Category Archives: Opinions

…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.

It’s About Time…

This blog, I freely admit, operates to no known timetable and is a bit like the proverbial bus service: you wait ages for a post and then two turn up at once! I can only blame myself as I did promise (threaten?) another one and at least one person is waiting to see it. (Thank you, René, for pricking my conscience!)

Another word for a hobby is “pastime”, literally a way of passing time. As such, there doesn’t have to be a defined end point, there is no requirement to “finish” anything, just so long as one is passing time in an enjoyable way (otherwise this is not a hobby, merely a chore). I suppose I could stop there, because ultimately it really is as simple as that, but there is a slight paradox as it also isn’t as simple as that!

To elaborate, the simple definition of passing time in an enjoyable manner applies in our case to the whole bundle that makes up railway modelling – however you define that end process, be it creating a layout, operating to a timetable, building individual models, etc. So, to use an example, René Gourley’s 24 year and counting project to model Pembroke in Proto:87 is by any measure a successful way of passing time, the more so in that the project still has many years to go, and will continue to provide opportunities for him to pass time for many years to come with many personal achievements along the way – which is what hobbies do. And at the end of this lies the enjoyment of operating a layout which authentically replicates a real place at a real time: fulfilling that goal is the end target, which is why the definition here is simple.

A less simple aspect is the individual steps along the way, for the way is not a straight line and twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. It also includes uphills and downdales plus more than a few blind alleys. Some of these activities are not, at the time, an enjoyable way of passing time, indeed they may seem like a waste of time! Viewed on their own, it is easy to see such events as a lost hour, evening, week, month even years, but I refuse to see it like that. Everything here is valuable: whilst it is tempting to think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, it really isn’t and blind alleys remind us that this isn’t so. Also, even if we don’t achieve what we thought we might achieve, we will at least have tried out new ideas or practiced new skills and we have an opportunity to review what we did and gain insight into why it didn’t work out. Hopefully we do that. As the song begins, the road is long with many a winding turn. But as the Chinese sage said, even the longest journey begins with but a single step.

Individual steps may turn out to have gone in the wrong direction and need retracing. But they are not a waste of time, providing the journey as a whole is moving forward, then there is progress and the time has been usefully and (mostly) enjoyably, passed.


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…

Stop blaming others and seize the opportunity

I saw this on a forum I use:

But, as it seems I don’t build etched brass kits or even whitemetal ones some will say that I’m not a modeller

Who are these “some”? I haven’t met any of them.

Anyone who goes beyond simply opening boxes is a modeller and the idea that you have to build etched brass kits to become a modeller is nonsense.

This is akin to those who refer to, for want if a better way of putting it, “finescalers” as elitist. Well, I know some of the best modellers in the country, and not one of them is in anyway elitist. Sure, they want to make their models as accurate as possible, to the finest possible standards, etc, but not one of them has ever told me that everyone else must do the same, or that anyone who doesn’t is somehow not worth anything. And all of them, and I do mean every single one, are prepared to share their techniques with anyone who is interested. The only complaint I ever hear from them is that too many are afraid to try.

Personally, I am getting sick and tired of it. We all have limitations, be they time, money, space or skills, but we can increase and improve our skills given time a degree of time. And time can replace money, too: start with raw materials and learn their properties, and acquire the basic tools to work with them. Cutting out and embossing takes longer than buying etchings, yes, but the mistakes and hence the lessons learned are your own, and with time these mistakes are replaced with new ones, and new lessons.

The only times I see the idea that what someone is doing isn’t good enough to be “proper modelling” is from their own minds. There are no right and wrong ways to be a modeller: just putting some personal effort into making a model look more like the real thing, which is as much about careful observation of the real thing as it is about anything else. And you don’t have have to go back in time to see how dirt and weathering affect things.

No, when I see people refer to “some”, I generally incline to the view that the speaker is the “some”, and rather than admit that they feel they could do better, they project their disappointment onto a perceived elite which doesn’t exist. Feeling that you could achieve more and better is quite possibly the defining characteristic of the human condition: it drives us to self-improvement, to every model being slightly better than the previous one (in the early stages, to every model being significantly better than the previous one) until we reached a point where the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in.

