I’m reading Todd Henry’s latest book: Louder Than Words, where I came upon the term mentor texts. He’s referring to works that you return to time after time because of the influence they have had on your life. Works that help you understand the different possibilities that are open to you and how you might pursue them.

This got me to thinking about my mentor texts for the craft and how they shaped my view of what’s possible over the years. Most are sixty years old but I still return to them when I feel the need to get grounded again.

In no particular order here’s my short list.

Paul Larson’s article series from 1966 through 1971 in Railroad Model Craftsman.
More than any other writer, Paul Larson’s work has influenced my own the most. His modeling was first rate and his writing style is a model I try to follow (poorly I might add). These were short, simple essays about prototype railroading or locations he found interesting, and in them, he drew out the timeless lessons worth understanding. His construction and modeling articles followed the standard of the day and he conveyed the joy of following his own path.

I’m less familiar with his writing as the editor of Model Railroader but the few editorials of his I have read convinced me he was decades ahead of his time. In many ways, the mainstream hobby is still playing catch-up.

David P. Morgan’s¬†The Mohawk That Refused To Abdicate¬†
Without peer, D.P. Morgan’s writing shaped my view of full-size railroading in more ways than I understand. This book is a reprint of his article series in Trains magazine from the 1950s, about the end of steam operations in North America. I’ve had an original copy of this book for decades and still return to it often. Opening the cover, one is greeted by the aroma of coal smoke and valve oil and the urge to pull your collar tight and shield the eyes from any stray cinders and soot. Coupled with the photography of Phil Hastings, the terms literature and poetry are not out of place in describing this work. Timeless is another.

Jack Work’s modeling articles in Model Railroader
Jack Work was another influence to a younger me and still is. He made strip wood look like a magic potion that could be turned into anything. The quality of modeling and his writing was high but accessible to anyone who would invest their time in it.

Practically anything by Bob Hegge
Quarter-inch finescale standards and overhead wire were never in better hands than his and Bill Clouser’s. He made it look like so compelling that I almost became an traction modeler. The lack of first hand experience with any prototype electrics was the only thing that stopped me. That and a serious shortage of money as a teenager.

There are others of course but these are the top tier selections for me. Reflecting on these works, there was nothing extraordinary about them. Yes, the quality of modeling was higher than average but they were writing from the perspective and standard of the times. I received a sense of encouragement from these pieces. A feeling that I could do this too, with time and enough effort. Rereading these works I still get that feeling a half century later.

Those are some of my mentor texts. I’m certain you have your personal favorites too.



  1. gene48

    Excellent choices! Larson may have been one of the earliest of prototype modeling in the MR. His work was in the golden era of model building.
    David P. Morgan was an artist who could create strong images in one’sitting mind.


  2. mike

    I agree wholeheartedly Gene. Sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, I remember reading one of his editorials in an old issue of MR I had and thinking how far ahead of the times his ideas were for the era in which he wrote it. That sort of vision is sorely lacking today.


