Words have meaning. For example: we’re repeatedly informed that scratchbuilding is “too hard”, that “nobody scratchbuilds anymore” and that scratchbuilding is a “waste” of time because there’s so much ready-to-run available. Three mantras that you don’t have to look very far or hard to find.

Let’s break this down.

What, precisely, is “too hard?” (Insert the theme music from the Final Jeopardy portion of the TV show here.)

Hard is a relative word. As used above it’s a whiney excuse used by people unwilling to try something new or different. What we’re actually talking about is degrees of difficulty.

If we’re speaking of things that are difficult, we must acknowledge that what is difficult for me may be simple for another due to innate ability or more experience and practice. As applied to basic scratchbuilding, cutting a straight line is difficult, until you’ve learned how and practiced the technique a few (dozen) times. What is difficult initially, yields to time and practice, a simple formula that’s true regardless of the skill level you apply it toward. Kind of takes the wind out of that “it’s too hard” sail wouldn’t you agree?

Nobody scratchbuilds anymore
Really? Absolutely no one? I guess the folks exhibiting at the RPM meets didn’t get the memo. Maybe fewer people are scratchbuilding now than in times past but NOBODY? Calling that bluff  and enough said.

And finally (trumpet fanfare please)…

With all the ready-to-run product available at the mere swipe of a credit card, why would anyone possibly want to waste their time scratchbuilding? I mean geez, come on dude get a clue, I’ve got an empire to build.

Why scratchbuild? Maybe those wonderful benevolent manufacturers can’t make a profit on the obscure prototype I enjoy modeling. Maybe I’ve chosen a scale and era combination that doesn’t attract a commercial interest, oh, like say, for example, modern day in P48. Maybe, just maybe, I’m an old school dinosaur who still enjoys working with my hands and learning a new thing or two? Maybe my sense of personal satisfaction from a scratchbuilt structure or car is just as important to me as that ready-to-run enabled triple deck empire is to you?

Back to the top
If we accept the concept that words have meaning is true (and I do), then it stands to reason that the words we use to define things will influence our view of and response to those things.

On this blog I deliberately use the terms craft or practice instead of hobby. These words reflect an intent and speak of a different mindset. This strikes me as important because such language evokes a different set of expectations.

I chose to think of scale modeling as a craft, and yes, even as an art form. I strive to bring a craftsman’s mindset and ethic to the work and an artist’s eye for grace, form and simplicity, because I don’t see any difference between scale modeling and other traditional crafts such as woodworking, scuplture or pottery. Craft is craft, art is art, creating is creating.

When I use language like this, people’s eyes just roll and glaze over because the power of those words chaff against their comfortable meanings and traditions and soon the battle cry will be sounded: “Whoa now, let’s all settle down and remember, it’s just a hobby!”

Well, so what? My question is: why do we insist on such a narrow and increasingly shallow definition for an activity that has such unlimited potential for enriching our lives?

How does it enrich our lives? I can only provide my own answers.

As with painting or drawing, in approaching a subject for scratchbuilding I quickly realize how little I truly know about it and how shallow my observation has been. Like many I tend to settle for mere surface impressions without going deeper into understanding the true nature of a subject. However to build an accurate model, I need to immerse myself into the nature of that subject. Many questions must be answered, some obvious and others less so. Such inquiries  reflect a spirit of curiosity that permeates my approach to life.

Scratchbuilding reveals how quickly I get frustrated and it destroys any pretense about my abilities. This is more than a matter of temperament, it’s a reflection of insights and teachable moments about personal integrity.  An edge is straight or it isn’t. A part is accurate or it isn’t. These stubborn facts show me how quickly I’m willing to compromise or not. These moments and dozens more all grant an opportunity to learn and exercise different patterns of thought, which in turn lead to better outcomes.

Let’s consider a different tack, was history boring in school? Is researching the line you’re modeling boring? It’s called self-directed learning and scale modeling/railroad modeling is an outstanding classroom and opportunity we’re squandering because of how we’ve defined it to ourselves.

