Friday, 24 February 2012

Tooltime - part 1 (Modelling)

Welcome to Tooltime!

It occurred to me recently that I toss around a lot of technical jargon and the names of a lot of tools that people new to the hobby - or who just don't shake information loose from the internet as obsessively as I do - may be unfamiliar with. To rectify this I present... Tooltime. I'll show you what I use and more importantly, I'll tell you why, in todays episode, modelling tools. We'll start with the basics:

These are the tools that I find I couldn't live without (plus razor blades). I'll go through them:

Clippers: Ignore what cheapskates tell you, it DOES matter which clippers you get. The important factors are a flat back (I.E. the cutting edge is sharpened like a chisel) like so:

Most electrical clippers are shaped like the example on the right, this creates two wedges that allow the clippers to shear through thick cable easily. Trouble is, imagine two of these surfaces meeting. You are left with a little triangular void. This makes them unsuitable for modelling where the most common application is removing parts from sprue. The cleanest way to do this is by using the flat backed type (the example on the left) and pressing the flat back against the part you want, hey presto! Clean cut, no wierd lumps of plastic to clean up. Another useful feature is return spring that holds the clippers open. This means that you only need mechanical effort to close them and speeds things up immensely.

PRO: There is no tool faster for removing plastic parts from the sprues they are cast on. Leaves clean cuts needing a minimum of cleaning.
CON: The side facing away from the flat back is mangled. This is not a tool to use if you want to seperate two parts and keep them both.

Knife: I use scalpel bladed knives (I'll go over why in a minute) but there are a dizzying array of different modelling knives out there. The three most common are the X-Acto style, the snap off blade style and the scalpels. To my mind, the snap off bladed knives are only useful for scenery, they lack the fine point of a really good hobby knife. The X-Acto style are good but hold the blade in with a chuck that you tighten, this has a tendency to loosen and slip at the worst possible time. Scalpels, on the other hand, are held with a very, very positive lock that will not slip. I use a retractable scalpel (used to be sold by GW but can still be bought from Swann-Morten) with a lovely steel construction. It has served me very well. The blades can be bought in big boxes (Size 10A is my favourite) for not a lot of money so you can always keep your blades surgical sharp. There is nothing more dangerous to modellers than a blunt blade. You have to put much more force into the cuts so that they give way and then the blade goes where the hell it likes.

PRO: Control, thin cuts, excellent for scraping mold lines.
CON: Changing blades is a knack, surgical blades are very, very good at cutting skin. Can be difficult to exert force.

Razors: You can see a plastic box on the table, this is full of single edged razor blades. These are very, very useful for performing chopping motions where force is needed to be applied. Other than that there is no real need for them if you have a good knife.

PRO: Exert force, razor sharp.
CON: No handle, no retraction, no concessions to safety.

Razor Saw/Jewellers Saw: The thing that looks like Sweeny Todd's murder weapon is a razor saw. An ultra thin serrated blade held rigid by a roll of metal along it's back. You can get X-Acto style handles for them but I tend to hold it along the ridge for more control. There is nothing, nothing, better for cutting through metal models in my opinion. Plus, because it creates such thin cuts both halves are preserved. There's no wastage of crushing as there is with Clippers. Highly advised. Buy the smallest teeth you can get and the broadest blade.

PRO: Excellent and easy cutting of metal. Perfectly flat cuts. No wastage.
CON: Limited by width of blade as you have to stop cutting at the ridge.

Pin Vice: Stupid name, it's a hand drill. The name comes from the tightenable chuck designed to hold a long, thin, PIN-like object in a VICE like grip. These are mostly used in conjunction with the collection of thin drill bits for hollowing out gun barrels and other features. They are also used to create holes into which a length of pinning wire can be inserted to create a stronger join between two parts. I'm not going into pinning here, there are loads of good tutorials and it is becoming increasingly unnecessary in these days of light resin.

PRO: Easy to use, excellent control.
CON: Cramp, oh dear god cramp in the hand. Plus going through metal can be tough.

Files: I don't use these often, but when I do they are the only tool for the job. They smooth metal surfaces. That is all.

PRO: Will create perfect joins for supergluing.
CON: Fiddly and awkward for any other job!

Emery Boards/Sanding Sticks: I have a bunch of these in different grits for smoothing cut plastic or for removing unwanted material. There isn't a lot more to say about these! The Squadron Tri-grit is a good starting point and PK-Pro have a lovely range of different grit sticks.

PRO: Variable grits mean you can create perfectly smooth models.
CON: Not suitable for heavy metal work as the sandpaper will eventually rip.

The Chopper II: Gods I love this piece of kit. It only does one thing - makes perfect vertical cuts in plastic parts and plasticard - but it does it AMAZINGLY well. If you need repeated cuts of plasticard or rod of a precise length there is no better tool. It also does perfect 30, 45 and 60 degree mitres. It is esentially a steel table about 10" square with a metal handle that locks a replacable single edge razor. You push down on the handle and it cuts. Simples.

PRO: Perfect square cuts. Precision mitres, easily repeatable results. Beefy build quality.
CON: Cost, it isn't cheap, but it is very, very good. Don't buy it unless you are serious about improving your converting and scratch building.

