Deep Thoughts

So You Want To Do Commission Build Models?

A few weeks ago, I’d posted a blog article titled “So You Want To Sell Your Built Models?“, focusing on the general selling of built model kits. That article discussed how I started keeping my shelves from stacking up too high with built models, and earned a little money in the meantime, by selling my work on Ebay.

In that article, I’m mentioned that commission build models were a beast of their own, and I’d address it in a later write up. 

It appears later is here. 😉

Of course, you may be asking yourself “so who does this guy think he is to talk about this?” Fair question. I’ve sold around 200 built model kits over the last decade, and about 1 in 4 has been on a commission basis. I make no claims about how good they are, as I figure with all the photos I spam post of my work, anyone can assess that. 🙂 I have had loads of experience doing it – and by experience I mean “lessons learned by falling down a lot.” So I hope I can pass on something useful if you’re considering selling your work on a commission basis.

Defining The Scope

By commission build models, I am referring to a client specifically asking a modeler if they can build XYZ kit for a certain priced. It’s not just building it and then seeing what price you can get for it, but rather a deliberate process of seeking to engage clients with your model building ability.

And my focus is not so much on the casual commission builder, though hopefully this can be helpful to them also. By casual commission builder, I am referring to the modeler who from time to time has a friend, relative, etc., who hears they build models, and asks if they can do something for them – and they’ll pay for it. While that is certainly commission building, it’s more of a rarity. The focus here will be for the modeler who is pursuing it almost as a business.

Am I Good Enough?

It’s hard to start talking about commission build models without addressing the notion of “are my models good enough“? Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer.

As a rule of thumb, most modelers are never as good as they think they are, or as bad as they think they are. Certainly we can overinflate what we do, or underinflate it, as the case may be. I think the real approach to take is to look at your own work and evaluate it not as you think it is, but how a buyer would think. Brutal objectivity works best.

While it is true that buyers’ tastes and demands will vary, if you’re going to make this a regular part of your modeling life, you’ve got to build a clientele. And that comes through quality work. How do you handle seam lines? How neat is your painting? How clean is your masking? How convincing is your weathering? When people see quality work, they tend to come back. Repeat clients are the best clients.

A simple way to evaluate your own work is to pick someone who is highly respected in a particular genre. If you’re into aircraft, look at the work of Brett Green, or Daniel Zamarbide. Armor? Adam Wilder and Mig Jimenez. Every genre has its notables. Look at your own work honestly. How does it stack up?

If you’re not up to their standard, that’s OK. It doesn’t mean your work is not sellable. But it does help you evaluate honestly if your work is at a level to “hang a shingle”, so to speak, and try to get commission build clients.

Once you identify your strengths and weaknesses, then use those to your advantage. I realized I was reasonably good at the basics, but not so great at the super detailed, breathtaking accuracy many are noted for. So I tried to market my work as “affordable, mostly out of the box.” I knew I was no Ferrari, but I could be a decent Ford truck or Honda mid-size. While I did always strive to make gains, I knew where my strengths were, and played to them.

And it worked. Commission builds began to come in. Accidentally at first. Someone saw my stuff on Ebay, and then messaged me saying “do you take commission work.” Once I replied in the affirmative, figuring “why not”, I was off and running. Of course, this led me to my next dilema.

Setting A Price

Selling work on Ebay is easy. You post your model, set a price as “buy now”, or as an auction, and wait. If people buy it, great. Either your work was good enough that they liked it, or the price was low enough to overlook the warts. (Being real here…) Or sometimes your work was really good, and you underpriced it. If it does not sell, your price is too high, either just compared to the market, or an overly inflated view of your own work. (Again… being real…)

But for a commission build, you get to set the price definitively. You get to account for all of the factors. The client gets the chance to say “yay” or “nay”. 

When I first started, I knew I was asking clients to take a risk on me. I had some work to show, but I wasn’t convinced my work was really worth buying. (Honestly… I still struggle with that.) So I wanted to set a price that would pay me fairly, yet recognize the risk being taken on the client’s part.

So I started with a simple notion – treat it like a business. In a previous job, I’d been responsible for a fair amount of equipment, services, and people. I had to track all costs, set prices to account for them, and seek to turn a profit. I applied the same theory to my commission sales. Account for all the costs, work in a reasonable profit margin, and get to a price. It is consistent, easy, and fair to everyone.

