An Interview with Vagabonds Member Roy Sutherland
By Michael Scott with Marty Sanford

In June 2010, Marty Sanford and I drove to Fremont, CA to interview Roy Sutherland, author, modeler and owner of Barracuda Studios.

We are here to talk about models with Roy Sutherland at his home which is also the vast manufacturing empire of Barracuda Studios, which we can see behind us here as we speak.
So, Hi, Roy.
You’ve read the interview I did with Brett Green. I want to keep this one as informal as that. I asked Marty to come along to provide some balance and to ask a few questions of his own, so I’ll lead off with letting Marty take the lead.

Marty: Barracuda studios has been turning out a number of different lines and products lately, can you talk a little bit about what are the current, and future releases - what are you working on now, and generally how are things going?

Roy: Well, after a kind of slow period things are generally picking up. Right now I am working on a batch of new releases to support the (then) new Tamiya Spitfire Mk IX kit and the forthcoming Mk. 8 (VIII). It is pretty universally accepted that this is one of the finest aircraft model kits made. And, in talking to people, some expressed the idea that this kit needed no help, especially in the area of corrections. This is true. This is an extremely well researched and produced kit. There are few accuracy errors, and what there are fairly minor.
[Addendum: since these products are out, I will include a brief list of them for reader’s reference and note they are available.]
But I went at it looking at it like this a gorgeous kit and anybody can build this out of the box into a nice replica. What can I do to help people make it their own, to “take it to eleven”, as it were, to reference Spinal Tap? The obvious thing was the cockpit door which everybody acknowledged. Tamiya molded it with the crowbar in situ and also had a number of knockout pins on the inside of the door which are difficult to deal with. The more I looked at it, being a huge Spitfire nut, I looked for what else could be done. So I started doing things. Most of the product line has been made for me - I make parts mostly for me. If other people want to buy them, that’s great. It may seem a little self-centered but I have high standards, so I think, what would I like to see, what would I like to make better in this kit, and for the most part it’s work out, with a few notable exceptions.
I did some cockpit upgrade parts. I did the wheels in resin, the four and five slot wheels. They are beautiful in the kit but they have the rubber tires which tend to attract every particle of dust in the room. You can’t paint them and they have a molded in seam line which is very difficult to remove, so I molded them into resin and added some additional details such as castellations in the axle nuts and things like that. The gun covers are very nice, but look like they were based on the Eduard kit which is incorrect, so I’ve corrected those. I have a number of other sets in development.
I am also bringing back some of the old Cooper Details stuff. For those of you who don’t know, Barracudacast is Cooper Details reborn. I stopped doing Cooper Details about 2001 when I got into the movie business and my life moved on. Now it’s back and I have a lot of new stuff planned as well.

Marty: How are things going economically with Barracuda studios.

Roy: It’s been a rough year but seems to be turning the corner with all the new stuff. I’ve got fourteen new sets that will be released in the next couple of weeks. In addition to the Spitfire stuff, I have Sea Fury and Firefly parts. They’ll all be under the new Barracudacast label. Plus I have six new decals sheets, they are all P-40s in three scales which will be coming out in three weeks or so. So things are definitely looking up.

Marty: With your Cooper Details experience you have a lot of experience in the cottage industry relative to scale models. What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned along the way about the business and the hobby?

Roy: Find another area of work. If you are looking to make money this is not a great place to do it.

Michael: So, the term “cash cow” is really not applicable?

Roy: Yeah...

Marty: Although, the number of women that are attracted to you in this industry more than makes up for that... (smart-assed sarcasm) Laughter...

Roy: The one thing I can say about the cottage industry is, be prepared to work. A lot of people go into it with the idea of, "I like the hobby, I know what people like and are going to buy so I’ll work a couple of hours a week and make a ton of money." That ain’t the way it works. You tend to work sixty to seventy hours a week and you have to do everything. Barracuda Studios is a one-man operation. I have subcontractors but everything happens because I have to keep constantly driving the ship. Or everything comes to a halt. From order processing, to website content, keeping up with the blog, designing packaging, packaging, dealing with vendors, delivery, shipping.
The hardest thing to do is find time to design new products. To sit down and do pattern work, to do the research necessary for a new book or new decals because there is always something else that needs to be done.

