Category Archives: Modelling

Modelling activities

For looking and displaying, not operating…

My very good friend Mike Cougill is currently musing on how little “layout” one needs over on his blog.

Another very good friend, Chris Mears, has commented:
“Reading this and thinking about staging and backdrops made me think about a social construct the hobby perpetuates: that of inadequacy. We never have enough space in length of run for our trains, depth to model the whole scene, so sometimes these aids aren’t as much theatrical but concessions making up for what we want but can’t have.”

This reminded me of something I threw together more years ago than I care to remember in 1:32 scale. One of the magazines had a “100 square inches” competition. I didn’t enter, but a piece of particle board 12” long and 8½” wide was sorted out from the pile of bits of wood, and another piece screwed to the back of it. To this latter piece was affixed some vacuum-formed brick sheet (SEFinecast) with capping bricks from styrene strip. Painting was a base coat of a brick-like reddish colour with ultramarine blue for the capping, some additional dry brushing and once it had dried, thinned-down off-white applied wet at an angle (see Martyn Welch’s book on weathering) created the mortar lines. A bit of home-built track – lime wood sleepers, plastic chairs and rail, the latter two components from Cliff Barker’s range of code 180 rail, rounded off with some Woodland’s Scenics fine cinders ballast as ground cover. I spent longer waiting for glue and paint to dry than I did making it.

It served as a display track for a mineral wagon I had upgraded from an RTR model. I still have it somewhere…


I do not normally comment on model railway magazines: very few maintain consistently good output, but the latest issue of Model Railway Journal, number 284, contains a very nice piece of writing with lovely pictures by John Duffy concerning his 0 gauge layout, “Rosehearty”. Aside from the delightful and much neglected prototype railway (the Great North of Scotland Railway) as subject, the author goes to considerable effort to explain why he built the layout – something which the guest editor, Barry Norman, is always keen to explore.

You can see some photos on John’s thread on RMWeb, but to me the message was, understand why, and you will get much, much closer to personal satisfaction.

“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!

…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.