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Model Railway Skills Swap

28 July 2010

  Model Railway Club skills transfer day.  

Learning new modelling skills and techniques can be a rewarding experience as Simon Bolton discovered at an MRC Skills Day.

I’ve had a point kit whiling away its time in my secret-railway-stuff cupboard for some time, not being made into a point. Having not started to build my layout baseboards yet, track building seemed a long way off.

Recently, however, my local club, the MRC in King’s Cross, London, announced a series of ‘skills transfer’ days, the first of which would tackle point construction. The price for a day’s tuition plus materials was astonishingly reasonable; the point could be made without a baseboard beneath it, so I signed up.

Until recently most of my railway modelling skills, since returning to the fold, have been picked up through books and magazine articles. I’ve graduated to DVDs and talking to demonstrators at exhibitions but as I’ve found time to attend the MRC more regularly I’ve begun to appreciate how much you can learn just by talking to people over a pint while watching the trains go by. Model railway clubs are a font of knowledge and opinion (especially opinion), and what better way of channelling it than to present it in the form of a course?

The class of 15 places was fully attended and included some non-members, an excellent introduction for people new to the club. The day was being sponsored by C&L, who provided the 4mm scale kits. It all seemed to me to be a very 21st century affair; modern marketing in model railways!

The main clubroom has just been refurbished and repainted and is bright and well-lit, an excellent venue for this sort of close-up work. As we all had something in common and a shared task, conversation flowed easily and companionably. No distractions either, a whole day devoted to modelling; marvellous.

Our instructor, Tom Cunnington, was everything you could wish for in a teacher. He was calm, reassuring and  knowledgeable. I got the impression that he had made a lot of points. After ensuring we all had the tools we’d been asked to bring from the comprehensive list provided, we were taken through the process step by step, from opening the kit packet onwards.

Model Railway Club skills transfer day

As well as giving us the benefit of his expertise Tom also showed us various jigs that made some of the more difficult processes much easier. The chance to have the time to practice using them was invaluable. And, of course, as soon as you start to do something it proves to be a great deal easier than you first thought. If in difficulty, all I had to do was ask Tom, or for that matter, any of the other participants. This is what ‘skills transfer’ is all about. It’s a rich seam of experience and know-how available exactly at the time it is needed.

As a novice builder I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of point making but I’ll highlight some of the benefits of being on such a course. There is an awful lot of technical point (or turnout) terminology, many different names for bits and pieces, angles and rail formations but again all you had to do was ask. We were shown how to stick the pre-formed plastic timbers to the templates, being warned that it was a good idea to de-tack the double-sided tape used, so as not to damage the completed point should we later want to remove the template.

Rails were cut and filed and fashioned into crossing vees and switch blades using the jigs and soldering tips offered. Tiny, detailed plastic chairs were sorted and positioned and glued down. It’s a good idea to fasten down either end of a curved rail first and then fill in, in between, to get a smooth curve. Looking at the result using a small mirror can highlight any kinks. And as the day went on, we gradually produced our points.

Model Railway Club skills transfer day

I cheated a bit. I had a C&L 7mm ‘Y’-point kit, using one of their new laser-cut wooden templates, with all of the timbering ready positioned. My crossing vees and switch blades were bought ready-machined and soldered so I had by far the easiest time. In fact it was so much easier than I had expected that I don’t know why I hadn’t tried it at home. Again, this is the advantage of a skills day - you get on and do it! I made sure I watched any demonstrations that Tom gave the group as even if I wasn’t following his methods exactly, what he taught will certainly come in handy in the future. I’m particularly keen to try to solder up my own crossing vees.

So with the heady smell of Butanone and singed fingers, the air light blue with cheerfully muttered curses we continued well into the afternoon. Tom never stopped offering advice and the odd helping hand. He worked the room, making sure no-one was left out or floundering and introduced me in particular to the delights of the solder pump. This is a brilliant piece of kit that literally hoovers up the unwanted solder that inevitably gets splodged about. I’ve got one on order.

Something I really appreciated was that Tom had the confidence and flexibility to give us advice, demonstrate how he would tackle a task and then have the grace to move happily on as we completely disregarded what he had said and continued in our own ham-fisted fashion. Did I say the man’s a saint? And I must mention the indefatigable Hugh Smith, who provided limitless tea and coffee, delivered to our tremulous elbows, throughout the course.

The real test of the success of the day was that we all completely ignored the finishing time. When I left, half an hour after the advertised end, proudly clutching my point, everyone else was still working away. I’d be willing to bet that Tom’s still there! So the next time I’m having difficulty with track-laying or anything else for that matter, I’ll know people to talk to about it. We may even arrange a follow up so that we can all get our tie-bars on and admire the results of each others’ labours. I must say that the kits build into very pleasing looking pieces of fine scale trackwork.

The MRC are running a series of these skill transfer days and I recommend them whole-heartedly. So, if you’re not in a club, find your nearest one and arrange a visit. If you’re already a member, get some skills transfer going. You’re almost certainly not the only one who wants to know something. You could even run some yourself and if you can advertise to bring non-members in and get sponsorship for the event you can’t lose. And I’m sorry but I can’t resist the pun - I hope I’ve made my point!

Interested in railway modelling events? Take a look at our Diary Dates and Exhibitions.


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