Construction Notes


Of course, you and I really don't need the instruction sheets, but let me counsel you not to rashly throw them away. Most of the current structure kit manufacturers are German, and although they are well aware that markets exist for their products in other, non-German speaking countries, the translations of the German instructions have a certain lowest common denominator quality about them, i.e., the instructions that come with these kits do not have very many written words.

Depending on the manufacturer, and the complexity of the kit, the instructions can sometimes be baffling. Faller generally has photographs of the various subassemblies that are made prior to the actual assembly of the building.  The parts are identified either by a number on the part, or by a picture of the plastic tree that holds the parts, identifying the individual pieces.  Vollmer uses detailed drawings, with the parts identified on the plastic tree or by part number on the part itself.  Kibri, whose kits are usually the most complicated, uses drawings that can be difficult to follow.  It is advisable to get an overview of the whole kit assembly in the beginning, but don't let this scare you. They offer the most kits, with the greatest variety and appeal. After you have built one, you will find later kits much easier to construct.

Most of the structure kits are plastic assembly kits, which means that you are buying a box of plastic parts, instructions of some sort, perhaps some graphics such as signs, and box cover art.  Combining the box art with the instructions should give you the general idea of what things are supposed to look like when you are done.  Fortunately, all of the kits available today are well made, so you are spared the frustrations of working with parts that don't fit together properly.  In addition, you usually do not have to deal with flash, the thin plastic that oozes out during the casting process.  Flash must be removed so that parts fit properly and look convincing.

The assembly process is largely what you make of it and can be a very enjoyable part of making the layout. Thorough preparation is a must.  First of all, you will need a well-lighted work area.  If space is a problem, you can use a tray that can be placed on a table, then taken away and stored when not in use.  

A clean work space is a must!

Keep in mind that the work surface, and anything around it, will be exposed to glues, paints, and, on occasion, dropped tools (notably, sharp modeling knives). Obviously, this is not the sort of thing to do on the family antiques. It is better to work on the plastic kitchen table, or in a spare room with a smooth floor. Shag carpeting in particular should also be avoided, because, inevitably, you will find yourself on hands and knees, looking for a very small part which has sprung from your tweezers and headed for places unknown. I call this process Praying to the model god, and it usually attracts at least one individual who has to ask if you have lost something. You get the picture. For what it's worth, a flashlight beam usually spotlights the errant part.

Good lighting is essential, and because of the small size of Z-Scale, you may want to purchase some sort of magnifying device. I prefer the type that you wear because it allows you more freedom of movement.  Some brands are simply lenses attached to a head band. The Opti-Visor lenses are mounted in a hood that shields your eyes from random light. This helps prevent eyestrain and helps you focus on the work in hand.  There also are magnifying lenses incorporated into a fluorescent lamp that do the job.  I've tried one of these, but the lamp always seemed to be getting in the way.  Use what you find most comfortable. Good ventilation is also important, since the glue and paint fumes contain aromatic solvents. Tweezers are essential in Z-Scale. 

A modeling knife is helpful for the minor trimming that may need to be done. In many cases, the non-cutting edge of the modeling knife is more useful for cleaning off flash and molding marks, because you are scraping rather than cutting. Scraping may take a bit longer, but you have better control since the cutting edge of the knife tends to dig into the material.

You may find a pair of diagonal cutters helpful for removing the plastic parts from their sprues, also called trees.  The diagonal cutter looks like a pair of pliers, but has a cutting edge that lets you snip the parts off the sprues.  Many of the Z-Scale structure kits have lots of window shutters, and the cutters make removing them for placement easier.

Although the mill file (above) seems to be outsized for Z-Scale, it is incredibly helpful for knocking down raw edges and excess flash.  It can also be used to true up a long edge, keeping in mind that a light touch is required.  If you leave file marks, sandpaper can be used to clean this up.

