Hints & Tips - Updated 9/16/2017

Here are some of the things I've learned through many years of model building along with some tips I've picked up along the way from others. As I think of or discover more, I'll keep adding to this page as time goes on. And, please, if you've a favorite hint or tip, let me know in the Comments Section and I'll post it here for others to see and share.

  1. Try using Elmer's Glue (either white or the new clear) as a masking agent on clear plastic parts. Apply the Elmer's were you don't want paint and allow to dry COMPLETELY. Apply your paint sparingly over the masked off areas to avoid peeling from where you want it. Once the paint is dry, you can flick off the masked areas with a toothpick.

  2. CA glue is murder on fiber optic filaments. Avoid getting it or any CA kicker to its surface because it gets extremely brittle. If you MUST use CA glue around fiber optic cable, give it a thick coating of a water based white glue such as Elmer's.

  3. To make sharp 90 degree (or tighter) bends in fiber optic cable, take a hot soldering iron and place it near the area you wish to bend, Once heated, the cable will bend very easily. DO NOT TOUCH the cable to the soldering iron since it will melt instantly!

  4. Try using orange paint when coloring brickwork for chimneys or walls. Follow with a light grey wash to simulate mortar lines. It sounds odd, I know, but it looks great instead of the premixed brick colors we're used to.

  5. Believe it or not, an inexpensive and ready source of LEDs is the Dollar Tree or similar thrift stores. There you'll find LED flashlights, flickering LEDS from votive candles, and many different types of light applications for a dollar a piece or less. Since these stores are wide spread and open seven days a week, you won't have to wait for any snail mail deliveries.

  6. I can't paint eyes to save my life so I cheat by using glass doll eyes I purchase on eBay. They come in sizes as small as 5mm with a variety of colors. Some are your typical round pupils but you can also get the slit pupil style for that truly evil look. Here is a link to a seller I use frequently: http://www.ebay.com/itm/151116147752trksid=p2057872.m2749.l2649&var=450203660372&ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT

  1. I generally don't care for the 'title' signs that come with some resin kits, particularly if the kit is based on a movie. For a replacement, I'll Google the film title and select 'Images' and I'll always find an actual poster that advertised the film during its release. I'll do a 'Save Picture As' on the poster and then, using Windows 'Paint' or some such drawing program, reduce the image to a size I like, usually a 2” x 1” rectangle. Then I'll print it out on my PC computer and mount it on some heavy card stock, and, viola'!, a ready made sign. I've recently been printing out the poster art on glossy photo paper. It's a little more expensive but it looks very nice.

  2. Occasionally I don't want to spend a lot of time making a background scene or base for a model I'm making so I will resort to a fast and relatively inexpensive way to enhance a scene by using fish aquarium decorations. There are lots of interesting items out there from logs to ancient ruins along with a plethora of plastic plants of all shapes and varieties. Assuming you can get a match in scale, these items are durable and easily found on the Web as well as eBay. Watch out on eBay though. Most of this stuff comes from the Far East so if you're in a hurry expect a three week delivery time.