Michael: I think that most people don’t realize that it’s not just a cottage industry, but it is an entire business. Your modeling interest, your design interest, is only a small part of a whole, which is running, maintaining and managing an entire business.

Roy: Right. Some days, the entire day is taken up just communicating with people. I get a lot of help, research-wise with people, I’m constantly chasing down new leads from people and you have to keep up with them, and always remember to say “thank you.” That’s one of the most important things about business is to always tell people “thank you”. You forget about that and they are gone.
Some days I spend most of the time dealing with email. You open it up in the morning and see all those unanswered emails and think, I’m going to be here the rest of the day.
But it’s also a lot of fun. Working on the books and new decals I am doing a lot of research into new information. Aftermarket decals have been going strong for decades, since the ‘60s I think. To be successful you have to really dig. You can’t just keep doing the same 109s, for example, or Big Beautiful Doll. People want new and different. The internet has made it much more accessible but it is the finding of the information out there that is tough, then you have to fill in the hole and gaps: serial numbers, crew names, stuff like that. It takes a lot of work.

Michael: Would you say the internet has gone a long way towards educating your potential customers in terms of “I want new things, different things, more unique things”

Roy: I think the internet has been an enormous change in the hobby and everything we do. It’s revolutionized the world. I was interested to read that when they looked at futurists’ predictions, a lot of things had come true, but not one person had foreseen the internet or information explosion and that’s been the biggest thing.
Now when people go on the internet and search for things like plastic models, you hit on sites like Hyperscale, ARC, or one of the sites like Modeling Madness or something. It’s a gateway to a vast pool of information. You can go from beginner modeler to expert in a matter of months. I’ve seen people whose very first model was amateurish, but within two or three months they produce just heart-stopping models.

Marty: Do you care to comment on any future releases, sneak peeks, or anything like that from Barracuda Studios?

Roy: I have a project I’m working on with two friends, a new book, it will be called Hell Hawks, a history of the 365th fighter group in Europe in WWII. It was a P-47 ground attack unit in the Ninth Air Force, formed in April of ’44. Their first major involvement was with the Normandy invasion, through Falaise Gap, Battle of the Bulge. It is a poorly documented unit from a modeling standpoint. The project started with Don Barnes, who read a book called Hell Hawks and wanted to build an airplane from this group. He found out that there had only been one airplane from this entire group that had been documented, put on a decal sheet which was Coffee’s Pot. He started researching and hooking up with surviving members of the group. The book has turned into this huge project. It will have at least eighty authenticated full color profiles from the squadron. The book will be all color, with many never before seen profiles per page backed by full stories of the pilots and aircraft, complete with nose art.
The other thing new coming is a Spitfire Mk. VIII sheet which I hope to have out in the next couple of weeks, hopefully to coincide with Tamiya’s release of the new 1/32 Spitfire Mk. VIII. I have heard rumors that Tamiya will be releasing the new Spitfires in 1/48 scale as well.
Hey, Marty is crossing his fingers... If they are really smart, Tamiya will release it in 1/72 as well.
Marty crosses additional fingers.

Marty: How did you start off in modeling?
Roy: It goes back to England and World War Two and my dad. He was an avid builder and he, and his friends, used to cycle around the English country side on the weekends and in the summers. They would go up to the air bases and peek through the fences, and sometimes spend the whole day. He took notes, recorded serial numbers for example. When they could get on the bases, like during air shows, he would take more elaborate color notes. He was a talented model builder, and during the Battle of Britain he and a friend put on a display at the local library and raised money for the Spitfire Fund.
As soon as he was old enough, he joined the RAF and ended up flying Lancs with [the] 1654 Heavy Conversion Unit. He got back into modeling in the 1960 and built Frog kits, early Revell and Airfix. He kept a box of them up in the attic and I remember even as a little kid staring at them and pawing through it. I remember when I was about six staring over the edge of the table and Dad asked if I wanted to build a model. I said, “Yeah!”. I remember it was a Hawk Skyray.
My Dad painted his models with LiquiTex acrylics. He would thin the paint to where it was like water and he would brush the coats on, sometimes ten or fifteen coats, and the results were beautiful. He would hand-paint most of the insignia because back in ’62 or ’63 there weren’t any after-market decals and the kit’s were terrible. He also did some conversions. I got the bug, and it really clicked with me.

