The company was founded in 1946 as a sawmill and lumber company by Yoshio Tamiya, which it was then known as Tamiya Shoji & Co. (Tamiya Company) in Oshika, Shizuoka City. With the high availability of wood, the Mokuzaigyou Company's wood products division (founded 1947) mainly produced wooden models of ships and airplanes. In 1953, as this became the foundation of the company, they stopped the sale of architectural lumber and focused solely on making models.
In the mid 1950s, foreign made plastic models were beginning to be imported and wooden model sales were decreasing, so in 1959 they decided to manufacture plastic models. Their first model was the Yamato. However, Tamiya's predecessors had sold Yamato models at 350 yen. By competing, Tamiya was at risk to get into the red by setting their price the same. However, they couldn't recover the cost of producing metal molds, so once again, they changed their products to wooden models, but at that time the model trade's tide was turning toward plastic models.
Using metal molds no longer needed for plastic toys, they released a racecar mini-kit which was to finance the production of their next plastic model. To their good fortune, it became a hit. They decided that the second plastic model was to be the Panzer Tank, which had a linear form which would make the molds simple to produce. They commissioned Shigeru Komatsuzaki to do the box art. The Panzer was motorized, moved well, and had an excellent instruction manual which made it easy to assemble. Because of this, it gained a good reputation. It was made in a 1/35 scale because it was decided that it would use a single TYPE 2 battery but would hold 2 of them.
At first, Tamiya produced metal molds, but had delays and unclear pricing, which lead to trouble. Then they scouted metal mold craftsmen and in 1964 started their Metal Molds division. Starting in 1966, they transferred a number of craftsmen to the Mold Manufacturing Factory. They slowly gained the know-how and came to make molds for Tamiya. Today, CAD has also been introduced into the process.
Tamiya was known by their extremely high accuracy of their molds, and that influenced even the condition of the products after they were assembled. In a time when Tamiya manufactured plastic models using mold craftsmen's skills and earlier plans, other companies' products' detail bolts were represented by simple hemispheric protuberances while Tamiya represented bolts more accurately as hexagonal posts. This level of detail and thoroughness with which they produced their models earned them a reputation even overseas.
On the occasion of the release of Tamiya's first plastic model, Shunsaku Tamiya (son-in-law of Yojiro) commissioned his younger brother, Masao, then a student at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music Design Department, to create a new trademark. He created the Star Mark. At first it was decorated with English. In 1960 with the release of the slot car, the design was changed to its current form. Even now, the left, red star stands for passion and the right, blue star stands for precision.
Tamiya News is published by Tamiya Model and is an informational, monthly publication about the company's own models. In 1967, when it was started, it was published bimonthly with an occasional special supplement. For a long time it cost 50 yen, but was later raised to 100 yen. The unique, thin publications were placed in envelopes and sent out via standard mail. Introductory articles on new products, model shops, model clubs, and conversions were included as were articles on famous and obscure modelers. A sister publication with articles focused on miniature vehicles and bullet racers and such, Tamiya Junior News exists as a free publication (It formerly cost 20 yen, but now is available for download as a PDF from Tamiya's website).
Other model related publications held doll conversion contests or scenic photo contests and then published the results in booklets.
On early products (1961-1967), the box art corresponded to what they distributed. The box art was mainly done by Shigeru Komatsuzaki, Yosiyuki Takani, and others. As Tamiya's goods' image and world view both broadened, their boxart, which had a feeling of "compositions of achievement" or "a story contained in a picture", became mainstream. This further enhanced its goods' image. However, after 1968's slot racer, products appeared without scenery on a white background. They had changed the boxart to be more accurate. This experiment turned out to be popular and after that Tamiya switched to the white package which had removed parts of models of airplanes and warships from the boxes. The boxart of Shigeru Komatsuzaki, which had contributed to the making of Tamiya's early image, has almost disappeared from Tamiya's products due to the change in box art strategies and discontinuation of products.
Some model tanks' box art included images of items not included in the box. When Tamiya began exporting these, indications of the possibility of applying false advertising laws started to become a problem. Tamiya dealt with this by erasing the items and retouching the backgrounds.