S is the new…

Well, take your pick.

A couple of recent postings I made in different venues prompted an interesting response from readers. I thought I’d bring the two ideas together and present them here.

First, in response to my blog entry on the S Scale Workshop appearance at Exporail, my friend Gene Deimling commented on the fact that the group had two new locomotives on the layout – a CNR 2-10-2 and a CNR 2-8-0. The first was scratch-built – the second was a brass model that was so extensively modified that it qualifies as scratch-built too, to my mind.

 photo SSW-Exporail2015-BrianN-10_zpsvubqg2yt.jpg
(CNR 2-10-2, a scratch-built model by Simon Parent)

 photo SSW-Exporail2015-BrianN-14_zpsghvnxv52.jpg
(CNR 2-8-0, an extensively modified brass import by Andy Malette)

Gene – well known in the Proto:48 circles and an accomplished builder himself – wrote:

S has become the builders scale. O gauge gave up the title years ago.

About the same time as Gene was making this comment, over on the Canadian Railway Modellers group on Facebook Jurgen Kleylein observed:

S scale is the new “narrow gauge” … the amount of scratch building and craftsman work on engines and rolling stock is definitely reminiscent of the way people were approaching HOn3 and On3 years ago.

 photo Plow-07_zps2bbdb6fd.jpg
(An example of kit bashing that’s almost scratch-building: an in-progress view of my CNR plough. Click on the image to read more about this model)

These are both interesting observations – and I think that there’s some truth to them. Obviously, there are people in every scale/gauge who pursue the hobby at a craftsman level, and who prefer to “build” instead of “buy”. But there are a few factors that help explain why S is getting this reputation.

First, S is a terrific scale for the scratch-builder – particularly those of us who grew up on imperial measurements. Any decent ruler marked out in inches will also be marked out in 1/64ths of an inch – and each of those equals 1 scale inch in S. What’s more, the size of the models is easy on the eye: they’re larger than HO scale and therefore easier to detail, while being smaller than O scale so more manageable in the average layout space.

StW-Station-Order Board photo StW-Stn-OrderBoard-01_zps149435a9.jpg
(S is a nice size for adding details that might be overlooked in HO. I might not have attempted a working train order board in HO, but in S it turned out to be a straightforward project for my model of the St. Williams station. Click on the image to see a video showing the order board in action.)

Second, there’s the matter of necessity. S scale – particularly when modelling a specific prototype – forces one to haul out the raw materials, data and tools and build from scratch, because there’s just not a lot available commercially. At least, not when compared to other scales.

I would argue that O scale lost that “build it” imperative when Atlas made its serious commitment to 1:48 with the launch of Atlas O in 1997. Atlas offered O scale products before Atlas O, but with the new line of business it made a serious push into 1:48, bringing HO scale manufacturing and marketing sensibilities to the scale. I think it’s fair to say that Atlas O’s success encouraged other, smaller companies to support the scale, and 1:48 went through a renaissance. That said, when product is available to buy, the imperative to build is reduced.

Substitute “Bachmann” for “Atlas O” and the same logic can be applied to narrow gauge. Bachmann’s decision to create and market a line of On30 equipment was a boon to O scale narrow gauge modelling in North America. And Bachmann’s success encouraged other, smaller companies to introduce products to support On30 modellers. At the same time, On30 lost its reputation as a kitbasher’s scale: When great RTR is available, not to mention great kits that are custom-designed to fit available mechanisms, the impetus for scratch-building and kit bashing is reduced.

Again, this is not to say that people do not scratch-build in O, or in narrow gauge. Craftsmanship abounds. But compared to how it was a decade or two ago, scratch-building is more of a choice, not a necessity. It’s still a necessity in 1:64.

 photo SnowFence-Done-02_zps66zuefg1.jpg
(Even little details like the rolls of snow fence must be scratch-built in S. Click on the image to read more about the Port Rowan section house.)

Third, S scale has always been a scale that has attracted scratch-builders, but they were operating below the radar: Those outside of the scale (including me, at the time) didn’t know what was going on in S. That’s yet another thing that’s changed with the Internet. Blogs (not just this one), forums, newsgroups, YouTube, Facebook and other social media channels have made it easy for those who build to share their efforts.

Obviously, I’m thinking a lot about this subject after reading the comments from Gene and Jurgen. Thanks, both of you, for the observations!

10 thoughts on “S is the new…

  1. Although I model and scratch build n N, I always was under the belief that ‘S’ was a BUILDERS SCALE! It has always been rather unique and continues to be so.

  2. Trevor
    There are a couple challenges for modelers in S. High quality decals like Protocraft in O and a few detail parts. That is not to say that there aren’t quality decals in S. Black Cat decals are very nice but largely Canadian. Boxcar door details, variety of hand brake type, stirrups and some of the etched goodies like HO would give one a lot of tools.


    • You’re absolutely right, Gene. We are missing some details and decals that would be very nice to have. And there is a bit of a positive feedback loop going on here: we have Canadian decals in S because people like Simon, Andy and David Clubine have created locomotives and rolling stock that required decals. That in turn encourages others to model a Canadian railway in 1:64.
      I’m a good example of that. I’m relatively new to the 1:64 CNR pool, and I landed in it after almost two decades of modelling American railroads in other scales (including HO, On2 and O std). I had no history with S before starting this blog and the model railway it documents. I ended up as a CNR modeller working in S because I knew the guys in the S Scale Workshop and enjoyed their company – and I could find the equipment I needed to get me started.

