A TradBoat Special

Building a Model Thames Barge



There was (and perhaps still is) a boat builder in the Western Isles building beautiful clinker fishing boats in a very primitive workshop. I remember, for example, that his drills were made from bicycle spokes.  I mention this to show that it is perfectly possible to do great work with a minimum of tools.

My  tools were bought as-needed, and are a very reliable source of birthday presents from my family.  I do now have a number of power tools.  These are becoming relatively inexpensive, but quality power tools, especially from ranges which build-on, are not cheap.  They are nice to have, but the job can often be done another way, so they are not an end in themselves.

A number of companies will supply tools by mail order.  My small tools often come from Squires who have a next day delivery by post.  I have no "interest" in Squires but find them very reliable and they have an excellent free catalogue. Tel: 01243 842242. 

Like most people, I already own a range of simple household tools. What follows then is a list of tools bought specifically for model making, perfectly adequate to complete the hull and much of the rigging.  It does not include metal working tools, or a lathe, for example, for which I have no use at the moment.  However small parts in brass are going to be needed, so the list will be extended to include the simplest metal working tools..


Miniature clamps

You never seem to have enough miniature clamps. So start by spending a little money and buy five cards of the smallest of these spring clamps. They have plastic padded ends which swivel nicely, and have a groove in the pads so that they can be fitted over a panel pin. I have forty of them and use the lot. Most useful when laminating or clamping up hull planking..


I also have about a dozen miniature metal clamps of the sort you see in this photograph. They seem to come in sets of three, in different sizes.  The quality tends to be a bit variable but if you can buy straight ones then they are often useful;   Make sure that the plastic ends are in place when you use them.  Clothes pegs are also useful.


C Clamps

I have six in various sizes, four of them quite large for bench work. They can be bought cheaply, but the cheaper versions have simple cup shaped ends which will easily damage the work-piece. I use them, but always put scrap wood padding under the cup. I have two or three old C Cramps rescued from car boot sales, which have beautiful swivelling and padded ends, and attractive keys. These larger clamps are much used.


All of these clamps are available from the usual modelling suppliers and you will find trays of them at modelling exhibitions.  Alternatively have a look in an "All for 1" shop - that's where many of mine came from.


Cutting tools

Scalpels and blades.  

I have big hands and prefer the blue Swann-Morton padded handle (blue - Code 5a) to the ordinary slim surgical handle because it's more comfortable in use over a long period. There is a wide variety of blades available to fit Swann-Morton handles, but I find that the ordinary No10a does most of my jobs. Buy blades in bulk to get them cheaply, and change them regularly. I also have a scalpel blade handling tool, again Swann-Morton, courtesy of my wife. This tool allows you to handle blades without touching them.

For heavier work I use the red X-Acto handle and blades. Swann Morton also make a similar handle. This handle is fluted, and will not roll about much on the bench.  It will also accept razor saw blades.

Safety note.

Dropped scalpels will slice through your shoe and sever the veins in your foot very neatly. When I am working I stand my scalpel in a small tin by way of a hole in the lid. Used blades are disposed of into another small tin with a narrow slit in the lid.  I never use round handled cutting tools which can roll  about (and off)  the bench.  Keep scalpels on a high shelf.


You will probably be using very thin plywood ( Liteply or similar) for the first layer of your decking and first skinning of the box structures of the mid-ships hull.  The easiest way to cut curves in the  material is with scissors with sanding to follow.  Buy a truly enormous, heavy, pair from the usual 1 shop.  You may have to file the hand holds as I did but they are invaluable for this job.  Straight lines in the material need to be cut with an edge tool and a straightedge of course.

and micro snips ...

Squires catalogue describes them as Micro Snips, or Japanese weaver's scissors.  You won't need these yet but they are invaluable when you come to rigging.  They are quite small and easily used one handed and in tight places. I find them particularly useful because they may be used easily in either hand which is not the case with conventional scissors,

Safety ruler

Mine has a trench down the middle into which fingers can be placed when I use it for cutting.  It also has a non-slip pad underneath.  Made of aluminium it is in constant use.


I have two small saws

A Razor saw (top) which has interchangeable blades of various depths. I find most use for the 32mm version (depth of blade and back) at about 32 tpi. This saw does all my fine work.

The gents
saw (bottom) has fairly fine teeth (about 20 tpi) and is used for slightly heavier work. This saw has a fixed blade, depth about 50mm including the back. I'm not sure that I can sharpen it efficiently, so when it gets tired, I may replace it.

and a tenon saw bought from a DIY store for cutting softwoods and other jobs. (One day I may buy a beautiful and expensive "brass back", but since the razor saw does most of the work at the moment, a new tenon has a low priority.)

A small  bench hook is essential.  Mine is made simply by glueing two pieces of timber to a piece of scrap block board. I use it all the time, and when the cutting area is ragged, simply replace the whole thing.

A circular saw. I have a Minicraft circular saw (18V, 100W, 18,000 rpm max). It  will happily cut balsa sheet, thin ply or Bass.  For slightly harder woods it's great for cutting planking.  To date I have not used it for anything thicker than 3mm but the specification suggests that it will cut wood to a maximum of 6mm. (Similarly, the specification has it that it will cut plastics up to 2mm and non-ferrous metals up to 1mm)

Set the rip fence supplied with the saw against a set-square or it won't be straight when you wind on the tightening screw. I bolted my circular saw on to a spare piece of blockboard, and I use C-clamps to fasten it to the bench when it's in use. It would be much safer screwed down permanently. Beware, it produces LOTS of sawdust.

