So you're looking to get into customizing? Or perhaps you just want to upgrade your tools? Aside from the paints and brushes that are covered in my Custom Figure Painting Guide, here is a list of tools I feel every customizer should have in his arsenal. In fact these are the exact products I use down to the specific brand for many of them. I'm not going to send you to buy something that doesn't work. EVERYTHING listed on this page is on my desk and used every day in my craft. Click on the name to buy them straight from ebay or hunt them down in the stores listed in their descriptions.
Please note this is only a list that of tools I personally use and feel are the basic necessities for customizing. I realize there's lots of other products/tools out there to use so don't just settle for this list. Expand your customizing arsenal as your skills grow!
The high-speed rotary tool is a customizer's main sidearm. There's many different brands out there and I've tried quite a few. Heck I've burnt out quite a few. But my current rotary tool is the Dremel Stylus. I give an in-depth review of it here if you want to learn more about it. Your Dremel is what you will use to cut, trim, drill holes, carve plastic out of, and is basically indispensable when it comes to customizing. Then go buy the Dremel Keyless Chuck! It's amazing and swaps bits in seconds like a cordless drill does.
((Keep in mind you get what you pay for in this department. You can buy cheaper brands than Dremel but expect to replace them in a year or less))
Buy a Dremel Stylus on Amazon
Buy a Dremel Stylus on ebay
Dremel Tool Bits
Just as important as your Dremel tool, the bits are specialized to the task at hand. From left to right: Small engraver, large engraver, high speed drill bit, and finally the specialized four-flute-centercutting 'single end mill'. Your engravers are what you use to expand holes inside heads, wrists, etc to create those ball-cup like pockets you see with ball joints. Your high speed drill bits are exactly do exactly their namesake, they drill. You'll notice the grooves are shorter on these than regular drill bits. Regular drill bits are too long and can snap when used in a Dremel.
The single end mill or 'straight flute center-cutting' bit is perhaps the most important bit of all. It's a super hardened carbide cutter that allows you an enormous range of techniques. It has a bladed end so you can drill straight down into plastic with it, just like a drill bit. The edges aren't spiraled like an ordinary drill bit but instead are straight. This means it won't continue pulling or drag across a surface. And unlike an ordinary drill bit you can cut sideways with it and not have to fear it breaking. NEVER try that with a normal drill bit. With the center-cutting bit you can also widen holes, precisely shave plastic, completely grind down the surface of something, cut through an action figure limb, and drill a perfectly cylindrical hole for a peg, screw, post, or round magnet. It also creates V-shaped battle scarring/gouges by tilting this bit on its edge and I haven't found any other bit that can do that. You can snag the EXACT same one I use, a Garr Tools Straight Flute 1/8" 234M #82070 and it should last you the life of your customizing career as mine has, over 14 years so far.
Buy Dremel bits on Amazon
Buy Dremel Bits on Ebay
You can usually find these at the bead/jewelry section of Micheal's Crafts, Hobby Lobby, or JoAnn's. They are flat on one side and have a beveled cutting edge on the other. This is important as the flat side leaves a perfectly sheared cut. Use these to nip off tiny pieces of plastic, tubing, cut precise angles, and other light plastic work. Do NOT use these on metal screws or nails, the tips will bust.
Buy Diagonal Cutters on Amazon
Buy Diagonal Cutters on ebay
Channel Lock no. 337 cutting pliers
The specific brand is Channel Lock, number 337 Cutting Pliers. They look exactly like the picture with blue rubberized handles. Sure there's lots of pliers out there to choose from but these will last you YOUR ENTIRE LIFE. These are hardened pliers that will cut through nails, wire, metal rods, posts, basically anything that's not carbide or hardened metal like the pliers themselves. You can cut off entire figure limbs with these. I can't tell you how many pliers I've broken or worn down. But these Channel Lock #337 have chewed through everything and are still on my table.
