Two square feet?

If you’re like me – and if you build things in this hobby, then you probably are – you start with a clear workbench and then as you get into a project the tools, materials and waste start to pile up – literally. At some point, you find yourself working in a fraction of the space. A well-known hobbyist once called it something like the “two square feet rule”.

I’d love to have two square feet!

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I’ve tried, repeatedly, to be a neater modeller. It doesn’t happen. The muse grabs hold… I start creating… and I end up with stuff everywhere.

The good news is, I’m back to working on my tobacco kilns for St. Williams – and have been for a couple of days now. The last time I made any significant progress on these, it was early April. What can I say? I got distracted.

The less-good news (there’s no bad news – it’s a hobby) is that I’m down to about eight square inches of work space. Time to take time – and clean up. Then, back to building kilns – which I hope to have finished and on the layout by the end of the year…

Experts and asking questions

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This is a follow up to The lesson of Bendy Elm – my post about asking questions instead of doing one’s own experiments.

As I noted in that post, giving advice to others about the hobby is difficult because each person’s layout is unique – even if built from identical plans. From the physical environment of the layout room to our own idea of what is right, there are too many variables to provide the “right” or “best” answer.

That doesn’t stop many people from trying, though, does it? Just as I see many people asking questions that are best answered by doing some first-hand experimentation, I also see many people delivering sermons on how things should be done. From layout design… to scenery techniques… to hosting operating sessions… to how to share progress with others via the Internet… these folks seem to think that the way that works best for them is the only way to do things.

On this blog, I try to keep that in mind and temper my advice. Fortunately, I’m not often asked for advice – because I’d be hard-pressed to offer anything useful. I’m not an expert and don’t present myself as one.

Instead, I try to describe what I’m doing and why I’ve made the choices I have. While it’s a way to share my hobby with like-minded people, it’s also a record of my own progress in the hobby – so that in a year or two, I can ask myself, “Why did I do that?” and find the answer. If others get something useful out of this exercise, that’s great.

Regular readers Simon Dunkley and Mike Cougill engaged in a great exchange of ideas on my Bendy Elm post. See the comments section of that post for the full exchange, but Simon wrote, in part:

A genuine expert would share the thought process(es) which led to their personal solution, rather than necessarily peddling a now out of date technique, material or product.

I think this is the most valuable information one can share. If someone tells me, “Here’s why I did it this way”, I can then apply that thinking to my own layout to decide whether it’s appropriate to my circumstances.

Layout height is a good example of this. People often want to know what the best height is for a layout. Reader Brian Termunde once asked about the height of my layout – not “What height should my layout be?” but rather, “What height is your layout?”

I could’ve answered “48 inches” and left it at that. But instead, I explained how I arrived at that figure. I think that’s a more useful answer.

I like to ask questions to encourage people to ask – then answer – their own questions. It helps me to think of the questions to ask by framing them so the answers will take into consideration all three of these factors:
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Prototype: Regardless of whether one models a real railroad or a freelanced line, elements added to a layout that respect the way things are in the real world will be more convincing. For example, lines running between utility poles sag. Modelling them pulled tight will be less convincing.
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Observing the real world – taking notes of what one sees, and determining why something is the way it is – is critical to getting it right on a model, regardless of whether one faithfully models a specific place and time.

Practical: This is where the real world hits the layout world. It’s rare that we can model a real place exactly to scale. We need to work within the confines of the space we have.

Even Port Rowan – a pocket-sized prototype yard – was too big for me to model full-size.
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I did manage to model it about two-thirds full size – and had to make decisions about where to trim the one-third away from the prototype in order to do so.

An example of such decision-making is the location of the section house. On the prototype, it’s located adjacent to the main track, as shown here:
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This didn’t work on my layout – I needed that space for the run-around track – so I shifted the section house to the run-around, as shown here:
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It was a reasonable compromise, given my space constraints, since it still put the section house as close as practical to its prototype location. And moving the section house was a better choice than shortening the run-around or shifting the run-around to the right, which would’ve created bigger problems visually and operationally.

Another practical deviation from reality is the location of my lights. For practical purposes, they’re near the front of the layout so that scenes are lit from the side from which they’re viewed. But putting the sun in this location means my Port Rowan branch appears to head southeast out of Simcoe – whereas on the prototype, it headed southwest. The alternatives were:

To backlight the entire layout – not a great way to view it. Or,

To put the staging area on the peninsula and tuck Port Rowan into the corner – again, not a great way to view the layout.

