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Modeling on the Cheap

Let’s face it; we have a relatively expensive hobby. This is especially true if you go in for aftermarket items. There isn’t a lot to be done for to save money of AM items, other than foregoing them completely, but you can save money on paint, supplies, and tools.

I am convinced that any time a company puts “model” or “hobby” into the name of a product it triples in price. Take a simple toolbox for example. Recently I was in a national hobby chain store and they had a toolbox for artists. Other than it’s gaudy purple and black color, and it’s price, it was exactly the same as the fishing tackle box I keep most of my supplies in. The price of this “artists” box was $32.95, compared to the $12.95 I paid at “Wally World” for mine.

If you look around there are all sorts of alternatives to expensive “model” or “hobby” items. Take paint. Until recently I have used either Tamiya or Model Master acrylic paints. Until they stopped carrying them the larger bottles of Tamiya paints were $2.79 at my local hobby store. Model masters, even though they are a smaller ½ oz bottle, go for about the same. True you can get better prices through the Internet but even there the prices aren’t all that much less. Recently though I started picking up 2 oz bottles of acrylic paint for as low as .58 cents at crafts stores. True the paint isn’t exactly made to FS color specs, but as long as you have a sample from one of the major suppliers you can come pretty darn close. I bring a bottle of Tamiya or Model Masters with me as an example in order to pick the closest match.

Other tools are such items as tweezers, picks, files, sanding sticks, etc., which can all be picked up much less expensively from other sources without the high markup. Negative locking tweezers, such as Testors, cost over $5 in hobby stores, compared to similar items going for as little as $2.50 in craft or hardware stores. Wood sticks, similar to Popsicle sticks are a ridiculous example. I see packages of 10 such sticks in the model section of some stores going for $2 or $3 while in the craft section of the same store a box of 1000 is about the same price. Next time you’re in a grocery store or discount chain wander over to the women’s cosmetic aisle. Look for such items as tweezers, emery boards, finger nail boards, etc. You might be surprise at their costs compared to your friendly local hobby store.

This doesn’t even begin to discuss all the things you can pick up for free. Items like foil wrappers from candy bars, plastic lids from fast food restaurant drinks, soda bottle caps, etc.

One last example is for an air supply for my airbrush. I’ve seen specialized airbrush compressors going for over a $150. True these are quiet, and have water traps and filters and such. Still I couldn’t justify that kind of money. I hook my Aztec brush up to a $125 Porter Cable compressor I use to power my air tools for remodeling my house. That way I get double duty out of it. Can you imagine hooking a nailer up to an airbrush compressor? I’m lucky in that I live in a VERY dry climate so I haven’t found the need for a water trap yet. Still this can be added to my compressor and still cost about the same for a tool that can do both jobs. I just fill up the two-gallon tank outside, so I don’t bother the wife with the noise, and bring it inside to spray away.

Bottom line is look around at inexpensive alternatives before plunking down you hard earned money on expensive “model” items. Check out craft stores, like Michaels or Hobby Lobby; discount tool stores like Harbor Freight, hardware stores like Home Depot or Lowles. Think of the number of kits you can get with the savings.

About the Author

About Rodger Cole (Halfyank)

American Father, English Mother. Mum was in some British auxiliary, I'm not sure which, and Dad was a truck driver who ended up on a half track towing a 57mm, in the Big Red One. I was a modeler in the early 70s but got out of it. I'm just getting back into modeling after about 25 years. I'm planni...


