To the newcomer to Model Railroading the mere mention of the phrase “Craftsman Kit” seems to indicate the modeler needs a degree in structural engineering and ten thousand dollars worth of tools. Nothing can be further from the truth.

The term “Craftsman Kit” came about in the mid 1950’s with the coming of injection molded plastic kits. Old time model railroaders had been used to building primitive kits made of wood, cardboard and sometimes castings using lead or a material called  “Zamac”. Kits consisted of some rough cut wood and templates, along with crude instructions (by today’s standards),  but even with these basic materials some “craftsmen” were able to construct good looking, realistic accurate models.

When companies such as Revell, Lindberg, Aurora and others began  to make models of injection molded plastic, the kits were scoffed at as being too simple and “shake the box and the kit is assembled” type kits,  thus  the term “craftsman kit” came into use by the modelling press to describe the earlier simple kits. Unfortunately the term has stuck.

The technology used in injection molding has changed little in the past half century and many kits by these early manufacturers are still available to-day, allbeit by different companies. 

Wood kits on the other hand have changed dramatically over the years. With the latest development being the use of laser cutting, wood kits are now as easy to assemble as many of the injection molded kits, and make a much more realistic model. In addition the wood kit is much more distinctive as there will not be hundreds of thousands made as is the case with injection molded kits.



       Mention a wood model kit to many modelers, (sometimes very experienced modelers) and you will often get the comment that “I can’t build wood kits”. The fact is that before the advent of the plastic injection molding machines in the 1950’s most kits were wood or cardstock, and many very good models were built in this medium.  

Plastic kits have certainly played a big role in making model railroading the popular hobby it is to day. They are of great use in making a number of structures quickly, but the drawback is that they are in reality one of a million kits and no matter how much kit bashing is done they still suffer from the sameness syndrome. The painting and decorating of the model is the only thing that will make the model different from all the others. Also because of the high cost of injection molding dies, very few specific prototype kits are available, and instead virtually all kits are generic in nature, whereas with wood kits extremely accurate kits of specific prototypes can be produced because the kits need not be manufactured in huge quantities. These differences in production runs also explain the differences in pricing between the two types of kits. The research, development, design and engineering of any kit is the major part of the cost and in the case of a wood kit must be amortized over far fewer kits than if the kits are produced in plastic. Like most other areas of our hobby, wood kits have developed a great deal in recent years and with a little time and patience all but the most complicated kits can be assembled by the novice with little previous wood building experience. What follows is a basic discussion of what you will need to know if you are a first time wood builder but have had experience in plastic. 

First of all and probably most important is TAKE YOUR TIME. Your wood kit will not go together as quickly as a plastic kit, nor is it intended to. You will spend many more enjoyable hours on your wood kit and the end result will be much more satisfying. You will be able to say with pride that you “built” the model, not just put it together. Most wood kits are built using a series of sub-assemblies. Study the instructions carefully before starting to determine where these sub-sections are and you can then work on a second one while the glue or paint on the first one is drying. Again we can not stress enough that you understand and follow the instructions carefully. The kit manufacturer has spent many hundreds of hours developing them, and the vast majority of problems with kit building comes from the builder not adhering to the written directions.   

The tools you will require in constructing your wood kit are very basic but extremely important. First and foremost is a good quality knife. By far the most useful is an  #1 knife holder and a #11 blade. Several manufacturers make this type of knife and blades. You should also have a few #17 chisel type blades for the same knife. A #5 knife handle along with a fine tooth razor saw blade is also a necessity. Just an observation here on cutting – a sharp blade is absolutely necessary. You will never get a good clean cut with a dull blade, for the blade crushes rather than cuts. When cutting larger pieces over 1.5mm square, always use the saw blade as it is impossible to get a square cut with a knife on larger pieces. In cutting strip wood, it is a good idea to cut it slightly longer than needed and then lightly sand until you get the exact length. When cutting strip wood cut against a hard backing such as a smooth piece of hardboard or Masonite. Never try to cut on a mushy surface such as cardboard, etc. A final note regarding cutting strip wood – most kits use color coding on their strip wood. When cutting part of a wood piece, always start from the uncoloured end, so that you will have the colour available until you have used the last of the piece. 

Many models will use such items as nut/bolt/washer castings, railings etc., which require tiny holes to be drilled in the wood. A hand held pin vise is a necessity along with an assortment of 60 to 80 drills. Don’t attempt to use one of the power drill attachments for this job, as they are impossible to control on soft wood. Another item of necessity is a good quality scale ruler with a straight steel edge. This is a must for any modeling job in wood or plastic and you will have it for a lifetime. Instructions will often call for a scale measurement and although they may give the metric equivalent this is not as accurate as using the scale measurement.

Sandpaper is another important part of the modeler’s toolbox. An assortment of 120, 240 and 300 grit papers should cover all your needs. Emery boards available at drug stores for manicuring fingernails are very useful. They can be cut to any shape and are great for enlarging window openings, etc. Most strip wood is now “fuzz free” but it is still a good idea to “de-fuzz”. To do this fold a piece of fine sandpaper between your thumb and forefinger and pull the strip wood through it. While we are dealing with sanding don’t try to sand with the sandpaper loosely wrapped around your finger. Always attach it to a small squared block. Alternately place the sandpaper on a flat surface and rub the part against it lightly. Remember sandpaper can remove a surprising amount of material quickly so go slow and check frequently. You can always take off a little more but you can’t add any on.

