Setting up a shop involves understanding the work you want to do and what will allow you to grow as a modeler and achieve your best.

This gondola car from Protocraft embodies everything that quarter-inch scale is capable of being. There are few if any compromises in the construction and quality of detailing. Made by Boo Rim of Korea it’s a stunning piece of workmanship.

While I won’t achieve quality like this anytime soon, or perhaps ever, my ultimate goal is to model to the standards I choose. I see rolling stock in the same way I look at composing a scene. With Mill Road, each element either contributes to or detracts from the narrative. For me, the same standard applies to freight cars. It is all of a piece, rather than separate things just thrown together.

This approach to modeling is part of who I am. Understanding this took me a long time and now I’m embracing it with everything I have. I’m not so much building a layout as sharing a very personal story expressed through the medium of scale models.

In that light, I’m taking a hard look at my current work along with the type of projects I want to do, and planning for the future. I’m looking at tools that will make an immediate impact on the work. Thinking this through, I ask a series of questions.

Will a specialized tool make this task easier and more precise?
Will I do enough of this work to justify the purchase?

Upgrading my hand tools is a straightforward choice. The decision process for machinery is more complicated.

The Work Dictates The Tools
I’ve quickly developed a love of working brass and want to go deeper with that medium. In the past I’ve used my mini drill press for light milling and I know full well I’m pushing my luck in doing this. A drill press spindle isn’t designed for the lateral forces milling creates. I wasn’t too concerned with milling styrene but even taking light cuts in thin brass is a different story, and I reached the limit of what I’m willing to do with the drill press.

Milling the flange off

Milling this styrene channel probably didn’t hurt anything. Doing this on a strip of brass is another story. The drill press is the wrong tool and this is the wrong technique for working metal.

I’ve now invested in a proper milling machine. Based on the abuse I inflicted on the drill press, it was past the time to have one in the shop. I’m pleased with the improvements in technique, quality and repeatability the tool brings to the work. It’s opening doors that were closed before.

Secured temporarily to my general purpose workbench, the Sherline 5400 mill is the best fit for the work I envision and my shop space. I upgraded the column to 15″ high and the X-Y table to 17″. The extra capacity will be useful for working with quarter-inch scale. Here I have a 1/4″ chuck fitted for drilling a few holes.
Machines like this aren’t cheap. While it’s nice to think about all the stuff you could do someday, realistically I prefer to focus on a few things rather than dream about everything. With that thought in mind, I chose a Sherline mill over the larger model from Micro-Mark, though I admit to waffling back and forth between these two for months on end. All things considered, the Sherline seemed a better fit for the work I expect to do and it’s made in the US. They have a solid range of accessories and there is a good amount of information online about working with this tool.

When researching a purchase like this, it’s important to understand a few things. After watching a number of videos it became clear that the guys who object to a smaller mill want to do work that is beyond its capacity. If I have any one piece of advice to offer it’s to know what you actually want from a tool like this. Not what you might want ten years from now but what you need and expect to do today.

I’m only interested in model building instead of general machining. The Sherline fits into my small shop without an overpowering presence and my experience with it so far is very positive. It’s a robust machine that is more than adequate for the jobs I’ll ask of it. The 5400 model I chose is a simple three-axis (X, Y and Z) machine, as I don’t need the additional flexibility of a tilting column. For someone with little machine experience, the setup was straightforward.

I bought a package deal that included the mill and some basic accessories such as a vice, various cutters, collets, hold-downs and so on that let me get to work immediately. I also purchased one specialized fixture and upgraded the mill with a taller column and longer X-Y table based on the modeling scale and the type of work I’m doing. The extra capacity should be handy with larger parts for rolling stock. It also allows more room, for jigs and other accessories, without severely reducing the tool’s usable working range. I went with a manual set-up over CNC because I’m content to rock it old school. 

These additions increased the initial cost but are well worth it to me. Having the proper tool for the work involved is very satisfying. Over the coming months I plan to add a dedicated workstation for the mill with accessory storage and look forward to the work this tool will help me create.

If I have any one piece of advice to offer it’s to know what you actually want from a tool like this.

The choice of whether to get a lathe isn’t so simple. I’ve done few if any turning operations for my modeling. The essential question to answer is this: Is that because I haven’t had the capability to do turning, or because I don’t as yet have a need for turned parts?

The majority of my projects involve cutting and shaping pieces of flat stock to size and drilling holes. I can do these operations with the tools I have currently. However, given the expense of such equipment, it’s wise to think ahead and consider that as your skills grow, your vision of the work will grow too. I can foresee using a lathe to make components that are customized to my needs, so it’s likely one will find a home in the shop sooner rather than later.

Machine tools also open a Pandora’s box of accessories, most of which are expensive in their own right. Do I really need every accessory in the catalog? No, of course not. Again, it pays to be clear about the type of work you routinely need to do, and consider such purchases accordingly.

