The lesson of Bendy Elm

“What colour should I paint my sky?”

I’m amazed this question still gets asked – but it does, and it’s an example of the wrong way to do the hobby.

(“Wrong” way? Here we go…)

This isn’t a rant about those who comment on this blog: With very few exceptions, your questions have been worthy of my time to answer them. Your questions often make me think – because your questions tend to be “Why did you do something this way?” or “How did you do this?” rather than “What should I do?”

As an example of great questions, at one of our recent operating sessions my friend Hunter Hughson asked me if he could look at my airbrush and compressor. He was in the market for one.

Hunter did not ask, “What airbrush do you use?” – because my choice might not be his choice. Rather, he asked, “What do you like about your airbrush?” and “How well does it spray acrylics?” and “How easy is it to clean?”

I’m sure he asked others in his circles the same sorts of questions. I’m sure he did other research. Then he made up his own mind, and bought the airbrush he thinks will work best for him.

Well done, Hunter – and well done, to those of you who have asked great questions. We’ve had some wonderful discussions as a result and I’ve often changed my approach to something on the layout – for the better – because of the questions you’ve asked.

But I see an attitude of helplessness on many newsgroups and forums and it’s time for all of us to fight back.

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, but this is a hobby of doing things. Those who experiment – and fail a few times – will learn something. I’ve done it a lot – and learned a lot.

I’ve learned how to build trees, for example. Today, I do a decent job of them:
 photo LynnValley-West-Trees-09_zps80f1e592.jpg

But that wasn’t always the case. A few years ago, I built one that became known as the Bendy Elm, for reasons that should be obvious:
 photo BendyElm_zps1015d1c1.jpg

The lesson? Don’t do it that way!

The lesson wasn’t expensive – it cost about $2.50 in materials and an evening of work. But in the process of doing and failing, I added to my knowledge base.

The Gordon Gravett tree-building books have helped a lot, but I don’t follow Gordon’s method step-by-step. Rather, I adopted some of his techniques and materials, but married those to my own techniques and materials. I even carried forward some of the techniques I used to build the Bendy Elm to my current tree-building method.
 photo LynnValley-West-Trees-13_zpsb9875dfd.jpg

Take that sky-painting issue: How can anybody answer that?

Only the layout owner knows how he or she perceives colour.

Only the layout owner knows what mood they want to convey with their backdrop.

Only the layout owner knows what lighting they’re using for their layout.

The answer is simple: Buy some blue paint that you think will work, and paint some sky. If you don’t like it, determine why you don’t like it: Is it too light? Too dark? The wrong tone? Then buy some different paint to correct for this.

For another example, look at couplers. It’s not such a problem in S scale, because we only have a couple of them from which to choose – but there’s a coupler cornucopia in HO. What coupler works for a specific model?

Rather than getting online to ask, buy an assortment of couplers and try them out. Create a set of test couplers and coupler boxes – like a socket set. Since couplers typically come in four-packs, find three like-minded friends, buy a pack of each of the couplers you’re most likely to use, and split the packs four ways.

By doing this, you’ve added a tool – a coupler test kit – to your toolbox. You’ve also added to your knowledge base about the hobby.

UPDATE: A friend who read this after I posted it emailed me with some further comments about couplers. I’m sharing his thoughts here – edited slightly:

My own experience is that after testing you really need to standardize on one brand of couplers for reliable operations. Having tried McHenry and Accurail, half a dozen cars each over a several year period mixed into my fleet of Kadee #5’s (and cousins), I came to the conclusion that either the other couplers were not truly compatible (Accurail) or would not work reliably over a period of time (McHenry plastic springs). Operations suffered. Both types have been replaced. With Kadees.

I’m not sharing this as an endorsement of one brand of coupler over another – that’s an individual choice (and a good opportunity for experimenting, as my friend did). Rather, I realized my example needs clarification. My response to my friend, edited slightly, is as follows:

My thought about couplers was not to have several types from different manufacturers, but have several examples to test in cars. For example – standard shank, long shank, short shank. Center shank, offset high, offset low. Make up a set of these, maybe without springs or trip pins, and keep them handy so that when you buy a new car – say, one with McHenrys in it – you can use your test kit to figure out what Kadee works. Obviously, one can simply fiddle about with what’s in stock at home – but the point is, “figure it out yourself” rather than getting on a newsgroup and saying, “I just bought such-and-such a model: what coupler should I use?” Chances are, the answer won’t be that helpful: One person might recommend a Kadee, while another recommends an Accurail or a McHenry, and a third suggests Sergents.

Is that really so wrong? Consider this: What if the “expert” who makes the recommendation is wrong – either because there’s a better choice (which you could discover by doing your own experiment) or because of another factor that means what worked best for them is not the best choice for you?

Yes, we can learn from what others do – but it’s important to remember that each person’s layout is unique, even if they’re built from identical plans.

The variables can be givens, such as layout environment: temperature, humidity, lighting, ceiling height, access requirements for utilities or closets – all will change what works for each of us.

The variables can also be druthers: We have our own ideas of what is right – especially when it comes to subjective things like the colour of the sky.