  3. A safer (and much cheaper) substitute you can make to replace your volatile CA kicker is a 50/50 mix of water and isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) with baking soda (NOT baking powder). Dissolve a tablespoon of baking soda in one cup of warm water and then add a cup of the rubbing alcohol. Mix well and then either apply it with a min-sprayer or a an old paint brush directly to the CA application area. I've also heard of (but as yet NOT tried) making a paste of the same materials as a body filler. Put it in the seam or void and then add a drop of CA. The CA sets up immediately and can be filed or drilled as need be.                                                                                         
  4. Some of you use something called ProWeld to glue you plastic model joints together. Though it works great, it is fairly expensive since a 2 oz bottle runs about six bucks. The chemical is actually methylene chloride with can be bought in 'bulk' on eBay for about a dollar an ounce (plus shipping). Please be aware that methylene chloride is a suspected carcinogen (as is the ProWeld, PlastiWeld and Tenax-7R) so handle this chemical accordingly. Avoid inhaling the fumes and minimize skin contact.                  
  5. I'm currently in the middle of tests using actual makeup to enhance skin tones on models, usually female. Most use pastels but I figured by using real make up (like Cover Girl), the 'natural' colors are already premixed and cheap. Durability is the real issue I'm exploring so I will be providing thses results (with photos) soon. See below.   
  6. Believe it ot not, regular automotive brake fluid makes a great paint stripper. You can immerse resin, plastic or metal parts in it and after a few hours, the paint just rolls off. I use an old toothbrush to clean out stubborn areas and will, from time to time, resort to dental cleaning tools for those really tight places. Be sure to wear hand protection such as surgical gloves you can pick up at any pharmacy. Dispose of any of the residue responsibly. If you filter off the solids, you can reuse the brake fluid, thus reducing its environmental impact and saving a couple bucks.                                                                
  7. For those of you that use Tamiya acrylic paint, I think I have discovered what the solvent or thinner is for these fine paints is. It is isopropanol or what is commonly know as rubbing alcohol. A little jar of Tamiya thinner (part X-20A) costs about $3.50 for a 23 ounce bottle. You can pick a QUART at your local pharmacy for around the same price or less. NOTE THAT THIS IS FOR ACRYLIC PAINTS ONLY!                             
  8. If you find that the decals you are trying to apply are breaking up, this is usually the result of age and/or improper storage, e.g., too much heat. To salvage what's left, lightly spray the decal sheets with a clear gloss finish such as Glosscote or other clear gloss laquer spray paint. This is essentially the same process used when making your own decals with special decal papers available on eBay and elsewhere. Two or three coats should do it but be sure to keep the applications very light so the decal doesn't get too bulky.                
  9. If you find that you are in need of an extra extra fine paint brush, try using so-called 'micro brushes'. Primarily designed for applying eye makeup, these handy little swabs are perfect for those tiny, pain in the butt areas that require a higher level of precision where a regular # 01 paint brush just won't do. They come with various tip styles (regular, cylinder & fine). The ends have a very short stiff bristle (made of plastic I think) and are perfect for detailing and work with any type of paint. And, once the brush part of the tip gets worn out, I cut it off right at the brush and I end up with an ultra fine tip that I can apply even smaller amounts of my paint to wherever, far exceeding what an ordinary toothpick can do. The tips don't get dull like a toothpick and pratically last forever. Finally, once the tip has served it's purpose, I clean it off and use it again as a stirring stick for those little jars of paint or even as a mixing stick for two part epoxy!  You can find these brushes on eBay selling for under $5.00 (with FREE shipping from China) for one hundred!  If you can't wait the two or three weeks it takes to get here from the Orient, you can spend a little more at a USA vendor.                                                                     
  10. How to make a font 'calibration' sheet. Type a phrase such as “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” which has all the letters of the alphabet in it. Repeat this sentence all the way down the page but increase the font size by one unit for each sentence. Depending on your word processor program you should be able to get a pretty good range. My word processor (the for FREE Open Office Writer) has a font range of 6 to 96. I then printed out my calibration reference sheet with a font print the range from 6 to 32 which I keep handy to help figure out what text I can use how & where. Realize that different font styles will impact the overall measurements but not too much. Print out a test label with the font you intend to use just to double check. This also works great for making your own letter decal sheets.                                                                                                               
  11. A nice source of textured materials is an outfit called N Scale Architect. They make vinyl sheets of various bricks, siding, sheet metals and other surfaces. They generally supply the model railroading world so some of their applications may be too small for our needs but they do offer O scale which is roughly 1/48 scale. I recommend purchasing an O scale sample pack for $19.95 which will provide you 5 x 5 inch of EVERYTHING they make. The upside is that the sheets are big enough for little projects.  Here is their link: http://thenarch.com/catalog/building-sheets?page=3
  12. Have you ever finished a paint job on one of your build ups and, after placing it in its display area, it just doesn't look as good as it did on the work bench?  Well, the culprit may be your light source. One thing I learned from my many years in model railroading is to make sure your work area lighting is the same as the layout. For example. if you have a fluorescent lighting over your work bench and regular incandescent bulbs where you will be displaying your kits, the color shift of your paint job is fairly obvious depending on your paint scheme. I imagine the light from LED may present a similar conundrum though I have not made any comparisons of my own yet. Obviously, a sunlight source would be the best although pretty impractical for a number of many reasons, the primary being the sun sets at night and your displays would usually be inside.