The buildings are put together with glue, and this matter is subject to some personal taste.  You will need to use a styrene cement for the assembly process, but there are several to choose from.  The cements fall into two major categories: tube and liquid. The tube cement is the classic model airplane cement which has the consistency of honey and is colorless. It contains plastic solvents and liquid plastic. When using tube cement, apply small amounts of the adhesive to one or both surfaces to be joined, and then join the pieces together. The liquid type of cement is not cement at all, but actually a plastic solvent. If using the liquid, join the pieces together first, and then apply it along the joint line, taking care to keep your fingers away from the joint.  The liquid solvent flows by capillary action into the joint, and, if your finger is on the joint, into the area between your finger and the adjacent plastic as well, leaving a fingerprint. Don't despair, however, for if you wait until the fingerprint has dried, you may be able to take the back edge of the modeling knife and scrape the print away.  Sandpaper could also be used to repair the damage.

Liquid cements dry faster, but they do not fill gaps. Tube cements fill gaps, but need more care in management (meaning, the stuff may drool all over the place).  Placing gluing tips over the tube openings will help regulate the flow of the glue.  There are also tube glues with needlepoint applicators or you can apply the glue with a toothpick. Tube glues do have one definite advantage. When working on those tiny window shutters that so many of the kits seem to include, tube glues make the application of these things much easier.  Just put a tiny drop where you want the shutter to be located, then take your trusty tweezers, pick up one of the little jewels and position it precisely.

One of the drawbacks to using plastic as a material for making building kits is that it looks like, well, plastic. Light reflecting off the plastic surface gives it that unique sheen.  There are, however, a couple of ways to deal with this. One is to paint the structure with model paints. You can individualize your buildings in this way, but it does take more time to complete the structure, and may not improve its appearance.  Being lazy, I use other methods to solve this problem.  Some of the structures are made of plastic that represents brick masonry, and even have the mortar lines cast into the walls.  I take liquid white shoe polish, wipe it on the brick areas, let it set for a minute, then wipe it off with a rag or paper towel.  The shoe polish fills the mortar lines, and the rag wipes off the excess, exposing the brick faces. Several wipes may be necessary.  The same effect can be made by using certain model paints; test on a small section first. This really sets off the brickwork.

In all cases, I assemble the structure, but I do not install the clear window material.  Taking care not to glue everything (notably the roof), I spray the almost completed structure with a dulling lacquer spray.  This process retains the original colors of the structure while dulling the plastic sheen. After everything is dry, I (almost always) go back in and install the window glass. Sometimes there are windows which cannot be reached, even with tweezers, so when using this procedure, it helps to plan ahead.

The Kibri half-timbered structures use self-adhesive, lithographed sheets of special paper to represent much of the half-timbering. Fortunately, the paper sheets are die-cut, which means that you simply have to peel them off their backing and position them properly on the walls of the building. This is best done after installing the window frames, but before joining the walls together, spraying the flat overcoat, and installing the window glass.  If you examine the individual walls, you will note that the edge of the half-timbered area has timbers cast into the plastic wall.  The balance of the area to be half-timbered is flat, smooth plastic where the paper is to be placed. Find the proper paper piece (which may be a task in itself), and peel it off the backing. Grasping the peeled paper with your tweezers, locate a long reference edge on the plastic wall, and match it to the same edge on the paper.  (A second pair of tweezers is quite helpful here.)  Apply this edge first, double check to see if the piece is the correct one and is properly aligned, then gently roll it out like a carpet, removing any window openings that are still filled by the die-cut paper. The rolling action helps avoid trapping air bubbles under the surface. Should you create an air pocket, open a small hole in the bubble with a straight pin, and gently squeeze out the air.  Once the paper section is positioned, it is there for good.  This prevents the paper from coming loose later, but does not allow a second chance. Because this process does produce some very handsome structures, it is well worth the effort.

Finally, if you want to work on your layout while you are working on the structures, you may find it helpful to take the bottoms of the structure kits and place them on the layout to give yourself points of reference. It is probably a good idea to mark the bottom lightly with a pencil so that you will know which bottoms go with which kits.  As an alternative, you could trace the bottom on a piece of cardboard, cut it out, and use that as your layout reference point.

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