Start your own dinner club!

As I mentioned earlier this month, I was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders. I used to be a member, many years ago when I lived in the nation’s capital. And that experience inspired me a few years ago to set up a similar group in the Greater Toronto Area.

The Toronto Railway Supper Club is a social club – we don’t build a layout, hold a contest, or have clinics. There are plenty of other organizations that do that – and members of those organizations are part of the supper club.

Supper Club - March 2015

(A member of the Toronto Railway Supper Club discusses a brass model he’s been re-detailing. No, it wasn’t me…)

As the name suggests, we get together once a month and have dinner. More recently, we’ve started having a member (or members) do a brief after-dinner presentation. The point is to gather with hobbyists who are, perhaps, outside our normal circle of friends or modelling interests. We can learn from each other, over a meal and an adult beverage. New friendships are formed, too!

I ran the Toronto Railway Supper Club for three years, before stepping aside to let some others take over for a while. I think it’s important to build up a group of people who can manage such an organization. (That’s the OVAR model, too: that group has an executive team that regularly changes up as people decide it’s time for someone else to take a turn.)

Some people have asked how I set up the Toronto Railway Supper Club, so here are a few tips – based on my experience – for setting up a supper club of your own:

1 – Work with the venue. Before I even approached other hobbyists about the supper club, I talked to my local gastropub (yep – Harbord House) to see if they could accommodate a large group. We picked a Monday, since that’s a day that’s normally slow for the pub. Each month, I’d check with the pub to confirm a date, so they could write it in their calendar. And I would get in touch with the pub about a week before the event to let them know how many people we would have – approximately – so they could plan staffing, etc., accordingly. (More on that, below.)

2 – Start small. For the first event, I invited fewer than a dozen friends. I described what I wanted to do, and then at our first dinner, I invited to each invite somebody to join them at the second dinner. The idea was to grow gradually, so I could figure out the details as I went along. And by having my friends invite friends, I would meet a bunch of people I did not know well – that was the point, after all.

3 – If the group grows too big for your venue, look for another. This happened with us: once we were regularly getting 25-30 people at Harbord House, we found the noise level was overwhelming. People started to leave the club because it was just too loud. So I went looking for another venue. A friend in the club suggested Louis Cifer Brew Works, which has a mezzanine for larger groups, complete with audio-visual equipment that allowed us to do powerpoint presentations after dinner.

3 – Don’t get stuck in your own niche in the hobby. In other words, don’t make it an S scale group – or a free-mo group – or a D&RGW modellers group. Branch out. In our club, some are primarily interested in operations, while others focus on electronics… or live steam… or building structures. A broad variety of scales, gauges, eras and so on are represented. Some are members of clubs, or historical societies, or museums. Some are manufacturers, while others work at (or own) hobby shops. Some are historians, with no interest in modelling. But the best conversations happen when three or four hobbyists talk about a common subject from different perspectives.

4 – Find a way to organize the event that works for you. When I started the Supper Club, I did this almost entirely by email (sample below), and kept a list on my smart phone of who was attending in a given month. Now that two others are managing the club, they use Doodle polls to announce dinners and tally attendees.

5 – Lay out some ground rules – but not too many. The Toronto Railway Supper Club has one main rule: If you plan to attend, let the organizer know at least a week ahead of time so an accurate number can be given to the venue. That’s it. Oh – and pay your bill at the end of the night: my rule for that, as organizer, was that I would stay until the end of the evening and would cover anybody’s bill – but add a 30% tip for the server. And then I’d collect from the person who dined and dashed. (It’s surprisingly easy for that to happen: when you’re in a conversation and realize your car-pool driver is about to leave, you might grab your coat and go…)

6 – Encourage participation: ask people to bring out models or other projects to display and talk about. If someone is a member of a club, or historical society/museum, or organizes a train show, ask them to talk for a minute or two about what’s going on with their group. Supper clubs should be all about the cross-pollination of ideas. Getting people to talk about what they’re doing is what it’s all about.

7 – As for presentations, they’re a great idea – but keep them light, and short! Remember, most people in the room will not have a strong interest in or extensive knowledge of what you’re doing – and most of them will probably have had a bit too much to eat and drink, because hey: we’re having fun, right? So, no RPM-style clinics. No displays of your encyclopedic knowledge. Give your audience a break, with a presentation that will appeal to a broad range of interests: An overview of your layout is a good one, as is a rail fanning trip you recently took. Pictures are good! 20 minutes is fine. 40 is probably the limit.

