Model Railroad Blog



Here we see our typical flat broke teenager doing what he should be at that age – learning to glue two pieces of plastic together.

Money is an interesting subject. It’s interesting from the standpoint of how the amount we possess at different points in our life shapes our behavior and development. Too much of it at a young age, in my view, eliminate the striving and struggle that is a necessary element of artistic and personal development. Too little of it later in life inserts the struggles at an age where it really shouldn’t be.

It is fascinating isn’t it, the link between lack of financial resources and artistic development? It never really occurred to me until recently but it’s amazing how many writers, musicians, painters, and moviemakers come from such average financial means. Equally fascinating is the fact that when their talents eventually lead to financial stability, their creative production doesn’t tail off.

Model building is no different. Starting your modeling activities at a point in time when financial resources are meager is an enormous advantage. Whether you are a teenager, college student, US military, or young person early in your career, having limited funds will ultimately be a huge blessing. With the very little capacity to purchase finished models or expensive kits, you have no choice but to build most things from scratch, whether you own rolling stock, and perhaps build your own track. As you watch those who are more financially secure walk out of the hobby store with bags of gleaming merchandise you will likely be leaving with a few X-acto blades, a bottle of paint, and some glue. When your models break, you will not have the money to replace them and will, therefore be forced to learn how to repair them.

Although it doesn’t feel like it at the time, such circumstances are a gift. Initially, years will pass where your homegrown efforts look far short of what you see in the magazines. The walls of your structures won’t be square, the windows will be crooked, and the globs of glue unsightly. Time marches on though. At some point, that fifteen or twenty-year-old modeler producing models that look like soap carvings, morphs into the master modeler. Having never had the luxury of buying a built-up kit the youngster, now an adult, is capable of scratch building any structure he needs. His choices are not limited to what is available from the commercial manufacturers. Projects go together quickly and smoothly with seamless joints, perfect corners, and subtle and masterful weathering, He is no longer stopped in his tracks when something breaks. The repair skills learned out of necessity a decade before, can be brought to bear.

Regardless of your age, if you find yourself in a hobby with limited funds, enjoy the ride. Savor each project for what it is, a step in the never-ending learning process. Regardless of the final appearance of a finished model, appreciate and accept it for what it was – your best effort has given your skillset at the time it was built.

A different set of challenges face the large number of modelers that enter the hobby at a point in life where they are more financially secure. Such individuals have the advantage of paying to have others do the aspects of the hobby they don’t enjoy. If this is your situation you have to be vigilant and be aware of how often the credit card is being popped out. If you haven’t got a credit history but are seeking to obtain a credit card to introduce to your financial planning and spending, this site has the information on suitable cards one could apply for. Are you purchasing a backlog of kits and cars grossly in excess of the amount of time it will take to build them? If so, set a personal rule that you won’t buy another kit until your backlog of unbuilt ones is assembled, given away, or thrown away. Don’t cheat yourself out of enjoyable activities and try to avoid knee-jerk spending impulses if, upon further thought, you would gain satisfaction out of building it yourself. If you would not get satisfaction out of building it then there should be no guilt in purchasing the finished product.

There is one thing the financially secure hobbyist can purchase that, if handled properly, will assist in increasing their skills. They can purchase time. By paying somebody else to clean your house, cut your grass, and repair your car you can free up time better spent on modeling. Or if you would want to get it repaired on your own by ordering parts from an automotive store online. Though this will take up your time, you might just get good at small repairs that your car might need! You can also speed up your learning curve by investing in attendance at modeling conferences, books, and ‘how to’ DVDs. Of course, purchasing the books and going to the conferences is not particularly productive if you don’t do so with the mindset of applying what you’ve just learned.

For the fifty or sixty-year-old, financially secure, modeler the hobby does offer the chance to move back to the simpler times of your youth. Allow yourself to take on building that kit without concern for whether it looks like something built by a teenager. It probably will. Enjoy being that teenager again.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Recently I announced to my now teenage son that there would be a new after school routine with respect to getting homework done.   He was less than pleased with the new plan stating, ” I liked the old system (i.e. procrastination). You know I don’t like change”.    In a nutshell, he summed up human nature in general.  By design, we generally don’t feel comfortable with change and prefer to stay with the old way of doing things even when simpler and more effective techniques and skills would make our lives easier and measurably better.