I’m happy with both of these decisions – and the other choices I’ve made – in part because they were informed choices. Understanding where I was deviating from my prototype – and why – was essential to arriving at these decisions.

Perception: This is where we deviate from reality to influence the story that people take away from the layout – the perception we want to leave with visitors. It’s the artistic portion of the equation.

For example, having Googled the site of the long-gone St. Williams station – in both satellite and street view – I’m pretty confident there was no tobacco field across the road from it, or tobacco kilns kitty-corner to it. However, I do know that such signature elements from the region bordered the tracks in Vittoria – the next station up the line – because I have a photo in my collection that shows them.

Knowing this, I made an artistic decision to move this scene to St. Williams, because I felt that the kilns tell an important story about life in the region and era that I’m modelling:
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Kiln Test - 3 (Set-up) photo KilnTest-3-02_zps68ce2fb6.jpg

Beginners in the hobby – or even experienced hands who are new to a certain aspect of the hobby – might be looking for a straight-forward answer to their questions. And “the experts” will provide – either online, or in hobby publications aimed at getting people out of the armchair and into the layout room (not to mention, into the nearest hobby shop that stocks their advertisers’ products).

The answers tend to be in a form that a friend calls “The Rain Dance”:

I did a dance and it rained. If you do the same dance, it’ll rain.

The hobby equivalent is a set of instructions to build a kit. “Do as I did, and your kit will look like the one on the box”.

That’s excellent for a rolling stock kit, where the point is to create an accurate model of a specific prototype. It’s also very good for a structure kit – although unless one is building a kit based on a specific prototype in order to model the same prototype scene, one runs the risk of creating a layout that looks the same as everybody else’s. And certainly, getting people out of the armchair is important.

But for most things in the hobby, I think the better approach is to encourage the hobbyist with the question to explore possible answers, then arrive at their own solution.

After all, there’s only one expert on your hobby – and that’s you.

Are you serious?

It’s Friday and I’m angry:
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I’m expecting a package today from a hobby shop in Florida, and I’m angry because it’s a product I should’ve been able to buy locally – or, at the very least, directly from the manufacturer. The product itself is not important, but here’s what happened.

I ran out of a product while working on a project. Knowing that I’d seen the product at one of my local train stores – which is likely the biggest store in Canada that caters to the model railway hobby – I called to see if they had it in stock. Not only were they out of it, but they told me the manufacturer had gone out of business.

This is not, in any way, the hobby shop’s fault.

Well, I found the manufacturer online, and emailed them. Guess what? They’re still in business – and they confirmed that my local store was one of their dealers. I pointed out that the store was not listed as a dealer on their website – they said, “Oh, yeah, we should do that”. I also pointed out that the store – did I mention the largest train shop in Canada? – thinks they’re out of business. The manufacturer was not forthcoming with a “Thanks for letting us know – we’ll get in touch with them right away” – instead, they seemed somewhat put out that I’d made extra work for them.

As I’ve noted, this is not the hobby shop’s fault. They provide excellent service and the onus is on all manufacturers to maintain a healthy and active relationship with their dealers.

Having settled the hobby shop issue, I next told the manufacturer – based in New England – that I wanted to order three packages of their product. I asked for a price, including shipping. Despite their web site noting that they ship internationally, I was told they would only ship to Canada for a minimum order of 20 packages.

From this, I assume three things:

– First, the manufacturer doesn’t understand the “handling” part of “shipping and handling costs”. I know it’s going to cost more to ship across a border. I’m used to that. I didn’t ask if it was going to be expensive or a pain to deal with customs. I know it means they have to make a trip to the post office to get a price for shipping and to fill out a customs declaration, and that I might have to pay taxes on my shipment when it’s imported. I asked, “How much for three packages, plus shipping, and how can I pay you?” In fact, shipping from the Florida hobby shop accounts for 40 percent of the total cost of my order – and I expected that.

– Second, the manufacturer isn’t serious about being in business. Canada has 10 percent of the population of the United States, and we’re darned easy to get along with. Shipping across the border is routine. Payment forms – from PayPal to credit cards – handle the exchange automatically and for those who are wary of merchant fees, there are bank drafts and postal money orders. For hobby stuff, shipped to individuals, there are very few hoops. At the same time, it’s fair to assume that catering to the Canadian market will add 10 percent to an American company’s revenue. Even if it’s half that – five percent – that’s an awesome addition to the bottom line for very little additional effort – especially when the current economy is so tough on small companies that cater to non-essential markets like “people who play with trains”. In tight economies, discretionary spending goes over the side – so manufacturers of stuff like model railway supplies need to work harder to keep their existing customers and attract new ones.

