Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fear and Loathing in the Basement

For those of you who do not read Railroad Model Craftsman, below is an editorial I wrote that was printed in the last issue of RMC. What you'll get here that's not in the magazine is photos of the old layout taken by my good friend Trevor Marshall.

 An overview of Palmerston yard. What's not built yet is the other 2 legs of the wye. It would have been to the right in this photo. Look carefully towards the top and you can see the beginning of the leg. It was this wye that in the end caused all the trouble. It cut the room in half and made the space unpleasant to be in. The wye was essential for the operations. 

 I had a great time building this coal dock. I had a few know dimensions and lots of photos. Sadly when I tried to remove it from the layout as I was dismantling things, it got badly damaged, to the degree that it wasn't worth repairing, otherwise I was going to give it to the museum in Palmerston.

A couple of pieces of motive power. At one point I had 16 steam locomotives ready to roll.

Fear and Loathing in the basement.
No, this is not another piece of gonzo journalism, but rather an essay about attitudes and abilities as it applies to model railroading. But I do wonder what Hunter S Thompson would say about us at times. But I digress.
As some of you know I am a custom builder of resin freight car kits. You can see some of my efforts at my website, I have given clinics on building resin kits at different get togethers over the years and much of my personal stuff can be seen rolling at public displays when our Free-Mo modules are out, It is inevitable that at some point during these events someone will come up to me and say something along the lines of “I’ve looked at those kits, but I’m afraid that I’d mess it up”. This is what I want to talk about.

Becoming a good modeler takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. I’ve been building models since I was 5. Over the years I’ve learned many techniques and steadily honed my skills. I read and study what other modelers are doing hoping to glean a little bit more knowledge. The reality is that what I can do today far surpasses what I was doing 20-30 years ago.

The best teacher is failure. Learn from your mistakes. The first resin kits I built are in the bin now. They were, by any standard, awful! My execution, not the kit. But as time progressed and I learned more about the medium I was working with, my efforts improved. So much so that now people pay me to do that work for them.

I make mistakes all the time. Everyone makes mistakes. Engineers, architects, house builders, etc. We’re all human. The mark of a craftsman is not in being perfect but in rectifying or covering your mistakes, as well as learning from them. The key is to not repeat the mistake.

Tools can make a difference. It is a false economy to buy more cheap tools. Tools are an investment, treat them as such. A tool that won’t fail in your hands can do wonders for improving ones confidence level. Also learn how to use your tools properly. You will lessen the chance of failure and reduce the risk of personal injury.

Speaking of learning things. Everything one needs to know is written down somewhere. There are books and magazines covering all areas of modeling. And there’s that neat thing called the Internet. It’s all out there, just take the time to read and learn and share ideas. I am constantly astonished at the number of customers who come through the doors of my local hobby shop who seem to refuse to take it upon themselves to educate themselves in the fundamentals of the hobby. They’re new to the hobby and seem to expect perfection at the first go around and then get frustrated when they don’t get instant gratification. Again it takes time to become an accomplished modeler.

It also can take an investment. It all costs money and in these economic times we are even tighter with our hard earned dollars. The projects that I’ve worked on and then tossed years later, for me, do not represent a waste of money. I look at it in terms of entertainment value. An average resin kit costs about $35.00 and can take 6-8 hours to complete. That translates into about $6.00 an hour entertainment value for the construction and untold hours of pleasure viewing it when it’s on the layout. How’s that compare to $15.00- $20.00 for a movie or $50.00- $80.00 for a concert or theatre tickets?

How far can this attitude go? Three years ago I tore down the layout I had been working on for 7 years and started on whole different project.

I had been building a layout based upon Palmerston, Ontario (See Ian Wilson’s article). All the benchwork was built. About 90% of the track was in. Most of the steam locomotives had been acquired and most of the rolling stock was in the house. But something wasn’t right. Every time I went into the layout room I got cranky. There was something amiss but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then in the fall of 2008 on the way home from another great weekend at the Naperville Prototype Modelers Seminar, I had the opportunity to visit Bill Darnaby’s Maumee Route. What I saw there completely reset my thinking about what a layout can and/or should be. The long runs of mainline on very narrow benchwork really makes the trains the stars of the show. The almost 10 scale miles of track really gives the sense of a working railroad. Most importantly it was a comfortable layout to view and I bet to operate.

The drive home consists of my rethinking everything I had been doing to date and what could I now do that fulfill my desires. After a few weeks a looking around and some good fortune with research data, I hit upon a new prototype to model. I am now modeling a portion of the Wabash operation in Ontario. Most of the Canadian National brass models were quickly sold along with a sizable percentage of the rolling stock. Some of the structures went to good homes with my friends. I’ve acquired the needed Wabash engines and am slowly building a new fleet of rolling stock.

It was when I started to dismantle the old layout that I discovered the mistake I had made with the Palmerston layout. Actually it was a series of mistakes. I had neglected to follow my own feelings about access. There were too many points on the layout that were hard to reach. The design required a large wye in the middle of the basement which effectively cut the room in half which made getting from one end to the other a chore. Too many things had to be in place and working properly before the layout could be run. The list can go on, but I think you get the point. It was all in all too much layout for one man with my current work schedule.

To date work on the new layout is progressing well. And I’m feeling very positive about this new direction. Do I consider the time and effort on Palmerston to be a waste? Not at all. I learned a lot from the exercise. What to do and what not to do. I’m getting an opportunity to work with new products that have recently come on the market, particularly the hand laying track systems from Fast Tracks. I had a good time building the old layout and consider every dollar put in to it a worthwhile investment.

The bottom line, don’t be afraid to try something new. You may surprise yourself, at worst you’ll learn something new.

—Pierre Oliver

1 comment:

A R Pollard said...

Absolutely spot on. Avoiding failure is avoiding the opportunity to learn. It seems to me that people in this hobby are becoming more adverse to doing things that they perceive as "ruining" their precious models. For me this is anathema, as the hobby is modelling, not collecting.