We’ve been shuttling back and forth or going in endless circles since the dawn of model trains. Whether it’s a crude circle of track on the floor or a traditional layout, little has changed with this craft in spite of all the techno wizardry we now have.

“There is no new idea. What is new is your perspective.“ -Usher.

What do model trains mean to you? What are you trying to express or capture?

For me, the craft represents an opportunity to pursue ideas and develop skills. From making tangible objects that capture my imagination, I get to work with my hands and engage my mind in the pursuit of excellence.

Looking around, I see a lot of mimicry. A theme is popularized and people can’t jump on the bandwagon fast enough. West Virginia coal roads have been done to death. Ophir Loop has been done to death. Timetable and Train Order, branchlines, funky On30 caricatures; it’s all been done to death. We excel at imitation but fall short of expressing a truly personal viewpoint. We simply don’t know how. That knowledge is outside the conventions that encrust this craft. The world doesn’t need another 1950s steam-to-diesel stereotype. As the quote above suggests, we need your unique perspective on these themes instead of more poor imitations.

There was a phenomenon I experienced with my paintings. I would spend hours and days on a work, bringing it to a point that truly satisfied me; only to have others ignore that work in favor of paintings I considered second-rate efforts. This frustrated me to no end because I wanted others to feel and experience the more formal painting the same way I did.

I finally realized they couldn’t. Each person brought their own experience and viewpoint to the paintings that made them see the work differently than I did. They connected (or didn’t) with each work in their own ways. My ongoing experiences suggest this is true of any creative work: art, music, writing and yes, model building. Realizing that not everyone will connect with my work greatly helped my understanding. It removed the pressure to please others and allowed me to explore subjects and techniques that I found fascinating.

This also applies to our modeling. Many enjoy the social aspects the craft affords yet don’t wish to blindly follow the crowd. If you find yourself here, it can feel awkward. You want others to share in the work but also feel the urge to stand apart. The thing to know is that those who want to understand your choices will make the effort to do so. My former Indiana & Whitewater was largely dismissed by the traditional O scale community because it didn’t fit their image of what a layout should be. However, it satisfied my vision and spoke to others who appreciated an alternative view.

The fear of doing something wrong holds many of us back. People relentlessly seek the approval of others. We want to belong, to be a part of the Tribe, rather than risk being called out by “those in the know.” “WHAT, you’re going to do that! No, no, trust me, you’ll never be satisfied. Look, here’s what you need to do with this space.”

It takes courage to share something that has deep meaning. Doing so leaves us vulnerable to the misunderstanding and insensitivity of others, which can hurt. Yet, we need your courage and example. We need to know the craft has more dimensions to explore than the ones the old guard clings to for dear life.



  1. jdlowe

    Another excellent post! They are what make your blog one of the most interesting out here in internet-land.

    I don’t have any clear-cut approaches that would definitely inject new ways of thinking, but – just thinking-out-loud – maybe these might be some ways to begin.

    Writers need to read a lot of different things as well as write a lot. Painters and visual artists need to ‘view a lot’ as well as paint or create a lot. And so on with other creative fields. The best ones don’t limit themselves to whatever are the accepted boundaries of their field. All that exposure to what’s going on in and out of their speciality, combined with constant and regular production, helps expand their ideas and improve whatever they are producing. Maybe the same applies in model railroading. Small layouts and dioramas might be more amenable to an exploratory approach, and when they are ‘done’ they’re easier to sell or give away, and don’t necessarily need to be trashed (as was mentioned in your previous post).

    I can’t say the above would conclusively help people overcome approval seeking and sticking to norms. It might help them better develop their ideas, and maybe as they made progress in that and gained confidence, it might become easier to continue to strike out in whatever direction they wanted to go. I don’t have any formula for how to do this other than a few hints: read widely and a lot; view lots of things (beyond the hobby magazines and usual sources); play more with the trains, buildings, figures, materials and other things you have as a way to stimulate ideas (not operating sessions or planning); build small layouts or dioramas; pursue the things you find you are attracted to and try to figure out why you’re attracted. Maybe all these things are a starting point. Maybe not.