  3. Nice train of thoughts. S Scale seems also to not be associated to any main stream group. O Scale – thought it was revived – has an enduring reputation.

    I’m still stuck in HO, but as I grow older, the more I’m into scratchbuidling. At some point, I feel even kitbashing is often much trouble to get a specific results than straight forwardly building the thing from scratch. When you reach that point, getting stuck in a scale for the sake of availability becomes trivia. Knowing how I moved from a track crowded layout to a minimalist track plan, I feel S scale could be a great alternative to HO from a builder’s point of view.

    Another good point is that S scale forces you to use moderation, thus making better design choices. Your Port Rowan is a good example how a large scale made you take bold decisions that pay in the end. I’m not sure you could have pushed your train philosophy that far if you had stayed in a better established scale.

    • Hi Matt:
      Thanks for your thoughts (and your blog – I really enjoy it!).
      I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right – working in S did force me to use moderation. For example, the relative paucity of equipment, decals and other resources compared to HO and even O forced me to pick a very small piece of the world to model. Without that narrowing of my focus, I probably would not have explored so many avenues for making a simple layout engaging.
      Thank you for pointing that out.

  4. If one wants to model a prototype location accurately, scratch-building become a necessity, regardless of scale. Author Ian Wilson wrote on this in December, 2001. http://www.canadianbranchline.com/scratchb.htm

    “While I was browsing through a hobby shop the other day, a member of the sales staff related to me that the previous week a customer was in the store expressing interest in modelling the Stratford area, based upon the operations described in To Stratford Under Steam. The customer was inquiring as to whether there was an HO scale kit available suitable for representing the large timber coal dock at Stratford. The employee and I had a chuckle over that one.”

    Very respectfully, I don’t think that S is any more a scratch-bulider’s scale than any other, when the end goal is an accurate model of a specific prototype location.

    • Hi Steve:
      You’re right of course – although HO definitely has an advantage over other scales when it comes to building a layout, regardless of whether you’re modelling a prototype location or freelancing. I think S is considered a scratch-builder’s scale because of the amount of it that must be done. One is confronted with scratch-building at every step of the layout-creating process.
      For example, one can find all of the steam locomotives needed to model almost any part of the CNR in HO. There have been many classes produced in brass. In S scale, by contrast, every CNR steam locomotive on the market, with one exception*, has come in the form of a kit from Simon or Andy. And not an easy kit, either – they are craftsman-level undertakings on par with the etched kits from the UK.
      Having thoroughly scoured the market, past and present, I can tell you there’s almost nothing available in RTR or easy-to-build kit form to model the CNR in S. Craftsmanship is forced upon the prototype modeller in 1:64 at every turn.
      As an example of that, at some point I’m going to have to scratch-build children to populate my layout because decent figures for kids don’t exist in 1:64. (There are a few, but I don’t like the modelling on them.) I can’t just go online and buy Preiser figures of kids, knowing I’ll get high-quality sculpting. If I want them, I’ll have to make them.
      This isn’t to diminish the efforts of those scratch-building in HO. In fact, I’d say it’s equally challenging because the models themselves are smaller so the work must be that much finer. But HO will never have a reputation as a scratch-builder’s scale because those who do terrific work with basic materials represent a much smaller proportion of the scale than they do in, say, S or P:48.
      (*The exception is a Grand Trunk 0-6-0 – a brass import from River Raisin Models. But it’s not a locomotive that would likely show up in Canada. The Canadian equivalent – an O18a – would be sweet indeed, but it’s not likely to be produced in S.)

  5. S isn’t the new anything: it’s what it always has been, a Superb Scale for dedicated modeller who is looking for Something Special.

    S is the (same old) S it always has been.


  6. A further thought on this, which is that it ties into a post Lance Mindheim has published on his blog, called The Hidden Blessing of Constraints.

    (I encourage everyone to read Lance’s post on this topic. I wish everybody in the hobby would read it and heed it. We’d be a stronger hobby as a result.)

    Unlike the young people that Lance writes about, I do have money to spend on the hobby. But choosing to work in S imposed constraints on me such that the money rarely made a difference.

    There are exceptions – I was able to engage in some “chequebook modelling” to acquire my steam locomotives, ready-to-run, from Simon Parent. And I have sent out a fair bit of rolling stock kit-building work to Pierre Oliver (although I could have built those kits myself – I have built my share of resin in the past).

    But there’s a lot of stuff on my layout that I had to learn to build, because that was the only practical way forward. To provide a few examples:

    I’ve honed my research and scratch-building skills to create a number of the structures I required.

    I’ve learned to scratch-build trees.

    I’ve learned to fabricate details such as an operating derail in Port Rowan and an operating train order board in St. Williams.

    The constraints placed on my layout by choosing S scale (and, from that decision, choosing a small and simple scope for my layout project) encouraged me to focus on the small details and on pursuing excellence in execution. Whether I’m achieving that is a matter of opinion, but I’m trying – and that’s the important point.

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