What is scratchbuilding and why it matters

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.

17 thoughts on “What is scratchbuilding and why it matters

  1. Well said! While I do appreciate and recognize the usefulness of 3D printing in the hobby (I’ve used it for several models, myself), I don’t personally consider it scratch-building in the traditional sense. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad or wrong to “build” an entire model via 3D printing for entry in a contest, but it’s not really the same as building something *from scratch*. It takes a lot more physical skill to do what you have done and machine parts on a lathe or fabricate a chassis from a sheet of brass than to make a 3D drawing, but again it doesn’t really matter if it gets you closer to your goal; it’s simply a means to an end. I would say that 3D printing a model is its own category with its own challenges and skill requirements, not scratch-building but not necessarily an off-the-shelf model, either. 3D printing has certainly made it a lot easier to make certain parts that you might not be able to get on the market, like freight car trucks or a smokebox front. I’ve also seen some folks make a 3D conversion “kit” for older Mantua or Roundhouse locomotives that really improves on the detail and accuracy of the originals.3D printing is a very useful tool, for certain.

    1. To each their own, Mike.

      When you design a part to be produced by 3D printer you must resolve problems such as minimum wall thickness, supports and orientation in the bed. As such, it counts as scratch building as far as I am concerned. From a satisfaction standpoint, the tool makes little difference.

      1. Having been involved in a major scratch building project for years now and still not finished I really appreciate the comment “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.”

        It’s very satisfying to see a part come together and see how they all fit regardless if the model is a physical model or only a digital one. Ironically, one of the major parts on my project is one that I’m struggling with both in the digital world and the physical world. I suspect that once I make these parts all “click” together it will be quite a relief.


      2. Rene,
        I’m sure you’ll be the first to know when the first set of parts comes in the mail… I keep getting distracted with other projects like building a layout, but I’m slowly trying to work a few minutes each day on the drawings.

  2. Good message – model building is greatly satisfying! I enjoy the research, the design and the problem solving. And learning from others about all the possible ways one might tackle a model. Having lately joined the Cricut generation, that learning curve is keeping me amused (and frustrated at times). But like all tools I learn to use, it allows better designed, more exacting modelling, which I like. I have a casual attitude to planning, and make plenty of mistakes. But even that casual approach is part of why model building (with its small risks), is fun. Nobody gets hurt (except my ego if I set myself up for that.) I think that shapes my perspective on contests (not interested) versus sharing and chatting about models (very interested). On the other hand, I appreciate looking at the scoring grid used in the NMRA program (can’t recall the name of it as I write) because some of the elements are worth paying attention to and can result in nicer models. And I appreciate the thoughts from other modellers about a finish or weathering job. Their eyes can improve my sight. But where a grid like that is uneasy with a 3d model or part . . . I’m easy. Not a problem.

    1. Thanks Rob. Yes, the NMRA Achievement Program is a great source of inspiration, which I suppose is why they put it in the Education part of the organization.

      I am of two minds on the contests front, but thats a blog post for another day.

  3. “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.”

    Interesting thoughts, but I am not sure I accept the premise. Surely the aim is to create the best model possible, “best” being a purely personal matter balancing time, money, space, commitment and skill all against a reasonable objective? How one gets there is up to each of us individually – just as much as “there” is.

    Solving the problems of construction is only part of the story: exactly how much depends on familiarity with techniques, and the amount of novel challenges that arise. The rest is skill and craftsmanship. That skill may indeed be in design and problem solving, but that is not the same as craft: crafting is about hand-eye coordination, about the physical assembly and finish – about fitting, maybe?

    What ultimately matters, though, is how well the model ‘captures’ the subject. RTR, high-quality kit, mediocre kit, scratch built, or really poor kit are different journeys to the same destination, requiring varying amounts of time and commitment from the modeller. (Poor kits were last in that list for a reason!)

    By your definition, learning to create the computing models for 3D printing makes the first loco search built, but the second loco is not, as you have already solved the design and construction problems!

    I find the NMRA Achievement Program patronising: “Do you want a gold star with that?”
    I am driven to make better models each time. If other modellers are positive about them, that’s a bonus.

