FineScale Modeler


A fter 35 years, FSM has learned a few things and passed many of them on to you. We’ve collected some of the best tools, techniques, and tips that should be at every workbench, and present them here in no particular order. Many come from the collective wisdom of our staff, contributors, and readers. Narrowing the list to 35 meant leaving out some, and there are probably others we didn’t think to include. (Apparently paint fumes can be detrimental to memory.) If you read this and think we omitted something important, or if there’s a tool you use all the time that we didn’t mention, let us know. Email your ideas to editor@FineScale.com.

Cotton swabs

Absorbent and precise, these medicine cabinet goodies are perfect for cleanup and more. Keep them handy when working with putty and glue to wipe away excess without resorting to using your shirttail. Or tip them in thinner to erode a little paint during weathering and finishing. Wrap the end with a thin strip of sandpaper to smooth difficult corners. Swabs are also crucial when cleaning your airbrush. You can buy them by the hundreds at drug stores, but look for precise shapes at medical supply outlets. Just remember, you can shove them inside a gear bay or airbrush — but don’t insert them in your ear.

Sanding sticks

You can never have too many sanding sticks! Professional results come from smooth seams without gaps or a hint of extra plastic around the edge. Compared to sandpaper, sticks give you more control and cushion your hardworking hands. Stock up on a variety of grits. (The higher the number, the finer the grit.)

Pin vise

Think of this as a miniature hand-powered drill. You can usually purchase a set that includes the handle and several bits in various sizes. More can be had in a bit index. You’ll use it to make locator holes for antennas and rigging, bore out gun barrels, and drill holes in plastic, soft metal, and wood.

Masking tape

Adding color to your model would be impossible without this stuff. Use it to protect what you don’t want to be painted and to produce clean lines. If you suspect it might lift an underlying color, try pressing a piece against an article of clothing, your hand, or a piece of glass to reduce the tack before placing it on the model.


Head to the laundry room for this modeling necessity. These cheap clamps squeeze together thin parts as glue or cement dries. For more versatility, disassemble and reverse the wooden claws to create a more precise opening with pointed tips.

Motor tool

If you’re planning major modifications, such as revamping a ship hull or airplane fuselage, you’ll want to add a motor tool to your arsenal — excess plastic fears this rotating weapon. Interchangeable heads including sanding drums, buffing wheels, grinders of various shapes, cutting burrs (show above), and cut-off wheels make this a versatile tool. Wear eye and respiratory protection.

Magnifying eyewear

Not just a fashion accessory, these google-eyed glasses keep the tiny — but important — details of a model in focus. The magnification allows you to clip, place, and glue microscopic pieces with ease, and the end results will be visiblly improved.


Use these tiny tools to apply tiny amounts of product to tiny parts — paint, glue, cement, and putty can be handled precisely with this sturdy point. They can also be used to position decals, stir paint, and hold small parts. Word to the wise: Round toothpicks are sturdier and more precise than their flat cousins.


A splurge, definitely, but worth every cent — it’s precision painting at your fingertips. Imagine no more drippy spray-can paint and the end of pesky brush marks, both replaced by smooth, even coats. Choose from single- or double-action brushes with a variety of paint-feed options.


There are three basic types of putty to choose from: solvent, water-based, and two-part epoxy. They all have unique consistencies, and some smell worse than others. Water-based putties are great for small gaps and can be smoothed with a damp cotton swab or finger. Try solvent-based putty for larger gaps, but beware of shrinkage as it dries. Epoxy putty holds its shape, so it’s perfect for adding layers and reshaping models.

Hobby knife

This multipurpose essential comes in handy throughout the building process for cutting, trimming, and shaving. Blades of various shapes and sizes can be fitted to universal handles to cut parts from sprues, scribe panel lines in plastic, shape styrene and putty, and cut out decals. Keep bandages nearby to staunch inevitable wounds; the best blades are sharp, and blood does nothing to improve models.

Silly Putty masking

In the serious search for the perfect mask, it’s hard to beat Silly Putty. The toy goo can be easily manipulated, making it especially good for curves and irregular camouflage. It sticks pretty well to plastic without leaving a residue, settles into details and panel lines, produces a sharp painted edge, and is reusable. Buy your own: It’s really not right to take it from a kid.