I broke it down into several areas:

Kit Cost– I always set prices based on the suggested retail price. This did several things for me. First, it allowed me to state in a line item breakdown a reasonable cost for a kit. The client could not charge me with gouging, simply because I used the MSRP. If the client said “I can get it cheaper”, I could say “great, I’ll knock that off the final price, send me the model.” At that point the cost of the kit was irrelevant.

BUT… if I could find it cheaper, that increased my margin. And I learned how to really find bargains.

Expendables– Paint, glue, putty, and all the other things we use cost money. And it’s not really practical (or fair, really) to charge a client full cost for each bottle of paint or tube of glue if you’re doing this long term. You’ll run into issues of being competitive with your pricing. I was fortunate in that I already built at high enough volume (25+ kits per year), that I knew the number- $8. Over the course of a year, I spent about $8 of supplies per model. So I made sure to factor that in for every commission build quote.

There may be exceptions. Sometimes a client would specify a particular brand or color of paint. If that was the case, and I knew the colors may not be used again, or were fairly expensive to begin with, I’d charge the full cost of that particular item in addition to the average. 

Also- expendables includes shipping supplies. Those must be accounted for too.

Aftermarket– Some clients asked for aftermarket items, either specifically calling for a part (Eduard’s resin Spitfire cockpit, for example), or in general (please add resin tires and exhausts). I treated these as I did kit cost, and passed on the suggested retail price. Again, this allowed a client the option of buying it on their own, or to customize the price by declining certain options.

And don’t forget decals- these fall under aftermarket.

Complexity- This is an area that can be very subjective. If I had not built particular kit already, I’d read build reports from others, and if possible, look at the sprues online. I could then evaluate if it was a simple, out-of-the-box build, or if a kit might be more difficult. A Tamiya kit with no aftermarket got no additional complexity charge. Drop fit resin in anything might get a few dollars – because rarely is anything drop fit. Kits from manufacturers that I knew had a reputation for issues always got a complexity charge of some amount. Over time, you miss out on a few, and other times, you add a bit too much. But it works out, especially as you gain experience. 

I even had a “Special Hobby” tax. Any kit from the company that produced Special Hobby, and I mean any kit, had at least a 50% add-on to the base cost. I’d learned by building them that “complexity” had to be accounted for.

Shipping– This is an area that can really get you, if you don’t plan ahead. Simply stating “shipping is always $20” can often lead to a decline in business, especially when the client gets the model and sees that you paid. But undervaluing shipping can eat into profit. I took a very simple approach. I purchased a scale, and made sure I knew exactly how much every model PLUS the box, tape, and packing weighed. I could then calculate the exact price. 

It didn’t take long before I knew that shipping a single engined WWII fighter to any place in the US would cost $x. The model may be different, but the overall weight was within a few ounces difference. However, in some cases, I had to do some more estimation to get a good price. And in a few cases, if the shipping weight was too difficult to determine until the model was built and packed, I always sold the work on a cost plus shipping basis. That way I could send the final invoice and include the full shipping.

And if the shipping I estimated was too high, I always gave a refund. It impresses clients – and helped get repeat business – when they see you refund a small amount that may have been inadvertently overcharged.

For more shipping tips, including the actual packing methods discussed, see this previous blog article under the Shipping The Model section.

Base Price– This can be the highly subjective part. All of the previous items are identifiable costs. The base price, however, is different.

It essentially boils down to determining how much of a profit you want to make. Price it too high and you may never get a job. Price it too low and you’ll be undervaluing your work. But it also doesn’t always work out that that deciding you want $15 an hour works either. Most models will take at least 30-40 hours. Telling a client that a 1/48 scale model will be $600 plus all the above costs is a serious no-go.

I approached it with a simple idea- how much do I want to make? For my first commision build, I decided I would like to make $100, after all costs. I wasn’t sure how well that would be received, but I went with it- and the client agreed to it. Now, friends told me “you’re selling your stuff for way too low!” I would ask them how much they sold their commission work for, and how they derived the cost, and they normally mumbled and shuffled off. A few gave me some good answers – and those tended to be experienced commission builders who had a large body of work, and could ask for more money.

Over time, as the work was in higher demand, I increased that base cost, and even had a pricing grid by scale and by number of engines. 

Other Costs– I also made sure to account for various fees. I used Paypal to invoice, so I always calculated their fee into the final price. People often told me “Oh, Paypal rips you off man!” I simply replied “not if you account for it…” Some people don’t like Paypal. There are other sources. But I found it was simple, easy, and worldwide. It didn’t force the client (or me!) to go through the hoops of a money transfer, and I never had to worry about bounced checks.

With all those costs centers factored in, I was able to quickly set pricing, and get back to clients with an estimate. Doing that, though, will bring you to one conclusion.

