Those that can

Over at The Erratic and wandering Journey, author Simon Dunkley has raised an interesting point about how we approach the hobby.

Simon takes issue with a phrase we often hear in the hobby. Here it is:

I think hand track laying is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

The phrase is specifically about track – but it applies equally to almost everything in the hobby. To wit:

I think airbrushing is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

I think building a realistic tree is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

I think installing a DCC decoder is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

I think reading a blog is one of those talents which is limited to those that can.

And to be fair to the person who made this statement, they’re right if the statement is taken at face value: Only those who can do something, can do it. But of course what the person is really saying is, “I can’t do this, because I don’t have the talent”.

At which point, this person has already lost the battle. But, perhaps, not the war.

That’s because none of us – not a single person in this hobby – started with a talent for any aspect of railway modelling that was conferred on them by birth. Nobody emerged from the womb knowing how to solder a wire, or drive a screw, or saw a board, or any of the thousands of other skills required to built a layout.

The person who has decided he can’t hand lay track? Maybe he hasn’t tried. Or maybe he has tried, but it didn’t work.

Those of us who can hand lay track? We failed, too – in my case, many, many times. I have hand built some awful track in my time. (I’ve also blown up DCC decoders… fabricated laughable trees… splattered paint from an airbrush like a graduate of a pre-school finger-painting class… and more.) After those initial failures, the key is to try to understand what went wrong, modify one’s procedure, and try again. And again, and again, until one succeeds.

So with that in mind… and with the new year upon us… I’ll make a resolution to tackle something in this hobby that I cannot currently do, and then over the course of 2015 work on it until I can do it. I’m not sure what that thing is yet, and I won’t add pressure to myself by declaring it publicly because I hate resolutions like that and this is, after all, a hobby.

I look forward to discovering that I can do something new…

20 thoughts on “Those that can

  1. My problem has always been one of I can but….
    Always trying to think of a reason why I don’t actually do something.
    However, with each new layout(!), I take a step further, albeit slowly.
    And no, I don’t make resolutions either!

  2. Hurrah and Amen!!!

    I think the how-to books and videos oversimplify the creative and construction process. “Simple! Do it this way and the first time it’ll be perfect!” Further, you never hear about failures and the process of tearing out insufficient work. Too much material gives the impression that if something, maybe anything or everything, turns out badly, you’re a no-talent hack.

    Two points. First, 99-1/2 percent of us GROW INTO skill simply by doing.

    Second, you’re your own worst critic-enemy. I took a scenery class from Bill Banta many years ago. Everyone had the same 2 square feet to work with. Every time you asked him how you’re doing, he would invariably answer, “Great!” Hmmmmmmmm, doesn’t look so great to me. In the end, everyone’s landscape looked good. You looked at your own inexperience; Bill saw potential.

    Third, you/we/I need to enjoy the process as much as the final product. Doing anything is better than Monday-morning-quarterbacking (= nothing of value).

    Or, in other words, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

  3. For me, it “was” airbrushing (and I’m glad that’s a “was” rather than an “is”). My proficiency with the airbrush isn’t where I’d like it to be – yet. But at least I got it out of the box and started using it finally (I bought it in the 1980s. Yup – took me that long). I “can’t” handlay track – which is to say, I’ve decided not to since I want to spend hobby time doing other things. But that’s a conscious choice on my part. My next biggest challenge will likely be painting my backdrop. Then there’s doing scenery. Then . . .

    Well, there are always new challenges in this hobby, as in life. I’ve found the primary thing is finding motivation to meet those challenges – and upcoming ops session or open house, a contest deadline, or . . . . perhaps a New Year’s Resolution?

    I’m intrigued by your thoughts on such resolutions – or at least on declaring them publicly – especially since I’ve been considering doing that on my blog. There’s something about declaring the resolutions that provides (for me at least) that extra accountability that fuels my motivation. Plus, putting them on the blog will give me a handy “look-back” point where I can compare where I ended up to where I was.

    While I’d enjoy seeing your resolutions posted, ultimately they’re only for your benefit. But posting them will give the rest of us a chance to encourage & support you. I understand though that one person’s “encouragement” could end up being another person’s “pressure.”

    So certainly no pressure either way – heh, you’re already much further along that I will be for a long time – I’ll enjoy continuing to follow your progress no matter what it is.

    Happy New Year!

  4. There is generally a confusion between wanting to be able to do something, and wanting to learn to do something. The two ideas are connected, but different. I want to play the piano: I don’t want to do what it take to be able to play the piano. Therefore, I “can’t” play the piano and never will. There are some circumstances that prohibit an activity or the development of a skill. Fair enough. But what admirers often miss is that a beautifully executed model (or anything else) is really a display of the time, effort, and commitment to practice that went into the development of skills.

