how the medals will work.
How the Sausage Gets MadeI can hear you thinking: enough with all this rules stuff, what are those IPMS judges looking for and what are they thinking when they look at my model? Again, if you poke around on the IPMS USA website, you’ll find the Competition Handbook. It tells you what judges should be looking for; if you follow all the guidelines in there you should do well at a contest. What isn’t in there is how the judges use those guidelines to decide who wins. I’m going to try to do that here.
Mostly Judges are looking for obvious mistakes that distract from the realism of the model. Here is how it usually goes;
- First they look at the big flat surfaces of the body: the roof and hood and decklid, then sight down each side. The judges will look out across those big smooth surfaces, and they better be smooth - no sink-marks or molding seams; dust free and uniformly glossy paint. There should be no signs of glue or bare plastic where the body was assembled and small parts like door handles and mirrors and chrome trim are attached. The windows should fit snug in the body with no visible glue around the edges. A little bit of orange peel is not automatically fatal, but is usually enough to knock the model down a place or two. While they’re looking at the body, any decals are going to get scrutinized too: there should be no silvering and the edge of the decal film should be nearly invisible. Yes, some real-world race cars use vinyl stickers for markings that have a visible edge, but they do not have a clear film extending around the marking proper. If you’re trying to model a vinyl sticker, trim all the carrier film and explain what you did on the model registration sheet.
- The next big thing are the wheels (some judges will look at the wheels first). All 4 wheels should be square to and touching the ground and parallel left-to-right. The tires shouldn’t be rubbing against the bodywork. If the kit’s wheels fit loosely to allow them to roll and so flop around a bit, you should glue them solid so the model sits right - you get no extra consideration for “working” wheels.
- Overall straightness and symmetry. The body should be level side-to-side and straight with the wheels, and small parts should all be straight and square. Wheels should be centered in the wheel openings. If the real car being modeled is not straight and level and centered for some reason, you should mention it on the judging sheet and provide a picture if possible.
A brief aside: a common misconception even among some IPMS members is that IPMS assigns point values to various kinds of mistakes and just totals them up like golf, with the lowest score winning. IPMS judges might tell you something like “you lost points for wheel alignment”, but those “points” are figurative. IPMS USA does not have a list that says “wheel alignment - 10 points, silvered decal - 5 points, etc”. Other modeling organizations, such as the Armor Modeling and Preservation Society (AMPS) do use such a point system, and while it is possible an IPMS club could invent such a system for a local show, by-and-large no IPMS contests do. The final ranking of models at a 1-2-3 contest is usually determined by discussion among the judging team (usually 3 modelers), with the rare unresolvable difference settled by the head judge.Assuming your model makes it past this first “cut”, the judges are going to get really picky.
- Next step is under the hood (if the hood is open). A common trick for judges is to look straight down into the engine bay (and use a flashlight if the room lighting is bad) to spot shiny spots where glue is showing: there shouldn’t be any.
- Next up for scrutiny is the top of the radiator and the top of the master-cylinder to check for uncorrected mold lines. In general the engine and underhood area should be prepared and assembled just as cleanly as the rest of the model: there should be no gaps, no misaligned parts, no seams, no ejector pin marks, no unpainted plastic. The separation between paint colors should be straight and clean.
- Important tip (affects a lot of models): if you display your model with the hood open or off the model completely, judges are going to look at the bottom of the hood. Yes, most IPMS contests tell judges not to handle the models, but if the hood is just sitting there, a lot of judges will pick it up and look. Make sure the ejector pin marks have been fixed and there is no unpainted plastic lurking there.
- Now a quick look inside: The interior of the car should be as cleanly built and well detailed as the rest of the model. If there are visible ejector pin marks in the floor fix them (if the floor has molded-in carpet texture, consider flocking the floor after fixing the marks). Remember that on a hatchback type car the judges can look straight down into the rear luggage compartment; big ejector pin circles on the floor staring back can easily drop a model a spot or two in the rankings (maybe right out of an award).
- Most IPMS contests either forbid or strongly discourage judges from picking up models to look underneath, but judges will almost certainly slide the models on the table to see them better. Once your model is near the edge of the table, it’s easy for the judges to get eye-level with the tabletop and see quite a bit of the chassis. The mistakes the judges are looking for are unpainted plastic, mold-lines on the exhaust pipes and exhaust systems that are not connected to the engine or otherwise dangling in mid air. If you are going to put your model on a mirrored base, judges are going to look closely and count the mistakes against you.
