In a conversation with a friend, he offered this interesting question:

“When we look at a real covered hopper we never start criticizing its prototype accuracy. Why is the question different for the model?”

My answer is subjective but I think there’s some logic to it.

We accept the full-size car for what it is: an object built for a specific purpose we can understand. It’s also consistent with the expectations and limitations of the environment that it operates in. In that sense, it has integrity.

A model, by contrast, is a separate thing of its own. It’s also a facsimile of something else that we impose a number of conflicting desires upon. We expect various degrees of accuracy to the original, yet also demand that it perform under conditions no full-size car would ever be subjected to. As a manufactured miniature object, it’s constrained by the limitations of that process in order to be priced at a point the market will accept and also return a profit on that covers the costs involved.

We bring our own biases and ambiguous concepts to it such as good enough and the three-foot rule. Emotionally, it can range from a cherished object full of memories or nothing more than a toy with all the mental baggage that term implies. When you think about it, that’s a lot of stuff the model has to bear.

What Matters?
I’ve decided to take a more thorough look at the Lionel covered hopper model I bought over ten years ago when I switched to P48 from HO.

Being new to P48 back then, I had a lot to learn. Over the years my tastes have changed as I discovered what I needed to enjoy the scale and work successfully with it. Coming from HO, I naively thought I could simply switch out the trucks and couplers and be all set. Examining the car shot that idea to hell quickly, as I learned the first of many hard realities about this scale. After an initial attempt to disassemble the thing proved frustrating, the car sat idle until now.

In fairness, the model is dimensionally accurate where it matters to me. Where it falls short in my eyes are the standard three-rail compromises such as the lack of structure at the truck bolsters and draft gear, along with grossly thick cross sections of the body panels and end cages.

What Do I Want?
In evaluating the car now, I don’t give a damn about the three-foot rule or other hobby clichés. They reflect a set of values and criteria for an approach I’m not interested in. While they may be relevant to HO or N scales, why let such artificial concepts impede my enjoyment of the work itself or dictate the final result?

Comparing the model to the drawings in the 1966 Car Builders’ Cyclopedia, I identified a number of modifications that will create a more faithful representation. Most of them involve removing excess material. I can’t recall another model where I’ve spent so much time and effort filing, sanding or outright grinding away unwanted plastic. I remember now why this model collected dust all those years. The process was a lot of work but I’m more experienced and better prepared to handle it. I not only have better tools but also the knowledge and skill to use them. Time and practice truly makes a difference.

I’ve tackled the car body with a vengeance and I’m at the stage of considering how some important finished details will be handled. I need to be more thoughtful from now on and think a few steps ahead of my actual progress.

As I work on the model, there is another element in play that we seldom mention: Love.

There is a love for the process of model building and a love of craftsmanship. There’s also a growing love of the subject itself. I’m more intrigued than ever by the mass, the form and visual complexity of modern covered hoppers. On the surface or from a distance, they all look alike but they’re as individual as people. I want to express this feeling and those qualities through a model that personally satisfies me. To sum this up, I’m having a blast.

Freedom To Choose
I’ve been working with quarter-inch scale since 2006 or so. In that time I’ve had the privilege of meeting several highly skilled modelers who can build almost anything they want. I know people who don’t think twice about building or modifying trucks or making drivers from scratch to get exactly what they need.

I not only find inspiration in their work but also freedom; freedom to choose projects that fit their interests and freedom from an uncertain, fickle marketplace that characterizes this niche scale. With the current stress and the uncertainty that may or may not come in the future, investing in skills that can provide such freedom seems wise. With that said though, stress and uncertainty will pass with time. What matters is knowledge that, regardless of circumstances, we all have choices and the power to make them.



  1. Matthieu Lachance

    The three-foot-rule is the most ridiculous concept I’ve ever heard since I entered that hobby decades ago. Who really stand at 3 feet from its layout? As a kid, and even today, my viewing distance was between 3″ to 12″ and I’m pretty sure anybody with a decent interest in model train has the same standard… and it has absolutely nothing to do with scale. It’s simply a matter of being immersed into the modelscape.

    It is interesting to see tackle a RTR car detailing project after doing a full scratchbuilt. It probably equipped you with better knowledge of the prototype and how it is built, giving you more tools and a better angle to “attack” this new project.

  2. mike

    I have a similar viewing experience Matt. Standing next to my Mill Road cameo, I’m right at the front fascia. Given the shallow 16-inch depth of the scene, the train is never far away. The size of quarter-inch scale demands a higher level of detail. You really miss it compared to HO or N.

    You’re exactly right about the build. The experience with the failed scratch built versions taught me a great deal, which I will apply to the new effort.


  3. Rhett Graves

    My opinion, but the “three-foot rule” was an effort to give perfectionist modelers permission to do something less-than-perfect. Some people need that. Call it weak, call it a crutch, call it crummy craftsmanship…some folks need it. Otherwise they get paralyzed as they fixate on something not for the reason of modeling it well, but for fear that someone will point out their error. Sure, they should model for themselves, but the desire to please others is a real struggle for some.

    Seen in another light, the “three-foot rule” could be viewed as just taking a different perspective. Much as someone might back away from a piece of art in a museum to take it in, sometimes viewing our models from a different perspective evokes a different feeling. If the goal is to achieve a complete scene with the textures and colors that evoke a hard-working grain hopper during the fall wheat rush, does the thickness of the frame members matter? I still think it does, especially as the viewer is drawn in. But not until their perspective changes do these details really begin to matter. I think the real trick is to have models (structures, equipment, vegetation, vehicles etc.) that withstand the three-foot vantage point as well as the three-inch vantage point. The beauty of Proto48 is that the size immediately draws the viewer in to the scene to see things they haven’t seen before.

    I’m not trying to defend poor craftsmanship. I’m just trying to add understanding to why others may consider the “three-foot rule” of value.

  4. mike

    I”ve been thinking about how to respond to this Rhett but I just don’t know how and, I’ll leave it at that. I’ll simply say that the level of toxicity and dysfunction that many people inflict on themselves leaves me speechless.