Above all, remember two things:

First, this is a hobby. With the exception of a few safety rules (such as, “Always wear eye protection when using a Dremel tool”), there is nothing wrong with trying and failing.

Second, this hobby is a great learning opportunity – so use it. This is not a hobby in which one advances by slavishly following the lead of others. We do our best work when we experiment… fail… learn… experiment… fail… learn…

8 thoughts on “The lesson of Bendy Elm

  1. Trevor,
    This is way too simple, but I also find some of the questions on forums to be silly. Remember there are no stupid questions, but a heck of a lot of silly ones. I happen to work with 4 thru 6 grade students as an “outside advisor” and I realize that a lot of these kids have failed to realize they are responsible for their own lives. I spent 21 years in the military with 10 years in command and found that for many of the young soldiers, the hardest lesson they needed to learn was that “They were responsible for their lives.” This is a hobby involving learning (research), testing (practice doing) and making decisions then executing. It appears many find the the last three steps too difficult which leads to “Armchair Modelers.” Thanks for articulating your thoughts on this one and keep on doing all four steps and setting an expamle.

  2. There are those who must have every answer before they can start any project, and invariably use it as an excuse for doing nothing. The best way to learn is to make mistakes. This applies in all walks of life.
    As regards modeling, if something doesn’t look right, then leave it, move on to the next stage, and revisit the problem later.
    You don’t get experience just by reading.

  3. A genuine expert, not one who is self-appointed, gets to be that way through time, experience and an open mind. However, once they have found “their” way of doing it, and making it work for them, the expenditure over time of money and effort may simply mean that they are an expert on how things were a few, maybe more, years back.

    Mind you, 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.

    Problem is, someone seeking an easy solution won’t want to listen to (or read!) what’s required.

    Elephant in the room question: Are the type of modellers who read this (and other) blogs, the type who have already made that key decision to try things out for themselves? Are we preaching to the choir (US)/converted (UK*)?

    Simon, from the naughty corner.
    *Apolgies to anyone else – especially the Canadians – if they have been excluded from that phrase, or inadvertently included within another cultural group. 😉

    • Hi Simon:

      In this comment, you’ve touched on a follow-up post I wish to make about “experts”. Thanks – I’ll incorporate this into the posting.

      As for the elephant: As Mike noted in his comment on this thread, it’s hard to know who is reading. I get a lot of readers – some of them may come here because they’re interested in Port Rowan or St. Williams history. Some may be hobbyists interested in the CNR in southern Ontario, or interested in S scale. But beyond those people I know personally – and beyond guesses I can make based on comments – I have no idea what skill level these visitors possess.

      And yes, this post was prompted by some questions on forums that were, frankly, lazy: They were posed by hobbyists whose skills suggest they’re beyond asking such questions. I assumed they would be trying things for themselves – I was wrong.

      In addition, keep in mind that this is a blog – short for “web log”: For me, it’s a diary of my adventures in the hobby – in particular, as it applies to the layout I’m building. Occasionally, I need to vent some steam in the form of a piece like this. And some day, I’ll look back through this web log in the same way that one looks back through a diary (“Oh yeah – everybody did think that Mrs. Smyth was the hottest teacher in the high school…”) and I’ll recall my state of mind and relationship with the hobby in May, 2014.


  4. “Elephant in the room question: Are the type of modellers who read this (and other) blogs, the tpe who have already made that key decision to try things out for themselves? Are we preaching to the choir (US)/converted (UK*)?”

    Simon and all,
    As someone who has struggled with that thought, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s an irrelevant worry. As a writer we can’t control how others will respond to the work. That’s out of our hands. What we can control is the depth of thought we put into a post and the manner in which we share those thoughts (engaging and winsome, or condescending and preachy).

    Secondly, even though things may seem self-evident to us, they aren’t to everyone. As a blogger yourself Simon, you never know who may read a given post. None of us do. By revisiting a topic often and even from several angles, we teach it to ourselves more thoroughly, and that may help readers understand and maintain the clarity of it. As human beings, we forget quickly and easily, especially in this constant “on” distraction culture. Keeping these topics in front of people is important to making them feel natural, otherwise the commodity driven hobby mindset that is the new normal will suck the life right back out of you. Just a couple of cents worth.

    Mike Cougill

    • As ever, Mike, a very valuable couple of cents, too. As you almost certainly realised that I asked the question because it needed to be asked – and answered. Professionally, I am often required to mention the elephant in the room. Funny thing is, once everyone has dealt with it, it seems to disappear: we deal with known unknowns by finding out about them and making them known knowns.

      I like your phrase ‘constant “on” distraction culture’. Pithy. Very pithy.

      Trevor, I retrospectively crave your indulgence in allowing us the space for this debate, anticipating that you have no objection to hosting it.


      • Simon, Mike:
        Keep going! I’ve been out most of the day (and adding this comment via my phone) so I’ll keep this short and respond with more thought tomorrow. But yes – one reason I post ideas to have others pick up the thought and add to it.
        More anon…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're not a nasty spamming robot thingy * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.