Category Archives: Modelling

Modelling activities

Makes you think…

As some of you will know, I have become a regular contributor to discussions on Trevor Marshall’s Port Rowan blog and Mike Cougill’s OST Publications blog. Both of these can be found via my links section (to the right for most computers, but to the bottom on tablets).

It was stumbling across the thought processes which led to Trevor’s Port Rowan layout, via the S Scale SIG forum (I am active there, too, but you need to register as a member to read it) that got me out of my modelling doldrums and frankly gave me the slap across the face that I needed to make me realise that it is possible to combine something like the ramshackle emptiness of the Bishop’s Castle Railway with North American prototypes. This re-awakened my long-standing interest in the short lines owned by the Central of Georgia, which has been further strengthened by reading around the subject, and making contact with Steve Flanigan, who models the Louisville and Wadley in H0 in a small space and has shared the fruits of his personal research with me. But then, he is North American, and what are North Americans for, if not generosity?

What Trevor has really done, though, is to take operations in a slightly different direction from what seems to be the norm in North America, based on magazines and websites.

Instead of trying to run as many trains as possible over a large basement empire with multiple stations, based on use of waybills and timetable and train orders (TTO) and a dispatcher, etc., he has concentrated on the individual operations around running the daily mixed train. This includes pausing to pump up the air, align couplers, connect hoses, etc. An out-and-back turn can take up a couple of hours, after which there seems to be a visit to a local hostelry for good food and decent beer. OK, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is my pint of ale!

On top of this, we get superb modelling (on a par with Barry Norman and Maggie and Gordon Gravett) and a generous sharing of ideas and techniques. Well, he is Canadian, and what are Canadians for, if not politeness?

Mike’s forum is subtly different.

The same basic theme is there, that you don’t actually need a lot of layout to have a lot of fun. You get the fun by trying to model everything as faithfully as you can – the joy is in the detail.

Mike has published some booklets and books and also “The Missing Conversation”, which will form the subject of another post, but he also makes a though provoking post each week on various aspects of the hobby. He has also been editor of O Scale Trains, and a regular columnist on finescale matters in that magazine. What I like about Mike, or to be more accurate one of the many things I like about Mike, is that he has taken a stand on behalf of Proto: modelling. I have always hinted at this (and not very covertly), but knowing that I am not a lone voice means I take that stand too – albeit feeling slightly ashamed for not having taken it more clearly sooner. Well, I am English, and what are Englishman for, if not self-deprecation?

More importantly, Mike has generously provided, via his blog, a forum for intelligent, thoughtful conversation. My experience of Americans has always been positive and I wish some of their modern politicians were more careful about the impression they create on the world stage (but then, they are politicians, and what are politicians for if not promoting their own importance?)

I realise that for many people, a hobby is about getting away from thinking, but I am not mindless and I enjoy having my thoughts provoked. In the case of these three gentlemen, it has been to open my mind to what was lurking away at the back of it, and get me more interested in modelling than I have been for some time.

Thanks, guys!

If you have been planning to, well, go on then.

Instant Gratification

I couldn’t possibly do that.

If you frequent forums, exhibitions, clubs – in short, if you socialise in any way whatsoever within the hobby – then you will be familiar with this comment. You may have even made it yourself. I know I have thought it, if not said it out loud. Whilst I agree that many things seem daunting at first, and that this can be a valid initial reaction, I have to say that the phrase is poppycock!

I have had, so far, a varied and interesting professional life which has exposed me to many different industry sectors and companies. One company where I have worked had its offices peppered with motivational slogans, in a manner that an American friend once described as, “Very ‘Corporate America’, even for an American”. Two of their slogans struck a chord, such that over a dozen years later I can still recall them. One of them was about not rushing things (see enlightened impatience!) and was abbreviated to “TTT” – Think Things Through (thankfully it wasn’t abbreviated from think it through, as the slogan was liberally distributed above people’s desks!) The other was about maintaining the right attitude:

“If you think you can, or think you can’t, you are probably right.”

Put another way, if you have decided that you will fail, then fail you will, but if you are determined, then you will succeed. I have a favourite quote from the wonderful Jane Goodall, “If you really want something, and really work hard, and take advantage of opportunities, and never give up, you will find a way.” And that is what this post is about – wanting something enough.