  3. Trevor

    A terrific post, Mike. Very thoughtful.
    I too am a big fan of Bob Hegge’s work and his articles – and I know that someday, I am going to break down and model a freelanced mountain electric in 1/4″ finescale, similar to his, because his work was such a strong influence on my hobby.
    I’ll add a couple of other mentor texts that have influenced me:
    – The San Jacinto District layout by Andy Sperandeo – published the February 1980 issue of MR. This layout plan and its description were eye-openers for me. They showed me that a smaller layout with a tightly focused theme could be as entertaining – or more so – than a large, rambling empire. The article also drew my attention to the idea that modeling a given railroad in a given place was about more than getting the reporting marks right. Andy offered some suggestions for modeling the harvest and how that would affect the railroad’s operations – and that’s when I started to think about the relationship between a railroad and its environment. It’s been about context for me ever since.
    – Articles about their home layouts by Paul Dolkos (particularly his now-dismantled B&M layout) and Bob Smaus (his two SP layouts). Both gentlemen combine a strong theme with excellent model-building. Moreover, both are great writers and photographers. And both have built modest-sized layouts – and taken them to a high-degree of finish. I’m friends with Paul, but have not yet met Bob. I’d like to, someday.
    – Any of the books showcasing the photography of Philip Ross Hastings, but especially “The Boston and Maine: A Photographic Essay”. Dr Hastings was my first exposure to rail-fan photography that was not about 3/4 wedge shots of equipment. He preferred to shoot the railroad in context, especially in terms of people. His photography greatly influences my attempts to model a railroad as part of the world that it serves. As I add vignettes to my layout, it’s his photos of the B&M that I’ll look to for inspiration (even though I’m not modeling that line). This book also prompted me, in the mid-1990s, to abandon a busy bridge line theme to explore a lightly-trafficked branch line – and all of my layouts have been focused on this theme since then. I’ve never regretted it. This book also fostered my interest in modeling steam – particularly smaller locomotives, like 2-6-0s. I’m too young to have experienced steam first-hand, but Dr Hastings’ photos are the next best thing.
    – Bob Brown’s series of building a Virginian caboose, in Mainline Modeler starting in November 2002. I have yet to scratch-built a piece of standard gauge rolling stock (although I have done some narrow gauge models), but I know I will at some point – in part because these articles took away a lot of the mystery for me, and make it look achievable.
    – The three scenery volumes by Gordon Gravett. These are relatively new mentor texts but I already know I’ll return to them again and again. Gordon’s articles in MRJ convinced me that it’s important to pay attention to scenery – and these books provide the knowledge for creating effective scenes.
    Again, a great topic – I hope others wade in with their mentor texts – and explain why these are important to their hobby. I’m always looking for more to add to my library.
    – Trevor

    Trevor Marshall
    Port Rowan in 1:64
    An S scale study of a Canadian National Railways branch line in southern Ontario – in its twilight years

  4. Matt

    Hi Mike,

    Interesting essay, thank you for making me ponder this one. I would like to also throw out there the thought of mentor videos.
    Mentoring texts

    I can not say enough about the influence of Harry Brunk’s “Up Clear Creek” series that ran for years in Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette. I never met Harry, I wish I would have so I could thank him for a wonderful story of what I would call the book how to be a complete model railroader. Harry made me realize all the talents and skills one could obtain from the hobby. Research, both in reference texts, pictures, and in visiting an area. Painting, drawing, design. Most importantly, as you learn more improve earlier attempts. How to tell a story well through a model. The list goes on and on!

    A more recent discovery for British narrow gauge modeling that has influenced me is Peter Kazer. I have two of his books. Similar to Harry Brunk’s, Peter’s work have taught me how to model a variety of interests using smaller layouts. Peter has given me new insights on research, structure design, layout design, and creating a story. I highly recommend his “Narrow Gauge Railway Modelling” book that covers his Corris Station exhibition layout.

    Jack Work’s and Bob Walker’s scratchbuilding articles. Any of them for learning technique and inspiring one to even try a project. Jack Works results are amazing.

    Brian Nolan’s articles, and a video I have for how to create detailed scenes that can tell a story without a train in the scene.

    Paul Larson. Like Harry Brunk’s articles, Paul’s articles are a lesson on how to do many aspects of model railroading. Paul’s Mineral Point and Northern is, for me, perhaps my favorite “classic model railroads.” The variety of his articles and his style of writing are exceptional. I have saved all of his and Jack Work’s from a recent purge of magazines sitting around in boxes

    Barry Norman’s “Designing a Layout” has been a great help as I have moved to smaller one scene model railroads. Barry’s Landscape Modelling has been very useful in designing landscapes. So too had Gordon Gravett’s 7mm Modeling series and his three books on scenery. I have been starting to experiment with Gordon’s scenery techniques and I doubt I’ll return to how I used to create scenery.

    Mentor videos.
    David Wright’s “Constructing Model Buildings”. David’s video has been very helpful in how to research existing structures and transform them into models using foam core as the shell and adding plaster to make a finished masonry structure. Lots of ideals and techniques.
    Troels Kirk’s painting video. I have switched over to using brush painted acrylic paint for many of my building projects and have been very pleased with using his ideas. Troel’s paper buildings on a foam core shell have lead me back through the pages of model railroader to learn more about strathmore board and paper to represent buildings.