Respirator mask

All paint fumes and no breathing protection make modelers a loopy, hacking lot. Keep your health intact with a high-quality respirator when airbrushing and you’ll be building for years to come.

Vino for modeling

Who says alcohol and modeling don’t mix? Check out the many useful parts from wine bottles. The cork, or sections of it, can become a paint stand: Stick toothpicks or pins into the soft material and attach small parts. Some bottles have lead foil around the neck that can be shaped into tarps, bedrolls, flags, and other items. Metal caps can be used for mixing paints, putties, or glues. Champagne and other effervescent wines have a fine wire retainer that can be disassembled for many uses. Cincin!


When your fingers can’t reach inside a model or you can’t hang onto rigging wire, it’s time to reach for tweezers. Choose the correct shape for the job. Pointed tips hold microscopic details when even your pinky finger would be considered gargantuan in comparison. You’ll want the flat-tipped variety when picking up and maneuvering decals so as not to tear them. When you want to be sure the part stays in the jaws, reach for the crosslocking variety.

Buff for proper paint coverage

It can be tempting to apply an exterior color in one thick coat. It’s easy and fast — but it produces horrible results. Instead, apply paint in thin coats, letting each one dry fully. After each coat has dried, take a worn, soft T-shirt and gently buff the paint. This removes any dust or hair that landed on your model during painting, and the buffing produces a slight sheen in the finish that makes it less susceptible to fingernail scratches. Also, buffing helps prevent paint buildup in tight corners.

The jig is up

Duct-tape white sheet styrene to the underside of a sheet of glass. With the glass side up, tape basswood scraps and blocks to the surface to support the model you’re working on. No matter what you are working on, this jig can easily be adjusted to keep everything square — and it’s portable. It can be rotated to check assemblies from all angles.

Alternatively, use Lego blocks to construct simpleto- modify assembly jigs.

From the mouths of babes

Baby-food applesauce containers make great, cheap parts holders — and the applesauce ain’t bad, either.

New-millennium modeling

Clear space on your workbench for a laptop or tablet to keep photos and information at your fingertips. Organize each subject into individual folders and you’ll save hours that you once spent looking for that one specifc picture.

Pre-and post-shading

Few modeling techniques have garnered as much controversy as shading before or after the main colors are on the model. Increasingly popular on contest tables and in the modeling press, pre- and postshading have triggered conversations about realism versus artistry. Both seek to replicate the play of light and add visual interest to monochromatic finishes.

Pre-shading can be as simple as painting black or another dark color along panel lines or in recesses. Or it can involve painting various sections or panels contrasting shades. The ultimate expression of pre-shading is the current trend of using black underneath a vehicle and white topside. No matter the method, the contrast ing base coat alters subsequent layers.

Post-shading relies upon lighter and darker shades of the base colors to produce similar effects. Thin layers of progressively lighter colors airbrushed into panels is one approach. Color modulation transfers the idea to the entire model with the application of lighter shades higher on the model, sometimes panel by panel.

A different angle

To check alignment of long lines, such as cheat lines or boot stripes, hold the model upside down and sight from ahead or astern. Misalignments seem to stand out better that way — what looks straight when the model is right-side up can look entirely different when it’s inverted. Works for decals, too.

Brush painting

Airbrushing is the norm for finishing models these days, but there’s no getting away from handbrushing. It’s essential for painting details and figures — and there are some modelers who paint entire models by hand. It can be hard to master, but a few tricks make it easier. Before touching the paint, dip the brush in thinner appropriate for the type of paint you are using; this prevents paint from drying in the bristles. Apply paint in smooth, even strokes to minimize brush strokes. And always clean the brush immediately after painting, re-forming its tip and standing it upright to dry. Treat your brushes well and they’ll always deliver a finish you can be proud of.

Stretching sprue

We don’t know the name of the genius who thought to combine sprue and flame, but millions of models have been detailed with what is otherwise scrap to be tossed or recycled. The method is simple: Hold a piece of plastic tree over a candle. (The diameter isn’t critical, but it should be long enough to hold onto without burning your fingers), and when the plastic begins to bend, grab both ends and pull them steadily apart as you remove the plastic from the heat. The result should be a thin strand of plastic with endless applications, including rigging ships and biplanes, aircraft and vehicle antennas, weld seams, and filling gaps.

