Modeling Basics: Working with Model Styrene

Modeling with styrene is easy if you have the right tools

When I first started building models for my model railroad I stuck with wood. I've worked with wood in the "1:1 world" building sheds, firewood storage racks, outdoor furniture etc and I understood wood. I have the tools to work wood and understood the characteristics of wood. But wood has its limits. Its hard to make wood look like anything but wood. With styrene you can model all kinds of materials like metal and even wood. Some modelers think that styrene wood can even look better than real wood in models! Working with styrene is a lot different than wood but once you get down the basics its easy and can be a lot of fun.

Modeling with styrene

The author build this mining office model completely out of styrene sheets.
The author build this mining office model completely out of styrene sheets.
Scratch building a battery storage mining loco in On18 scale using styrene.
Scratch building a battery storage mining loco in On18 scale using styrene.
More details added to the model - rivets, controls, step.
More details added to the model - rivets, controls, step.
TNT Shack by Edward M. Fielding made with styrene.
TNT Shack by Edward M. Fielding made with styrene.

What is styrene?

Styrene is basically a solid plastic made by the polymerization of styrene gas. Most commercially made plastic model kits are made from styrene. When you think "injection molded", think styrene. For the scratch builder styrene can be purchased in many forms including sheets and shapes. You can buy sheets of styrene of various thicknesses in black or white. You can also buy sheets with patterns such as corrugated metal, clapboards or brick. Besides sheets, hobby styrene is available in tubes (round and square), angles and strips. Basically most common metal shapes are available in styrene. Buy an assortment package of sheets or the odds and ends packages to start off with a good selection.

Basic tools to get started with styrene modeling

You don't need a lot of tools to work with styrene but is nice to have everything ready to go before you start.

What you need to get started:

  • Clean work area
  • Sharp hobby knives
  • Metal straight edge
  • Small file
  • Self healing mat
  • Assortment of styrene sheets and shapes
  • Plastic cement
  • Rotary paper trimmer (optional but recommended)

Having all your tools layout out on a nice clean work area will make your modeling session a lot more fun. 

Working styrene

Styrene pieces attach to each other with special "cements" that are actually solvents which melt the plastic. Its called solvent welding and it joins two pieces of styrene together with no gaps because it softens the two surfaces so that the material flows together. Don't use too much solvent or you'll actually weaken the joint. Testors makes a great solvent cement (No. 3502) in a handy dispenser with a needle like applicator. It so much better than those messy tubes you might remember from your childhood modeling projects. A little solvent goes a long way and this Testors product seems endless. I'm still on my first bottle of solvent!

Styrene is cut by scoring and snapping. Score a line with a hobby knife using a non slip cork backed straight edge and then bend the pieces along the line to snap them apart. After a lot of trial and error and poor results, I've found that a rotary paper trimmer is invaluable for making exact cuts in styrene. Very thin styrene can be cut outright using the trimmer. Thicker sheets can be scored by a few passes of the rotary trimmer and then snapped apart. The rotary trimmer method provides very accurate cuts and keeps the pieces nice and straight.

Window openings can be created by first drilling small holes in each corner of the windows and at the center. Then score lines from the center to the corners and around the outline of the window. Carefully bend from the middle to the corners to snap out triangles.

Being plastic, styrene will melt if its exposed to heat. It will also bend if heated so this is something to watch out for but also can be used to shape the plastic. You can bend rods into shape after heating them with a hair dryer. Sheets of styrene can be heated and then pulled over a form to create shapes like the hood of a tractor.

Styrene files very easily and smoothly. To make some kind of water or oil tank, glue together several empty tape dispenser rolls (the plastic part in the middle of a tape roll). Then glue the assembly to a small square of styrene. When dry, file the styrene at an angle until the excess comes off. Do this on both ends and you'll have a nice, smooth looking oil or water tank.

Styrene accepts a variety of paints as you can see from the model of my mining office above. The paint peeling and weathered effect was achieved using the salt method and I used cork tiles as the foundation. Give styrene modeling a try - its lots of fun!

Copyright 2011 Edward M. Fielding

Styrene can be used for interiors also.

Interior of Fielding's Mine office including a safe, desk, file cabinet, chair and accessories. Scale: On30
Interior of Fielding's Mine office including a safe, desk, file cabinet, chair and accessories. Scale: On30

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Comments 4 comments

Phillbert profile image

Phillbert 5 years ago from The Ozarks

I haven't done a model myself in years, but I always thought they were pretty cool. Interesting article. It would be neat if you added some pictures of your own models, and/or yourself working with styrene.


peanutroaster profile image

peanutroaster 5 years ago from New England Author

Good idea. Done. Thanks, Ed


Phillbert profile image

Phillbert 5 years ago from The Ozarks

Awesome new pictures! Very cool!


peanutroaster profile image

peanutroaster 5 years ago from New England Author

Thanks Phillbert, the last one was using my new camera - http://hubpages.com/technology/Panasonic-Lumix-DMC...

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