    YMMV, of course.

    1. Thanks for your thought-provoking reply, Simon. I think it comes down to this: “Surely the aim is to create the best model possible.”
      I am reminded of Ron “the plough man” Keith, who, when terminally ill but still building models he knew he would never finish, looked me squarely in the eye, and asked, “Why do we do the things we do?”

      So, I will ask, but why is the aim to create the best model possible?

  4. It’s funny – this conversation brought back memories of my first two scratch building projects. Thanks!

    The first was a nice CPR depot I made with cereal box cardstock, cut with my then new Exacto knife. It had scribed siding, separately applied trim and hand cut paper shingles, hand made windows, a door knob etc. I took care painting it too – and was happy to get out the other end of that project thinking “OK, I like this”. I was 12. I think I still remember that kid; but he lived a long time ago.

    The joy slipped away quickly when I showed the model to a friend and was informed that I had no concept of scale. It was too large for HO scale. duh! I guess I didn’t pick that up in the one magazine I had read in the school library.

    My next project was similar, but better. It used a more or less accurate scale. It was freelanced. It filled an afternoon one Christmas when we were staying with family and my uncle said I could use his workshop. When I compare the two models in my mind, I can still visualize how much better the second version was.

    Both projects were satisfying to a point. But you wouldn’t put either one on any adult layout. They weren’t mediocre; they were childish.

    At this age, when life seems short and there is not enough time . . . I do not regret the time spent on those projects.

    1. Beautifully written, Rob. I’m glad you didn’t let that initial set back discourage you.

      I so wish I still had my first scratchbuilding attempt: a lovely little station building with clapboard siding, all cut from some very nice fine orange card that I found. In my mind, it is still a worthy model today, although the mullions were a little heavy.

      The models of our youth were often scratchbuilt because we had no money for kits. This is where we built those initial skills that gave us confidence to carry on.

  5. It’s funny how, in this hobby, there’s another binary dividing the serious hobbiest and that other guy who isn’t. Scratchbuilt, handlaid track, etc. all being the badges of the serious modeller and I’m not sure any if it matters unless of course the wearer values the badge. We think scratchbuilding is important because all our heroes did it. We forget they lacked options. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that scratchbuilding is a choice now but we think that was always the way and it wasn’t. When our heroes handlaid all their track, scratchbuilt all their trains, and so on it may have been because it afforded them a chance to exercise their hands and minds but equally it was a barrier to entry. If they wanted it they had to make it. We don’t now. That challenges our identity. Does it affect the value of our work? Worse, does it discount our relationship?

    Our hobby is a vehicle to express our identity. Our work in the hobby is a wonderful opportunity in to express deeply personal in a way that we need to get out. It’s also an invitation to interact with something equally intimate and personal. Understandably if we’re opening ourselves up in such a vulnerable way we crave a kind if insurance that those we invite to share this with can be trusted with something so important. So, we add attribute values to the practice of this hobby to qualify others. If someone’s a scratchbuilder they must be serious, they must “get it”, and they’re probably feel safe to be around with our important things.

    I initially wanted to reply because I felt like I could compare old fashioned scratchbuilding with my experience in designing and 3D printing stuff since I have experience in both. Delineation between those approaches is vague because both represent real work that must be invested before a finished model is made. I’ve really enjoyed how you’ve shared your path using OnShape because I need to face the end of my relationship with AutoCAD and your notes have been invaluable when comparing tools to work no different than comparing one knife to another.

    We keep thinking the value in this hobby is in its outputs and I believe that’s wrong. Not because one technique is of more or leas value but because it ignores the potential of this hobby to practice our creative voice. It doesn’t matter how you got the models if the model connects you to those you want to invite into your vision to enjoy that fond moment with.

    I still like the feeling and creative process of working with cutting and forming paper into things but that’s just that: I like the feeling of paper.

    I guess the question might not be does scratchbuilding matter but would it if we had never done it? Shifting the language from a measure of historical experience to a more honest evaluation of it.

    I’m going to regret writing this on my phone. This tiny screen is a handy tool but a lousy place to attempt a more fully-formed thought.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.