Once a model makes it through the mistake hunting phase, the judges are finally going to look at things like detailing, scratchbuilding, and advanced finishing techniques. These are the things that make the difference between a silver and a gold medal, and at a very competitive 1-2-3 show like the IPMS Nationals, these are the tie-breakers that will set the award winners apart from the also-rans. Here are some specifics of what judges are going to look for:
- Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Fingerprints and dust turn judges off; they figure if the modeler doesn’t care enough to fix the easy stuff why should the judges care about the model. Sloppy, obviously hand-brushed detail painting is another killer: judges expect to see sharp, straight separation between colors and smooth paint everywhere. If you can’t get smooth paint with a brush, bite the bullet and mask and spray it - even if it is some tiny little part.
- A big one: realistic finishes. Rubber hoses and wires and vinyl upholstery are not deep saturated colors, and they often have a flat or barely semi-gloss sheen; don’t paint them gloss black - some judges may count this as an outright mistake! Few parts of a car are exactly the same color or have exactly the same finish; using a few different shades of paint and varying the gloss level will add visual interest and make the model more believable. A couple specifics:
- Real bare metal parts in the engine bay are generally not uniform in color or finish: an aluminum cylinder head will generally not look exactly like an aluminum engine block or an aluminum transmission housing. Again, use a few different shades to create a more “real” look.
- It’s tempting to leave real metal kit parts unpainted for an easy “real metal” look, but that can just highlight the fact that other parts of the model are metallic-painted plastic. It is usually better to paint everything to get a consistent look, or at least limit the real bare metal to those few places where you are representing highly polished metal or chrome.
- I feel like I should use all capital letters for this, but I’ll settle for an exclamation point at the end: IPMS does not give any extra credit for simply using photoetch or machined metal parts in your model, so do not leave them unpainted just so the judges know that you did! The air vent grilles and header collectors on real cars are not brass, so don’t leave them shiny brass on your model even if you think it looks cool.
- Real car interiors are not uniform in color or finish either; if you want to impress the judges don’t just spray the whole interior semi-gloss black and call it a day. Carpets should look different than the seats and the seats should look different than the dash. Add some detail painting to highlight knobs and switches and door handles and such.
- About chrome: The plated parts in most model kits do not really look like chrome or polished metal, and preserving that plated finish means not fixing mold-lines in the part. Many top auto-modelers strip the plated kit parts and use something like Alclad paint to create a more believable chrome finish (even though it is not quite as bright and shiny as the kit plated parts). Most IPMS judges will cut some slack to a model using the plated kit parts, but in a competitive 1-2-3 show the Alclad chrome can make the difference between an award and going home empty handed.
- And about weathering: Military modeling has long embraced the idea of weathering models to make them look realistically worn and dirty. No one polishes a tank; their usual state is sun faded and mud spattered, and a model tank just doesn’t look right if it’s perfectly clean. The same is true of automotive subjects such as off-road vehicles and racing cars. Here’s the thing: like everything else the weathering has to be believable. Mud looks different than dirt looks different than tire dust, and where and how they accumulate and rub off and streak will depend on the vehicle and where and how it was used. Just slopping a mud-colored wash (or even real mud) over the model may look good at arm’s length, but when a judge is looking from inches away it just looks like sloppy paint. If you weather your model so heavily that you can’t see the basic assembly work, most judges are going to assume the weathering is there to hide poor workmanship underneath. Weathering for a contest model is truly one of those “less is more” situations (the folks who model tanks are really good at weathering if you’re looking for good advice).
- Detail work in the engine bay is a two edged blade: it can push a model up in a judge’s ranking, but if done poorly it can knock a model right out of the hunt. A common mistake is to try to reproduce every hose, fitting, clamp and wire, but it is very hard to to do that in a realistic way- especially for the thinner wires and hoses. Real rubber hoses and ignition wires bend and drape differently and have different surface finishes, and they should look different on your model. Judges will usually cut some slack for slightly out-of-scale detail parts, but sometimes it is better to leave a detail out than to reproduce it in an unrealistic way.
