You GET to build it!

This is one of my favourite model railway ads, and I’ll tell you why:
You GET to build it photo FastTracksAd_zps23f9656d.jpg
(click on the ad to visit Fast Tracks on the web)

Before I do, in the interest of full disclosure I must tell you that Fast Tracks owner Tim Warris is a friend. We’ve broken bread together (or, at least, sushi) and I’m looking forward to having him visit sometime when we can run an operating session on my layout.

That said, I’m also a customer – I’ve bought several turnout building fixtures from Tim, plus the ancillary tools such as the Point-Form and the Stock-Aid. There are several of his Bullfrog manual switch machines under my layout. And he’s even done some custom work for me on a couple of occasions.

But all of that is irrelevant. It’s a coincidence that I like Tim’s ad. If it had been created for any other company – even one whose products I had never used – I’d be posting it here. Because I love the message:

You don’t have to build it: You get to build it!

This speaks to the heart of why I’m in this hobby.

(Of course, regular readers know I don’t build everything for my layout. To cite two examples, I happily engaged in “chequebook modelling” for my locomotives, and I often have resin freight cars built for me. But I do that because I know my limits: I don’t – at this point in my life anyway – have the patience to build my own locomotives. And while I’ve built resin freight cars in the past – and even several scratch-built boxcars an flatcars when I modelled in On2 – I’m slow at doing rolling stock and it’s not my favourite aspect of the hobby. Given that I’m also trying to build a layout, I’d prefer to focus on the things that aren’t as easy to farm out: It’s one thing to hand over a freight car kit – quite another to say, “Here’s a chunk of my layout: Can you take it home and add scenery?” I also enjoy building structures and scenery, so for now, that’s where I prefer to invest my energies.)

As I’ve progressed in the hobby, I’ve learned to be comfortable taking on more and more tasks where I do the work. Track is a good example. In the past, I’ve used a lot of flex track and ready-to-plant turnouts. But even before Tim started his business – before I knew him at all – I started hand-laying my track. My first attempts were a disaster, but I got better – and when Tim’s tools and aids became available, hand-laying track went from something I had to do, to something I enjoy.

This week, I also learned that acquiring skills has helped insulate me from some of the troubles that have beset the hobby:

I was in a local hobby shop and as the only customer there at the time, I had plenty of time to chat with the owner. He confided to me that his biggest challenge right now is getting reliable sources of stock. I assumed the problem would be related to smaller, mom-and-pop shops folding their tents but even the large companies are causing him grief. He told me that for the past several months, he’s been unable to get track from one supplier – no flex, no turnouts, nothing – because the company has had issues with its overseas factory.

I won’t identify the hobby shop or the manufacturer, so don’t ask. But there have been plenty of examples of this issue biting manufacturers and making life difficult for hobbyists. S scale enthusiasts will remember that the supply of rolling stock from S Helper Service dried up after their manufacturing partner in China booted them out. (I mention S Helper Service because with the sale of the company to MTH, this issue has presumably been resolved.)

Anyway, back to track. As I listened to the hobby shop owner’s tale of trying to stock track for his customers, I couldn’t help but think, “Boy, I’m glad I hand-lay my track, so this isn’t a problem for me. As long as I can get ties, spikes and rail, I’m set.” (Knock wood, but so far that hasn’t been a problem.)

Obviously, hand-laid track is not something people tackle if they’re building a “train set”. And of the relatively few who graduate from the train set to become model railway enthusiasts, the first serious layouts will probably also be built with commercial track. In fact, many hobbyists will never tackle hand-laid track – just like many will never build a resin freight car kit, or scratch-build a boxcar or a structure, or twist their own tree armatures from florist wire. And that’s fine.

But for me, learning these skills has not only been satisfying, it’s also given me a degree of freedom to pursue the hobby on my own terms. My layout – my hobby – will not come to a grinding halt because a factory on the other side of the world has decided it would rather produce toasters and televisions than toy trains.

Best of all, learning these skills has been pleasant because acquiring the knowledge has changed my attitude towards the hobby in ways that are nicely summed up in Tim’s ad:

I don’t have to build my trees, structures, track, bridges, rivers, meadows, roads, fields, etc.

I get to build them.

I still have plenty of things to do on the layout with the skills I have already acquired. But I also have a list of projects that will require learning new skills. I look forward to learning those skills, and gaining more freedom.

18 thoughts on “You GET to build it!

  1. Trevor,

    I recently started hand laying and discovered it really is fun to hand lay track. I’ve never used the Fast Tracks track building tools, but I always hear rave reviews. They appear to be well designed, built SOLID, and well supported (even with video instructions). A good tool makes a BIG difference in any job.

