In the past few weeks I’ve encountered a recurring topic from at least three different sources.

It started with a thread posted on the O Scale Trains Magazine Forum by Joe Giannovario titled: “What Will You Tolerate?” Joe’s central question was how much error, inaccuracy, etc. will you tolerate in a (commercial) model. He began with acknowledging the fact that traditional O scale has a six percent error (by his calculation) built into it from the start, being gauged at five feet or 1-1/4″ instead of the correct 1.117″ gauge.

Joe went on to cite an example of his own that revolved around a model with undersized drive wheels. He then asked what level or degree of error would people accept before rejecting a model as too flawed. Among the twenty-one responses as of April 20, 2013, the loose consensus seems to be that a model must be accurate in the basic proportions and key details such as driver size, dome shape and number, piping, appliances such as pumps, injectors, heater and so on. (Given Joe’s example, the discussion centered on steam engines.) Consumers are paying increasing amounts for any model and have a right to expect basic accuracy.

The other take-away from this thread is that there really isn’t a single view. At least one P48 modeler noted that the inherent six percent gauge error was intolerable for his tastes. Others among the traditional O scale camp had a range of opinions as to what was acceptable in a model and what wasn’t.

My second encounter came when reading an article by Jacq Damen about his scratchbuilt Mumby Lumber Company Mill model and layout in The Logging, Mining and Industrial Annual 2013 from Westlake Publishing. In the article, he outlined his desire to build a logging themed layout and his reasons for rejecting the many sawmill kits and related products on the market. His central reasons were that said kits were typically not based on full-sized mills and the machinery details lacked the quality he desired or such details were absent altogether.

Jacq’s remarks were quite matter-of-fact and not snide or sarcastic in any way. What caught my attention was a note from the editor and publisher, Russ Reinberg, at the end of the article. Russ made several very strong points about the state of the hobby and pulled no punches in his remarks. I will quote one very brief passage:

“Manufacturers of scale models, on the other hand, have a responsibility to offer accurate, highly detailed, excellent quality replicas, reflecting knowledge and research.”

I realize that I have taken this sentence out of the context of Russ’s full remarks and I encourage readers to seek out this issue and read his thoughts on page 76 in their entirety. A link will follow at the end of this post.

My third encounter was just the other day in a post on the ProtoModeler Forum bemoaning the inaccuracies of an HO model and the manufacturer’s seeming lack of research. It isn’t just O scale that suffers this malady.

What are we to conclude here?

I think this situation is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. It’s easy for ill-informed people to blame manufacturers for all the ills in the hobby and its products. Yet, enough of those same people keep throwing hard earned discretionary income toward these very same products, claiming that an imperfect model is better than no model at all. So are we equally culpable for enabling this dysfunctional situation to continue? Yes, we are. Enough of us anyway.

Simply put there are numerous camps of people with widely varying degrees of interest. There are those who simply don’t care. Period. Give them their toys, trains, models, whatever you wish to call them, and let them play. They’re happy. End of discussion.

There are people who do care but only to a point. “I’ll accept a six percent error, or a ten percent error; I don’t really care one way or another. If it’s too hard to fix, I’ll just ignore it. After all, they’re nothing but fancy toys and I’m having my fun.” End of that discussion.

There are people who care a great deal. Their satisfaction and enjoyment of the hobby is centered on building accurate models that are well researched and finely crafted. They do the arduous research needed to produce such models to their personal standards. They do it out of love and dedication and for numerous other reasons. Enough said, except they are the clear minority regardless of the scale chosen.

Where do things go?

The reality that I see is that there are innumerable “markets” within this hobby. The word consumer speaks volumes to me. I picture one who consumes, literally and figuratively speaking. “I don’t care what’s in the boxes, just keep the boxes coming.” As long as this segment keeps buying product, accurate or not, more such products will flood the market. This also applies to those who only care up to a point. As long as they keep buying product, more of the same product will follow.

The people who care a great deal also buy product. Perhaps not to the degree that others do, but they’re not without guilt in contributing to the situation. This group demands more from manufacturers. They are the ones who reject many products over flaws the others would readily accept. Furthermore, within this group are those who go their own way and ignore the mass market completely.

Within any segment or activity of society, there are consumers and producers. Consumers just consume resources. Producers make it possible for consumers to consume. We are both. To think that there is one “market” in this hobby is a delusion. There are subcategories of subcategories within each of the broad segments I’ve suggested here.