       Most of the other items you may need in constructing your wood kit are basic modeling tools such as tweezers, small scissors, a magnifier, small wire cutters, etc. Wooden clothes pegs are also very useful to act as clamps when allowing cement to dry. Small alligator clips with the teeth filed off will also make good clamps for the tiny parts. 

       One special item you will need is a good quality flat surface. I have found a piece of hardboard or Masonite is best. I usually use one about 300 x 400mm, In fact if you are working on more than one sub-assembly at a time you will need one for each assembly so that you can leave it undisturbed while you work on the second section. 

       There is no substitute for good lighting. You will work with many tiny parts, and without a bright well lit area to work in it is impossible to see what you are doing.

Some plastic parts can have a tendency to warp or bend over time. This is particularly true of polyurethane parts. If this happens to a part in your kit application of a small amount of heat while the part is on a flat surface will cure the problem. We have found a hair dryer is a good source of heat for this job. Allow the part to cool on the flat surface. Also parts using materials of different composition, such as wood, card, urethane etc. will experience some variation in size as these parts will expand and contract at a different rate with different humidity and temperature. Always test fit parts before cementing them in place and remove any small amount of material necessary. We make most parts slightly oversize to compensate for this difference.       

Gluing wood parts is a different process than cementing plastics. Cementing Styrene (the most common plastic kit material) is actually fusing by melting the plastic and bonding them to-gather. Gluing wood is done by the glue penetrating the wood cells and bonding by hardening.  solvent-based wood cement, both slow and fast drying Super glues. (If you choose to use these types be careful of using the fast drying types as the faster the glue dries, the weaker the bond). In the course of constructing a great many wood kits I have found the best overall glue is the common white glue such as PVA and fast setting PVA’s etc. I put a small puddle on a piece of waxed paper, then apply the glue using a toothpick. This enables you to get the glue into the area you want without smearing it all over the place. The bond, if allowed to set properly, is very strong even in small areas of contact. You will also need contact cement to secure windows, doors and other plastic or metal parts. Use a toothpick to apply this cement also. If your kit requires joining metal to metal or metal to plastic, etc., you will also need ACC cement commonly called “Super” or “Crazy” glue. 

Painting and or decorating your model is pretty well straightforward. Solvent-based paints such as Tamiya, Accupaint, etc. can be used with no necessity to use a barrier coat. The newer water based acrylic paints such as Matasse, Model Flex, etc. can also be used. As with all models it is best to paint as much as possible before assembly especially where color separation is necessary. Wood stain is a very common and effective way of finishing a wood kit, but in this case it is compulsory to stain the parts before assembly. The reason for this is that the stain will not penetrate anywhere where there is glue, thus you will find an uncolored area around a glue joint when the stain has been applied after the glue has dried. There are many commercial stains available, but a very good weathering solution is to mix 10 parts of India ink with 30 parts of denatured alcohol. This results in a good weathered look. You can lighten or darken it by changing the amount of India ink in the mix. One special note here however, when using the newer water based acrylic paints you must be aware of the potential of curling especially on very thin wood or card stock. This problem can be solved by undercoating with a solvent based under coat or a light spray of clear lacquer or varnish. If curling does occur simply re-moisten the part and allow it to dry under a heavy weight such as a book, etc.

Before painting the plastic or urethane parts in your kit, they should be thoroughly washed with a strong solution of dish washing detergent to remove the release film used in the molding of plastic or casting of urethane parts. This is especially important if you are using water soluble paints on urethane parts such as bases, foundations and some cast windows and doors etc.

       So that’s it. There is really nothing very complicated about a wood kit as long as you remember the most important points mentioned above. DO read and understand the instruction sheet fully before starting. If there is something you don’t follow write the manufacturer. Most manufacturers take pride in having their kits built as designed and are more than happy to help with a problem. Be sure to enclose a self addressed stamped envelope and leave space on your letter for their reply. Finally be patient. Take your time. Relax and enjoy your work.

About the author

Owner of Model Train Buildings since 2013


  1. Well said. With the laser cut kits that I have built, I’ve always tried to treat them as a model in their own right, not just something to fill space on a layout. The end result of ‘enjoying’ the time it takes to construct a craftsman kit as opposed to assembling a plastic injected kit is in the details. A well painted timber kit will always look better than a colour moulded plastic one, and more like a model in miniature standing alongside your track instead of an elaborate plastic edifice.
    ~Phillip Overton

  2. Most in this wonderful hobby seem to be drawn to a particular field or skill and seem nervous about trying something new. When i constructed my first wooden building, the amount of help offered by Stuart was amazing. Little things now but how does a fellow with a soldering iron fill gaps in wood? Thanks Stuart and i am sure we will speak again

    1. Thanks Ian,
      I’m sure if I venture into the land of solder you will help me the same
      It was a pleasure building your house and turning it into a kit that
      will sit on pride on many a layout across our beautiful country.

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