Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tools: Clamps B1A$$

You cannot have enough clamps.  If you didn't hear that, I'll say YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH CLAMPS!  Just when you think you have enough, buy some more and then ask for some for Christmas.  Then you will have 25% of the clamps you need.  Repeat the process.

Clamps don't have to be expensive.  These medium size spring clamps come in boxes of 12 and can be had for less that $20.  They are perfect for holding boards in place and for building spline roadbed.

This QuikKlamp bar clamp is much more expensive and comes in a wide variety of sizes.  I have some smaller than an HO locomotive.  They are easy to use and fasten quickly, which comes in handy.  Put this one on your Christmas list.

At the hobby bench I use much smaller varieites of the same thing.  These are vice-grips which make for strong and very adjustable gripping.  The are about 5 inches long.

Vice grips come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.  I use these for metalwork.

Hemostats are the smallest of the clamps.  These also come in many different sizes and clamping strengths, so I have quite a few varieties.

My big shop clamps are kept in a large plastic tote bin with a cover.  They include bar clamps, pipe clamps, spring clamps (metal and plastic), C-clamps, angle clamps and more.  Make it a practice to pick up a clamp everytime you go to the hardware store and you'll have a good collection in no time.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Track Laying Tools Videos

Hey, here are some really cool tool videos by Tim Warris...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Quick! Grab the Bastard! - Common Types of Files for Modelers Part 1

From my articles in Sn3 Modeling Guide...

Welcome to the first installment of Tools of the Trade! My goal is to further our knowledge of model building tools and techniques while helping the model railroader develop his skills. It also gives me a very good reason for continuing to buy the latest tools at the local hobby shop. A tool is any device that enables the accomplishment of a job or task. This can be a hammer, screwdriver, jig (now called a positioning device by the politically correct), camera or even a pen used for taking notes. With that said, let’s jump right in and get our hands dirty.

The file is one of those items that I consider a mandatory modeling tool. For the beginner it is one of the first tools that really requires the mastering of proper techniques. For the seasoned model builder it is one of a wide variety of types and styles of metal (and plastic) shaping tools used for construction and finishing purposes. There are many types of files in the world and my tool box has quite a collection.

The basic parts of a file are as follows:

The file has an arrangement of cutting teeth or grooves along the face. There are three basic groove patterns; single cut, double cut, curved cut and rasp cut. Single cut files have one row of parallel grooves and are used for finishing work under light pressure during the stroke. Double cut files have two rows of grooves, one at about 45 degrees and another groove at about 75 degrees. This type of file is used for rapid removal of metal and for rough finishing, usually under heavy pressure. The curved cut file is a dual-purpose tool allowing for coarse shaping using the middle of the face, or for smooth finishing by using the sides of the face. The rasp cut has raised burrs and is usually used on softer materials such as wood or plastic to remove large quantities of the surface rapidly.

Files are rated by the number of teeth per inch on the face, which we call the “coarseness.” There are two types of coarseness ratings; American and Swiss Pattern. In the American rating system you have four types; coarse (the fewest teeth per inch with the most bite), bastard, second and smooth (which has the most teeth per inch and gives a finer finish). In the Swiss Pattern system you have 00 (the most coarse), 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 (the finest).

In model railroading we generally use six different classes of files. Mill files are used for sharpening tools and for general filing. They are usually single cut and slightly tapered in width, possibly being the most common of the files. Machinist’s files are designed for metal cutting and are almost always double-cut. They can be any shape over the length and are used for brass and other hobby metals. Curved tooth files can be firm or flexible and can be mounted like a hacksaw for filing corners and unusual shapes. Rasp files are used on wood and foam, such as a Surfoam tool. These hungry files take large bites and remove material very quickly, especially on foam scenery. Riffler files are smaller, specialty files that have a smooth handle and a curved filing tip. They are designed for die work and are a handy for filing in tight places. The most common file class for model railroaders is the needle file or jeweler’s file. These are simply smaller renditions of the previous classes of files. While diamond “files” are also a common item in most toolboxes, I don’t consider them a file so much as I consider them a sanding tool.

There are many different file shapes and sizes. The picture shows many of the different file profiles that are common for modelers. Round or “rat tail” files are handy for getting in small spaces. I often use the tapered square files for track laying since they easily can remove burrs on the web of the rail. Most hobby shops offer a variety pack of different shapes and sizes.

