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This is a look into a typical Model Railroader's tool box. These tools are essential to the process of building models. You don't need everything you will see, but all of these things serve a certain purpose or help the process in some way. I'm not saying run out to the store and buy these things if you want to build models, but they definitely help.

Just about everything shown on this page should be available at your local Hobby Shop.


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Hobby Knife ~

The Hobby Knife is probably the most essential tool, having virtually limitless uses, from cutting parts from sprues, cutting styrene sheet, to marking for panel lines. Every modeler should have a good hobby knife. X-acto's metal handled knife shown.

Nippers (side-cutters) ~

A very useful tool to remove parts from the sprue. They can also be used for cutting most types of wire or removing a good chunk of plastic. There are better, more specialized Nippers designed for cutting larger parts, as well as cutting rail.

Needle Nose Pliers ~
These are great for many reasons. If you need to get a grip on something small, this is the tool. Pliers are great when it comes to bending brass rod or cutting thicker pieces of wire. A simple set of pliers from any hardware store will do.

Brushes ~
An absolute must if you're going to be painting your models. Brushes come in many shapes, sizes, and materials. Some of the most useful brushes are the spotter, for very small details, and the flat brush for painting larger surfaces. Old brushes can serve a purpose as well, for dry brushing or for applying pastels. Invest in Sable brushes - they're worth it.

Paint ~
Paint comes in three different varieties useful in modeling. Acrylic, Enamel, and Lacquer. They each have they own qualities and attributes. Use acrylics, just because they are easy to clean and use. They also come in a great variety of colors too. Your local Hobby Shop should carry a variety of manufacturer's colors useful for most aspects of railroading.
(scenery, buildings, locos, freight cars, etc.)

Sand Paper ~
Another tool with too many uses to list. From removing seam lines to sanding down a feature on a model, sand paper and sanding films are definitely needed in modeling. Use Testors or Flex-I-Grit Sanding Films for finishing. Both are available in various grits.

Glue ~
Pretty much self explanatory. It bonds plastic surfaces together. Try to avoid using Gel type tube cements, they're messy and take forever to set up. Preferred are the CA
(Cyanoacrylate- crazy glue), and the liquid types such as Tenxax-7R. Check out your Hobby Shop's private label brand, it's the same as the Name Brands and usually less expensive.

Metal Ruler ~
Used for measuring in English or Metric lengths. Can also be used for a metal straight edge when cutting. Two rulers that I highly recommend are General's # 1251 (Model Railroading Reference Rule, and their CF1216-E Rule. Both rulers are 12" in length, and indispensable.


Dial Caliper ~
A handy item for measuring twist drill diameters, or just about anything where you need an accurate dimensional reading. You might be able to find it in larger hardware stores. Also check for General's MG-JDC6 dial caliper - Large dial makes reading very easy! Indispensable for the scratch-builder, and it sure beats using a ruler.
[Click image at left for larger picture]


Pin Vise ~
A great little tool for drilling extremely small holes. It's usually hard to find in hardware stores. Check for various manufacturer's listings. General makes a pin vise that comes with 4 different size collets and swivel head / handle - Handy item to have.

Number (Twist) Drills ~
Generally drill bits fall into two categories, 1/16" and larger (the type that fit in your 1/2" electric drill), and twist drills (# 1 thru # 80) for use in a pin vise or Dremel tool. Each size range are pretty much necessary for constructing and maintaining a model railroad layout. Twist drill are essential for work on, building, or modifying locomotives and rolling stock.  

Scriber ~
The best tool to scribe in new panel lines. Also great to mark a place to drill with your pin vise. Wrap masking tape around mine just for better grip and comfort. General makes one with a carbide tip, and will probably last the average modeler a life time!

Mini Screwdrivers ~
Definitely needed if you're going to be building, or performing maintenance on locomotives or freight cars. Both Philips head and Flat head screwdrivers serve their own purposes, so having both is a good idea.

