PICT0010 (Small)As I mentioned in last week’s post, it’s easy to look at work done by master craftsmen like Tom Mix (above) or the wonderful freight car modeling of Gene Deimling, and then get all depressed at the level of your own skills. That’s been my reaction, maybe it’s been yours too. Another factor that leads to giving up quickly is the amount of information heaped on us by the experts; those folks so steeped in a skill set, that they can’t separate the essential knowledge from the non-essential, so they just dump it all in one shot.

This subject of acquiring skill and the process of how we learn fascinates me and I’ve read most of the popular books that distill the academic literature down to the core ideas. It goes without saying that there is valuable application to the hobby in all this.

Intrinsic Rewards Drive Learning Better Than Extrinsic Rewards
Simply put, we learn faster and on a deeper level when we’re internally motivated to do so. This shouldn’t surprise anyone in the hobby, as much of our learning is driven by an internal desire to do so. We find the subject interesting on a deep level and learning is fun and engaging rather than burdensome. ┬áThink of the kid who can’t grasp algebra to save his soul but easily learns the complex geometry of the entire football playbook in a matter of days. The difference? Internal motivation.

There are Essential Skills and Non-essential skills
Essential skills in scratchbuilding anything center on the ability to layout parts accurately in terms being centered, square and parallel. If you’re building a freight car, laying out the car sides accurately is an essential skill to master. Learning to make square corners is another essential, as is marking out centerlines and making precise measurements. Everything else builds on this foundation of skills.

To Radically Improve, Practice at The Edge of Your Skill Level.
In strength training, muscle isn’t built until pushed beyond its limits of endurance. The same principle applies in improving your modeling skills. It’s easy to do what you already know how to do. It feels good and safe. Improvement lay just beyond the edge of your comfort zone however. Going back to the idea of acquiring essential skills, if making accurate measurements is a weakness for me, then I need to be measuring everything I can get my hands on. But more than that, I need to focus on how I’m taking those measurements because that’s where the breakthrough may come.

Can you see the ruler markings clearly?

Things to look at are: Can I clearly see the markings on my rule? Are my tools accurate enough for the work I’m trying to do? Does the rule slip as I reach for another tool? Looking at the process systematically and analytically will lead to improvement over time. Often a shorter period of time than one might think.

These concepts aren’t rocket science and we’re quickly losing them in the hobby. No one bothers to teach these things anymore because people have conceded defeat to the idea that ready-to-run has destroyed the craft ethic and no one cares anymore. That’s just nonsense and I for one, refuse to play that game.



  1. Matt


    Very true. I designed,drew the prints and ended up building a fair amount of my 12 inch = 1ft house project. Pushing oneself causes one to learn quite a bit and you can do it much faster than you think.


  2. mike

    Congratulations Matt. My cap is off to anyone who tackles a big home improvement project.