This article suggests a few basic tools for starting out scale modelling.
Making scale models requires the use of a few tools. In fact, most experienced modellers will have at their disposal an impressive array of equipment, some of which is highly specialised and designed specifically for scale modelling.
For somebody starting out with the hobby, this may appear to be disheartening, but it should not be so. Building up an extensive toolbox is one of the pleasures of modelling and it can be done gradually over many years. The range of tools needed to start building a few simple models is surprisingly few and most of these can be obtained for a small price.
This article only covers those tools needed for for beginners. More advanced and specialised tools used by experienced modellers are covered in a later article.
The Essential Tools
The following tools are really essential to make any model:
- Craft Knife
Probably the most important and versatile tool that you will use. A sharp knife can be used for removing parts from the sprue, cleaning them up and reshaping them which is all fairly fundamental stuff. Granted there a number of specialist tools for scribing and shaping plastic, but initially a good knife with a variety of blades should cover the needs of a beginner. You may also find yourself using a knife for smoothing filler and this is a useful way to utilise old blades.
Go to any model, or art shop, a hardware store, or web site selling modelling products and you will find a wide range of craft knives. One of the most popular ranges is the X-Acto type (known as X-Acto in the US and Model Craft in Europe). They provide small, medium and large handles with many shapes of interchangable blade. The blades are held in an X-shaped clamp that grips the blade when a metal sleeve is tightened. The blade is held very securely and yet is very easy to change.
Another famous brand is Swann-Morton whose knifes are really surgical scalpels. The standard handle on this is metal and small which you will either love or hate, but a larger acrylic handle is available. They offer a wide range of blade shapes, but the blades on these can be tricky to change. These knives are very sharp and tend to be delicate, so are particuarly suited to detail work.
Many other makes are available including some with retractable blades (a useful safety and transport feature) and some with snap off blades.
It comes down to personal choice. If at all possible, try holding a knife at a shop or model show before you purchase and make sure that you will have easy access to replacement blades, because it is surprising how many are used.
Tips On Using A Craft Knife
All the safety guides tell you to cut away from you, but many people find this difficult. If you are cutting towards you then take care, use only light pressure and keep a firm grip on both the knife and model. Take a moment to think ‘If the blade slips now what damage will it do?’ Always make sure you have a sharp blade – a dull edge will force you to apply more pressure which will cause damage to both you and your model if you slip. New blades are inexpensive, so change them regularly.
Knifes and blades come in different shapes and sizes so make sure you are using the correct one for the job. Never use a lightweight knife and blade for a heavy job. It is a good idea to have several knife handles so you can have different shaped blades at the ready.
When cutting on a surface always make sure that you put something down that will protect the surface without ruining your blade. A ‘self-healing’ cutting mat is ideal for this, but thick card or a newspaper will suffice.
When disposing of used blades, do not just throw them in the bin where they may cause injury. Wrap masking tape around the blade and enclose it in card. Alternatively, keep all old blades together in a sturdy box and throw away the box when it is full.
Abrasives And Sanding Materials
Plastic parts will need to be cleaned up and possibly re-shaped. The minimum you will need is a couple of sheets of sandpaper which you may be able to get from a hardware store. However, they may not stock the finer grades that you will need.
Sanding papers come in different grades of courseness. The most course will be something like 60 grit which has a surface like the moon and the finest grades go down to 3000 grit and above which are so smooth they feel like varnished wood. When starting out, 400 and 800 grit will probably be the most useful and other grades can be added as needed. The grade of the paper is normally printed on the reverse side.
Although traditional sandpaper is easy to get hold of and cheap, it is not ideal and if possible ‘Wet and Dry’ paper (also known as ’emery’ paper, or silicon carbide paper) should be used instead. This is better quality, will give consistent results and will last much longer. It can also be used on metal parts. As it’s name suggests it can be used with water which stops it clogging and reduces airborne dust (particularly important when working with resin models since the dust is harmful).
