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Tools, Techniques

Here is a selection of tools that I have found to be very useful for model making. My toolbox has been built up over many years, but you should be able to get these, or modern equivilents, from any good hobby or craft shop.

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Precise cutting of materials is fundamental to model making, so it pays to get good tools for this. I use Swann Morton surgical scalpels, either the standard handle shown here with the No.10A straight blade or the No.10 curved blade. The smaller No.15 blade is also very useful, but for getting into tight corners, or for ‘chisel’ cuts, the round-handled eye surgery handle and its various blades are very hard to better. It should be obvious, but these cutting tools are extremely sharp and must be handled with the utmost care. There are several other well-known makes of craft knife and these may well suit your purposes. One point to watch with any round handles, they can roll off a sloping work surface.

Change blades as soon as they loose their edge. If you are skilled, they can be sharpened with a whetstone and strop, but replacement blades are not expensive. Once used, dispose of them properly, not just throw them away with your usual refuse. I collect my dull blades in a tin, then when it is full take it to my local recycling/waste centre, where they have the proper facilities for handling ‘sharps’.

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For more major cutting, razor saws are very effective. Blades come in various depths and usually have a stiffening back folded along the top edge. This limits the depth you can cut. With plastic materials, cut slowly and let the teeth do the work. Pushing harder will soften the plastic through friction and the saw may grab. Used on plastic and wood, these blades will last a lifetime.

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Marking out and cutting accurately requires good measuring tools, so I use steel rules ( 300 mm and 150 mm items shown here) as well as a small engineering tri-square. The engineers protractor is very useful where angles other than 90 degrees are needed, and it can be used as a depth gauge as well. None of these items are very expensive and if used with reasonable care, will last an entire model making career. Both steel rules have paper masking (draughting) tape stuck on their other sides, to protect the material surface and provide better grip. I don’t use inches any more, either.

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More cutting tools, this time an Olfa Circle Cutter used for scoring and cutting arcs and circles in various materials; an Olfa Laminate Cutter, and some different types of scissors. The Laminate Cutter works by drawing the hook-shaped blade across the material, usually against a straight edge. The blade ‘ploughs’ a groove in the surface, and you can then bend and crack the material along the groove. The standard blade is shown separately, while the blade in the handle has been ground away to form a much smaller hook. The cutting point is untouched. This is so it can be used in smaller spaces. Used gently, this tool is excellent for creating or repairing panel lines and other surface details, as it removes material. A knife blade simply pushes the material cut to either side. The smaller scissors are surgical ones from my old school biology dissection set, and so are over 30 years old.

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Abrasive tools are used to smooth a surface, to remove surplus filler, level adjacent parts, remove mould seams and so on. The red pouch holds a set of miniature files which are very handy for small components and apertures, but otherwise are identical to the larger files below. Files are available in a great variety of sizes, shapes and size of teeth but will last a very long time used on soft materials such as plastic. A sprinkle of talcum powder will help stop the teeth clogging, and ‘wire card’ is very useful to clean out files.

The bow device is a ‘Flexi-File’, a clever tool which uses strips of tough plastic sheet with an abrasive bonded to it. Tensioned by the metal bow, the strip will follow a curved surface while being used, thus avoiding the possibility of a flat being filed unto the model. It is especially useful on subjects such as aircraft fuselages, ships hulls, gun barrels. I bought mine from Aeroclub Models, who supply spare strips and lots of other goodies too.

The large file with the curved ends is a ‘Riffler’, and you can see from the size of the teeth it is quite a fearsome beast. Available in various shapes and sizes, it is a great tool for rough shaping of larger items, where it will remove a lot of material very quickly.

Finally, I often make my own abrasive sticks by sticking ‘Wet-and-Dry’ abrasive paper to wooden lolly sticks. Double sided adhesive tape is great for this. The sticks can be cut down easily if you need to get into a confined space, and you can use whatever grade of abrasive you need. Ice lolly (popsicle) sticks, medical tongue depressors are good sources of these sticks, and I noticed IKEA are now using narrow wooden sticks as drink stirrers. Very green, very handy.

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Abrasive papers are very useful, I use ‘Wet-and-Dry’ material which is a lot tougher than conventional sandpaper as used on wood. This can be bought from any DIY or auto parts shop, (Halfords, B & Q) in a variety of grades. A mixed pack of 20 sheets will be plenty for several months work. It can be wrapped around something solid, rolled into a tube or glued to a stick, used dry it will cut some materials (balsa wood, modelling board) very well, or used with soapy water it will cut denser materials such as plastic, filler, without clogging. The mat material shown in the picture is also an abrasive. It is available in different grades from auto paint finisher suppliers, although domestic nylon pan scourers are just as good. Use wet for a finer finish.