In a mass market economy, it is inevitable that lowest common denominator products rule. That’s the definition of mass in this context: stuff that appeals to the widest range of people as possible. Modelers who demand the utmost from themselves and the products they purchase aren’t going to change that no matter how much they complain. Most accept this as a fact of life and move on.

What’s become clear to me is that the hobby has changed a great deal as it reflects the changes in people’s attitudes. Yet, we still want to think of it in terms of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s when we all had far fewer distractions competing for our attention than we do today.

Furthermore, we’ve abdicated much of our personal responsibility toward how we derive satisfaction from the hobby. Too many become complacent in the abundance of choice now available in even the most obscure genre of modeling and scale. Yes, compared to fifty or sixty years ago, there is an abundance of everything.

I am as frustrated as anyone (probably more so than most) about what is being passed off to modelers, especially in quarter-inch scale and I’ve made my views well known on this blog. That said, I’m one lone, opinionated voice that few listen to. I’m not going to change anything and, while I personally and strongly agree with Mr. Reinberg’s views about the current state of the hobby, I don’t have a magic wand. There aren’t quick fixes or simplistic one-size-fits-all answers to satisfy everyone. I will just say as I’ve often said, this is a hobby of personal choice. You have the power to make choices regarding any and everything related to this hobby. Whining about it (I’m profoundly and inexcusably guilty as charged.) does nothing to resolve your dilemma. If I don’t like something, I don’t buy it. It’s that simple for me. If I truly want something, I will learn how to make it or make do without it. That puts me out on the fringe. Your mileage will vary.


O Scale Trains Magazine Forum Thread

Logging, Mining & Industrial Annual 2013



  1. Dunks

    Personally, I prefer to see dimensional accuracy over fine detail: the latter can always be added or refined, which leads to a personalised model. I fear that this is increasingly at odds with the mainstream, yet surely those who wish to assemble a layout or operate based on RTR are as in need of accurate models as those who wish to model to a high standard?

    Shape, proportion, texture and colour are possibly the most important features on a model. Shape and proportion are intimately entwined with dimensional accuracy. Texture with fine detail, and colour is something we can all work at.

    Indeed, my “modelling” as opposed to playing started with the removal of moulded guidelines for printing the paint scheme, replacement of moulded handrails with wire, and a reprint and weathering. The proportions of the model concerned, a Hornby 00 gauge class 25 detail were pretty good although not perfect, and it was worth the effort. I wouldn’t do the same with the better running Bachmann’s model which came along about 20 years later, as the cab front and roof are terrible (a mistake also made by them in other scales). Were I still modelling in 4mm scale, I would do what most others have done, and fit the body of one to the chassis of the other, with a bit detailing.

    Unlike some of their other models, which have been subject to revision following adverse comments in the model press and on-line, these models have remained unaltered. Poor research, poor reviews and an uncritical market have allowed this state to continue. Possibly this is related to when prototypes are withdrawn from revenue earning service, but there are plenty of class 25s (and class 24s) preserved.

    Whose responsibility?

    Everyone’s: manufacturer, reviewer and purchaser, all for being uncritical and accepting second best.

  2. mike

    Hi Simon,

    I waited for this length of time to respond because I wanted to think.

    The things you touched on are why I have a difficult time accepting the three-rail and five foot legacy gauge of O scale. Both willingly embrace a contradiction that can’t be resolved as presented.

    On the one hand, three-rail wants respect and legitimacy as an equal choice among the others. While on the other, those modelers are unwilling to depart from the historic toy train legacy that form the roots of three-rail. Legacy gauge does something similar, falling back on tradition and the way it’s always been done.

    While three-rail rolling stock may be getting more accurate with regard to dimensions and detailing, it simply falls apart once one looks below the side sill to the wheels and track. This is the unresolved contradiction, a reasonable scale model above coupled to a toy below. This is why modelers for whom a consistently scaled model throughout, is an important objective cannot accept three-rail as an equal choice; and, while five-foot legacy gauge comes closer, it too misses the mark, having a margin of error baked into it from the outset.

    Yet, in pointing this obvious discrepancy out, we are set upon with venomous anger because egos have become entangled with simple facts, as you pointed out in your recent blog post.

    Furthermore, as you’ve noted, this trend has steadily crept its way throughout the hobby and people willingly embrace it out of simple ignorance or far worse in my view, willful indifference.

