First off, don’t freak out about that photo above. There are a lot of tools in it, but you don’t need all of them, or most of them, really. I’ve been building for a while, and I’ve gathered up quite a collection of tools, some of which are rather specialized. And while I disagree, ever so slightly, with the claim that all you need is a pair of tweezers, you don’t have to have much more than that to build one of these models.
I’m going to break this post, and the tools, down into a few categories, starting from the bare minimum tools all the way up to the extreme enthusiast tools. There are even a few tools I’ll list that I don’t have. Yet. But the most important thing I want to share is this: most of my initial toolkit came from items I found around the house – because that was free. So here we go…
Let’s cut right to it: you need more than just a pair of tweezers. I mean, technically, I supposed you could pull off a build with that, but you are not going to enjoy the process, and the results will suffer. But you only really need one more tool: something to cut the pieces off the sheet with. You might even have something lying around the house that you can use. I started off using some side-cut toenail clippers, like those in the photo above. I’ve also known some people who said they used regular toenail clippers, or wire-cutters. But whatever route you take (and I’ll list a more tailored tool later on for this), not having to try to “pop” the pieces out, by bending the part sheet back and forth, will save you a ton of trouble and headaches. Trust me.
Swinging back around to the tweezers, though, I would suggest using a quality pair of tweezers, not the super cheap kind you find in a dollar-store grooming kit. You need something sturdy and precise, and you might have a set of tweezers lying around the house that is strong enough. A descent pair of tweezers can be found at you local Walmart or Target (or whatever store you frequent) at a pretty low price, and the small investment will benefit you greatly.
Oh, and this technically isn’t a “tool,” but good lighting is an essential. And a good clear (and clean) surface area to work on. I tend to over-light my build area, much to my wife’s sensitive eye’s chagrin, but I find it helpful. And a light-colored work surface can be helpful for locating slots when trying to line things up (so you can see the light reflecting off the surface and through the slot).
The next category of tools is what I like to call the “Found Items.” Every builder I know has their own unique collection of found item tools. Most of these tools are the various things you find around your house that are helpful for forming various shapes.
The main reason you’ll find yourself looking around for something is because of a curve. In theory, you can shape curves with a pair of tweezers, and sometimes I still do. But most of the time, you are going to want to have something to shape it on. Fascinations even makes mention of this at times in the instructions. Here’s a short list of items I’ve used or heard of being used (the last two are useful when you encounter a dome-shaped section):
- Pens, Pencils, Markers
- Wooden Dowels
- Drill Bits
- Canned Food
- Bouncy Balls
Other found tools you might find useful are needle-nose pliers, superglue, and a dull hobby knife (Xacto knife). These generally aren’t used for forming specific shapes, but just as additional tools for assisting in construction.
Long needle-nose pliers usually end up in your kit because of one not-so-simple task: long folds. Anytime you have a really long fold, it can be a pain to fold it with tweezers, and you have to do it carefully, bit by bit along the length, and only so much at a time, back and forth, unless you want dimples in the results (been there, done that). You’ll probably also find that they can be quite useful when you need to twist a tab that’s buried deep inside a model.
Superglue… it’s almost a taboo word in the Metal Earth building community. Nobody wants to admit it, but everyone uses it from time to time. Because mistakes happen. And parts break. And sometimes you need a way to fix it (because sometimes you just can’t wait for Fascinations to send you out some replacement parts).
My personal My previous favorite for this is the Gorilla Super Glue Brush and Nozzle. I like it because it has two ways to get to the glue, but I usually don’t use either to apply the glue. Instead, I use the tip of a toothpick to either grab some off the brush, or off a dab of glue I squeezed out of the nozzle onto a scrap piece of paper. I find that the toothpick gives more control of the placement and amount of superglue. But we’ll get into that more in the When things go wrong? post.
EDIT: My new favorite glue is not a glue, it’s a resin. It’s called 5-Second Fix, though there are other brands, and is a liquid resin that is “cured” with UV light. I love it because it cures clear, can be moved around / cleaned off all you want until you get things arranged exactly as you want them, and then is fixed in place by hitting it with an included UV light for 5-10 seconds. It’s not perfect, though, as it is not actually glue, so sometimes you might need to rough up the contact surface a little to get a good adhesion strength.