This adjustable angle plate clamps to the T tracks of the milling table. It has a series of through and tapped holes for securing work and other accessories. I use it for milling the angles on truck bolsters.
A 1/32″ diameter two-flute end mill from McMaster Carr (Part # 8888A11) makes cutting the coupler key slots on a center sill easier. The 1/8″ shank fits a collet on the mill. I finished the detail by forming a length of 0.015 x 0.042 bar to shape and soldering it in place.

Your Shop, Your Choice
In a post like this it isn’t my intent to offer concrete advice about which tools you should have. Setting up a shop involves understanding the work you want to do and what will allow you to grow as a modeler and achieve your best. Those are decisions only you can make and your choices will be different from mine.

Modeling Begins With The Modeler
While it’s nice to have advanced tools, they aren’t the cure-all many believe them to be. Sloppy work done with expensive tools is still sloppy work. Quality starts with the modeler’s mindset. I waited a long time before investing the money this tool required. Prior to getting the mill I developed my hand skills and found ways to do what I wanted with my existing resources. It was part of the process of growing as a modeler. Now, with that experience, I’m ready to take full advantage of the greater precision the mill brings to the work. As I discover what it’s capable of and the best ways to use it, my enjoyment in modeling will only rise.

A short time ago, I would have said details like these tie down brackets were beyond my reach. That is until I simply sat down and tried my hand at making them. There were plenty of failures before getting to this point but is failure really such a horrible thing? Multiple attempts brought the results I wanted and In the end, I gained far more than the time I lost.

My workshop is nearly complete with the addition of this tool. Now it’s up to me to put in the time and learn what I need to learn. At this stage in the journey, that involves understanding where and how my mistakes are happening. It helps to pause often and deliberately think over what I’m about to do. I also find it useful to consider the impact of the current procedure on the steps that will follow and vice versa. A given part can entail multiple cuts and there is often a sequence to making them that is better than others.

This is why I do practice pieces and take such a deliberate approach to the work. I want to improve my modeling and the only way to achieve that is to develop more considered and methodical habits of mind.Thanks for reading this far. I hope there’s something useful here for your work.



  1. Dan Placzek

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with brass, Mike. While I probably will never work with brass or anything other than HO scale, your posts translate across scale and materials.

    Dan Placzek

  2. mike

    Thanks Dan. Glad you enjoy the posts. With all the new tech we have access to, brass isn’t as popular as in the past, though still common in quarter-inch scale. It’s a great medium that offers distinct advantages for scratch building.


  3. Simon

    Good choice, Mike.

    Since you can buy Proto:48 wheels, and aren’t modelling steam, a lathe would not been as good an investment as the mill. Also, that’s a good, reliable, brand: a friend who works in the aircraft industry bought one for his own, personal, railway modelling use, judging it to be sturdy enough for the jobs he has in mind.

    Enjoy getting to know the tool!

  4. Craig Townsend

    I had a similar journey with a mini hobby table saw. For years I scores and snapped styrene but just didn’t quite get what I wanted out of that method. Then I got a lower end mini table saw and it transformed my building skills. But eventually my skills got to point that making the saw do what I needed ( shaving a .010″ slice off) became more trouble than it was worth so I invested in a high end mini table saw. I haven’t looked back and now almost 2 years later I’m cutting .010″ slices off with ease and working towards the .005″ slice that I know I and the tool am capable of.

    I keep eyeing my drill press and X/Y table in the same way and thinking about how a mill would work better.

    I’m not sure if you are aware of the MIT machine shop videos, but I’ve learned a ton about setting up parts,etc from these videos. The milling machine is a 3 part series that goes from basic to advanced methods.


  5. mike

    Hi Simon,

    I was also impressed with the fact the company uses their own product for certain operations in the manufacturing of it. That speaks well for the durability of the machines. I’m happy with my choice. While I don’t need to turn or reprofile wheels, given the three rail influence in this scale, I can see doing other turnings to upgrade various parts of a freight car. I will likely add a Sherline lathe to the shop at some point.


  6. mike

    Sounds familiar Craig. My Microlux table saw isn’t as precise as I’d like without a lot of fussing around. It does a good job rough cutting stock but I doubt I could shave off strips that thin with it. I’ve pushed the drill press as far as I can and there is a lot of run out in the spindle from the abuse I’ve inflicted on it. Now that I have the mill, I will probably do any precision drilling work on it instead. Thanks for the video link. There’s a lot of good information out there if you can find it.


  7. Chris Mears

    I love reading your progress and I consider it a privilege that modellers like you, Rene Gourley, and Mark Zagrodney share your journey in modelmaking as a craft involving techniques beyond my simple knife and “tries hard and has some success” toolkit. An investment into these tools as an education makes broadens your experience as modelmakers and makes you better modellers – since modellers are people then it no doubt makes enriches your experience as people too.

    There are so many lessons to learn and adopt into our own journey and I am learning that it’s not so much setting a goal for the ultimate kind of modeller I’d like to be someday but interacting with my current work to see what I could improve on. In this way, this more incremental approach feels like it builds on something literally if not figuratively. Guided and inspired by my friends who are further into this journey than I am I can see where these steps lead and it all feels like forward progess. I couldn’t always see things this clearly and am glad I stuck around to learn them.