In our next column we’ll discuss the proper techniques of filing and how to choose the right file for the job. For now, grab the bastard (usually a flat mill file that is single-cut and reasonably coarse) and go to work!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Coolie Tools! Basic Track Layer's Toolbox

Every good model railroader will tell you that there is one piece of advice that is mandatory for the enjoyment of your layout, and that is to do the best job you can when laying track.  Laying flex track is not difficult and neither is hand-laying, but it does require some specialized tools.  Let’s take a quick review of what’s in the Track Work tool box.

My tools for track laying are kept in a separate Track Work tool box.  This is one set of tools that doesn’t stay at the workbench, so the more mobile they are, the better.  I prefer clear, plastic shoe boxes so that I can quickly see what is contained inside.  The lid removes completely so that you have easy access to the contents.  Along with the tool box is a plastic tray for displaying the tools, much like a Dentist does before he charges you $1,000.  The tools are all unique to this box and not shared with the other workbench tools.  The only things that I use for track that are not included in the box are gauges, which I keep in a separate Gauges & Measuring Devices tool box.

I know you get tired of hearing it, but safety first!  The most important tool in your Track Work box is a pair of safety glasses.  Several years ago I was hand-spiking a section of track when the grip that I had on a spike gave way.  At approximately eight hundred miles per hour the spike ricocheted off the rail and proceeded to lodge itself in my eye ball.  The doctor, who was a model railroader, was pleased to remove it and treat my infection.  As always, safety first.

Looking at the list of tools you may say, “Why does he have a soldering iron in the box, instead of using the good one on the work bench?”  Good question.  While I know it costs more to have duplicate tools, the soldering iron I use for track work is often of higher wattage than I use for DCC decoder installation, and the tip is ground to a long, flat point for better contact with the rail’s web.  So, really, it is a different tool.  This tool also gets a bit more abuse than the other soldering iron.  Mine has a handy light near the handle to show when the power is on, which is nice if you don’t want to burn down the house.  Safety first!

Along with the soldering iron go soldering flux, a small paint brush, heat sinks, solder and sandpaper.  I prefer paste flux because it will stick to vertical surfaces.  Using a small brush, I just rub some on the area to be soldered.  Metal heat sinks help to protect expensive plastic-tied turnouts from melting.  You can also use wet tissue paper.  There are two kinds of solder in the box; standard non-core, and silver.  I only use the silver solder for joints that need to be extremely strong, such as holding switch points to a throw bar.  The sandpaper is used to clean the tip of the soldering iron from time to time.

Normally I don’t promote name branded tools, but the Xuron track laying tools are excellent and I don’t use anything else.  In the box I have a track cutter, needle nose pliers and a spiker.  The cutter is perfect for making a nice, smooth, flat-edge cut in the rail and it only leaves a small spur to file off.  Only use the cutter for track until it gets dull.  I write in ink on the handles “track only” and when the writing wears off, I buy a new cutter and retire the old one to the workbench for cutting wire.  You can break the jaws, so be careful what you cut!  The rail piece that you trimmed off can also fly several feet, so be extra careful.  The needle nose pliers are strong and perfectly shaped for grabbing and bending.  The spiking pliers have a notch cut into the nose that is designed to hold spikes.  I thought this was a time-consuming feature until I realized how many spikes I was dropping on the floor.  You can get these tools from most hobby stores.

 Xuron Cutter Jaws

A wire stripper is a handy item to have as you will be trimming quite a bit of wire as you install turnouts and route power to the track.  I prefer the steel type with the gauge of the wire written next to the cutter.  You can also use a hobby knife for that job.  The knife also comes in handy for trimming plastic ties, cutting plastic spike head on flex track, and for other track laying chores.

You will need a good set of metal files in your box.  A variety pack of shapes and sizes will be the best.  Filing track is tough on files, and they will need to be cleaned with a file brush or replaced fairly often.  A little touch of household lubricant will help the file cut smoother and will help keep it from clogging.

Pin Vise Drill

Other tools that you will need will be screwdrivers, a pin vise and a track cleaning block.  I keep both a small Phillips and Flat Head screwdriver in the box, mainly for mounting switch machines.  Occasionally I use the Flat Head screwdriver for prying up rail or spikes, so that tool needs to be of good quality.  The pin vice is used to pre-drill spike holes or to drill linkage holes for turnout switch machines.   I also use it for making centerline holes for mounting flex track.

Some optional tools that you may choose to keep are a rag for cleaning track, a small bottle of Alcohol for removing flux and cleaning rail heads, a spike-holder which is a magnet glued to the inside top of a bottle, a small tin for rail joiners, and an abrasive track cleaning block. All of these will come in handy if you lay a large amount of track and are very inexpensive.