    Last, but certainly not least is an article I read when other parts of life pull me away from the hobby for a period of time. John Hayes wrote an article in Model Railway Journal in 2005, “Making a Start”.


  5. gene48

    Trevor mentioned Dr. Hastings and Gordon Gravett’s as being inspirational. I think Trevor has totally changed my view on building my railway. He has stuck to the theme and kept it simple but elegant. The balance between railroad and surround is perfect.
    I have been inspired by your trackwork and the attention to all the little details.

    Thank you for posting this thoughtful topic.


  6. mike

    Great comments everyone. Matt and Trevor, you’ve both mentioned books and people I would consider as modern day classics. Gordon Gravett’s three volume set on tree and grassland modeling also graces my bookshelves and like Gene, they changed how I look at modeling scenery. I also have Pete’s book on narrow gauge in addition to other Wild Swan offerings.

    It demonstrates that there are some excellent sources of inspiration out there and that’s really what I’m talking about with these selections, modeling that has inspired me over and over, modeling that transcends the various fads that have come and gone over the years.


  7. Chris Mears

    Really fun thread. Thanks for starting this one. It’s been great to read the others that have been suggested. Here are some of my favourites, in no order:

    I see Bob Hegge has already found his way to this thread. I’ve always enjoyed reading his work. What always really caught me was how personal his work and his style of writing really was. I always left each article with a strong sense of “Hey, I probably could do that too” and though I’ve never built a 1/4″ scale traction layout I been sucked in by his pantograph article enough time to have have made up three in 1/4″ scale and, just once, in 1/2″. Someday I’d like to make up that beautiful four truck boxcab he built. Man, that thing is cool.

    I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read Linwood Moody’s The Maine Two Footers. I just love everything about that book from its design to those stories of discovering Maine narrow gauge and the relationship the author developed with it in the years that followed. I had at least a decade of re-reading the book in by the time I finally found my way to Maine narrow gauge country and couldn’t shake the question of whether or not I’d driven there to see the railroads or explore Moody’s stories a little more deeper. Either way, his fondness for Maine narrow gauge was so infectious that I can’t shake it.

    Mike Gill’s The Peco Book of Model Buildings. I was given a copy of this superb book as a Christmas gift. In its pages I learned how to use paper and cardstock to make up some really enjoyable model buildings. Gosh, not only is this book among my most treasured but I build the cottage from this book every single time I just need to make something. I’ve made the cottage from Mr. Gill describes in so many different scales and enjoyed each one. Gosh, it’s such a gem of a book.

    Scale Model Electric Tramways and How to Make Them by E. Jackson Stevens. Charlottetown’s public library had about three model railway books, when I was little, and somehow this was one of them. There were several times when the librarian would tease that I’d been the only one with that book out all year. I’ve read this one so many times. The subject here is model tramcars in 1/16 scale and through the pages the author guides through the construction of every component, inside and out. I’ve spent so many hours curled up with this book and daydreaming about making these things myself and how fantastic these models must have been. Buying a copy of this book from a bookseller in England was my first online purchase.

    Finally, two Carstens volumes. I received both as Christmas gifts: Rails Beyond the Rutland and New England Shortlines. These were probably my first proper books on real railroads and North American prototypes. In those pages I found railroads that looked a lot like what we had here on the Island and what it might have been like or could have at least. It probably sounds silly but these two books probably framed my entire understanding of American railroading and I probably still see railroads through this lense.

    This has been fun. Above is most of the deck I’d grab for a desert island or offer up to introduce how I connect to this hobby. They sure are where I return to, to find myself.



  8. mike

    Hi Chris,
    The Two Footers is on my shelf as well. I’m not familiar with the other titles you mentioned, although they clearly mean a great deal to you. I feel the same about the Larson series in RMC. It seems that Bob Hegge has influenced a number of us. I need to track down more of his articles for my keeper file.