Notch 8: The joy of building

Two things recently reminded me of the joy of building things in this hobby.

The first was a shooting day at the TrainMasters TV studios in which we launched a new series. “Notch 8” is all about sharing tips and techniques for detailing, weathering and finishing locomotives and rolling stock.

I hosted the first day of shooting, which featured Efram Ellenbogen as our guest clinician. Efram is a younger guy – younger than me, anyway – who does absolutely top-notch work on HO scale diesels. Here’s a link to the “Notch 8” series ... we expect many installments to come in this series.

(If Efram’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his beautiful, Candy Apple Red Soo Line SD60M was the cover story in the January, 2015 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.)

I’ve been in the hobby for several decades now and thought I knew everything about detailing a model, but I learned a lot of new techniques just by hosting the day of shooting clinics with Efram. I know I’m going to be adding some tools to my collection, and some new techniques to my skills. Thanks for that, Efram!

Of the many things I took away from the day’s shooting, I was most impressed that our subject locomotive – another Soo Line model – started life as an Athearn “blue box” SD40-2. Over the first few segments of “Notch 8”, Efram demonstrates how to upgrade the chassis with an Overland replacement, how to open up the roof-top fans and add photo-etched screens, and two techniques to upgrade the handrails. The model looks better already, and I look forward to working with Efram on future episodes to see what else he’ll do to improve it.

The Athearn blue-box SD40-2 was a terrific model at the time it was released, and much of the molding still looks great today. That said, these models are a few decades old now, and a stock “blue box” unit is a far cry from today’s state-of-the-art locomotives. For many, that raises a reasonable question:

Why would one bother updating an older model such as this?

There are many answers, but I liked Efram’s observation that he’s put a lot of work into this particular model over the last decade or so – and therefore when he looks at it, it reminds him of his journey in this hobby. There’s sweat-equity in this – an investment that can’t be made by dropping a credit card on the latest model and pressing it, unmodified, into service on a layout.

On the way home from the studio, I thought about the joy of building that’s so obvious in how Efram approaches a project like this. And I realized that while today’s state-of-the-art locomotives are beautiful models that deserve to find homes on our layouts, there’s also something to be said for enjoying the process of taking an older model – like Efram’s SD40-2 – and a baggie full of aftermarket detail parts to bring it up to today’s standards. At the end of the day, I’m confident these labors of love will become the pride of one’s fleet, because we can point to the model and say, “I built that”.

After-market detailing parts for model trains ...

When I got home from the studio, a friend had shared an exchange from a newsgroup for freight car enthusiasts, in which a member had advocated buying a ready-to-run (RTR) model over building an available resin kit. The argument was that the RTR model “saves the time of building the kit”.

Having just spent the day watching the joy of building in action, my reaction was that this was an odd approach to a hobby in which the building of kits is part of the fun. (And the modeler in question is an accomplished kit-builder, so I know the comment was not made as an excuse for lack of confidence.)

Sure, there are good reasons to use RTR models – for example, to provide enough equipment to host operating sessions on a layout in a timely manner. But this is a hobby – not a job. There are no deadlines beyond the ones we impose on ourselves.

Foregoing the joy of building in favor of buying means we miss out on the joy of creating our own models. As with Efram’s SD40-2, who wouldn’t want to point to a boxcar, or a refrigerator car, or a caboose, and say, “I built that”?

Blue box SD40-2, detailed for the Soo Line

In the end, it’s all about attitude. And the best expression of that attitude comes from my friend Tim Warris – owner at Fast Tracks. In an ad for his company’s line of tools and materials to hand-lay track, (which can be found in several issues of Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine), Tim writes, “You don't HAVE to build it: You GET to build it!”

What a great approach to this great hobby!

- Trevor Marshall 

Do you upgrade older locomotives and rolling stock? Do you scratch-build or kitbash equipment? Why? Let us know via the comments section to this post!


CN6401's picture


Great series!

I also do what Efrem does. It is just as you said, very gratifying to take an older model and bring it into the future although I don't think it's absolutely necessary to replace the motor & running gear with an Overland movement. This would be a personal preference. Usually the only thing necessary to do is change out the motor and solidify/improve the wire connections from the trucks. You can get a suitable motor/flywheel replacement from Arline or even a more recent replacement from Athearn. 

A lot of times the engine is ahandd-me-down from your father so there is some sentiment involved.

Ralph Renzetti

excalibur5776's picture

I have been a member here for a while and I saw where you covered the nation convention but I haven't seen or even heard of anything about the Narrow Gauge Convention, be it in video or on the Model railroad hobbyist site, and I see that you have narrow gauge on the Hobbyist so my question is why isn't there anything from the convention ?

Michael Looney

The NMRA National this year and the National Narrow Gauge convention (NNG) were just two days apart ... One was in Portland, OR and the other was in Houston, TX. Currently, TMTV is not large enough to have two video production crews, and we can't afford to have our one crew away from the studio for more than a week or so. We had to make a hard choice this year: which convention gets the video coverage and which one does not, since we don't have the resources to cover both.

So the more broadly interesting convention got the video coverage and the NNG convention did not.

That all said, if we had more TMTV members, we could hire a second video crew and do more. So in a very real way, if you want more video coverage of events (or more how to topics), talk up TMTV to all your hobby friends and encourage them to become members - and then you'll see even more coverage of events.

As beautifully detailed as the Athearn diesels are, one of my pet peeves with them is they don't have see through corner steps.

I plan on replacing the molded on steps with photo etched steps. I know most people don't care about that but I like the way they look. I'm going to be repainting a Genesis GP9 in the FCEN scheme and also installing a TCP decoder and MB.

I also have some undecorated genesis rolling stock I'm looking forward to building. ExactRail has some nice undecorated models as well. Even though I moldel the modern era there are some transition era kits I'd like to build.

My point is that I have always enjoyed building models and if you look around there are some great model kits available to build. I have mostly RTR on my layout which gives me somthing to shoot for. My goal is to make my models look as good as the RTR models. 

I eventuallly want to get into scratchbuilding structures. I'm building my first layout in 25 years using kits but my next layout will be all scratchbuilt structures. 

It's great to see young guys like Efram in the hobby. Guys (and gals) like him are the future of modelrailroading. His excitement and dedication are very motivating. Thank you for a great video.

Efram is amazing.  I have been so impressed with Notch 8; it has rejuvenated my hobby interest.  Just as a thought, could there ever be a follow-up to this series where a brass diesel engine is on the table to be upgraded?

Trevor, I enjoy all of your work on Trainmasters TV; you are so relaxed as a host but always find a way to keep the viewer interested.

Keep up the great work!

I am a newbie here and already fascinated by what I see and read.  Several years ago  I added a copper mining operation on my HO railroad loosely connected to  Butte, Montana.  I found a head frame I liked in a Colorado Mines book, made a scale 75 scale foot print which was my guide for a replica providing access to the underground. Then I kit bashed a Campbell coal mining kit to provide a hoist house and a bunker for storage and loading into ore cars, all of them CMS&P, that I collected over the past decade. The storage bunker is connected to the Hoist, and also to a large adit. The adit I copied from one I visited at the old Donner mine in Blue Canyon off of Highway 20 out of Nevada City ,CA.  To connect  the various parts of the mine, I used  N scale trackwork and a kit bashed  4 wheel N locomotive to resemble a battery powered mine mule .

I look forwaed to following and enjoying Trevor's work as well as the work of other Model Train Masters.