    Greg Amer

    • Hi Greg:
      You’re absolutely right – a good tool makes a big difference.
      I know you’re using a different system on your layout – but my point applies equally to you: You’re building your own track, and therefore your enjoyment of the hobby is less dependent on track suppliers. Yes, you need spikes, rail, ties, etc. – but my gut feeling is that those supplies will be easier to find in the future than higher-value-add products like commercial track.
      And while I used track as my example, this post really applies to all aspects of the hobby. If suppliers of ready-to-plant trees or tree kits disappear, the people who have figured out how to make their own trees (with wire armatures, or natural materials, or…) will still be able to make trees. They might not even notice that the commercial tree suppliers are gone. I scratch-build a lot of my structures and while I’m happy to use commercial components (like the laser cut roof trusses from TractorFab that I wrote about recently), I do so out of convenience – not necessity. As long as I can get wood, styrene, or card, plus appropriate glues and paints, I can build structures.
      If CA disappeared, I might be in trouble.

      • Trevor,
        Your post is exactly why I hand-lay my large scale track. I enjoy spending a few hours pounding spikes down. Plus I can build and control the track gauge. Commercial track seems to have more problems with out gauge or inconsistent gauge than hand-layed track. Plus with what I’m doing with 1/29, I can’t buy commercial track anyways.

        What code rail are you using? I’m trying to source some rail in the range from code 173-190 as I’m currently using 215, and I am looking for some smaller rail for sidings, industrial trackage.

        I look at building track (or anything else) as an added value for my hobby dollar. I can spend five minutes laying track down, or I could spend 5 hours spiking track with less overall cost. What has more value? The answer to that is what drives us to build our own, or to buy prebuilt.

  2. I really appreciate the idea of “Getting to do/build things on a layout”, Be it your own pike or a friend’s empire!! Doing the things you like is key to enjoying the hobby!!

    I have also heard good reports of the Fast Track Turnout fabrication tools although I do not own any of these useful tools. {ALl my track is installed – at least for now – out of place to go within my railway room!!

    Thanks for Sharing
    John Green Vancouver

  3. To be able to purchase what you need readybuilt is useful in enjoying the model rail hobby. But to be a prototype modeller, being able to build is a blessing.

    • Hi Steve:
      And I’ll admit that I have a fair bit of RTR on the layout. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of “chequebook modelling” opportunities when they arise. I’m just really glad it’s not my only option. The more skills one masters, the more options one has. This means one is less dependent on the whims or fortunes of others (especially manufacturers) in order to enjoy the hobby.

      • Hear, hear.

        I love the fact that there are so many excellent RTR options. Makes it a lot easier to build a reasonable fleet by allowing more time and effort to be devoted to detailing/kitbashing/scratchbuilding the signature/unusual things I need. (And I picked a non-major railway with some oddball stuff to model.)

        • We can buy boxcars and loco’s readybuilt. I do it myself. But the “chequebook modelling” ended when you built a model of the steel trestle/girder bridge over the creek. That item seems to be a standard post-WWII design used to replace wood trestles and/or augment existing bridges on at least three discrete CN lines that I know of. There is not a kit or RTR model for these bridges. Were you to use a generic bridge here, you would have deviated from the prototype. Likewise with the model of St. Williams station. Nobody makes a kit or RTR model for it, either.

          Which is why I feel being able to build (what you cannot buy) a blessing for the prototype modeller.

  4. I’ve never read that tagline before (“You GET to build…”) but I sure like it. I had this terrific editorial about my thoughts on building things in the hobby but it was my wife who once summed it all up really nicely and it sounded a lot like: “Isn’t that what model trains is all about? I just thought that’s what you did…make them.” and she trailed off. Her thoughts are really what I wanted to say.

    Then, I thought about a editorial from a British model railway magazine in which the author distinguishes between railway models and models of railways. In that early-1970’s era article the author was responding the growing volume of ready-to-run and kit models on the marketplace. That, he felt, little satisfaction could ever be gained from individual, store bought models of rolling stock and that if your intention was a collection of models the reader should attempt more making and less buying. He did entertain what he felt was a growing trend toward “models of railways” and that the demands of supporting a larger layout might be worth compromising on a completely selfmade collection of models; that the pride of ownership would be derived from the vast and complete scene and that sentiment would equal that derived from an examination of a recently completed coach or locomotive. Forty years later both the ready-to-run segment of the British model railway scene and also the equivalent finescale scene have both experienced strong growth and one needs only to find a copy of Hornby Magazine and then a copy of Model Railways Illustrated to see evidence of this growth in both sectors.

