Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Better Start for Beginners

As I noted a while back, the searches that lead folks to my website, as well as threads on model railroad forums, suggest that there are a lot of newcomers to the hobby at this time of year. In addition, many people seem to find their way back to the hobby around the holidays. That's certainly understandable and a positive thing – we need new (and returning) blood to keep the hobby going.

But we seem to have some challenges in helping these newbies find their bearings and get started. Often, these folks are led to an HO 4X8 from 101 Track Plans, an Atlas track plan book, or similar sources. Or worse yet, encouraged to download a CAD program and design their own layout.

I am asking myself if these are really the best paths we can offer to newcomers. The first part of this question is, should we be recommending that absolute newcomers immediately start building a layout? That's always been the "standard" procedure, but does it serve everyone well? Some of these newcomers don't even have an idea of what scale they wish to pursue, let alone type of layout, era, prototype, etc.

Could it be that some might actually benefit from some more exposure to the hobby before beginning their own home layout? This could come formally through club membership or informally by helping out at an in-process layout. They might learn more (and more quickly) if they weren't trying to figure everything out from scratch. And if they were part of a modular club, they could get hands-on experience and a chunk of layout that could possibly be used later at home.

And if they are bound and determined to build a layout as a first step, would these newbies not perhaps be better-served by being directed to one of the start-to-finish layout books such as Marty McGuirk's new N scale layout-building guide -- or a Model Railroader magazine project?

Even though I have been critical of the track plans chosen for some of these efforts (and still am frustrated by some of them), perhaps these soup-to-nuts guides are a better choice, track plan warts and all, than sending the newbie down a path that ends with a neglected half-finished Plywood Pacific covered in dust in the corner of a basement.

I've seen quite a few of those forlorn abandoned HO 4X8s over the years. And it makes me wonder if there isn't some better path. I certainly don't have the answer, but I think it's worth considering before we send another complete beginner down a layout-building path.