Model Railway Tools for Beginners
Whether you are just playing with your model train set or looking to become a serious railway modeller, you will need some model railway tools. You should buy the best that you can afford. Don’t expect a modelling tool kit from a pound store to last any time at all! As well as longevity, you will find that better quality model railway tools are more accurate – something that is essential when working at the sizes of typical model railway products.
The price difference between poor quality and good quality items isn’t that great. If you buy cheap items and end up buying the more expensive model railway tools later then it will cost you more than buying the latter in the first place. It really is false economy not to invest in quality tools from the outset. If that hasn’t convinced you then consider the safety aspect. A cheap railway modelling tool is often more likely to break and cause damage to you or your model.
Most of the model railway tools listed here are available in larger sizes and are suitable for the bigger jobs, such as baseboard construction. You may already have them in your home toolkit. The same rules for quality applies to these as for the smaller railway modelling tools and equipment.
There are many tools available and this isn’t a definitive list, however, it will give you a good overview of some of the more important and common items.
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A Modelling Light
This may surprise you as the number one priority, however, it is essential that you are able to see what you are doing in order to work accurately. Working in poor light can eventually adversely affect your eyesight or shorten your railway modelling sessions due to symptoms of eye strain. A light fitted with a ring bulb is recommended as it won’t cast shadows.
A set of small screwdrivers is absolutely essential. Just about all screws used nowadays are of the Phillips or Pozidrive type. A small set of suitable screwdrivers are sold marked as Jewellers screwdrivers. Although flat/slotted bladed screwdrivers may seem to be unnecessary, they are surprisingly useful and these are often included in these sets too.
Knifes and Cutting Boards
A modelling knife is another indispensable tool that you will use all the time for lighter tasks. The type with a removable blade is recommended to give maximum flexibility. You also need to have a set of blades so that you can use the correct one to match the job you are working on. The following blades are recommended:
- Angled blade. Used for most cutting and paring operations
- A curved blade. Used on curved surfaces to avoid making unwanted marks
- A chisel blade. Useful when there is limited space
To save time swapping between blades all the time, use two or three knives fitted with the blades that you use the most. Look for a knife that has a metal chuck rather than the plastic ones used on cheaper models. The X-Acto range are very good and widely available.
A cutting mat is pretty much de-rigueur when using a knife. First, of course, the mat will protect the surface you are working on from damage. Just as important though, the use of a self-healing mat will ensure that your cuts are true. This is because the knife will not be deflected by the marks left from previous cutting operations.
For working on larger tasks, and where more force is required, a DIY knife of the Stanley type is very useful. The ones that come with snap off blades will save you the job of sharpening – something that is required surprisingly often when cutting materials such as cardboard.
A set of quality files will be in constant use for kit or scratch-building purposes. A set from a Swiss manufacturer will be made from quality materials and possess fine teeth. Files with coarser teeth are useful for taking off larger amounts of material during the initial stages.
Sanding paper is more a consumable than a tool, and a range of grit sizes will allow you to get a balance between speed of material removal and quality of finish. A range between 300 and 1600 will cover most modelling tasks.
Not only does a ruler give you a tool for measuring, but it also provides a way of making straight cuts. To avoid damage when cutting, you need a ruler made of metal and one of a suitable shape and size so that you can press down on it to avoid any movement whilst in operation.
A small, flexible ruler is very useful when working on curved surfaces.
In order to build items square you must be able to check that your angles are at 90 degrees. This simple tool allows you to do just that and is essential for accurate work.
The requirement to drill a hole is surprisingly common when modelling. You will need a pin vice to drill holes using small bits as power tools just aren’t controllable enough. You can buy a single tool that is double ended and that will provide you with the full range of collet sizes. Despite this, if you model a lot, then you may like to invest in several hand drills so you don’t have to keep swapping collets as often.
Buy a set of drills in the size range 0.3mm to 1.6mm. Be aware that it is very easy to break the smaller sizes through inattention and that they can blunt very quickly when drilling some of the harder metals.