Rotary Tool: Basically a cheap Dremel. This has really liberated my conversions. I can tear through metal, etch lines and bowls into things, file flat in seconds.There is a problem with fine control and it does have that "rich-man's hand tool" thing going on. I have found it invaluable for my work. You may disagree.

PRO: Quick, effortless, inspirational.
CON: Pricey compared to the hand tools that you will still need, control is an issue.

Safety Gear: Especially if you are using a dremel-esque tool you need protective gear. A small part flung at 5000 RPM will mess you up. Goggles are all you really need but I hate wearing them so I went back to my scientist roots and bought a face shield. It has the advantage of making sure that all of your face is protected and doesn't steam up as much. I also bought a respirator for when using resin and when creating solvent rich atmospheres. Hmmm, solvents....

A range of glues! I'll go through them fairly quickly:

Plastic Glue/Polystyrene Cement (blue bottle): I use the ones with a long metal applicator, the applicator has the prescision you want but clogs from time to time. Easiest way to clear it is to pass a lighter gently along the length until you see glue bubble out the end and a sudden little flame. It is then clear! I've found the humbrol stuff to set fastest and strongest. Polystyrene Cement only glues plastic models, but there is nothing finer for this task.
Super Glue: This is a fascinating chemical, Cyanoacrylate (CA) was developed in the Vietnam war to stick soldiers back together. That is why it bonds skin so fast, it was coincidence that it also bonded pretty much everything else! You can make CA to set in any time you like, you can buy specialist glues timed to the half second. I use Loctite as I like the viscosity and drying time. I am going to stick up for GW here, a lot of people have a real down on their superglue. It is no weaker than anyone elses it just has a longer curing time and needs patience. Think about it, if you were selling a product that bonds skin instantly - unless it has a longer cure time - to kids then what would you do? Super glue is for metal and resin.
PVA: Don't buy it from a modelling shop, go and buy a big bottle of stuff for kids crafts. It is the same and has a much better price:volume ratio. PVA is for porous materials and for basing your models and scenery.
Formula 500 Canopy Glue: A special type of tough, crystal clear drying PVA designed for sticking clear plastic componants down without fogging. Regular PVA does the job but this is the bomb.
No More Nails: Really strong scenery glue. Does a similar job to a hot glue gun but is stronger and more flexible. Dries slowly though.

Sculpting Tools: Through conversations with Steve Buddle and Neil Roberts back when I was working in Truro, Cornwall I learned that EVERYTHING is a sculpting tool if it makes the right shape! I also have an array of steel sculpting doodads. I tend to just use the GW one though as it is ace.

Putty: There are a whole load of different putties out there, I'll go through my favourites:
  • Green Stuff: Technically called Kneadatite, this is a two-part epoxy putty originally designed for plumbing. It has been the gold standard - well green standard - of sculptors for years. It is fairly sticky and elastic but holds a shape very well when it is cured.
  • Brown Stuff (not pictured): Kinda the same as green stuff but a little less elastic, nice for sculpting flowing robes and hair.
  • Pro-Create: Something of a new boy. Also a two-part putty it has been designed for miniatures from the ground up. Less sticky, less elastic and can be sanded to a certain degree. I like this one!
  • Liquid Green Stuff: Read this and then go buy a pot. It will change your world!
  • Squadron Green putty: This is kinda what Liquid Green Stuff would be if made a little thicker and with brain melting chemicals. I used to use it quite a lot but I sense it is going the way of the dodo in my kit.
There are those who swear by milliput or to arcane mixes of different putties. You gotta try different ones until you find one you like. I can recommend Pro-Create though, very good.

Magnets: Teeny tiny little Neodymium magnets have revolutionised modelling. We can have swoppable weapons and easily breakable componants can just be magnetised and then stored in the case. I'll do a full tutorial on these some time but they are wonderful.

Other useful bits, you'll be amazed at what turns out to be vital in your future. In this image we have a bulldog clip (holding transfers down, clipping parts together when they dry etc. Some really low-tack masking tape for creating straight lines when painting. A pencil and permanent marker for planning cuts on models and laying out complex freehand painting. A steel ruler for straight cuts in paper. Some tweezers for manipulating small componants (essentially if you have sausage hands like me) and a lighter for clearing plastic glue blockages and for heating wire to stab into plastic to create little bullet holes.

Well, that's all for this session. Mulder will have his hard hat on again next time for Tooltime - part 2 (Painting)!



  1. A great review!

    A quick question, what size of magnet do you normaly buy?

  2. I normally buy the 1mm thick ones and get 1mm, 2mm and 3mm diameter ones. I intend to get some thicker ones as these aren't terribly beefy.

  3. I've just started getting metal models and I've read lots of guides that say the pinning helps keep parts connected stronger. What size do you use for the wires, and what do you use to drill holes in metal? Is a pin vise good enough for that?

  4. I want one of those Choppers!! Where did you get it??

  5. Itsacoyote: 0.8mm wire (uncoated paperclip wire) and a 1mm bit, drill both sides, insert wire a little longer than required. Join the two pieces together to see how much the wire needs to be shortened. Remove the second piece and clip off the excess. Glue away! Pin vice is more than enough, just be prepared for some cramp if you do lots!

    The GunGrave: Antenociti's Workshop is your best bet. NWSL are an American company so stock varies.