Random Modeling Tips

After a half-century in the hobby, I've accumulated a fair amount of modeling wisdom. Unfortunately, it's all sprinkled randomly across well over a thousand pages. So, as a service to my loyal readers, I've cherry-picked the best of the best and consolidated them in one place. The list will likely grow over time. The tips are not in any particular order.


To accelerate ballast (or scenery material) drying time considerably, place a small fan nearby that gently blows across the work area. It keeps the air around the work area from becoming saturated with moisture. Drying time can be cut by half or two-thirds or more.

To aid assembling parts with CA as well as to avoid unintentionally bonding a model to your work surface, assemble the parts on an old stainless steel ruler. The CA bonds to the stainless just enough to help hold parts in alignment while they set, but it's easy enough to gently pop them off the ruler with the tip of a sharp knife.

To hold tiny parts securely for painting, use Post-It Notes. The adhesive is just strong enough to keep the parts in place, while allowing them to be removed easily without damage. Just tape a Post-It Note upside-down to a scrap of cardboard, then lightly press the parts to the sticky area.

To reliably attach scale people to a layout, start with their feet. Using a superfine fingernail polishing stick, very gently sand the bottoms of the shoes until you see nice clean, flat patches of white styrene. Next, apply a tiny dab of thick CA to a scrap of styrene and, holding the figure in a pair of fine tweezers, lightly dip their feet in the glue; then position the figure on the layout—preferably on a relatively smooth, flat surface. It helps to rehearse this move in a dry run a couple of times first to be sure you can reliably place the figure's feet flatly in position in one shot. This is a tedious little chore that requires lots of practice and a very gentle touch, but once you've mastered it, the result is a rock-solid, virtually invisible bond every time.

Wedding veil material makes the best chainlink fence you've ever seen. Stop in a craft or sewing center and get a yard; sometimes you can find it in colors—pale grey is perfect. Also, remember to cut it on a diagonal; use a steel ruler and the very sharpest knife you own for best results.

Don't throw away burned-out switch machines. The solenoids have very fine wire that's useful for loads of things. For instance, it makes great barbed wire for security fences. Also use it to make virtually invisible connections to tiny SMD LEDs.

Soldering brass structures, where practical, is much better than gluing. To prevent the solder from ruining the visible surfaces, spray them first with metal primer. Then clean off the edges where they'll be soldered with a sharp knife and/or a fingernail file. After all of the parts are assembled, soak the model in acetone to remove the paint.

For the very best soldering results, use water-based liquid acid flux instead of paste. You'll even be able to solder stainless steel with it.

To prep brass models for painting, soak them in ordinary vinegar for a half-hour or so, then rinse thoroughly. The mild acid in the vinegar helps clean the brass and give it a slight tooth to assist with paint adhesion.

Get yourself an old toaster oven at a yard sale. For brass models, bake the paint for a flatter, more durable finish. Just pop the model in the oven set to around 250 degrees for about a half-hour. (Won't work, however, if you glued the model together.)

Get yourself an old blender at a yard sale. You can make your own forest floor groundcover materials by chopping up dead leaves and tiny bits of twig. Use water to make a slurry, and smear it out on a piece of newspaper in the sun to dry.

Save those tiny broken drill bits! They come in handy for certain tricky tasks such as removing tiny gears from thin shafts. They also make for durable details, like rooftop antennas or sign posts.

Small foam disposable bowls from the paper goods aisle of the supermarket are ideal for mixing batches of Sculptamold or other scenery materials.

Mix up those batches of Sculptamold or other stuff using popsicle sticks, which you can buy by the hundreds (I got a box of 300 for a few bucks) in the woodworking section of craft stores.

If you don't have running water handy in your workshop or layout area, keep a couple of plastic bottles of water sitting around for things like mixing up batches of scenery material, or keeping your soldering iron sponge wet.

Keep a few packages of disposable brushes on hand. There are lots of messy chores that require brushes, such as applying contact cement or scenery goop; you'll spend more money on solvents and more time trying to clean them than is worth it.

If you work on several projects concurrently, get a set of plastic storage drawers from the local discount store; they'll keep your projects organized and safe.

To help prevent damage to delicate parts from sliding around in plastic storage drawers, line the bottoms with "Fun Foam"—thin sheets of foam plastic, available from most any craft store.

While you're out shopping at places such as craft stores or home improvement centers, wander down aisles you don't normally visit. Chances are you'll see things that may give you ideas about modeling that might not occur to you otherwise. For instance, it's how I thought of using steel framing material for benchwork instead of wood; I also found neat storage containers for powdered chalk in the beading section of a craft store. Plus I found the "Fun Foam" I use to line storage drawers to protect models. "Fun Foam" can also be used to make paved road surfaces.

When working on small modeling projects at your workbench, tape a sheet of plain white paper to your work surface. It makes everything much easier to see—particularly tiny parts—and it helps keep the work area cleaner. When the paper starts getting dirty or tattered, just replace it.

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