Tag Archives: model railways

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.


Like me, the chances are you will have to look that up, but it is a geographical term relating to the effects of thawing and freezing of, for example, soil above permafrost. Each year, the thaw on the surface leads to over saturated soil above the permafrost, and it slips. Then it freezes again, and the cycle repeats. The consequence of all this is to create small steps in hillsides, etc, as show in the (linked) photo below from this very helpful page.

Solifluction in the Cairgorms

What has this to do with model railways? Well, recently there has been some discussion in various places, but particularly on Mike Cougill’s blog, about how great our hobby is from the perspective of personal satisfaction. We don’t just model a locomotive, as would someone building a radio-controlled vehicle, aircraft or boat. We model the whole scene, and also add movement and logical operation. (Nothing moves on a real railway without there being a purpose. This is also true of some layouts, where the builder has taken the trouble to find out about the real railway.) What the hobby teaches us, more than anything else – more than joinery, basic electrics and often some electronics, sculpting (of landforms), architecture, geography, history, economics, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, metal working, use of tools,  and so on – is observation.

Observation of the real thing.

All good models start with an observation of the real thing. Generally speaking, unless you are building a model of something akin to the creations of Roland Emmet, railway modelling is not an abstract art – it is nowhere as difficult as that. As an art, it starts with observation. I learned about bonds used in brickwork from Iain Robinson (who has today introduced me to the word solifluction!), via the Railway Modeller, I have learned a lot about texture and colour from Barry Norman and Gordon Gravett. I have developed a love of history beyond railways thanks to the hobby – school put me off that! I could go on. (I often do, according to some many…)

Sometimes it works the other way round, too. I was motivated to learn about shading and perspective at school in art lessons by being allowed to do a perspective drawing of a railway station, with shading to show the direction of the sun. I also learned about observation from my 5th form (year 11, eleventh grade) art teacher, when trying to paint a tree and failing because I had used brown and not a few shades of grey (fewer than 50, I hasten to add!) In fact, I put my astounding performance* in my art exams at the age of 16 down to the drive to observe, rather than anything else, and that came from the hobby.

So, solifluction is another thing I have learned from the hobby, and I shall keep an eye out for it in future!

If you weren’t, you will now…


*In case anyone is wondering, the words “astounding performance” were used by my art teacher (not sarcastically), who had “inherited” our class from someone who had left part-way through the year, to describe my achievement against my natural ability. I failed. 

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…