From Wellington to the world: Wingnut Wings flying high

Wingnut Wings' little aeroplanes are finding success on a global scale.

New Zealand might not have much of an air force, but should we ever need to defend this triple star from the shafts of not strife and war but miniature plastic invaders, Wellington's Wingnut Wings, a world-beating Peter Jackson-owned company, is set to scramble to our defence.

You know Peter Jackson makes movies (duh). You might also know he has a company in Masterton making replica World War 1 planes (Red Baron-style Fokker Triplanes and the like). But what almost no-one in New Zealand seems to know, other than a select group of poorly presented middle-aged men with flecks of paint under their fingernails, is that Jackson owns and oversees a New Zealand company that creates the world’s best scale model aeroplanes.

You remember Airfix, right? If you’re old enough to remember the 1987 Rugby World Cup then you’re probably of a vintage to recall the thrill of spending Late Night Shopping (back when it was special enough to capitalise) deciding which plastic plane to add to your fleet that week. Then rushing home, smearing glue from one end of your bedroom to the other, painting your completed Spitfire before the glue was dry and topping it all off with badly applied British bullseyes, several decades before Ben Sherman made them cool again.

The kits of the day were the stuff of legend. The fiddly pencil-yellow Tiger Moth, with wings that never quite lined up with the even-fiddlier struts and braces that held everything together. The classic Spitfires and Messerschmitt 109s, perfect for suspending from the ceiling with cotton to perform breeze-propelled recreations of the Battle of Britain until their inevitable post-Guy Fawkes demise. The unfeasible and magnificent Fairey Rotodyne: half helicopter, half airliner, completely wonderful. Airfix built tens of thousands; the unfortunate and poorly named Fairey Aviation Company built just one, before scrapping it when no-one wanted to buy one.

Like many of the pre-PlayStation generation, this is the world Peter Jackson grew up in, spending countless Pukerua Bay evenings carefully snipping the parts from the frame (sprue, in modeling parlance), gluing, sanding, painting and admiring the finished product.

And for most of us, that’s as far as it would go, before putting away childish things and getting on with selling double glazing, reconciling accounts payable for the export division (Asia Pacific) or whatever it is grown-ups are supposed to do.

But most of us aren’t Peter Jackson, with a string of successful movies behind us and a bank balance that would make Scrooge McDuck’s money-swimming vault look like a Para Pool. So when Jackson wanted to reignite his love affair with model aeroplanes, he didn’t walk into the shop and buy one. He walked into the shop and bought the manager, and tasked him with creating a company to make the world’s best models.

Forty-two-year-old Wellingtonian Richard Alexander (like many people working in Peter Jackson’s companies, quite possibly) considers himself the world’s luckiest man. Five years ago he spent his nights making his own models, many of them award-winning, and his days behind the counter of Wellington’s Modelcrafts and Hobbies (and yes, I accidentally typed ‘Hobbits’ the first time) selling boxes of plastic pieces, paint, glue and other bits and bobs to Wellington’s mostly-male plastic modeling community to assemble after a hard day at the Ministry.

One of those customers was Peter Jackson. As well as buying unassembled kits from Alexander, he commissioned him to build and paint a few, before offering him the dream job: project coordinator for his then unnamed (and highly secret) model aeroplane company.

The idea behind the company is simple, Alexander says, and hasn’t changed since day one: share Peter’s passion for World War 1 aeroplanes by creating the best possible model kits of them.

The execution wasn’t quite as straightforward. Model aeroplane design and manufacture is a complicated business, and the moulding tools required are fiendishly precise. They’re expensive, too. My cherished copy of How To Go Plastic Modelling (1970 edition) put the cost back then at 10,000 Pounds Sterling to tool a single kit. Inflation-adjusted that would equal $240,000 today, and while the arrival of CAD, computer controlled milling and spark erosion (whatever that is) have driven the costs down, Alexander reckons you could still buy a nice car for the price of moulding a single Sopwith Camel, so getting the design wrong is costly.

Research is a huge challenge as well. Knocking out a blob of plastic in roughly the same shape as the Red Baron’s Fokker Triplane isn’t hard. Replicating a little-known experimental German fighter from 1918, with no surviving examples or colour photographs, is a little trickier.

Luckily, Alexander had a head start on the research, thanks to Peter’s other passion project, Masterton-based The Vintage Aviator. TVA is in the business of building full-sized World War 1 aeroplanes, so a lot of what they learn flows into the design of Alexander’s models. The process sometimes works both ways; Alexander’s network of researchers occasionally throws up a colour or marking reference that makes its way onto a full sized aeroplane.

Once Peter and Alexander’s team had agreed on the first four models (two British, two German) digital designers set to work to create 3D models of not just the completed aeroplanes, but the 200-odd parts that make them up. Initially, Wingnut employed 3D artists from the film side of the business, but replacing them with Massey University-trained 3D designers was one of the first changes Alexander made (the project was already under way when Peter plucked him from behind the counter). While movie designers focus on the overall shape and look of the model, thinking about what went on below the surface came more naturally the Massey-trained crew.

