Modeling with Styrene Plastic

  • 01 of 04

    Cutting Styrene - Marking Your Cuts

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    Styrene plastic (more formally known as polystyrene) is one of the primary materials used for scratchbuilding models today. This plastic is easy to cut and glue, comes in many thicknesses and even custom shapes and textured panels.

    First-time modelers are often scared away from scratchbuilding. If you aren't used to working with plastic, it can be intimidating. Styrene is actually very easy to use. After a little practice you may find you canbuild a building from scratch almost as quickly as you can from a kit.


    Scratchbuilding doesn't really require a lot of fancy tools, although there are many gadgets out there that can make the job easier. The basics you need to get started can be found at any hobby shop for about $10 or less.

    • Hobby Knife: always use a fresh, sharp blade
    • Scale Ruler: perfect for making precise measurements and straight cuts
    • Glue: an adhesive designed specifically for styrene will yield much better results
    • Sand Paper: a variety of fine grits

    Marking the Cuts

    The most important part of cutting styrene doesn't involve a knife. As with any material, the secret to good cuts is good measurement and planning.

    Lay out your cuts with a scale ruler. Double check each measurement. Most rulers will not put the "0" mark on the edge to preserve a clean measurement. Always use the markings, not the edge of the ruler, to make your marks.

    Use a sharp pencil to lay out marks on the styrene. Since most styrene products are made in white, marks are easy to see.

    A compass or French Curve can be used for curved lines.

    Continue to 2 of 4 below.
  • 02 of 04

    Cutting Styrene

    Exacto knive
    Hana Nakamura/Getty Images

    Once the marks have been made, it's time to get cutting. Depending on the thickness of the styrene, you may be able to cut completely through in one or two passes, but the basic best practices are all the same:

    1. Use a sharp blade. A fresh blade can make all the difference.
    2. Use a straight edge. You can use the scale ruler. If you do, use the side opposite the measurements you normally use to help preserve the clean edge.
    3. Hold the edge firmly as a guide and begin with a very light pass of the knife. This will give the blade a path to follow as you increase the pressure.
    4. Continue to make more passes at a slightly greater pressure to score the styrene. Use light pressure and do not force the cut. This will cause the blade to go astray.
    5. Unless you are cutting very thin (.010 or less) styrene, you probably won't be through the plastic after only a few cuts. This is okay. Generally 3-4 light passes will be sufficient to score the styrene.
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  • 03 of 04

    Snapping the Styrene

    Cutting with knife
    terminator1/Getty Images

    If you're working with thicker styrene, it can feel like forever trying to cut completely through. Fortunately, you don't have too. If you've ever worked with drywall, this procedure will look very familiar.

    After scoring the styrene with light passes you can bend the styrene back and forth and snap it along the line.

    A second snap and the plastic should separate, or you can hold the styrene at an angle and use your hobby knife to cut a clean line along the backside.

    When making multiple cuts on plastic, it is often easier to make several small cuts, taking off each piece one by one. For windows and doors, you may need to cut all the way through on two or more sides. Often a little gentle flexing will help snap even these smaller areas without damaging the rest of the wall. If you are making walls from a larger sheet of styrene, remove windows and doors before cutting out the walls themselves.

    Continue to 4 of 4 below.
  • 04 of 04


    styrene sand
    Ryan C Kunkle

    Once the cut is complete, finish the edge with a quick swipe or two across some fine grit sandpaper. Emory boards, sanding blocks or ribbons also work well.

    Make sure the cut is square (unless you are trying to get a beveled edge.) As you learn, it is often easier cut a little long and then sand to an even finish. As your measuring and cutting skills improve, you be able to do a lot less sanding.

    One other note about sanding styrene: Use a heavy grit sandpaper to scratch a rough surface on the plastic. This can be usefull if you want to recreate a wood grain or other effects.

    With your pieces cut, a styrene solvent glue will make quick work of assembling the model as you would build a plastic kit.