A prime directive

It’s a hobby! Don’t take it too seriously. If you’ve spent three days researching whether that rivet should be 2mm or 3mm from that other rivet, and you still haven’t come up with a definitive answer, chances are, no one else will know whether it’s right or wrong. Mind you, if you have spent three days on that, you really ought to get out more.

Flowing in liquid cement

After years of struggling with the stringy nightmare that is tube cement, discovering that you can join parts by holding them together and touching a brush loaded with liquid cement to the seam is nothing short of miraculous. Neat joins and no mess … unless your finger crosses the join and thin solvent leeches between your skin and the surface.

Circle templates

Building tanks brings with it the joy of painting road wheels — so many road wheels.

Circle templates used for technical drawing make the job a snap. First, paint the wheels a dark gray or tire color. Then, center the opening on the template that matches the part over the wheel and airbrush the camouflage color. Place tape over the neighboring openings to prevent overspray.

Sludge wash

Washes that add shadows and depth to recesses are mixed from artist’s oils and turpentine. Acrylic washes didn’t stick until somebody discovered that adding a little dish soap to the mix broke the liquid’s surface tension. Slather the mix on, let it dry, and then remove excess with a damp cloth to leave the dark paint in panel lines.

Adding LEDs

What was once almost exclusively the province of science fiction modelers, lighting models has gained a following with aircraft, car, and even armor modelers, thanks to the profusion of inexpensive miniature LEDs in the last 15 years. It’s even possible to light a spaceship or aircraft with a $7 string of battery-powered decorative lights from a party-supply store. Ready-to-use and modular circuits have made special effects and animation easier.

Powders and pigments

As Shep Paine said in How to Build Dioramas, “Nothing duplicates dust so perfectly as pastels, and nothing is so simple.” Artist’s pastel chalks ground on sandpaper and applied with a brush have been joined in recent years by purpose-made powdered pigments with environment-specific shades like Russian earth and rubble, and often a binder that helps keep them on the model. Combining them with fixers, solvents, sand, plaster, and static grass produces all kinds of textures and effects.

Painting wheels and tires

After airbrushing wheel hubs, you can paint tires with a paintbrush: First, using very thin black paint, touch the brush to the hub or wheel rim. Capillary action will draw the thin paint around it. Once that dries, hand-brush the rest of the tire.

Hairspray weathering

Personal-care products, such as emery boards, tweezers, and toothpicks, have long had a place on workbenches. But when FSM was young, it would have been unheard of for modelers to have a can of hairspray at hand. Turns out, the stuff that supported so many hairdos in the ’60s works great as a paint-release agent, and it’s perfect for producing realistically worn camouflage. After painting a model — green on a Soviet T-34, for example — spray two or three generous layers of hairspray. Then apply an acrylic overcoat, wait 20-30 minutes and attack the just-applied paint with brushes and water. The results are stunning.

Dipping canopies for clarity

FSM’s first mention of using Future, now known as Pledge FloorCare Multi-Surface Finish (PFM) was in a March 1995 story about canopies by Rodney Williams. The impact of the glossy acrylic floor finish on the hobby is impossible to understate; nearly every aircraft and car modeler mentions using it on almost every model to give the clear parts extra shine. It’s a simple process that can make the cab or cockpit, arguably the face of the vehicle, look better. Submerge the part in a container of PFM, then slowly remove it, allowing the liquid to flow down the surface and off the piece. After dragging the edges across a paper towel to blot away excess, put it under cover to dry. Two days later, the windows will be clearer.

As clean as before

To keep workbench and spray booths clean, cover them with plastic food wrap such as Glad Press ’n Seal. It sticks to itself and to smooth surfaces, often without tape. When you finish a project, take up the wrap and your work area be as clean as it was before — and ready for the next model.

Quick paint removal

Plastic parts stick together better when they are free of paint. The easiest way to clean paint from attachment points is to wipe it off with liquid styrene cement (Testors works well). Using a micro brush, apply just a little cement, wipe off the brush, then use it to wipe away paint. Keep the quantities small and repeat as needed. When the paint’s off, join the parts. You may not need to, but you can flow a little more cement into the join and you will have a good bond.

Hot decals

When decal solvents aren’t enough, turn up the heat to settle decals over shapes. After sliding the decal into position and blotting excess water with a cotton swab, train a hairdryer on the spot and watch the magic happen — in no time the decal will settle tightly on the surface.