Category Archives: Finescale

S Scale History Revised!

We like to think that S scale, or what became S scale, was first conceived of in 1896 by Edward Bowness, with his model completed in 1898.

This appears not to be the case, as the following from Locomotive Engineering, Dec. 1893, Vol. 6, No. 12, clearly demonstrates – and look at the fine (scale) flanges! No toy trains here, and live steam to boot.

The accompanying text states:

The Very Smallest Locomotive

We have several times within the last few years given illustrations of extremely small locomotives that were complete in all parts, but that shown in the annexed engraving is the very smallest working locomotive that we have heard about.  It was built by a jeweler, and is the property of Mr. W. E. Gallant, Chicago.  This elaborate toy is built to run on a track 7/8 inch wide and has a total length of 9 ½ inches with tender included.  The cylinders are ½ x 3/8, the driving wheels are 15/16-inch diameter.  The boiler is ¾ x 3 inches.  The total weight of engine and tender is 9 ½ ounces.  Gold, brass, steel, and nickel are the materials of which the engine is made and the pilot is of wood.  It is a real working model and spins along in good shape with its own steam, a spirit lamp providing the required heat.

I wonder what happened to this – it is now at least 125 years old?

…and Standards

Engineers talk about tolerances, the degree to which a component can vary from a specification – and also whether that is plus, minus or ±. These two things, the specification and the tolerance, are the very definition of standards. The finer (smaller) the tolerances, the finer the standard and the greater the precision. Simple. But the standard is the standard, and the tolerance is the tolerance, regardless of the degree of precision.

And here, I think, lies the problem. When people hear or see the word “standards” they automatically add the qualification “high”, or even “very high” even if it isn’t there. But let’s be clear, even if you buy things off the shelf, they have been made to a standard: to ensure maximum sales potentials, track will have defined standards for gauge and flangeways, and wheels will have defined back to back and flange profiles. These can be defined in various ways, such as “track gauge equals check gauge plus flangeway” and “back to back equals check gauge minus glance width”, but the point is, by buying off the shelf, a modeller has already implicitly accepted these standards, albeit unknowingly in many cases.

Finescale is about accepting the degree to which perfection is unattainable. Whilst “exact scale” may be used to set an accurate track gauge, etc, the physical world of engineering tolerances means that is not fully achievable. This is liberating, as it points to the need to allow for a degree of imperfection. Finescale is therefore all about setting standards: not just for track and wheels, but about everything: level of detail, contemporaneously correct details, etc. It’s an attitude of mind. This acknowledgement and definition of standards is the definition of how we wish to achieve our aims. And the measure of success is gauged against these standards. And this is where the pitfalls lie and misunderstandings arise.

  • This is an entirely personal and individual choice: what works for me may not work for you.
  • Similarly, not consciously adopting or defining standards is a perfectly feasible alternative: if buying off the shelf works for you, then by all means do so, but please don’t think you have avoided having standards by accepting someone else’s.
  • The fact that I have defined my personal standards does not mean I think I am in any way “better” than anyone else. It’s just my way of doing my hobby. If you resent my active choice of standards, that’s says nothing about me but a lot about you.
  • Working to a tighter degree of tolerance takes more time. I might achieve “less” in terms of quantity, but that’s not what I want.
  • This in no way contradicts the “good enough” concept: it is entirely congruent with it.. I am not building an operationally-focused “basement empire”, so replacing cast details is fine by me: that’s how I enjoy my modelling. If I had the space and desire for a large operations oriented layout, I would be using RTR equipment, modified, repainted and weathered to be sure, but everything would be subordinate to the aim of creating that dream, which has to be balanced against the time I have available.
  • As a corollary to all the above, what works for you in your circumstances probably won’t work for me in mine, so please don’t force your secret of success on me, or tell me that it is the only way to happiness.

Fundamentally I get more from satisfaction than from fun. This takes more time, but is much more enjoyable.

This post, and the last two, was inspired by Mike Cougill’s recent post on inspiration, whose wonderful blog continues to a haven for the sane, rational and thoughtful amongst the hobby.


I have come to realise that S scale presents a difficult conundrum. It can be hard to make progress (even harder to initiate it) when so much personal commitment to the future has to be made. It’s a kind of inertia – once it gets going, I suspect it keeps going. But once one has tried S and found it to one’s liking, it is hard to “go back” to anything else. It’s obviously not for everyone – some like the detailing possibilities of larger scales, others the “train in the landscape” opportunities of N, still others the commercial availability of H0/00 and finer things in 4mm scale – but when it bites, it really does bite. I am talking here about genuine modellers who are interested in creating an authentic scene, not those who just want to play trains. The vision in S has to be long term, and the progress can be very slow. I suppose it’s the difference between fun (immediate, transient, requires regular novelty to sustain, hence basement empires and constantly buying new equipment) and satisfaction (somewhat distant long term, enduring enjoyment of what one has).
I shall be returning to the matter of how long it takes and why that isn’t a problem very soon…


In a round-robin Email between a small group of friends (whom I like to think of as “The Unusual Suspects”) Matt LaChance, not even speaking in his mother tongue, came out with several superb insights, not least of which was this:

I’m still looking for my personal approach to this [for the] Temiscouata project even though I know deep inside all the key ingredients are there. Making a good layout right now would be easy, but making it a special layout with personality, that is something else. I have a blurry vision in my mind, I can almost feel on my neck the slightly chilly wind that sweep the St. John’s River valley, but have yet to translate it on the canvas.

Now, isn’t that a grand, poetic way to view the creation of a Model Railway?

That’s my emphasis, but what a great phrase, “a special layout with personality”.

When you think about it, isn’t that what precisely (and yet indefinably) defines a great layout?