In modeling, you’ll do certain tasks over and over. If you can find a specific tool for the job that’s great or, you can always make your own.

Take the simple emery board for example. It has its uses and most of us have a stock of them on the workbench. I use them but their flexible nature makes it easy to round over edges and it’s hard to get into tight spaces. I’ve trimmed the ends for a better fit in tight quarters but they still aren’t the best for working over a large area.

I finished work on the roof panels of the new boxcar project by shaping the plugs and smoothing everything (photo above). With quarter-inch scale, defects like sanding scratches or gouges from a modeling knife show up easily. Looking carefully at the model, I noticed a handful of gouges on the end panels of the roof where I was careless with the blade. I could let them go and call it “weathering” but there’s no excuse for being sloppy.

New Tricks For Old Dogs and Some Shop Built Tools
I bought the tools seen above for less than ten bucks. The craft sticks came in a bag of 150 and that’s almost a lifetime supply depending on how you use them. They’re stiffer than emery boards and there are dozens of ways to use them at the bench. I plan to glue different grades of sandpaper to each side. I planned to do the same with the palette knives but found the nice wide blade of the bigger one makes a good scraper for cleaning up body filler and for getting into tight right-angled corners. They aren’t that expensive so I think I’ll get another one for sanding.

Many of us make a custom tool out of scraps and that’s what I did after reading about some of the custom shop tools Tony Sissons made for himself (photos below). Mine aren’t as ingenious or elegant as his but they get the job done.

Tony uses steel blocks in three sizes: 1/2” x 1/2“ x 1.3/8” (12 x 12 x 35mm) 5/16” x 5/16” x 1.3/8” (8 x 8 x 35mm) and 1/4” x 1/4” x 1/2” (6 x 6 x 12mm) Each has a different grade of emery paper on at least two sides, which are perfect for working larger areas. In this image he attached a length of steel rule and a piece of sandpaper to the block for smoothing surfaces like this cab roof.

How do you measure the front-to-back distance of a diesel step when calipers or a normal scale rule won’t fit? By sacrificing an old scale rule. Here Tony ground one end down to a narrow profile leaving just enough hash marks to read the distance. Simple and useful. Tony’s photos are used with his permission.

In addition to the emery boards, I cut pieces of 0.032” brass and 0.040” styrene and attached 600 grit sandpaper to each with double sided tape (photo below). These make sanding and smoothing large flat areas easier. When the paper gets dull it’s easy to scrap off with a knife blade and apply a fresh piece. The size and shape of these doesn’t matter; make them according to your needs. I will make handles for one or both, or maybe just make a longer shape that I can hold and work like a file. There are more “design modifications” to come as I test them out.

I’m not here to bash on cheap supplies, they have their uses and being inexpensive, they’re easy to keep on hand. But if you want better results in modeling, making a custom tool is a step to explore. You’ve already got the material kicking around in the scrap drawer, so why wouldn’t you create something that fits your specific needs exactly?



  1. Simon

    By pure chance, I just came across a repository of the late Colin Binnie’s sketches for home-made tools on the web at this address:

    Colin was well known in early U.K. finescale circles for his ingenuity, practicality and inventiveness, as well as some of the scrapes he got into whilst trying out various ideas such as centrifugal casting by whirling the metal-filled mould around his head. (Metal escaped and produced a run of perforations across the kitchen curtains!)

    His articles, sketches and cartoons are worth a visit.

  2. mike

    Simon. My apologies. I just found this comment in the spam folder after all this time. Not certain why it wound up there. I don’t think I’ll try spinning molten metal over my head anytime soon.