Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tools of the Trade: essential modeling supplies

A selection of some of the most useful modeling supplies.
A lot of time and effort is spent on blogs and forums detailing armylist building, tactics, and painting, but the basic modeling equipment that made all of this possible is often overlooked and little mentioned. Having been playing Warhammer 40,000 and assembling models for the better part of 16 years, I have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience on the matter, and wanted to talk a little about the supplies I use.  I have broken the post up by each tool for ease of navigation. Hopefully you will find some of it helpful. As always, I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!

Hobby knife:

Of all the tools I use, the most important is certainly the X-acto knife. While X-acto makes several different types of knives, I have come to trust the original #1 precision knife, equipped with the #11 Classic Fine Point Blade. Over the years, I have found that not all blades for these knives are created equal and that X-acto’s #11 blade is the one I prefer. While other brands make similar blades, all of the ones I have tried have had slightly different points and grind angles making them handle significantly differently and never to my liking. Now I go out of my way to get the classic #11 blades. It is worth noting that X-acto put out a new line of #11 blades that have a gold colored zirconium nitride coating (Z-series) and are boasted to have improved strength and sharpness. In my experience these Z-series blades are slightly fatter, have a flatter tipped blade, and overall perform significantly worse than the classic blades.

A simple X-acto knife, with a #11 blade, my most valuable tool.
Most of the essential modelling tasks when cleaning up a model or making a conversion can be completed with an x-acto knife. I primarily use the tool to remove mold-line and casting tabs on models. Carefully removing all of the mold-lines can go a long way in elevating the overall quality and appearance of a model. As a cutting tool, the #11 X-acto blades are particularly versatile and can be used in a variety of ways to remove mold-lines depending upon the material the model is cast in.

The most common means of removing the mold-lines is simply cutting them off with the blade of the knife. This works well for plastic, resin, and metal models. Due to the disposable nature of the #11 blades, I can’t stress enough the importance of replacing blades frequently. I tend to replace the blade on my knife about once per model and sometimes even more frequently. The blades get noticeably duller with continued use (particularly with metal models, but also with plastic and resin). You would be amazed at the difference a new blade can make when trimming models, drastically lessening the amount of force and effort needed to cut off mold-line. Although it might not seem critical, you want the tip of the blade to be intact and straight.  With use, often with metal models or dense plastic, the tip can break off or bend slightly.  This imperfection often causes unintentional scratches on the models you are working on, and just removes some of the control the blade imparts.

While not as obvious, you can use both the front and the spine of the blade to scrape mold-lines off models rather than through cutting. This works particularly well with plastic models, because the material is softer.  It is very easy to make smooth broad strokes, applying constant pressure across the entire surface (since the back of the blade is dull, it minimizes making ridges and is prone to creating a smooth surface).


Another extremely important tool for preparing models is sand paper.  While often not required for plastic, it is essential for metal models.  After removing mold lines, or any other excess piece of metal from a model, sanding the area ensures that the surface is smooth and consistant (something that is very difficult to achieve with a knife alone).  This sort of touch-up requires sandpaper with a high grit number (and therefore very fine/small abrading particles), preferably higher than 400 (I often use 600).  By folding a piece of sandpaper, it is easy to form it into many different shapes, allowing you to access different areas of a model.  I find that with continued use, sandpaper becomes better.  As the particles get worn down, they are less abrasive than they were initially, allowing for a finer finish. The paper itself is also less rigid, allowing it to contour against the model better. You can also prevent scratching and improve the overall smoothness of a finish by wetting the sandpaper before use (I often have a small bowl of water at my work area). This is critical when working with resin models, as it will prevent the harmful resin dust from becoming airborne and making its way into your lungs.


Modelling clippers are not essential, but are very nice to have, particularly to remove plastic pieces from sprues. Without one, you are forced to cut it directly with an X-acto blade. This can easily lead to damaging your models, typically through the plastic tearing due to poor cutting angle and the large volume of plastic being cut through. Clippers usually avoids any tearing, however it is important to cut far enough away from the actual part you are removing, to prevent pulling/tearing the the plastic where the sprue connects to the part.  It is always better to be safe and go back with an X-acto knife to remove the last part of the extra plastic. The knife allows for much more control and dexterity, rather than the brute force of the clippers.