Perhaps it could be argued that these are not actually essential and if you have small fingers and are very dextrous that may be true. Many modellers will find positioning very small parts almost impossible without tweezers and they will certainly make things a lot easier.
Tweezers are very cheap and readily available because they are used for cosmetic purposes, but purpose built modellers’, or engineers’ tweezers are much more useful.
They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some have flat ‘blade’ type ends and some have the arms ending in points. Some are straight ended and some have the ends at an angle. There are types that are spring loaded so they grip the object automatically whilst others can be locked on the object with whatever pressure the user wants.
Many modellers build up a collection of tweezers as they progress. No matter how many different pairs of tweezers you have you will always find some object or place where you cannot quite reach.
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That completes the list of really essential tools and armed with these it should be possible to complete a simple model. There are some other tools, that whilst not absolutely essential for the beginner, are highly useful, especially for someone determined to get a reasonable finish from the start and these will complete ‘The Basic Toolbox’.
Highly Useful Tools
- Flush cutter / side cutting pliers
- Needle files / sanding sticks
- Pin chuck and drills
Removing parts from the sprue with a knife is difficult and risks damaging the part. A small pair of pliers that snips off the part leaving very little of the sprue is very helpful and both saves time and increases modelling pleasure. Xuron is a popular brand although there are others on the market. Flush cutters and similar types of pliers and cutters vary in quality enormously. Be very wary of cheap tools of this type and stick to a respected name. Cheap tools are often made of inferior materials and will very soon begin to show wear giving poor results.
Needle Files / Sanding Sticks
Although the production standards for model kits have improved out of all recognition since the early days of the hobby, modellers still do a lot of sanding and shaping. Sand paper or ‘Wet and Dry’ paper are useful, but the work will be much easier with specialist sanding tools.
Needle files are very small files with different cross sections such as flat, square, triangular, round and half-round. They also vary in how course they are with some being intended to remove large amounts of plastic quickly and other intended for more subtle work. Needle files with very fine teeth are sometimes called ‘Swiss’ files. Needle files may come with or without a handle (the latter being intended to fit to a knife or other handle).
Needle files are very useful for widening holes and shaping plastic where a particular profile is needed and as they are relatively inexpensive every modeller should have at least one set.
Sanding sticks are flat sticks with abrasive material on each side. They come in a range of courseness just like sand paper and some sticks will have different grades on each side. Many modellers find these easier to use and get better results than with traditional sand paper or ‘Wet and Dry’ paper.
Pin Chuck/Vise And Drills
A pin chuck is a hand held and hand powered mini-drill which is sometimes referred to as a pin vise. Together with a set of twist drills it will allow the modeller to drill a variety of sizes of hole through plastic and resin (but not metal). For plastic, it is better to use a hand drill rather than a motorised drill because the low melting point of plastic means that any motorised drill is more likely to melt through the plastic rather than drill though it and this can make an unsightly mess. It is also much easier to exercise fine control with a hand drill.
It is, perhaps, surprising how many times a modeller needs to drill holes in a model kit. There are often locating holes to be drilled out and the ends of gun barrels need to be hollowed out.
A pin vise is also useful as a scribing tool by putting an ordinary needle in the chuck. Since needles come in all sizes there is an easily obtainable supply of different sizes of scribing tools. Scribing is one of those skills that any modeller has to master, whether it be scribing new panel lines, or re-scribing those that have been filled or sanded away as part of the construction process. Specialist scribers are available and are very good but the beginner can usually get by with this improvised tool.
These tools complete ‘The Basic Tool Kit’ and should be sufficient for the beginner to complete the first few models. There are a host of other tools available which will extend the abilities of the modeller and these can be added to the tool box as and when needed. These are covered in the article ‘Advanced Tools’ .
Although this article has covered the tools required to start modelling there are also a few materials needed as well, such as glue and filler. These are also the subject of a separate article.