Spoiled for choice

Chris Mears made some wonderful observations in a comment and follow-up post to my post, Where to. You should go read Chris’s writing, because it is dense enough that you will almost certainly take something different from it than I do.

Let me precis my primary takeaway from Chris’s post and comment: the adoption of technology in the hobby has served not just to move the hobby forward, but to expand the scope of choice within the hobby. That expansion enables many more voices and narratives to join the conversation, which enriches us all; at the same time, the hobby changes in a way that not all of us want.

Unless you were a tremendously wealthy model railroader 80 years ago, the club was your only option; there you would take the locomotive you had scratchbuilt out of flattened tin cans, a Mel Thornburgh article and a pint of blood to haul your friends’ similarly birthed freight cars. Four decades later, injection molding, miniature motors and flex track meant that even modellers of relatively modest means could bring a club experience into their homes – provided they wanted to model the Pennsy. Over the next twenty years, those with an aversion to Belpaire boilers introduced us to cast resin and etched brass, and applying Thornburgh-like skill and dedication, they could model most any prototype.

Meanwhile the RTR manufacturers made friends in China and lowered even that bar to entry, pushing the craftsman into an ever-narrower corner of the hobby. Why would you spend weeks cutting the ends off boxcars and replacing them with corrected cast resin parts when you could pay 25% more and get a superior model?

Now with Laser cutting and 3D printing, even that corner is rapidly dwindling to nothing. These technologies enable the replication of any prototype for which information can be found or invented. The stories we can tell with our model railroads are limited only by our imaginations.

Despite friends like Andrew Hutchinson and Mike Cougill, who doggedly value the craftsmanship that defines the hobby’s past, I hadn’t considered how some might see the technological changes as loss. After all, they still sell food in tin cans, and Mel Thornburgh’s articles are still available. As Chris points out, despite the easy accessibility of DCC, you can still control your trains with an analogue controller. Technological change has not cut any avenues off, but simply widened the options available to the average modeller.

But that’s not quite true, is it, and I think Mike’s (hopefully temporary) break from the hobby underscores this well. As Chris points out, each new technology asks us to decide if we will incorporate it into our hobby or not.

My grandfather decried all plastic, and I’m sure his contemporaries included those who turned their backs on the first injection-molded model trains. They were soon left in the dust by the mainstream, and the few exquisite examples of their cardboard models that survive1 seem quaint today. The prototype modellers, emboldened and empowered by the resin revolution, chased all but the most intrepid freelancers and their relettered Pennsy steam into closets. The incredible prototype-themed basement monsters facilitated by the golden age of cheap manufacturing overseas chasten the rest of us with inadequacy.

Today, it seems that if you’re not filling a football stadium with Rapido’s, PWRS’s and ExactRail’s latest wonders from China and hosting monthly operating sessions with a football team-sized crew, you’re not doing the hobby right. That is today’s mainstream, and the rest of us – the small layout-owners, the freelancers, the old fashioned craftsmen – see a hobby that has largely moved away from the one we love. Yes, we can still flatten tin cans on our kitchen tables while the soldering irons heat up on the hob, but we’re a lonely bunch if we do.

So I understand Chris when he says, “I no longer hear the music.” There was once a CDS-rubbing party every Thursday in most sizeable towns across the country. Those parties are no more; the band has packed up, never to return.

I am delighted that Chris ends his post on an optimistic note. His observation that the diversity in the hobby afforded by all these choices – plastic or card, flex or handlaid, RTR or resin, Pennsy or freelance, analogue or DCC, 3D printing or not – invites a much broader range of people into the hobby. I am so heartened and inspired by the sparse hobbyists beavering away on continents where there are no beavers – South America and Asia. People are good for the hobby, but more importantly, people are good for each other, and the hobby is good for them.

However, if the only narrative that is available when they come is the basement monster, we will lose all those without such resources or inclination. It is imperative that alternative voices continue to speak, both online and in the press, so we are not drowned out by those admittedly impressive achievements. We should celebrate the crafts-people among us, laude the tiny but perfect layouts, and support the tinkerers pushing the boundaries of the hobby.

Tin squashers of the world unite!

1 At least I hope the ones I’m thinking of passed from Denny Anspach’s collection to a safe new home when he passed away.

Image is the Vale scene at Pendon. While certainly, a monster, it is the very antithesis of the RTR-fuelled mainstream basement monster.

22 thoughts on “Spoiled for choice

  1. Hi Rene,
    As ever, a fascinating and thoughtful post that really hits the spot for me!
    Years ago, I had a good club colleague and friend called Tim S. and we used to discuss all manner of things, railway related but I noticed that we often seemed to end up in a kind of competition, that of who had the most models!
    Whilst this kind of thing is good for the manufactures, this collectors frenzy didn’t suit me at all, we both wanted to operate trains but I needed to get away from simply buying more and more trains!
    I have struggled for a long time since to really grasp what it is that I want from this hobby but thanks to you and folks like you, it is slowly dawning on me that I want to create models, not simply buy trains!
    Best regards,
    John, now in Greece.