  2. mike

    JD your comments are spot on. A problem with model railroading is that it has become so insular. Everyone reads the same magazines, forums and blogs that essentially parade the same ideas over and over. As you understand, to find new influences you have to look outside whatever discipline you’re working in. Professional creators understand this and are always seeking inspiration wherever they can find it. I read and look for blogs about handcrafts such as woodworking, pottery and so on. I find a lot of ideas and inspiration that applies to my own modeling. I also look at a number of design oriented blogs. From these I discover new ways of approaching a problem and different ways of thinking about the design issues we deal with as modelers. You’ll never find this stuff in any of the traditional sources we turn to.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Chris Mears

    So is the question one of new inspiration?

    We perpetuate an aversion to anything that is not an exacting reproduction of a real thing. We can continue to develop skills and processes to further our efforts at miniaturizing the real thing but we’re still stepping our way through the same paradigm: Look at all the detail I’ve crammed into this layout. Maybe the hobby really is already dead and the NMRA was right all along? [Gosh, I hope not but that’s another story.]

    We’re a population of accidental artists who largely don’t understand our attraction to the medium. If I may be forgiven the generalization, the traditional artist has already made peace with his innate need to create. He explores every type of media until he settles on one that he is best able to manipulate until it expresses to everyone outside what he feels inside. Any and all forms of expression are made equal as opportunities in that search. This is not a model railroader. The model railroader has an interest in model trains. He starts from a position of defined platform dependency and from the very first day of model trains he is limited by that decision and it will always haunt his work. We’ve committed ourselves to the art of copying. It might seem only natural that in doing so we extend that bring in the work of our peers.

    Perhaps if we’re serious about new inspiration, new ideas, and new expression than we need to learn from why a model train will help us express what we feel inside. The current questionnaire doesn’t address that.


  4. mike


    Cogent points as always. I especially like the following: “We’re a population of accidental artists who largely don’t understand our attraction to the medium.” I believe that to be true on many levels beyond the obvious.

    In my view, it’s the difference between painting by numbers and doing original work. As a pastime, generic model railroading has devolved into a paint by numbers format. Here’s the formula, here’s the parts, here’s how to put the two together. You might produce something interesting, even satisfying on one level but, the opportunity for expressing yourself has been predetermined as you suggest.

    I question the formula we’ve all accepted for the last eight decades plus. In one of our many exchanges, I believe you made the observation that my 1950s paradigm is likely to be different than yours, which is exactly what I’m suggesting. By not moving beyond the formula, we leave so much territory unexplored.

    That said however, I agree hobbyists are fundamentally ill-equipped to do such exploration because of the technique driven, formulaic nature of how we learn the work. Consider what is expected of new hobbyists. We teach them how and where to buy stuff, give them a bunch of basic techniques to put it together in the hope they’ll be hooked enough to stay with it for a lifetime, then turn them loose to flail around on their own until they figure it out, grow complacent, or get tired of it and move on. We expect people to express themselves but give them no foundation upon which to build such expression. I no longer question why the hobby is in such a sorry state; it’s self-evident to me.


  5. Chris Mears


    A part of my earlier comment that I was reminded of as I re-read it was that the artist’s need to create is a compulsion. It is as much a part of his existence as his need to breathe. I know you know this. I believe the greater “we” ignore this when we compare model trains to art. We treat this hobby as an option. If the model railroader is the artist or any kind of the craftsman, there’s no walking away.

    Since I’ve got this window open anyway…

    That paradigm is one I proposed. We rely on that descriptor of our work as if “steam to diesel transition era” means the same to you and I. That’s fine if we’re best friends who grew up together on the same street in Los Angeles. If we’re not, the delta of our interpretation widens at each step in difference like a model railroader’s standard deviation. I think it would be neat to study those layouts created during this particular “era” to document the caricature that we have developed. I think it’s proof of the success of our divorce from real trains and I’m interested in this.