- Few auto modelers give a second thought to the interior, which makes it easy to impress the judges with just a little extra work. Adding printed gauge faces and photo-etched emblems and such to the dash will really stand out. Modeling two-tone upholstery is another way to liven up what is generally a dark featureless pit. This is really important for open-top cars.
A Bit of IPMS Philosophy
I’m going to wrap up with a bit of the IPMS judging philosophy that will hopefully guide your thinking about how to build for an IPMS contest. There are three important points:
- IPMS strongly believes that models represent real things, and the judge’s job is to decide how close to reality the model comes. That makes a lot of sense for military subjects, but less so for cars that are manufactured in large numbers and can be optioned and customized to suit each individual owner’s tastes. Instead of looking for absolute accuracy, automotive judges are looking for realism or believability: does the model look like a car that could have actually been built.
Most judges will not know if a ‘59 Impala ever came from the factory with pink paint, white interior and wire wheel covers, or know if someone actually modified their own Impala that way, but they know the exhaust manifolds were burnt iron and the tires were black rubber and all 4 of them were touching the ground. Judges are not going to check that you got the firing order right when you wired the distributor on your ‘59 Chevy, but they will ding you if the wires do not look like plug wires!
- IPMS judging emphasizes what can be seen, not the amount of work that might have been needed to achieve that result. You do not get extra credit for taking a crude 40 year old kit and turning it into a respectable model, or machining your own wheels out of blocks of aluminum. All things being equal, a modeler buying a better kit, or buying aftermarket wheels, will get the same consideration when it comes to judging even though they invest less time and effort to get those results.
- IPMS judging gives little consideration to “Wow Factor”. A hot-rod with a fade paint job and flames will have little advantage over a similar model with basic solid color paint. Your post apocalyptic Rolls Royce may be really cool, but the idea doesn't buy any consideration with the judges. The IPMS terminology for this sort of difference is “degree of difficulty” or “scope of effort”, and it only comes into play as a tie-breaker. The only real advantage for a flashier or otherwise more interesting model is that it will catch the judge’s attention and earn a closer look - the “wow” factor only helps if the entire model is well built.
A Final Bit of Advice and Perspective
If your main goal in entering an IPMS contest is to take home a plaque or medal, there is a simple formula that IPMS members figure out or have explained to them soon after their first contest:
- Target a category that is not especially popular. It’s hard to predict which categories will be the least popular, but you can generally guess (and stay away from) the categories that are really popular (the Street Stock and Hot Rod and Competition Vehicle categories are generally the biggest).
- Pick a subject that is simple; when it comes to cars avoid those with heavily sculpted body work and lots of chrome.
- Start with a modern, good quality kit. It's hard to go wrong with Tamiya or Hasegawa, but even a newly tooled Revell kit is much better than a 1960s AMT reissue.
- Build it nearly out of the box; don’t take chances with modifications or scratchbuilt details.
- Build the model as clean as you can. Go with a basic 1 color paint scheme (red or black tend to be the most striking colors). Pay attention to the gotchas listed above. Above all else, do not brush paint anything.
- Add just a bit of aftermarket bling to catch the judge’s eye. Limit yourself to a few parts that are a simple add-on or drop-in replacement for kit parts: PE badges or turned metal wheels.
- Repeat for another 2 or 3 categories.
If playing the odds isn’t your idea of fun, if you want to be the modeler who takes chances, builds the cool model and then takes home the big awards, the only thing you can do is work at eliminating your mistakes. The biggest problem is that after you’ve spent countless hours working on a model, you literally become blind to your mistakes (just like when you can’t find the ketchup in the refrigerator when it's right there on the shelf).
A good way to spot those mistakes is to shoot closeups with a digital camera and zoom in so the model appears twice life-size. Enlarging and isolating on a single feature can make the mistakes more noticeable. Volunteering to judge at your local IPMS contest is another good way to get plenty of experience looking critically at lots of models - both good and bad. After taking the judging plunge, many modelers say that is the best way to learn to build better models.
OK, I’ve run out of things to say for now. I will try to keep this article up-to-date with changes in IPMS rules and trends in the hobby. If you think I’ve left out something important, or you disagree with something I’ve written please leave a comment here. Thanks for reading!
If you got here from the Three Rivers IPMS webpage here is a quick link back: tripms.org