I’m intrigued by what visitors see in my layout. The reactions of non-hobbyists are the most interesting because the reality never matches their expectations. As these unsuspecting folk dutifully trudge down the basement stairs and turn to the right, I imagine they expect to see nothing more than a toy train on a table-like platform with lots of choo-choo action accessories and little scenery (beyond the pressboard tunnel with snow-capped mountains).

What they discover upon entering the studio space couldn’t be more removed from that stereotype. “Oh wow!” is a common response.

Visitors always bring their own bias and worldviews and respond to the layout accordingly. An accomplished musician friend of Susan’s was drawn to the artistry and realism of the scenery. She knows nothing of trains or other mechanical stuff but she leaned in and looked at the landscape and buildings closely with a surprised and engaged commentary about how real everything looked.

People with a do-it-yourself mindset are always curious about how things are made or work. A DIY motivated friend looked intently at the switchpoints and groundthrows, and finally asked: “This actually works doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”I said.
“May I?” he asked.
“Of course.”

As he moved the switchpoints back and forth, a big smile spread across his face and we then talked about the other craft and technical aspects of the layout.

Many visitors won’t say anything but will casually look things over. I haven’t quite figured out whether these folks are in stunned silence or just politely humoring their host. If it’s the latter, I understand. I’ve visited my share of pride and joy toy train extravaganzas and polite silence is often the best response.

Of course, many people simply don’t care a wit about trains but another possibility is that there is no frame of reference or tidy category that can explain or rationalize what they’re seeing. And God help them if they’re waiting for us to provide that framework because we’re the worst storytellers on the planet.

Instead of falsely believing everyone is as fascinated by the work as we are, and launching into a litany of jargon filled esoteric concepts and other mindless rhetoric that is completely alien to their ears; why can’t we just tell a simple, human story about why we’re so engaged by this craft? Like this for example.

Why do I enjoy fine detail so much? Because I was near-sighted as hell in childhood (I still am, though not as severely) and I hated wearing glasses then. The only way I could see anything clearly was to get as close as I could to it. Such close proximity to everything over a lifetime, developed my appreciation for nuances and details missed from normal viewing distances and nothing thrilled me more than discovering these.
This pattern and texture is invisible to most people.

This pattern and texture is invisible to most people.

I’ve participated in this craft for over four decades and I’d rather sit through a death by Powerpoint presentation with sixty slides on the merits of waxed versus unwaxed dental floss than listen to some of the convoluted minutia laden discussions proffered by over enthusiastic hobbyists.

In sharing with our friends I avoid train jargon unless they have some knowledge of full-size railroading or ask probing questions. I simply try to relate the work to things they understand from their own experience. I’m not out to make converts but to demonstrate that this is a skills based, craft oriented art form; one as worthy of a thoughtful, considered approach as any other fine art or craft.

In many ways this is simpler to convey to non-hobbyists because they don’t bring the baggage of the typical model railroader who’s been thoroughly indoctrinated to the way it’s supposed to be done. All I hope for is that a few model trains as toys preconceptions have been changed. And, one thing I’ve taken to heart is this: when the questions stop, people’s curiosity has been satisfied and it’s time to go back upstairs.

This is a craft that reflects the attitude you bring to it. It’s one worthy of a thoughtful, discerning, considered approach and if we can’t or simply refuse to take that concept seriously, why do we believe or ever expect that others will?



  1. Trevor

    Another great post – thank you.
    I think about this issue a lot, as you know. When I know guests are coming who might want to see the railway, I try to remember to put the prototype book in the layout room with bookmarks in it so I can show off the various scenes I’m trying to recreate. That helps put the layout into context for a lot of visitors – regardless of whether they’re fellow hobbyists.
    But I don’t always remember to do this.
    What I should do is laminate some prototype photos and leave them somewhere in the layout room where I can grab them as the tour starts.
    – Trevor
    Port Rowan in 1:64
    An S scale study of a Canadian National Railways branch line in southern Ontario – in its twilight years

  2. Simon

    It’s a funny thing, but the most accomplished modellers I know (Barry Norman, Treor Nunn, the Gravetts) are also the best at explaining their models to interested people from outside the hobby. This might be due to the amount of practice they get at exhibitions when talking to local invited dignitaries, who have just selected their layout as “best in show”. In Trevor’s case, he has even spent time presenting to the local Women’s Institute.

    Maybe “thoughtful” modellers are also thoughtful (in every sense) people?


  3. mike

    Given your writing skills, why not create an easily assembled, short take-away piece for non hobby visitors similar to the timetable for fellow modelers? Wouldn’t have to be big or complicated, just something thoughtful to explain your interest in modeling.


  4. mike

    I suspect putting others first works as well in the hobby as out.