On a relatively frequent basis I encounter modelers that confide in me their fear of making mistakes. It’s perfectly understandable. The hobby and our work is important to us and we don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on something that doesn’t meet our expectations. However, if you don’t manage it, it’s all too common for this fear to become totally paralyzing. Layouts aren’t started, scenery isn’t placed, and structures aren’t built, all because of a fear that they we won’t meet an arbitrary standard in our mind’s eye. The modeler is mired in stasis. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets built. I know people that have been stuck like this for years, even decades. Sound familiar? If so, here are some thoughts that may be helpful if you find yourself stuck in that proverbial logjam of inertia.
Weigh the two alternatives. Option one, the safe one, where you are now, is to simply do nothing…..spending ones time on social media, forums, and shopping online. On the surface it seems you can’t screw anything up that way right? The second option is to jump in and do “something”, anything. Build a structure, weather a freight car, practice ballasting a test track, anything. Which is the most productive? Which will advance your skills the most? The latter.
Understand that mistakes are inevitable, part of the process, learning opportunities, and we all make them. You can manage their frequency and magnitude with experience, but nobody ever reaches the point where they don’t make them. Nobody.
Understand that almost all mistakes are correctible. Scenery can be easily scrapped and re-done. Imperfect track can be popped out with a putty knife and re-laid. Bench work can be widened or narrowed. Less than perfect structures can be replaced as your skills get better. Very few mistakes are catastrophic.
Recognize that if you stay in this hobby you will, without doubt, get better over time. Whatever you produce five years from now will be better than you can do now. Accept that any result is your best effort given where you are now in terms of skills, enjoy the ride, and don’t get too down on yourself or too full of yourself with any specific project.
When it comes to design, realize that the space you have is the space you have. There aren’t that many alternatives. If you want to fill your space, the around-the-walls-ONE- peninsula format is most efficient. Let the bench work footprint drive the design. Track can be removed and replaced years down the road if need be and doing so isn’t the end of the world if you come up with a better arrangement later. It’s a fool’s errand to spend months (or years) in pursuit of “the perfect design”. Sketch something reasonable, think about it a few weeks, and start building.
Practice on mock ups and stand ins BEFORE moving on to your main subject. I used to know an old WWII naval artillery veteran. Their fleet’s mantra was “practice when you’re not being shot at!” Not sure about a scenery technique? Practice first on a scrap of foam. Not sure how paint will lay down on a structure? Practice on a scrap first. Not sure how a weathering technique will flow? Once again, practice on and old shell or piece of styrene first.
Learn which mistakes are really, really hard to fix later. One that jumps to mind is overly flimsy track sub-roadbed. If it warps you have a major problem. Stick with overkill in this department using high quality birch ply, half inch to a quarter inch in thickness, sealed with shellac, and supported every 16 inches or more. Another hard to fix error is not allowing for rail expansion. Allow 1/16” gaps every six feet or so and do NOT solder your rail joints. Inadequate lighting is sort of a pain to fix but correctable. When in doubt, error on the side of too much light. Finally, sloppy ballast applications are really hard to correct after the fact. If you over apply it, or use the wrong color or size, it is almost impossible to fix without totally ripping out the track. Practice on scraps first and apply the ballast in several light layers.
Understand the learning process. You can only learn so much through reading. Accept the fact that you learn through mistakes. With experience you will learn to manage where those mistakes occur, their magnitude, and the degree to which they are correctable.
Understand the nature of what constitutes a “mistake”. Not engaging in the hobby is a massive mistake because you can NEVER go back and re-claim lost time. Doing a rough job of laying track, and having derailments, is a minor mistake because it’s not that hard to rip out the track and re-lay it.
So, which is the best option? Option A is setting up a plan where you never make mistakes, a plan that can only be achieved by doing nothing. Option B is accepting that mistakes are part of the game, jumping into the fray, and adjusting the rudder as you go.
Sidebar: A suggested first step is to buy a four foot long bookshelf, lay a piece of track with one turnout down the middle, and practice on that. Pitch it in the dumpster when you are done.