Tools of the Trade

February 22, 2018 1 Comment

This Blog Post was published as an article on the original in 2010

Starting off in model railroading can be a frightening, yet exciting challenge. Chances are you have a limited amount of money and you want all of that to go toward trains. That makes sense; this is why you got into the hobby, to run trains. However, be careful not to overlook the importance and necessity of tools. Although they can be expensive, they are well worth the expense.

You only need a few basics, so don’t rush out and buy everything I use, because you wont need many of those items yet. Also, there are different tasks that require different tools. Sometimes tools can be used in all arenas of model railroading and others have one specific use.

Today, I am going to go over the absolute essentials for tools when starting out and other tools I feel are generally important to have as part of your workbench. Also, please keep in mind most of the tools I recommend are geared toward model building, kitbashing, and scratch building. I will be going over paints, glues, and related materials in a future article, so be sure to look for that soon.

Hobby Knife*

An absolute must-have tool for anyone starting out is the hobby knife, commonly called the X-acto knife or blade.

There are many companies that produce hobby knives in multiple types and sizes. The standard knife is about the size of a pen, (the “A” or No. 1 handle) and most commonly uses the No. 11 fine point blade. The No. 11 fine point blade is generally included when you purchase a hobby knife. You can also purchase many other styles of blades that can be used, as well. I also use  the No. 17 chisel blade and the No. 2 handle with the No. 2 large point blade.

The hobby knife has almost endless potential for what it can be used for. It can be used to cut out decals, cut styrene, remove model parts from a sprue, cut strip wood, remove flashing, and much more.

Also, to go along with your knife, make sure you get a cutting mat to protect any surfaces you may be cutting on. They come in a variety of sizes and may be found at any arts and crafts store.

Razor Saw & Miter Box

While not one of the most commonly used tools, it is very helpful to have. The razor saw is used heavily by kitbashers, because you can saw through plastic wall sections and rolling stock with relative ease and with a fairly clean cut. With the use of the miter box, you can cut strip materials such as styrene, wood, brass tubes, and more. However, you are limited to either 90 or 45 degree angles.

The Chopper

This tool above all others has become one of my favorites and it is such a simple device.This tool is really only a good investment if you work with a lot of strip materials, such as styrene and wood. It gives you the possibility to reproduce the same length pieces over and over again. This is a wonderful tool for scratch builders to use.

There are a few variations to the Chopper that Northwest Short Line offers.  The Chopper I is the original and the III version is basically the same but with an extended base.  I personally prefer the Chopper II because the cutting mat is replaceable. 

Cutters and Shears

These can be expensive but are valuable to have. The one I use most often is a flush cutting shear. This is amazing for cutting parts from a sprue and there is less risk of damaging the part.

Two others that are recommended, but have more limited uses, are track cutters and a high precision scissor. If you are laying any track, don’t waste your time by using a saw -- the track cutters make it very simple. The high precision scissor is very nice to have if you are working with etched brass details and parts.

Track Cutters, Pliers, & Scissors for Model Railroading


I love tweezers and there are dozens of styles to choose from. At first, I would find at least one good pair to use. My initially purchased a cheap pair from a grocery store. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the trick. However, I highly recommend a needle-point watchmaker’s tweezer, especially with a curved or bent tip.

I also recommend locking tweezers. The like the slide lock and the cross-locking style. The slide lock is a straight tweezer with a little sliding bar so you can lock it on to an item. I like to use it to hold parts when painting and gluing. The cross-locking tweezers are always clamped shut and you need to squeeze the other end to spread them open. Again, it is useful for holding parts for painting and gluing but not a must have.

Filing, Sanding, and the Pin Vice*

These are an often overlooked materials for some beginning modelers and can cause a model from ever reaching its full potential.

Sanding is an easy and cheap one to solve, at many stores you can get an assortment of different grit sand paper for around $3. The grit is a way to measure the coarseness of sand paper. The higher the number, the finer the grit. Generally working with plastic you wont need anything lower than 120-180 grit. For finish sanding get some 400-600 grit sand.

You can also get sanding sticks, which are good for getting into fine areas but they can be expensive. I recommend purchasing cheap nail files.

Another item I use often are needle files. You can find these in sets from a few up to 12. All of the different shapes of files come in very handy, you will also find one or two of them become your favorites. Needle files are useful for many reasons. They are great for cleaning out flashing in tight areas, squaring up an end on cut strip styrene, and so much more.

The pin vice is basically a small handle. I mainly use it to hold tiny drill bits. You can also use it as a handle for needle files. I personally am not a fan of doing this because I feel like there is too much weight and I end up having less control of the file.

Rulers, Gauges and Squares*

Keeping items you are working on straight and square is an absolute must. If one part of a building gets out of square in the beginning of construction, you will be fighting with it for the rest of the build.

I generally have at least two rulers on my work space, one the essential scale ruler. The one I use has N scale, HO scale, and O scale measurements on it -- very useful for those that model in multiple scales. The other I use is a simple 12” stainless steel ruler. I use this as a straight edge when cutting sheet styrene. I will also tape it to my cutting mat to act as a fence to build something against.

I also use a 3” x 4” mini square for cutting out decals and paper signs. Its primary use is for checking to see if you are staying square on a project.

No matter what scale you are working in, you need to have a National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) track gauge. You need this to check track, wheels, clearances, points, and even catenary. If you want a smooth running track and rolling stock, a NMRA track gauge is a must have.

Another item I can’t live without is a digital caliper. These can be expensive to purchase, with many going for around $80 to $100 or more. The caliper I use is a cheap one I picked up for $20 and it has never lead me astray.

Other Tools

There are many other niche tools that are very useful, but more limited in their performance. One I like is a magnetic gluing jig. It is basically a sheet of metal with each end bent up about an inch. It has a few magnets to clamp or hold whatever you are working on. I especially like to use it on structures, either kits or scratch built. It is perfect for gluing walls together.

What  tool that you love to use and wasn’t included in my above article, please let us know by commenting below.

* Beginner Essential

1 Response

John sordillo
John sordillo

April 09, 2020

A small manual hand drill ,I recently broke mine can’t remember where I got it. Would love to find another one

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