    I wish we saw that same strength in North America. I feel like we’re missing some major sections of the model railway industry that should exist to support those of us who are really thrilled by the art of making our own models from scratch. I’m so excited about the success of Fast Tracks and wish them continued success. I really enjoy making track. I haven’t used the jigs and likely won’t but it’s terrific having a Canadian source for rail and their PC ties are unlike anything I could have ever imagined – just perfect in every way. I wonder if there is room for a similar calibre of product in other segments of the hobby? Does a void like the one that existed in track exist in other segments of the hobby or is there a need for a Fast Tracks equivalent to support the individual keen to scratchbuild his first locomotive? It would be fun to try and chart out this cadre of elemental hobby components, like track spikes and rail and then test it against what is available to see how easy it is to “…build it” when it comes to the layout beyond the track.

    I’m rambling a little more than I hoped to. Thanks for the enjoyable post and the conversation.

    • Hi Chris:
      Your comments about the strength of the finescale scene in the UK are right on. This is one of the reasons I miss Mainline Modeler magazine – a magazine that consistently demonstrated advanced techniques, without trying to dumb down the hobby. MM’s attitude was, “Guess what? If you want to do great work, you have to push yourself. It’s going to take sweat equity, but it’s going to be rewarding, too.”
      I get that same vibe from Model Railway Journal from the UK, which is why I subscribe even though the subject matter – UK railways – is not something I actively model. I find MRJ inspiring and being exposed to excellent work encourages me to do better, too. Sometimes, just knowing it can be done is the first step to learning to do something myself.
      Unfortunately, North American hobbyists as a group seem less willing to embrace the finescale approach. MM’s failure is a proof-point of that: Despite having a potential market four-times the size of the UK, it appears MM struggled to attract subscribers. Advertising also always seemed light, suggesting that few manufacturers were catering to the finescale market.
      Maybe in North America we’ve spent too many decades measuring our success in the hobby in quantitative terms, instead of qualitative? Get into a discussion with most hobbyists in Canada or the United States, and they’ll very quickly describe their layouts in terms of size, number of locomotives and rolling stock, number of trains on the schedule, number of structures, etc. The figures are delivered with the intention of impressing the audience. The conversation rarely starts with, “I wanted to model one train – but do it really, really well”…

      • I truly enjoy Model Railway Journal. But I do not consider it very similar to Mainline Modeler. MM was an excellent magazine in its own right into the late 1990’s. Even then it offered a variety of modelling and prototype articles when the major magazines offered yet another electronics article. . Then MM seemed to segue into a monthly magazine that published a steady diet of Union Pacific prototype articles. I was wondering if I was reading “The Streamliner” rather than MM. If MM remained a more variegated publication, I think that I’d still be buying it. Being fixated on one topic for a long time turns off readers not sharing that interest. And I think that this was a contributing factor to the demise of Mainline Modeler.

        • I wonder if MM started having trouble getting material when their fortunes slipped. I know of other magazines that have stopped paying their contributors in a timely manner – in and out of the hobby – and it’s affected their ability to get material…

  5. Similar story in N gauge. For a year now there have been no turnouts available from a certain manufacturer starting with A, who had a near monopoly on code 55. Even get rail joiners I’ve had to rationalise!!! I was forced to DIY my turnouts, but after the very first one I was hooked and have been making them ever since. What was initially a forced decision has turned into a pleasurable new aspect of the hobby, and my trackwork looking stunning as a result.

  6. Thanks, everybody, for the feedback. It’s great to have so many like-minded readers!

    I’ll just repeat again that this really wasn’t a post about the advantages of the Fast Tracks system – or even about the advantages of hand-laying track.

    It’s really about the advantages – and the additional options – I’ve gained by learning skills that allow me to hand-lay, or scratch-build structures, or make my own trees. They are skills worth learning…


  7. I agree with you Trevor, there is a place in modeling for scratch building, kit bashing and ready to go! I’ve done all three myself, especially when a ready built structure was on sale cheaper than the same kit!
    It’s all about knowing your limits and how far you can push yourself.
    Start with the easy option and replace as you go along. If it’s not up to the standard you want to accept then leave it as it is and move on, until you feel the time is right for another go, if you think you will have success.

  8. I learned how to handlay turnouts by reading articles in the hobby press, and on the way developed some techniques of my own. I use offsets to lay out curved closure rails in turnouts. Either NMRA spec using a vernier caliper, or a scale rule if building from CN prototype diagrams. This works for me.

    But Fast Tracks’ turnout fixtures are very useful to those who have not this background. They have made very reliable handlaid track available to just about anyone who buys their fixtures and follows the instructions. I may a buy a jig or two yet!

    Steve Lucas.

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