When I entered my passenger car in the contest at the 2011 NMRA national convention in Sacramento, I confess I was aiming to stir things up a bit. I knew the rules wouldn’t know what to make of my model, which I had designed in SketchUp and printed via Shapeways. The model earned a decent number of scratchbuilding points, and precipitated a debate within the NMRA about how they should treat such construction. The NMRA has largely decided now, but the debate rages on.
Bernie Kempinski, who is using 3D printing to produce his own eight-wheeler, weighed in this week with a thoughtful post, Is 3D Printing Scratch Building? I’m not going to answer that question, but Bernie does give voice to an interesting follow up question, “who cares?”
Looking at the question from a pure procurement standpoint, which is how most model railroaders view the hobby nowadays, it’s a reasonable question. Who cares if you laboured for years to craft your model, or paid someone else to, as long as you have it?
But in fact, crafting is only half the story in scratchbuilding, for you could labour years to assemble a kit, and by definition that would be a kit-built model, not scratchbuilt. What sets a scratchbuilt model apart from a kit, or a ready to run model, and indeed even from a model built from a how-to article, is that the scratchbuilder must solve all the problems of construction.
When you start with nothing but some prototype reference material, you must first decompose the target into parts, choose the material for each of those parts and decide how to form them. You must solve the engineering puzzles that make the model robust and fit for purpose – whether the purpose is occupying space in a cabinet, or blasting around the modular setup in an exhibition hall. Only then do you start to craft the model.
It is this problem-solving that makes scratchbuilding infinitely more interesting than mere procurement or even kit-building. And now, we are ready to answer Bernie’s question: you, the builder, care if a model is scratchbuilt because the process of scratchbuilding will enrich the hobby far beyond the joy of obtaining a unique model.
If you’ve never tried scratchbuilding, I suggest you try it. I don’t care whether you scratchbuild with a hacksaw or a laser cutter; 3D printers are welcome. I promise the process of figuring out how to make the parts that fit together to yield the finished model will be more satisfying than you can imagine.