The 17 must-have tools for building a model railway

The 17 indispensable tools for making model railways.

Most of us will have a collection of tools used for DIY projects around the house and many of these are great for layout construction but many tasks involved in making and maintaining a model railway require much smaller implements. The tiny, delicate, parts of a model railway – particular at the smaller scales such an N, 009, TT and OO/HO – won’t survive contact with traditional hand tools.

Equally, I like to keep the tools for layout construction separate from those used around the house so they don’t get covered in glues and paints or dulled through use on the typically much tougher materials of DIY.

Over the 20+ years I’ve been making model railways (actually it’s more like 30 now, sigh!) I’ve amassed a collection of tools that have proven ideal for working on tiny the fixtures and fittings and in tight spaces around layouts. Here’s 17 of my most favourite.

#1 Craft knife 

No surprise here. A craft knife is universal for DIY and all manner of hobbies. What’s different however is that I have two. I keep one for house-hold DIY where it doesn’t matter if it gets covered in paint and glues and one that’s dedicated to my models, which is kept clean.

It’s used for a variety of tasks around a layout, from cutting scenery materials like polystyrene foam, softwoods, and plaster cloth to scoring baseboards and sectioning plastics and card for building construction. Not to mention its efficiency in swiftly opening delivery boxes, allowing you to conceal any evidence of your latest train purchase 🙂

While it may not be suitable for intricate precision work (for which I use Swann and Morton medical grade blades), it excels in handling rough and ready tasks, sparing the more expensive blades of a scalpel or X-Acto knife for precision work.

A retractable, replaceable, blade will reduce accidental cuts and save having to replace the entire knife when the cutting edge dulls. They’re available for DIY, craft and hobby stores.

Read more
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#2 Hammers

small headed copper

For some problems, only a hammer will do.

Normal hammers are too big and clumsy for use with the small delicate parts of a model railway. Instead there are numerous types of small hammer available – I’ll write on an article on the different types and their uses at some point – but for most jobs around a layout there are two, perhaps three, you’ll want.

For general, and in particular around track, a copper-headed hammer, such as this one pictured above, should be high on your shopping list. It’s small, compact and lightweight. Normally, I prefer tools to have weight behind them but for delicate hammering tasks — such a nailing in track pins, tapping punches for hole making and shaping metal parts —  works in its favour, allowing it to be wielded easily. The knurled handle provides for better grip, further reducing the chance of slippage.

The other hammer I recommend is this Jewellery hammer. The hammer is similar to the copper hammer but this has six heads — acrylic head, flat brass head, flat steel head, ball shape steel head, round shape steel head and chisel steel head — making it useful for all manner of precision jobs.  This set also includes a mini-anvil that’s also handy to have to hand.

(Tip of the hat to @stevethomas6444 for this one).

#3 Multi-meter

Digital multimeter

Electrics are the lifeblood of your railway so a trusted means of measuring and testing resistance, amps, and voltage is a must.

Any High Street DIY store and many model shops will be happy to sell you a multi-meter such as this one.

#4 Pliers 

best pliers for model makingHaving a variety of pliers close at hand is pretty obvious for model making creating and maintaining model railways in particular.

From holding delicate pieces in place will you solder or glue them to passing wires through holes in the baseboard and under the track or bending piano wire for Tortoise and Cobalt point motors to retrieving tiny parts when they drop into difficult-to-reach spots a good set of pliers is vital.

This priced 8-piece set will cover the majority of jobs on a workbench and layout and is amongst the best-priced packs I’ve found.  It includes Side and end cutters and combination plies along with a needle, long, bent, and round nose pliers, and the always hand flat nose pliers.

#5 Rail cutters

While I use my Dremel for much rail cutting, a pair of dedicated rail cutters are handy to have around. The Xuron track cutters for HO, 00, N, and Z Gauges are well-regarded and provide a perfect complement to the general-purpose pliers above.

#6 Soldering iron

Photo of the Antex soldering iron which is highly recommended by model railway builders.

