Most model railroaders use the basic tools I described in the June issue. Now let’s take a look at the tools you can add to make that basic assortment into a dream workbench. The combination of tools that’s right for you depends on your personal interests and the materials you like to use. If painting and weathering are your favorites, then airbrushes and a compressor will be of interest.
Before we look at specialized tools, however, let’s talk about what the dream workbench itself might look like. Over the past 45 years, my workbenches have ranged from a door laid across a pair of sawhorses to an ancient oak desk. The size of the bench won’t affect the quality of your modeling, but good organization and efficient use of space will certainly contribute to a dream workshop.
The dream workbench
A few years ago, my wife and I bought a townhouse for our retirement. I added a finished railroad room in the basement and designed my dream workbench to fit in one corner, as shown in the photo.
My new workbench has an L-shaped work surface, a three-drawer pedestal under one end, and a tall storage cabinet at the opposite end. Since I do a lot of airbrushing, I included a small spray booth with an exhaust duct to the outside. My compressor is tucked under the bench, and an airbrush holder is attached to the tall cabinet.
My motor tool has a flexible shaft, so it’s hung (out of sight) from a substantial hook driven into the ceiling over the bench. I also have a Unimat, a convertible power tool that can be used as a lathe, drill press, or milling machine. It sits near the left end of the bench within easy reach. An old office desk chair on wheels allows me to shift easily from one work area to another.
Along the back of the bench I’ve lined up my machinist’s tool chest and parts drawers, also within easy reach. I use the drawers to hold parts, adhesives, and tools. The tall storage cabinet contains longer items like stripwood, rail, and other building materials, as well as my unbuilt kits. Small hooks in the door keep cords, airbrush hoses, and other tools handy.
This workbench serves my needs, but don’t be afraid to adapt my ideas to fit your combination of tools and materials.
Next, we’ll look at some of the specialized tools that you may find useful to enhance the enjoyment of your own dream workshop.
Taps and dies
In the early days of the hobby, locomotives were made mostly of metal. Machine screws were commonly used to assemble the models, but it was up to the modeler to drill and tap the holes.
Taps are hardened steel tools that cut screw threads into drilled holes. A tap wrench holds the tap securely, as shown in the photo. A tap also comes in handy to rework screw holes where the thread has gotten worn or stripped. I also use taps to cut new, slightly larger threads when I replace metric screws in my brass models. For these replacements, I use similar-size American screws that have a Unified Fine (UNF) thread that’s easier to obtain in the United States. Modelers in other countries may want to use metric sizes.
A die is also a hardened steel threading tool, but it cuts outside threads on a piece of rod. It can be used to make long screws that are handy for holding heavy parts together.
To handle most potential modeling situations, you’ll need the following taps and die sizes on your workbench:
* UNF thread tap sizes 00-90, 0-80, 1-72, and 2-56
* Metric taps in 1.0mm and 2.0mm sizes, including both coarse- and fine-thread versions of each size
* UNF dies in thread sizes 00-90, 0-80, 1-72, and 2-56
In addition, a suitable tap wrench and a die stock are necessary to hold these cutting tools square and apply leverage as you cut the threads. Use care to avoid forcing these tools as you use them.
Before any model can be painted it must be clean and free of dirt, grease, and oil. There are two ways to prepare a model for painting.
Stripping removes all of the old paint from a model’s surfaces so that new paint will adhere. Two kinds of paint stripper are available. For most plastic models, use 91 percent isopropyl alcohol (sold in drugstores). For metal, use paint strippers that are available at hobby shops. Disassemble the model and put the parts to be stripped into a plastic refrigerator-storage container. Pour the alcohol over the parts, put on the cover, and allow them to sit for 2 or 3 days. Remove the parts and work off any loose paint with a small, stiff paintbrush. Finally, wash the parts with warm water and a mild detergent, and let them dry.
Be sure to read and follow the instructions when using the commercial strippers since prolonged exposure to the chemicals can damage some models.
