Making multiple parts to the same spec is a challenge for many of us. If you need a bunch, an easy solution is to cast them in resin or make a CAD file and 3D print them. If you need just a few, making a jig and scratchbuilding is often simpler.

Details like the stirrup steps, ladders and grab irons often have a heavy cross section that detracts from the appearance of the model. They are straightforward to make (or so I thought) and a good project for learning more advanced techniques.

I started with stirrup steps and produced several failures before figuring out the best methods to ensure consistency in both size and quality. I wound up making the set of four steps three times before I was happy with them. I expected this and in fact, I pushed myself to do better instead of settling for good enough. It was worth the effort. The keys were a bending jig for the intermediate step and an assembly jig for soldering the two pieces together. The jigs provided the consistency I wanted. The bending jig was critical for getting the right length between the opposing bends of the step. Trying to eyeball them was pure frustration.

Another quality control issue is my tendency to flood joints with solder. This not only looks sloppy but also creates a greater chance of damaging the part during cleanup. I finally used a better technique that improved both the quality and my enjoyment of the work. Instead of touching the end of the solder to the heated joint, I slice off the tiniest pieces I can with a modeling knife and place them next to the fluxed joint. Heating the pieces with a clean iron draws the solder right in, producing a much neater joint that only requires a minimum of cleanup. Score one for new tricks versus old dogs.

How do you learn to see that which is invisible to you currently?
If I want to learn advanced techniques where would I look? As part of my self-directed education, I let my curiosity guide me where it wants. One place it took me is watchmaking. YouTube has no end of videos on the subject and I found them captivating. The takeaway for me was learning there is another world of precision and craft beyond modelmaking. I’m a visual learner and I found it helpful to see how these craftspeople use their tools and approach the work. We may not work to such precise tolerances but seeing how to handle and finish microscopically small pieces is directly useful for our purposes.

I have a friend who does watch repair and when I told him about watching the videos, he gave me a funny look and asked why? Over a recent lunch, I showed him the pieces I’m doing and explained what I’m learning from his craft and he got it immediately. We then talked about the many similarities in our work. It was enjoyable for both of us to learn that two practices that seem to have nothing in common, actually share quite a lot.

Another source of insight comes from jewelry making. Last week I checked out several books on the subject from the library and studied them for soldering techniques, ways to shape and work metal and useful tools for modeling. As a result, I purchased a better pair of flat nosed pliers with smooth jaws that produced an immediate improvement in making the steps. These pliers are a basic tool I should have added to my kit many years ago.

We tend to be too insular in looking only within model railroading for answers when there’s a world of knowledge at our fingertips. Thanks to my exposure to creative work of all kinds I’m aware of resources that sound counterintuitive at first but prove to be valuable with further exploration. If you’re curious, search YouTube for watchmaking (tools and precision craftsmanship), micro soldering techniques (deals mainly with electronics repair but useful stuff for small parts soldering), and jewelry making (tools and various metal working techniques). What you find may seem boring or of little use at first but keep an open mind. You don’t have to make a career of this but you might find something useful and enlightening.



  1. Jeff

    One of the great things about model railroading is I haven’t seen another hobby that allows you to borrow tips, tools and techniques from such a vast array of sources. How many other hobbies can you pick up tools from the dentist’s office for?

  2. mike

    Hi Jeff,

    There’s no end of resources we can learn from and use. All we have to do is stay curious. I’ve also hit my dentist up for old tools and made one into a scriber that I use all the time.


  3. Simon

    Out of curiosity, do you have another jig for the U-shaped piece as well?

  4. mike

    Hi Simon,
    I form those with needle nosed pliers. The jaws happen to be the right width so I just bend the two ends up and trim to length. Making a jig for this would be simple. All you need is a piece of material the right width.


  5. Jeff

    I was re-reading this and couldn’t help but laugh remembering the words of a friend who was an electronics technician in the USN as he was giving us a tutorial on soldering…”don’t think you need a lot of solder to make a strong connection – ‘the bigger the blob, the better the job’ doesn’t apply here…”

  6. mike


    I’m surprised by little solder you actually need for a strong joint. It’s far less than you’d imagine.


  7. steve hurt

    Mike, that is a great tip for the soldering of small parts. I too tend to be a flooder! Then a regretter. I have some small handrails to build for a couple stalled projects that this may help bring back to life. Thanks, Steve Hurt

  8. mike

    Hi Steve,
    I don’t remember where I saw the technique, I think it was in one of Brian Banna’s diesel detailing videos on YouTube. Regardless it’s been a game changer for the work.