The above certainly applies to model building.  Over the past decade there has been an explosion in the number of new techniques, tools, and materials that can make our models look so much better.  In most cases the newer methods are even easier than the old methods we cling to so ferociously.   For  example, for some time my son had been suggesting to me that I make myself familiar with the  YouTube web video site.   Even though it was a ridiculously simple matter of entering a few key strokes, the luddite in me resisted.   In my view YouTube was for hip youngsters and as such would have no appeal to a dinosaur as un-hip as myself.  Eventually he wore me down though and opened up a new world  with infinite applications to model railroading and rail fanning.   Interested in a ‘how to’ modeling video?  Just enter the topic in YouTube’s search window.  Want a video of the Miami River?  A few mouse clicks offers up stunning footage of a pair of tugs hauling a container ship right through the area I’m modeling.   Why did I resist learning something that was so simple and yet ultimately so helpful?  Its in our DNA.

Whether its model building or other aspects of our lives we need to develop a self-awareness of our natural resistance to trying new things.  On the modeling front, I sit down at the beginning of each year and list two or three new modeling skills that I hope to develop over the next twelve months.   On this years list: learning to use the Alclad brand of metallic lacquer paints and  improving my skills in the area of photographic lighting so I don’t have to spend so much time color correcting my photos with an editor.   Everybody has their own list of new skills they’d like to acquire.  Listed below are some suggestions.  Why not give yourself a gentle nudge to cross a few off your list each year.

  • Digital photography
  • Digital photo editing
  • Weathering with oils
  • Weathering with chalks
  • Applying static grasses with an applicator canister
  • India ink weathering washes
  • Soldering
  • Scratch building
  • Airbrush skills
  • Basic wiring
  • Basic woodworking

These are just  a few examples off of the top of my head.   Sources of information include the internet, DVD’s, seminars, magazines, and input from fellow modelers.   Drop me a line next year and let me know how you did on your list.


Becoming A Better Modeler

I’ve always been intrigued by the process a person goes through to develop their skills in any particular endeavor.   The actual activity is irrelevant.  It could be athletics, music, art, writing, or in our case, model building.  There will always be those who are born with great talent.   In most cases though it really comes down to desire and practice.   To say that a superior result was obtained simply because a person was born with a skill diminishes the effort it took for the person to get to that point.

Building quality models, in my view,  breaks down to 45%  proper technique and material  selection, 45% practice, and at most 10% natural talent.  Before we even get that far though there has to be a desire to be a better modeler.

I need to be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being happy with your current state of modeling capabilities and maintaining the status quo.   If you’re having a good time and enjoying what you are doing then that is what the hobby is all about.  There can not, and should not, be any apologies for your current level of modeling ability.  Here’s an example.  I really enjoy fishing.  I’m a terrible fisherman.  I never catch anything.  Most of the time I don’t want to catch anything.  I rarely read fishing magazines.  However, put me on a pier on quiet Sunday morning and I’m quite content.    Viewed that way its quite easy for me to understand how somebody could take a casual, superficial approach to model railroading and have a great time doing so.

For me, model railroading is different.  This is my primary hobby and the one I strive to become better at with each passing month.   If a person were to ask me for suggestions on improving their modeling skills I’d offer up the list below as a starting point.

-As stated above you need to have the DESIRE to become better.

-Learn from past mistakes.   Maybe mistake isn’t the right word.   Learn to look  back on previous efforts and identify the areas that need the most improvement.

-Ask for advice

-As important, implement the advice you were given

-Develop an eye for what looks good and what does not.

-Stay abreast of the more modern techniques and materials (Static grass, etc.).  Many people cling to old materials and techniques long after more effective methods or better looking materials become available.

-Master the basics of creating clean joints and seams on your models.  Make sure things that should be straight are straight, corners are at 90 degree angles and that there are no unsightly gaps at your joints.  This is easier said than done and comes with time and practice.

-Study the work of those you strive to emulate and evaluate what is different about what they’ve done.

-No matter who you are, you will always be improving.  Your past efforts won’t be as good as what you can do now.  Accept this and enjoy where you are on the modeling skill spectrum.    Look back on previous efforts without regret and acknowledge they were your best effort at that point in time.

-Practice.   When trying a new technique practice on a sample, off the layout, until you can produce acceptable results.

-Study high quality ‘how to’ DVD’s

-Practice basic neatness at all levels

-Pay particular attention to color and flat sheen

-Avoid the temptation to add too many elements to your model railroad scenes.  Scene composition is very important.

-Learn how to use india ink/alcohol weathering washes.

-Learn how to use black and brown weathering chalks.

-Learn to scratch build structures.  Scratch building a structure is often easier than wrestling with a poorly manufactured kit.

-Build models on a consistent basis.  Don’t go for extended periods of time without doing anything.

-Attend prototype modeling seminars

-Carefully study prototype photos and copy what you see in miniature


You can do it…. if you want to.