– Third, the manufacturer doesn’t understand the power of the Internet to boost their business – or, conversely, to destroy it. I’m not going to publicly identify the company that’s being so damned stupid about this. But others will. And their outdated website with no easy means for people – even within the United States – to order product means people will go elsewhere. My order from a hobby shop instead of direct likely cost this company 40 percent of the sale, in the form of the retail markup. Failing that, I could’ve substituted a different product – or done without. Finally, I will give them credit for at least knowing how to use email. I’ve had dealings with a number of companies with websites that have never returned email inquiries. Or, rather, I’ve tried to have dealings with them…

As I said, I won’t name and shame the manufacturer. They have enough problems, apparently.

Instead, I will continue to use my blog to recommend companies that have provided excellent service. It’s not hard to do – many companies do it very well, even the single proprietors who manufacture, package, ship, market and handle all customer service, solo. Even companies that have no web presence, in fact. Several times on this blog, I’ve mentioned the excellent service from Wild Swan Publications – a company that does things the old fashioned way: by telephone or snail-mail. I would rather deal with them than the company that’s online, but clueless.

As for the company that has so frustrated me: Are you serious? Are you serious about being a hobby supplier? If you are, then smarten up. If you’re not, then sell your intellectual property to someone who is, and go away.

Thanks, everybody – I just needed to get that off my chest. Please don’t ask me to name the manufacturer, and please do not share your own horror stories in the comments – I’ll just delete them. But do let manufacturers know when they fail to serve!

Maybe I should add a car ferry operation in Port Rowan…

… because when I went to the layout room this evening, I found a lake.

The city had a nasty thunderstorm this evening – 100 mm (about 4″) of rain in about an hour. (To put that in perspective, that’s not only a record-breaker – our previous one-day rainfall record was about 29mm – but it’s also more than the 70mm average rainfall we receive for the entire month of July.)

300,000 people without power, flooding everywhere, people stranded in their cars. Even our local commuter system, GO Transit, had issues:
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Another view of a flooded GO Train photo GO-Train-2013-07-0802_zpsc16c49df.jpg
(Mark Blinch/REUTERS)

So, I was lucky – I had puddles, although most of the (old and undulating) basement floor was submerged to some degree or another.

Fortunately, it was storm water – not sewage. The water slowly drained away, hurried along by my wife and I deploying mops and buckets. We worked for about 3 hours and emptied several buckets worth in the laneway behind our house, where it won’t beat us back indoors.

Most of the water has been taken care of and a dehumidifier is working to pull away the rest.

Before I started this layout, I put down a modular rubber floor system. It’s interlocking tiles, but designed for garages – so it’s perforated instead of having a solid surface. This is a good thing, because it profiles path for air to circulate under items on the floor.

As well, almost everything stored under the layout is in waterproof tubs. Not everything – but almost everything. A few things got wet – but nothing of consequence. Mostly, some lumber I had in the layout room, ready to use to frame the valance. It’s up off the floor now and when I get a chance in the morning, I’ll set it out to dry in the garage.

Glad I had everything in tubs. Glad I’ve been working to get stuff – like scenery materials – out of tubs and onto the layout. It could’ve been much worse, but all is okay now and while more rain is forecast, it’s not supposed to hit like it did tonight.

Time to rest.

The dumbing down of making things

Despite the title of this post and the picture below, this is not an essay against 3D Printing. Nor is it an essay in favour of the technology. The merits and shortcomings of 3D Printing have been discussed ad nauseum in the hobby, and I’m not rehashing those debates here.

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This week I attended a two-day technology conference in Toronto, at which one of the keynote speakers enthused about 3D Printing. The speaker – a long-time observer of the technology sector – argued that 3D Printing hailed the coming of the third industrial revolution, combining the physical industrial revolution launched by the spinning jenny in the 18th Century with the digital industrial revolution ushered in by the personal computer in the 1980s.

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While the speaker may have a point – only the test of time will determine that – I was appalled at how he not only ignored the value of craftsmanship but actually dismissed it when questioned about it later.

During his presentation, the speaker related a story from his childhood about working with his grandfather to build an engine (the gasoline-powered kind, not a locomotive). He made a mistake while measuring a part to be machined and ruined the piece. His take-away from this? “Measuring is hard” and somehow – magically, I suppose – 3D printing eliminates the need to know how to measure.