  2. I was away from active participation in the hobby for many years because I found it difficult to pursue while serving in the Navy. It was truly a shock when i came back and saw the extent to which control systems, DCC, DCS and TMCC had swept across the modelling world in the interim. I began my return in in HO, but had several models left over in O Scale, and really appreciated the size. As an O Gauger I was also very impressed with the detailed models now available for the three rail crowd. It really pulled me back in.
    I think the variety and sophistication in the modern hobby is wonderful and I look forward to many more more years of it. There has been a major setback. MTH is going to close down because the owner has decided to retire, and though his control system will live on, there is now going to be a huge gap in what’s available, especially when it comes to 19th Century equipment. I may have keep the tin cans out of recycling to carry on, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

  3. Well now I don’t feel bad about taking 5+ years to complete a 100% scratch build model that still isn’t done. Sure, I could switch scales, pay a huge amount of money for a limited production brass model that may or may not be still available on the second hand market but what would the joy in that be? Instead, I will continue to plug along learning new technologies, methods and diving into research. I would have never thought of making my own photos etch until you started blogging about the process.


    1. Thanks Craig. I am thrilled to hear that you find value in my blog! Yes, you are definitely forging a new path in large scale. Thanks so much for sharing your work through the modellers’ meet this year. We’re looking forward to hearing more.

  4. I’m struck by the question “what does it mean to be in the hobby” when the fact that I’m here pretty much says “you’re in the hobby.” How I practice it won’t match anyone else but so what? If it satisfies your chosen path around representing railroads, you’re in. I have been feeling for some time the sadness of seeing the hobby seemingly compressing as people aged and layouts I revered disappeared. But the advent of both the makers (like Cougill) and the technologists (3D printers and laser cutters like Kempinski) are breathing an amazing new breath into the hobby. And, at least they are building and following their muse! I follow British narrow gauge via Narrow Gauge & Industrial and the excitement in Europe for the hobby seems as strong as ever. Visiting two Expo NG conventions in the last 5 years confirms this. The forums and discussion groups are as busy as ever and prototype research feeds the hobby in ever-increasing ways. If new technology, including the internet, equals energy and growth, let it come!

    Personally, being older, I’m sticking to hand cutting and DC power for now (1 engine in steam is my preference) but the idea of learning CAD and getting a 3D printer to develop parts becomes ever more enticing. I’ll never have a pantograph nor machining skills, I don’t have time and have too many interests and 3D answers many gaps. For now, I’ve got a multi-year plan to build four small layouts to increasingly develop and refine my skills; basement monsters be damned! 10′ overall for this planned sequence of layouts: first an HOn3 based on the DSPP in Ohio City to refine skills and get something in place quickly; then jump to N Scale for a representation of the CPR barge operation on Lake Kootenay at Lardeau; then a jump back to HOn3 and a bit larger space to build Central City near full size in about 16 linear feet. On the side, tinker with a micro industrial O14 layout using the equipment I’ve accumulated over the years. All focused on doing this primarily by hand, including laying code 40 track. Now, to just stop being sucked into discussion forums and research and actually start cutting baseboards!

      1. Not yet, it’s all in planning…notebooks full of design ideas, folders full of maps and photos. Maybe once I get started.

  5. I think the explosion of model railroading on social networks has really benefited the hobby, and helped make it OK for those with shelf layouts or less-than-basement-monster layouts to talk with each other and share tips and inspiration. There certainly was a period of time when the view of model railroading through the Kalmbach lens showed that basement monsters and fine detail was the pinnacle to be yearned for. Nowadays there are lots of examples of people being perfectly happy with six feet of layout, and good for them.

    1. These were my thoughts exactly. Like Lionel Strang keeps talking about in his “A Modeler’s Life” [sic] podcast: social media has opened doors for the hobby in the same way as it has for so many other aspects of life, taking control of how we view things away from a few, large publishing media outlets and allowing the many diverse voices to have the chance to be heard. If anything, I find there is a rejection of the basement-filling empire full of RTR equipment that the hobby press continues to push. It is the craftspeople in the hobby who are demonstrating that there is, indeed, something here for any taste, skill, and interest.

  6. I find the diversity in the hobby exciting. When I edit an edition of LB&SCR Modellers’ Digest http://www.lbscr.org/Models/Digest/LBSCR-Modellers-Digest-11.pdf
    it is likely to cover all sorts of different approaches. I don’t think we have had anyone using flattened tins cans for material so far, but there is a wide range from the “solder and singed fingers” brigade to “virtual modellers”, who rearrange bits and bytes. All have something to offer.

  7. While we describe this hobby by its output – those models we create and collect – it’s still about the person doing the action steps somewhere in the spectrum between flattening cans and opening boxes. I never attended a CDS party but I sure used a lot of their sets to decorate N scale models as a teenager. Maybe the modern equivalent to that CDS party is the new regular operating session? Instead of gathering around the decoration of models our community now animates a miniature railway.

    I always wonder if the number of modellers making things is like a constant in the equation of the hobby’s population but as the number of those who collect models increases the proportion changes? During that change a moment when we feel like I did when I bought my last CDS set: a little left behind and like a foreigner in tomorrow’s world. Add to this the way that our hobby has changed thanks to the way communication has evolved we’re exposed to so many more beacons we can measure ourselves against.

    I was watching a Railwaymania podcast on Youtube today. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the guests were leveraging the current hobby scene to remix the hobby into something exciting. When I was little I’d leaf through a magazine and try and scratchbuild models to look like the ones in the pictures. Listening to the Railwaymania guests talk about their work my excitement was not to make models like they were making but to learn to think like they thought. The entirety of the experience: watching model train video on the internet; content created by someone who doesn’t work for the mainstream publishers and guests doing work unlike Pennsylvania steam engines feels familiar because it’s model trains but exciting and new because it’s not like we always used to do them. None of that happens if technology stands still.

    Just like the steam engine. It’s really boring when it stands still, stuffed in a museum, and way more exciting to see alive and thundering past on a track.

    I’m rambling again

    I sure enjoy the conversation

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