Inexpensive and durable, this Craftsman clippers has never failed to cut from plastic to metal.
While you may be tempted to buy any old clippers, you could end up kicking yourself later.  It is important to find one that is compact in size and has blades that are flat and fit flush up to what you are cutting. Additionally, many of the clippers available have narrow tolerances and end up breaking or deforming depending upon the task you are using them for. For instance, don’t go trying to use GaleForce Nine’s Flush Cutters (which were designed for cutting plastic) to cut pins when pinning a model. Doing so will quickly dent and deform the blades on the clippers. I would recommend buying a clippers that is capable of handling both plastic and heavy gauge wire. There are a vast array of good options that fill these requirements, including clippers from Craftsman, Knipex, and Xuron. Currently I am using one made from Craftsman that has been able to handle everything I have thrown at it without a single malformation.

Tamiya 74035 Sharp Pointed Side Cutter: If you are fine with buying two clippers, one for metal and one for plastic, I would strongly encourage everyone to look into the Tamiya 74035 Sharp Pointed Side Cutter.  Although very expensive, they are far and above the best clippers I have used.  The blades are very thin and sharpened, allowing you to easily access even tightly packed plastic sprues and clip extremely close to the plastic piece in question without tearing the plastic.  It is the only clippers I have used that legitimately cuts the plastic rather than breaking it.  It substantially reduces the cleanup time on plastic models because you have less of the connecting sprue to trim away.  Although I was initially skeptical at spending close to $30 to get a clippers,  it is a tool I use constantly, and quickly found the added precision it provided to be invaluable.  Again, as a word of warning, these clippers are strictly for plastic (and resin), and you will need another for cutting metal models and pins.
Its fine sharp blades make removing plastic pieces from sprues much easier, and allow you to be more precise.

Pin vise: 

As I have become more and more experienced as a modeler, I have come to make extensive use of pinning for my models.  Without pinning, many models’ joints are too fragile and break off during even careful gaming.  It also can be very useful to repair the hafts or pommels of weapons. I commonly use stainless steel pins with a diameter of 1/16’’. Pins of this diameter work well for most applications on models, whether it is pinning on an arm or replacing the shaft of spear. Additionally it is worth noting that I like using pins over paper clips because they are more uniform in shape and diameter and do not have that weird electroplating that can flake off after being cut.

When pinning, make sure you choose a drill bit that closely matches the pins being used.
In terms of the actual pin vise, pretty much any one found in a hardware or craft shop will suffice.
What is most important is finding a set of drill bits with a diameter small enough to correspond to the diameter of the pins you are using. Further you need to be careful that the choke of your pin vise can accommodate the diameter of the drill bits you wish to use. I have run into the problem that some of the bits I wish to use are either too small or large to be held in place by the pin vise I own.


Krazy glue:  I have used many different brands of superglue over the years to assemble my models, but have always come back to the first I ever tried, Krazy glue.  It creates a strong bond and sets quickly, on plastic, metal, and resin. One of the nicer features of the glue is the bottle it is contained in.  It is a small plastic bottle with a long snout for applying the glue.  It is small and easy to apply small amounts, and being that it is plastic, the bottle always maintains it shape (making it easier to always add glue consistently).  It has a small thumbtack to close the bottle, and the entire bottle then fits inside a hard plastic sheath.  This keeps the bottle upright and prevents it from being crushed or otherwise damaged. Additionally, the glue is very inexpensive,  costing only a few dollars a bottle.

I have used multiple brands over the years, but keep coming back to Krazy Glue.

Tamiya Extra Thin Cement:  This plastic cement has a water like consistency and relies on capillary action to be applied. You just touch the brush contained in the lid to the seam you want to bond and the cement is sucked in.  It is useful for assembling large models or any pieces of a model that fit together tightly and you worry about superglue setting before you get pieces into their final position. It allows you to dry-fit models together and apply the glue after it is “assembled.”  It can also be applied after a model is assembled via superglue, allowing you to strengthen a bond.

