“The great emancipator”

 photo MRJ-235_zps1897596a.jpeg

That’s the title of the editorial in the current issue of the excellent UK publication, Model Railway Journal. The piece, by guest editor Jerry Clifford, is a beautifully written argument in favour of learning to build from scratch.

Clifford writes, in part:

“There is no doubt that the quality and range of what is available from the trade far outstrips that of just a few years ago. However, the downside of this undoubted bounty of goodies is a creeping sameness in what can be seen in the model press and at exhibitions. Too often, I would suggest, projects are planned and executed with what is available being the driving force rather than the other way round, the quality and quantity of RTR in particular, becoming a straightjacket rather than a liberator.”

Very, very well said – and something I often remark upon after visiting public train shows here in Canada. I see layouts with different names on the fascia – but a sameness in the modelling: The same out-of-the-box locomotives and rolling stock running past kit-built or ready-made stations, industries and other structures, and often past ready-to-plant scenery items such as trees, fences and so on.

This is not to say that RTR is killing the hobby – or that it has no place on an advanced modeller’s layout. Used with restraint, RTR can give a modeller time to focus on items that help make the layout unique. To provide two examples from my own experience:

I have several RTR models on my own layout, and many of them receive little beyond a coat of weathering and new wheel sets before being pressed into service. This frees up time to build more accurate models of more important rolling stock, such as my CNR baggage-mail car and my CNR boxcars.

I have a couple of houses built from laser-cut kits. However, structures from kits are definitely in the minority on my layout – and those I’ve used are heavily modified. Using kits as starting points for a couple of off-line structures freed up time that I could devote to scratch-building more important structures, such as the St. Williams depot, the tobacco kilns, and the Port Rowan section house.

The important point is, I temper the presence of RTR equipment and kit-built structures on my layout with a healthy dose of scratch-built structures and other details, plus heavily-modified kits for signature pieces of equipment. In the end, most of the elements that comprise my layout will be unique.

It helps that I’m working in S scale, for a couple of reasons. First, 1:64 is a larger scale so it’s easier to scratch build stuff. Second, when compared to more popular scales 1:64 is poorly supported with “ready to use” product – so one is forced to create more from basic materials. (Some may see that as a disadvantage – but I find it liberating.)

If you’re already scratch-building for your layout, then this post isn’t really directed at you. Well done – and keep it up!

However, if you’re new to the hobby and relying mostly on “ready to use” rolling stock, structures and other items, consider how you can kit bash some of them to make them unique – or consider how you can improve your layout with some scratch-built pieces. There are plenty of resources to help you succeed, if you’re willing to give it a try.

Before you know it, you’ll be what Clifford describes as “an original thinker who tends to give convention a cheery wave as he passes it by on the other side of the street.”

20 thoughts on ““The great emancipator”

  1. Alas, scratchbuilding is now almost unseen, even in the august pages of MRJ, to which I used to subscribe BECAUSE of the scratchbuilding. I can’t recall the last time I saw a scratchbuilt loco.
    Unfortunately such are the prices of wheels and motors that even scratchbuilding is beyond my limited funds. I COULD make wheels, but life’s just too short!
    I now stick to scenery and would never dream of making a kit or buying RTR stuff for that. I make stuff a) because I can and b) because I’m as tight as a duck’s primary orifice!

  2. What a fine post, both yours and thru MRJ excerpt.

    What it points out to me is the two types of model RR’ers: engineers and artists.
    Engineers carefully design by deduction and assemble according to plan. They find exactly the right existing components and place them together. Artists tell stories from their imaginations, then create all the parts required to tell the story properly. The richer the story, the richer the expression.

    Something about intellect versus soul. That isn’t to say the best artists aren’t fabulous engineers. But skill serves the story, not drives it.

    Most North American modelers are engineer-types. You NOBs (North of the Border) have a higher proportion of artist-storytellers while we SOBs have more engineers. And hackers like me.

    Once you land in the UK or Europe, art, story-telling, moving sculpture, is the name of the game. Look at MRJ, The Review, Voie Libre. I was looking at a VL article recently and was taken, taken aback, by the variety of scenic materials used in a small area. So many colors and textures blended in such a subtle way. It was gorgeous.

    So is your work, I still miss the two-foot photos!


    • “MRJ, The Review, Voie Libre”

      Can I say, as a European, that none of these are in any way mainstream. Yes, we do have some finescale oriented magazines over here, but they cater for a small part of the market. In the UK, the mainstream magazines seem at times to be engaged in a “Dutch auction” over standards, to see who can lower the common denominator the most.

      • You make an excellent point, Simon. I must remind myself that what I see in MRJ is the best of the best from the UK. And – like here – I’m sure there’s a lot of mediocre modelling that goes on.

        That said, I always appreciate the tone of magazines such as MRJ, which I think encourages people to do better. I certainly was inspired by the editorial I quoted for this post.


  3. Hi Trevor, the model railroad press in North America does its best to discourage scratch building. I have had articles rejected because they would be “too intimidating” to younger modelers. These same magazines will not publish drawings because “nobody builds anymore”

    • Wow. Bill – I’ve seen your work first-hand – it made a huge impression on me at the 2005 CARM convention in Winnipeg. I’d love to see scratch-building articles from you. This is a “What on earth were they thinking?” moment for me.
      Maybe the new owners at Railroad Model Craftsman would be interested?

