Working with Wood – Rolling Stock

Tips for Working with Wood

(Intermediate to Advanced)

By Jim Wilhite

Our age of plastic has caused many modelers to forget one excellent modeling medium, which is wood. It can produce a very nice finished model, especially when the prototype itself is built of wood.

chapel1.jpg The type used most commonly in modeling is basswood. It is a fine-grained, fairly dense material which has good strength and finishes well to resemble wood in miniature. It should not be confused with balsa, which looks similar but is soft, open grained and porous, making it difficult to finish smoothly.

Whether assembling a wood kit, kit bashing or building from scratch, here are a few general tips to make the project easier and more satisfying.

Assemble a few basic tools and supplies. These would include sharp hobby knives, sandpaper or pad in a very fine grade for finishing and another in a coarser grade for shaping. For finishing and light sanding use a name of "extra fine" or "super fine", if numbered use 220 - 240. For shaping use a name of "fine" or "medium", number 150 - 180. A fine tooth hobby saw and a few small drills can also be useful.

The best glue depends on whether you pre-finish the wood as described below. If so, you should use an ACC or "Super Glue" of a medium viscosity, gap-filling type. This will allow time to align parts properly and will hold best to the finish. If you still prefer to glue the bare wood, use "Carpenters" glue, which is a light amber colored version of "Elmer's" with greater strength.

Seal or Stain the Wood First
It is often easier to pre-stain or paint the wood pieces before any assembly is done. If you plan to stain the wood as for a structure, the best time to do it is after the pieces are cut to size but before assembly.

If the model will be painted, now is a good time to seal the wood parts with a clear finish. This will aid assembly by removing any shavings or splinters and make final painting much easier. Any clear finish can be used. My personal preference is water-based Polyurethane varnish, available in many paint and hardware stores.

Liberally brush the finish onto the bare wood. Small parts can be dipped into the container then brush off the heavy excess. All sides of each part should be coated and soaked with the finish. Set the parts aside to dry several hours or over night. When dry the parts will look and feel rough. Use the fine sandpaper to sand each part smooth. Any stray fibers or splinters are now stiff and will sand off easily. Wipe off any sawdust. Brush on a second coat of clear finish as above. Let this coat dry, which will take much less time than the first, since it won't soak in much. Again sand with the fine paper. If any of the parts still look or feel rough, you may want to apply a third coat.

Paint Before Assembly
Now, think about the paint scheme. If any parts are to be a different color than the main structure, like doors and windows, it is usually best to assemble and paint them before final assembly. Sub-assemblies like a roof and underbody are often different colors than the sides. These can be built and painted separately to save tedious masking or hand touch up.

Assembly Tips

  1. Parts that are joined with an overlap, such as a corner, will fit best if the outer piece is trimmed slightly long. It can be sanded smooth and flush after assembly to give a well-aligned joint with no gaps. Any bare spots can be touched up with paint or stain.
  2. When cutting a small opening in a larger part, make the first cuts across the grain. This will prevent splitting of the large piece along the grain during cutting.
  3. Always use a drill to make holes in wood. Even a small hole that might be made with a needle or pin can split the wood especially in a small or thin piece.
  4. Always drill a hole when using wood screws to attach trucks. In HO scale, a #2 wood screw is usually the right size. Drill a 1/16" hole and insert the screw. It will still hold well with the threads but minimize danger of splitting the wood.
  5. If all else fails and you do split a piece, simply glue it together at the split. Wipe off excess glue and sand smooth when dry. The joint will be as strong as the original piece.


Jim Wilhite was the owner of La Belle Woodworking, manufacturer of quality wooden car kits.
We thank the Central Indiana Division Rusty Spike for the use of this article.

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Page last updated January 9, 2015