This useful tool allows you to accurately take width measurements, both inside and outside. For example, perhaps you have found some metal rod that looks the correct size for a project. You can find out what width it is and therefore which drill will match it. You can also take depth readings which can be useful when drilling and measuring.
In order to be able to see what you are doing with small items, some sort of magnifier is needed. Sometimes these are built into modelling lights or you can buy those that attach to the head like goggles. A cheaper option is to buy jewellers’ loupes of varying strengths.
You will inevitably need to join a soldered wire connection at some point. To solder wires together you will need a soldering iron and solder. The iron needs to be of a low wattage to avoid overheating the joints. One of about 10 to 15 watts is fine. The solder needs to be one that is suitable for electrical connections; it is often labelled as resin cored.
The key to successful soldering is to keep the soldering tip absolutely clean. It therefore really is essential to invest in a tool to help you achieve this. A holder full of brass wire (it resembles a washing up pan scrub) will allow you to remove debris from the tip without damaging it and without cooling it down. Cleaning the tip in any other way could remove the coating and cause rapid wear.
If you want to solder brass kits together then a larger iron is necessary and one of about 40 watts will suffice for most jobs. The solder used is different to that used for electrical work as it does not have the flux embedded within it. You will need to buy a separate flux to suit the metal you are soldering.
Another option that is slightly more expensive is to buy a temperature controlled iron so that you can tackle anything with just a single iron.
Clamps and Holding tools
A range of pliers are needed for holding and cutting purposes. The following are recommended:
- Needle nosed pliers
- Square jawed pliers. Those with plane jaws are particularly useful for modelling as they won’t mark the work
- Side cutters. Can be used for snipping off wire and for stripping the sheaf from electrical wires before soldering
- Tweezers are very useful for handling small parts.
Clamps are necessary for holding work in position when soldering or whilst glues dries, for handling purposes and to hold work whilst paint dries. It is good to have a wide selection of these and Bulldog clips, clothes pegs, rubber bands and ‘action’ tweezers are useful. Many railway modellers use a hobby vice or a universal holdall.
A good range of paint brushes is needed to tackle all the requirements of the average modeller. You will not need to buy top of the range sable, but a quality brush is essential to get a good finish. The test for any brush is whether it holds its shape in use. You don’t want a brush that doesn’t spring back to a point. Many brushes are now made of synthetic materials and these have improved over the years and are now highly recommended. A hog’s hair brush is very useful for many modelling tasks too.
Razor saw and cutting block
In order to obtain a clean, straight cut you need a saw with many fine teeth. Often such razor saws come with a cutting block that will allow you to make cuts at 90 and 45 degrees.
Although not essential, an airbrush can achieve a paint finish that it is very difficult to match with brushwork. It is a more sizable investment than most tools, so it makes sense to only buy one if you use it often. To start airbrushing, you will need the following equipment:
- An airbrush. Cheaper airbrushes are good for respraying models, but more finesse is need for weathering which is only provided by more expensive models
- A compressor. You may already have one for DIY purposes or for working on your car. Air canisters aren’t recommended.
- A spray booth. Although not absolutely essential, it doesn’t make sense to invest in an airbrush and then have no dedicated facility to allow you to use it repeatedly in all weathers
- Cleaning equipment. You must maintain your airbrush otherwise it will very quickly cease to perform. Most cleaning equipment is classed as consumables rather than tools though.
- A face mask that can cope with small particle sizes. This piece of PPE is a necessity.
This tool allows you to perform many tasks and checks, including:
- Checking the continuity of a circuit
- Establishing the value of a resistor
- Measuring the current load of a motor
It may seems like a huge list, but as a beginner these are the model railway tools and equipment needed to get started in the hobby if you want to be an active modeller. To build kits, detail locomotives and get started with electrics you need to have all of the railway modelling tools to hand. There are modelling tool kits available which can be a great way to get started, but you may decide to invest in better quality individual tools as you get more serious about the hobby.
When you have the right model railway tools and want to try some railway modelling projects, check out the vast array of articles within our ‘techniques’ section. Click here to pick a project for you to tackle.