    We agree that a healthier understanding of full-sized railroading benefits everyone involved in the hobby, whether they care or not. I think we also agree that those who have such knowledge share in a responsibility to help others.

    I don’t know the answer, or whether there even is one for the hobby as a whole. Ultimately, I feel that individuals need to take more responsibility for their own enjoyment of the hobby instead of abdicating it to others.

    Thanks for commenting on my long winded post Simon.


  3. Dunks

    Hi Mike,

    “I waited for this length of time to respond because I wanted to think.”

    Since I view your blog, and indeed all the published material I have seen from you, as though provoking as well as thoughtful (in every sense) I have no problems with that. Thoughtful posts take time – as an example, you have inspired yet another post on my own blog, one which which has been bubbling under for some time, on instant gratification.

    I know not all of them are on the web, or interested in posting their opinions, but I refuse to believe that we are the only two people who think like this in the hobby. It would be nice to hear some other opinions, and have a proper debate!


  4. mike

    “…I know not all of them are on the web, or interested in posting their opinions, but I refuse to believe that we are the only two people who think like this in the hobby. It would be nice to hear some other opinions, and have a proper debate!”

    Hi Simon,

    I have 101 subscribers to this blog if I’m reading things correctly. Of those, I figure 20% consistently read a given post each week. And, 20% of those folks may actually comment on occasion if they feel strongly enough about a topic.

    People are inundated with online noise, both useful and irrelevant. You’re an exceptionally engaged reader, for which I’m grateful. Most people, whether they agree or not, are simply indifferent to what’s said here. This is mostly entertainment for the majority of them.


  5. Dunks

    I like the idea of a blog as a means of conversation, but it would be nice if it went beyond a dialogue between two like-minded people.


  6. Ed Kozlowsky

    Mike and Simon,
    OK, so here’s a different opinion from a third party. I think you go over the top when you make statements like “enabling this dysfunctional situation to continue”. There’s nothing dysfunctional about the model train industry. They are supplying the average model railroader with product suitable to their needs at a reasonable price. Is it just as easy to get everything on a model accurate as it is with errors, and at the same price? Being in the manufacturing industry for nearly 50 years, I would say it is not. Even in extremely expensive, limited production products there comes a time when compromises have to be accepted and product shipped. On low margin toys, the situation is exacerbated by marketing schedules and tight budgets.

    I take no issue with the the quality concerns expressed on this blog when it comes to individual modelers output. But trying to apply that standard to product that was never intended to stand up to that kind of scrutiny is unfair. A Chevy is never going to be a Roller.

    Products today are so far superior to anything available 30, 40, or 50 years ago it’s like a different planet. But it’s still up to the individual modeler to do what’s necessary to bring things up to what they are willing to accept. I believe if perfect models were available in O Scale right out of the box, the majority of prototype modelers would switch scales so they could still modify things to suit themselves. That’s not meant to be a criticism. It’s simply that different people like to do different things.

    Folks who built Quality Craft, Perma-Built, Central Valley, Thomas, etc. kits used to be called craftsman. Now these products would be laughed at by today’s “craftsmen”. By the way, everyone is a consumer. It’s not a dirty word.

  7. mike

    Hi Ed,
    Good to hear from you and thanks for commenting.

    …”I think you go over the top when you make statements like “enabling this dysfunctional situation to continue”. There’s nothing dysfunctional about the model train industry. They are supplying the average model railroader with product suitable to their needs at a reasonable price.”

    Yes and, therein is part of the problem. Looking at the words you quoted in their context, I’m not bashing the manufacturing industry. There isn’t anything dysfunctional about manufacturing, they are doing as you suggest. What has become dysfunctional are the expectations.

    The original topic was Joe’s question of how much error is too much. What everyone is tip-toeing around is this: In this hobby what makes one object a scale representation of a full size object, as opposed to a caricature of one?

    …”I take no issue with the the quality concerns expressed on this blog when it comes to individual modelers output. But trying to apply that standard to product that was never intended to stand up to that kind of scrutiny is unfair. A Chevy is never going to be a Roller.”

    Yes and, I agree That may have been the impression I gave. but, here is where things get muddy in this scale. You have people on both sides of this argument doing exactly that.

    …”Products today are so far superior to anything available 30, 40, or 50 years ago it’s like a different planet. But it’s still up to the individual modeler to do what’s necessary to bring things up to what they are willing to accept.”