NMRA Gauge for HO

Track and radii gauges should never be kept in the Track Work tool box.  They are delicate and you don’t want them damaged or rusty.  Keep these in their own tool box and just bring them out when you need them.  Always check them for damage or rust, as that can throw off your track.  Refrain from using plastic gauges and measuring tools if you can as they have a tendency to be inaccurate.  They will melt if they get near hot rails.

Good track means good running trains.  Put together your Track Work tool box today and head for the basement.  You know that turnout that you’ve been meaning to repair for ten years that always derails the Mallet?  Well, safety first!

Items in the Track Work Tool Box

  • Safety Glasses
  • Soldering iron
  • Flux
  • Small Paint Brush
  • Heat Sinks
  • Solder – Standard
  • Solder – Silver
  • Sand Paper
  • Xuron Track Cutter – for track only
  • Xuron Spiking Pliers
  • Xuron Needle Nose Pliers
  • Wire Strippers
  • Hobby Knife
  • Metal Files
  • Phillips Screwdriver - Small
  • Flat Head Screwdriver – Small
  • Pin Vise and Drill Bit
  • Spike Holder
  • Rail Joiner Holder
  • Bottle of Alcohol
  • Abrasive Track Cleaner Block
  • Shop Rag

Gauges Used

  • NMRA Standards Gauge
  • Track Gauge
  • Curve Radii Gauge
  • Parallel Gauge

What else do you have in your tool box?  Post a comment or write me at

Tools: Mini Chop Saw A3C$$$

Hi Randy...

It came from Harbor Freight.  Not the most robust thing in the world, but it will do until I find something better.  Several of us in the NCI group have them.

They are $28 and I've cut over 1,000 pieces of wood with mine.  Kind of hard to see underneath the saw.  I reviewed in in the TRAINTOOLS egroup on Yahoo.

Had to fix Bob's as his switch wore out.  He's cut over 10,000 ties with his (HO scale)

I'd buy another one!

Scott G. Perry, CPM

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tool: File Sets - B1B$$

Metal files are a key item in the model railroad arsenal, especially for kit builders and track layers.  The are mandatory for the model railroader's toolbox and you should buy the best quality you can afford.  The set above is not high quality, but they are diamond files and have very good cutting ability.  You'll want a set with a variety of blade shapes and tapers.

Most model files don't have handles so you want to invest in a good one that is comfortable for your hand.  Just insert the file and screw down the clamp.

Tool: Screwdrivers Set - B1C$

The screwdriver is the most basic of tools and mandatory for beginners.  You can't assemble a freight car kit or take apart a locomotive without them.   There are a million varieties and sizes of screwdrivers.  I highly recommend that you buy a miniature screwdriver set that includes both flat head and Phillips head drivers.  All of them should have pivoting heads.  Ask your hobby dealer which brand he recommends.

While I have hex key drivers and other unusual screwdrivers I very seldom use them.  Most have never been used.  In my box I keep two sets, one magnetized and one not.  My Wiha set has longer blades for reaching deep inside a locomotive.

Screwdrivers are not pry bars, chisels, wedges, levers or any other of a host of creative ways to use them.  Keep these drivers in EXCELLENT condition.  If you need a set to bang on, buy a cheap set at the next train show.

Comments?  Brand recommendations?  We'd love to hear from you!

Traintools Logo

01 The Beginner’s Toolbox

The Beginner’s Toolbox

If you are new to the hobby, welcome!  I've gotten over 35 years of enjoyment from model trains and I hope you do, to!  When you are just getting started you are going to need some basic tools to perform general maintenance and to build simple kits.  The above list will take care of most of your immediate needs.

There is some push back on this, but I think you should invest in the best tools you can buy for this list as it will be your mainstay in the toolbox.  I've worn out tons of these items so you want to buy durable items.

Print this list and take it to your local hobby shop.  Yeah, you might pay a little more, but at this stage in the game a little advice goes a long way.  Give the owner your list and ask him to help you get what you need.


A Note  On SAFETY!

WARNING: Always practice good safety habits when using any tool.  Always read the instructions on how to properly use your new tools and what protective equipment you should wear.  

Some important safety equipment you should own/use:

  • Safety Glasses with side shields (rated polycarbonates, not regular glasses)
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Gloves (when applicable)
  • Apron
  • First Aid Kit

Hand tools: 

  • Use sharp blades, they cut easier than dull blades.
  • Always cut away from you and anyone else.
  • Always think, "Where will the blade go if it slips?"
  • Use a meat cutter's glove or fish filleting glove if you do a lot of work with sharp knives, as they will deflect slashing cuts (but not piercing cuts).
  • Be careful with tools designed to puncture or gouge.

