Category Archives: Finescale

Do you get it?

Chances are, if you are in the very small minority of modellers who follow this blog, you probably do get it. Maybe I am whistling (or worse!) in the wind, or preaching to the already converted (or choir, if you are North American).

Anyway, I recently had the temerity to suggest that all the effort of making a layout with correctly gauged and highly detailed track was for nothing if a loco running on it wasn’t well-enough proportioned/shaped to capture the look of the prototype, even if it was nicely weathered. As the layout concerned has been built to “Protofour” standards by a member of the Scalefour Society, I even quoted their frequently used strap line: “it’s not just about wheels and track”.

The responses are, if you are not involved, an amusing display of self-righteous priggishness, not too far removed from the indignation a letter in the Railway Modeller created, when it was suggested that a minor detail on a layout was out of period, and the required information for correcting it was helpfully provided. I have been told I am wrong, I am petty, that the model concerned looks like the prototype, it runs really nicely, and that the weathering job makes up for it. And oh yes, that “P4 is easier once you realise not everything has to be precisely accurate” because proportion and colour are more important. Let’s go through those points.

Firstly, it was a genuine question, not a direct criticism: what is the point of going to the nth degree of accuracy in one part of a layout, if the rest isn’t at least proportionally correct enough to create a convincing display of verisimilitude? Secondly, if someone has gone to the trouble of making their own track and replacing the wheel sets on their models in an attempt to (presumably) make better models, is it not odd to then run something which is a bit of a caricature of the real thing on it? Thirdly, the model is inaccurate enough in two areas (the under frame of the prototype does not have pseudo-solebars running under the length of the body side, and the cab roof curvature is too shallow) to have prompted several articles on improving it and a new manufacturer to go into production solely to rectify the errors in the models of the whole series of related prototypes. Fourthly and fifthly, a nice weathering job and good running are irrelevant to the matter at hand: these are prime examples of the “straw-man” fallacy. Finally, I never mentioned the need for the loco to be a precise, accurately measured model: just to look like the real thing. (Colour is another straw man.) The “precision” of the modelling is relevant only because the layout builder has chosen to follow “finer standards” in his modelling, and I wondered about the consistency of the approach.

At the same time, in another part of the same bulletin board, a comment was made about S scale modellers being concerned over as little as 1/64th of an inch. This amused me greatly, for two reasons. Firstly, in the UK we use a scale wheel profile and track gauges deal with laying track accurately: in this respect, the precision of the modelling is as good as the tools (and hence usually, a lot finer than 1/64th of an inch!) Secondly, getting things to within a scale inch or so is simply the easiest way to create a model with the correct proportions: getting the proportions and relationships between objects is more important than precise “exact scale” accuracy. Working to a high level of engineering tolerance is a means to an end, which is something that looks good and runs well.

Those who have read the S Scale MRS history page will know about Charles Wynne defining his level of accuracy for modelling: within a scale inch of the prototype dimensions. To me, that is what “finescale” is all about: defining your tolerances, and sticking to it. He did this 1919!

Which brings me back to my main point, and also takes me back – yet again – to the words of Cyril Freezer in the mid 1970s, which gave guided my thinking on “toy” vs “scale” vs “finescale” ever since, but acknowledging improvements in manufacturing processes since then, I am going to paraphrase things a bit – and besides, these are my thoughts on the matter: fundamentally the same, but refined in the light of 46 years of thinking, modelling and improvements in the quality of toys.

If you assemble a model railway using off-the shelf components, and base the layout around off the shelf “universal” track, then you are essentially trying to create either a toy train set using modern, well-made and reasonably accurate models, or are trying to create a scale model railway where the overall impression is of paramount importance. There are many reasons for doing this, and if this is your choice, then it is correct for you even if it isn’t how I would do it. I will be the first to support your choices and the last to apply my standards to your models. In this regard, the word scale is being used to say that the models look more or less like the real thing (“near enough is good enough”), and are reasonable enough representations of the prototype to be a model in that sense: i.e. this is a model railway, not a toy. Good luck to you: enjoy it. And I will be happy to operate your layout if asked.

However, once you decide to start move away from the out of the box experience, possibly with a bit of detailing (replacing cast/moulded handrails with wire, for example) then you are stepping away from this comfort-zone. This is particularly so when you start to address the issues of running quality and compromises required to produce models to “universal” model standards. It doesn’t matter if you are working in 4mm scale, and simply refining 00 track, replacing wheels snd moving up to EM or P4 track (even if it is the new Peco EM track) or work in H0 scale, and are using “code 88” or “code 55” wheels, and replacing trucks with better looking, more correctly proportioned upgrades, or dealing with similar issues in other scales (including North American S scale!). If you have decided to create models that are closer to the prototype in terms of colour, shape, proportion, fine detail, dimensional accuracy, or track which looks like the real thing reduced in size, then you are modelling to “finescale”, and getting things consistently right is important. If you think that an accurate track gauge is required, then displaying models with an incorrect shape is pointless, no matter how good the “weathering” or the running qualities. Once you know, it has to be done…

If you can’t see this, then you really don’t get it at all.

“Once you know, it has to be done”

The above is a wonderfully resonant quote from a model railway forum post.

It refers to the fact that the builder had made an assumption about a feature on his chosen prototype, but when he got around to checking up at his local club’s library, he found he needed to make some corrections. (This is a very minor example of the disruption caused by COVID-19, as he didn’t want to put the project on hold pending all the information.) Not everyone would have bothered, but that, perhaps, is the most succinct and compelling difference between a genuine “finescale” model-maker and someone who doesn’t want to get it right. I might add that wanting to find out these details is also a key part of the finescale approach.

There is also the point that pending full knowledge of prototype practice, a reasonable interpolation of the design was made – no hanging around waiting to “know everything”, just an acceptance that a correction would be made if necessary later. This applies to most things within our hobby, although once the track is laid, it can be difficult to change certain fundamentals of its design and construction without wholesale destruction!

Wanting to be better

In 1980, the scientist and author Isaac Asimov memorably commented on ignorance:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Well, I am fairly sure that this isn’t restricted to the USA: my language skills are not sufficient for me to be able to comment on other cultures, but it seems fairly widespread in the anglophone world, and very much so in our hobby. This does not just apply to knowledge of the prototype – although that in itself is a big problem (witness the number of times you will see layouts praised  on forums [fora?]for being “operationally challenging”, when the prototype wants exactly the opposite) – but also to skills. I am all for encouraging people to post their efforts as they start to learn the craft, and there to be positive encouragement, but surely that also includes advice on how to redress such basics as learning to cut in a straight line, and how to make sure basic assemblies are square, rather than offering uncritical praise? We aren’t at pre-school: most of us are adults, and if not adults yet, then anyone reading this blog is possessed of enough self-awareness to realise that the drive to be better is a sign of a healthy human being.

Let me re-phrase the quote:

There is a cult of mediocrity in the hobby, and there has always been. The strain of anti-finescale has been a constant thread winding its way through our media and clubs, nurtured by the false notion that “fun” means that my “near enough is good enough” is just as good as your desire for accuracy.


A different perspective

In responding to a comment on Mike Cougill’s latest thought-inspiring post, I made reference to one of my own. (I also found some typos!) Re-reading what I wrote, an extra “contrary wise” thought came to me, and it’s worth highlighting here (in bold) as the downside to accepting ready-made objects straight from the box, warts and all:

As René pointed out, “Marty is right: don’t sweat the details, unless that’s your thing, in which case, don’t expect anyone else to notice.”

I would add that if you don’t sweat the details, hope nobody else will notice!