How To Get Into Hobby RC: Tools for Your Workshop

No matter what facet of radio control modeling that you’re into, you are going to have to work on your vehicles from time to time. Even if you buy pre-built models, you will eventually find occasion to perform maintenance, make repairs, add hop-ups, or maybe just crack something open to see how it works. Although there is a range of specialized tools needed for some RC-related jobs, a modest selection of common tools will suffice most of the time. If you own a set of tools for household chores, you may already have much of what you’ll need. Let’s take a look at the core tools that are necessary as you enter the RC hobby.



Most RC applications use Phillips head screws, so you will want to have a set of screwdrivers that includes #0, #1, and #2 size bits at a minimum. All tools are not created equal and you generally get what you pay for. So, don’t skimp on crummy dollar-store stuff that is better suited for use as prison shivs. I’m not saying that you need high-dollar tools. A basic 8-piece set of Phillips and slotted screwdrivers from Craftsman costs about $15 and will cover most of your needs.

All of the top-dollar tools in the world are worthless if you don’t use the proper driver for a given screw.

You may find that you need smaller screwdrivers from time to time. The smaller a fastener is, the more important it is to use a quality driver with a precision tip. I generally prefer the small drivers made by Wiha.

This is probably a good time to point out the primary reason for mangled screw heads: laziness. All of the top-dollar tools in the world are worthless if you don’t use the proper driver for a given screw. I know it’s easy to talk yourself into using whatever tool is already in your hand. Just keep in mind that a short walk to the toolbox may save you a lot of frustration dealing with a stripped a screw head.

Socket head screws are also very prominent in RC. They are driven with 6-sided tools called hex keys (aka hex wrench or Allen wrench). I have a love/hate relationship with hex keys. When used on fasteners 3mm/4-40 or larger, I think they are strong and easy to use. I find that smaller size hex keys strip easily. The smaller they are, the more readily they strip. As with screwdrivers, the hardness of metals used for hex keys varies widely. The common L-shaped keys are rarely marked, so it can be difficult to separate the good quality keys from the bad.

Hex keys are available in a variety of metric and SAE sizes. The sizes can often be challenging to distinguish–especially the smaller sizes. RC models that use socket head screws will often include the necessary hex wrenches. I suggest that you somehow mark these keys so that you can easily identify them when you begin work on that model. I am in the awful habit of dumping all of my hex keys into a single bin. This often forces me to spend several minutes sorting through the heap to find the key I need. I really should find a better system.


You can buy hex key sets that include a variety of key sizes as well as a caddy for storing them. These can be handy, although most sets include keys larger than what you need for RC jobs. Ball-end hex drivers are very useful when dealing with socket head screws that are somewhat difficult to access. The ball-end allows you to turn the wrench slightly off-axis from the screw. The downside is that ball-end drivers provide very little contact area between the screw and the key, so it is easy to strip either part. You should be fine if you just avoid ball-end tools for breaking a screw loose or applying final torque,

If you add a dab of modeling clay into the drive cup of a screw, it will usually make the screw stick to the end of whatever driver you’re using.

Before moving on, I’ll pass along a handy tip that I use all the time when I’m installing fasteners. If you add a dab of modeling clay into the drive cup of a screw, it will usually make the screw stick to the end of whatever driver you’re using. This will let you use the driver to reach the fastener into those hard-to-reach locations.

Other Hand Tools

I think you should have a few sets of pliers in your toolbox. I have an assortment of pliers ranging from small needle nose varieties to large Channellock units. They all get frequent use–perhaps more than they should. Many of us (myself included) will often grab pliers for a job that would be better served by a wrench, a bench vise, or even a hammer. Also consider that many RC parts are made with plastic or aluminum that is easily marred by plier jaws.

If you find yourself using pliers repeatedly for the same job, you should ask yourself if there’s a better tool available. For instance, I was using them to tighten locknuts that secure the wheels on my RC cars. Most of the nuts quickly became gnarled and rounded. I finally came to my senses and started using properly sized nut drivers instead.


Another hand tool that I often reach for is actually a dental instrument. I have a few different dental picks and probes that I find very useful for routing wires or other things into tight spaces. These tools are often sold in art supply stores as clay sculpting tools.

Most of us already own some type of electric drill and an assortment of bits. Metric drill bits are very useful now that most RC components use metric hardware. Many times, a full-size drill is too cumbersome for what I’m trying to do. In those cases, I use a pin vise rather than a drill. I went through several small pin vises before finally ending up with a beefy version that should last a long, long time. Even though this pin vise is larger than most, it will still hold my tiniest drill bits securely…and I have some tiny drill bits!