As soon as a railway moves beyond “toy” and temporary tabletop construction and you start getting serious a soldering iron will be needed.

A 25W or 30W soldering iron is vital, any smaller and the iron won’t heat wire and track quickly enough and bigger irons will likely melt the rails. Having exchangeable different-size tips for the different tasks around the layout is also really handy.

Antex is easily the most recommended brand and the XS25 is my preferred choice.

> Extra: See my guide to soldering which takes you through the different irons, how to solder, and which solder mix to use for the best results and avoid bad joints.

Kudos to @tanj666 for suggesting this.

#7  Mini punch

A hole punch is one of those tools you don’t appreciate until you’ve got one.

Banging in small nails, such as track pins, is something that you’ll do a lot of around a layout and even with the small-headed hammer above it can be a pain. Holding a tiny pin or nail while trying to hammer it home is much easier if you have a punch. It also distances the hammer head from nearby delicate objects – such as sleepers – when you strike it.

They’re only a few pounds but make life so much easier. Get them here.

#8 Head visor

When I first started off making model railways, many, many, many years ago, I had razor sharp vision. Skip forward, particularly over the last 10 years that I’ve been writing this blog, and my eye sight isn’t as sharp. Either that or the models are getting smaller!

Either way, for me and many others, a visual aid is not just an aid but a necessity for making our miniature worlds.

After trying a lot of different magnifying glasses, lamps, loupe and head visors I’ve settled on these. They’re comfortable, have built-in LED light and different levels of magnification. I’ve even bought several pairs so I have them to hand in different places around my shed/studio.

#9  Straight edge ruler

Often overlooked, metal straight-edge rulers are one of those things you don’t realise you need around a layout and model making until you have one. The metal edge protects your fingers and other parts of the material being cut and the edge stays straight for longer. I have three or four, in different lengths, measurement graduations, and scales.

And for those times when things don’t go according to plan, when I spilled latex over some track, twanging them on worktop edge always cheers me up.

WHSmith, Ryman, or any stationery store will have them. One thing I would stress however is to check the markings, a lot of the cheaper rulers can be off but quite a lot. When it matters, I use my Shinwa machines ruler.

#10 Point syringe kit 

Syringe's with needle point applicators.When first starting out with models, it’s easy to try and get by. One example of this is when applying liquids – glues, oils etc. It’s all too easy to try and do this with brushes or even to drip fluids into place from a bottle only to get glue or paint splashed over building fronts or tracks which can be a pain to remove.

Since learning the hard way I now always use fine point or pinpoint syringes to precisely deposit fluid and haven’t looked back. The few pounds that a set, such as these, costs won’t be wasted.

#11 Cutting matt

While not strictly a tool, if you’re doing any kind of cutting (and you will) having a surface on which to work without slicing up the family table or kitchen worktops is a good investment. Cutting mats are available from most craft shops.

#12 Hack saw 

For cutting material too thick or strong for a craft knife and scissors a good hack saw is a must. Whether it’s track cutting, slots for wiring or delicate adjustments to models having a good hack saw will make life easier. Find them in DIY stores.

#13  Screwdrivers

precision screw drivers

Big and small screwdrivers are easily essential in any toolbox. For model trains, you’ll also want a precision watchmakers/jewellers screwdrivers for the tiny screws on rolling stock and electronic components.

Update: Since writing this, I now use a different set of screwdrivers and have found them to be a far superior set of screwdrivers for model railways.

#14 Brushes 

Is a brush classified as a tool? I don’t know but do know I regularly find myself reaching for a brush of one size or another. You’ll want a wide and varied selection, for painting buildings and weathering to fine positioning of ballast. Your local craft store will have a wide selection.

For scenery work, any brushes will do but for painting buildings and models on the layout, look for sable hair brushes which retain their shape and hold the fine point better.

If you’re a perfectionist, the Artis Opus Series S are the best I’ve found (alongside their Series D for dry brushing). Expensive but worth it.