Buy Channellock 337 cutters on Amazon
Buy Channel Lock no. 337 cutting pliers on ebay
Needle Metal File Set
Depending on what kind of plastic you're working with you may want a metal file set that has the ridges or the sandpaper-like diamond files. I keep both on hand and they can be found at any Lows, Sears, Home Depot, Ace, or department store with a tools section. There's no particular brand I prefer and have an assortment of them. I'd skip the dollar store brands because they tend to break really easy. Use these files to hone edges, file flat ends, and generally shape plastic pieces. Where sandpaper is too flexible these work great.
Buy Metal needle files on Amazon
Buy Needle Metal File Sets on ebay
3M wet-dry Sandpaper
Sandpaper is quite important and you'll need different grit. The higher the number, the finer the grit. The finer the grit, the smoother the surface. When sanding a surface start off with a low number like 250 and then work to 300, then 400, 600 and up, each time the surface will smooth out better. Don't skip too far between grits. Something sanded with rough 300 grit can't be sanded immediately with 800. And when it comes to sandpaper nothing beats 3M's wet-dry sheets. So pick up at least 3 sheets of 300, 400, 600, and 800 for a basic range. Go even higher for a polished look. I like to cut my large sheets into 4 smaller sheets. Bend sandpaper around objects to get different angles sanded.
There's also a brand new 3M Sandblaster flexible sandpaper out that's only available at Lowes Home Improvement. It's AMAZING and lasts so much longer. The individual sheets are overpriced so buy the boxed rolls. Because it's flexible you have even more control and won't end up with grit all over your table. However because it's flexible you can't lay it down on the table and drag plastic over it to sand a surface perfectly flat, you'll need regular stiff sandpaper for that. Otherwise this stuff is a godsend.
Buy 3M wet-dry sandpaper on Amazon
Buy 3M wet-dry Sandpaper on ebay
Precision Screwdriver set
Mini scredrivers are your disposable pry bars, chisels, and scrapers. They also unscrew things. The heads of the dollar store sets will eventually loosen and fall out. That leaves you with a handle that makes a nice little O-shaped opening to make impressions in Apoxie sculpt...but nothing to unscrew with. Sets from Lowes like the Husky brand will last you longer and an even more expensive set of the Sears brand will last you years. You get what you pay for with these things. I have an assortment of different brands, cheaper ones for utility and a good set just for taking apart things. Skip the Husky precision battery-powered screwdriver. It may look like a neat replacement for the sets but it's super slow and pretty weak.
Buy a precision screwdriver set on Amazon
Buy Precision Screwdriver sets on ebay
Aves Apoxie Sculpt
There's guides about Aves Studio's sculpting products in the guides section of my site. Read up on them. Basically Apoxie Sculpt and its counterparts like Fixit, Fixit Sculpt, Apoxie Clay, etc are 2-part modeling compounds that are used to create. They don't need to be baked and self-harden. Out of all the brands I've tried Aves comes out on top. There are also brands like Magic-Sculpt, Kneadite (the green stuff) Milliput, and store-brand epoxy-puttys. But none stand up to the ease, non-toxic, durablilty, and water-washup of Aves Studio's products. You will need some polished metal or plastic sculpting tools otherwise make your own from various objects around the house.
Buy Apoxie Sculpt on Amazon
Buy Aves Apoxie Sculpt on ebay
Loctite Plastic Bonding system
This stuff is a godsend. It will bond hard to use plastics, even that unpaintable plastic that makes up Marvel Legends inner shoulders/hips and GI Joe knees, given you sand the surface lightly. Prep the plastic with the applicator. Wait 60 seconds or speed it up using a hairdryer. Then apply Loctite superglue or Future Glue, Duro, any type of liquid superglue like normal. Any plastic bonds to any plastic, it's that simple. Some superglue brands are better than others but using the Loctite Plastics Bonding system applicator first makes them work basically the same.