What do you want?
Why do we derisively sneer at and belittle such thinking? Why do we so freely, loudly and enthusiastically proclaim this hobby is the greatest thing since sliced bread; declare our undying love for it and then so freely, even proudly compromise the hell out of it because, as some insist, it’s just a hobby? Isn’t there enough compromised shoddy crap in the world? I simply can’t understand why people willingly embrace such a mentality.

I’m not here to dictate to others, nor do I give a wit about the vacuous intimidation tactics of those who have no argument or defense for their position. I believe this craft amply rewards whatever you bring of yourself to it and the more you bring to it, the greater the rewards.

In the end I decide what this work is to me and the meaning it brings into my life and you get to decide the same.



  1. PKelly

    In my decades of abbreviated and fragmented railroading I’ve scratch built one structure…in 1984…a small feed mill based on the local prototype, rr historical society track sketches, Sanborn Insurance maps, old pictures, standing next to it and feeling/experiencing it. It turned out so-so for a first attempt but was a decent match for the prototype-based track plan. I’ve since built (ahem…assembled) numerous prefab kits that blur together like so much copy-paste rubber stamped generic scenery that could just as easily have been rocks or trees. Recollections of that crude yet satisfying first attempt at scratch building stand out in my memory because “I built that” to replicate a particular scene. The physical results were short lived (off to college) but the emotional results survive to this day.

  2. Simon

    Interesting question, which I shall answer with a question.
    If I were narrow minded, would I be reading this blog?

  3. mike

    In case I didn’t make it clear, I used the term “we” generically and in reference to those who can’t envision any definition or purpose to scale modeling beyond the narrow confines of tradition.


  4. Simon

    Yes, but my point is, the people who have a narrow vision are unlikely to be reading this blog, or those of the various readers who comment. I think a more interesting question, and certainly more practical one, is to ask how to engage with the defensive and glib? How can we set out our stall in a way which encourages them to have a go? How do we do this without being accused of elitism?

    The narrow-mindedness of which you speak is a microcosm of problems, if problems they are, of society and culture at large: we have become obsessed with acquiring things (wealth, objects, qualifications) rather than the means for acquiring them (hard work, craft, skills). As soon as something gets hard, too often “we” give up, and hope that someone else has solved the problem for us, which we can then buy.

    Personally, I think a state of permanent self-improvement is enriching an life-affirming. When I am in “hobby mode” I take that with me. It is certainly not “just a hobby”: it is far more than that. It is a big part of me being just that: me. Why on earth would I want to be dismissive of that?

  5. mike


    How did we get here in the first place? By relentless example from the commercial press that established the norm. The magazines set a standard, in effect saying this is how we do things around here.

    Reversing this on a wholesale basis isn’t practical, nor even desirable. However on an individual basis, those who identify with the message and ethic on display need to know this is how craft is done here. By putting forth a consistent example of craft and excellence, people will know if this is the place they want to be, or not.

    They choose, just as we have.

    As for the empty rhetoric of being elitist, my response is this: this is my point of view. You, as an individual don’t have to like or embrace it but I’m going to put it out because others might want to hear it.

  6. Chris Mears

    Good morning Mike

    I’ve been reflecting a lot on this post since first reading it. I had a few thoughts that I’m really struggling to arrange in a decent comment (so here goes, anyway).

    Have we made scratchbuilding and modelmaking appear too hard to the prospective new modeller? Have we made it too intimidating? With so much media for sharing the great work of the masters we all enjoy doing just that. We see something great and we share it immediately. In an effort to describe the model we speak in terms of the time, the skill, and similar metrics. I believe we do so as an act of appreciation and to acknowledge just how much effort great work takes but do we inadvertantly develop criteria to establish how far we are away from being able to do the same? Or even try? After all, I’m just a regular guy with some basic tools. Instead of presenting the model and praising the result I continue to look for the story behind it and the work that preceeded it. It’s in these memories that we’re exposed to the experience of what it is to make things. More so, it presents the work on a more human scale and asks the audience to identify with the modeller’s own personal growth.

    The current Model Railway Journal magazine opens with a fantastic 2mm scale layout. It would have been easy to present the layout for what it is: the locomotives are all scratchbuilt, the track is all handlaid, the control is all DCC, the layout is massive; it’s all finescale. Heck, most folks consider any kind of N scale or those scales close to N as being too small to just play with let alone to scratchbuild. Instead of this path, the actual article is a record of the modeller’s journey to the current layout.

