My last post inspired a friend to comment via email. Like me he wondered why craftsmanship and striving to do your best is held in such low regard by certain modelers. We exchanged some ideas but neither of us has an answer that satisfies.

Words don’t make no difference*
To begin, consider the vocabulary shaping the worldview of hobbyists in this country: “Good enough,” “rivet counters,” “selective compression,” “freelancing,” “playing with trains;” along with ideas such as the three-foot rule (if you can’t see it from three feet, don’t worry about it), and even “hobbyist,” which denotes an amateur’s approach and mindset. The way we communicate with each other and the public should not be taken lightly. Words make a difference. They have meaning, make distinctions and create an impact on readers. Establish the vocabulary and you’ve defined the conversation and the outcomes.

I want to be inspired
I no longer purchase model railroad magazines on a regular basis because with the single exception of the Model Railway Journal from the UK, they no longer inspire me. To move my skills forward, I look at other topics such as woodworking and other crafts where the pursuit of higher skills is respected. To better my writing skills, I follow the blog of a professional writer I respect. I study graphic arts and related subjects such as photography to sharpen my design skills. There are telling differences in how these disciplines treat their subject matter. Let me cite a couple of examples.

The magazine I mentioned last week, American Craft, features profiles of leading craftspeople and their work. These are professionals who have spent countless years in dedicated work to hone their skills. The magazine has a clear editorial focus toward professionalism and excellence. You will not find articles for hobbyists such as “5 Ways To Make Better Clay Pots” or “What To Look For When Buying Your First Loom.” I enjoy learning about the individual journeys of the artists and builders and I’m inspired by their discipline and dedication to craft.

The title Fine Woodworking, published by Taunton Press, says it all. The focus is on building skills by learning from the work of professional woodworkers.

In stark contrast to American modeling magazines that attempt to be all things to as wide an audience as possible, the Model Railway Journal also focuses on excellence in finescale modeling in 2mm, 4mm, and 7mm scales, among others. The high quality work is presented in a respectful manner. Sadly, there is nothing like it in this country, except for the various annuals published by Westlake Publishing.

I find such editorial clarity refreshing and herein lies a clue. The premise of these magazines is that the reader wants a serious approach to developing their skills. Among these fields there are publications aimed at the professional and others aimed at the amateur, with little or no crossover between them. The conversation about model railroading doesn’t make this distinction, being positioned with a clear hobbyist mindset, even though there are modelers capable of producing museum quality work, along with professional modelers who earn an income from their skills.

Our magazines once had a similar expectation but in my view, today it no longer exists. Couple this with the subjective and growing idea that an out of the box model is just as valid and no different as one built from scratch, a view that suspends any sense of discernment. Further, any differences there may be are simply a matter of personal taste, rather than degree. In the arts and other disciplines, aesthetic judgement is critical. A work met expectations or it didn’t. But if, as some believe, everything is equally valid and, with matters of skill treated subjectively, is there any wonder why a resentful attitude exists among modelers who embrace that view?

I don’t have an answer. I realize some people object to my views. My position has always been this, if you want to couple your 4-4-0 to a string of Amtrak Superliner cars and watch it chase its tail, please do so. Don’t, however, expect me to get excited about that because it isn’t how I practice the craft of railroad modeling. My choice doesn’t have to be the same as yours and your choice doesn’t have to be the same as mine. I’m not diminished by your choice nor should you feel diminished by mine. I will practice the craft as I please and share my view with others.  Aren’t we all free to do the same?

*My use of poor grammar was intentional.


  1. Geoff

    I share your concerns and views Mike, sadly self improvement has been overtaken by instant gratification. Very few people, I can’t really call them modellers are not prepared to invest a little time into developing skills and would rather just take the easy option and open a box. But surely one of the greatest pleasures in life is to make something with your own hands ?

    I have in the past written several articles for one of the magazines over here but feel I am wasting my time. The last article that I had published described the subject modelled as an ‘00‘ update yet I model in EM. I raised the issue with the editor only to be told that market research had found any reference to the finer scales such as EM / P4 / S7 / S / especially on the front cover of their magazine put would be purchasers off at the browsing stage, especially in supermarkets and the larger stores. But one of the best known and respected architectural modellers over here who has numerous articles under his belt has faired even worse. He recently had an article rejected being told to resubmit it with plenty of captioned photographs, no big words and no humour ! Talk about dumbing down, just what age group are magazines aimed at these days ?

    I also rely on MRJ to satisfy my modelling inspiration together with the Scalefour News which is the in house magazine of the Scalefour Society. As for the rest of the magazines, well I have better things to spend my money on.


    PS. If you would like to see a copy of the S4 news then let me know and I will email you one. It’s not just 4mm scale modelling but has articles on 3D printing, etching and a host of related subjects for any scale and gauge.

  2. Simon

    Interesting comments, Geoff. The latest issue of the magazine to which you refer has an EM layout as its leading feature… Draw your own conclusions!

    Mike, you are sadly mistaken if you think that your observations are restricted to North America: lowest common denominatorism* rules here in the UK, too – and not just in model railways. Readers of my blog will have seen a quote from Deborah Bull about the production of elite arts not being elitist: I agree with her, but the sad fact remains that art forms which require some effort to gain understanding are deemed to be ‘elitist’ by many, as if the effort of a little learning puts something out of reach of the “common man”. This is rubbish, of course. I will admit that dance in virtually any form does not greatly appeal to me, and I have mad little effort to understand, but seeing two ballet dancers dancing to “Siamese Twins” by The Cure over 30 years ago did open my eyes to what it was about: I certainly won’t decry this art form, even if it is opaque to me. This seems to be a symptom of how things are: if it requires hard work, then people won’t bother.