8 – Encourage responsibility: encourage car-pooling with designated drivers. If you’re in an urban area, pick a venue that’s close to public transit.

To help you organize your own supper club, here’s a copy of the typical email I would send to members to announce an event.

Hi everyone:

Here are the details for our next get-together…

Monday, September 25, 2017 – 6:00 pm on

Louis Cifer Brew Works
417 Danforth Avenue
Toronto ON M4K 1P1
(Map attached)

PLEASE CONFIRM YOUR ATTENDANCE BY MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 18TH. And please do not “reply all” when confirming.

As always, knowing how many are on board is vital, so…

IF YOU PLAN TO ATTEND, YOU MUST LET ME KNOW. It’s the ONLY “rule” for this group. Thanks in advance!

As the maps show, Louis Cifer is quite close to the Chester TTC subway station, on the south side of Danforth. It’s also just a few minutes east of the Don Valley Parkway – take the exit for the Danforth/Bloor and go east over the King Eddy Viaduct. There’s are a couple of Green P parking lots in the vicinity. Here are links to five close ones:

If you do not want to be a part of this social group, let me know and I’ll remove you from the list. Just because you’re invited, doesn’t mean you have to attend – but we’d love to have you as a part of this group.

If you know someone who you think would be a good addition, let me know that too. Send me an email with their email address, and I’ll invite them.


Some of you are coming in from out of town and I know a few of you live in the same general direction as others in this club. If you have a ride to share, or are looking for one, feel free to ask on this list or contact a list member off-list. You all have each other’s emails by now…

Any questions? Email or call…

I’m looking forward to seeing you soon!

That should answer most of your questions – but if not, ask via the comments. And if you start up a supper club, let me know: Maybe I’ll come for a visit!

Why you should consider blogging

Blogger at window

On Tuesday night, I was honoured to be the guest speaker at the monthly dinner meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR). I’ve written about that in a previous post on this blog – and you can click on the OVAR logo to read that post:


While talking with friends and OVAR members before during the pre-dinner social hour, I had a few people ask me about tips for blogging. I shared some tips – and I’ve written about this before on this blog. But I promised those with whom I spoke that I would summarize my thoughts about blogging. So here they are…

I consider this blog to be as important to my Port Rowan layout as the ties and rail and I will never start another layout without also starting a blog about it.

I started my blog in August, 2011. I had never before blogged and I had no idea what to expect. As of right now…

– I have made 1,296 posts (including this one).

– The blog has generated 7,145 comments. Of those, 2,333 are mine as I respond to the 4,812 comments from my readers (and thanks for those!)

Blog - Comments

– The blog has generated more than 715,000 page views. (It’s actually a bit more than that, because I did not track stats for the first year of blogging. I simply didn’t know I could.)

In addition to making new friends online, the value of this blog has been in its ability to generate information that helps me become a better railway modeller. For example:

– Readers have offered information about the prototype (CNR Simcoe Sub) and the area (St. Williams and Port Rowan) that I model.

– Readers have shared information about traffic sources and commodities to enhance the freight, LCL and express operations on my layout.

– Those readers who are also professional railroaders have shared information about prototype practices that have improved my operating sessions.

– Readers who know more about S scale (because I’m still relatively new to working in 1:64) have given me leads everything from small detail parts to locomotives, and from manufacturers to suppliers (whether they are distributors, retailers or individuals).

Interestingly, in a number of cases, information came my way that I did not even know I “needed”. For example, I’ve had many people become readers who are not railway modellers: They’re historians, or residents of one of the communities I model, or have another interest that overlaps something I’m doing on the layout, such as installing the working telegraphy system.

In the past, I might have had to do extensive research, including trips to archives, to find much of this information. Today, thanks to this blog, much of it has come my way – simply because I shared.

Finally, another important role for this blog is to remind me how I did something. For example, I often return to the blog to look up detail parts I used on a specific type of freight car so I can order more for another model.