    I remembered an article Hal Reigger wrote about N scale traction modelling. He confessed that no one had ever told him he couldn’t and that the models would never work. As a result he went on to fill an actual boxcar with a huge layout that included handlaid track and most of it under working overhead.

    In both examples we’re presented with modellers who have done great things. We’re fortunate that each opened up to share with us that they weren’t always masters in their craft. I appreciate how much they’ve learned and am grateful that each were provided with an opportunity to tell their story. Each reflect on their growth as a modelmaker and what they learned along the way and how sometimes, some things don’t work out. I don’t know about everyone who read these articles but I saw a lot of myself in those words and it reminded me that we all start somewhere and if we stick to it we can all amaze ourselves.


  7. Simon

    I have read the phrase, “No one told us that what we were planning was impossible, so we simply went ahead and did it,” (or words to that effect) a number of times. There’s something in that: not sure what.

    But on your point about time and skill, well, I don’t know what to say. If something is easy for everyone, there is no real skill involved. If some can easily do it and others find it difficult, then there is a degree of natural ability/aptitude involved which makes it easier for some, but possibly less rewarding. Why so? If it is easy, then there is little accomplishment. If it takes time and practice, then the effort involved makes the success sweeter.

    We don’t need mases of tools to make good models. We do need a few, and they need to be of good quality: the key is to become familiar with the tools and materials. We will all find some modelling tasks easier than others. Time is the only resource available to address these needs. But time spent learning is not a wasted resource, as the examples you quote prove: the 2mm layout in MRJ is very much the product of several years’ work. I cannot imagine that Hal Reigger filled a real boxcar overnight, either!

    I think that nothing more is required than a desire to succeed, and a realistic view of the time which may be involved. If someone finds that intimidating, then the only way to encourage them is to perhaps share our failures?


  8. Chris Mears

    Thanks Simon, I agree with your thoughts.

    It’s those stories of time and curiousity I look forward to reading about. I tend to think these are where we take the edge off the intimidation that can come packaged with learning something new.

    You’re absoloutely correct in pointing out that neither of the examples I provided were overnight projects. What so impressed me (and I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better example) with the MRJ article was the way the author communicated how his approach had evolved over time. The layout itself changed in design and size coinciding with house moves and life changes but through it all the joy of building the models themselves perservered. So often we only hear about the current layout and it can be hastily presented in a fashion that makes it seem like it just started out perfect and lose sight of the investment of self it takes to get there.

    I worry that we present the images of an expert as an absoloute where really what we need is an ongoing sharing of “how I got to here” and “what I think has worked so far”. Hopefully in these examples we prove the value of trying something out and sticking to it long enough to grow and develop a lifetime’s appreciation for the hobby. I know it’s worked for me. I hope others try out some deeper waters and realise that same satisfaction.

    Merry Christmas


  9. mike

    Greeting guys,

    Oh where do I begin?

    First, I love comments like these. They make all the work put into this blog worthwhile. Thank you. I’ll begin with Chris’s first comment.

    “Have we made scratchbuilding and modelmaking appear too hard to the prospective new modeller? Have we made it too intimidating?”

    I suggest that scratchbuilding hasn’t changed that much over the years. Indeed, it’s gotten easier thanks to Evergreen styrene and Kappler stripwood. If it seems more difficult, I feel it’s because the bar of accomplishment has been lowered to such an extent that a drunken ant wouldn’t trip over it. To your larger point, I agree fully that we have done a horrid job of conveying the depth and breadth of the journey one can take with this craft. I feel strongly that we do no one any favors by glossing over the time and effort involved to do first class work. But we can do much better at showing the process as a journey.

    I recently switched my reading to selected biographies. (Just finished Walt Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.) As you follow the sweep of a subject’s life and accomplishments, you’re able to see how the dots were connected. Also, you come to understand the amount of work involved in outstanding accomplishment. As you both have suggested, this perspective and context is sorely lacking in our literature.

