The Missing Conversation Vols. 11-12


Scratch building is part observation, part skill, part courage and it’s all an education that stays with you for a lifetime. Volumes 11 and 12 are another two-part story about the lessons I learned in researching and building a modern box car in quarter-inch scale. This product includes both volumes.


From The Intro To Vol. 11

Two Minds
Have you ever read a statement like this: “I tried scratchbuilding once. It was frustrating and the thing looked crummy so I gave up. Scratchbuilding is too hard.”

In her book Mindset, Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. outlines the findings of a study she conducted about whether talent and skill are as influential a factor in successful achievement as we’ve come to believe. To summarize her studies, the results indicate that a person’s mindset, or how they see their abilities, is a far greater factor than raw talent.

She contends that we can be of one of two minds: one being a fixed mindset, where we believe we either have an ability or we don’t, or we can also have a growth mindset, meaning we see ourselves as capable of achieving more than our current level of skill and accomplishment. These two frames of reference form the core for a set of personal beliefs that shape our lives in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
For example, advanced mathematics is very difficult for me to grasp. I feel lost when faced with algebra, trigonometry, calculus and the like. Numbers in general leave me confused and mentally exhausted. I have a fixed mindset about my ability to understand such concepts. The truth however is this, in spite of the difficulty I have with numerical concepts, I’m not incapable of learning such things. Like everyone else,

I have to deal with numbers on some level every day and I have an understanding of basic math but it wasn’t fun getting to this point. A growth mindset where people see themselves as capable of learning, even if the process proves difficult, is another matter completely. Learning for these folks is an experience to look forward to because of all the possibilities that will open up to them. People with a growth mindset understand that skills can be developed over time.

I have a growth mindset when it comes to visualizing objects in three dimensions. I’ve rather easily learned to understand the spatial relationships between individual pieces and how they come together to form the whole.

Such concepts are fascinating to me and I profoundly enjoy going deeper into such learning. It’s the same with writing. I’m comfortable with words and their power to shape ideas. Because I have a growth mindset where words are concerned, I’m internally motivated to learn on a deeper level. I don’t have to be pushed, I readily push myself. The key point made in the research is that our mindset has a huge impact on what we will and won’t attempt. After barely squeaking through freshman algebra with a D, I’ve never taken another math class. Yet I have bookshelves groaning under the weight of art, handcraft and graphic design books and magazines. (And, I include my modeling reference sources in there too.) As the research shows, our mindset isn’t either/or but is a mix of both fixed and growth orientations. We can have a fixed mindset in some areas and embrace growth in others.

From The Intro To Vol.12

Ours is a craft built on traditions handed down from one generation to the next. On the positive side, we are stewards of the hobby who take what we’ve been given and build upon it for the next generation who, we hope, will do the same for those who follow. On the negative side, old habits and ideas linger, even when they no longer serve our needs well.

The pioneers of our craft were a determined lot. They had to be. There was no commercial supply chain from China to provide shiploads of stuff you could simply take out of a box and run.

The lack of ready-to-run products dictated that one needed to learn many skills if one wanted to have operating models. The earliest car and locomotive kits were little more than crude castings, a pile of sticks, or blocks of wood and pieces of cardboard the modeler had to cut, shape, glue, polish and machine to finished dimensions. Scratchbuilding was a fundamental part of the craft because there were few alternatives.

In a time when the industrial arts was still part of a child’s education (at least for boys), and hand tool and machine skills were more prevalent than today, it’s interesting to track the progression of the hobby with the changing nature of industrial production. As fabrication processes and thinking become more abstract and removed from the hand of the craftsman, so

too has our approach to the hobby. The advent of operations as a dominant approach over model building has brought a greater emphasis on abstract concepts such as scheduling, beyond the basement interchange and the idea of the layout as part of a transportation network rather than a self- contained entity.

In model building circles, the growing influence of computer technology makes itself known via the influx of design and fabrication technologies that further separate the craftsman from his materials. For increasing numbers of hobbyists, scratchbuilding today is as much about the manipulating digital files that are fed into a 3D printer or laser cutter as it is with actual hands-on experience with wood, styrene or brass.

Looking back from the future, will we see this as a watershed moment or simply another step in the journey the craft has traveled from one technology to the next?

It could prove to be both. As a watershed, digital tools enable nearly unlimited freedom for an individual’s creativity. The means of production, once limited to a few, are now widely available to the many. What this means for hobbyists is that we are no longer dependent on manufacturers for our product choices. If we want a model of an obscure prototype that has no commercial value, we can produce it ourselves to the degree of quality and accuracy we desire.

Yet, to view such technology as a panacea that will cure all our ills is shallow thinking. For all its potential and as quickly as 3D printing is advancing, it hardly represents a plug and play method for getting a model. One still has to understand design, produce the CAD files and learn the limitations of the current (and ever changing) printing technology. The learning curve is steep indeed and for those starting from zero, few will traverse it to the point of mastery. 3D printing is a tool, a highly advanced one to be certain, but one that still requires the modeler understand its uses and limitations. Modeling in the twenty-first century still requires a commitment from the modeler.


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