    Yes, which is why I repeatedly emphasize that people take responsibility for their own enjoyment of this hobby, rather than bitch and moan about things out of their control.

    …”By the way, everyone is a consumer. It’s not a dirty word.”

    Yes and, I believe I acknowledged that in the original post.


  8. Dunks

    Hi Ed,

    I agree with your general points: but if a manufacturer can get the proportions right in the 70s, why can’t another one do this in the 90s? My example was chosen to illustrate poor basic research and an uncritical consumer base. I fully accept that different people like to do different things – indeed, life would be boring if thy didn’t – but in the context of when is it not a toy, but a scale model, I would say, it is when a model is dimensionally accurate, has a reasonable level of detail such that the obvious features are present, and painted in an authentic scheme. These basics can be got right: it’s then up to individual modellers to decide if they wish to refine things, add more detail, etc. If the basics at fundamentally wrong, then I won’t buy the product. I don’t expect wire ladders and wire mesh running boards, but if I can remove those applied in order to replace them on an otherwise accurate model, I am happy.

    Personally, I view the visual compromises that result from using 1.25″ gauge track with over scale wheels in 1:48 scale too much, as I do in S scale where trucks may be compromised to accommodate hi-rail wheels and make volume production possible, but trucks can be swapped out, so I am happy to accept this if the rest of the freight car is accurate. I am not building a basement empire to support half a dozen crews, a dispatcher and TTO running. But we’re I more operationally inclined (and a lot more wealthy!) I would still want the basic freight cars to be the right shape, size and colour. I am quite happy (indeed, this is my own personal preference!) to spend time and more importantly money improving/altering/refining/upgrading a model to take it closer to scale, but there are limits and if I am to support the trade, I need basic dimensions to be as close to scale as is practicable within manufacturing realities.

    A critical consumer base, prepared to pay a bit more maybe, and prepared to say when a model is below par, but also prepared to accept that the Pareto principle operates on models as well as elsewhere (that final 20% of detail will increase the cost 5-fold, but the core 80% of basic proportion, etc, is available at a reasonable price) and manufacturers that ok towards this, is really all that Mike is asking for, I think. I may be wrong, of ourse, but I hope not!


  9. Dunks

    “What everyone is tip-toeing around is this: In this hobby what makes one object a scale representation of a full size object, as opposed to a caricature of one?”

    Does that question not answer itself? How can it be a scale representation, if it is not to scale?

    But this may not be practical. Very fine details such as grab handles may not be robust in smaller scales if applied as separate details, but could be incorporated into the basic moulding. The scale modeller can then carefully remove the moulding, and replace it with a metal casting, piece of wire, or what have you. Some details could be simply omitted, on the grounds of cost, creating opportunities for the “after market”. If the basic proportions are correct, then I suppose (to split hairs) we could call the object a “scale toy”, and after the object has been worked upon, it becomes a “scale model”.

    But to get back to what I think is the driver behind this issue: are standard 0 gauge trucks a tolerable compromise for 1:48 models? Or to go one step further, is it acceptable for mix models in 3 different scales (1:32, 1:30.5 and 1:29 all supposedly Gauge 1) on the same gauge of track?

    Personally speaking, this is not a tolerable compromise: as there is no reason for a modeller interested in getting things right to work close to if not at Proto:whatever track and wheel standards. However, an O scale truck running on 1.1/4″ gauge track, with over-scale wheels, loses the correct relationship between the trucks and the body – the more so with older period models.

    I suppose that what I am saying is that the key dimension is that over the wheel faces. This suggests, for example, use of semi-scale standards combined with a slightly under-scale track gauge is tolerable.For example in 4mm scale, EM wheelsets are 21.1mm over the faces of the wheels, and a scale wheelset is 21.37mm over the faces. I could live with that (but would prefer a Proto:76.2 approach as the track looks better), but 00 (less than 20mm) would be a step too far for me.

    Personal taste, but as I have said many times in this discussion, it is all about proportion, and the easiest way to achieve this is to model as close to scale as is practicable.

  10. mike

    Hi Simon,

    It does answer itself. A miniature representation is built to a specific scale or it isn’t. What we have, what we have always had, are models of mixed scales or proportions, with the car body done to one scale ratio and the running gear (wheels, drive rods, and the rest of the mechanism) often done to another. This is standard practice regardless of modeling scale in the hobby, mostly due to manufacturing realities from decades ago. Today, manufacturing tolerances are much finer and cost effective than in the earliest days when the historic wheel and gauge standards were codified.

