Model Railroad Tools & How to Use Them


What are model railroad tools?

As you build your model railroad you will use a wide assortment of tools. The tools you use will vary as your project moves through the various stages towards completion.

Some tools such as a model railroad scale ruler, rail nippers, and track gauges, are very specific to model railroading. Some model railroad manufacturers sell tool kits that will help to work on their particular models.

Most tools you will use can be purchased from HR Trains, or a local hardware store. Any tool that will help get the job done could be considered to be a model railroad tool.

Some basic tools might include an assortment of small screw drivers, a pair of needle nose pliers, diagonal cutting pliers, some small jewelers files, a small soldering iron, a prong holder (small parts picker), hemostats, a steel scale ruler, a couple pair of tweezers (one straight, and one with bent tips), a pin vice, some small drill bits, a snap saw (razor saw), an assortment of paint brushes, an xacto knife with a# 11 blade, a precision rotary cutter, a bright boy, q-tips, wire strippers, a square, a utility knife, a pair of scissors, a small sanding block, a small hammer, a nail set and a measuring tape.

Some more advanced model railroad tools might include a computer program to design your track layout - such as pc rail, a dremel tool, an air brush and compressor, a chopper, a voltage meter, a heat gun, a shop vacuum, woodworking equipment such as a saber saw or jig saw, an electric drill, and table saw.


Why tools?

You could improvise and get by. However, a modest investment in some very basic tools will both make it easier and more enjoyable to work on your railroad.


When should you buy tools?

This is a question that many model railroaders ask. The answer depends on your needs. It would be a waste of money to buy tools that won't be used, so a good compromise is to buy only the tools you need to get the job done.


Where should you buy model railroad tools?

HR Trains carries a large variety of tools to help you meet the needs of model railroading. Some tools such as a model railroad scale rule can't be found at the local hardware store. It is also important to have someone who can help you understand the particular application of the tools.


How do you use the tools you do buy?*

Lets start with something as simple as cleaning the track. A bright boy will do the job very nicely, particularly if the track is badly oxidized. Never use sandpaper, because it will leave scratches that will accelerate the oxidation. Also never use steel wool to clean the track. The small strands from steel wool could cause shorts in your track or possibly be picked up by the magnet in the locomotives motor which will bring it to a stop.

* stainless steel model railroad rulers can be used as a straight edge, but the real purpose is to eliminate the need for complicated mathematics in converting the scale into usable information. These rulers are marked in feet and inches which have been converted to the appropriate scale for you. They are very helpful when scratch building any type of model railroad structures or other accessories.

* a pin vice is a handy device for drilling small holes. They have a very small chuck or collet which will accept very small drill bits that allow you to drill holes with precise control. Use your thumb and index finger to turn the drill, and tour forefinger to steady the top of the pin vice. It would be helpful if you lubricate the small drill bits with bees wax or a bar of soap. This will help the drill to turn without binding in the material being drilled.

* old dental tools make excellent tools for a model railroad. They come in many sizes and usually include chisels, picks, scribes, scrapers and files.

* another handy tool is the razor saw or snap saw. This is a very thin saw with extremely fine teeth (much more so than a fine hack saw).this saw will cut wood, plastic, and most soft metals. It can be used to cut flex track to length, or for many other precise cutting jobs.

* small jewelers files come in a variety of sizes and shapes. They come in handy for cleaning up the edges of metal castings, or for filing away the flashing left from the molding process on plastic models. They are also useful for filing the points of turnouts in order for your trains to run more smoothly through them.

* an xacto knife is probably the most useful tool in a model railroaders tool box. It can be used to trim away flashing on plastic models, and hundreds of other uses. The most useful blades for a model railroader are the #11 or the # 2 fine point.

* another relatively new xacto tool is the precision rotary cutter. These are very handy for trimming thin wood, fabric, paper, film, or styrene plastic material.

* hemostats are a precision pair of tweezers that allow you to lock the jaws closed to hold items while you are working on them. They look like a pair of scissors, and come in many different sizes and shapes.

* another useful tool for holding on to small objects is a prong holder (or part picker as they are sometimes called). It has a plunger that when depressed, extends very small spring steel jaws that will hold small parts. Thetas is very helpful in positioning small screws, or picking up small parts that you can't pick up with your fingers.

* a useful tool to aid when you need to have another set of hands, is a device called "the third hand". This tool consists of a set of alligator clips which are attached to a heavy base of some sort. There is sometimes a magnifying glass also attached to allow you to see intricate parts. The third hands come in handy when you are soldering, as well as many other situations.

* a soldering iron is a very important part of every model railroaders tool box, and yet this tool intimidates more model railroaders than you could imagine. Soldering is not easy, but it is a skill that can be easily learned with a little practice.