    And yet, Mozart wrote operas and pieces for the “common man” as much as for his patrons. Shakespeare wrote some extremely earthy scenes o please the audience in the pit. Learning about the background for these is not ashore: it is a joy, as it enriches my understanding of the works. Finding out what was really going on in the “inn” run by Mistress Quickly in Henry IV part one, brought Falstaff alive to me, and made the play a wonder to behold rather than a dry, incomprehensible mess of old-fashioned words. In case anyone is wondering, Falstaff (and, for a time, the future King Henry V) spends most of his time living and drinking in a brothel, ran by a Madame…

    What has this in connection with your post? Well, those who deny themselves the effort required to learn and practise new skills are denying themselves the very real pleasure of a sense of accomplishment.


    * That is not a real word, obviously, but you guys in the ex-colonies won’t notice. 🙂

  3. mike

    Hi Simon,

    I’m well aware that MRJ is the exception rather than the rule. I’ve seen enough of other model railway magazines to know that excellent work is rare in every place.

    In addition to less tolerance toward learning, we have lost the ability to draw distinctions about quality. Our world wide addiction to cheaply made goods has robbed us of the discernment to know what quality is and is not. When a cheap price is the sole driving force behind every decision, we all lose eventually.


  4. mike

    Hi Geoff,

    Good to hear from you. It’s the same everywhere these days. The magazines are struggling with the dramatic economic changes the modeling and publishing industries are experiencing as a result of digital technologies.

    On one level I understand the push toward making things as appealing as possible to a wide audience. I think it’s misguided though. The unintended consequences are becoming known, not only in the ways you experienced but in others yet to come.

    It is too late to stem the tide of loss. The consolation is that individual modelers can choose their own course. Those who put forth the effort, will always have a craft worthy of their time to pursue. I would love to see a copy of ScaleFour News.


  5. Simon

    “scenes o please the audience in the pit. Learning about the background for these is not ashore:”
    Whoops – typos abound! That should read:
    “scenes to please the audience in the pit. Learning about the background for these is not a chore:”

  6. Matt


    Excellent and very thoughtful piece.

    Unless you have gone and built a structure, rolling stock, locomotive, or handlaid track yourself, you do not understand the joy of the hobby. A sense of accomplishment. A hobby is something for one to enjoy, an activity for one’s pleasure. Over the past few years I have realized what it is that makes the hobby fun for me. It has pushed me away from what would be mainstream modeling but it is truly something I have enjoyed these past few months as I work with my children to build model railroads for them. To teach them the difference between a toy and finescale is part of that process. Something difficult for a 9 and soon to be 8 year old to understand but the do understand that what they have done looks more like the real thing than their original N scale loop.

    Having people like you giving the chorus a venue will convert another small group who are on the fence. Keep up the great work and thank you for providing the venue!


  7. P4newstreet

    Good post

    It seems that this hobby of ours is one of the few arenas where those who are very good at it are looked down on by the majority. It seems to go further in that they are actively bullied in a mob like fashion by those desperate to preserve the mediocrity.

    The familiar cry of its only a hobby cuts no ice with me as if people are happy to settle for nothing special on something they choose to enjoy I dread to think what they must be like with regards to something they don’t!

    There are few places left where you can get (or give) feedback these days, westlake forum as you mentioned is one. Even some people claiming they are finescale modellers are completely unreceptive to it and are just interested in people praising them. Sadly those doing the praising don’t realise that those they idolise have absolutely no respect of thier opinion anyway. I recently gave up on (yet another) forum as my feedback was being constantly blanked. When I questioned it I was told it was because my feedback was not timed or worded to thier liking. The moderator then locked the topic only to re-open it to publish a pm I sent him in a deeply pathetic points scoring exercise. Sadly for him this offended an awful lot of his members and traffic on that forum has nigh on died.

    Best bet is to leave the forum-ites to it. Don’t waste your time trying to help those who dont want it and leave them to thier thing. Let’s not forget they are enjoying themselves their way. It’s only when they see some truly magnificent layout at a show somewhere that they may realise they never actually knew what ‘good’ was.

  8. mike

    Hi Jim,

    Welcome to the blog.

    Good points and well said. I’ve noticed that the true craftsmen in our community seldom engage on public forums. Perhaps for the reasons you cited and also they are too engaged with their work and simply don’t need the public adulation. The work is its own reward for such folk.

    I found your P4 New Street site some years ago and immediately became a fan of the project. I’m glad you’ve chosen to be here. Thanks for commenting. I would ask that people sign their posts out of respect for all. It helps to know who is commenting.


  9. P4newstreet

    Sorry Mike

    I thought I had

    You may have a point. Some are in the hobby to push themselves, they don’t need any unknown person to tell them what they are doing is good (although it’s always appreciated I’m sure) as they already know. These people will be open to feedback as they are unlikely to hear anything worse than thier own opinion of thier efforts.

    The ones who merely model to place themselves high on some sort of self imposed pecking order are the sort to need the praise. It’s that what they do it for after all. They are also the sorts to tell others how difficult what they are doing is and comments like ‘doing this is above the scope of the average modller’ just reinforces thier position (I have seen such a comment in print before now).

    You are spot on that the true greats are very rarely online, perhaps that’s why they are so good? They just get on with it?

    All the best