Michael: Has there been a time when you have taken a break from modeling, building models, reading about models? Done something else?

Roy: No. I don’t think I have ever taken a break from it. There have been times when I haven’t done much but it has always been on my desk or I’ve been messing with stuff. It has been over forty years now. I am one of the few people I know who never took a break from it. I was in a rock band and I was playing guitar, but I always kept it going. Through my music, marriage, girlfriends...
Some people say that modeling is relaxing, but for me, it has never been relaxing, it is more of a drive or an itch or an irritation that has to be addressed. I’ve never been able to do it like, ah.. I’ll put something together over the weekend.

Michael: Have you ever reached your “pretty close to perfect model”?

Roy: I’m not one of those who is never satisfied with my work. When I do something in which I’ve put a lot of work into, I’m usually pretty happy with it. I can accept it for what it is. Hopefully you get better as you go.

Michael: Marty, you get better as you go along. We used to be about even, now he kicks my ass all the time.

Roy: Yeah, Marty has really blossomed over the last few years.

Michael: He made a statement that he had spent so many years learning his craft that now it was beginning to pay off. Now, when you both look at a nice model you have made, is the first thing you see all those screw-ups you’ve made?

Roy: No. In fact for a long time I did not have my display case set up because of the Venturi effect that sucks dust inside it. I finally have that set up here. I look at my model case maybe a couple of times a week and I mostly get pleasure out of it. I don’t remember every detail of the build. I look at them as finished products. I have thrown models away because of attrition - broken wheels etc. I did get rid of a lot of models when I moved out here from the East Coast because I didn’t want to move them.

Marty: Yes, there are some that I am really satisfied with, but with others there is always the goof I see even if no one else does.

Roy: There is a caveat. If the kit itself is not accurate, like in shape, I don’t like them. I’m happy with the work I did with them, but I am not happy that I didn’t fix those problems at the time. For me, accuracy is such an important aspect of the look of a model that if that doesn’t look right, then nothing else matters.

Marty: Like the shape of the model?

Roy: Yes, like for a Spitfire to look chunky is a cardinal sin. That’s why I can’t stand the Academy XIV. It looks like a pregnant house cat to me.

Marty: You are known as quite a fan of the Spitfire. Where did your fascination and appreciation of that particular airplane come from?

Roy: I am not really sure on that. Probably from books I had as a child. Sometimes for me it is a matter of a particular color or scheme or specific photo. That Spitfire VII I built for the ADH magazine is an itch I wanted to scratch for thirty years. I had always wanted to build it. That single photo contributed to my love of the Spitfire.

Marty: Do you have a definition of what is sometimes called a Spitfire “boffin” as we sometimes read about on Hyperscale?

Roy: Nothing complimentary (laughs). This hobby is so many things to so many people. People like to think I am an expert on the Spitfire, but if you asked me specific things about the Spitfire like dates, engine types, mods by number, I couldn’t tell you. I can tell you at a glance if the shape is accurate. To me the shape is so critical. I like to get the details right. Like when I started work on the Mk. VII, I really didn’t know much about the aircraft. But I learned a lot while working on the project.
Now, about Spitfire boffins. I know guys who know serial batches, and manufacturers, and honestly, I don’t know and don’t care. To me, the structure is the same. I don’t even care so much about the history. I love the details. I don’t like models that are completely opened up, but I like to know how they are made.

Marty: Regarding that model you built for the ADH Publications book, can you tell us a bit about your experiences in speed building relative to that particular kit?

