When old and cherished hand tools meet the ease, speed and convenience of a modern power tool.
I have always had a thing for tools, even more so if they’re old hand tools, such as my scratch awl.
This probably stems from my childhood.
As a young lad, I would often take the train with my father to visit my grandparents. While my father caught up with family news, I would disappear into the garden and climb an old apple tree. From my perch, I could look out over the neighbouring houses, and I would inhale the crisp autumn air mixed with the scent of smouldering leaves from a bonfire.
The old shed
But my true haven lay beyond the tree, in the far corner of the garden. There stood a small, unassuming shed – weathered and worn by time, its wooden walls creaking with every gust of wind.
I’d pull open the creaky door to be greeted by the odour of oil and paraffin heavy in the air,
Inside, cobwebs decorated stained shelves piled high with tobacco tins filled with a motley assortment of nuts, bolts, and screws while all manner of screwdrivers, saws, and pliers lay strewn about the wooden workbench.
I’d spend hours holding and exploring these rusty old tools and imagining what had been created with them. Each had a story to tell, a tale of use and purpose that only the shed knew.
Today, when making a model using an old hand tool, memories of that old shed come flooding back and I remember the happy times spent there.
However, as much as I love old tools, modern power tools are unbeatable in terms of convenience and efficiency. My trusty Dremel and hot air gun are always close by, and I’m always on the lookout for new tools that will make construction easier, and faster, or improve the finished product.
The Repair Shop is my must-watch TV for discovering new tools as is Adam Savage’s youtube channel.
And recently, while watching Adam’s videos, the one above in particular, he talked about his time at Industrial Light and Magic and how his colleagues all used a workbench sander for model making. It caught my attention. I use needle files, nail files and knives to smooth and cut edges on my models and a disk sander seemed so much easier.
I made a mental note to investigate and promptly forgot about it.
Fast forward a few months, and while scrolling through Facebook, I came across some photos from fellow model maker John Simpson. John is a skilled modeller, and I always enjoy seeing his work, especially his impressive 1:76th scale farms. And lo and behold, there in the background of one of his photos was a sander that looked remarkably similar to the one in Adam’s video.
A quick conversion with John and I was sold.
I had to have one
I had to have my own sander. After a bit of searching, I found a 140W workbench sander by Parkside (the company that makes power tools found in the middle aisle at Lidl) for £60 on eBay. I was hesitant to spend the money at first. Cheap power tools are rarely good, but I’ve bought Parkside tools before and never had a problem, so I caved and purchased one.
It arrived within a few days and I scurried off to the shed with it before my wife realised I’d bought yet another tool!
Once in my shed, I unpacked and set it up but as I looked at it, I felt a wave of uncertainty wash over me. I had never used a workbench sander before, and I had no idea what to expect.
I attached a sanding disc to the machine and flicked the switch. The machine hummed into life, its whirring sound filling the air like the drone of a thousand bees.
I had a stone effect styrene sheet with which I was building a goods shed and which needed the edges straightening. To get straight edges previously, I would have marked up the sheet with an engineer’s square, cut along the line with a scalpel, and then used a 180-grit nail file or needle file to sand it down. This is a slow, monotonous task, and precisely the kind of job I hoped my new sander should make light work of.
I positioned the tilting table at 90 degrees to the disc, switched on the power, reduced the rotation speed, took the proverbial bull by the horns, and fed my fragile styrene sheet to the spinning disc, which was rotating at several thousand RPM in front of me.
I had already spent some time refining the stone detailing on the plastic sheet, and it would be an understatement to say that I would have been frustrated if the sheet had been destroyed, eaten away, or melted by the heat generated as the sanding disc came into contact with it.
However, I needn’t have worried. The table in front of the disc allowed me to present material to the sanding disk, turn and position it, and withdraw it as needed.
The bull was a gentle beast
The bull, or in my case, grinder, was a gentle beast, and my fears of it tearing uncontrollably into the finely detailed faux stone wall were unfounded.
In a matter of seconds, I was able to create a perfectly straight edge along the length of the plastic sheet, a fraction of the time it would have taken previously.
I then reduced the speed and tried smoothing out rough edges on some small coffee sticks and balsa wood I was using for planking in another building. It too worked a treat. The bull was a kitten and purred as I worked on the material.
I’ve used it multiple times since and it’s made such a difference.
Jobs that previously took minutes, in some cases hours, to do now take seconds and end up with a better finish too. I still use my needle files but only for precision detail work, such as creating the inside details of stone and brickwork on windows and doors or matching the stone patterns on corners. But for long straight sections, rounding large corners and smoothing surfaces, the new sander has replaced my old tools.
It may not be the cherished wooden-handled tool that rekindles long-lost memories, but at the same time, I won’t have countless hand cramps from using it. I wonder what future generations will make of it when they find it in my shed in years to come?
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. 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.