Scissors ~
A good, sharp pair of scissors is great to have to cut decals and thin styrene sheet. Although perhaps a tad pricey, Fiskers' scissors stay sharp and last a long time. I have two pair, the regular "orange" handled, and their "softouch multi-purpose" scissors. These are quality scissors that can be professionally re-sharpened.

Needle Nose Tweezers ~
Excellent for holding very small pieces such as detail parts. Also great for applying decals. Check the cosmetic section in a drug store for these.

X-acto Razor Saw ~
A good tool for cutting a large amount. Small teeth make this saw ideal for cutting plastic without losing a great deal of material. Replacement blades are available with various numbers of cutting teeth from course to extra fine.

Mini Miter Box ~
This companion to the razor saw insures straight cuts every time. The miters are at 90 and 45 degree angles. Highly recommended when cutting multiple parts to lengthen.

Metal Compass ~
Great for cutting perfect circles in styrene sheet. Replace the lead with a small brass rod, so that all you need to do is drill a small hole in the styrene sheet and insert the rod. Then score the styrene with the needle to make the circle.

Swiss Jeweler's Files ~
These small files are great for shaping and smoothing plastic. Getting rid of seam lines is a snap with these too. Check at a large hardware store like Home Depot, or your local Hobby Shop. Your local Hobby Shop might also carry Flex files - great for odd shapes.

Mini Hacksaw ~
An excellent tool for cutting thick brass rod for display stands or other things.

Micro Pens ~
A very small tipped pen that is great for beginners to use to do panel lines, custom graffiti, etc. Use .005 size, which is the smallest size available. Be sure to buy a multi-pack with assorted colors. Check Michael's, an office supply or art store for these.

Blue Masking Tape ~
Masking tape made by 3M is the best in masking tape. Absolutely no run under at all. If the tack is a little too strong, just overcoat any paint that is going to be under the tape, or take your length of tape and press it against a clean surface such as kitchen counter top or clean window several times to lessen tackiness. Available in various widths.

Scribing Template ~
This tool from Hasagawa is a scribing template with many shapes of different sizes so that you can scribe them onto your model. Made from very thin metal, they bend and conform to the shape of the model very easily. About the only place that you can find this is either
HLJ or Rainbow 10

Primer ~
Spraying primer on your model before you paint will give the paint a surface to better adhere to rather than bare plastic. Floquil seems to be about the best overall primer for plastic and other model work.

Dull Cote ~
A flat overcoat is key for model realism. It's basically the last step in the building process. I recommend Testor's Dull Cote, but there are other flat coats out there like, Tamiya X21, Gunze Mr. Overcoat Flat, and Model Master's Flat.

Safety Glasses ~
An absolute must when working with power tools or anything that could possibly injure your eyes. Safety, Safety, Safety...


Regular or Cordless Electric Drill ~
A good electric drill with many sizes of bits is a good tool to have when modeling. From drilling holes during layout construction, to drilling holes for wiring, etc., a drill is incredibly useful.

Dremel Tool ~
A modeler's dream, the dremel can grind, cut, shape, anything. I use this tool probably more than any other tool, mainly because I customize all my models, but still it's a tool that the serious modeler can not do without.

Protective Mask ~
When spraying harsh overcoats, primer, or just painting, wear a mask to protect your lungs from the tiny particles. Hardware stores are sure to have these, or the paper fiber type. Mask shown at left is by Flents.


Airbrush ~
An airbrush is a modeler's best friend. An airbrush provides you with the means to achieve a smooth, professional looking paint job. Shown at the left are (top) Paasche VL double-action, and the Paasche model "H". Either is a Worthwhile Investment!

Compressor ~
When using an airbrush you can either use cans of compressed air or buy a compressor. Compressors are expensive, but in the long run are cheaper and more reliable than cans of compressed air. Make sure it has a moisture filter trap!

Spray booth ~
Using an airbrush or spray cans will cause over spray. Rather then having all that go everywhere, contain it with a spray booth. You can buy pre-built spray booths (Testors shown at left), but they are Very Expensive. You can also
Build Your Own.