There are a few, very few, modellers who seem to just get things right from day one, in the same way that some people can just pick up a musical instrument and play – I am thinking of the Mozarts and Hendrixes of this world. For the rest of us, we have to work hard. Not every musician can play by ear, even those who make a living from it. Francis Rossi of the Status Quo practices scales on his guitar for two hours a day, to make sure he doesn’t lose his touch. Roger Daltry tells a story about the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix, in the company of Eric Clapton (messrs Daltry and Clapton are both railway modellers, by the way). On the way back from the gig, Clapton apparently murmured that he was going to go home and practice some more. Daltry’s comment on this is, “I’d hate to be a guitarist.” And that’s the point: it takes work, even if you have talent, to be really, really good. And although, as anyone who has played one will agree, an expensive, quality guitar is easier to play, you don’t need an expensive tool of the trade to start with. Pete Townsend leanred to play on a cheap guitar, using a old sixpence coin as a plectrum, and ultimately learned to play on just two strings as he couldn’t afford new ones when the others broke. In short, he learned to use what he had to hone his own abilities because he wanted to get better at playing the guitar.

It took me 15 years of half-hearted practicing to get to a point where I was happy with my own playing. Most people who play tend to do this rather more quickly, as they are rather more driven than I was, but the point is that it took time, effort and practice. I am not talking about being good enough to play on the stadium circuit, just good enough for me to feel comfortable (I have played in a couple of pubs, way back when – way back when I was awful!) I also worked my way through various guitars, culminating in one which I obtained at a considerable discount as it was shop-soiled (it had fallen off the display rack!) I mention this as it is frequently possible to buy a decent machine tool second-hand for less than the cost of something new but not as good.

Let’s turn this back to railway modelling…

Iain Rice has made reference to his early years, with a loco repainted with “yard-high lettering”, and an amusing aside that we have all got to start somewhere. My good friend Trevor Nunn, whom I would dub the “compleat railway modeller”, builds virtually everything himself, with many of the castings he used having been produced from his own patterns. But he didn’t start out scratch building locos with working inside motion. No, he started out as a teenager with a simple Stewart-Reidpath kit, which he modified to look similar to a Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway 0-6-0 tank loco. During the sixties, he started to build whitemtal kits and modify ready to run locomotives to represent other classes, such as converting a Triang M7 into an LNER G5. The Bury St. Edmunds club members frequently benefitted from this (he was heavily involved with them at the time, including designing the Abbotsford terminus) and as he improved his skills, confidence and familiarity with tools and materials, he progressed to scratchbuilding. His remarkable finescale 00 models of an LNER E4 2-4-0 and B1 4-6-0 now belong to Ray Hammond – who was also a member of the same club (along with, at various times, other noted luminaries as Jas Millham and Barry Norman – what a club!) He was about to embark on a model of the LMS Ivatt 2MT 2-6-0 when he came across S scale in the early 70s – by this time he was in his mid-30s – but for many years he had only two Great Eastern Railway locos of his own: a G15 (LNER Y6) 0-4-0T tram loco, based around a Triang motor bogie with body of metal and wood, and a 209 class (LNER Y9) 0-4-0ST. The Wicken branch’s staple loco, the E22 (J65) 0-6-0T did not appear until 1980, and the next loco, an E10 class 0-4-4T, was started in 1982 but took 9 years to complete. Since then, he has built two new layouts including the buildings and track, coaching stock, wagon stock, and many new engines, but the point is that he wasn’t born able to do this. Although I think he is blessed with an innate ability to handle a file well (which I would rate as the most important skill to have) he had to serve his time and put in his modelling apprenticeship, interrupted as it was by National Service, starting a career, getting married, starting a family, etc. These didn’t just absorb time, they absorb money, so he learned to make do, and to make.