Meanwhile, another team concentrated on the aircraft’s colour schemes and individual histories. Unlike some low-end models, each of Wingnut’s kits depicts a specific aeroplane and comes with detailed information about its pilot, history, modifications and colour schemes. Wingnut contracts an artist specifically to paint profile views of each aircraft (each kit has up to five authentic colour choices) and another to paint the action shots for the kit boxes – any of which would be right at home on the cover of a Biggles book (except the ones with the burning RAF biplanes …). The decals (water-soluble marking stickers) were designed in New Zealand and screenprinted by a supplier in Italy.

Then, in mid-2009, the modeling world rubbed its eyes at the arrival out of nowhere (well, Miramar) of four of the best aircraft kits it had ever seen. Worldwide reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with everything from the engineering to the instruction manuals attracting torrents of praise. That a New Zealand company with zero experience had arrived fully formed, creating models far superior to the ones from companies that had been around since the 1950s had modeling conspiracy theorists (oh yes, there are such people) speculating Wingnut was merely buying and repackaging plastic from a superior manufacturer somewhere in China.

Those first reviews led to a steady flow, then flood, of worldwide sales. Most of Wingnut’s models ship to customers in North America, with Europe, Asia and Australia close behind. Wingnut only sells direct via its website, preferring to own the entire customer relationship rather than hand it over to distributors or retailers. While Alexander is cagey about sales figures, the business has grown every year, with about 50 models in various stages of development to follow the 15 already released.

From its beginnings as millionaire filmmaker’s passion project, Wingnut Wings has quickly become a world leader in its niche, employing 12 people in Miramar and generating a confidential, but healthy, flow of overseas earnings from bearded middle age men the world over.

“There’s no reason anyone would buy the world’s second best model aeroplanes,” Alexander says. “So we set out from day one to be the best.”

What we can learn from Wingnut Wings

The simple and cynical answer would be to make sure your owner is a squillionnaire that doesn’t need you to make a profit. Peter Jackson’s backing aside though, Wingnut Wings has gone from zero to world domination of its niche in no time at all. Here’s how they did it:

Start with a bang: Wingnut could have released a kit or two to test the water, or started in a smaller and more affordable scale. Instead, they launched with four large-scale kitsets and knocked the modeling world on its back.

Work with the best: Wingnut initially looked at tooling and moulding its models locally, but it quickly became clear that this would require huge capability leaps from local suppliers to meet the required quality standards. Instead, the company partnered with specialist toolmakers and moulders in China and Korea.

Keep focused: Wingnut only makes World War 1 models, and only in one scale. They don’t make ‘lite’ versions for beginners and have no plans to (in fact, future product lines include models with hundreds more parts for additional detail).

Use quality to grow your niche: Focusing on just one period (1914-1918), only aeroplanes (no tanks, boats or soldiers), and one particular scale (many modelers stick to just one) could have limited Wingnut’s market. But while launch customers were the expected World War 1 large-scale aircraft fans, Alexander says this very quickly grew as word of the kits’ quality spread. So now Wingnut sells its aeroplane kits to people who usually only made tanks, or preferred World War 2 or modern subjects, or even never made model kits at all.

Aim high but set the bar low: Alexander is acutely aware that as an experienced and awarded modeler he’s not typical of the potential Wingnut customer. So when assembling prototype ‘test shots’ of pre-release kits he’s conscious of not letting his experience mask any inherent defects or difficulties in the kits, or ambiguities in the instruction manuals. For that reason Wingnut also has the digital modelers (most of them with no background in plastic modeling) put the kits together to see how they go.

Give credit: Uniquely among plastic model kits (and pretty much anything else in the hobby and toy business), Wingnut Wings kits include credits for the people who worked on them, along with brief biographies. Alexander says this film-style idea came straight from Peter and gives the Wingnut team a feeling of ownership, and their customers a more personal connection than they’d have with a faceless corporate.

Model aeroplane 101

While Wingnut Wings kits are near the top of the tree in terms of complexity and accuracy, the way they fit together is much the same as that $5 Spitfire you might buy your nephew for Christmas.

Most plastic models are built to a standard scale. Wingnut Wings uses 1/32 – one of the larger scales – so something a centimetre long on the model is equivalent to 32cm on the real plane. (The scales –  1/144, 1/72, 1/48 and 1/24 being the other popular ones – predate metrics, hence the oddball numbers.) A finished Wingnut model is about 25cm long, depending on the original plane.

Opening the A3-sized box, you don’t see much resembling a plane. Instead, there are four or five flat frames of moulded plastic parts, ready to cut off and glue together. Top-end kits also include a frame or two of thin brass parts for details too fine for plastic to reproduce.

After assembly and painting (with a compressor-powered airbrush if you’re serious) final details (national markings and so on) are applied with printed decals – essentially super-thin stickers that you place in water to remove from their backing sheets.

How long a kit takes to assemble depends as much on the effort you want to go to as the kit itself. Simple numbers from manufacturers like the recently reborn Airfix or newcomer Hobby Boss can go together in a couple of evenings. A serious hobbyist looking to turn a Wingnut Wings kit into an award winner can take months.

Cost varies too. You can pick up a basic kit for under $10. (Check first though that it’s not a rereleased dog from the 1960s – unless that’s what you’re after.) The top of the line kits, mainly from Asian manufacturers, will set you back up to $300, and Wingnut kits sit somewhere in the middle at $65US and up. Add an airbrush and compressor ($400, say) paints, glue and tools ($50-$200) and you’ve got a hobby that can take you well out of the pocket money bracket. But when a kit can take months to complete, the ROI starts looking pretty positive.