OOB is bullshit

While working on the HY2M Rick Dom Zwei I found myself needing a little break. For me there’s a kind of performance anxiety associated with scratch building. When I build parts I can do it pretty well, but it’s hard to dive in to a project like that and start working on parts. For that reason I decided to do a quick project involving an old favorite of mine: the HG Zaku from the 08th MS Team line. The kit has its flaws but it’s still the best-looking Zaku kit in 1:144. For this project I am trying to address the kit’s flaws quickly and without too much complication.

As with the Rick Dom II, this kit is an entry for the contest that’s now hosted on mechalounge. One trend with this contest that’s kind of disturbed me is that people will be working on some project, doing some fine work… But because they’re entering in the contest’s “Out-of-box” category they’re avoiding even the simplest fixes to their kits, to avoid getting pushed into the presumably stiffer competition of the “modified plastic” category. I hate to see that happen, so I’m calling you all out on this one: OOB is bullshit. If there’s something wrong with the kit you’re working on, and you can see it, and you can fix it, you should. With all the effort that goes into other aspects of the kit it’s silly not to fix a few simple things along the way.

One of my first big projects when I started building Gundam models was the HG Zaku from the 08th MS Team line. At the time that kit was one of just two choices for a modern 1:144 Zaku kit (the other being the low-end, but well-detailed First Grade Zaku.) I had wanted to build a Gundam and Zaku to celebrate the US release of the original Gundam anime. I completed the Gundam pretty quickly, but as I was starting to develop a real fondness for the Zaku, and as the HG Zaku was a more deeply flawed kit than the HGUC Gundam, the Zaku project became more complicated, including my first lit monoeye, joint covers, rejointing of the legs, and a bunch of enhanced detail, including a full cockpit based on the one seen in the 08th MS Team anime. I missed what would have been my first IPMS show as a result of staying up all night working on that Zaku, and I got as far as painting it, but I was too tired to get to the show. Later the model suffered various mishaps, particularly an incident with the paint stripping product “Easy Lift-Off” which caused several parts of the model to crack apart. Although that project must be considered a failure, I had a lot of fun with it and even though it was an early project I think the work I was doing with the kit was quite good.
Despite its flaws the kit was essentially the choice for a Zaku in 1:144 from its introduction in 1996 until the release of the HGUC version in 2002. In the US it was even recolored Char-red and released as part of the HGUC line. That said, the kit has a lot of flaws which were well-known to us in the hobby at the time – the weird-shaped shoulder armor, the exposed polycaps in the joints, the poorly-aligning parts, and the near-total lack of mobility in the legs due to the constricting ankle armor and skirt armor. The reason I nevertheless consider it the best-looking Zaku in 1:144 is because of its design. It is mostly based on the MG Zaku, whose design became the de-facto standard (retconned) look for the Zaku for more than a decade. Although the design isn’t entirely true to the design from the original anime, it’s a good extension of the Zaku’s design evolution from the MSV line of the 1980s, and I feel that it’s a better stand-in for the original Zaku than the OVA Zakus or the 21st century kits (HGUC Zaku, MG Zaku v2, and RG Zaku)

When I started on this build, the first thing I worked on was the legs. I knew that I would want to address the leg mobility issues. The legs on the stock kit really can do very little: the knee joint has reasonable poseability but it does no good since the hip and ankle joints don’t have clearance to move much at all. I’d dealt with the hip joint issue in my first HG Zaku build, and I’d had a lot of success in recent Zaku projects increasing the mobility of the ankles using a joint system similar to that used in kits like the MG Hi-Zack or HGUC Zaku I: the ankle joint is a fairly simple ball joint in the foot – but it can swing out of the foot via a hinge installed near the front of the foot, giving the ankle joint more clearance when it’s needed.

To give the hips more clearance, I cut the plastic opening for the ball joint wider to allow more range of motion at the hip, and to give the legs more room to move, I removed the original peg system holding the front skirt armor in place and mounted the skirts with springs to allow them to move more freely.

I also spent a bit of time to fix up the panels on the back of the legs: the panel parts peg into the spaces on the back of the leg sideways, but they don’t fit quite right… It’s as though they don’t slide in far enough, and so instead of rising above the surface of the leg, it’s more like the panels are kind of unnaturally offset sideways. I went for a very simple fix here, just trimmed the parts so they could slide in further. A more complete fix would involve a more serious effort to putty in the gaps and reshape the edges of the panels to make them look right

The next modification I did was to the shoulder joint: I cut out the original shoulder peg and added a simple polycap system to allow the shoulder to swing forward for two-handed weapon poses.

I mentioned before that the shape of the shoulder armor on this kit is classically considered one of its more annoying flaws… I corrected that back in my first HG Zaku build by cutting most of the shoulder armor away and replacing its curved dome with an epoxy-reinforced styrene part I’d formed around a spherical wooden ball. This time around I’ve decided to stick with the HG Zaku shoulder’s original, generally unpopular shape. Although this build is about fixing the HG Zaku’s flaws, it’s also about appreciating the HG Zaku more or less for what it is. So the only real modifications I’ve done to the shoulder armor were to sand down the middle spike to give it a more regular conical shape, and to carve out the recessed thruster vents, which were represented with blank rectangles on the original kit.