From what I have observed, that doesn’t usually happen until one is well advanced into one’s dotage.

As the Bard put it,

From this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.


Connecting to Inspiration

Mike Cougill has posted a very pertinent post on our connection to real trains, and asks if we need it:

Do we need the connection to real trains? I believe we do without a doubt. Without inspiration from full-size railroading, I’m not certain what this work would become other than a flight of fancy. I believe a connection with your subject is vital but in the absence of first hand experience, friends and mentors can help us understand our strengths and help us explore the form our interests might take. Historical research can provide a strong sense of a different era. That said however, you still have to do the introspection required and make your own choices.

I posted some time back on a personal memory, way back when I was 13½, and yet although the sound, heat and smell of a class 08 shunter or a class 25 Bo-Bo is probably what ties me to the prototype, it isn’t what I model, or indeed want to model.

It’s a sort of chain reaction: that inspiration takes me back to my youth, when I was starting to find my way in the hobby. It is an essential link to my history, but the chain is longer than that. From this starting point, I became more interested in my local railways and their history, and that in turn expanded my horizons further, both in time and geography, and my modelling interests evolved away from that starting point.

And do you know what? That’s great. Trying to recapture my youthful starting point in model form won’t work. Sure, I can get the sound, but not the smell, and model smoke looks like model smoke and not like a model of smoke. And visits to preserved lines are fine, but the context is different: it doesn’t have the same impact on me as – it is slightly ersatz, and not real. But the connection to the trains of the past is still there for me, via a nearly 40 year old memory, still evoked by the smell of (of all things) the diesel fumes from buses of a certain age.

The Artist Within

In a thread on one of the more popular model railway forums, a post was made with the following sentiment:

I now see railway modelling as an art form to be enjoyed rather than an exercise in trying to achieve technical perfection

If you read any of the blogs to which I frequently refer, especially Mike Cougill’s and Chris Mears’, then this will not be anything new to you.

My response (to be self-indulgent, but what is a blog if not that?) was:

I agree entirely, but as all artists will agree, it takes a while to develop the techniques required. In fact, you may have tapped into a better metaphor than you realise!

In fact, many artists return to the same subject time and time again, scrapping earlier efforts (either completed, or part completed) because what appears on canvas or in clay/wood/metal/stone/whatever isn’t what they have in their mind’s eye.

In this respect, you should take comfort from the blind alleys and false starts: like any great artist, they are but learning points on the path to ultimate success.

And make no mistake, whether we build an individual item of rolling stock, a small diorama, or a large layout, we are all creating a work of art which says to the the world, “This is what railways mean to me.”

Artists spend their lives trying to express what something means to them using their favoured medium/media. They will tell you that they often feel that they have failed, and try, and try, and try again. I know I am repeating myself, but it is worth remembering that.

Techniques do need to be mastered, but only to allow us to create what we want to create. This is not easy, but if we focus entirely on technique, we can only be technically brilliant, but our creations will be emotionally austere. If we want to get beyond the simple achievement (and great pleasure!) of simply playing with trains, we need to remember what we want to create: what is it in our mind’s eye that says “railway”?

There are no golden rules here. I can no more dictate what you must do to achieve your Model Railway dream than can anyone else, but it is worth putting some questions to yourself to help define your goal.

So, what inspires you? How does that lead to a satisfying expression of your interest?

  • It could simply be locomotives or rolling stock. They don’t have to move.
  • It could simply be the end of a rural siding, disused, rusty and strewn with rubbish. Nothing but some track, some form of stopping things coming off the end of it, just a few square inches of baseboard.
  • It could be the operations of unit trains – after all, shifting goods and minerals in bulk was how railways came about.

There are so many alternatives, each as different as each of us. The point is, to get beyond technicalities and toys, we can view model railways as art.

But only if we know what inspires us.

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