Special Tools & Wood Shingles

Tips from Tracy Mitchell, MMR

Special Tools

I am going to describe tools that we use in modeling that we call “special tools.” These are tools that we use to make things easier to model. Some of these are homemade while others are items that you don’t think of using in model railroading.

The Punch: Punches are made from pieces of wood for a handle and then nails, thumbtacks and straight pins pushed into the wood. These are used for nail holes, applying glue, marking measurements, and basically anything that we could use an X-Acto for but don’t want to break the tip of the blade off.

Sanding Block: We take emory cloth, not sand paper and staple it to a block of scrap wood. We usually use a 1x2 but we have used 2x 4's as well. This is a great tool for sanding large areas and for keeping the work square.

Sponge: This really isn’t a tool but is used as a preventative measure, namely keeping bottles of paint or solvents from spilling. Take a cellulose sponge you buy at the grocers, trace an outline of a bottle of paint, glue, solvent etc. on the sponge. Cut a hole out of the sponge. Make sure you cut on the inside of the tracing line. Push the bottle into the sponge. There you have a broad base that will help reduce spills.

Rust Dust: Take steel wool, (doesn’t matter the coarseness), and soak it in salt water or vinegar. Set it in the hot TX sun and wait for the wool to rust. After a few days in the sun, you can crumble the steel wool into fine dust. Running it through a dry strainer helps. Take the big chunks and throw them back into the salt water slurry until done. When you are through you now have a great powder to use as a rust chalk. Apply it like you would chalk, and it can be fixed to the model with Dullcote.

Sandpaper/Glass: Duct tape a piece of sandpaper to a pane of glass and you have a level sanding block. This works great for sanding the backs of paper signs.

Decal Applicator: We take a paint brush and run the handle through a pencil sharpener to get a fine point. This works great to move a decal into position without tearing the decal. Also, the brush end is great for lapping up the excess water and decal solution.

Yogurt Cup Holder: A Yoplait brand yogurt container is a great tool holder. Its wide base and narrow top makes it harder to tip over then a conventional cup. We store X-Actos, dental picks, paint brushes, and pencils in ours.

Kitchen Cutting Board: We use the white-colored self healing kind. They are much less expensive then the green mats found at Micro Mark and hobby stores.

Emory Boards: Emory boards have been used for years as a sanding tool. We like to modify them by cutting them thinner with a pair of scissors. These work great for those hard to reach areas.

Three Methods for Scratch Building Wood Shingles

The first method is made from paper. I recycle paper from desk day calendars like the ones where you tear off one leaf per day. The ones from the “Far Side” work especially well, and are quite humorous to boot. The calendars are easily attainable, they have the thickness you like to work with, and they are white on one side, but any stack of white paper will work. To make the shingles you need to build a jig for cutting them. Take two pieces of scrap “one by’s” the width doesn’t matter just so they are the same size length and width. Clamp them together in a clamp or vise and draw lines a scale 9 inches to a foot apart and deep. Since I am a “Rubber Gauger” I model in both “HO and “O scale. One side for “HO and the other side for “O”scale. Draw register marks on the ends just an “X” across both boards so you can match them up later in the right way.  When done with measuring cut the boards with a razor saw on the marks you just made.

When the jig is done take about a 1/4 inch thick slab of paper and put it in the jig with the edge of the paper even with the edge of the jig. Clamp the paper and jig in a vice or a strong clamp and saw the paper making a cut in each groove of the jig going as deep as the jig will allow (not more than a scale foot deep). When done cutting, take the paper out of the jig and scissor cut the shingle strips a scale 18 inches deep, or twice the width of the sawed cut.

Color the shingles any way you want too. Ie prefer to use Floquil paint diluted with Lacquer Thinner. When the shingles are dry apply the shingles to the sub roof with either white or yellow glue. Glue only the uncut paper and work from the bottom to the top overlapping each shingle line. When done go back a pry up individual shingles. You can also slightly tear them leaving them still attached but it looks like they are about to fall off. This gives the roof that used look we like our models to have. That takes care of the first method using paper.

The second method is using real cedar wood to make individual cedar shake shingles. Whenever the family goes to Arkansas, I always pick up some cedar scraps. In the Ozarks there are so many wood-burning stoves that they use scrap cedar for kindling. It is sold in grocery stores and filling stations for 5 bucks a bundle of cedar. The pieces of cedar are usually 24 to 30 inches long, 3 to four inches wide, and 1/16 to 3/4 inch thick.  They come thirty to fifty pieces in a bundle. Now out of one bundle you might get a quarter of them suitable for modeling purposes. These are the pieces that are 1/16 to 1/4 inch thick..

Take these pieces and saw them into strips, across the grain, about a scale foot long. In one piece of cedar you will get a whole bunch of strips of cedar. When you get tired of cutting strips, take a strip and start cutting the individual shingles. To do this take a single edge razor blade and “guillotine” along the grain. Well actually, it is more of a slicing motion. Try to slice the shingles as thin as possible. A “Chopper” would be perfect here. Squareness is not a necessity, because hand split shakes are not really uniform in thickness anyway. You want the shingles to look handmade. This is a slow process but the work put into them is well worth it. It is mindless activity, something to do on a TV tray while watching a game or something. This gives us plenty of shingles to work with when were ready to use them. But that is just how to make genuine cedar shingles, the really tedious part is applying them. Glue them on singly using white or yellow glue and tweezers to place them on the sub roof. Being that they are made from wood it is best to stain them to get the color you want. Also try the technique of using grey Prismacolor pencils to weather them. This gives them the look of fairly new cedar shake shingles. Unfortunately we have not found a widely available source for the cedar in Texas, but in Canada where my brother lives the supply is plentiful.

Another source of shingles that we have found in urban areas is stores that sell cigars, or as Canadians and Brits call them, a Tobacconist. What you do is you go and ask them for the cedar, cigar box liners. Most stores give them away to their customers or at the most, charge a small fee for them.. Customers use them to light cigars.

The cigar liners is not new to modeling. Years ago, instead of being wrapped in plastic, the cigars came wrapped in a thin veneer of cedar. The “Great” Gil Freitag has been using them for years. His layout has many cedar liner roofs. Gil described his process for making cedar shingles on the video of his layout as well as numerous clinics he has given over the years.

The third method is one that is relatively new to me. It uses Sycamore tree bark. This is the most natural looking weathering I have ever saw, because frankly it came from nature. To harvest the bark is simple, it peels off easily, with no damage to the tree. The problem is finding a tree. I am fortunate to have one growing in my back yard. One of the best places to find the trees in the area of East Texas or Western Louisiana is the Southern Forest Heritage Museum in Long Leaf LA. Besides being a wonderful place to see old time logging equipment and a belt-driven machine shop that is still in use, (shameless plug for a good cause) the grounds have thousands of Sycamore trees. You can fill a garbage sack full of tree bark that is laying on the ground. You don’t even have to pull the bark from the tree. Springtime is the best time to harvest the bark. That is when it is most plentiful. But the season lasts all through summer and into Fall.  Birch bark can also be used if you live in a climate that has Birch.

To make shingles cut them in straight pieces with a straight edge and razor blade. The bark is thicker than some modelers like. That is why I use a razor blade instead of a knife. Then cut the shingles into individual pieces by the Guillotine method. Glue them on to the roof with yellow glue. As for color if you want a gray weathered roof use the outside of the bark, for a more reddish look use the inside of the bark.

These three methods may take a long time to make shingles compared to the lick and stick or.peel and stick variety that can be bought in the hobby store today. The effort is rewarded with a beautiful roof that is very realistic.