Additionally, you can use the glue in a more traditional fashion by brushing it on each piece and then fitting them together.  The glue is thin enough that it does not ooze out when fitting the pieces together, but it becomes tacky in seconds, allowing you to reposition the part as needed.  After you get the parts in their proper place, you can always apply more by touching the brush to the seam, and more will be wicked up like I mentioned earlier.
Great for getting a little more glue in those hard to reach places!

Sculpting tools:

While still pretty new to the world of sculpting with greenstuff, I have found a few tools that make the process significantly easier. When applying greenstuff to a model, I would always struggle to achieve a nice smooth surface and transition between the putty and the actual model. Eventually I was tipped off to try using Royal Sovereign Ltd Colour/Clay shapers by Lamenter from the excellent modeling blog Master of the Forge.
Royal Sovereign Colour Shapers: Top/Middle: Angel chisel point ;  Bottom: Taper point
After applying an excess amount of greenstuff to the area you want to fill/reshape, you can simply use the colour shapers to flatten out the putty in one uniform motion, easily creating a smooth surface and transition with the model. The greenstuff is much less prone to sticking to the material of the shapers than an X-acto knife or your fingers. Despite this I always make sure to wet the tip of the shapers before touching greenstuff. The colour shapers come in various shapes and sizes, but I have found that taper points, angle chisels, and flat chisels work the best for my purposes (sizes ranging from from 0-6).

After identifying an area to greenstuff, apply a liberal amount  of the putty to the surface. In a single motion, forcefully drag the colour shaper over the greenstuff and over the area you wish to fill. This should evenly fill the area. Any excess greenstuff can be removed via X-acto knife. 


Another element that can go a long way at improving your modeling potential and results is working in an area with sufficient lighting. Although it may seem like an extravagance, good lighting makes a tremendous difference.  Once you invest in a nice light, it will be impossible to go back, and difficult to work effectively on models without it.
Let there be light!
I use a Daylight Triple Bright Lamp, and could not be happier. It produces a soft, white light that does not distort color or cast strong shadows.  It easily illuminates my entire desk, and is mounted on a highly posable retractable arm, which allows it to be adjusted to best suit any task.


Periodically when assembling larger models or vehicles it is nice to have an extra set of hands to apply pressure or hold something into place. For such tasks having a set of Irwin Quick-Grip clamps is extremely helpful.  For larger vehicles, it is invaluable to uniformly apply pressure along the entire part, ensuring the the seams all remain tightly together.

-Harlon Nayl


  1. Sweet article Adam. I am amazed you haven't received a comment yet (or maybe you moderate)! Thanks for referring me here.

    For the glue choices I have seen the Tamiya brand around and would definitely give it a try, if not for the WH models then definitely for other plastic kits like planes or choppers! As for superglue, I have yet to find a place in Turkey that sells either a pointed tip model or a brush version. Both would work wonders for me.

    I am absolutely in love with the sculpting tools, I have a similar selection from the local hobby store and have been using it for filling gaps.


    1. Thanks for the comment!

      It is amazing how much easier things can get when you have the right tool for the job. For years I was doing greenstuff work without those color shapers and boy was it much harder.

      Now with all of the blogs around the world it is easier than ever to learn about new techniques and tools for modeling. A wonderful time!

  2. I've been trying the tamiya lately as well. You just have to realize (if coming from super glue), that the bonds are pretty much perm. With super glue, you can pull apart the model if you really need to (generally). With plastic cement, you'll destroy the model.

    I also love that lamp :).

    1. You are quite right with the the Tamiya glue (and other plastic glues); the bonds are very permanent when compared to the bonds of traditional super glues.

      I can't say enough great things about the Daylight Triple Bright Lamp! I am glad you are liking yours!

  3. Thank you for sharing this. Your art work is very amazing! And thank you also for sharing the sculpting supply they are all nice. Thank you again.