    So, if you find that the fabulous paint job you just spent 10 hours on isn't up to snuff, bring it back into your work area and see if it looks better, your lighting may be the problem. The easy fix is to co-ordinate your lighting. The hard part is repainting your earlier build ups to 'match' the lighting in the display area or, hopefully, it may be as easy as changing a light bulb.

  13. Try using tea leaves (right from the bag) as dead leaves on your dioramas or model scenes. They're really inexpensive, look great and smell good, too                            
  14. If you can afford it, I would recommend getting a hold of some decal paper so that you can duplicate the decals that come with a model kit. Scan the originals with your printer (assuming it has that capability) and save the image with a name that is close to the source, e.g., 'ME109decals' or 'Timemachine', something like that. You can cut & paste a whole series of the decals onto one sheet to minimize waste.  I only mention this because I found myself with a set of decals that were old and just fell apart once they hit the water. If I had made copies BEFORE I tried using the originals I wouldn't have been robbed by the kit's supplier for another outrageously expensive replacement set.                              
  15. Speaking of decals, sometimes no matter how hard you try, some decals just won't behave and they end up ruining the model's appearance.  Assuming you've made copies of them as I suggest above, you can remove the originals from a model by immersing the model in hot water (like a fresh cup of coffee hot). After a few minutes, the decal will soften and slide off but it'll be worthless at this point (which is the whole reason for making a duplicate). Note this won't work if you've already coated the decal with Dullcoat or some such finishing spray.
  16. I've come across a very nice modeling product called Liquitex. It is essentially a water based model paste which, before it sets up, has the consitency of tooth paste. Once dried, this stuff is ROCK hard and be sanded, carved, drilled and/or painted. Of course, the applications I've listed are dependent on its thickness. It comes in two types, the first being the hard variety which will not have dusting issues as you find with plaster of Paris. It is also available in a flexible form but I haven't used this material so far.                                                                                                  I applied it which a pallete knife to a recent project where I needed a rough concrete type of surface (see my 'THEM!” diorama) and it worked great.  For a stratified appearance, you can use a stiff paint brush for texture but be sure to clean your tools right away because once this stuff cures, it never comes off.  You can purchase Liquitex in many craft stores and though a bit pricey (about $25 for a liter), I genearlly purchase it with those half off coupons A.C. Moore or Micheals is always giving out.

  17. Sometimes I find myself needing a moderate volume of paint but not so much that I have to purchase a quart can. Behr Paint, usually found at Home Depot, offers a sample size of about a cups worth that you can have mixed in any color you prefer. Though it costs about $3.00 or so, you'll be less likely throwing away a quart can that has dried out because you haven't much use for it after the initial application. During my diorama construction, I'm finding that if I have to paint a 'large' area say several square feet, our little ½ ounce bottle would be consumed in no time but with a cup's worth, you've plenty to spare.

  18. Magic Water TM is a very nice product from Unreal Details LLC you can use for a multitude of water effects in your miniature scenery. I've used this material off and on over the years, primarily in my model railroad work but also in my dioramas. The Yoda diorama is one off my recent uses and I have an upsoming scene from “The Planet Of The Apes” (1968) which will model a sea shore setting.

    It is a two part system, where you mix a 2:1 ratio of two clear materials that cure in roughly 24 hours. Note that the room temperature can effect the cure rate so if it is used in a cool environmet (less than 700 F), it will take a while longer to set. One of the reasons I like this product is that the fume level is fairly low as compared the typical acrylic casting resins out gassing that'll drive you out of the room.

    The only caution I would have about using this product is to be ABSOLUTELY certain you have a totally sealed area where you are going to use Magic Water TM because if you have the tiniest hole or crack, it WILL find it. Take it from one who found out the hard way. Note that this is a characteristic of any liquid material used in this type of application.

    Here's the link to the site (http://www.unrealdetails.com/) .where you can find a number of different products including preformed lake molds so you don't have to worry about any leaking as I mentioned. There is also a nice section of photographs that show how great this material can look with a liitle care & patience in its application.