    Frank Sinatra once asked Benny Goodman why he constantly practiced his clarinet no matter where he was or who he was with. It was his constant companion. He said, “Because if I’m not great, then I’ll be good”. He knew what it took to be great and was willing to pay the price.

    • I would say, Ed – and in wholehearted agreement writhing you – that your example of “I can’t” is more accurately expressed as, “I won’t”, a point raised by one of the commenters on my blog.

      Incidentally, Benny Goodman is not alone in his approach: Francis Rossi of Status Quo practices scales on his guitar for at least two hours of every day, for pretty much the same reason.

  5. I don’t make resolutions because when I did I never kept them anyway. These days I just look around and if I see something that needs doing, I do it. That includes things around the house and in my train room too. I have enough things left to do on my layout to fill the next twenty years. That may be why I spend quite a few hours out there each week, or it may be that I spend so many hours out there each week that I find more things that need doing. In any case I do get things done and I have a great deal of fun doing them. This is a great hobby and I don’t need to be “finished” with my layout until I decide I’m finished with my layout.

  6. How we view something impacts how we respond to it. In many ways we still consider what we do as mere playing with toys, sophisticated toys yes, but the impact of the word still lingers.

    For all the technical advancement over the last eighty years, our image of the craft as a whole hasn’t fundamentally changed: it’s just a hobby, playing with trains, having fun.

    While these are all valid perspectives, they speak of a mindset that is at odds with the qualities many of us are seeking. In the arts, the quality of play is seen as a desirable prelude to and ingredient of growth in one’s artistic understand and depth. A stark contrast to our images of playing trains as an escape from the realities that wear us down.

    The craft of railroad modeling as it stands doesn’t have the vocabulary needed to express such concepts fully, and that’s part of the problem in achieving a widespread understanding of them. You may sense a blog post of my own coming on.


  7. Skill is just information, practice and, most importantly, interest. It’s that last one that needs constant refilling. I am sure I have the dexterity to learn an instrument. I’m sure I could find the information. But starting from a point of having such a terrible memory that I can’t remember where my fingers went half an hour later, my interest is lacking by that much. Damned frustrating as I’m told I have perfect pitch!

    I spent 6 years in the late 90s/early naughties being a stupidly overpaid clay modeller for the auto industry. I made all my own tools one weekend, breezed into a studio and claimed I was a clay modeller. I winged it with ease and was accepted, though in a very small industry the others couldn’t work me out as none had ever worked with me! But, having spent the rest of my life learning how to make models to a professional level, I already had sufficient skills packed away, for “mud-scraping”, as an Ozzy colleague called it, was completely un-taxing. So whilst many laugh at my self description as modelmaker, playing toy trains and cars a few steps up the quality ladder enabled me to make more per annum than the Prime Minister. So keep learning those skills. You never know when you might put them to good use. In my case it fed the family, paid off the mortgage and gave us a good level of security for years. My only regret is I was never able to learn CAD while I was there!
    Still can’t play the bloody saxophone though, dammit!

  8. Some (well maybe only a few, me included) often are reluctant to try a new tool, skill, technique, etc., because we fear failure. It’s a characteristic that’s not easy to get over, but in my case, just saying to myself, “I need to learn this to make any progress,” and just do it, get’s me treading where I feared to tread before. Soldering is one example. Airbrushing is my next fear I need to overcome. Just knowing that the first attempt may be a failure, but each successive attempt will be better or produce a better result is motivating. And it doesn’t hurt to seek help from fellow modellers, even to the point of showing your first failures and asking for advice on how to do it better.

  9. Interesting discussion.

    I hand laid track on my very first layout, 36×72, built to avoid studying for my Ph.D. comps. I didn’t have any money and didn’t know it was hard. Everything stayed on the tracks.

    Of course the layout was built on a table with 4×4 legs. I didn’t know that wasn’t how you made it sturdy. I just did it.

    Similarly, I mixed artist’s oils for painting my scenery a beautiful oxide red to mimic the red clay of the South Carolina Piedmont that I was modeling. Only I used lacquer thinner as the solvent, the house reeked for a week, and I was lucky it didn’t burn down.

    That was 1968. I’m still model railroading and still making mistakes and still having fun. But I wish I could regain that youthful “what the hell” approach. Ignorance was bliss!

    I am stopping to build a portable switching layout to have with me as we move around seasonally. Maybe that simplicity will return with only four turnouts and five square feet.

  10. It took me a long time to learn how to handlay track. My first turnout built in 1973 was on a layout with Triang equipment and had a balsa wood frog. The steel rail in it was stripped from some Tri-Ang Code 100 track. A process of trial and error, along with much study of published articles and looking at the real thing, evolved into the method that I use now. And it’s definitely my own method, that I still am developing and improving. I don’t think that handlaying track is something that one can learn overnight.*

    *=But Fast Tracks’ system sure makes it easy for the new comer!