It Is A Business

That notion, I think, is the big hurdle. When I really began pursuing commission build work actively, I had to change how I built. “Hobby” became “part time business”. That may greatly impact your enjoyment of building models. It certainly did for me.

When I’ve talked to folks who have tried to do commission builds long term, I think the number one reason I’ve seen that they give up is because it will rob the hobby of its joy to a certain degree. At first, the idea of being paid to build seems attractive. Who wouldn’t want to do that? It’s like the NBA for modelers. 🙂 (Only in generally poor shape, and with little vertical leap ability.)

But the very fact that you must build makes the hobby take on a whole new face. Hours must be regularly set aside to work. My evenings from 6:00 to 8:00 became build time, every day. Weekends required a set of hours too. While most clients are gracious, eventually they want their model.

And that part can really be difficult. I eventually got to the point that though I had four or five commission models on the go at any given time, and deposits in on others, I began to question “is it worth the money?”

A Few Additional Points

  • I always asked for half up front, and invoiced half upon completion. No pay, no play.
  • I never haggled over price. While I may have offered to reduce costs by not going with a resin aftermarket set, or finding an alternative kit, I never haggled. I found that the hagglers were always, always, always the worst clients. They demanded more, expected more, and wanted to pay less. In fact, I realized that I started getting a better, more reliable, and simply more friendly customer base when I increased my prices. They understood the value of the work.
  • Sending progress photos all along the way really helped. I think clients appreciated seeing the various details along the way, and it let them see progress was being made.
  • Don’t take on anything you’re not willing to see through. This can be tough. I once had a client that offered me an insane amount of money for a model – BUT – he wanted it super detailed and accurate in every way conceivably possible. I finally had to decline it. I knew I could do the work, eventually. But it would have taken so much time, and diverted me from any other project, that I realized in the long run it simply was not worth doing – even at what seemed like an insane price.

Wrapping Up

Eventually, I decided to step away from commission build models. It got to the point that I was spending 40 hours in my day job, and then as many hours modeling. And while I still spend a lot of hours building models, doing the work I want to – and writing about it – is far more satisfying than doing work I don’t really want to. I still sell my work on Ebay, but I had to accept the fact that our income would suffer a bit.

I guess if I could offer any advice, after selling almost 50 commission pieces over a 5 year period, is that you must really evaluate how deep down the rabbit hole you really want to go. I let it spiral out of control, honestly. if I’d have stuck to doing one commission piece at a time, I’d probably still be doing it. But my family needed the money (still does), and it paid fairly decent. So I took on a lot. Too much really. To the point of almost walking away from the hobby entirely.

Hopefully my own experience can help modelers in their own commission build work. It can be rewarding. I met some great clients, and a few have become true friends, for which I am grateful.

But eventually, if you really pursue it, modeling will become more of a business, and less of a hobby. Choose wisely.

3 comments

  1. Excellent Article. I found it very relative to my model building experience both with Ebay Sales and Commissioned work. I often questioned some of my practices, especially pricing, but reading this article reinforced that I have made the correct choices. Your learning curve and experience mimics mine exactly. Something interesting I have found is that selling prices can vary for subject matter. Recently I have realized that Naval Vessels, if done well, can be sold at higher prices on average. I think this is b/c ship model displays have a long, well established history, and customer base. Sort of different customer base from those who may purchase a detailed model airplane. Think about how often one may come across a model ship on display in an office/den compared to a scale plastic airplane. People with Naval experience seem to be in the market more often for a ship they served in. Just a casual observation. I really undersold some ship models recently, even after setting the price higher then normal. People would contact me saying I would of paid x amount for it, which was way above my asking price. I have also been asked to make another of the same model for them with a higher price offered to do so. This has never happened with other subject matter.

    1. Thanks Paul! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

      I’ve noticed what you mention too – that certain genres offer better ROI. I have had a few folks ask me to do ships, but I have always turned those down. I’ve never done one, and I would not want to experiment on a paid job! 😀

      1. I was fortunate in the fact that I have had significant experience with most subject matters including: aircraft, naval, armor, auto, military. Actually military subject matter is my favorite but my 1st paid work was auto, completing several cars way before I was paid for military. Something I did to market my auto-work is I built a model for free of my friends muscle car. In return he brought this model car to all the car shows when he showed his classic cars. He would put my name and contact info on a flyer next to the display. It generated a good amount of work but all cars. Did not have a venue like this for my military models so needed to network a lot of model group pages, Ebay, etc.

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