Very helpful tips Rodger!!! Some I knew some I didn't. What's sure is that as much we save on the front of the tools (just sourcing from a different side) as much we can "invest" on kits. Ciao an thanks again
JAN 08, 2004 - 08:38 AM
Well done! And there are many more examples that Armorama has posted here and there. But, I also hear that if something is marked "for elevators", it costs triple, or "for dentists" or "for pharmaceutical use", etc. While your examples are perfectly correct, there are many other professions and hobbies that feel the same way. In all fairness, being a business owner, its all about supply and demand. In other words, no one if forcing us to buy a toolbox at the hobby store if we are willing enough to look elsewhere. Have some fun with this. One of the most perfect sources for 1/35th scale leaves can be collected for free...if you live in parts of Europe with silver birch catkin trees, since none grow in the U.S. (even in arboretums, as I have called them to ask). Rubberized horsehair for modeling brambles is free if you have access to the packing arround artillary shells in the Dutch army, but the only place I have found in the U.S. that has it requires an entire roll to be purchased for beaucoup dollars. (Hey, Hans, I still haven't got the package, yet.) On the other hand, a supplier of plastic containers for salads sent me a free case of containers whose bottoms (for cakes) or tops (for salads, same thing) make absolutely perfect paint pallets. Your report is one of the reasons I love this website. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Sealhead (Kansas Sunflower) P.s. That's why I wrote the air compressor article. To help others on this site that have helped me. Armorama is a perfect example of what good the Internet can do. Now I have to go and delete (most) of the Viagra and porn spam.
JAN 09, 2004 - 12:54 AM
hi Rodger, You are right in every word you told here and I agree 100%. Thanks for bringing them to sight.
JAN 09, 2004 - 01:29 AM
Hi Great article Halfyank. Agree that a person has to do some looking around in some of the most unlikely places in just about any store you happen to go into to find alternative products to those high-priced articles with the name 'hobby' or 'atrist' attached to them. It really pays to snoop around. I hardly ever buy any type of tool, brush, cutter, etc., from hobby stores. Just too high priced. I really like the Michaels store you mentioned. We have one just up the street and the really good thing about this store is that they run 40% cupons in the paper just about every week or so on their non-sale items. This is how I pick up all my oil paints, brushes, thinners, knife blades, etc. Saving anywhere from $1 to $ 6 to $8 per item, just by using the cupons. And as you've mentioned, they also have a very extensive selection of acrylic paints that come in just about every shade under the sun for whatever you may need. And none of them are over $1 each. I've found one of the most useful tools to do general cutting with is a pair of cutical snippers that I found at Wal-Mart for a couple dollars. It has a small rounded type of cutter on it that is really great to get into small places in removing small parts from plastic spures. Also in some of the local hardware stores you sometime find bins full of small items on close out that can, on occasion, work for modeling, as is or with a little modification to them. Have picked up some adjustable clamps in these places that are just perfect for holding pieces togther with just the right amount of tension needed. It certain does pay to keep a sharp eye in some of the most unlikley places. You just never know what you're apt to find sometimes. Beleive this is something Shep Paine also mentiones in some of his books. Thanks and take care, Sgirty
JAN 09, 2004 - 03:04 AM
Sealhead, Reference your comment on Silver Birch, I believe White Birch, a clump of which was in the front yard in California, back in my youth can be substituted. I remember pulling off and crumbling the catkins, creating a pile (unknown to me at that tender age) of 1/35 scale leaf litter. I will have to check out some of the River Birch that the neignbors have in their yards. Jeff
JAN 09, 2004 - 09:30 AM
JAN 09, 2004 - 10:50 PM
Some great tips and I have picked up a lot of my supplies very cheaply. Here in Australia I got an airbrush compressor for $70 that has a 3 litre tank and water trap etc. I go to "$2" type stores and buy decent paintbrushes for $1-$4 as opposed to $6-$16 at the LHS.
OCT 26, 2013 - 10:53 AM
Thank you for posting these ideas. One other item where a modeler can get bang for the buck, pound, euro etc. is the car boot / garage sale. I've found many modeling deals including kits and tools for pennies on the dollar.
OCT 26, 2013 - 11:06 AM
Thank you for posting these money saving tips. I am always game, for saving money. I do find that, with some tools and supplies it is best to go with the hobby specific ones. I did pick up a sprue cutter for $5, from Harbor Freight. They work great! Depending on the model, I use 96 cent Color Place primer from Wal-Mart. I was also able to purchase a finite ruler, from Harbor Freight. However, cement/glue should be made for the hobby. The same goes for razor blades. I got the cheap ones, from Wal-Mart. I only used one, for cutting styrene. By the end of the first session, there were very large chips and I had to toss it. While generic thinners will work, the hobby specific ones work that much better. I found this out, using IPA to thin Tamiya acryls. I kept having problems achieving a smooth finish. As soon as I switched to Tamiya thinner, I achieved excellent results. Personally, I won't have anything to do with Michaels. They have burned me too many times. First, they were just flat out rude when I wanted oil paints out of the locked cabinet. Then, they refused to accept the coupon I had printed off that morning. They claimed it was expired. Another time, I call to see if they had a product in stock. The first employee hung up on me. I called back and asked for the manager. She said that they were too busy to help me and that I would have to drive there to see for myself.
OCT 26, 2013 - 05:13 PM
I've used basic artist pastels for years as pigments, as well as substituting soil samples from the yard. Excel hobby blades are much cheaper than X-acto, and last longer. Small files at a big box hardware store are much cheaper than the small files at the hobby store. As for the craft paints, how do they airbrush? I've experimented with them in the past but didn't have the best result.
OCT 27, 2013 - 01:14 AM