You hear this sentiment many times: “I absolutely LOVE this hobby. Someday I’ll really make the commitment to do it right. For now though…” (insert favorite reason why one can’t do it right). I wonder what’s going on? Why do so many of us find it so hard to make a commitment to this craft? Perhaps it’s time we check our premises.

There are a lot of demands on our time, with some obviously more important than others. Certainly family and work rank at the top, along with church and civic responsibilities, not to mention time to simply relax and decompress. No one is arguing that these demands aren’t real, because they certainly are.

I wonder if the scope of commitment required to practice the craft well intimidates a lot of folk? It’s made to sound so easy and simple isn’t it? It can be but this work can also turn into a self-inflicted hell on earth when you aren’t clear about what you want. Following another’s agenda because that’s what you think you’re supposed to do might leave you discouraged without really knowing why. Falling into these traps and others can sour your enthusiasm quickly.

Many are simply blest with the ability to outline a goal and just go after it without hesitation. (You folks are my heroes.) Others, for reasons known and unknown, feel the need to suffer through a boxcar load of angst and navel gazing. Speaking from experience, it’s almost as if we need to give ourselves permission to do something enjoyable.

Do we prepare people well by giving a realistic picture of the work? I have my doubts. On occasion I receive emails from people who want to enter quarter-inch scale or P48. They ask the usual questions about available supplies and where to find stuff, but also about what’s possible in the scale. Sometimes their expectations are simply unrealistic and I’m faced with a dilemma: how do I tell them without destroying their enthusiasm? It’s a tough position to be in and one I don’t approach lightly.

I’m not doing these folk any favors by shading the truth. If someone wants to run passenger equipment on 42-inch curves in quarter-inch scale, they will be disappointed with that combination. Letting them know how unrealistic that is may turn them off or prevent them from making a big mistake. I prefer to speak the truth as I understand it and let the chips fall where they may.

Do we as a community perpetuate unrealistic outcomes? I believe we often do. We’re told that this is a hobby of individual choice and I agree wholeheartedly. But the statement leads to a trap of its own. When we know a person is biting off more than they can handle, how do we tell them? Is it better to speak up or let someone learn their lessons the hard and expensive way? The dilemma is that our choices aren’t theirs and vice versa. So while we may know from experience that they’re headed for a preventable disaster, sometimes that’s the only way people truly learn. More frustrating though is how we enable such unrealistic expectations in the first place by offering fawning praise for everything.

“Wow, you’re planning seven towns on your spare bedroom layout; I can’t wait to see what you come up with!
Have you thought about extending the staging yard into the bathroom? You could build a waterproof shield to protect it from the shower spray. It shouldn’t be too hard to find matching tile to patch the hole(s) if you decide to sell the house.”

I wish I were kidding but similar comments, as ridiculous as they may seem, are commonly offered online and elsewhere. Have we lost all sense of perspective and common sense? What mindset or philosophy are we perpetuating? Are we setting people up for failure and disappointment? As stated previously, these choices don’t have to be mine.

How we speak about this work exerts a huge impact of its own. Words matter, which is why I use the term craft and avoid the traditional jargon. My choice of language sets up a different expectation and mindset. This is a deliberate choice on my part that helps me approach the work in a manner that I find satisfying. It also allows others to determine if my ideas are ones they want to consider or not. I want readers to clearly understand that I’m not writing to please every taste.

The scope of this work can be quite simple and focused when you know what you want. It can also be unnecessarily complex when you overthink things. There is a steep learning curve to negotiate and plenty of mistakes to be made. We don’t serve anyone by trivializing these aspects and pretending it’s all just never ending fun and good times. To practice this craft beyond the toy-train level requires a commitment of time and effort. It requires one learn certain skills that are foundational to successful outcomes. You do indeed get to choose the how and why and, as always, your experience will be different than mine.



  1. Simon

    One of my friends has a very impressive model railway, all built from scratch over mostly the last 30 years. Yet he worries that it frightens people off rather than encouraging them to remove their dependency on what the trade produces.

    Yes, the true picture of just what is required may be daunting, but he took the view that this is his major hobby, he was approaching retirement and wanted something to occupy his time and exercise his faculties. He never set out to accumulate as much as he has: the journey was as important as the end point.

    Prior to this layout, he had built a much smaller one, starting about 30 years before, but there had been quite a hiatus where very little was made over 9 or 10 years whilst his work and family took up time. This is normal, and he accepted it as part of life, and built the odd-structure or freight car to keep his skills honed.

    But all the time, he took the view that once the track was laid and wired, then he had an operational layout. Once the main buildings and basic scenery were in place, it started to look presentable, and as soon as there was the minimum stock available, even if it was awaiting some finer details, then things were ready to go. That was still 3-5 years, thought. The next few years were taken up with improvements to details and adding some more stock. This was all built from scratch, too, but since you can only run one train at a time, then having more to run was a bonus.

    The lesson I take from this is that if you want the hobby to be a craft, and the journey to be as rewarding as the destination, then time to completion is not an issue, and this is a very rewarding hobby. If you want a working layout within a few weeks or months and you are happy to accept the limitations of a small layout using off the shelf stock, then Model Railroader frequently has project layouts that you can follow.

    If you want a basement empire in a short time frame, with engines and stock that are not available off the shelf, then you are going to be disappointed: and you should avoid anyone who tells you otherwise. Even if you have an enormous budget to spend on someone doing it for you, then it will still take time.

    Demands on one’s time and money ebb and flow, but an intelligent person should be able to accept that and realise the importance of having time to devote to oneself.

    The problem is that just as this isn’t and “instant hobby” for all that I could order a train set and have it up and running within minutes of delivery, the answer isn’t a “ten word answer” either.

    As I frequently say to people in a variety of situations, even the longest journey takes place one step at a time. Long journeys also involve learning to cope with different terrains, too.


  2. mike

    I wish people would share more about the ebb and flow of their involvement. Right now mine is at a low level and I’m just fine what that. I’ve expended a lot of creative energy over the last decade and the well is pretty low, I need to step back and fill it again.

    This is something professional creators understand well, yet the modeling culture assumes that because it’s all great “fun” that one can just go and go forever producing high quality. Perhaps some can do that but it’s largely a myth.