But this wasn’t an “overnight success” story, although I think all would agree that it was a success. It took many years. And at the end of this period, he felt confident to tackle new projects, to push his own boundaries. As an example, when he built his G16 4-4-0, he was aware that the high-pitched boiler left a rather obvious visible space between the frames, a space which on the real thing was filled with piston rods, slide bars, connecting rods and Joy’s valve motion. He had never done this before, and did contemplate having dummy, non-working, motion. Thankfully this contemplation was brief, and he resolved to have a go, and make it work. It took a surprising amount of time to get all the required details together, but the finished model is a work of engineering art, and the motion a joy to behold (see what I did there?) with links moving above and below the plate frames. Since then, of course, more locomotives have been built with working inside motion, and Trevor has come to the conclusion that with Stephenson link motion, the movement is so small and subtle that whilst it is worth making the connecting rods, etc, move, the actual valve gear could be static. One problem now remains – what of the older engines, built before he decided to try pushing his boundaries? Well, some of them would benefit from the addition of extra detail, for example the above mentioned E22 tank loco would benefit from some slide-bars filling out the space, some from moving motion, and others such as the E10 and his D27 2-2-2 single wheeler have things like sandboxes and splashers positioned such that nothing is required (given the drive arrangements, this is a good thing, as it would an interesting technical challenge!) And by the way, the locos have split-axle pickup, with all metal wheels using lost-wax brass castings for the centres, turned to fit into steel tyres which are profiled on the lathe. Apart from the actual casting process, all of this – including making the patterns – is done by Trevor himself: when he had built up enough skill and confidence, and not before, he bought himself a lathe, and taught himself how to use it.

And this takes us back to the title: instant gratification. It is a sad observation of modern life, but as we have become more affluent as a society, we seem to have developed a desire to purchase, rather than to make – to buy things ready-made, rather than to buy the tools to make things, and to expect everything to be right. In short, we look for instant results, and instant gratification. I have found that generally speaking, instant gratification only lasts for an instant, and that for anything to be valued, it needs to come as the result of hard work. And the longer that takes, frequently the greater the personal satisfaction, which is much, much better than gratification.

So, to be good takes time. And effort. And determination. And care. And for most of us, starting off with a basic toolkit, and with simple techniques is the start of this. Replacing moulded details such as handrails with wire is a great start: sadly the manufacturers often do this for us now (but sometimes the effect is a bit heavy and overscale and therefore it is worth doing it yourself). So is upgrading components, for example with “after market” parts, or making a few pieces yourself. Moving on, good kits are a great thing (I learned a lot about North American freight cars from building PRS boxcar kits) and then one can look at modifying RTR and kits into new variants. Beyond that, scratchbuilding calls, and the world is the mollusc of one’s choice. But it won’t happen overnight. It takes time, and effort. But it is massively rewarding: something you can only find out by having a go.

If you didn’t, why not?

Water fowl of the family anatidae – recumbent or otherwise

Hobbies are ways to unwind, to shut off the outside world and its worries. So surely they should not be a source of trouble, yet they are. Have a look at most on-line forums – not just for model railways.

Why is this?

Well, I have lots of roles and even duties to fulfil in life. In no particular order, I am a son, father, employee, manager, uncle, nephew, etc but when I am modelling, I am none of these.

When I am modelling, I am me. Just me. No one else. I do it for me. I do it for my own enjoyment. We all do. No point doing it otherwise.

Hobbies are what we do, when we want to be ourselves. 

This is why they are important to us.

This is why it is easy to get hot under the collar – if someone criticises my approach to the hobby, they may not intend to, but they are criticising me, so I will react.

I get immense personal enjoyment from making things well – accurate representation not just of the real thing, but how the real thing moves, as far as the immutable laws of physics permit with a scale model. I cannot understand why anyone would settle for less, and it amazes me when they do, but many do. They seem to enjoy themselves, so I have learned to let it go.

I frequently see nonsense about miserable finescalers being posted on-line in forums and on-line magazines, published in letters columns, or espoused loudly at model railway shows. Why do some people swoop so low as make a wide-sweeping, and wide of the mark, generalisation? (I am aware that any generalisation is likely to be wide-sweeping, but please forgive the tautology on the grounds that I am at least being consistent.) When I see those who espouse a tighter tolerance on authenticity being called “elitist”, I am amazed. You see, I know quite a few people in the hobby, and the best modellers are also the best people. They are not only happy to share in their techniques, but to provide friendly encouragement. They might be the elite, but elitist? That would involve not sharing. That would involve putting down other people’s efforts. No. That’s not them.