#15 Tweezers 

Hopefully, I don’t have to say much about tweezers! They’re great for fine positioning of delicate small items, pulling wires through holes and removing splinters when making baseboards. I find them particularly indispensable when placing the extra flourishes I add to my model railway buildings such as buckets on window sills. 

When buying tweezers, avoid the budget tweezers as these are poorly made from cheap metal and prone to bending or not meeting at the tips. Spending a bit more will save you time and money in the long run.

It’s also worth finding a set with reverse/self-locking tweezers in them. These are where the default position is closed and squeezing them opens the head, which makes it useful when you want to hold something together while working on it but need your hands free. This set contains includes two of these plus the curved tip, serrated tip and fine point tweezers I use most.

#16 Glue gun

Glue Gun

From building kits to fixing Flexi-track and underlay to adding bulk to do-it-yourself-made trees a glue gun (Melt Guns) makes life easier and faster for model railway hobbyists.

There are lots of glue guns available but the Dremel Hobby Glue Gun is my recommended choice due to its quick heat-up time, non-drip nozzle and dual temperature control so it can take both low and high-temperature glue sticks.

#17 Pin vice/ Archimedes drill

archimedes drill

For small high precision drill work, nothing beats a good quality Pin Vice. Able to hold very small scale drill bits (.3mm for example) bits while also giving precise control of the speed of rotation so as not to damage delicate materials you’ll find it becomes one of your most used tools.

I use a Pin Vice for detail work and an Archimedean Drill (pictured) for drill bits below 1mil.

What tools could you not do without when working on your model railway? Share your suggestions in a comment.

Picture: Background Brushes from petitshoo

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Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
  1. HI Andy , Iam a fresh man at railway modelling or should i say lady .I would love to make models for 00gauge but not sure on how to scale ! say a church .I would appreciate some help .thank you . Janice

    • Hi Janice, OO scale is 4mm to 1 foot in real life. So measure the size of the real-world object and that becomes 4mm in the OO scale model. Hope that helps. Would love to see your models if you make them. Best wishes, Andy

  2. Hi
    I have been stripping wires for many years as a motorcycle mechanic but when stripping the very thin wire used on my layout I ruined more bits than I care to mention. That is until I came across the S & R rapid wire stripper. It automatically strips 8 – 12 mm lengths from sizes 0.2 to 6mm and is a reasonable price. I wish I had found this earlier as I haven’t had a mishap since.
    ps Great website

  3. I would add one more that I i=use frequently:
    a Scrawker (A homemade handle which accepts a small craft type blade that faces the work surface at 45 degrees and is nearly always used for scoring/cutting of Plasticard. A craft knife takes for ever to do this.

  4. Oe thing I can’t do without is the muliclamp with the LED light under a magified glass on a stand which I purchased from Aldi’s also some mini grip clamps, as for a muli-volt meter, I use a a 12v x 6w car bulb for testing current on rail tracks…
    There are quite a few “tools” which I’ve picked up over the last 40 years, but too numoues tomention here (one of my favourite is a dentist pick, God knows where I picked that up from!)

    • Hi Idris, I think I have a similar tool, yes, it’s very useful. Dentists picks have come up a few times as recommendations, will add them. Kind regards, Andy

  5. I couldn’t imagine my “toolbox” without needle files. I also often use the “tool” intended for manicure, e.g. sanding paper on hard cardboard (your girlfriend or wife’ll know what I’m talking about). One more tool I find very useful is a sharp needle – I use it for making starter holes for drilling in plastic, especially with bits of under 1 mm in diameter.
    Hope you keep enjoying the hobby for many years to come, and keep up the good work! Thank you.

  6. In addition to painting models it is a very good idea to keep a 1″ / 25mm Soft Bristle Brush, as used for decorating. This can then be used to clear dust from your models in a quick and easy way. I also have a couple of brushes like those used to paint models, which I keep to allow dust removal from areas which are not easily accessible using the 1″ brush or are delicate and require more precision. This is great for Engines and Rolling Stock, Kits, Resin Castings, White Metal and Diecast Models, alongside many others.

    Where doest the dust come from in a clean room?

  7. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!

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