Safety note

The circular saw blade has a transparent plastic safety cover.  Always ensure that the cover is firmly in place before the saw is switched on.  Never use your fingers to push pieces of material  into the saw .  Make up a notched "push stick" and use that instead.  Turn the saw off after  every use and un-plug it. Keep where youngsters will not be able to get at it. Clear the sawdust holder regularly.


Balsa Stripper for planking

A circular saw produces a fairly wide cut.  For balsa planking it is more economical and simpler to use a balsa stripper.  This small tool can be purchased from Squires and there are other models.  The sole plate  is adjustable for width from 1/16th to 5/16th.  The tool is used by slipping a X-Acto handle (or similar) into the slot provided, pushing the tip of its blade down to provide the cutting edge.  (Squires recommend a No 5 or 6 handle, and No 19 blade.)  It needs a bit of practice on scrap wood to start with, but I use it regularly.

Tools for making holes

Twist drills

A slide topped box of miniature twist drills is most useful.   Mine is Microbox.  I tend to use the larger sizes routinely, and the finer ones for marking centre lines and so forth.  The finer drills can be used in a miniature Archimedes Drill, or in a simple pin vice with a swivel head.  They are a nice set and were not expensive. I also have a collection of larger twist drills in the usual sizes .  

Power Drill

12V  I use a miniature power drill: mine is Minicraft, (12V, 100W, 12,600 rpm max) and has the advantage of a variable speed controller.  There are several makes of 12V drills on the market.  They usually come with a set of miniature grinding and polishing tools for which I have not so far found a use.  More useful is a flexible extension which allows one to drill into difficult corners, or to mount the drill on a fixed stand.  

240V  I also have a Dremel which is a bit more expensive and runs 240V,  125W, 33,000 rpm max.  This is a more powerful tool but the Minicraft has been fine for all the work to date 

Drill stand

You should certainly have one.  I struggled for some time to hand-drill holes square to the work piece, but seemed never to get them quite right.  So I invested in a drill stand which cost around 20.  It's not super accurate in the engineering sense, but with it I am now drilling square.  When it comes to making blocks it will be invaluable.  If you can also afford a two-way adjustable drill vice then I should do so, but I haven't found it essential yet. 

For pricking through

There will be times when you need to prick through a plan, for example, to transfer a curve onto plywood.  I use an old bodkin in a pin vice.  When not in use the bodkin is reversed and slides up into the handle to protect the fingers.

Miscellaneous tools

Combination square

Buy a simple combination square and use it all the time. Mine  has markings on the 12" ruler in inches and millimetres - taken to the end of the rule.  I use it for squaring up all the larger work and it is invaluable for measuring "up" from the baseboard.  Mine is the simple version without the protractor and other  bits.

Engineers square

A 3" (75mm) engineers square is also in  use constantly.  This is a well made tool  and I struggle to keep mine clean, oiled and free from glue.  Buy one!

Dividers and Calipers

Yes, you will need both.  Buy a set of big ones which will span several inches.  Dividers are invaluable for transferring dimensions from plan to timber, and for many other positioning jobs.  You will need the type which has a screw adjustment for width, and so will not slip.  Outside calipers are needed for measuring the diameter of spars at various points, and again should be of the the non-slip type.  

The sort available as student sets are fine for small work but  make sure that the compass and dividers are of the spring-bow type which has a threaded screw to adjust the width, again they will not slip as you handle them.

Parts holder

At some stage you are going to need to paint a lot of small parts.  I made up the parts holder which you see in the photograph, from electricians' crocodile clips and BBQ skewers.  Note that the skewers are cut to different lengths so that individual small parts can't bump into each other when wet.  Because the clips have small teeth they don't  damage the paint work noticeably.  The skewers lift out for painting.

The base is simply a piece of  wood 1" square (40mm), into which I have drilled deep holes and countersunk the tops. I use this parts stand a lot.

Ropes Stand

Scale ropes soon get everywhere.  Make up a bobbin-stand by gluing dowel pegs into a similar piece of wood, about  1" square (40mm) and slot the bobbins on to the pegs.  (Collect cotton reels - they will come in handy for short lengths.)  

You may be interested in making your own miniature ropes.  I am making up a simple rig for doing this - pictures when its ready.    Meantime have a look at William Mowl's book  "How to Build a Model Warship" .

Dental tools

Most useful for prodding loops of miniature rope into shape and a hundred other small jobs.  They come in a huge variety of types and last forever.  I have a tray of them.

A place to keep small tools

You will need somewhere to keep tools because your collection IS going to grow, especially when your children and grandchildren conspire with your partner to buy small tools for birthdays and Christmas  For example I find I have a fine collection of dental tools in stainless steel!  

Years ago office suppliers made sets of shallow wooden stationery drawers, often as a desk pedestal.  These turn up on the pavement outside office "junk" shops and  are ideal tool chests.  Mine has six drawers each about 2" (50mm) deep, and slides in under my bench.  If you have one that has a lockable door or a sliding front, again lockable, then it will keep sharp tools away from little fingers.

A final temptation

Do give way to temptation now and again. Once upon a time I bought a small spoke-shave at an antiques fair.  It is made in the most beautiful honey coloured boxwood and was very expensive. Perhaps one day I will use it to shave out a bowsprit, but perhaps not.  The modern cast-metal  equivalent with fully adjustable blade, and no doubt water cooled computer controlled profile management, will be half the price.  But simply handling  that boxwood tool makes me feel like a craftsman.


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  Charles Smith Publications 2004