Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Observations About Model Railroading After 20 Years in the Hobby

A train crosses the Rushing River on the CP Rail
Manitoba & Minnesota Sub.
2008 was the 20th anniversary of my return to model railroading. I left the hobby in 1976 to go to university, selling my small collection of N scale trains to help finance my education. I came back in 1988 when I built my first “real” layout, the CP Rail Grimm Valley Subdivision. That layout lasted six years before we moved to our present house, which is home to the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision.

Over the past 20 years I’ve learned a few things about model railroading, including the following.

1. You can do it. Today my layout is almost done, and I am quite proud of it. But 20 years ago I was as uncertain as any newbie about how to build a model railroad. Not everyone will be able to build a layout as large as mine, but everyone can build one, if they want. It’s not that hard; with help from friends, how-to books and magazines, anyone can learn how to build benchwork, lay track, do wiring, make scenery, weather rolling stock, scratchbuild structures and many other things.

2. It still takes work. We have it pretty good today, what with ready-to-run locomotives and rolling stock and pre-built structures. But to make a layout you still have to actually cut the wood and lay the track and make the scenery. That means doing some work. Yes, model railroading is a hobby, not a job. But like anything else worth doing, it takes some time and effort if you want to get good results.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. In this hobby, there are no dumb questions. The main reason those of us who have been model railroaders for a long time know anything at all is because a) we asked questions when we were newcomers; and b) we made mistakes. (Did you know you shouldn’t use solvent-based paint on Styrofoam? Ask me how I know.)

4. Remember the rule of Good Enough. It’s easy to get completely paralysed by articles and videos of magnificent layouts—I could never do that, so why bother? But each of us can live by our own rule of “good enough.” I don’t have time or interest to make sure locomotive handrails or stirrup steps are the right thickness, or cars are exactly prototype. I’m not embarrassed to run Lionel and Tyco cars or Athearn blue box locomotives. My goal is plausibility, not realism—would a viewer find that my layout reflects what he or she might expect to see on a CP Rail-themed model railroad set in Manitoba in the mid-1990s? If yes, then that’s good enough for me.

5. Choose an era and railway. One of the easiest ways to get distracted and lose interest in the hobby—and spend lots of money needlessly—is to be unfocused. One of the easiest ways to be focused, I found, is to choose a railway and era to model. In my case, it’s CP Rail in the mid-1990s in Manitoba. This decision has saved me a lot of money. That great-looking SD90MAC? Don’t need it—it doesn’t fit my era. Ditto for that glorious new steamer. Staying focused not only lends credence to your modelling efforts, it allows you to walk out of a hobby shop with your wallet intact.

6. Enjoy each stage of the journey. Some people can’t wait to get a layout done. But I found enjoyment at each step of the process (except, maybe, for wiring). Now that my layout is almost finished, I find that I miss building scenery and laying track. I miss the feelings of satisfaction that resulted from completing a new scene. Each stage brought its own form of satisfaction and accomplishment.

7. Don’t be afraid to show off your work. I had been working on my layout for several years before I dared to show it to someone from the local model railroad club—I was so afraid people would think it wasn’t any good. But the compliments and advice I received encouraged me to invite more people over to see my layout. No matter what size or stage your layout is at, and no matter your skill level, you have already accomplished something that many people in this hobby never do: You have built a model railroad. And that is worth celebrating.

8. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Lots of people say they are going to build a layout—someday. As in, someday when they have more time; someday when they have more money; someday when they have more room; someday when they are retired. The problem is that “someday” may never come. There are no guarantees in life, including no guarantee that we will have more time, room, money or health. If you want to build a layout, start now. (Remember the adage about the best time to plant a tree: 20 years ago, or today.)

9. Enthusiasm comes and goes. One thing I’ve noticed about model railroading is that is impossible to always be interested in the layout. Some months I can’t wait to get to the basement to build something or run trains; other months I hardly go in the layout room at all. That’s normal—you can’t be enthusiastic about model railroading all the time. That said, there’s no better way to get something done on the layout like scheduling an open house, even if that just means cleaning up the train room and getting trains running again.

10. Buy local. Sure, things can be bought cheaper on the Internet. But hobby shops aren't only sources of product—they are places where you can go to get great advice from accomplished model railroaders, not to mention couplers, washers, detail parts, paint and dozens of other things you can't easily get off the Web.

11. And finally, if you model Canadian railways, subscribe to Canadian Railway Modeller. Not only is it the best source of information about Canadian model railways in Canada, it’s the best option to get your work about Canadian model railroads published. For more information, go to http://www.cdnrwymod.com/

It’s now 21 years since I got back into the hobby. I can say that it has been good to me, and good for me. Model railroading has provided me with hundreds of hours of enjoyment. It promises to provide many more.

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