Playing with Fire

with Mike Adams

By Michael J. Legeros


This month, the subject is "kit bashing."  Our guest is collector and custom modeler extraordinaire, Mike Adams.

Mike L: Mike or Michael?

Mike A: Call me Mike A. or Mikey for this column, so readers don't get confused. Or just KB for Kit Butcher.

ML: Mike A. or Mikey, what is kit bashing?

MA: Kit bashing is basically customization of an already released kit or model. It can range from a simple "wipe," where decals are removed and replaced, to an elaborate "cut and paste" job where two or more models are combined into a third. The latter, which can include scratch-built parts and custom decals, is just one level down from true "scratch-building." In that case, the majority of the model is hand-fabricated and hand-built. Some of the most elaborate scratch builds that I have seen are virtually 100% fabricated, with only the steering wheel and tires being "store bought." And I know some folks that even cast their own wheels!

ML: How hard is kit bashing?

MA: Kit bashing can be as easy or as hard as you make it. Like I said above, it ranges from simple "decal jobs" to elaborate multi-piece projects. I started out as a plastic model kit builder in my youth, and enjoyed adding "custom touches" or combining two or more kits into one. I returned to the hobby about seven or eight years ago and started kit bashing fire apparatus about ten minutes after buying my first Code 3. Now, I'm more of a kit basher and custom-builder than a collector. I have roughly 500 fire pieces in my collection, but consider it all raw material for kit bashing.

ML: What does someone need to begin kit bashing?

MA: Imagination, patience, a good eye, patience, a steady hand, patience, a desire to learn new techniques, and patience. Did I mention patience? A background in model kit building helps but isn't necessary. An engineering degree may be a handicap.

ML: And what tools are required?

MA: The basic tools include a cordless drill and bit assortment; a Dremel-type tool with accessories; tweezers, clamps, and small pliers; files and extra-fine sandpaper; X-ACTO knives; small and medium-sized screwdrivers; scissors of several types; masking and painting tape; paint brushes; old toothbrushes; paint, of course, both canned and bottled; stripers for metal and for plastic; rulers, both 6- and 12-inch; various used dental tools; rags, towels, tissues, and Q-Tips; various adhesives, e.g. epoxy, plastic cement, white glue, etc.; and decal setting solutions. And that's just a start! For a far more comprehensive list, check out Hot World Customs.  The tool section alone could be an entire second column!

ML: How much does kit bashing cost?

MA: Cost is generally a function of how many tools I want and need and the expense I'm willing to incur for "blanks." That is, vehicles to be kit bashed, such as a Castle Shannon Pierce Dash platform that I once converted into a Mesa, Arizona Pierce Quantum aerial tower. I probably have $14,000 in vehicles and $2,000 in  tools, not to mention a ton of parts and a file drawer full of decals. But I didn't start that way! Give me a bottle of non-acetone fingernail polish remover, a soft cloth, a bowl for soaking decals, a pair of tweezers for applying decals, and I'm ready to kit bash. Generally, a person should start out slow and simple and gradually work up to difficult projects, buying tools and supplies as needed. Not everyone needs a five-gallon bath of lacquer thinner!

ML: What happens when you, uh, mess up?

MA: When I make a boo-boo or screw up a paint job or decals or details, the only thing to do is start over. I've often said that every project of mine has been done twice to get one good model. Small details can be fixed or altered, but I've found that fixing a small mistake results in a bigger mess and larger mistake. It's best just to start over, particularly with painting or decaling. It saves time in the long run and you get better results on the second or third time around.

ML: Do people sell kit bashed models?

MA: Yes, including Yours Truly. A quick eBay search of "Code 3 FDNY" reveals a number of kit bashes-- some good, some not so good; some fairly accurate and some pure imagination. And that's just a drop in the bucket. On my end, I'm presently working on about a half-dozen separate projects commissioned by other collectors. There, accuracy is all-important and can make the modeling a real challenge. When buying a kit bashed rig on eBay, check out the seller's feedback. Also do a little research on the piece you are looking to buy. Too often, you might end up with a wildly speculative pumper or ladder that never existed or never will exist. Also examine the model photos. Some departments, like FDNY, can be easy kit bashes because they all use the same specific colors and same-type lettering and striping. There are variations in the fonts used for numbering, though, so check before buying!

ML: How long did this FDNY Ferrara conversion take?

MA: Not as long as you might think. The body was painted and decaled long before the cab, which had to be lowered.  I actually re-did it twice before I was satisfied. I've done a total of four Ferrara cabs including one extended cab, but the first was the toughest. It took about three weeks total and most of the time was spent waiting for the body filler to dry enough so I could begin sanding.

ML: What does Code 3 think of kit bashing?

MA: I get the sense that Code 3 is tolerating kit bashing where they once ignored it. I am very careful to never call any of my kit bashes a "Code 3," although I may mention that it's made from a Code 3 product. To be honest, the number of fire apparatus kit bashers is quite small when compared to the number of Code 3 collectors. Nor do I think that Code 3 will ever enter the market of selling parts for kit bashing, though there's certainly a huge market out there for small parts for repairs. But I look at it this way: every Code 3 model that I destroy only makes your item more rare! LOL!

ML: Are there such things as... counterfeit Code 3 kit bashes?

MA: Yes. I've never done one, but it can and has been done. Especially with the proliferation of after-market decals, so collectors should be careful! Caveat emptor or something like that. A couple of years ago I did an FDNY tiller for a friend, but only with numbers that had not been used by Code 3. He was still delighted. And two years ago I received my only negative eBay feedback on a kit bashed Code 3, a model of a single-cab, single rear-axle Seagrave rescue lettered for LA City R-39. The buyer said it was only a "cut-up Code 3." Well, duh!

ML: Where do you get parts?

MA: Parts come from a variety of sources, starting with your neighborhood toy store. You can always tell the kit bashers because they'll buy a model just for the wheels! Many of my parts come from Code 3 items that I bought cheap, either damaged or without the packaging. Loose, if you will. K*B Toy outlet stores have proven to be a gold mine for spare parts, as well. At toy stores, an investment of $2 yields enough molded plastic tarp to do a dozen hose bed covers. Everything is a parts source, from toy stores to hardware stores. Big Lots had a really cheesy Mack quint for $4.99, but the parts were perfect for 1/32 or 1/43 scale. The bucket alone was worth the $5. Look everywhere!

ML: What projects are you proudest of?

MA: I am proudest of whatever I did last! Kidding aside, my 1/35 scale Oshkosh TFFT is one. In fact, I just spent $7 on a set of 1/35 scale military accessories to detail it some more. And a tank trailer is in the plans. My other choice is a 1/64 scale Chicago Truck 17, a Mack center-mount 100' ladder from the sixties. It is the ugliest rig I have ever done and one of my favorites. What a pain to build! I had to redo the box completely and find a way to remount the ladder. It started out as a Patriot ladder and then I replaced the cab with a Mack CF. Look for yourself! That ladder overhang is a real beauty.

ML: Will you return for a future column?

MA: If we survive the heat from this one, I'll be back.

Mike Adams can be contacted at  He welcomes your questions. Mike Legeros can be contacted here.  He's not very good at kit bashing.

A version of this column originally appeared at Code 3 Collectibles.


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Copyright 2017 by Michael J. Legeros