There are two basic types of soldering irons, the pencil type, and the gun type. Both will get the job done, so it is more a personal preference than anything else. An iron in the 40 watt range will accomplish most tasks in model railroading.

It is important to have a clean surface to solder, and that will usually require cleaning the surface with emery cloth or a rosin type flux. Note: you should only use a rosin core solder for model railroading and electrical purposes.

You will need a small wet sponge to keep the tip of the soldering iron clean, and some sort of stand to hold the hot soldering iron. The first step is to get the iron hot, and then tin the tip of the soldering iron with fresh solder. Wipe the excess solder off the tip with the wet sponge, and you are ready to solder.

The tinned tip on the soldering iron will help transfer the heat to the surface to be soldered. If you are going to solder two wires together, you should also tin the ends of both wires first. To do this you touch the tip of the hot soldering iron to the side of the wire near the end, and with the wire above the soldering iron so the heat rises up. This will speed the process slightly, and help prevent melting the plastic insulation.

As soon as you touch the wire with the iron you should apply the solder from the top. When the wire gets hot enough the solder will flow rapidly into the fibers of the wire. Withdraw both the solder and the soldering iron from the wire and allow the solder to cool. Wipe the tip of the soldering iron on the wet sponge to keep the tip clean.

The next step is to solder the two wires together, and since both wires already have the ends tinned, they may not require any additional solder to make a good solder joint. Put the two ends together and once again heat them from underneath and apply solder sparingly from above. When the solder melts on both wires withdraw the soldering iron, and allow the joint to cool. After the joint cools, give it a little tug to make sure the joint is good. The joint should have a shiny appearance, but if it doesn't, you can re-heat it again to correct the problem.

Congratulations ! You have just completed the job. With a little practice you will become proficient at many types of soldering jobs.

* the dremel tool is a very useful tool for the serious model railroader. It can be used to cut, carve, polish, sand, drill, and many other uses. You can use what is called a cutoff wheel to cut track, or almost any material. The cutoff wheel is actually a small grinding disk which is attached to a mandrill. You should always wear eye protection when using a cutoff wheel, because they frequently shatter, if you are not careful.

* there are many times that repeated cutting may be required for such materials as styrene plastic, or strip wood when you are scratch building models. For that type of work, "the chopper" will make the job much easier. It has a number of guides which allow accurate angles, as well as square cuts to be made in large quantities with a minimum of effort. It uses a single edge razor blade as the cutting edge which can easily be replaced when it gets dull. The chopper comes in three sizes, and is a good investment for the serious model railroader.

* probably the biggest investment in tools that a model railroader makes is in an airbrush and a compressor. There are so many types and sizes that it could get pretty complicated, but it really isn't.

The model railroader doesn't need a fancy or expensive airbrush to do the job. A simple single action, external mix airbrush will do an excellent job at a very reasonable cost.

The air compressor on the other hand could get rather expensive, in comparison to the other tools you use for the hobby.

We will cover the subject of airbrushes and compressors in a class at a later date.

* now let's examine some model railroad tools you probably have around the house already. Cloths pins make excellent clamps while you are gluing small parts together.

* old emery boards (nail files) make great files for almost any job, and they are usually course on one side and fine on the other.

* q-tips for cleaning locomotive and rolling stock wheels and many other uses.

* tooth picks are handy for applying glue to just the right area on a model.

* bamboo skewers can be used the same as tooth picks. They are a little more expensive, but they are longer and that can be an advantage sometimes.

* old tooth brushes come in handy for scrubbing parts to remove grease and mold residue before they are painted.

* old silverware can be useful for mixing molding plaster hydrocal or paint.

* empty jelly and jam jars are great for storing small parts, custom mixed paint, scenery materials, and so on.

* unused glass ash trays are great for putting a small amount of super glue to dispense with a toothpick. They will allow for easy clean up with a razor blade after the glue has hardened.

* popsicle sticks can be used for mixing.

* pins can be used to hold wooden parts in place until glue dries.

* alcohol can be used for cleaning, thinning water base paints, mixing with india ink for a weathering wash, and many more uses.

* old plastic ice cube trays are handy for mixing small amounts of paint while painting wood or plastic models.

* old eye droppers can be used to apply scenery cement when ballesting track.

There are literally hundreds of other household items that could be very handy tools around your model railroad that could help keep costs reasonable.


Walther’s catalogue

Building an HO Model Railroad with Personality (Kalambach)

HO Railroad from Start to Finish (Kalambach)

The ABC's of Model Railroading (Kalambach)

HO Railroad that Grows (Kalambach)

222 Tips for Model Railroad Structures (Kalambach)

The Practical Guide to HO Model Railroading (Kalambach)




© 2000 HR Trains & Toys, Inc - Don Morris