I’m sometimes asked if blogging takes time away from my modelling bench. For me, I find it actually encourages me to work on projects. Having gotten into the habit of blogging, I start to miss it if I don’t – and I will pick up a project and work on it just to have something to blog about. The regular need to photograph my progress for the blog also means I’m a better modeller, because today’s digital cameras (even camera phones) show up all of the mistakes and sloppy shortcuts. When I see those in a picture, I know I have to go back and re-work what I’ve built to make it right.

If you have never written a blog, it can seem like a daunting project. It’s not. Here are some ideas – based on my own experience – to get you started.

– Make regular postings: I suggest one per week on average (and I know that I’ve been remiss at that). They don’t have to be “War and Peace” – they can be as brief as a photo and a caption. But to generate the traffic that will start paying off in terms of information gathering, regular postings are a must.

– Write about what you’ve done – not what about your thinking of doing. Unless, of course, you want every expert on the Internet to tell you what to do.

– Give newcomers a place to find their feet. Remember that readers may land on your blog at any post – rarely the first one. On this blog, I’ve included a “First Time Here?” page, into which I’ve gathered some basic information and links to key posts that describe what I’m doing in more detail. I’ve also included lots of photos of the layout on this page, so that people can see what I’m doing and assess whether they want to read more. (Not everybody will, and that’s cool!)

– I’ve also included an “About the Author” page, so people can find out who I am. It’s always more comfortable to have a conversation with somebody if you know who they are, I find. I’ve also included information about how to contact me on that page.

– Make it easy for interested readers to follow you. This blog includes a “Follow this Blog” page to describe the options. And I post the occasional reminder to my blog that new readers should check it out. (This post counts, so if you’re new to my blog – Welcome! Please have a look at how you can follow along.)

– Back up your blog. I didn’t, at first – I didn’t know I could. And then I lost the entire thing. Fortunately, a reader was able to access the XML file (the programming language that creates the blog) for my posts on his own computer and share it with me, so I was able to re-post all of the posts. But I lost many of the early comments. Blogs reside online, and the engine that drive them – such as WordPress – have an export tool that allows you save your blog to your local computer drive. Use it.

– A promising blog that hasn’t been updated in months is a sad thing to find on the Internet. I sometimes wonder if the blogger has unexpectedly passed away. So if you started a blog that you don’t intend to maintain and you read this, do your readers a favour and write a final post saying that you’ve decided to no longer maintain the blog because you’re doing other things. (The reasons are none of our businesses, but we like to know that you’re still alive.)

If you have not yet started a blog, I hope that this post will encourage you to consider doing so. I use WordPress and recommend it – I like the user interface and I think the resulting blogs look elegant. But there are other engines – such as Blogger – that may suit you better. I encourage you to look at each and then if you’re interested, register a name (it’s free to do so) and start sharing!

Bloggers without borders

OVAR Report – March 2018

Earlier this week, I was in Canada’s capital as the guest speaker at OVAR – the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders. I had a great time – I’m so glad they invited me!

Before I report on the trip, some words about OVAR are in order…


OVAR is an amazing group. It’s been around for decades – it was established in 1961 – and has a membership of around 180 people. Key to its success is the informal nature of the group. It exists as a social organization – an umbrella for various other groups in the Ottawa area – and that’s it. Membership includes representatives of many such groups, of course – from round-robin operating groups and modular railroading associations, to members of the NMRA and other such official organizations, to those who volunteer at museums and other railfan/historian venues.

Anybody who has been part of a group or club in this hobby knows that politics can become a problem. It rarely is with OVAR, because it exists solely as a place to bring those various other groups and clubs together under one roof, once per month, for dinner and a presentation.

When I moved to Ottawa in the early 1990s, it was for a work opportunity. Never mind knowing fellow hobbyists: I knew nobody in the city. But I found the local hobby shops – and there, I found a brochure for OVAR. It sounded like a good way to tap into the local modelling community, so I attended a dinner. And then I signed up – because it was such a great concept.

Each of us in this hobby have a different approach to railway modelling. We all have preferred scales, prototypes, eras, degrees of prototype adherence, and so on. In addition, we each enjoy some aspect of the hobby more than others. Everyone’s approach is valid – but let’s face it: If the local club’s approach is too different from what you want to do, you won’t continue to be a member.