The problem is, it might quack like a duck, waddle like a duck, and actually be a duck (rather than a swan or goose), but that’s not the point – what species of duck is it? Simply painting the tail black doesn’t turn a female Mallard into a female Gadwall: apart from the latter being smaller, there are other differences, too. But to many modellers, a duck is a duck is a duck. If you are one of those, then good luck to you: your modelling life will be less complicated, and you will have fewer hurdles to jump. I personally think you will get less personal satisfaction out of this approach – in every aspect of life – but will not force how I enjoy my hobby on you.

I you prefer pictures, then I think it has been very eloquently put by Rene Gourley on his Proto:87 blog, with his simple game of “spot the difference”. I suspect that if you can’t spot the difference, or if it doesn’t bother you, then it is unlikely that you have visited this blog before. I really hope, though, that I am not simply preaching to the converted.

If you have been, well, I suppose you must.

“S”electing a “S”cale

Taking up S scale as the chosen medium for railway modelling is not for the faint-hearted – I am not talking about collectors of American Flyer here, but those who want to create a finescale model railway. It is not, though, as daunting as it may seem. This is a recurring theme on the S Scale Forum, which if S scale interests you, you are strongly urged to join (it costs nothing, although donations towards the upkeep are welcome). I though it an interesting exercise to tabulate some reasons why S scale might be right for someone, and indeed, why it might not:

  • Although only 36% longer than H0, S has 2 1/2 times the volume and mass – things roll better;
  • S is only 3/4 the length of 0, requiring only 56% of the area;
  • There is a reasonable range of RTR and kits, as well as limited run brass, on which to build;
  • Because of this, there is scope for individualism via modifications and new paint schemes;
  • If you wish to model something off the beaten track, where kit-bashing and scratch-building will be essential, then the larger size is easier on the hands and eyes;
  • Large enough to see details and models yet small enough to fit a layout into a reasonable space;
  • An active, if sometimes disparate, social scene where everybody has the common interest of enjoying S scale.

Against that, there are some valid reasons not to get involved, and some less valid reasons:

  • “I want access to a large manufacturing base offering great variety at the lowest possible cost.” Can’t really counter that – if that’s what you want, then H0/00 or N are probably for you;
  • “I have a large circle of modelling friends, all of whom model in H0, and I like to host sessions where they run their trains on my layout.” OK, stick with that, then, but maybe do a little bit of S scale for a small module?
  • “I don’t have the skill to alter RTR and kits, or to build kits.” Skill comes from practice, and from not rushing things;
  • “I want as much landscape as possible, in a small space.” OK, then N is probably best for you!
  • “I want really big individual models” I am not interested in a layout.” Well, S scale is a good size for this – you can pick things up more easily than in larger scales, but it sounds like 1:48 or 1:32 may be a better idea.
  • “I have too much invested in another scale already.” That depends on how it is invested. If you are 70 years old, and have spent the last 25 years building up a large operational empire and it all works, then maybe now is not the time to rip it all up! However, if you simply have a cupboard full of kits and RTR, then selling off those kits which you may never build via eBay or friends could fund your first steps into S.
  • “Nothing is made in S.” Look around: starting with the S Sig website and the NASG, as well as the UK S Scale Model Railway Society for an example of an organisation which has used the facilities of a group to produce the necessary parts;
  • “I don’t like the size.” Fair enough.

As ever, it is always a personal choice, but for someone who doesn’t want to run with the herd, someone who enjoys a challenge, then I would say, S scale is ideal.

If you are not sure, I think you should.

Enlightened impatience

A discussion thread on Western Thunder about carrying on when things go wrong, had me wondering about impatience and comments made about 3 decades ago by Dave Rowe in the late, lamented “Model Railways” magazine.

Experience has taught me that as soon as I do something like break a drill bit due to rushing things, then it is time to stop. The reason is that I am getting impatient, and cutting corners. This kind of unenlightened impatience is a bad thing. Imagine you have spent 20 hours carefully crafting a model, and then rush a final cleaning up exercise intended to remove any remaining burrs by not using the right tool because it is somewhere in the tool box, and you can use the scalpel in your hand anyway. The result of this “short-cut” is that you gouge a big crevice right across the most relief-ridden face of the model. You now have two choices: repair the damage, or make it again. Either way, the “short-cut” from not spending 30 seconds looking for, say, your glass-fibre burnishing stick, has cost you several hours.

