Tips of the Week: Working with Styrene, Overcoming Maker’s Block, and YouTube to the Rescue

Tips of the Week: Working with Styrene, Overcoming Maker’s Block, and YouTube to the Rescue

Tips of the Week is our weekly peek at some of the best making tips, tricks, and recommendations we’ve discovered in our travels. Check in every Friday to see what we’ve discovered. And we want to hear from you. Please share your tips, shortcuts, best practices, and tall shop tales in the comments below and we might use your tip in a future column.


YouTube Troubleshooting and Repair

The other night I was reminded of the power of on-demand learning available over the internet, especially on YouTube. I got a very nice Iwata airbrush last Christmas (thanks, mom and dad!). I’ve been slowly learning how to use it. But the other night, I gummed up the needle good and proper when I got some acrylic paint skin trapped beneath the needle and the body of the brush. I panicked. I looked for the manual that came with it (barely an instruction sheet). No help. I went online and downloaded the longer PDF manual. Also not that helpful, with little about how to field strip and deep clean the brush. I started taking it apart and immediately almost bent the frozen needle trying to remove it. I was afraid I had just bricked my expensive brush. But then I took a deep breath, went onto YouTube and typed in “cleaning an airbrush.” I saw a video with Frank and Norm from I watched the video, pausing it to follw the steps, learned what I needed to know, cleaned the brush, lubricated it, put it all back together, and it’s back to working like a charm. Thank you, internet learning machine!

Turn the Work, Not the Tool

In the Tested video on airbrush maintenance, Frank does something as he’s putting the brush back together that bears pointing out. In screwing the tiny needle tip guide back onto the brush, rather than trying to hold the tiny tip with fliers and then turning it onto the threads, he holds the needle tip with the pliers and turns the body of the brush. Sometimes, it makes more sense to turn the work or the other part that you’re assembling rather than the tool.

Shelving Projects for Later

In a session at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, Adam Savage and Richard Taylor (Weta Workshop) talked about “maker’s block” and how to overcome it. Adam had a great suggestion: To literally shelve your project. If things aren’t going well, if the project no longer inspires you, take a break from it. Put it in a box and put it on a shelf someplace. Let it marinate. Adam jokes about putting it someplace where you can see it, where it can taunt you, and you won’t forget about it. When you’re ready, get it down and resume your work. They also talk about setting artificial deadlines for hobby, open-ended projects as a strategy for getting them done. Sometimes, having a deadline can spur great creative breakthroughs.

Styrene Modeling Class with Adam Savage

I didn’t intend this column to be all Tested/Adam Savage all the time, but that’s how it worked out. It’s a great testament to the high signal-to-noise ratio for Tested and Adam Savage content. I learn a lot from Adam’s videos and he’s always so much fun to watch. This video is an excellent case in point. One of his One Day Builds, Adam shows off his model-making chops by scratch-building a little sci-fi vehicle (based on an image in a Moebius cartoon) using plasticard and then he embellishes the model with kit-bashed components (as soon as he mentioned kit-bashing, I knew Anzio Annie was going to make an appearance!). The results are righteous. Along the way, we learn all sorts of skills in working with styrene plastic, about Adam’s ILM model shop past, more on the origins of the “U.G.” (Universal Greeblie), and more. Here are a few of the notable tip take-aways from the video:

Score and Snap
Did you know that you don’t have to cut all the way through styrene sheet (“plasticard”)? You only have to score it and it will snap fairly cleanly along the score. Embarrassingly, after years of using plasticard in modeling projects, I didn’t discover this until a few years ago. As Adam points out, this allows you to draw out, score, and cut components very quickly, making styrene plastic an excellent prototyping material.

Easy Cutting the Center of a Square
Using the score and break technique, you can even cut out internal shapes with only a hobby knife.

Using Weld-On Acrylic Plastic Cement
The best and fastest way to join styrene is with acrylic plastic cement, like Weld-On #3. It actually welds the two parts together, creating a very strong bond.

Making a Cement Dispenser
Adam shows how F/X model makers use the bottom of a soda can to create a Weld-On cement dispenser for use with a glue brush.

Hobby Knife Pick and Place
You can use a sharp-tipped, brand new hobby knife blade to stab tiny components to pick and place them on the model (after touching the part to your soda can cement dispenser.

[From my new book, Make: Tips and Tales from the Workshop]


This can help reduce time to find and get your tools and materials. Arrange your workspace so that the more commonly used the tool or material is, the closer it is to you. Conversely, more occasional tools are farther away. This way, the shop is designed so that you can easily find what you need as you need it. [VIA ADAM SAVAGE]

[Watercolor by Richard Sheppard]


If you get a copy of my book, please take a picture of yourself holding it, tag me, and use the hashtag #tipsandtales. Besides being a book about tips, this is also a book about the human side of tools and how they’re used. Tips and Tales itself is a tool, so I’d like to see the humans who are using it.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn
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