Cutting Tools

Let’s not forget the granddaddy of all hobby tools, the trusty X-Acto knife. There are many types to choose from, but I typically use the standard model #1 handle with a triangular #11 blade. For most tasks, it is important to use a relatively sharp blade. First of all, dull blades can cause jagged cuts. More importantly, dull blades tend to promote poor cutting habits, which can lead to bloody mishaps. Even dull X-Acto blades still cut skin pretty well.

You can buy spare blades in bulk for reasonable prices. Some people report success with sharpening used X-Acto blades on a stone. I tend to break the tip on my blades, so replacement is usually the best option for me. I also keep a stash of single-edge razor blades handy. They provide a cheaper alternative in situations where precise cuts are not necessary.

I like to keep an assortment of different shears on hand. Regular scissors work well for most jobs, but sometimes heavy-duty shears are necessary. Since I often use my shears to cut different tapes, the blades get gummed up with adhesive residue. A rag dipped in denatured alcohol rubs the gooey stuff off easily.

The last essential cutting tool you should have is a quality set of wire cutters. Cheap wire cutters can be very frustrating, constantly leaving behind a few uncut strands of wire. Go ahead and invest in a decent set and they will last you for many years. While you’re at it, pick up wire strippers as well. There are many types at all different price points. Choose whatever style you like.

Power Tools

Dremel Tool–’nuff said, right? I’ll expand a bit more anyway. If you’re not familiar with the wonders of a Dremel Tool, you really should get acquainted with them. With a Dremel and a modest selection of bits, you can cut, grind, sand, polish, drill, or whatever else you dream up. It is a fantastically versatile tool that I use all the time. I use it as often for non-RC projects and repairs as I do for my RC gigs. While a Dremel is not a “gotta have” tool for RC, it will definitely get much use. They seem to last a long time. I consider my Dremel to be rather young at about 15 years old.


Sooner or later, you will probably need to solder some type of RC widget, especially if you’re into electric RC vehicles. I prefer soldering irons over soldering guns, but either will work in most situations. I keep a 25-watt iron for small jobs and a 60-watt iron with a large tip for working with large-gauge wire (>18 AWG).

Most RC related soldering jobs deal with electrical components, but there are instances where you may need to use silver solder for structural needs. Depending on the job, a small torch may be better than an iron. Whatever the case, it is important to learn the proper techniques for soldering. Cold solder joints are not always obvious, but they can sure ruin your day. If you are a soldering rookie, there are plenty of soldering tutorials on the web. Check them out and practice before working on your RC gear (especially batteries).

As you look at all the different RC supplies, you will see that there are many areas where you can save a buck. Your charger shouldn’t be one of them. I always recommend buying a good brand name charger (and radio system). Having properly charged batteries is key to avoiding many frustrations, so there is no logic in skimping here. There are many good quality, multi-chemistry chargers available. I personally use an ElectriFly Triton EQ for field charging and a Hitec X-4 Eighty 4-port charger in my workshop. I power the Hitec Charger with the 12 volt power supply (a hacked server power supply).

As you look at all the different RC supplies, you will see that there are many areas where you can save a buck. Your battery charger shouldn’t be one of them.

I realize that I keep telling you to avoid buying cheap tools. To balance that, I’ll point out where you can skimp. Most of the power tools in my shop are low-end units. The demands of typical RC jobs just aren’t very taxing for common items such as a drill press, belt/disc sander or band saw. Of course, you’ll probably only need these types of tools if you get into scratch building and fabricating your own designs…and why wouldn’t you?


In addition to standard tools, you will want to have a selection of consumable on hand for whatever job may pop up. I have a broad assortment of glues and tapes as well as sandpaper, heatshrink tubing, and zip ties. I am particularly fond of adhesive-backed Velcro, which can be used for an amazing variety of tasks.

Items you may already have around the house can often be useful in an RC workshop. Discarded toothbrushes make great cleaning tools. Toothpicks, Q-tips, coffee stirrers and bamboo skewers are handy as well. As you progress in the hobby, you will pick up (or develop) you own methods for using such household items.

Looking Forward

Eventually, your tool box will be a reflection of your activities in the RC hobby. The more varied or specific your interests are, your collection of tools will follow. The tools outlined in this guide should provide a solid foundation no matter which direction your RC adventures take you. And if you’re a veteran RC builder, what are your go-to tools at your workbench?


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