Ok, so, as these models are meant to be used as a way of learning various techniques with 3D I have tried to stick almost entirely within the elements included with 3Dsmax. I know the design of the model isn't really inspired, I wanted to keep things simple.
The model was built in 4 stages;
Concept - A few sketches on various bits of paper to help sort out what I was going to aim for, and a way to build it. I try to never model blind.
The first stage of the modeling was to build a spline cage. I started with the "wings" creating several circles, to build up the shape of one wing, as well as the body of the ship, then turning on 3D snap to vertecies, I traced around the edges of the circles, and made all the vertecies of type "smooth". Some extra splines had to be added so there were no patches of more than 4 side. Once the basic design of half the ship was built, and worked properly when a surface modifier was applied, I started tweaking the positions so that the "skin" didn't crumple in any strange ways or look odd, and gave the ship some more form. Also at this stage i decided I needed to add in the cockpit, so I refined the vertecies around the canopy area, and built the canopy into the main mesh. Once I was happy with the overall design, I saved one last time, and then ran a save-as to the new file name.
All of the detail on the ship was done at a polygon level. Collapsing the patches to an editable poly with a decent resolution gave me plenty of things to push in and pull out, I detatched the canopy so I could work on it easier. The vents are just a selection of polygons extruded, and then one edge welded back to the main casing (rotate along edge wasn't working with the smooth curves of the model). The canopy glass was extruded inwards, and then detached so that I could build a canopy frame. The nosecone, thruster, and lights are all extruded inwards aswell, as are the rear vents. there are a few bits that are extruded outwards on the body of the ship as well. The guns are simply cylinders attatched to tubes, cloned into a pattern, and then attached to the original mesh. To make the cockpit, I hid the canopy, and with the end loop selector dragged out the inside. Selecting some polygons at the front of the cockpit, I used the sliceplane to give me some extra polygons to drag out the console. Also, I went through the ship, and decided where I wanted edges and adjusted the smoothing groups accordingly, in the case of the fins, I needed to cut the faces diagonally, so I could have a hard edge there.
Texturing... I'm no texture artist, so I decided to stick with textures that came with max, especially as I didn't really need to do anything special for this project. There are several layers of UVW mapping on the ship, one planar from the side of the ship, this is so that the metal can be mapped effectively on the body. There is a cylindrical map, that is squashed and rotated so that it fits the wing and makes the texture look decent, both the wing and the body use a slightly modified version of max's paneling material. There is a planar map from the top, for the fins. Also a shrink map around the canopy for the frame of same. Finally there is a planar map from the back, for the thruster. The thruster is a radial gradient map, and the nosecone is a fall-off map. The canopy glass is a highly shiny dark grey reflective material. The lights are a white material with a high self illumination value. The other materials are things I found in max's material library. The space backdrop is a very small (10) dent map, where there is white (stars) there is a gradient map, so that the stars fall off at the top and bottom of the scene (like the galaxy), where there is black, there is a noise map, with lots of detail, showing mostly black, with clouds of a second noise map, that ranges from red to blue, giving the purple clouds in the scene. The sun is a noise map, red/yellow with high self illumination, and a fireball around it. The thruster jet, is a hemespherical atmospheric aparatus.
There are 5 lights in the scene, they are all shadow-casting. The sun has a very high intensity yellowish light in it. there is a aqua light in the thruster, just to give a little glow to the flame, these are both omnis. The lights both have cylindrical omni lights in them, these are only available if you have Mental-Ray, so you could substitute with an array of omnis. There is also a purple light just to the left of the camera, this is to provide some ambient light to the scene. I made it purple so that the ship blended in a little better with it's surroundings.
Once I had a result from max, I brought the image into photoshop for a little tweaking, first, I selected by colour range the "highlight" group, copied it and pasted it to it's own layer, gave it a gausian blur, and then made it a hard light layer to add bloom. Then, on a 50% grey layer, I placed a lensflare on top of the sun, and again, made it a hard light layer, to give the over-exposure to the sun.
This project probably took about 16 hours... over the course of 3 days.
There are 11528 faces in the scene.
The final render (2048-1536) took 1 hour with mental ray (minimum sample 1, maximum sample 2) on an athlon 1800+
(I have uploaded the main stages of the model here)