Buy Loctite Plastic Bonder system on Amazon
Buy Loctite Plastic Bonding system on ebay
X-acto #2 Knife
I trust X-acto brands and use the #2 knife with #2 blades. This is a larger knife (medium duty) with larger blades and is a bit safer to use than the thinner ones. I find they cut through thicker arms and break less than other brands like Revel and store brands. These are of course RAZOR SHARP BLADES and can seriously injure you. Don't pry with them, leave that to your mini screwdrivers. There's also different styles of blades like flat headed ones, curved, deburring, etc. While I only use #2 blades 98% of the time, the other 2% require some of the odder types. Find a store with a good selection.
Buy X-acto #2 knife and blades on Amazon
Buy an X-acto #2 Knife on ebay
Plastruct and Evergreen are the most widely used styrene parts brands. They make sheets of -almost- every conceivable thickness, round rods, square rods, flat strips, basically everything you'd need to scratchbuild parts with. You can cut it, glue it, sand it, paint it, and treat it like raw material plastic. It's not as strong as ABS or flexible as PVC, but gets the job done. Score styrene with an X-acto knife or a Tamiya Plastic Scriber II. And if you need 5mm rods for Transformers handles/MechTech ports then go buy some Silly Straws at walmart. Because neither of these companies make rods that are exactly 5mm. See, that's where the 'almost' comes in to play.
Buy Styrene Materials on Amazon
Buy Styrene materials on ebay
Cold Heat soldering tool
Radio Shack makes this neat little tool that doesn't need to sit around and get super hot to solder metal together. Instead it uses electricity to heat up the metal. You'll use this to solder LED leads and wires. However it's dual purpose is to heat up those metal pins buried in Transformers so they can be removed. Touch the tool's tip lightly to the metal peg and wait till you see a bit of vapor. Then push/pull the metal out of the softened plastic. No other soldering tool does this so safely and without damaging the plastic around the metal pin (assuming you don't keep the tip on there for a long time). Keep in mind this is for light soldering work like electronics, not heavy duty stuff. You'll also want to buy the conical soldering tip or carve/sand the chisel tip into a pointed shape to touch small metal post tips.
Buy a Cold Heat soldering tool on Amazon
Buy a Cold Heat soldering tool on ebay
Hot Glue gun, low/high temp
Hot gluing your action figures? It's more common than you think. A drop of hot glue inside a neck hole can fill the space where a neck peg was too loose before. It can also adhere armor to body sections, or seal torso parts together where superglue isn't thick enough. Low temp stays in a globby line while high tip is liquid and can be made to run down into small spaces. But the crazy part is where you put high temp glue through a low temp gun and sculpt with it! I show you in my Hotglue Guide here on my site. Go check it out.
Buy a Hot Glue Gun low/high temp on Amazon
Buy aHot Glue gun, low/high temp on ebay
Mini metal spring clamps
Your fingers aren't Dremel/knife-proof and when you need to hold a tiny piece of plastic these spring clamps are what you use. Lowes and Home Depot brands are quality and still inexpensive. But they're also powerful and can leave marks in softer plastic. I have some red ones from Ace that are slightly weaker as well. I use these to hold small sections to paint, hang parts from magnets on my overhead light, hold sections together while glue is setting, or for a variety of different purposes. Buy about eight or so, they're about fifty cents each at the stores mentioned.
Buy metal spring clamps on Amazon
Buy Mini metal spring clamps on ebay
Close quarters hacksaw
When you can't clip it, can't Dremel it, and can't X-acto it, you need a hacksaw. There's many different types but I find the close quarters hacksaw works the best. Try to find the one in the picture. Different companies make it and any Lowes or Home Depot should have it. The design allows for a sturdy, straight cut and its low profile angle gets into small spaces. It requires blades of the same brand unlike the plastic handled close-quarters hacksaw that accept any standard blade. However it is smaller and sturdier than the others.
Buy a close quarters Hacksaw on Amazon
Buy a Close quarters hacksaw on ebay
And there you have it. This is a list of all the tools I consider 'necessities' in customizing. I will update the list as I discover new products but right now these will get you started in customizing and have you creating in no time!