Tools and Techniques
April 11, 2016
A lot of the work involved with model ship building includes cutting things. Sometimes you cut wood. Sometimes you accidentally cut yourself. Sometimes you make a mistake and want to actually and intentionally cut yourself. I’m only going to address the first scenario here.
If you’ve done any kind of modeling, you’re familiar with the tools. But if you haven’t done wood modeling, you might be tempted to just start hacking away at the wood. I’m told wood should be cut a certain way.
Let’s start with the tools…
The core piece is an X-Acto knife. There are other brands, but they are all basically X-Acto compatible. You can buy individual pieces, or buy a set.
When I started out with plane modeling a few years ago, I accidentally ordered two full X-Acto sets (~$50 each). I kept them both, and I’m happy I did.
Each set included a few handles, a full assortment of blades, and a variety of other tools. Having multiple handles has been very useful. I can keep multiple blades loaded up at the same time, so I’m not constantly switching blades. For example, when I was cutting the rabbet, I needed to score lines as well as chisel out the cut, and having multiple handles let me keep both the #11 blade and the chisel blade ready to go.
There are all kinds of blades for an X-Acto knife. Serious craftsmen can tell you all the reasons why certain blades are used for certain things…but if you’re just starting out, there is only one you need to care about…the #11.
The #11 blade is going to be your go-to blade for general purpose tasks. You need a BUNCH of these blades. Blades go dull fast, and a dull blade is both dangerous and inefficient. As soon as you think your blade might be getting dull, swap it out.
I bought a pack of 100 #11 blades a year or two ago for ~$20, and I’m about halfway through the pack. I never hesitate to swap blades. On a Saturday, when I’m working for 6-8 hours, I might go through 3-4 blades.
Use the #11 for scoring (making a light cut to create a ‘line’) as well as actually cutting wood.
So let’s talk about cutting through a piece of wood…
Much of the wood I’ve encountered is basswood. It is stronger than balsa, but not as tough as hardwoods. It cuts relatively easily. Your kit probably includes basswood in a variety of sizes, ranging from 1/32″ thick up to 1/2″ thick. Most of the thicker stuff will need a saw, and we’ll get to that.
For the thinner stuff, you’ll often cut it with your #11 blade. When I first started out, I would simply push the blade down on the wood in an attempt to just ‘chop’ right through it. While this works (if your blade is sharp and the wood is thin), you’ll quickly find this isn’t ideal. You’ll end up with warped edges because wood has fibers – and when you press your blade into the wood, the fibers bend before they break.
Eventually I realized that I saw the same cutting tip repeated over and over online. Don’t push down into the wood. Don’t try to cut it in one step. Slide the blade over the cut multiple times, cutting through a few fibers with each pass. A thin piece might take 2-3 passes. A thicker piece could take more.
I also use the #11 blade for carving. There are blades better suited to carving, but my carving skills are not very advanced, and the thing holding me back is my own skill, not the blade, so I’m sticking with the #11 for now.
Another handy blade is the #13 tiny saw blade. These are a little harder to find, I get mine from Model Expo.
I use this little saw all the time, so I keep it loaded in its own handle. This works great for doing small, precise cuts by hand. It is great for trimming and cutting small angles. I used it when I was resizing the bulkhead extensions for my Bluenose. I also use this little saw when I’m cutting a piece of medium thickness basswood (when it is too thick for the #11, but not so thick that I need a full saw).
The chisel got a lot of use when I was cutting the rabbet line.
If you do a lot of carving, you’ll probably end up with an actual set of wood chisels. I’m not there yet, so this little blade works fine. I also used this extensively when I was cutting the bulwarks on my solid hull Phantom build.
There are a variety of specialty blades and chisel tips available for X-Acto knives. If you get a kit, it will likely come with many of them. I’ve rarely used these other blades (so far), although many find a lot of uses for the #22 rounded (far left, silver) blade. Next to that is the #28 concave carving blade, then the #16 scoring blade. (For me, scoring is easy enough to do with the normal #11 blade that I never bother switching blades.)
Another commonly used cutting tool is the razor saw. This also came with my X-Acto kit, and it uses a larger handle. I typically use it with a miter box (purchased separately).
This is basically a small saw that is used cutting through larger wood stock. The miter box lets you make (fairly) straight cuts by holding the wood up against the edge and using the slots to hold the saw.
I had been using this setup for a couple years before I realized the grooves at the bottom were sized to hold common modeling wood sizes. If you’re cutting a narrow piece that fits into one of those, holding it straight gets a lot easier.
A fancier tool for cutting is a small table saw. You definitely don’t need this, but it can make certain things easier. I’ve had this for about a year and half, and just finally used it for the first time. I originally picked it up because I thought I might find it useful, and it was going to solve a problem with a household project the wife wanted me to do. I never got around to that project…
It sat for a year and half, and I only recently unpacked it, set it up, and started using it. When you need a perfectly straight (or angled) cut at a very specific distance, it works great.
This is a mini table saw, with a 4″ blade. I got it from Micro Mark (~$350) It is designed for working with the small woods we use for modeling. I suppose you could use a full size table saw, but I’m not sure about the accuracy of those.
This model is no longer sold by Micro Mark, but they sell models that are virtually identical (mine has a digital gauge, the new one drops this for a more traditional setup). If you’re really wanting a quality tool, there are probably better brands. I’ve heard tons of fantastic things about tools from Byrnes.
There are countless other tools that may be useful, especially as you progress to more detailed models or move on to scratch building. Scroll saws, milling machines, lathes, etc. all have their uses. I haven’t needed any of those (yet).