    “…do we inadvertantly develop criteria to establish how far we are away from being able to do the same? Or even try? After all, I’m just a regular guy with some basic tools.”

    That’s a valid question to ask. I’m as guilty as anyone at perpetuating the mystique of high end craftsmanship, only because such work and the dedication and focus it requires fascinates me so. I see myself as a mediocre craftsman because my reach far exceeds my grasp. I’ve read a lot about how talent and skill are developed and the process isn’t voodoo or rocket science. It’s what I’ve shared here many times: practice and time. There simply is no other way to master something.

    My toolbox is as basic as it comes. Beyond the requisite Dremel rotary tool, my only other power tool is a Micro-Mark miniature drill press. These serve my needs quite nicely, as I’ve found numerous ways to use them that are not covered in the manual. As Simon observes, it’s the creativity of the modeler rather than the depth of his tool box.

    But, back to Chris’s point.

    Recently, I re-read an interview Bill Clouser gave to Bob Hegge (two early icons of quarter-inch scale finescale movement) published in the March 1971 issue of Model Railroader. In his comments, Clouser, a professional modelmaker, told how he carved out his own path for modeling rather than follow the example of others. This was mainly because there were few examples to follow in 1939 and the later post war period. But also, he felt the prototype was the best guide to follow, rather than adopt the compromised mindset and bias of other hobbyists. I found this a telling insight that speaks a similar message as Hal Reigger’s. He didn’t know you couldn’t do things like build to exact scale standards, so he just did it anyway. Anybody working in P48 today owes him a huge debt.

    Simon’s comment about a desire to succeed as an internal driver for accomplishment is spot on as is your observation that an ongoing dialogue of here’s what I’ve learned.

    These are all things that people don’t want to hear today. There are no shortcuts, no magic wands to wave that absolve a modeler from putting in the effort required. This is what I was trying to get at in my original post, that the words we use define the manner in which we pursue the craft. By narrowly defining things as just a hobby, that’s supposed to be fun, we’ve stripped the idea of craft and excellence away. Simon asked earlier about reversing the trend: we do it one heart, one mind at a time.

    Thank you gentlemen. Look forward to more of your thoughts.


  10. Simon

    The late Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool AFC (soccer club) famously described the passion of his players and even more so of the club’s famously loyal supporters with the following phrase:

    “It’s not a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that.”

    Many dismiss this as glib or facetious, but actually there is a lot in it. Life or death is a matter of existence, and a binary state. Obviously, most of us choose life, but the question goes nowhere near that. A hobby, a sport (playing or supporting) a significant relationship, the arts: these all enrich us, these all give our lives meaning. As such it is worthwhile, and the process is as meaningful as the enrichment the achievement brings.

    “It’s just a hobby” reduces that enrichment to something without meaning. It makes the hobby trivial. It isn’t trivial – but neither does that excuse the boorishness that we too often see, particularly online. It’s worthwhile enough to be respectful.

    I have probably said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: nothing of value comes except through hard work. You can replace “value” with “satisfaction”, and it makes even more sense within the hobby.

    Whilst it would be lovely to be a self-made millionaire, I’d hate to be the son of one!


  11. mike

    I think, here, the language provides an insight. “Fun” is supposed to be effortless, as easy as falling off a log. Working at something, striving toward a goal, expending focused effort (sports not withstanding), these are what you do when you’re not having fun. With this narrow definition of a hobby portrayed as little more than a recreational endeavor, why on earth would you want to work at it? Just relax, chill, have fun playing train for a while.

    I again emphasize that I’m not here to dictate or impose my definition on the world. I simply suggest there are other ways to pursue this activity, that may be equally enjoyable and gratifying to those who choose that path. (Edit: this is for the benefit of anyone reading this blog for the first time.)

    I’m certainly not opposed to the concept of using the craft as recreation, but I wonder about the long-term repercussions of limiting the conversation to the ideas embodied by the phrase: it’s just a hobby. People are fickle to a fault, what was fun yesterday is boring today. An amusement park is fun for a day but who wants to live in one? With all the handwringing about bringing new people into the craft, have we sown the seeds of its extinction with this limited concept?