Finally, then there is my favorite found-item tool: a dull hobby knife. I emphasize the dull part for safety. I found an old one that is not that sharp, and I originally got it just to open up the package, but found myself using it for many other things.
So much so that I made a whole Instagram post with videos and descriptions for when and why to use it: Hey, look! I recreated this as a blog post, here! No need for the giant embedded Instagram post anymore. (You might see why I decided to start a blog… it was really hard to fit all that in under 2000 characters)
This category consists of the tools that I bought specifically for building Metal Earth models. I didn’t have them lying around, and I didn’t really need them for anything else. But they make building easier, and improve the results by quite a bit. Such as:
- Flush Cutters
- Jewelry Pliers
- Magnetic Strip
- Third Hand Tool
- 3D-Printed Shaping Tools
- Step Mandrel
- Transfer/Center Punches
- Fondant Shaping Balls
First off, are a pair of flush cutters. You can find these for a wide range of prices, from a pair of Model 170 flush cutters for under $5 on eBay, to the high end micro shear flush cutter for around $20. You can also get one as part of the 2-piece Piececool toolkit. That toolkit will run you around $8 on AliExpress.
The second part of that toolkit is a pair of fine-tip needle-nose / jewelry pliers. These are great little tools, and you can find a variety of fine-tip shaped pliers by searching for jewelry pliers. The fine tip on pliers like these are great for bending tiny parts and twisting tabs in tight spaces.
When you have several pieces clipped out at once, a short strip of magnet can be useful for keeping them from disappearing. It can also very helpful for finding tiny pieces that have fallen off the table / desk / build surface, as you can pass it around over the ground and possibly snag the piece up. One thing to be careful of, however, is not to drag the pieces across the magnet, as that can sometimes scratch them.
A “third hand” tool is an amazingly useful tool to help out when you just can’t manage to hold that one piece, while inserting another piece’s tab into the slot AND twisting the tab on the other side. just use the little alligator clips to hold that first piece, and you’ve now got two hands free to do the other tasks. It’s also great for when you have to resort to the dreaded super glue, but you don’t want to sit there holding something together while it cures.
A rather new addition to my collection of tools is a set of 3D-printed shaping tools, designed and printed by YouTube’s @animateorange. I currently have two sets: a set of narrow cone-shaping tools and a dome shaping tool. The cone shaping tools have (surprisingly) cones on the ends of them, and range in angle from 20-55 degrees. The dome shaping tool that I have is a prototype I had the honor of beta-testing, and is great for shaping… domes. And other complex curves. You can find all these tools, and more (including larger angle cone-shaping tools which I collaborated with him on designing) at his Etsy shop.
Before I started using the dome tool, I used a set of Fondant Shaping Balls, which I learned about from watching one of @animateorange’s build videos. I still use them from time to time (when the size is a better fit than @animateorange’s tool), but I prefer the 3D-printed tool as it’s easier to grip. Ironically, I included this set of tools in the initial photo for this post, but forgot to include it in the group shot for this category. Go figure.
Finally, there is another specialized tool that I’ve heard about a lot of other builders using, but don’t use myself. It’s called a step-mandrel, and there are various sizes. This tool can be used in place of drill-bits or other cylindrical tools for shaping curves. The benefits of these tools, from what I understand, is that it’s less cluttery. You have a single tool with 5-8 different sized cylinders on it. However, since I like to roll my cylinders against a hard surface, I find the format unappealing.
Recently, I was introduced to another tool for dealing with cylinders, and I’m actually wanting to get my hands on these. They are called Transfer-Punches or Center-Punches, and the set in the image above is from Harbor Freight. There are various types of this tool, but this set in particular (and those like it) have the diameter fixed the whole length of the tool, which is great. And, unlike drill bits, there are no flutes along part of it on which you might cut yourself or scratch the metal when working on longer cylinders.
