Honest Choices

During a discussion on the cost of track, I came across this commonly uttered phrase on a well-known UK-based model railway bulletin board:

I think hand track laying is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

That’s one of the most depressing things I see and hear, not just about track, nor the hobby, but anything.

Yes, the are a few people who have that something extra, an insight, natural pitch, whatever, which set them apart, but for every singer with perfect pitch there are hundreds if not thousands who have worked hard and trained hard and then finely honed their abilities until it becomes a skill – as Gareth Malone demonstrated on BBC’s “The Choir”. Assuming that you don’t have a “special ability” without trying to find out, or assuming that without a natural “talent” it isn’t worth the effort of learning, is simply giving up without trying: “If you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford.

I am not saying that anyone has to hand lay track, just that like anything else which is not dead easy (and laying flex track well is not dead easy, as it requires a little care and application) it requires time, patience and practice, and it can be improved upon cosmetically by the addition of jointbars, etc. We do not always have the time to put into this, which is where good flex track comes into its own: for most modellers, this is a trade-off against time they are more than willing to make, especially when the cost is not much different. Similarly for turnouts: the reliability of many brands is very good, and what is more some of them even look vaguely like the real thing. Unfortunately the agreed “universal” standards for the most popular scales have somewhat large flangeways, which stand out clearly to anyone who has studied real track: not just at the common crossing, but also the guard/check rails and the amount of clearance required at the point toes.

It all depends on where you place yourself on the building—operating continuum, and where you get your personal enjoyment of the hobby.

Happiness in The Hobby – just like everything in life – is all about the choices we make, the priorities we have, and the resources we have available. We each have our own combination of these, and being honest with ourselves about the decisions we make. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s no need to hide behind a self-deception of “I haven’t the ability”.

10 thoughts on “Honest Choices

  1. Trevor

    Good heavens! Do people actually believe that the ability to lay track – by hand or otherwise – is something that is acquired at birth? For that matter, is any skill in this hobby acquired in any way other than through commitment and practice?
    Thanks for this, Simon – I feel a fresh blog posting of my own coming on…

    1. Dunks Post author

      Apparently some people must be born with the ability to walk and talk as well. I don’t know about you, but I took some years to learn how to do those, and it’s not unknown for me to still have trouble with either…

  2. Dunks Post author

    The quoted remark came after another poster on the forum – and someone who I would consider a good modeller – claimed to have given up after laying all of four ties. (When challenged about this, he said he was working against a tight deadline, which is fair enough. Until you realise it was a small layout with all of three turnouts.)

  3. bawdsey

    Being in that should I/Shouldn’t I? dilemma myself at the moment, for me it comes down to a time question too, however with some offers of practical help from a number of people I’m thinking more on doing some of the turnouts handbuilt. I do sometimes wonder if ‘I can’t ‘ isn’t the right statement, perhaps it should be ‘I won’t ‘. Using I won’t to me indicates that a conscious decision has been taken, rather than an assumption.

  4. Chris Mears

    Interesting post and highlight of a comment I feel like I’ve heard too many times. You’ve raised an interesting point about the effort to lay flex track compared to handlaid track – there is indeed skill and patience required in that act too. Sometimes it’s all too easy to forget that most things we do involve a certain elements of learning and doing; no matter how little or how much that actually is. As much as I’d like to thank some form of divinity for my skills in the track department I’m more aware that what I can do is the result of practice and, most importantly, repetition. Through repetition I’ve developed a sense of how I like to work. I’m forever grateful to others who share in my interest and for the ability to compare methods to arrive at the same ends. In promoting the art of building your own track we often focus on getting it done but I also know that I have a much greater sense of trouble-shooting track that I might not have if I’d never learned to make my own.

    Of course, in the above we’re still focussing largely just on track playing the role of a guideway for the trains. It feels like in the past few decades we’ve really made some great strides toward the track itself as a model. I find we often advise toward building track purely for economic reasons (e.g. cheaper to make your own turnouts than buy readymade) and with this new movement toward the track itself as a model we encourage another form of expression.

    Perhaps handlaid track is another of those crafts within the greater hobby where we need more people talking about why they do it and for that “why” to be more than the excuse of “it cost less”.



    1. Dunks Post author

      Well, in my case I have to say that the cost of the components for the plain track was more than the cost of buying flex track, but the simple fact is that I enjoy laying track: it can be extremely therapeutic.

      1. Chris Mears

        Good morning

        I agree on the therapeutic nature of building track and I feel I derive a similar sense of peace from this part of the hobby.

        In terms of cost I agree as well. I don’t see much difference in cost comparing plain track to hand built. The only place where some savings can still be realised is in turnouts but there again, we’re comparing a nicely detailed manufactured product to rails soldered to plain PC board ties – once we start adding in details to (e.g. tie plates, proper chairs, etc.) our hand built one that cost gap starts to close up again.



        1. Trevor

          I think the question of cost has to be examined from a broader perspective. Yes, one can say, “I added up the receipts from the hobby shop and building my track from basic materials cost ### – which is more (or less) than if I’d purchased flex”. But it also takes longer to hand lay. So the outlay per hour of hobby engagement is less.
          In addition, if one plans to hand lay from the outset, one is more likely to design a less complex railway – knowing there will be a lot of work involved to assemble the track. A layout built with prefab track may therefore cost more, simply because one has designed more track into it.
          Just a thought or two. Great discussion!
          -Trevor (who handlaid Port Rowan in 1:64)

  5. Dunks Post author

    Ah Trevor,

    You are taking us into an even more interesting discussion. The original blog post was not necessarily about the hobby, but could be generalised: I was born with the ability to develop speech and to walk, but they still took practice before there was confidence and fluency. Learning to read and write (and hence, use the net) were different skills, though, and these needed far more effort and practice – just like hobby skills. As a species we are tool users and skill developers, and compulsive communicators, but there is no innate ability, other than the ability to develop abilities. Some have better eye-hand coordination, it is true, and we may all have our own “ceilings” where the amount of effort required to improve asymptotes to the skill achieved, but we cannot know where that is until we try.

    But now you have moved us into an interesting question: how do we choose to allocate our time resources? On what basis do we work out the “cost” in terms of our personal time? (We don’t have to do this, of course, but it is useful when explaining one’s approach to the hobby.)

    I feel another post coming on!


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