A second method uses an ultrasonic cleaner, special detergents, and solvents to clean metal parts. Use a cleaning solution that’s compatible with the items you want to clean (check the manufacturer’s instructions) and turn on the cleaner. The ultrasonic vibrations will work with the solution to loosen and remove the old paint and grease in a few minutes. Then rinse and air dry the parts.
High-heat soldering equipment
As our modeling skills grow, the lightweight soldering tools useful in wiring may not provide enough heat for larger projects. There are two other sources of concentrated heat that should do the job.
* Resistance soldering creates the necessary heat by passing a low-voltage and high-amperage electrical current through the parts to be soldered. For example, to repair a loose handrail on an imported brass model, I attach the ground lead of a resistance-soldering unit to the locomotive. Then I touch the second lead to the handrail and turn the power on. As the current flows, the loose joint quickly heats because it’s the point of highest resistance in the circuit. I add a very small amount of solder, and as soon as it flows into the joint, I turn off the power and hold the handrail steady until the solder cools.
The secret of resistance soldering is that only the point of contact between the parts gets hot, because that’s where the resistance is highest. While resistance soldering works fine for small parts, its concentrated heat doesn’t work as well to solder large parts.
* Micro torches. Several micro torches are available that burn either propane or butane. Small torches are about the size of a ballpoint pen, while others are larger and often include trigger-activated ignitors for one-hand operation. These torches produce a small, pointed flame with a working temperature between 2,300 and 3,000 degrees.
The high temperature delivered to a small work area is ideal for soldering brass detail castings of all sizes onto brass cars or locomotives. However, the high heat must be used with caution–it’s possible to melt small brass detail parts and wire at these temperatures.
Unlike a large soldering gun, whose point is always coated with solder that can accidentally flow onto the casting, the torch flame applies only heat. You feed solder into the joint separately so you can control the amount applied for a neat, strong joint.
An airbrush is the best tool for spray painting model railroad equipment and structures. From basic color application to fine weathering, the airbrush produces a professional appearance in a fraction of the time required for brush painting. Airbrushes are specified as being either single- or double-action, depending on their control methods.
Single-action airbrushes provide variable control of only the air flow. The width of the spray or quantity of paint is adjusted by turning the cone in the nozzle. This type of airbrush is excellent for big projects such as structures or large scale rolling stock.
Double-action airbrushes offer a two-way control, as shown in the sketch. The vertical movement controls the air supply while a horizontal pulling motion controls the quantity of paint. This kind of airbrush is excellent for painting small details and weathering.
Most veteran modelers own and use both types of airbrushes.
For more information, see Cody Grivno’s article, “Basics of airbrushing,” in the April 2006 issue of Model Railroader.
Use a natural-color light source to ensure that the color of the paint you’re using matches the prototype. While true natural light is sunlight, a fluorescent fixture with full-spectrum lamps is the best (and most expensive) substitute. A less-expensive solution is to use one warm and one cool lamp to produce a close approximation.
A small compressor provides the air pressure that’s needed to make an airbrush operate. Many compressors are available, but I chose a basic mid-priced unit with an adjustable regulator valve that delivers the required pressure without a lot of unnecessary extras.
The pressure hose and connectors usually come with the airbrush. Be sure to use a moisture trap in the air line. If a power switch isn’t included, it’s a good idea to install one so you can shut down the compressor to change colors, unclog the nozzle, or switch models.
A spray booth is necessary to protect your health by drawing paint solvents and pigments out of the workshop. You may be working with water-based paints, but it’s still a bad idea to inhale dried pigments floating in the air.
A sealed fan at the back of my booth sucks the atomized paint through a filter and exhausts the fumes through a flexible dryer hose to the outside. A straight metal duct with a single bend is preferable.
For information on building a spray booth, see “The Paint Shop spray booth,” by Andy Sperandeo and Gordon Odegard, in MR’s January 1988 issue.
