How do you choose between two or more equally compelling options? That’s the situation a number of us will face at some point in this work. Two of my friends are dealing with this now and a third will soon. This post was prompted by Craig’s comment on my What Do You Choose To See post from last week.

I understand the frustration because I’ve experienced it myself many times. I like a lot of different subjects and find it hard to choose when I’m strongly drawn to more than one at a time.

For example, I like rural grain elevators. You know the kind I’m thinking of, small, funky and the word quaint comes readily to mind. I lived a block away from one as a child (see the opening photo) and those memories and images hold a special place for me. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I also like urban industrial districts where the tracks wind their way among tall brick buildings with close quarters all around. An April 1975 Model Railroader article on the Milwaukee Road’s Kingsbury Branch in Chicago was the spark that lit this interest and over forty years later, it still smolders intensely.

Two different subjects that mix like oil and water. At least it always felt that way to me.

Big warehouses and small grain elevators mix about as well as oil and water. At least I always had a hard time envisioning a scenario that could include both in a single, plausible setting.* In the past I went with what I experienced first hand and the grain elevators in rural settings won for a number of years. Now, with the layout gone and a new direction beckoning, I’ve switched my attention to those urban industrial settings at last. I was happy with the earlier choice and happy with the current one. I guess the simplistic lesson is nothing has to last forever.

Framing The Hobby
The way we frame our choices exerts a lot of influence on the answers we ultimately get. I’ve noticed the tendency among many hobbyists to make things into an all or nothing scenario. It’s operations or model building, a big layout or small one, steam or diesel, this or that.

The first question that pops into my mind is why. Why do we do this? I understand limited resources of time, space and money. I understand the work involved and the commitment required. I also understand that nothing lasts forever and making a different choice is always an option. Are we so afraid of missing out that we’re paralyzed by indecisiveness? Is this the culture the you-can-have-it-all generic hobby has produced?

Process Isn’t A Magic Bullet
We love process. I’ve lost track of the number of list-making processes people have come up with that promise to end all your woes about track design, what to model, or some other choice we have to deal with. The dirty little secret is that if any one of them actually lived up to the hype, there wouldn’t be much need for any others. Of course, life isn’t that simple and neither are people.

There is no shortage of process oriented information in any kind of craft.

We have all manner of how-to information for anything you can imagine in this craft. There’s a magazine or freely available step-by-step online tutorial or video that will show you what you need to know. We have an abundance of tools for building but do we also have equally useful tools to help us succeed as a modeler? Do we give people the tools that empower them to make better choices, to approach the work constructively, or to understand what they truly want as opposed to what the trend of the minute says everyone is doing?

Does our literature help us to truly learn or just follow a set of instructions?

Some questions Craig (or anyone) might explore are:

  • What is it about operations I enjoy the most? Would I be happy enjoying those as a guest operator only?
  • Are these operational qualities dependant on a particular modeling scale?
  • What tradeoffs do I have to make? Are they real or just unexamined conventional thinking?

This Craft Is Very Personal
The choice that Craig and my other friends are wrestling with is very personal to each of them and the generic advice typically offered is beyond useless because it doesn’t touch the heart of the matter. Unless we know the person very well, how can we ever hope to offer real help? Furthermore, should we even offer to help? As I suggested in the last post, we all have a hard time seeing past our own filters and bias. My “advice” is little more than my opinion, and one opinion is as good or useless as the next.

I’ve hammered at this point before but offer it up again because I think it’s important to consider. We expect satisfaction in this craft to come from something outside. We expect to find the perfect layout plan, or that the latest toy will make us happy forever. We all know this is empty but we’re human. I’m no different than anyone else in this regard. What I’ve learned however is that genuine satisfaction with this craft comes from within. It comes from understanding what meaning the work has for me and pursuing that meaning to the fullest.

After forty years I prefer to dive more deeply into a few subjects rather than chase after a shallow involvement with many. Letting go of certain hobby related pipedreams was more liberating than I ever imagined it would be.

We each have to make a fundamental decision about what we want from this craft. No one can make this choice for us and god forbid you let somebody else make it for you. It’s your layout, your time, your money and your choice. I don’t know why anyone would want it any other way.

Your mileage will assuredly vary.


*This is an example of my own rigid thinking.


  1. Simon

    Does it have to be a choice, I wonder?
    Could it not be a blend?

    Reading Craig’s comment, I wondered what aspect of operation appealed? The coordinated movements of many trains, or the quality of movement of a single car (or a few cars) being switched? A large number of operators, or just two or three acting as engineer, conductor and brakie?

    Most of real railway operation consists of shifting a lot of cars over long distances, otherwise they don’t make money. To accurately model this requires lots and lots of primarily linear/ribbon real estate. That or going round in circles, say outside in the garden. There are two alternatives: train simulation software, or focusing down on something else a bit smaller. This does not have to be the traditional yard. It could be as simple as a single spur, approached by a run down loco pushing a car or two through weed infested track.

    Depends on what is meant by “operation”, and which aspect of it speaks from within – including not moving at all!


  2. mike

    Hi Simon,
    Of course you can blend a number of approachs, depending on what your interests are. I hope others will join in and provide the clarity this conversation needs.


  3. John

    Dear Fellow Hobbyists,

    Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned since I started in this hobby over 40 years ago; less is more.

    It took many hard bumps in the road to finally realize this and I’m glad I did. The pressure is off now.

  4. mike

    Hi John,
    People will want what they want and everyone has different taste but, I agree totally, smaller and simpler is preferable for me too.

    Thanks for commenting.


  5. Galen Gallimore

    I’ve learned from Andrew Mellen, organizational guru, that decluttering isn’t just about living with less, it is about living with enough. What he calls “stuff equilibrium” is a state where we have enough of what serves us and nothing that doesn’t. If you have room in your closet for 20 pairs of shoes, by all means keep 20 if that’s what you want. But when you get a new pair, you must either get a bigger closet or get rid of one pair. Equilibrium.

    I’ve been applying this thinking to my home as my family has been purging away those things that don’t serve us. We moved from a larger home with more rooms to a smaller home with fewer rooms – both distinctions are important, as it isn’t just the square footage, but how it is divided that matters. I no longer have a bonus room in which to build a layout, house my kits, set up my workbench, etc., but only one end of a living room for a workbench, shelving and layout combined. Yet I have not applied the “something-in-something-out” equilibrium rule to my rolling stock, structure kits or locomotives. I purged a few before we moved, but have bought more since.

    Without getting too far into the details, suffice it to say that I don’t have the room we once had, but I’m not ready to let go of what I can no longer use. I am planning a layout to fit my space (that will easily fit another, once we move again) and perhaps when that is well established I will be able to pass on my surplus to someone else. But until then it sits forlorn in tubs in the garage. I recognize the value in living with less in my home economy, but it hasn’t yet affected my hobby.

  6. Craig Townsend

    A thoughtful response will require more than the five minutes I have now, but Mike certainly brings to light some rather insightful thoughts. Stay tuned, and hopefully I can craft more appropriate comment.

  7. mike

    Hi Galen,

    That sounds like a good approach that’s working for you.