PAG logo


Basic Training for Model Engineers Part 1


Stuart Budd

It's long been my opinion, and that of Karen my long suffering wife, that I was born too late. I like to think that had I been born 150 years earlier I would have been right up there with Brunel and Stephenson. I was however born in 1965 and that being the case I am the 52 year old product of an educational system that didn't (and still doesn't) place any great value on practical subjects. There were lathes, mills, band saws and a whole host of other impressive machines in the workshops at my secondary school. Sadly there was nobody on the school staff who could teach us how to use them.

I was never going to learn anything useful at school so shortly after turning 16 I joined the army. I attended the Army Selection Centre in Sutton Coldfield hoping to enter the Royal Engineers or REME so that I could learn a proper trade. I endured many tests designed to establish my strengths and weaknesses. Thankfully I didn't get into the Paras but I did seem to be a good fit for the Royal Corps of Signals. Don't get me wrong, I'm immensely proud to have served in the Signals, but my mastery of Morse code has brought me no closer to my lifelong ambition of being able to make things.

Having returned to civilian life I sought out opportunities to learn as a mature student. Had my passion been for Spanish Guitar, conversational Mandarin or Zumba (whatever that is) I would have been spoilt for choice but…….

"Engineering?hellip;… We used to run a course sir, but I'm afraid that there's no longer any call for it"

It seemed clear that I was going to have to teach myself.

In the years between then and now I've taken many things apart, and I've even put some of them back together again. All for no other reason than to understand exactly why and how they did what they did. I have watched the late great Fred Dibnah on television and become even more inspired by the achievements of the Victorian engineers. I've watched James May on the television and established that although I think he's probably "my kind of chap" I'm probably already a better engineer than he is. I've learnt a great deal through trial and error, but there are still massive gaps in my knowledge. It is all very frustrating.

Fast forward to January 2017 and The London Model Engineering Exhibition. I'd never been to Alexandra Palace and I'd never been to a Model Engineering Exhibition, so it was doubly exciting. I did have a slight "moment" upon entering the palm filled atrium since I appeared to have arrived just in time for the World Snooker Championships, not my idea of a fun day out. All was well however after the security lady kindly explained that the ball prodding was taking place in the hall next door.

I wandered, and marvelled, wandered some more and bought a little boat for in the bath. Eventually I came across The Society of Model and Experimental Engineers (SMEE). I had a quick look at their stand and moved on since there was so much more to see. I was about to leave and drive home but stopped by the SMEE stand again on the way out. I looked and listened and then started asking questions. This is most out of character for me. You see I don't usually talk to people; this helps to avoid any awkwardness which might arise when they talk back. Karen says that I'm very nice but not necessarily a people person.

I was introduced to Martin Frost who explained that he had joined SMEE in the preceding year and had subsequently learnt the skills required to build a small simple oscillating steam engine. Well that's what he called it; to me it was a thing of wonder. Martin went on to explain that SMEE runs a number of courses each year aimed at providing individuals with training in basic engineering skills and principles. This was music to my ears. Martin furnished me with the required details and we talked some more. I duly committed to attending a course entitled "Basic Training for Model Engineers Part 1"…….

The Course:

Basic Training for Model Engineers is a course over 3 Saturdays and takes place at SMEE Headquarters in London. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly; the lecturers (all SMEE members and volunteers) are extremely knowledgeable and willing to answer even the most basic of questions. There is no assumption of any prior knowledge. I've provided a brief outline of each day's content below.

The Content:

Day 1:

The first day starts with an introduction to SMEE and its history, followed by an overview of the development of model engineering as a hobby. SMEE's headquarters Marshall House has a well-equipped workshop, a library of over 2500 books and an extensive collection of models. A tour of the building is available during the day.

Next a review of model engineering as a hobby. The presentation highlights the dizzying breadth of modelling subject matter available, from stationary steam engines to clocks via internal combustion and automata. Model engineering is truly diverse in its scope.

The day continues with advice on establishing an appropriate workshop. What you need of course is dependent upon what you intend to build. Such considerations as size, location, construction, power, heating and security are all discussed at length.

Day one draws to a close with an overview of commonly used hand tools: vices, files, saws, hammers and chisels. The discussion covers the many variants of each tool and their safe and efficient deployment in the home workshop.

Day 2:

The second day commences with a presentation on what many would consider the most versatile of the engineer's tools, the lathe. The lathe is discussed in some detail covering its use, its constituent parts and its many uses. This session also deals with the choice of either seeking out a pre-loved classic lathe such as the Myford or opting for a new imported lathe from the Far East.

Following on from lathes the next presentation deals with grinding and tool sharpening. The subject covers the grinding machine itself, grinding wheels and their composition, safety (grinders bite) and a brief overview of tool grinding techniques. It's worth pointing out that tool grinding is a subject in and of itself and there is one day SMEE course available dealing exclusively with this subject.

The final subject discussed on day 2 is measuring and marking out. The lecture commences by dealing with the most overlooked of measuring tools, good lighting. It might sound obvious but the key to effective measurement is being able to see what you are doing. In my case this also extends to ensuring that I'm wearing the right pair of glasses. Many tools are discussed, rules (not rulers), scribers and punches, dividers and calipers, squares and verniers…. The list goes on.

Day 3:

The third and final day sees thoughts turn to the milling machine. After the lathe the milling machine is the other "big ticket item" on the model engineers shopping list. Similarly to the session dealing with lathes this lecture covers the fundamentals of what a milling machine is, what it can do and how to use it.

Drilling is the second subject for discussion and covers the many drilling options available from the venerable brace and bit, through power drills, both hand held and pillar mounted, and on to drilling operations in the lathe and the milling machine. Having discussed the various types of drilling machine the conversation turns naturally to the various types of drill bit. Again the variety is huge, each with its own specific application.

The last session on day 3, and indeed the closing session for the entire course is joining processes, dealing with gluing, soldering, brazing and welding. This might sound like a bit of a dry subject but it's actually fascinating. Norman Billingham is the lecturer and his knowledge of these processes down to the molecular level is impressive to say the least. As an aside I am now attending Basic Training part 2 during which Norman lectures on paint, I am expecting a similarly fascinating lecture.

A comprehensive illustrated course handbook is provided detailing all course content. This has proved to be an invaluable reference document since I couldn't have hoped to have retained all of the information provided without it. The course is also recorded to DVD.

I would add that although this course is aimed at model engineers, the skills and techniques discussed are easily transferable to numerous other disciplines. I am currently refurbishing a pre-war motorcycle and have found the insights gained on this course to be very helpful from machining spacers and bushes to cutting threads. I also have an interest in "upcycled lighting". I feel sure that my newly acquired knowledge and skills will see me producing much more ambitious lighting installations.

The cost of the course is £245 which reduces to £195 for SMEE members. I think this represents excellent value considering the benefit that I have realised from attending. In addition to the reduced course cost, SMEE members have use of a fully equipped workshop at the London headquarters, a well-stocked reference library at the same location and use of the members section of the website. Details can be found at

far eastern lathe

Having completed the course (I'm now half way through course number 2) I felt confident enough to invest in a small lathe and have been busy making all kinds of cylinders, tubes and threaded things. The intention is that the various parts will eventually come together to form the small simple oscillating steam engine as described by Martin Frost a few paragraphs back.

This probably reads a bit like an advert and I guess it probably is; but if like me you'd like to learn a bit more "proper engineering" you could do a lot worse than contacting SMEE or of course your local model engineering society.

All the best and happy Pembling.

Stu (Ratchet)

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Valid CSS!