Power Tools:

  • Read the directions for the tool and follow all safety advice

Tool: Hobby Knife - B1D$

The hobby knife can be found in any model railroader's toolbox.  It is a staple of life and one of the more useful and inexpensive tools you will own.


Knife Kit Assortment

All hobby stores and most general merchandise stores such as Walmart and Target carry these knives.  There are many varieties and since you will be using this tool a lot, go ahead and invest in the best quality you can and get a number of them.

From left to right:  standard knife, larger knife, fine blade, rotating blade, padded - non-rolling knife.

I personally like the padded knives as they are more comfortable when you are making repeated cuts.  The hex nut top on the Excel brand knife keeps it from rolling of the table.  I've had a knife roll off the table and stab me through my shoe.

Safety is a major concern with this popular tool.  Few experienced modelers don't have a hobby knife scar.  Mine is on my left hand and require three stitches as the blade slipped and cut me to the bone.  Keep your blade sharp!  Change them often.  This will help prevent knife slips.

There is much debate on sharpening a new blade.  You can use a whet stone, leather strop or diamond sharpener to get an even more sharp blade but I very seldom do this.  More often than not I'll switch to a single edged razor blade for cutting that needs that level of sharpness.

We'd like to hear your thoughts on hobby knives!  Post your comments below.

Tool Categories

We'll categorize tools in the following fashion:

  1. Safety Equipment
  2. The Beginner's Toolbox
  3. Cutting Tools
  4. Screwdrivers
  5. Pliers
  6. Wrenches
  7. Tweezers
  8. Files
  9. Measuring Devices
  10. Adhesives
  11. Clamping
  12. Painting
  13. Heavy Tools
  14. Power Tools
  15. Specialty Tools
  16. Scale Specific Tools
  17. Optical & Magnafication
  18. Storage
  19. Workshop
  20. Other

How Tools Are Rated

I've developed this simple system for rating train tools.

A tool is rated by:
  • Skill Level
  • Utility
  • Hazard Level
  • Cost
Skill Level:

  • B = Beginner Modelers.  These are usually primary tools like screwdrivers.
  • I = Intermediate Modelers.  This is a tool that requires some skill like an airbrush.
  • A = Advanced Modelers.  This is something that takes great skill such as a lathe.
 Usefulness of the Tool:
  1. Mandatory - included in a beginner's toolbox
  2. Highly Desirable - most every model railroader has one
  3. Desirable - if you have a layout or build lots of models, you should have one
  4. Convenient - more specialized; for scratchbuilders, large layouts, scale specific, etc.
  5. Specialty - only used for very special and limited applications
Hazard Level:

     A.  Not hazardous
     B. Minimal hazard unless intentionally misued
     C. Hazardous if accidently misused and may require common safety equipment
     D. Very hazardous - must use caution and safety equipment and/or procedures
     E. Extremely hazardous - maybe hazardous even when using extreme caution

Cost of the Tool:

  • $ = less than $5.00
  • $$ = between $5 and $25
  • $$$ = between $25 and $50
  • $$$$ = between $50 and $100
  • $$$$$ = over $100
The rating for a tool will be shown in the Title such as:

Airbrush I3D$$$$

I for Intermediate level modeler
3 for level of usefulness, desirable
D for very hazardous, mostly because of the flammable paints that can be used
$$$$ for a cost of $50 to $100

If you don't agree with a rating that I give a tool, I'm glad to discuss it!  I'm always interested in your input and glad to change a rating that doesn't make sense.

Welcome To the Traintools Blog

Back in November of 2002 I started the popular Traintools blog.  Quickly I found out that a majority of the model railroaders out there are tool junkies like me!

Blogging has become a great way for me to share my hobby experiences and for record keeping.  Currently I have quite a few blogs such as...

The Dixie Central - a circular project layout in HO
Building The Okefenokee Swamp RR - my personal layout in On30
The Model Railroader's Notebook - my long running website now a blog
The Georgia Northeastern - an HO layout based on the real railroad
The Heart of Georgia (HOG) - a wildly popular HO beginner's layout for operations
Layout Design Blog - from my old days as a layout designer

So join us as I attempt to catalog every single tool in my collection and describe tips and techniques that will help both of us become better model railroaders!

Scott Perry