Articles - Small Tools
01/09/2015
Once you get into the hobby of model railroading you will soon need a small arsenal of tools. On this page I discuss some of the smaller tools I use most often, and review some duds. I had been wanting dial calipers for a long time. A few years ago I bought a digital caliper, thinking that that was the latest technology. The unit was horrible. After every measurement is never returned to "zero", which meant that I could never be sure of its accuracy. The digital read-out didn't seem to stay in sync with the thumbscroll, and the battery didn't last very long. I threw it away. I picked up this beauty shown here at Harbor Freight after I switched to S-scale. There was only one in my local store, but that's all I needed. It appears to no longer be available on their web site.
Small Tools
It has two scales. One scale shows 1/1000ths of an inch (the blue scale), which is great for measuring the thickness of styrene and other plastic parts. The other scale measures in 1/64ths of an inch (the white scale), which is perfect for S-scale, since 1/64 equals one scale inch. This was my first purchase at Harbor Freight and I was always a bit nervous about their cheap prices. Everything we bought there that day was of excellent quality. I highly recommend the store. This dial caliper works great! I have been using it for both woodworking and model railroad structure building and it is very accurate and reliable.
Small Tools
One night I was browsing through eBay's listings when I came upon these "Scale Corrugated Metal Dies". They are made by Fassett Studios. They produce them for various scales. I bought the ones made for S-scale. Update: apparently the owner, Tom Fassett, has passed away, so they are no longer available.
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As soon as they arrived in the mail, I grabbed a piece of aluminum foil and tried them out. They worked great. The instruction sheet that comes with them is very clear. You get two dies.
Small Tools
I bought these #41 to #60 drill bits from Micro-Mark. They appear to be of very good quality, and I have used several of them already.
Small Tools
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"The Chopper II" is an extremely useful tool if you enjoy kit-bashing and/or scratch-building. Northwest Short Lines, the company that manufacturers this product, also produces a cheaper unit. I bought that first, but soon found it to be a weak design. Since I enjoy scratch-building, I need a tool that can last. Purchasing this product was a wise decision. I use it in every project I work on, and highly recommend it. The product comes with a free order for another mat (they are replaceable). I am still just using the first mat (only turned it 90-degrees one time). I think the tool will last a long time. Easy to replace the razor blade.
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"Miter Saw" is a simple hand tool made by Fourmost Products for making miter cuts in small pieces of wood or plastic. It is a nice design and seems to be well-built. However, the main board is made out of wood, so it may not last "forever". I don't really find myself using it that often. Maybe as my scratch-building projects become more complex, involving miter cuts, I might start to use it more.
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This is the original NWSL Chopper. It works, but it just doesn't last long. I highly recommend that you spend the extra few dollars and buy the diecast Chopper II shown above. I felt this was a waste of my money, while the other unit is one of the best tools in my collection.
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"The True Sander" is manufactured by Northwest Short Line, I bought this product to help me sand true corners and edges. I used it on one project and the whole thing fell apart. It is horrible. I highly recommend that you look for another product. The "Miter Sander" by Fourmost Products might be a better option. If the company would design a new model based on the cast metal design they used for their The Chopper II, I would consider buying it, but this Masonite board-based design is worthless. It doesn't clamp down on the project wood. The results still didn't yield true edges. The clamp bar started falling apart shortly after first serious use. The miter gauge is flimsy, and therefore not reliable.
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If you paint with model paints, you need to buy one of these battery-operated paint stirrers. They get to the bottom of the bottle and really stir everything loose, while minimizing splashing out of the bottle.
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If you use styrene in your modeling, get this glue. Throw away the plastic glue that comes in the tubes. There are some other products that are similar to this glue, but I've always been happy with Testors Plastic Cement. Nearly any hobby store has these in stock.
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This pounce wheel I've only used a couple of times on some scratchbuilt structure I made. I don't like the shape of the punches, so I don't use it. There are other punches available, though.
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Rail nippers by Xuron are a must if you do any kind of custom track work, such as using flextrack or hand-laying track. It makes nice, clean cuts without deforming the rail.
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This drill bit set contains one drill bit each of sizes #61 down to #80. These are required if you do any kind of detailing work on structures, and especially on rolling stock. The set is relatively expensive, but you can always get replacement bits (#80 through #77 tend to break pretty easily).
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These square punches are supposed to be great for cutting out windows in scratchbuilt structures, but for me they seem to always deform the styrene or wood. I don't know if it is these particular punches, or if I am not doing it right. However, I don't use them because of that.
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I believe I bought this uncoupler from Micro-Mark. It is a metal pick that works well with Z-scale couplers, and I used it for my S-scale couplers, too. However, lately I've been using wooden barbeque skewers on my S-scale couplers. The extra friction of the wooden skewers seems to help uncouple the couplers better.
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A track gauge for your modeling scale is a requirement if you use flextrack or hand-lay your own track. It helps you make sure that the rails are at the correct spacing, and can check tunnel clearances. The one in the photo is for N-scale, but they are available for whatever scale you model.
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This is a 6-inch contour gauge by General (part #837). It is great for copying an odd shape. Press the pins up against a shape, and the use the tool and a pencil to mark that shape on some other material. I use it both in woodworking and model railroading.
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I bought these wire strippers at a local model railroad show. They worked great for a little while, but then started having problems. I bought a replacement pair, and they broke quite quickly. I am now just using an electrician's wire stripper that you can buy at the local hardware store.
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Although not a small tool, the biscuit cutter is a very handy tool for making strong, hidden joints for woodworking, and thus model railroad benchwork.
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This is by far my most favorite tool. I use it almost every day. I think I bought it from "The Tool Man" (no longer has a web site, but attends many model railroading events around the Texas area). I would flag this tool as "essential". The very fine tips don't bend or break, even under a lot of pressure.
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A collection of metal weights are indispensable tools, when you need them. Not being a metal-worker, I didn't know where to find something useful until someone mentioned "Small Parts". I bought four 1" x 3" x 3/8" stainless steel rectangular bars. They help out in weighing parts down for gluing, as 90-degree corner jigs, laying track, etc. It does tend to rust a bit when left on wet surfaces, but that can be removed (Small Parts' web site is now gone).
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These small clothespins are fantastic for holding small parts or pieces of styrene together while the glue sets.
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I picked up this package of two mandrels at Joanne's Fabric. They will come in handy for when I need to make a consistent bent into a brass wire for handrails or grab irons.
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A very handy tool for when you are building kits. The sharp point gets into the tight spaces to cut parts from the kit's sprue.
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I've been eyeing this magnetic clamp for a while, but it was surprisingly hard to actually buy. The company that makes it doesn't sell it directly, and only a few dealers carry it. I finally found it at a local train show, and bought it from "The Tool Man".
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These are all the parts in the box. The clear plastic lid slides open. The four parts are covered in a protective blue film. The parts themselves are clear plastic.
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After removing the film, this quick set-up shows how to use the parts. The box' lid is held in place, much like a structure wall would be held in place while gluing.
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These are the two main parts. The magnets are quite powerful. The angled base is removable, which makes it possible to lay the magnetic parts sideways for other ways to hold kit parts. Everything fits nicely back in the handy box for storage.
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At a local train show, "The Tool Man" had a booth set up. I was finally able to find the loose drill bit chuck that I had been looking for. I had been using those small pin-vises that require a special collet to be able to handle a certain size drill bit, but the collet was always too big or too small for the handful of common drill bits I use. This small chuck allows me to dial in the exact diameter I need. Although it can be put into a drill, I usually find its centrifugal weight to be just right to use it for hand-drilling, which is handy for delicate work. I highly recommend this tool.
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