Tools of the Trade

I follow several model horse tack making pages on Facebook, and in one of them someone asked "What tools are needed for model horse tack?" Being the helpful person I am, I went and checked out my desk to see what was lying around and hadn't been put away between projects.

Being the artist I am, I cleaned off my desk and made a pretty picture to illustrate my point.

Some things got missed in the photo; I also use a variety of needles, paint brushes, and a pair of round nose pliers. The tools in the photo, though - I consider those, in some form, essential. 

Here's a list:

  • Craft Knife / skiving
  • Angled tweezers / buckles, fastening delicate straps
  • Broad tweezers / grasping, clamping, fastening less delicate straps
  • Mini clothespins / clamping, shaping
  • X-Acto knife / cutting, carving leather
  • Awl / making holes, guiding straps
  • Micron pen (0.25) / marking leather and patterns, signing work
  • Metal ruler / straight edge, measuring
  • 24 gauge wire / bits, cinch buckles
  • 26 gauge wire / d rings, girth buckles, tongues
  • 32 gauge wire / strap goods buckles
  • Toothpicks / applying glue
  • Large clothespins / clamping, shaping
  • Small pointed scissors / just the right size and heft for cutting small things
  • Wire snips
  • Needle nose pliers

So where did I get these tools? None of them, believe it or not, came from Tandy or any of the hobby-specific vendors out there. All of them were picked up at garage sales, thrift stores, or brick-and-mortar stores like Walmart or Hobby Lobby.

The wire snips and pliers are an exception; they're Swanstrom pliers and quite expensive new. I acquired the two pictured and another four or five kinds from another hobbyist in a trade. It's been worth it. If you plan to do Stablemate scale tack seriously, I highly recommend buying really nice pliers. I made do with the pliers you can get in hobby stores, but my Swanstroms are so far above those it's unreal. These babies will go to the grave with me! Get good pliers; they're worth it.

Another area that you really, really want to buy something that works is tweezers. Ideally, the two sides of the tweezers are perfectly flush when closed, no matter the angle of the tip. Most of the time, the tweezers you buy in the cosmetics section aren't up to snuff. I lucked out with the silver pair; they're perfect and the tips come to a needle point. The pink tweezers are actually a brand name - Arius Eickert. They were a bonus with the pliers and are fantastic. 

The scissors are the last area that I feel really, truly matters when buying tools are scissors. The snips you can buy from Tandy are just way, way too big for anything but cutting large pieces. You need to find a pair of scissors that balances sturdiness and delicacy. We cut out tiny, tiny things, even in traditional scale, and need accuracy with the tips. A huge pair of shears is unlikely to provide that, but you can't swing too far the other direction. Scissors that are too delicate won't be able to handle the stress of cutting through 2-3 oz leather and will invariably waver, giving you a rough edge and marring the leather. When you find the right pair, buy a scissor sharpener, too. It's worth it. I actually own two pairs of the pictured scissors because I am forever losing them. 

I hope that helps with the tool hunt! As always, start where you are. There's nothing wrong with buying your pliers at the craft store or using the tweezers in your make up kit (though I'd recommend cleaning them before and after). As you explore tack making, you can upgrade your tools. Often, other hobbyists who are a little further along will sell or give away their old tools that they've outgrown in skill. Keep an eye out on the various hobby sales pages!