Roy: Having been a professional model maker since 1989, speed building has been an integral part of model making. To me, there are two completely different types of model making. There is professional model making and then there is the type I do for myself. I can crank out a complete, well built and completely painted model within two or three days. There are techniques that enable you to build faster. But when I model for myself I can obsess over things like tiny little panel scribing, something I might have to do three or four times because it is not completely straight. Stuff that really does not matter, that I might not even remember a few years later but seemed important at the time.
Speed building is a necessity if you want to stay in the professional model building business. Paints are the most critical thing when you are speed building. You don’t have time for enamels to dry. You pretty much use acrylics and clear coats of rattle can lacquers because they dry quickly. In my job at 21st Century Toys I had literally hundreds of paint masters produced in armor and aircraft and I couldn’t do them all myself. I did maybe 150, but there were literally hundreds of other masters that were done. I had a number of friends approach me saying they wanted to do paint masters and I quickly found out that there are certain people who can do it, and others that can’t. Some guys can turn out two models in a week, and others you call them up and ask if the model is done yet, and they have barely started. Not everybody can do it.

Marty: What brands of paint do you favor?

Roy: (Laughs) I am a big Tamiya proponent. I didn’t like it at all when I started. I used to paint with the little Pactra military range. They were o.k., I liked some of the colors but some were off and I didn’t like the drying times, which were forever. Later I messed around with Tamiya. None of the colors are useful out of the box bottle except for black and white. Their yellow-green and light blues are pretty good out of the bottle, but most other colors need a lot of mixing. Once I got through the mixing part I found they spray beautifully, the drying time is just amazing and you get a lot of paint in the bottle. Even if it dries up you can bring it back with alcohol. It might take a couple of days, but it will come back.
Also, I am a big proponent of Future for clear coats. Some people don’t like Tamiya paints because they say it scratches easily. Which is absolutely true, until you overcoat it with Future. Then it becomes bullet-proof and sand-able. I don’t see too many down sides with Tamiya.

Marty: When you had the Cooper Details website, on it was a dissertation on free-handing RAF camouflage by airbrush. Will your new blog or website have that republished as some point?
[After a discussion about websites, his in specific, Roy goes on to discuss painting RAF Camouflage]

Roy: I plan to republish it, and I’m also going to rewrite that article so it is much more in-depth and based on the focus that nearly all RAF aircraft in WWII were painted freehand with fairly tight soft edges. I have studied literally thousands of photographs, none of which show RAF aircraft being painted with the use of rubber mats.

Marty: You’ve also ventured into figure painting. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Roy: I am extremely lucky that Mike Good [the noted figure sculptor] is a long time friend of mine and one of the best all time figure painters around. He gave me a number of pointers, the most important is to get a good paint brush. The Winsor-Newton Series 7 brush is one of the most amazing tools in the world of modeling, if you ask me. I buy them in twos and threes for about $8 and when one wears out I go to another. They are sable brushes, hand-stacked and hold the point beautifully. I have used other brushes and they are a pale imitation of what Winsor-Newton’s are.
Another thing he taught me is to use Pactra
(Note: ask Roy if what he meant was “Testors’ in the little square glass bottles) paint in the little glass bottle. Basically, four colors: tan, which is almost a perfect skin color for the average European male, and rubber, rust and white. I have tried it and, although I am an amateur at figure painting, I was pleased at the way they came out. I have never used oils. Most of the uniform painting is done with Polyscale paints.
It’s important to matte-coat your figures dead flat. Nothing kills realism more on figures than the slightest shine.

Marty: Can you share some of your thoughts on IPMS and judging at IPMS shows.

Michael: There goes one of my questions...

Roy: How many days do you have?

Marty: So, you are a member of IPMS?

Roy: Yes, and I have been since 1983. I am a big proponent of IPMS. I think it is the only organization that has ever given modelers an organized voice with the manufacturers. I would like to think they have made big inroads into letting the manufacturers know what the modelers want. I think they were responsible for getting the manufacturers to produce recessed panel lines on models. If you take just the tooling problems of recessed panel lines you have to consider that it is expensive and a huge pain in the neck. On the tool, that panel line stands up as a tiny ridge. It is very difficult to get smooth areas around that ridge. It requires a lot of hand sanding. And the panel ridge is easily damaged. It adds significant cost to producing the moulds. I’ve heard that producing engraved panel line models increased the cost of the kit by as much as 20%. But the modelers spoke with a unified voice that this is what they wanted.
Revell and Monogram were the last hold outs, thinking the modelers don’t really care. Eventually they lost so much market share, they had to realize the Japanese had it right and they didn’t. Quality sells.

