I’m a long time fan of Dremel’s versatile rotary tools and the Dremel 3000 is one of my favourite tools — no make that my number one most used model making tool. Here’s everything you could want to know about it and why it’s my first choice for many model railway tasks.
The drawers and storage units around my workbench overflow with tools. Drills, screwdrivers, files, picks, pliers and more pile up. Some almost feel like best friends or family heirlooms lovingly tendered for over the years. But of all of them, there’s one that I use more than any other.
The Dremel rotary tool.
Rotary Tool Benefits
Before going further, it’s perhaps worth recapping what rotary tools are and why they’re so useful for craft work, hobbyists and modellers.
Rotary tools look much like a powered screwdriver or drill and they’re not too dissimilar.
What makes them so attractive to modellers, however, is their generally small size and shape and there are a huge the number of low-cost accessories and attachments available that enable them to be used for a vast variety of modelling tasks. (There are so many extras available Dremel even do a poster of them).
With a quick change of fitting, the tool can go from drilling to cutting to carving and engraving to sanding, grinding and polishing and even welding. (For some idea of their versatility see this guide to what the various Dremel bits can be used for.
By now you’ve probably realised why they are so useful for modellers.
There are of course lots of rotary tools makers, Proxxon and Foredom are two competing brands, but for me, there’s only one real choice, those by Dremel — a subsidiary of power tool heavyweights Bosch. (Popular Mechanics have a roundup of the six most common rotary tool alternatives).
They do, of course, make a range of models and for anyone considering a Dremel one of the first questions is how do the models differ.
The Dremel 3000 model (here if in the USA) is the most popular current mid-range product and it’s the unit I prefer the most but if you’re considering options, there are two alternatives to the 3000 you might consider: the older generation 300 series and the meatier 4000 model.
Differences between 300 and 3000
For many people, there was nothing wrong with the 300 model but a little while back Dremel listened to feedback and replaced it with the 3000, making a number of improvements in response to user comments.
Perhaps the most significant is the introduction of a removable nose cap that can be used as a wrench when changing accessories.
Previously a spanner would be used to loosen and tighten accessories, now it’s just a matter of unscrewing the nose cap and sliding it up over the collet — the metal sleeve that holds accessories — and rotating it to secure or free whatever implement you want to use.
It’s a simple, easy, and effective addition that saves hunting around for a separate tool and ripping your fingers.
Other external differences include a slighter shorter overall length and more vents to help internal cooling so improving the life of the motor. Noise levels and vibration are also improved by making it more comfortable to use although personally I never had an issue with these aspects on the 300.
Internally, the motor has been tweaked from 1.15 AMPs to 1.2 AMP but I’ve never needed the full power of the 300 and I’m not sure the extra power makes all that much difference anyway. There’s also an improved fan which should improve the lifespan.
If you’re tight on budget and come across a second-hand model 300 (it’s no longer available new) there’s certainly nothing wrong with it but personally, I think the 3000 has enough extra to warrant saving up for, if you can.
Differences between the Dremel 3000 and 4000
While the 3000 replaces the 300, its big brother will continue to be sold alongside it.
The Dremel 4000 has a more powerful motor (1.6 AMP verses 1.2AMP) with faster top speed (35,000 RPM verses 32,000 RPM) but for the type of work I use it for I’ve never needed the max speed setting of the 3000 anyway so this not something I miss.
Another difference mentioned on forums — but not one I’ve experienced — is that the 4000 holds its rotation speed better over long periods. Some forum commenters on movie prop site RPF, for example, mention that they’ve experienced variation in speeds during operation. In the typically short bursts I use it in my modelling I’ve not experienced this but if you plan or working with the higher speeds or for prolonged periods it may be something to consider.
For these reasons, I’ve stuck with my trusty 3000 and not gone for the bigger unit. If you do a lot of crafting (wood carving for example) however the extra power of the 4000 model probably makes it worthy of consideration.
Battery Operated Rotary Tools
There are also a number of battery operated tools on the market such as the Dremel 8100.
These differ in that they are lower powered and of course don’t need a power cord attached. The lower power (and hence rotation speed) may be attractive if you only plan on working with plastics but for general usage around a layout, I prefer the corded variety if only so I don’t need to wait for the battery to recharge each time.
I use my Dremel for all manner of tasks when building and maintaining my layouts. From small adjustments to baseboard and track work to loco detailing and model work, I often find myself turning to my Dremel first.
For cleaning up holes or carving out recesses for wires and electrics in baseboards there’s really nothing that comes close.
On a recent baseboard, for example, I realised too late that I’d used MDF board that was too deep for the connecting rods of the point motors to reach through (a rookie error that I should have spotted much earlier). The only option was to grind out a small recess under the boards for the motors to fit into. Doing it manually would have been a tiresome exercise probably involving a chisel.
With the Dremel and a high-speed cutting attachment, however, it was a quick job to carve out a recess that the motors could fit into and enable the rods to reach through to the points. Equally, cutting small channels for surface wire and electrics so they don’t protrude above the surface and leave unsightly ridges in the grass and scatter material is just as easy.
And it’s the fastest way to cut track.
This is perhaps most useful changing laid track. If you need to insert a point (turnout) into a run of track for example, just fit a cutting disk; cut out the old section, and drop in the new. The cutting disk gives a straight clean cut while maintaining the rail profile.
For cutting track while laying, pliers can be used by these can deform the rail shape making it difficult to slide the ends into joiners.
I had this problem recently. Cutting lengths of Flexitrack was taking ages. Each time I cut an end, I had to file down to reshape it and get the profile back to something that the joiners would slide over. After a few minutes, I gave up with the hand file and swapped to the Dremel and cutting disk which sorted out the ends in seconds.
For the remaining track, I just cut through the rails with the sanding disc to start with and skipped cleaning them up completely. So much easier.
(I’ve also heard of some railway modellers also use them with the cleaning brush to clear debris and muck from the track but I wouldn’t recommend this!)
Even on models — plastic and clay — it can save a huge amount of time. Removing burs, excess glue or smoothing rough edges is just so much quicker.
Admittedly, on softer materials, this does take a little practice to perfect. Even the minimum rotation speed of 5,000 RPM and the friction it can create will easily chew through plastic or clay but once mastered it’s easily the fastest option. (It would be great to see Dremel offer a low speed — sub 1,000 RPM switch — for this kind of work, maybe in the next version?).
Tip: I clip on the flexible shaft which provides a smaller, lighter, hand unit. Using this flexible shaft or detailing grip gives more control and with a carbide cutter that doesn’t blunt it’s much easier to work plastic without it melting due to friction. As another parting tip, I’d also recommend getting a range of collets and the keyless quick-change chuck which enables the tool to hold a wider assortment of attachments shank sizes and reduces the time and effort to swap.
If you build model railways of any sort, the Dremel should be on your wish list and the Dremel 3000 is, for the above reasons, my preference.
It’s compact, comfortable and has a huge variety of attachments and accessories available for it. It’s also got enough power to handle the most common modelling tasks without being too noisy. I’d be lost without mine.
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