    Organizations like the NMRA have tried to stay current, but old habits and practices die hard in all quarters of this hobby. (Manufacturing, editorial and consumer sides.) With margins so tight and getting tighter for hobby products, simple market forces dictate that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Retooling is expensive, sourcing quality parts and suppliers is expensive and often maddening. Further, since many manufacturers are small, even minuscule operations, they don’t have the resources to pivot on the whims of the consumer.

    I completely agree on the original premise of this discussion. The basics of any model product have to be done right. Get the core dimensions and basic proportions on target or don’t bother producing something. Obviously, the gauge error of five-foot is unacceptable for me, because I consider these things to be fundamental. An eight inch error in driver diameter reflects a segment of the hobby market with a completely different mindset and sensibilities from mine.

    This situation isn’t going away, no matter how much we wish it would. As long as people are willing to purchase grossly compromised products, they will continue to be produced. Mindsets are too entrenched along with trainloads of legacy equipment that is primed to flood the used market sooner than we think. What we need to accept is this: there are people who care and many more who don’t give a damn about any of this.

    In American 1/4″ scale, three-rail products and sensibilities rule the mass market. Period. That’s where the money went and manufacturers followed the money. Five-foot two-rail is becoming shrinking the no man’s land. Once the existing generation of legacy modelers propping it up pass on, new products will likely dry up quickly. P48 is poised to see good growth from maturing smaller scale modelers who are used to, will expect and, demand better quality products. The P48 market is comprised of individuals who know and appreciate the differences people like us care about. When the numbers of these newer quality conscious modelers reach a critical point, the shift will start in earnest. In fact, it’s beginning now.

    I know my views are not popular in this area. People just don’t want to hear them. Thankfully, the people who complain the loudest don’t read this blog. I may be wrong and likely am with some aspects. However, this is what I see coming over the horizon and I’ve been looking for quite a while.

    Ultimately, for people like us Simon, and those who do care about the quality of their work and how the hobby is presented; we are the ones who bear the responsibility of moving it forward and preserving it for future generations. If we didn’t care, this conversation wouldn’t be taking place. The best we can do is set personal standards and stick to them, while letting others do the same. But those of us who can, need to tell a better story about this hobby and our reasons for pursuing as we do. Yes, we’ll get hammered by the indifferent and intolerant. The question to be answered is, if a thriving, quality driven hobby is worth it, and benefits all concerned, why wouldn’t we fight for it?


  11. Dunks

    I thought some about all this, and went back to the original thread, too.

    Although 1.25″ gauge is described as a 6% error, I think it depends which way one goes: 6% over is far more “damaging” to proportions than 6% under.

    In the context of drivers being undersized, there is some lee-way, as real locomotive wheels can be re-profiled when they become worsen, which reduces their diameter. In the UK this can be up to 3″ off the diameter. In addition, the key dimension is the diameter over the flanges: there are some steam engines (one of the Great Northern Railway atlantics in York Museum, for example) where it is not possible to put one’s fingers between the flanges, but it also affects the look of things. Modellers not using scale, or close to scale, wheel standards, have it easier here, but at times – the aforementioned Atlantic, for example – they have no choice but to use undersized wheels. Of course, this is not about a percentage error any more, merely using prototype practice to our advantage. And this kind of knowledge, so useful for those lees concerned with following prototype practice, only comes from being more concerned with prototype practice!

    Oh, the irony of it all!

    In S scale, I am told that maybe 16% of the market is not “hi-rail”, but that still equates to a few hundred people. As such, any sensible manufacturer will maximise sales by making models as close to scale as possible, even if some paint schemes might be fictional. As long as I can fit scale wheels and couplers to begin with, and retrofit better trucks, finer details, and a correct paint scheme at my leisure, I will be happy. Many details can be fabricated if not bought. The biggest challenge is frequently the lettering/heralds.

    Look at such ranges as S Scale America, or S Helper Service, or the old Pacific Rail Shops: It is possible for manufacturers to get things to the point where all markets are satisfied. As a fine scale/ Proto:64 modeller, I expect to do some work refining and altering models, all I ask is that the models are correctly proportioned, and if they are, I can buy them.

    As Ed said, if everything was perfect out of the box, I would chose a different scale!