Organic Chemistry Study Tips

By James Ashenhurst

The World’s Cheapest Molecular Model Kit

Last updated: September 12th, 2022 |

I see a lot of students who have trouble visualizing how molecules appear from different directions.  Probably the best way to solve this problem is to buy and practice with a model kit, which really helps to make structures more concrete. However, as much as people like me nag their students to buy (and use) their model kits, inevitably there will  be holdouts who just can’t be bothered. If you’re one of those people, today I will hold off on yet another finger-wagging diatribe in order to show you a technique you can use that will help to do some of the same things a model kit does, without actually having to use a model kit. Instead, you’re going to use your hands.

Let’s say you’re given this problem: pretty typical for an Org 1 midterm.


While the silence of the exam hall is punctuated by the popping of a hundred little plastic model kits from the students around you, here’s what you can do instead.

Step 1: Number the chain and draw in the “hidden hydrogens” for C2 and C3.


You can also draw in a “line of sight” if this helps, since we’re supposed to look along C2-C3.


Step 2: Make the following shape with your hand. Left or right hand is OK.

4-hand1 copy

Step 3: Identify the substituent on the near carbon (i.e. C2, as per the directions in the question) that is in the plane of the page. In this case it is the methyl group (C1).


Step 4: Now turn your hand so that you overlay your thumb with the substituent in the plane of the page. The finger closest to you should now be the wedged substituent, and the finger furthest away is the dashed substituent.


Now turn your hand so that your thumb is pointing toward you. You can label your fingers if you feel artistic.


This will be the front of your Newman.


Repeat, looking from the opposite side (C3-C2).

9backend copy

This will be the back of your Newman. Et voila, here’s the final result:


Note that you can also do this in reverse to go from a Newman to a wedge-dash diagram. Just make sure that the substituent your thumb is supposed to represent is pointing either straight up or straight down.



Comment section

8 thoughts on “The World’s Cheapest Molecular Model Kit

  1. I agree …you need a kit. What do folks think about practicing with hands, in case of getting stumped on an exam? I have the MCAT in March and all I have are my hands and a pencil!

  2. This was so helpful! We aren’t allowed to use our model kits for exams in my class and I was having a hard time picturing things. Thank you!!

  3. Shucks, I thought this was going to be a post on the creative use of marshmallows, gumdrops, and toothpicks.

    Except I’m not sure today’s organic students know what a gumdrop is…

  4. I think I came up with a similar system myself, since figuring it all out by building models can take some time. Though after some practice drawing Newman projections, I was eventually able to be able to draw simple ones in my head.

    But, if I’m ever not really sure, I’ll build a model – I don’t know anyone that’s been foolish enough to try getting through organic chemistry without modeling kit though.

    1. I agree that they’re indispensible if you really want to make sure of something. There are rare exceptions, but the students who are really committed buy and use their kits.

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