Seven Items You Likely Won’t Find at the Hobby Shop

Seven Items You Likely Won’t Find at the Hobby Shop

But which are very useful for model railroaders

By Ernest H. Robl

Okay, there are lots of different hobby shops, including some that have a wider focus on crafts and some that are actually part of hardware stores. So, yes, you may find some of the items below at some hobby shops — but, most likely you won’t find them at a primarily model railroad focused dealer.

I won’t mention most of the hand and power tools that you can get at your hardware or home improvement store. These are fairly obvious. But, there are also some special tools and supplies that may not be so obvious.

1. Paper cutter

There are two basic styles of paper cutters available:

  • .Those with a hinged blade
  • Those with a little round (pizza cutter style) cutting wheel

Stay away from the latter. Why? Because, while paper cutters can, of course be used to cut paper items, their real value for model railroad work is that they also provide a convenient way to cut all sorts of other thin materials, such as styrene plastic sheet, plastic brick or stone wall sections, thin plastic roofing materials — and the list goes on.

As long as the material is thin enough, a paper cutter will give you straight and square cuts — far better and easier than with any other type of cutting tool.


One of many types of paper cutters that I found online. This one even has markings for European paper format sizes — if you care about such things.



I built this small section house (a place for track workers to keep equipment and get out of the weather) from leftover parts from two Pola kits. (Pola no longer makes HO kits, though some models based on Pola toolings are now offered by Faller.) The Kibri roof plates were cut on my paper cutter. This building still needs a lot of work, including adding rain gutters and downspouts. I’m not really happy with the overhang of the roof and may remove that and replace it with a slightly larger one. The building will go along the tracks near the town of Stein am Berg, where most of the structures (from Pola kits) are made of stone.

An important bit of advice: The grids on the surface of paper cutters are seldom useful for exact measurements, but they do help with keeping corners square. So it doesn’t matter much if the grid is in half-inch or centimeter increments.

Rather, mark the cutting point with a soft pencil on your work piece and line that up with the edge of the cutter..

It’s difficult to say exactly how thick a material you may be able to cut it on a paper cutter. Not only is the thickness a factor, but also the softness and flexibility come into consideration. Items with pre-scribed lines, such as plastic brick sheets can often be somewhat thicker than other materials.

2. Staple gun

These come in two basic types:

  • The ones that shoot rectangular staples
  • The ones that shoot U-shaped staples

Though you may find some uses for the tool with rectangular staples, it’s the latter that’s really useful for securing wires and cables to the benchwork or your layout.

The U-staples can easily be removed with needle-nosed pliers, if you need to make a change in the wiring. For thinner wires, you may want to install the staple first and then thread the wires through — to avoid damaging the wires. The better versions of these staple guns have an adjustment that allows you to vary how deep the points of the staple are driven into the surface.

Cat5 telephone wire (with eight conductors in one cable) is designed to have the jacket absorb the impact of these staples without damaging the individual wire strands.

You can find these at hardware and home improvement stores — usually in the sections with telephone and other wiring.

3. Food storage containers

There are two basic types that you will find useful:

  • Zip closure plastic bags
  • Snap-top plastic tubs

These have almost unlimited uses in sorting and storing materials — and are normally inexpensive, and in some cases even free.

For the zip closure bags (available at grocery stores under various brand names) you will want a range of sizes, because in some cases, you may want to group several smaller bags within one larger bag.

Among typical uses:

  • Large complex plastic structure kits often consist of several sub-structures. You can separate the sprues with parts for each of these into individual bags, as you work on one structure at a time.
  • For all kits, you can cut some components from sprues ahead of time and group them in bags to speed up the actual assembly.
  • For many kits, you will want to paint components. With these plastic bags, you can separate the components to be painted in each color.

Most of these bags can be used over and over again, but, if they need to be replaced, it’s not a major expense.

Snap-top plastic tubs fulfill some of the same purposes, but for larger components or sub-assemblies, as well as serving as storage for bulk scenic materials, particularly if you custom blend different colors of simulated vegetation.

These tubs come in two types:

  • Heavy-duty versions intended for repeated use, and typically designed to be dishwasher safe. Brands include Tupperware and Rubbermaid.
  • Lighter versions, typically intended for one-time use, such as packing lunch or snacks or one-time storage of left-over food.

The first type need to be purchased. While the second type can either be purchased or be acquired free. For example, many grocery stores sell pre-packaged cold cuts in these tubs — which are not intended for re-use for food. However, after washing them out, the still work fine for storing model railroad equipment.

4. Ice cube trays

This one may not be so obvious. But, for years, I’ve been looking for a way to hold all the little parts — screws, bulbs, etc. — that are involved in servicing models. None worked out that well until I hit on the idea of using ice cube trays. They work perfectly. If you are short of space on your work surface, you can saw one in half.

You can find these at grocery stores, department stores, and kitchen specialty stores — for very little money.

5. Plastic drinking straws

Depending on the diameter of the straws and the scale you model, these can be used for everything from freight car pipe loads to exhaust vents on buildings. You can get them for nothing by saving (and washing) straws from drinks at fast food places — or you can buy them for very little at grocery stores. You will need to paint them in appropriate colors.

Straws with flexible tops (“bendy straws”) can be used for exterior duct work in industrial areas.

Many of these sizes are just right for simulating culverts under roads and railroad lines, a feature common in real life but often left off by model railroaders.

6. Metric (and inch) tape measure

If you live in the United States or Canada, construction of your layout will involve wood and other materials sized in feet and inches — and lots of model materials sized in millimeters, centimeters and even meters.

Catalogs list rolling stock and track lengths in millimeters — and calculations of how many cars will fit into a particular length siding are vastly simpler in the metric system — if you already have a metric measurement for the length of the siding. The same is true for calculating the grades needed to achieve a particular vertical separation.

Having a dual tape measure also keeps you from having to do a lot of conversion calculations. Measure once and record both the inch and centimeter measurements.

Don’t skimp on this item; get the best quality available. I have one made by Stanley that goes to 8 meters or 26 feet. It even has a small flat area where you can temporarily write down measurements (with a regular pencil, grease pencil, or dry-erase marker) and then wipe them off again.

7. European style calendar

This is another non-obvious item. What makes European calendars different from American ones? Well, for one thing, the week starts with Monday and ends with Sunday, rather than Sunday through Saturday. But the more important aspect is that they normally number calendar weeks (abbreviated KW in German).

Why is the latter useful? Well, lots of European manufacturers show the projected availability of new items by calendar week, such as KW42. Also many of the smaller manufacturers typically have “company vacations,” where the entire company takes vacation at the same time — and of course closes down during that time. So, the company may post a notice on their Web site “closed KW29-31.”

With a European style calendar, it’s much easier to determine when these events are taking place — and to then annotate the calendar, if these events are important to you.

No, you don’t have to order these from Europe. I got mine at the local Office Depot, in the planning calendar section. You just have to look for them. Lately I’ve noticed that calendar weeks are also being indicated on some American-style planning calendars.


I’m sure you can add to the list. Just keep an open mind and you will find many typical household items can also find use in your model railroad activities.


As always, comments are welcome.


One Response to Seven Items You Likely Won’t Find at the Hobby Shop

  1. Peter Brixey says:

    Hmmm…plastic straws are going away, we had better stock up now. I also use short lengths to slide onto the business end of my smaller paint brushes after cleaning them. They store much easier; you can lay them down in a shallow box or similar without risking damage.

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