Part Holder ~
When airbrushing, you don't want to spray your hands with paint, so you can make these little part holders. They are simple to make and they're worth their weight in gold. All they are, are alligator clips attached to a 1 foot piece of dowel rod, secured by masking tape.

Workbench ~
It's important for a modeler to contain their mess, so having a good workbench that is well lit is a great thing to have. Just don't use the good dining room table... unless you're using one of those rubberized cutting mats from the fabric store.

~ Miscellaneous Stuff ~

Although Not Essential, the following are great to have on hand, especially if you build or modify a lot of your own equipment, buildings, rolling stock, etc.  Sure beats trying to find someplace open at 1:30 in the morning !

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Pastel Chalks ~
Pastels can be grinded into powder to be used in weathering a model. Pastels come in two kinds: Soft pastels and oil pastels. Make sure you get both types of pastels. Another "neat" product are the weathering pigments offered by AIM Products. 

Body Putty ~

Squadron Shop's "green putty" has been around for years, and is the best known filler used by both Plastic and Railroad model builders. Great for filling in roof-walk holes when modernizing that freight car kit you've finally decided to assemble and re-number. The putty comes in both green and white.

Styrene Sheet, structural shapes, rod, and tubing ~
An essential customizing and scratch building material. There are numerous manufacturers of styrene products for the modeler. Ask your local Hobby Shop for a look-see as to what's available. Comes in various sizes, lengths, and thickness.

Decals and Dry Transfers ~1
You can never have too many decals. Save every decal you get, because one day they will serve a purpose. Dry transfer or water slide, extra decals give a model realism, be it freight car or building graffiti, or new reporting data on a car or locomotive.

Decal Set ~
Setting solutions soften decal film, allowing it to stretch over details for the best appearance. Prevents air bubbles and results in an invisible carrier film, reducing silvering. Brush over area where decal is to be applied. Special wetting agents cut oils in new paint and strengthen adhesive on decal. Various decal manufacturers offer decal softeners.

Detail Parts ~
Numerous manufacturers
(too many to mention here) make optional parts used to detail your models, be it roof details for a building , or super detailing that favorite locomotive. Stop in to your local Hobby Shop and browse through the latest annual edition of the Wm. K. Walthers catalog for your particular scale.

Books and Magazines ~
Usually books and magazines aren't considered tools, but you can gain great inspiration and learn a great deal about the hobby from the masters in these books. Two excellent monthly magazines to check out are; Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman. Usually available at your local Hobby Shop or magazine News Stand. Also, be sure to check out Kalmbach's extensive selection of "How To" books.

NMRA Track Standards Gage ~

[Click image at left to Enlarge]. An Absolute Must if you want trouble free operation ! Use to check for correct wheel spacing and correct wheel contour. Click Here to learn about it's many other uses.

Coupler height Gage ~

Most HO couplers in use today are based on the Kadee # 5, regardless of freight car or locomotive manufacturer. This gage allows you to check for correct height of all couplers, regardless of coupler manufacturer. Handiest item you'll ever own... A Must for the serious model railroader.

Click Image for "How To Install and Use"


Postal Scale ~

While a digital scale would be nice, a little "spring type" is exceedingly handy for checking the weight of freight cars for proper operation per NMRA standards*. Features should include: Tare function / zero adjustment knob. Model shown at left is a Royal MX2 Mechanical Scale. Capacity 2 lbs. / 1 kg, Increments .5 ounce / 10 g, Dimensions 6-5/16" x 5-5/8" x 4-1/2"


Note:* Initial car weight - 1 oz., and then add 1/2 oz. for each inch of car length or fraction thereof. You can also weight car as follows; 1 oz. per 10 scale feet in length. Thus a 54' covered hopper's weight = 5.4 oz. versus 4.8 oz. per NMRA standards, and consider splitting the difference at 5.1 oz.


NEVER Over Weight a freight car or other rolling stock ! !


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