Yeah, I know: “Seriously?”

I followed up on this in a later Q&A session. As an (admittedly novice) owner of a Sherline Mill, I argued that measuring is actually relatively easy. It’s a mechanical skill that requires little more than the ability to read a calliper and the patience to double-check plans and measurements.

By extension, all physical aspects of making things – whether machining, wood working, model building or something else – are relatively simple skills that involve observation, accuracy and patience. (The key word here is “relatively”.) As such, the physical acts can be performed by a computer-driven machine – whether it’s a lathe, a mill, or a 3D printer. In fact, they can probably be performed better by such computer-driven devices than by a human because accuracy and patience is something computers are really good at.

The real talent is in understanding how to design the object in the first place – an understanding that can only be gained through a combination of education, apprenticeship and experience. It’s easy to use a fly cutter in a mill to remove material from the surface of a piece of metal. It’s easy to press the “Make” icon on a computer screen to start the 3D Printing process. It’s hard to know – to really understand – whether the material you’ve chosen for your design is the best material, and how much you can push that material’s properties before it will no longer be able to perform the function you’re asking of it.

3D Printing gives us a new means of production, but it’s worse than useless without the knowledge imparted by the process of training and experience – in other words, by craftsmanship.

“Worse than useless” is a strong statement, but here are a couple of examples of why I feel this is a fair assessment:

I could use a 3D Printer to fabricate a hammer. But unless I understand the stresses acting on a hammer when I pound a nail, my 3D Printed hammer could shatter. The shattered head could rebound and crack me in the temple. At an extreme, it could kill me.

I could use a 3D Printer to fabricate a coffee mug. But unless I understand the nature of the material I use, and the limitations of the current technology, I could create a mug that could be impossible to properly clean. (For example, current 3D Printers leave small ridges that could encourage bacteria growth.) In time, my mug could harbour enough bacteria to make me seriously ill, or even kill me.

The visionary’s response to the role of craftsmanship was dismissive. “Computers will do all that” was essentially his verdict. And that disturbs me because ultimately, computers are programmed to serve. If we press the “Make” button, a computer might be programmed to say “Hey – are you sure? Because this hammer looks kind of dodgy to me”. But in the end, it’ll 3D Print my poorly-designed Hammer O’ Death.

Craftsmen, on the other hand, can – and if they’re trusted for their experience, will – dig in their heels, explain why the design is a failure, and refuse to produce it. And the greater their expertise, the harder they will defend that position.

The problem arises when the traditional craftsman is eliminated from the production process, which is essentially what the conference keynote speaker suggests is going to happen (although he did not put it in those terms). If, by using a 3D Printer, we eliminate the person who knows about designing and making hammers or coffee mugs, then we have to step into that role ourselves.

I would feel more positive about the future of 3D Printing as a catalyst for the next industrial revolution – with all the benefits that implies – if those considered to be authorities on the technology presented it for what it really is: Namely, another dumb tool in our tool kit.

Knowledge and talent do not manifest at the touch of a button – any more than they manifest when one grabs a hammer. They are hard to acquire – and people need to continue to recognize and value that.

3D Printing is already having an effect on our hobby and I’m certain it will continue to do so, especially as the technology improves. But I hope hobbyists don’t let their enthusiasm for this relatively new and novel technology blind them to the importance of the pursuit and mastery of the skills of the craftsman in creating products that are of lasting value.

Anybody can 3D Print junk. That’s easy. Learning to use this tool as a craftsman will be hard. Don’t let the experts try to tell you otherwise.

Fortunately, I think as a group we hobbyists have an advantage over the general population – including the computer-savvy generation of Digital Natives who will naturally turn to 3D Printing and other such technologies when they want to “make things”. That’s because we are already “makers”:

We have learned about things like material properties and good fabrication practices – through clinics, clubs, round-robin layout-building groups, publications, good old fashioned trial and error and, more recently, online forums, blogs, videos and groups.

And because our models are intended to run on our layouts, we understand the importance of fabrication skills such as the ability to accurately measure. We know that these are not skills to walk away from because they are “too hard”, but rather skills to run towards – to master so that we may enjoy the products of this creative outlet.

Equally importantly, we have developed an appreciation and respect for those who know these things, and share them with those who don’t.

So, my fellow craftsman: Well done! Let us not think of technology in terms of how it can provide us with shortcuts. Instead, let’s continue to critically assess new technologies, tools and techniques, even as we explore their potential to make our hobby even more rewarding.