      Or perhaps Mike Cougill at The Missing Conversation would be the right outlet. Mike reads this blog and I know the two of you know each other…


      • I think Mike Cougill has taken things a step beyond MRJ with TMC. MRJ in early days used to have an occasional column for provoking thoughts. Admittedly it was a bit erratic, but it had more complaints than praise, and was dropped. That was sometimes close to what Mike is doing, and sometimes an editor (or guest editor!) elicits an article that is about why rather than how, but there are few which go into observation the way Mike does. And there have been a few issues of MRJ which have been less than inspiring – only to be expected, really, as it cannot be excellent every time – but I have learned more about my own modelling/inspiration/motivation by thinking about my answers to some of Mike’s questions than I have from any other source, and more about technique by talking to a friend who constantly resists my attempts to get him into print. Why? Because he reckons that even MRJ has very few readers interested in scratch building. Another story for another time, maybe, but given that one of the “permanent” editors of MRJ pushed detailing and improving RTR quite aggressively, possibly not too surprising.

        I don’t wish to embarrass Mike, who is so modest and thoughtful he could be Canadian, but what you North Americans may lack in quantity of finescale magazines (and sales thereof) you more than make up with quality. Not just TMC, but a variety of blogs (most definitely including this one), most of which you have provided links to.

        Doesn’t have to be printed on paper to be read by multitudes!

        Keep up the good work.


  4. Narrow guage and shortline Gazette still has plans and does anyone remember that insane shay that the guy built in Railroad Model Craftsman not too long ago. There are some really good rtr equip like Kadee & Tangent but I still build a lot of resin and plastic from Tichy , Intermountain etc, but most of the people I know think Athearn bluebox cars are the greatest things in the world. That’s a little depressing.

  5. Indeed, one magazine from the days of yore in England carried the subtitle “For the average enthusiast”. My points are two. First, the best UK and Continental magazines are orders of magnitude better than the best the USA can offer.

    Second, I wanted to point out the two basic different approaches, the engineer-compiler and the artist-craftsman-storyteller. Americans are not comfortable with story, they prefer facts and figures, data if you will. Ask an American about a car, and he’ll ask about horsepower. Ask a Brit about a car, and he’ll ask about design and handling. Two approaches at opposite ends of a spectrum.

    The best modeling elegantly tells a compelling story. That’s where publications need to lead modelers and experienced modelers need to mentor the newcomers. I read about seminars in The Review and marvel at the content. I attend so-called clinics in the USA where the approach is at the don’t-squeeze-out-glue-on-everything level.

    [long sigh]

  6. Hi Trevor & Co,

    Having glanced through this edition of MRJ, then I must say that I particularly liked the last sentence of the “Starting in Gauge One, Scale 1/32nd” article, which I will quote for the sake of readers without an MRJ…

    “perhaps more importantly, I have derived more pleasure from the creation of models from photographs, sketches, measurements, observations and scale drawings than I would previously have believed possible.”………………..

    Which very neatly demonstrates another benefit of scratchbuilding….


  7. Scratchbuilding is one of my favorite activities in the hobby. Creating a unique model freight car or structure is very satisfying. It is a statement about your individuality.

    It takes time to create a model. You must temper your desire for the big layout if you intend do a lot of scratchbuilding. I have long subscribed to the belief that “less is more”.


  8. I have to admit I am completely unaware of what’s available when it comes to RTR buildings. My first thought is how can I make this rather than does anyone do this but then when you model a real place the likely hood of there bein anything available is slim a best. On new street (scenically) I’ve used modified peco platform sides, some bachmann bollards and some GPO relay boxes from unit models. The rest is all from scratch.

  9. What is “scratchbuilding”? One well-known modeller was roasted years ago at an NMRA regional convention dinner about visiting a local hobby store. Not to buy anything, but to see if he could manufacture his own rail.

    Yet many modellers refer to hand-laid track as “scratchbuilt”. I learnt by trial and error (lots of the latter) how to handlay track. But there are now some very nice assembly fixtures from Fast Tracks that have made reliable handlaid track accessible to the modeller with a bit of patience and the ability to follow instructions. Is Fast Tracks or other commercial jig-built track “scratchbuilt”?

  10. Quoting Bill above,
    [ ‘one magazine from the days of yore in England carried the subtitle “For the average enthusiast” ]
    This is quite correct but should be seen in a time context too. The era when Railway Modeller used this strap line the word ‘average’ wasn’t seen in the negative connotation that it frequently is now. At the time RM covered junior modellers, they even had a page of that title for youngsters to write about their modelling, up to the top end of the finescale section of the UK hobby. At the time the core of the hobby was RTR, but with significant amounts of kit building and scratch building going on. Since the late 80’s the landscape has changed with many taking RTR products as the core basis of their hobby. I do myself. Today that strapline would reflect that the core uses proprietary products and far less kit or scratch building. The mags in the UK are still covering ‘building’, I know I’m writing material for two of them at the moment emphasising ‘doing stuff’ it’ll be interesting to see how they are received. Jerry who wrote the MRJ editorial is very hands on. His web site if I’m allowed to put it up is here http://www.jerrycliffordmodels.co.uk/ as you can see he practices what he preaches, and his modelling is absolutely captivating.

    • Hi Mike:
      Sorry for taking so long to get back you on this. I’ve been away from my computer for several days – which has been wonderful!
      I realized a week or so ago that I had not yet received my copy of Finescale Railway Modelling Review – or Narrow Gauge and Industrial Railway Modelling Review, to which I subscribed at the same time.
      I got in touch with the publisher and he apologized profusely for a computer error that caused my subscriptions to disappear in the cloud. He has now posted my issues – and extended my subscription to each publication by one issue as compensation for the inconvenience.

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