Every model railroad has two stories. There’s the obvious one such as I’m modeling Cajon Pass. I’m modeling a Canadian National branchline in the 1950s, or a modern era Indiana shortline. There’s also a second story we’re telling ourselves that might say I’m preserving history or recapturing a childhood memory or I’m learning to be a craftsman.

We tend to focus more on the first in our discussions. It’s easier I think, less touchy-feely for many tastes. It’s easy to measure how close we’ve come to achieving whatever it is we’ve set out to do with the first story. Are the trains lettered for the Santa Fe? Yes. Does the scenery look like the Southwest? Yes. And so it goes. While the first story is important, I believe the real power and longevity of this craft is in the second story. The unspoken narrative we’re telling ourselves and others,  whether we realize it or not.

We each have a reason (often several) for why we pursue this craft. There are reasons behind our choices and how we do things the way we do. For the longest time, I simply took things for granted in my work. I followed the idea du jour of the month from Model Railroader or Railroad Model Craftsman and did what everyone else was doing. I never considered there were other ways of thinking about the craft or its place in my life. Things change though and as my thinking about what I could do and efforts to understand why I found the work so frustrating much of the time deepened, I began to look elsewhere for answers. The ones the hobby offered weren’t enough for me. I didn’t fit in with the crowd anymore. I wanted to follow a different path.

I began to tell myself a new story about craft and what such an approach could bring beyond a fancy train set that encompassed the whole basement. Was that really all this work was about,  building and rebuilding some “thing” that was ultimately destined for the dumpster when we die? God help us if it is.

The more I thought about what I really enjoyed, the less enthused I became about the hobby as it is currently practiced. I began to see how other art and craft disciplines had much to offer with regard to a more satisfying way to approach model building and railroad subjects.

Making things matters
There is a growing body of serious research that shows the value of working with our hands. The findings demonstrate that those who work with their hands in some creative manner, as a hobby or in professional work, reap many benefits throughout their lives, ranging from being more grounded emotionally to greater cognitive function in later life. More basic though is the idea that the skills to make things are more fundamental and important to our society than we realize and, we need such skills.

Our craft exists because people learned how to build things out of necessity. In its earliest days there was no commercial supply chain to provide pretty boxes that one only had to open and remove the contents. The fact that today, many people merely have to open a box in order to participate in their hobby, is built of the shoulders of those who developed a solid skill set that nurtured their ability to take the craft farther.

To continue to flourish, our craft needs people who push the boundaries and pursue new ideas. Quoting Eric Hollenbeck, the subject of the video I’ve linked to: “They’re just doers, not sitters.” You’ll understand when you watch. It’s nine minutes fifty-seven seconds of time well spent.

I have a hard time identifying with where the mainstream is headed these days. I’ve always been a misfit of sorts, having to forge my own way. I don’t enjoy a hobby that doesn’t provide the opportunity to develop new skills and to find a place to fit in. My craft lets me fit in and I’ve learned the more you give to it, the more you receive from it.



  1. gene48

    The fact is that our hobby has evolved from one of creation to consumption. We don’t build the things that make this a train hobby rather than one who creates scenic dioramas.
    The model building ship has sailed. At 70 years of age, I am no longer prone to launching a crusade. Sharing with a few interested modelers is all one can hope for.

    Gene Deimling

  2. mike

    “The model building ship has sailed.”

    Thanks for sharing that Gene. One person’s lost cause is another’s opportunity.


  3. Riley Triggs

    Poignant video. I like your recognition of the two stories. I’ve recently been pushing those around me to vocalize the second story, but I haven’t gotten very far as of yet.

  4. mike

    I sympathize Riley. I’m glad you enjoyed the video. The expression of pride and joy on that young man’s face as he holds the wooden bowl he turned speaks volumes.