Marty: Do you have a current main IPMS chapter you are affiliated with.

Roy: Yes, I attend meetings at my professed home chapter, the Fremont Hornets but I am also lucky to have a chapter in Milpitas, the Silicon Valley Scale Modelers, which is in the next town over. I live about three minutes from the Fremont meeting site. It takes about twenty minutes to drive to Milpitas. There is a lot of cross-over between the two clubs.
[A general discussion of modeling clubs uncovered a lot of agreement about the often strange nature of club culture and interaction, leading to this observation.]

Roy: The interesting thing about clubs is that it introduces that social element that is so lacking in the very solitary pastime of building plastic models. A lot of people don’t get it. They say they have no interest in talking with people. But I would say the learning curve for people who show up and don’t know much about the hobby is exponential, they just learn at a huge rate being around people who are good modelers and know a lot about the hobby.
I have had a lot of good experiences and made a lot of friends by going to IPMS meetings. I think the modelers who don’t go are missing out.

Marty: Do you have any comments on web forum decorum?

Roy: The faceless nature of this kind of communication allows people to behave in ways one would never do in public. That said, the behavior on most of the web sites is pretty good.

Marty: They seem to be self-policing.

Roy: Yes, usually the trolls are shouted down and chased away in pretty quick order. If the webmaster is on his game he will keep this in check. It’s kind of like life, there will always be certain people who don’t want to get along.
The real positive side is the instantaneous feedback. Some vendors complain about this. But you release a product that‘s not good, and it’s only a number of hours before the word is spreading that this is not good. It can hurt a product, but, hopefully, it can also encourage manufactures to do their research. Get it right. And if you do screw up, you can get on the boards and say ‘we are going to fix this’.
If there is one thing I would change about the groups it would be one group trying to force their viewpoints on others. Like the group who doesn’t like discussions of accuracy trying to shut others down by complaining, “just shut up and build it”. If there is a discussion on line about accuracy and you are a guy who doesn’t care about accuracy then, don’t read that post and that thread. If guys are discussing how many rivets are on a particular panel, they are doing that because it is interesting to them. Who are you to come in and say, “who cares? Just build the model.” That contributes nothing and demeans those who are talking about it.

Marty: What I find most useful, like being in IPMS, when you are researching something, and you get stuck, you can ask specific questions like “what is the interior cockpit colors in B-25s, or how did you assemble this particular thing”, you can find someone who is willing to share information about this kind of information.

Roy: Right. You have instant access to people like Lynn Ritger, Jerry Crandall, or Dave Wadman, Dana Bell, who works at the Smithsonian. Sometimes, these guys don’t know and with discussions like these, sometimes new things are discovered. The knowledge is pushed forward.

Michael: A while back, you used the term, “quality sells”. There is a lot of forum discussion about the cost of models and associated items and the increased, or perceived quality of those items. A lot of discussion is around the idea that the industry is going to price themselves out of the market. What are your thoughts about this?

Roy: I think if you look at the history of manufacturing in the hobby, the guys who put out not-great kits are not around anymore. The Tamiyas, Hasegawas, Dragons and similar manufacturers are still around and have been for a long time. As the world gets more sophisticated the amount of information around, putting out inferior products doesn’t buy you time any more. The word gets around too quickly and it can really put a damper on sales. Even those who don’t go online, go into the hobby shops and overhear the conversations of those who do. It pays for the manufacturer to get it right because it will come back to haunt you if you don’t.

Michael: I want to get back to judging, always a hot and interesting topic. My take on it is that if you are going to hold a contest based upon a certain set of rules, like the IPMS rules, the contestants should take the trouble to understand the rubric under which they are going to compete, and the judges should operate under the same set of rules. Some people think that if you show up with a model, you should get some sort of recognition. Having judged at local and IPMS Nationals competitions, what are your thoughts about this?

