Necessary Skills

Have you ever spent time considering the skills needed to build a model railway? There’s woodwork and metalwork involved, measuring, geometry and mathematics, a basic knowledge of electricity and wiring, craft and art skills for scenery and backdrops and probably half a dozen other skills I haven’t thought of. The problem with trying to convince a newcomer to the hobby, or an “oldcomer” who has put off starting a layout for too many years, that they probably already have the basic skills required to build a layout isn’t just about showing them how to do something: it’s also about convincing them that the person doing the showing isn’t necessarily a model railway building “guru” in possession of skills they could never hope to develop.

I’ll give you an example: let’s say I offer to show you how to construct a section of layout benchwork. Before we get started I mention that I’ve been in the hobby for 25 years, built about 12 layouts and that as a young man I trained as a carpenter. What effect is me passing on these personal details likely to have on the neophyte layout builder? Are they going to inspire confidence that “together we can do anything” or are they more likely to convince him that he may as well give up now?

I have a colleague who has a PhD. He’s justifiably proud of this achievement but I’ve noticed that, for him, having this degree is a real badge of honour: he always manages to drop a mention of it into the conversation, no matter waht the topic of conversation is. We’ve both managed to reach the same level of seniority in our work over approximately the same timeframe and I managed it without a PhD. When it comes to the knowledge and skills required to do my job it may be helpful to have a PhD, however it isn’t a requirement. I’ve sometimes thought that a boss, telling a younger colleague that he or she has a PhD in their first professional conversation, rather than inspire them to achieve bigger and brighter things might in fact have the opposite effect: convincing them that it’s all too hard and perhaps they should have stayed cooking fries at McDonald’s!

As anyone who has ever trained as a carpenter (or most other trades I’d guess) will know, you spend most of your first year sweeping up and getting lunch for the older blokes. I was only rarely allowed to touch an actual tool, let alone any wood. I won’t try to pretend that this training and the experience gained from being involved in building, or helping to build, quite a few layouts over the years has had no effect: I’ve learnt heaps and enjoyed almost every minute of it. However I’ve probably picked up as many tips and ideas about woodwork from watching Norm Abrams on The New Yankee Workshop than I did from my time as a carpenter’s apprentice.

The point I’m really trying to make is that if someone who might be classed as a beginner comes to you for advice about model trains, keep your focus and attention on their confidence and skills, not yours. If you do you might just end up adding one more active modeller to the total, rather than cause them to go screaming over the horizon looking for hobby that is relaxing and enjoyable and not an obstacle course in obscure and abstruse knowledge. Abstruse: difficult to understand. Hey, I’m and English teacher 🙂

With all of the above in mind I thought it might be worth posting some details of the progress I’ve been making on the layout over the last couple of weeks. Please don’t be put off by my mentioning the fact that I did some of this work using a router and other reasonably advance woodwork skills: I was trying a couple of new things out as I carried out this work: we’re all beginners to start with.

As anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time will be aware, my two O-scale layouts Queens Wharf and Morpeth, are fiddleyard to terminus designs. I don’t think I’ve ever really gone into detail as to why I build layouts using this format, perhaps there’s a blog post in there somewhere, however I find this type of design suits my needs at the moment and they are without a doubt a practical design for an O-scale exhibition layout. While I’m very happy with the fiddleyard to terminus format, it does have one major flaw, and that is the need to turn trains in the fiddleyard to make them ready to bring back onto the scenic portion of the layout. My first fiddleyard on QW was a simple fan of points that required the locomotive be lifted by hand from the end of the train and placed at the front of the train so it could pull the next train onto the layout. This really is a very unsatisfactory arrangement, especially when you remember that for many years I only had one locomotive. It became totally impractical after my first steam loco arrived.

The next development on QW came with the installation of its current dual sector plate arrangement, with a loco release sector plate at the far end, which allowed the loco to run round its train and hook up to the other end. This was an advance over the fan of points, however it required a lot of work and time to run round and members of an exhibition crowd don’t tend wait around for 5 minutes while you’re swapping the loco from one end of a train to the other. Remember, I only had one loco! This arrangement also means one of the limited number of storage tracks always needs to be left free so the loco can be run down to the other end. Not such a problem when you only have one loco but I had plans for more!

For my new Morpeth layout I was determined to come up with a way of turning trains so that they could be made ready for re-entry onto the scenic portion of the layout quickly, with no handling of stock. In the last couple of years the UK magazines Model Railway Journal and Railway Modeller have run a couple of articles on train turntables using hardware available from UK outlets such as Station Road Baseboards (you can find a link on my blog page). I ordered a turntable spider and some rollers, along with some of their alignment dowels, and have designed a train turntable for my layout using these parts which I began constructing two weeks ago.

My first job was to assemble a new module frame using aluminium and wooden parts I had cut up when the other frames had been constructed. I had delayed making this module as I had no intention of working on it for a while. Once this was constructed I bolted it up to the end of the 3rd layout module and started measuring and planning what I was going to have to do to make my turntable. There are probably a dozen ways of approaching this project but as this is an exhibition layout one basic requirement that needs to be met is that it should be as light as possible. I had a section of 9mm ply to be used as the road bed that matched the dimensions of the module itself, plus I had a stock of the aluminium angle I would use for the cross members and risers to support this, however what other materials I would need were a bit of an open book.

I decided that the turntable would essentially consist of the roadbed (the 9mm ply which would have two semi-circular cuts in it), a table under the centre upon which the layout spider would pivot and two “lips” at each end that would hold the outer ends of the turntable at the correct level to allow trains to pass over the gap caused by the semi-circular cuts in the roadbed. The task I set myself this week was to make the semi-circular cuts in the 9mm ply and test the concept to see if I could get a 1.5m long turntable to spin round accurately and smoothly. The cuts would be 750mm from the pivot point and had to be absolutely circular; a jig saw cut by hand would be far too inaccurate. To address the need for accuracy I made a jig for my wood router from 6mm mdf and temporarily attached this to the centre of the ply with a short bolt through a pivot hole. I used a 3mm straight cutting bit in the router (the smallest I had on hand) and made the two cuts. It worked perfectly and once I installed this on the module and gave it a test it span round nice and smoothly. I decided that the best material for the “table” the spider will turn on (essentially a lazy susan mechanism) was a square piece of 12mm ply.

I’ll post some photos and let them do the talking.

1 thought on “Necessary Skills

  1. Trevor, you’ve got it completely right, when speaking to new modellers, do it at their level of experience, not your own. I’ve seen, heard, and grimaced at comments made by well meaning modellers at a railway exhibitions, and it’s been my effort to ensure I don’t blind them with any knowledge I have over and above their own. The fact that some speak to us is a bonus! So many stop to ask something , but never do. That really is the key, getting them to speak, and more importantly listen to their efforts, or issues, not scare them away.

    Looking forward to the photos!


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