  19. If you look at my 4/23/17 update, it primarily has to do with rephotograhing a number of my dioramas with backgrounds. Based on a friend's suggestion, I visited an outfit called Vistaprint where you can get an image on a banner or poster in just about any size you like. I have found that the 20" X 36" size banner works best for me but they have many more sizes to choose from. Though a 20" x 36" banner usually costs about eight bucks plus shipping, they frequently have sales like "A banner for five bucks!" like they ran about a month a ago (I bought 15!). The banners I have been buying are made of heavy vinyl so they are washable and very durable. You can select from Vistaprint's online library for images or upload your own as I do (I get my images from Google). They are very helpful if you have a problem and if you aren't satisfied, they will return your money or try again with your corrections. Here's the link to get to their banner page: http://www.vistaprint.com/category/signs-and-banners.aspx?txi=17501&xnid=TopNav_Signs+%26+Posters&xnav=TopNav 
  20. On occasion, I have purchased resin kits of monsters whose teeth weren't properly cast or are missing altogether. A simple solution to this problem is to replace the teeth with tooth picks. Either file off the malformed dentures individually or clean out the entire gum area and start from scratch. I know that doing this can be somewhat traumatic for some but it is much easier than trying to rebuild the teeth with model putty or the like. The only caveat I would point out is that not all teeth are equal so you may have to use the round type of tooth pick in one place and the flat design in another. This would occur in the case of a T-Rex, for example, whose teeth have different shapes depending on their location in the mouth. Simply cut the tooth picks to the desired length by using an X-Acto knife or nail clipper and glue in place with AC glue.
  21. A tip I got from a jeweler friend of mine was if you are going to be doing a lot of work with very small pieces of whatever, put an apron on your table top. Get your hands on a regular oooking apron and, once your put it around your neck, spread the rest out before on your work surface. By doing this, any small parts you drop (and you KNOW that is going to happen) will be caught by the apron instead of disappearing under your chair or work table. Just remember to take it off BEFORE you get up to answer the phone or the whole point of the apron will be lost.
  22. I've come across a really neat paint effect that gives a nice worn look to painted metal equipment such as surfaces that would come in contact with ground or being dragged about for some reason or another. The process involves plain old table salt and goes like this: First, you give your metal object (like a fuel tank or fender of a car) a coat of a metal color paint, typically aluminum or steel. Seal this layer with a clear coat. After the paint has cured (24 hours is good), dampen the area that you want to look worn and randomly sprinkle salt on the area. If the salt doesn't stick dampen it again. Remember that you don't want the salt to dissolve, you WANT a gritty surface. Once the salt layer dries, apply a coat of what normally would be a primer coat of gray or zinc chromate for aircraft. After this dries, apply another light coat of salt. Once this layer has dried, paint or spray the color that would be the finish coat of the object; red, blue, yellow, whatever. After 24 hours of cure time for the final paint layer, take a medium grade of steel wool and lightly buff what will be the worn area. As the salt grains erode away, you'll begin to see the different layers of paint come into view. Take as much off as you choose with the object, keeping in mind that you want to see all the paint layers right down to bare “metal”. You may want to try this out a couple times on a piece of scrap of plastic before attempting it on your new award winning kit but I think you'll be pleased with the end result. Check out the photos on my “The Thing – 1982” page to get any idea how this looks when completed. It is a very nice effect.

Make Up Tests

I don't know if I am breaking any new ground here but I think I have hit on an idea to make your human figures look much more realistic. In the past, I was just using flesh toned paints for my human 'subjects' but I noticed that other modelers used pastels to add subtle shades and skin tones for a more life like appearance. Then it came to me! Why not use REAL make up to achieve the same results?

I purchased a 'professional' 88 color eye shadow make up kit on eBay for about ten bucks (shipping was free) and received a very nice selection of skin tones and other weird colors that suit my needs perfectly (see photo).

I did a small test to ensure how color fast the eye shadows were, so I made two pallets on a scrap sheets of plastic that I spray painted flat white as a base line. I chose six colors at random and applied each of the six colors to each of the color pallets I made earlier.

Next, I sprayed one pallet with clear matte finish paint and clear gloss on the other to see if the finish had any negative effects. If you keep your applications light and just mist on several coats, both the matte & gloss finish work fine. If you apply either too heavily, it WILL lift and move the makeup.

I took some before and after photos of my test subject but the subtleties are hard to detect with my camera. Still, the eye can detect the difference and the overall improvement is very noticable.

  • Gloss finish test

  • Matte finish test

  • Without any makeup applied. Double click image to increase photo size.

  • With makeup. Notice jaw line, cheeks, knees & heels. Double click image to increase photo size.