  6. Galen Gallimore

    SO much to consider in this discussion, and I don’t want to take it far afield of the original post or the cogent discussion that follows, but I want to return to this point:

    “From making tangible objects that capture my imagination, I get to work with my hands and engage my mind in the pursuit of excellence.”

    This could describe such a wide swath of artistry in the broadest sense (pottery, painting, et al), and a more narrow band in the railroad sense (model trains of any kind), and I suppose we narrow it further by selecting an era, locale, etc. The question becomes for each of us, what is that object that captures our imagination?

    I think what the model train publications have done, inadvertently, is move the needle from real-world objects that capture our imagination to models that tickle our fancy and feed our need to belong. The hobby pioneers, for the most part, seem to have been avid railfans with a keen eye to what the real thing looked like and how it behaved, then sought to create that in miniature using the tools and techniques of their time. Those who simply read the rags and liked what they saw and said, “I’ll make a layout like X, Y or Q because that layout captures my imagination” are now a generation removed from the original inspiration.

    This brings up the relationship between technical precision and modeling execution (skill) and inspiration or imagination which has already been touched on in the comments above. I look at many of the fine layouts in the press and online and see well executed “paint-by-numbers” modeling. No negative criticism intended, only an observation that the modeler, no matter how inspired they may be, somehow failed to convey that inspiration in their modeling.


  7. mike

    Welcome Galen.

    That’s an astute observation about imitating other people’s modeling rather than looking to the prototype as an original source. Doing so leads one further and further away from the objective truth of an object into the murky realm of making copies of copies. I remember seeing someone’s recreation of John Allen’s Gorre and Daphetid. It was supposed to be a tribute to John’s work but it left me cold and unmoved because it was such a poor imitation. Some scenes were recognizable with others only hinted at. The level of craft on display was well done overall, yet I couldn’t help feeling that the builder could have made a much stronger statement had he done something of his own rather than copy. He was apparently happy with it though.

    If this is the direction things are going, then I wonder how long it will be before the work created will no longer resemble anything close to a full-size railroad. Or did we pass that point years ago?


  8. Simon

    I doubt this is a new way of looking at things, but I have found two questions to be very useful:
    “How does the real world do this?”
    That might reflect operations, movement in accordance with Newton’s laws on motion, rusting, decay, weathering or how things are made. This leads naturally to the second question,
    “How can I best replicate this?”
    Not how did someone else do it, but can I do it. How other people have done it may, can and will inform my methods, but ultimately it will be about how I can do it: not you, not him, not how some magazine said it was done.

    But here’s the rub: without them sharing their technique, mine will not develop.

    I am reminded of Isaac Newton’s line, “If I have seen further than others, it was because I was standing on the shoulders of others.” (In case anyone is wondering, he was born about 15 miles from where I live, and my brother-in-law’s wife is descended from his grandfather.)

    To me, the hobby is about sharing ideas and techniques, and building on them.


  9. Simon

    “Originality doesn’t exist by itself. It is an evolution of what is produced. Originality is about your capacity to add.”
    – Maurizio Cattelan

  10. Tim David

    I find being steeped in the UK modelling paradigm, but modelling the US, can help me step away from replicating some of the stereotypes, of which there are many on both side of the Atlantic. Some are common, but many are different.
    Although I’m slow at actually building, pretty much every idea of what I would like to build seems to be original, because of this combination. I tend to look at what would be interesting from the point of view of a UK person designing a UK style layout, but the differences in scenery, architecture, RR equipment and most importantly operation make for a very different layout.
    I don’t have that weight of the history of US RR modelling bearing on me that most US based modellers do and I rarely read US modelling magazines.

  11. mike

    Hi Tim,

    I’m taking the same route only putting aside US design practices in favor of UK design principles. The typical US layout design no longer interests me and I’m discovering a world of new possibilities. Quarter-inch scale seems perfectly suited for small(er) cameo type layouts. This allows me to practice the craft in a way that better suits my interests than a basement filling compromise would. Everyone has different tastes.