The presence of exposed polycaps was a common problem with the HG and non-grade kits of the mid-1990s: the exposed polycaps would not take paint well and betrayed the toyish nature of the model. It wasn’t until the HGUC line that kits started to regularly cover polycaps. In the case of the HG Zaku’s elbow joints, the exposed area around the elbow polycap is pretty conspicuous. As with my earlier HG Zaku project, I solved the problem by creating joint covers from styrene tubing, similar to the joint covers on the MG Zaku. This time around I didn’t add any additional detail to the joint covers, they’re just blank cylinders.

Various parts of the kit have some pretty serious parts-alignment issues. Sadly the MG Zaku suffers from this as well. To deal with it, I cut off the snap-fit pegs so I could align parts more freely, then I glued the assemblies together and sanded them smooth.

The upper arm swivel joint on this kit is not polycapped, it’s a plastic-on-plastic joint. Initially I planned to leave this as-is, however when I got to actually gluing things together I had trouble getting the right tension on that joint – it would either seize up or just go floppy. So I decided a quick polycap rejointing was in order. It’s an easy mod, but I always have trouble getting the alignment of the peg right. This time was no exception. The arm looks fine when the arm’s in a neutral pose, but when you turn it, gaps appear. The white disc at the bottom of the shoulder block helps to mitigate this: when the gap appears the disc shows through, so the gap is less conspicuous.

Like most Gundam kits, the HG Zaku’s hands are pretty crappy. They’re pretty boxy and instead of a handheld item being gripped by the fingers and pressed against the palm, the handheld item instead slots into an opening in the hand beneath the palm. That’s just weird, and cheap-looking. Normally I’d solve a problem like this with aftermarket hands, either B-Club stuff or Kotobukiya or whatever. This time I decided to go for kind of a minimalist route: hacking up the kit hands and rearranging them into something a little more hand-shaped. Basically I cut the thumbs and palms off, separating them from the fingers, and glued the palms in place at the opening where the hand grips a weapon, and reattached the thumbs, setting them at an angle. The result isn’t as good as aftermarket hands but it took very little time to do and I think the effect is reasonably good.

The shield also required some attention: the back side of the shield is hollow, so I filled the hollow space and added detail similar to that of the MG Zaku’s shield. I also replaced the kit shield’s simple peg-joint with a ball joint stuck into a sort of cylindrical mish-mash of option parts. With the way the ball joint is sunk into the shoulder block, it makes the connection between the shoulder and shield look more substantial than it would if it were just a ball-joint peg showing.

The main thrusters of the backpack received a bit of attention as well: on the stock thrusters the deepest recesses of the thruster bell are just a flat face with a little hole in the middle. I dealt with this on my old build by cutting a bit of styrene tubing to make little “inner nozzles”. I didn’t have any reasonably-sized tubing handy, so this time I used aftermarket parts to detail the inside of the thruster bells.

I feel that the head is always an important focal point of a mecha model: various other parts could be oddly-shaped or vaguely-detailed, but the head, the face is something the viewers connect with intuitively… So it’s always disappointing when kits have poor detail there. (Even the PG Zaku has lousy detail around the eye!) Monoeyes are almost always a problem, Bandai usually just gives us a flat visor and a sticker for the camera assembly itself. Whenever possible I prefer to make the monoeye lit, poseable, and detailed. If I can’t do all three I try for at least two. I’ve used some fairly convoluted, needlessly complicated methods of making a monoeye in the past (for instance, with my HGUC Zaku project I completed last year) – this time around the approach I’m taking is very simple, and very similar to what I did in my build in 2001. The Monoeye is supposed to be a big camera lens assembly that travels around the head on a system of rails. It’s hard to make it actually work like that, so the simple cop-out is to make the “rails” circular, instead of following the U-shaped contour of the eye visor, and have them rotate with the eye instead of remaining stationary. Realistically, the viewer isn’t going to be able to see much in there anyway… But the important thing is that there’s something to see.

To make the clear visor, I used my old Mattel Vacuform. I bought this back sometime in 2000 or 2001 for model work. It’s a hand-pumped toy vacuum-forming machine, made back in the days where you could put a small electric hot-plate into something and sell it in the toy aisle. If you’re thinking of doing any vacuum-forming yourself I’d really recommend just building a vacuum-forming machine rather than hunting down one of these things on ebay. But it has served me well over the years, and the fact that it’s so self-contained is pretty handy. I used the same machine when I made the visor for the HG Zaku project in 2001, of course, and with a similar set-up. The tough bit is that it’s very hard to get the vacuum-formed plastic to conform to the whole kit visor part. It does the top end fine, but toward the bottom end the plastic is being pulled sideways by surrounding plastic, and it tends to fold into vanes perpendicular to the surface of the part rather than settling right down. Fortunately, in the case of Zaku eye visors, a little trimming usually fixes it right up.

There’s a few other things I did that I’m not covering in any kind of depth here: for instance, you may have noticed that I replaced the leg and waist cables with beads-on-springs (“Kotobukiya Mobile Pipe”) – pretty standard stuff, really. The main thing I did differently this time around was I cut some of the beads to fit them around corners better. I’m not sure at this point if I’ll be replacing the head-cables with beads.

At this point the project is just about ready for primer – which no doubt will turn up a bunch of stuff I’ll have to fix before proceeding. But most of the major structural stuff is done – the joint mods as well as most of the seam work. It’s been a fun project so far – kind of nostalgic in a way since the HG Zaku project was such a big deal for me back in my early days in the hobby, and also just fun since I can approach this project in such a relaxed way. I’m looking forward to finishing it up.

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