Roy: My advice is that if you don’t want to compete, then don’t. But don’t tear apart the people who do want to compete. It’s a contest. You are bringing art, or craft, to a contest. People say you can’t quantify art, but you can. There is a standard set of requirements such as panel lines, seams, alignment, which can be quantified.
Judging is a thankless volunteer job. You give up anywhere from an hour or two at local shows, to an entire evening at the Nationals to spend time trying to make the process work and come up with results that are as even-handed and fair as they could be. It’s not a perfect process, but IPMS rules is by far the best system that I have seen. There are other systems like Gold, Silver, Bronze which seems on the face of it vastly more fair judging system but is in actuality much more difficult to be fair with it. You have to judge every model on its own merits, which in a utopia is wonderful, but the reality is when you have six hundred models on the table and you have to judge every model in the time allotted, you begin with lofty goals but by the time you reach the tenth model, your standards are slipping and you are wasted. You can’t judge all the models with one team, so you end up with multiple teams. One team may be totally anal, and another, well they just like everything. And so team A will give a Bronze medal to a model that team B would have given a Gold. That's not fair.
The good thing about 1,2,3 placement judging is each model is judged against the models in its category, so the best model in that category wins if they follow the criteria. I hear this a lot, that often the most dramatic and visually outstanding model in a category doesn’t win. This is usually because the modeler has gone for flash and doesn’t meet the basic standards of alignment, seams, etc. And the model has come in at third place. People say, “look at this! That isn’t fair, the system doesn’t work.” Now if you drag those people over to the model and point out how the model was judged, they invariably come away with a different perspective, often saying they never looked at models this way.
Personally, I can judge a model I really like the looks of, but that doesn’t follow the criteria. Just because you don’t win in a contest does not mean your model lacks merit, it is just that you didn’t meet the criteria of that contest.
Judging is a tough job and you have to take it seriously. Some of these modelers have put in hundreds of hours on their models to do the best job they can. I don’t regret any of my judging decisions; I stand by them all.
Another thing is accuracy. Lots of people get really bent out of shape because we don’t judge accuracy in IPMS. I know a lot about the Spitfire and the FW-190 but outside of that I know little about other kinds of aircraft. So, if I come into a category where there are Spitfires, 190s, AR-80s, Zeros, Jacks, and, you know, MS 406s... If I were judging on accuracy I could pull apart the Spitfires and 190s, but the Zeros, the wing could be on upside down and I wouldn’t know. It is inherently impossible to judge fairly on accuracy unless you have encyclopedic references to hand.

Michael: One of the things that we always talk about is getting new and younger modelers into the hobby. Brett Green and I discussed this a couple of years ago, and 21st Century Models came up as a possible answer. They are inexpensive, large and well detailed, yet simple. Obviously, this did not work out. You made a statement about vendors getting together and finding ways to bring older, former modelers back into the hobby. Have you given this anymore thought?

Roy: If I had the budget, I would advertise on the History and Discovery channels, all the shows that appeal to guys who like the kinds of things we watch. Put in a fifteen-second spot saying to come on back and check out modeling, this is not the hobby you remember. You could bring back a number of guys who used to model in the fifties, sixties and seventies and bring them into a hobby shop, or on sites like Hyperscale. They would be shocked at how much the hobby has changed.
The biggest change is in the aftermarket business. It has legitimized the hobby for adults in the same way the market for muscle cars these days. It’s dependent on the aftermarket companies to make it your own muscle car. Same way with models. You can make it your own.
But, as sad as it is to say, I don’t think the future of our hobby is in getting young modelers into the hobby.

Marty: At least in the United States.

Roy: That’s true. Outside of the United States, in Japan, Hong Kong, in Europe, modeling is much more popular than it is here. Especially in Japan, there are a lot of kids building. Here, video games, internet, YouTube, is much more stimulating for them. We are happy to spend hours working on something with a wingspan of about six inches, but that is just inconceivable to kids who have grown up in the computer and internet age. It doesn’t make them wrong, they have just grown up in a different world,

Michael: I there anything else anyone wants to ask or say?

Roy: Yes. Buy lots of Barracuda Studios products. By the hand full. (laughs)

Marty: What is the current Barracuda Studios slogan?

Roy: When good enough isn’t good enough.