Model engineer's nostrums

By John, with apologies to an anonymous Greek philosopher!


Establish an acceptable standard, and work to it. It is better to finish a working model than to find yourself endlessly remaking parts to meet your improving standards.

Do not shrink from scrapping a substandard part which will affect the PERFORMANCE of the finished model.

Try to avoid the ' last finishing touch ' that sometimes spoils the job !

RESEARCH ( and survey for scratch building )

Your local reference library is a mine of information, the librarian will help in locating sources. You can photocopy items of interest for use in the workshop. The ' Web ' is of course the ultimate source, good browsing and search techniqueis essential however.

Always have a program in mind for site survey visits, this will save time and ensure that you get the information you need

Pre-prepare sketches where possible these save time and act as a reminder to ensure that the key dimensions are taken during your visit.

Take every opportunity that presents itself for listening to ' real engineers '

Beware the local ' expert ', helpful as he may be, often he only remembers what is important to him, always try to get authentication from an additional source.

Take photographs and make sketches, these supplement dimensions which have to be interpreted back in the workshop.

Include a measuring tape, rule or coin in your close-up photographs this will assist in determining sizes later.

Make notes to accompany your sketches.

Maintain a source file, include web addresses, press cuttings and photographs. Note down details of articles of interest in journals, it is often necessary to check on some specific technique, temperatures, clearances and suchlike information. It takes a long time to thumb through 20 years back numbers of MODEL ENGINEER !


Ventilation and lighting ( particularly local to machines ) are essential considerations in the workshop. Many hundreds of hours will be spent there.

Heating, even minimal to raise the dew point is a great asset, whatever the fabric of the shop.

Try always to have a clear idea of the sequence of operations which you intend to employ. Once that chucking piece has been cut away concentricity may be lost. Once a special set-up has been broken down it will be difficult to replicate

Remember to install important items such as solid axleboxes onto axles before final fixing of wheel sets.

Remember right and left ' handing ' of components, it's easy to make two identical fittings, only to discover that one should be of the opposite hand to the other !

Observe the same safety practices as you would in an industrial workshop, use eye and ear protection.

Always secure work carefully before milling and drilling, use vices, clamps etc. to avoid hand and finger damage.

Swarf spinning on a drill is nearly invisible, take care, it can strip your flesh to the bone or at least cause a bad cut.

Avoid the use of scrim or rag adjacent to revolving materials, they are easily caught-up and can drag a finger, or hand, into the ' works '

After cutting lengths from stock materials remove burrs before returning offcuts to stock. Ensure that your workplace is well lit, warm, and well ventilated. You are going to spend many hours of your life there if you intend to make a model locomotive !

Check the fixity of jigs, templates and the workpiece after initial cuts, and in the course of the work especially when intermittent cuts are being made.

Vary your work pattern. Changes improve your interest level and aid concentration, never force yourself to work on your model if there are distractions, if you are tired, out of sorts or otherwise not really keen to do so.

Clear up the workshop after each session, you'll be more inclined to want to go back there and can make greater progress in the next visit.

Cover down the lathe bed when machining aggressive materials, dusts combine with oil to make an efficient grinding paste !

If you visualise a problem ahead, put it to the back of your mind and busy yourself with some other aspect of the model, the subconscious mind is a powerful tool and works wonders, even whilst you \par sleep !

Try not to finish a spell of work on a ' downer ' , if something has gone wrong try to correct it before you leave the workshop, or you may never go back to it!

Make the best use of odd spare moments in the workshop. Whilst you may feel compelled to press on with some major part there are always tools which will benefit from sharpening or nuts, olives or other small parts to be made. Sometimes it is nice to just sit in the workshop and think about the next move,often we don't do enough of this!

Keep a notebook. Note detail changes, record thread sizes and sequence of erection. Your model may take some years to build and such detail is easily forgotten. Hopefully the model will be passed into other hands eventually and records will then prove invaluable.

Never allow a small child to venture into the workshop unacompanied, they are always inquisitive and little hands go everywhere !


Buy the best tools that you can afford, and buy them now. They are bound to get more expensive as time goes on.

If you store tools in the same place between each use, you will find them quickly when you need them, especially important in emergency, when you need one in a hurry !

Keep workshop tools in the workshop, try to avoid having some parts of your kit in the car or the garage, in these cases they are rarely where you actually need them for the work in hand.

If you mislay a tool within the workshop, start to clear up, the tool will soon emerge from its hiding place, under something or behind something else ! \

Make a note of loans. With the best of intentions, friends and acquaintances often forget the source of a loan and tools get lost forever that way.

Always sharpen tools after use, that way they will be ready for use when next needed.


Store materials methodically, they will be easier to locate and shopping lists become easier to prepare when available stock is visible.

Maintain a ' shopping list ' it is easy to forget some stock requirement when surrounded by all the interesting items at your stockist's emporium !\

Visit your model engineering materials supplier other than at peak periods. The man behind the counter has seen it all before. He hears accounts of success and failure, knows of the effectiveness of various techniques and can advise on materials applications.

You will find that the supplier knows his stocks and can advise on alternatives, particularly such items as near -size castings which with some small modification can be adapted for use in your particular model.

Where funds allow, buy additional pieces of frequently used standard materials, the offcuts will always prove useful.

Keep aggressive materials, acids, chemicals etc. in a locked metal cabinet.

Always mark containers to indicate the contents, unmarked containers are dangerous.\par Maintain a well ordered scrap box, view materials with an eye to alternative uses to which they \tab\tab can be applied, a scrap radio, TV set or even a video cassette can yield endless numbers of useful screws, brackets and so on. The older, timber TV cabinets can be transformed into storage shelving, or the material which will be well seasoned can provide mounts or bases for models.

Save those chucking pieces, they can provide the material for a valve gland or some other small part


OK! So it all sounds like the 'Counsel of perfection', but we do manage to achieve some of the recommendations !

Take care, and enjoy your model engineering.

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