All abrasive operations generate lots of dust, so take sensible precautions when using these materials. Used wet, a slurry forms instead of dust and this is much easier to wash away safely. Otherwise, use a face dust mask, don’t eat, drink or smoke when the dust is about, and clean up after your work.

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Drilling holes of various sizes is another frequent operation. I generally use TiN coated drills, they seem to last much longer than conventional uncoated steel, even though I rarely use a power drill. The pin chuck shown above has two reversible collets so it can securely hold drill bits from 0.3 mm up to 3.2 mm. Hobby and tool shops sell all sorts of drills, but you might have to try a specialist shop for the smaller sizes, such as Proops Brothers, who sold me the blue drill set above.

The engineers radius gauges in the picture are another handy tool set, both for checking sizes and as gentle scrapers for soft materials. They can be also used as a cutting guide to put radiused corners on sheet material.

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Reheat Models manufactured this handy set of punches with 9 different sizes from 0.7 mm up to 4 mm diameter. Great for making holes in flat sheet material, and for making tiny discs for those delicate detailing operations.

The orange handled side cutters are great for cutting kit parts away from their sprue frames, and they make short work of trimming polystyrene sheet. The cut is neat and clean, and if you are careful you don’t strain the material while the cut is made. Very handy if you are cutting part of a delicate assembly

The dial gauge calipers are extremely useful for making accurate measurements. This set is made of a hi-tech polycarbonate plastic so it is light and robust but still accurate to 0.05 mm. Steel calipers are certainly more robust, and calipers with digital read-outs are easy to read. Vernier calipers are very simple and have no cogs and racks to clog, but the scales take a bit of practice to read. Which ever you choose, you will find if you can measure accurately, you can work accurately.

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Most of the tools above are designed for working with paper, but they are still very handy when used on plastic sheet material. The middle three items are burnishing tools, a large (6 mm) ball, a tiny 0.5 mm ball (on the point of the steel tip.) and a larger burnishing spoon. They are used to locally deform sheet into a dished shape, usually with something firm behind the sheet to stop it splitting. Hard rubber, or a cutting mat is good for this. The top tool is a engineers scriber, with a hard point at one end for scratching marks on materials. The bottom tool is a ‘Punch Wheel’ used to make a row of fine pin pricks in paper or other material, to transfer a pattern from one sheet to another. Used on thin plastic sheet, and gently so as not to pierce right through, a perfect line of scale rivets is produced. The engineers scriber came from Proops,  the other items are made by Pergamano, and I bought mine from my local Hobbycraft store.

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Tweezers come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, but these three are my favourites. The bottom set has curved pointed jaws so can be used in confined spaces. This shape also allows you to see more clearly just where you are placing the part being handled. The middle tweezers have broad jaws without serrations so are very useful for handling tiny bits of rod or strip plastic. You can grip quite firmly, but the smooth jaws will not damage a delicate material. The top tweezers are closed at rest, and need to be squeezed to release the item held. This is very useful if you have to thread the tweezers through a structure before finally locating the part.

The clothes peg is a toy item, only about 50 mm long. I bought several sets of these in my local IKEA store, in the kids department. Being wood they are good for holding brass parts together while they are soldered, and they can be carved to make smaller clamps if required. and at 0.50 a set of 12, they are very good value. Full size pegs are just as useful, of course.

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Larger items in my tool box include this leather punch, which has a turret with 6 individual punches. Very useful for cutting discs of plastic sheet, and other materials. This tool can handle much thicker stock than the Reheat Models punch and die set. The miniature trigger clamp is very useful for holding larger assemblies while glue dries. These are handy because they can be applied or released with one hand.

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Steel spatulas, scrapers and hooks are very useful tools. Made for the medical, dental and art fields, surplus stock often appears at model exhibitions and are well worth buying. You might also ask your dentist for any old tools he is about to throw away. Proops Brothers also supply by mail order. The bottom tool in this picture is a Games Workshop product and has a small blade at one end and a sculpting tool at the other. All of these tools are handy for getting glue into awkward spots, smoothing filler into joints, scraping and so on.

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A fantastically useful tool, this is ‘The Chopper’. It is a miniature guillotine and uses single-edged razor blades to do the cutting. The angled strips can be clamped into place so that repeated cuts can be made accurately. It will handle plastic card and strip easily. but you must take heed of the warning sticker. The blade is unguarded so use a stick or tweezers to remove the cut parts and other waste material. I understand an improved version is now available from its manufacturers, North West Short Line, based in Seattle.