Starter Tools for Novices

Newcomers to ship modeling often wonder (and sometimes ask) what tools they need to get started. If you're not sure you're going to stick with the hobby, keep your initial expenses to a minimum. If you decide to stay with it, you'll find plenty of opportunity to spend hundreds of dollars on tools in the future. Here are my suggestions:

1) Cutting implements. You'll need a hobby knife and some extra blades as well as some ordinary single-edged razor blades. You'll need something to cut on too. An old wooden cutting board will work fine if the surface is smooth. A small block plane will be useful when you're tapering spars. Model Expo carries a nice razor plane (uses razor blades) that I like - part number AM710002.

2) A razor saw. There are many manufacturers of razor saws, such as Zona and Exacto.You might also consider a small miter box to use with the saw, but that's not essential. I also like a saw available from Woodcraft - Product Number 126820. The blade is only .008 inches thick and has 60 teeth per inch, so it cuts very smoothly. But it's a $21 saw and overkill for a beginner.

3) Measuring devices. Get a 6-inch ruler that has both metric and inch scales. My favorite is the General Ultra Rule (Model Expo # GEN641). It's very accurate with both 1 mm and 1/32-inch markings and even includes a nice mechanical pencil. You may also find a compass and dividers useful. You can find these in most any office supply store as well as Model Expo. You' may also want a small draftsman's triangle and a small machinist's square (such as part number 83261 from Micro-Mark). Other than the ruler, all these are nice to have but not necessarily critical for a first model.

4) Sand paper. You'll need various grits from 80 to 400. A sanding block is pretty essential as well. You can make your own from a block of wood or buy a small ready-made one. The Perma-Grit flat hand file (F-101) is also amazingly useful, both for sanding and for use as a straightedge. They can be a bit hard to find. Here's one online source.

5) Drill bits. You can buy a set of small numbered from Micro-Mark (such as # 60362). You may also want to consider a set of metric drills such as #60437 since most of the instructions provided by European kits will call for you to use particular sizes of metric drills. You'll also need something to hold the drills (a pin vise). My personal favorite is a ball-end vise from Micro-Mark - #80743 but they have a large selection to choose from.

A Dremel tool is a useful optional tool, but you can do most things with a pin vise (albeit a bit slower) and sometimes the pin vise can be even better because you have absolute control over it (for example, drilling small holes in cast metal fittings). If you want to buy a Dremel, consider the cordless Mini-mite. It's small and the rechargeable battery seems to last forever. I find that the large, corded, variable speed Dremel is too big and unwieldy for fine, hand work.

6) Pliers. I'd recommend, at a minimum, a fine needle nose (smooth jaw) and a miniature round nose (for bending eyes, oval links, etc. Be sure you get smooth-jawed, round nose - not half round!). I prefer the style that's used for electronics work because they are small and often well made. I get mine at a local store that specializes in electronics (try Radio Shack, for example). You'll also need a small, flush-cut wire cutter, such as Xuron.

7) Cuticle shears. Invaluable for snipping rigging lines. I prefer shears over scissors for this task. I get mine at the local drug store. Obviously, you won't need these until you get to the rigging stage of building your model.

8) Needle files. You'll need these for smoothing out the mold lines on cast fittings and they will be useful for shaping wood as well. I like the diamond-coated variety such as # 82248 from Micro-Mark. Woodcraft also makes a nice set of standard files but they're expensive ($34). In my experience, the standard files are better on wood and the diamond files are better on castings. But, again, keep your costs to a minimum.

9) Clamps. Common wooden clothes pins are easy to modify and essential for clamping parts together. Craft stores often carry very small clothespins that can be useful when you're rigging. Some rubber bands may come in handy too. When it comes time to rig the model, a "3rd hand" device (two spring clamps on adjustable arms) will be essential. See Micro-Mark part number 21120 for an example. Stores like Radio Shack often carry these as well.

10) Painting supplies. You'll need masking tape. The standard brown variety is great for holding things where clamps won't work. For painting, you'll find that vinyl masking tape works much better. You may be able to find the vinyl tape at auto parts stores or you can order some from Micro-Mark - part number 60727. Of course, you'll need paint brushes in several small sizes. I buy mine from a local crafts store so that I can feel their softness and flexibility before buying. Buy good quality ones designed for use with acrylic (water-based) paints. I prefer a type with synthetic bristles made from Taklon. You can buy acrylic paints in the craft store as well in a wide variety of shades (a widely available brand is Delta Ceramcoat). I've also used Model Flex paints by Badger and have had good results with them. Don't buy paints intended for plastic models.

There are, of course, many other tools you can buy that will make ship modeling jobs easier or more accurate but I'd advise against buying more until you decide you want to stick with the hobby or you run into some job you just can't do with the tools you have. All the tools listed above can be used for purposes other than ship modeling. Above all, don't buy some specialized ship modeling jig or tool that seems like it would be a good idea. Such things are frequently just a waste of money. Ask a more experienced modeler first before you buy something you may not need. In any case, you won't likely need to buy any specialized tools to complete your first model. Also, don't feel that you have to buy the exact same tools that I use. The ones I have recommended have proven themselves to me over the years but they are my choices. Go with what you can get or use what you already have.

11) Glues. As you get to know more and more ship modelers, you'll realize that there are several opinions on which glues are best. You may want to experiment and make your own choices. I primarily use a yellow aliphatic resin wood glue (such as Titebond) that cleans up with water, white glue, such as Elmers, thin cyanoacrylate (CA), medium, gap-filling CA, and 5-minute epoxy. While you're buying your CA glue, pick up some debonder as well (such as Z-7 from Pacer). Even if you don't manage to glue your fingers to the model, you'll certainly want to remove dried CA from them, and that's where the debonder comes into play. Acetone works as well although I prefer Z-7 for cleaning fingers because it has a gel-like consistency and doesn't smell as much.