    First kitbash–adding an open Dutch door to a Triang-Hornby CP Rail Park car about the same time. Cut through some thick plastic to do it, but for this teenage modeller, it seemed to result in a more realistic model due to this one change.

    Sooner or later, one has to cut rail, solder, cut plastic, wood and metal, and understand basic electrics to get their skills beyond that oval loop of track on the table. Yet there is so much enjoyable that presents itself in our hobby when you do!

  11. I join the crowd that doesn’t make resolutions. If something–a model, rewiring the house, loosing weight–needs to be done, I add it to the list or just do it and skip tying it to a (an arbitrary) particular time of year.

    Back when I was training for racing, several of the cycling magazines would write “if you don’t ride 30 MPH, you’ll never ride 30 MPH.” Same circular logic. MS Excel would say we had an error in our spreadsheets.

    We’re here to enjoy this hobby and learn something new, like airbrushing, wiring, solid modeling (CAD) for 3D printing or writing. I think if we were not in it to learn, those childhood train sets/collections would be long gone or just static displays like the Tamiya, Ertl and Testors kits.

    For myself, wiring was around 8, kit bashing and soldering at 14 and hand laying a ridiculous set of intertwined switches (4 switches & 2 3-ways) at 18. Anyone older OR younger can do the same.

    Good luck to everyone starting a new project or skill or advancing a current one. I would have to say that those who read Treavor’s, Mike’s and several other’s blogs are here to learn and try, regardless of whether it’s called a “resolution” or the next item on the “to do” list.


    – Rick.

  12. Trevor

    A great post and the others comments salient too. I enjoy the process of the hobby: building structures, custom painting and decaling my rolling stock and yes I have hand laid some track and turnouts. Few of my generation have hobbies or interests. Rather they rely on passive entertainment. I may spend good money on my hobby, but it enhances my quality of life and allows me to have a creative outlet I enjoy. My contemporaries are impressed– though not enough to try :-(. Perhaps others will

  13. Trevor, your post, and the subsequent replies are very interesting and enlightening.

    The current incarnation of my HO scale switching-style shelf is an example of trying techniques and ideas that I have not used before.

    At my point in the hobby, a shake up on how I was doing things was necessary to reingnite the model railroading flame from within. And, it has worked.

    From spline roadbed to understanding the process a DCC decoder using a computer, the knowledge and enjoyment gained is rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it can be frustrating on occasion. But through patience and perseverance the problem can be solved, and the fruits of labour(?) can be enjoyed.

  14. I can relate to all the comments and trial and errors of trying something new. I thought I was the only one to sit and stare at the air brush I got for a gift; thinking I couldn’t possibly figure how to use it. But, I finally gave it a shot, and darn if it didn’t work! I mucked up a couple of times and clogged it, but what a great tool when you get used to it! So hurray to all who try different things in this wonderful and diverse hobby, and thank you Trevor, for this great blog.
    Happy New Year, Gord

  15. I have kept meaning to reply to this post, and kept forgetting for the past couple of days. I like this notion of seeking out some aspect of the hobby that you think you can’t do and making it your personal resolution to try and learn.

    I can certainly speak to the experience of learning skills and having things work. I am pretty much a self taught modeller, i’ve never taken a class or a clinic in anything, even anything simple. I learned the basic skills of building kits and painting building plastic models growing up, and have always read magazines (say what you will about Model Railroader or Fine Scale Modeller, they’ve always been available to me in the library, and reading them for free as a kid i realize some of it got through by osmosis even when i didn’t understand it!). There are lots of things i used to find hard, or even look at people talking about in magazines and my response would be something to the effect of: “Huh? I don’t get it and can’t do that”. Now, i find i can and have done many of those things. Some i still have difficulties with (i still have issues ballasting track and gluing down ballast), but i can do it with enough compitence that i can build small dioramas and such and practice. Same for airbrushing, i still have a long way to go till i can free-hand art or even compitently mist grime for weathering, but not that long ago with my first airbrush, i could barely lay a compitent coat of paint!!!

    I think a big part of it is really a choice of not wanting to vs. not being able to. I believe that i can learn any modelling skill i want to, its a question of desire. Now in the spirit of you resolving to try and learn something you can’t do, i’m going to make a similar challenge to myself (and reveal at some late 2015 date when you no doubt reveal your challenge) to choose a skill i don’t have or need to improve and work on that at my leisure in 2015. Whether the skill i want to learn/improve will be something i’ve never done (like winding tree armatures amd making trees), or dedicating myself to improveing somewhere that i have basic skills (like soldering, i can join two wires, but clueless to join two pieces of brass) will have to wait until i’ve had some time to think about where i’d like to learn, but i relish the challenge to myself.

    Good luck with your skill learning as well! I look forward to the results.


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