Interlude: My Essentials
I’m going to break in here with a brief interlude. I’ve mentioned and shown a lot of tools so far, and you might be feeling overwhelmed. I don’t blame you, but keep in mind that I’m trying to cover all your options. But to bring you back to ground, I’m gonna share what I think of as my core tools, the ones I always have on hand and ready to go when building. The rest of the tools can stay put away until I need them, but these stay out and at the ready (excepting the first, when I knoll out my parts before building I put it back away after that… I think I’m gonna have to have a post about knolling eventually, but ignore that for now):
- Good Tweezers (free pack-in from an ICONX model set)
- Flush Cutters (from Piececool toolkit)
- Fine-Tip/Jewelry Pliers (from Piececool toolkit)
- Long Needle-Nose Pliers (from Metal Earth’s official toolkit)
- Dull Hobby Knife
- Set of Drill Bits
That would be my recommended set of tools for general building. You can do pretty much any of Metal Earth’s models with just these tools, and do a pretty good job at that.
Extreme Enthusiast Tools
If you’re getting to the point of building more than one model a week (and trust me, I know people that have… including myself), you might find yourself tempted with the tools in this category. I’ve got some of them, I’m waiting on some in the mail, and I haven’t pulled the trigger on others. But I am tempted.
- Tab Twisting Tool
- Long Edge Bending Tool
- Photo-Etch Bending Tool
- Clamp-on Lighted Architect Magnifier
- Magnetic Knolling Mat
First off in this list is a unique little tool for twisting tabs that I recently found on AliExpress. I have ordered it, but haven’t received it yet, so I have not had a chance to use it. The narrow slots on the ends of this tool are designed to slip over the tabs so you can then twist the tool, thus twisting the tabs. And it may seem redundant if you have needle-nose pliers, but sometimes there are tabs that are hard to reach and still have room to twist (because the handles of the pliers get in the way). This tool looks like it can solve that problem.
Alongside that tool, I also found a tool for long-edge bending. This metal tool has a slot along the middle of it, where you can pass the model parts through and then fold along a long edge easily. I’m really hopeful for this one, as long-edge bending is a pain, even with needle-nose pliers. This tool looks to handle longer edges and is even more narrow than the needle-nose pliers. My only concern is whether you risk scratching the surface of the parts as you slip them through the slot.
Also in the category of bending tools is the Photo-Etch Bending Tool. You’ll have plenty of options if you choose to pick one of these up, but most all of them are a little on the pricey side for me. However, you get a lot more precision and options when you go this route. The knobs on the tool allow you to firmly clamp model parts in place, while you have various sized edges to help you bend all sorts of edge lengths. In addition, I would trust this more with the surface of the parts, as you can choose how open the gap is when placing the part in by how much you loosen the knobs.
Another item I haven’t pulled the trigger on is a lighted architect magnifier. Let’s be honest, some of these models come with really tiny parts. And sometimes the slots are really close together, and the job of aligning tabs on formed pieces up with the slots on other formed pieces can be difficult and eye straining. The focused light and pose-ability of one of these magnifiers seems like it would be a great aide in those situations. However the cost of these devices are currently too much for me to justify.
EDIT: I have since purchased a “selfie ring light” on a bendable arm. It’s actually a rather small one (only about 3-4 inches across. And I love it. It doesn’t have a magnifier in the middle, but it’s great for lighting the insides of things, but still being able to see inside (due to the hole in the center of the ring. It’s just super-handy to have around.
Finally, I’m gonna bring up a tool that I made for myself, and I’ve seen other people make their own variety. It’s a bit controversial in the building community, because some people see it as a waste. I personally use it for almost every build. I like to call it a Magnetic Knolling Mat, having learned of the term knolling from watching too much of Adam Savage’s Tested YouTube channel. The idea behind these is to be able to clip out all the pieces before starting a build so that the building can proceed uninterrupted by the hunt-and-clip activity.
In my case, I got some magnetic tape and applied it in rows across a piece of craft foam paper. I then clip out all the pieces in either numeric order or in order of use in the instructions (depending on the length of the instructions, complexity of the build, and/or the number of parts used in multiple sections of the instructions). I usually place them along the magnetic strips from left-to-right, bottom-to-top (so that I’m not reaching over parts most of the time).