The strength of OVAR is all of those unique combinations come together in one room. So when I first joined, I’d use each dinner to sit at a table with a group of modellers, and talk to them about how they engaged with the hobby. If their approach was too different from my own, then I’d sit at a new table the next month, and so on until I found the people with whom I best identified. It took a few months, but what a great way to survey the hobby within an entire region!

I haven’t lived in Ottawa in more than 20 years, but I’m still regularly in touch with those friends I made at OVAR.

Having said all that, it’s not surprise that I had a wonderful time as the group’s guest speaker on Tuesday night. I talked with many old friends – several of whom I haven’t seen in person in years. (A few asked about blogging, so I have written another post on that topic, called “Why you should consider blogging“.)

What’s more, I thought the presentation went very well.


I talked about how I ended up modelling Port Rowan in S scale. I started with my days in Ottawa when I built my first prototype-based layout – on which I attempted to recreate a portion of the Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway in the late 1970s in HO scale. Then, while helping a friend decide what to model, I realized the TH&B’s bridge line railroading was not for me, and I switched to a Boston & Maine branch line in the steam era. I was still doing this when I moved back to Toronto in the late 1990s and built my first B&M layout.

However, dissatisfaction with the performance of my fleet of brass HO steam engines – small models of small prototypes – and recognizing in myself an interest in detailing structures and scenes, I moved up a couple of scales, to model a Maine two-footer in O scale. Here, after several years of progress, I ran into an unexpected setback: Modelling a Maine two-footer while living in southern Ontario was a lonely prospect. There just aren’t that many people in the hobby who are interested in The Standard Gauge of Maine. I was also frustrated by poor running qualities of my On2 fleet.

While searching for ideas for what to do next, I met the members of the S Scale Workshop and the die was cast.

There’s more to the story – and I hinted that it might be time for another change – but I’ll save that for future presentations.

As with many of these events, the guest speaks after dinner – and the dinner is a buffet style. Whenever doing this type of event, I’m cognizant that the audience isn’t looking for a clinic – it’s not an RPM meet. They want to be entertained – and they’re going to be sitting in a dark room (so they can see the presentation) after a big meal. Talks have to be general enough to appeal to an audience with broad-ranging interests.

Therefore, I framed the talk in such a way that I hope those in the audience who are curious about making any sort of change in their own hobby have some ideas about the research they should do and questions they should ask before diving in – in the interests of knowing, ahead of time, what they’re about to undertake.

After dinner speeches also have to be entertaining enough to keep everybody awake. I didn’t hear any snores from the audience, so I think I did okay.

I’ve done this talk before, but this was the first time I’ve presented to an audience in which several members lived through my various changes in direction. It was novel, and fun, to be able to expand on some of those stories.

When I do a trip like this – where I stay for less than a day – I like to treat myself to a good hotel. (I’m glad I did – the weather was, well, wintery: that made the 4.5 hour drive from Toronto to Ottawa feel even longer.)

OVAR covered the price of a modest hotel. I paid the difference and gave myself an upgrade, booking into the Chateau Laurier – one of a family of grand old railway hotels built by Canadian Pacific.

Chateau Laurier - Main Lobby

I got to my room late in the evening, and looked out my window in time to see an entourage pull up: a fleet of black vans with red/blue flashing lights. They showed up again the next morning to collect their passengers:

Chateau Laurier - Belgium Entrouage

I found out at breakfast that the King and Queen of Belgium were in town, and staying at the Chateau. They even left behind some terrific waffles, which I thoroughly enjoyed:

Chateau Laurier - Belgian Waffles

All in all, a fine trip!

See you at OVAR! (March 2018)


I’m off to Canada’s capital shortly, to speak this evening to members of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders (OVAR) at their monthly meeting. I used to live in Ottawa, so I’m looking forward to seeing many friends at the dinner.

I’ll be talking about how I ended up in S scale, and the research I did before jumping into 1:64 and building Port Rowan. I hope I provide some ideas to those in the room who might be considering whether, and how, to model a new prototype, era, theme and/or scale.

(This talk is particularly timely for me, as I’m currently undertaking the same sort of research to decide whether to build a new layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway. I’ve been posting a lot of information about the NS&T on its own blog: If you haven’t visited lately, you might want to have a look…)

OVAR meetings are always a good time. I’m looking forward to it!