Enlightened impatience, however, is a good thing, and I use it all the time to make myself slow down just a little bit. Enlightened impatience means that in the above scenario, I will stop, put down the tool which will nearly do the job, and select the right tool. I spend 30 seconds, but gain several hours and really don’t miss the frustration I haven’t generated. Similarly, using a series of drills to progressively open up a hole rather than one final drill of the required size will produce a neater, cleaner and more accurate result. Backing-off when tapping holes, rather than forcing the tap, means it won’t snap – not only breaking the tool but also leaving part of it behind.

Enlightened impatience means reminding myself that if I slow down slightly, and take my time, I won’t end up remaking the piece, and I will get to my goal sooner.

Every really good modeller I know does not rush things, but works carefully and methodically, and gets the job done in a steady manner. Conversely, every time I see something which looks a bit “slap-dash”, conversation reveals the modeller to have been in a hurry to get things done.

Maybe the “secret” of finescale is simply an attitude of enlightened impatience? Or as the Latin motto has it:

Festina lente

If you are in a hurry, slow down…


Does it look real? Well, decide for yourself!

Ex LNWR DX goods, mostly the work of Trevor Nunn, on Barry Norman's Lydham heath

Ex LNWR DX goods, mostly the work of Trevor Nunn, on Barry Norman’s Lydham heath

Mike Cougill’s astonishing work in Proto:48

Trevor Marshall’s Port Rowan.
I know I have mentioned it before, but this is simply excellent.

What you don’t notice, at first, is the fineness of the wheels, etc. Just like the real thing, they are the right size to do their job, and they blend into the background as they have the same degree of delicacy as everything else.

Widen your horizons…

There are those who do not look far beyond their own shores and they are called, well, idiots I suppose.
There are those who do not even look as far as their own shores. They are called complete idiots.
I know people who won’t look at a layout unless it follows their prototype theme, and is in their scale/gauge. Suggest that they look at a model of an overseas railway, and they will tell you that they are not interested in (and I quote) “that foreign muck”.

As I said, complete idiots.

I won’t condemn them (they can do that well enough themselves) and I won’t pity them, either (suggests I might like them). Sometimes I feel like Gregory House, except that I do actually like the 1% who seem to think, and fervently wish the other 99% would do the same.

Here in the UK, some like to proudly think of ourselves as the inventors of “finescale” railway modelling – I mean, look at P4, etc. Well, apart from the pioneering work conducted by Ian Pusey in developing the S Scale standards – work which fed into the MRSG and the development of P4 – I suspect that is complete rubbish. Good ideas are good ideas, and they happen all over the place and often independently at around the same time. (A possibly Marxist view of history, but I don’t think so. In this case, people simply began to have enough leisure time to investigate railway modelling as opposed to toy trains. Oh, that is a Marxist view.) We also tend to take the view that Americans know all there is to know about scenic modelling: ground to ceiling mountains, etc. Again, this is complete rubbish: for a start, Trevor Marshall is a Canadian! Even if we ignore the work of such people as Barry Norman and Gordon Gravett, what about the work of New Zealanders like Peter Ross? What about the masterpieces produced in Europe? It’s not all out of the box Fleischmann train-sets over there, you know.

In this vein, I would like to draw your attention to a link I have already put up in a side bar (or at the bottom, if you are viewing on a tablet. Or at least, on my tablet) by mentioning it here: if you are the kind of person that likes Trevor Marshall’s work, then you will love Mike Cougill’s astounding modelling in Proto:48. Ignore the fact that it is 1:48 scale. Ignore the fact that the ties (sleepers and timbers) are closer together than UK practice. Ignore the fact that it follows American practice. Ignore the fact that it is set in the back of beyond (also known as Ohio). Just concentrate on the fact that without any rolling stock in place, it looks real, thus:

Then read his website on how to achieve this, and buy his book on detailing track. His service is great, and the book is really useful. And no, I don’t get commission. Sadly.

Good modelling is good modelling, no matter what scale, what prototype.
You might also want to look at Pierre Oliver’s website, too, for more of this:

If you want to, then why not?