For others, I’ve seen full white coated magnetic sheets with printed squares on them, where they can use erasable markers to label which parts are in each square. I’ve also seen people use little plastic compartment boxes or bowls, which can be helpful with gold-colored metal models, which don’t tend to be attracted to magnets (which explains why I use the knolling sheet for most of my builds).
Online Tools / Resources
Okay, so this is a last minute addition to my list of tools, because it’s not really physical tools in this case. But these tools are useful nonetheless. There are various resources available to you online to help you with building your new models. Obviously I intend this blog to be of that variety, but there are also other sources. Here’s a brief list of what I can think of right now (several of these are also in the Resources widget on the right-side of this page):
- Metal Earth Website: okay, so this one’s a little obvious. But don’t forget that you can view completed builds, 360-degree views of models, and instructions on the brand’s website.
- Reddit Model List: this list is maintained by Reddit’s /u/Traviscat, and contains a list of all the known Metal Earth models, including ones that are exclusives and not listed on the Metal Earth website. He’s also included several other brands as well.
- YouTube/Twitch: there are a few channels that are either dedicated to Metal Earth building and/or include Metal Earth builds from time to time. You can learn a lot from watching other people build these models, and sometimes even from seeing their mistakes. Some examples are Animate Orange, Groove Builders, Wolle0rism.
In addition to the resources listed above, I’ve created some of my own.
The first was my own Model Checklists (Metal Earth, Piececool). A while back, I got to the point where I had purchased and/or built so many models that it became hard to remember which models I still needed and which ones I already had. So I decided to make a checklist that I could use to keep track of it all (a lot of the information being gathered from the Reddit Model List). I shared that list on Instagram, and several people asked if I could make a downloadable version of it, which I did as a PDF. However, I realized that the rapid growth of available models, and my desire to not have to carry around the checklist meant I needed something better, so I made a web page to host the checklist, and I made it so that what was checked off would be stored in the URL (so people didn’t have to create annoying logins to maintain their own list). The downside is that you have to update your own personal bookmark anytime you make changes to checked-off state of your list. The upside is that you don’t have to remember a login, and I don’t have to maintain login information in a database for the webpage.
The other tool I created was the result of some extreme nerding: the Cylinder Tool Guide Generator. I use a large set of drill bits for forming my cylindrical parts, and I like to use the closest sized drill bit to get as smooth a curve as possible. Which ended up with me pulling out several drill bits at a time, generally guessing at what would be the correct size, and being wrong most of the time. Then I realized I could use a little math to help me out. Thus was born the first iteration of the Cylinder Tool Guide: a printed image that you could lay a piece over and it would help you identify the correct drill bit. Yeah, not that exciting, but other people seemed to like the idea, and wanted a copy. The problem was getting it to print at the right scale. Several iterations later, and you have the website linked above, which allows you to customize the guide to your hearts content, and makes sure that it’s printed out at the right scale.
I don’t know that this post really needs a conclusion. But it was so long that it felt wrong to just end it abruptly after that last section. So… this is the conclusion section! What you’ve probably learned, if you’ve made it this far, is that (a) I’m really long winded, and (b) there are a lot of tool options, but you don’t need all of them. Just get yourself the basics, find what you can around the house, and use what works for you. Oh, and have fun, too!
EDIT: Ooooh! Oooooh! Oooooooooh! I just realized a much better way to finish this post! Actually, I had originally planned on ending it this way, but the idea got lost while writing the post up. Anyways, the correct ending is to ask for other builders to share what tools they use. So, tell me…
- What tools did I leave off this list?
- What tools do you find yourself using the most? i.e. What are your core set of tools?
- What challenging aspect of Metal Earth modeling do you wish you had a tool to address?
I know that I’m not the only source of knowledge on this topic. A lot of what I’ve put in here has actually come from advice that other builders have given me. I’m not sure I’ve captured that, really, in what I’ve written, but it’s true. So please… let’s collaborate!