You also need to use a two-stage respirator mask capable of filtering out paint particles and organic solvent vapors. These masks are available from hobby dealers or hardware stores. Modelers spraying organic solvent paints also need to use nitrile rubber gloves and safety goggles. Note that latex rubber gloves are porous to organic solvents and don’t protect the skin from them.
Many tools are available to make specific jobs easier, while others enhance accurate mechanical work. Specialty tools are often designed to efficiently handle repetitive jobs. All three of the following tools address specific modeling problems. They’re all manufactured by North West Short Line (NWSL).
The Puller is designed to remove pressed-on wheels from an axle without damage. The photo shows how this tool holds the wheel squarely while a T-handled screw forces the axle through the wheel.
The Quarterer is a jig that’s used to check the alignment of steam locomotive crankpins and position them for reassembly. Ordinarily, the crankpins are a precise 90 degrees apart with the right side leading (90 degrees ahead of the left). If a set of drivers is out of quarter, the rods will bind. Requartering by hand is a tricky business, but this tool makes it simpler, and once the driver has been corrected, smooth operation will be restored.
The Bender is a brake for bending light metals to any angle up to 90 degrees. It eliminates the trial-and-error of bending parts by hand or using a pair of long-nose pliers. It also helps make multiple repetitive bends.
Benchtop power tools
Three benchtop tools are invaluable additions to a modeler’s dream workshop.
* A modeler’s drill press allows you to drill precision holes of any size in brass, plastic, or wood. A drill press is more stable than drilling by hand. This stability is especially useful with very small, easy-to-break bits in the nos. 60 (.040″) to 80 (.0135″) range.
* A milling machine uses a rotating cutting tool, set vertically or at an angle, to cut grooves, slots, and a variety of shapes in heavy gauge (1/16″ or thicker) brass, nickel silver, or aluminum. Shaping parts like fluted steam engine side rods or main frames are typical projects for a milling machine.
* A lathe rotates a horizontal piece of metal, hard plastic, or wood against a cutting tool that removes material to produce cylindrical shapes of any length. These parts range in size from a small metal whistle to an entire boiler. In wood, it’s possible to turn circular structures like a lighthouse or all sorts of storage tanks.
After turning the workpiece to the correct dimensions, increasingly finer grades of abrasive paper can be applied to provide a smooth finish that’s ready for painting.
Convertible tools offer a way to combine all three benchtop machine tools into a single unit if space is at a premium. MicroLux or Sherline are two of the best known current manufacturers.
Unimat has sold convertible machine tools for many years. The firm’s present line can be seen on the Internet at www.thecooltool. com. A Unimat can be set up as a lathe or as a drill press, see below. With the addition of a milling table (sold as an accessory), it can also be used as a milling machine. I bought a Unimat in 1954, and it sits on one end of my workbench ready for my next project.
Handheld power tools
Small, portable power tools can speed up construction projects. Make sure all of the power tools you use are properly grounded, and treat battery-operated tools as if they’re always live.
A small, handheld electric rotary tool fitted with a variety of steel cutters, abrasive wheels, and cut-off disks is a must for a wide variety of tasks. The popular Dremel Moto-Tool is a typical example. Adding a variable-speed foot control and a flexible shaft make fine work easier because they take the motor’s weight and speed control out of your hands.
Remember to use proper safety glasses anytime you’re working with a power tool.
RELATED ARTICLE: Where to get modeling tools.
Your local hobby shop. This gives you a chance to look at each tool before you buy it.
Mail order. These suppliers can be easily located by checking the ads in Model Railroader. Two of the largest mail order firms are Micro-Mark at 340 Snyder Avenue, Berkeley Heights, NJ 07922-1595, www. micromark.com; and William K. Walthers Inc., 5601 W. Florist Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53218-1622, www.walthers.com.
Internet. Many tool distributors have their own Web sites, which is a good way to locate specialized tools.
Hobby shows. Most hobby shows include vendors who carry tools. As with the local hobby shop, this gives you a chance to look before you purchase, even though you won’t be able to get the ongoing advice that your local hobby dealer can provide.