Function instead of form?

I love books. I absolutely love railway books, whether they’re photo journals, historical surveys, layout design or operation oriented. In particular, I love a blend of photographic inspiration and well written historical commentary, even just extended photo captions. These are the fuel to my fire, the inspiration that generates conversation, layout schemes and a continual source of energy for my own layout projects.


I’m enjoying the conversation we’re having about modelling logging railroads and it invites me to my library to reconnect with inspiration. In real life I have cut down a tree. I have used a tractor to propel cut logs out of the woods and there isn’t a season where I won’t raise my hand to help ready the coming winter’s firewood. “Logging” to me is influenced by the hands-on experiences I have and because I can relate to the weight of a fallen tree and what it’s like to lift one into the wagon behind the tractor.

I wonder if what you’re describing here is attempting to represent function through art, how to represent what it does, as well as how it looked?


A falling tree is a life changing force for me and the tree. Experience flourishes into the wisdom of knowing that the falling tree will go where it damn-well wants to once it’s in motion. Just as that real life wisdom allows you to live longer in the woods, this understanding changes our design of models from colouring squares into patterns from a guidebook to one more like journaling the story of that tree’s journey in L girders, flextrack, and foam. 

I recently ordered one of the new Hornby Sentinel 0-6-0 industrial diesels. Why? These worked a stone’s throw from where I grew up, at the docks and oil refineries along the Manchester Ship Canal in a little town called Ellesmere Port. I never saw them operating but I knew they were there, even the photographs I took ten years ago now show a lost history. The prototype was busy shuffling bulk oil and chemical trains around from the mainline interchange to the various industries along the private railway. Although the function is clear, this is of no use to me, I cannot model this, the scale is just huge. However in a corner of an old yard a small business started cleaning and later repairing tank wagons. The function of this industry was to receive wagons, one or two at a time, and clean and/or repair them. This was done with just a shed, pumps and a few drums of cleaning chemicals. Now this is modellable…


So is learning how to fully model this more than just miniaturizing what we see and more like knowing why it was there? Who do we work for and what kinds of tank cars do we supply? What damage do we usually fix? Do we clean out more cars and does that happen quickly?

It strikes me that I approach model railroading with several different disciplines, in no particular order, but perhaps taking inspiration from a photo I find in a book, magazine, website, even Facebook. I find myself becoming a historian to learn more about the prototype, how it operated, when, where, it’s traffic patterns, rolling stock (the list goes on). I may become an archaeologist looking for maps and plans that show the arrangement of tracks around the site, I form an understanding of how it worked, it’s function… only then can the designer in me look at how this might be compressed to work in my available space, the engineer at how it may be built and the artist at how to consider it’s balance, it’s presentation to paint a believable and recognisable picture. The model railroader needs to both view and understand a prototype, then compose a scene where both function and artistic balance work together…


I think one of the things we like about railways is how they reveal a sense of order; how the railway not only connects objects but sequences them. We can modulate the complexity of those events by shifting the time or place where our events occur. In doing so we can position our presentation at an intersection that fits our space and feels familiar to our experience. When the railway first reached this far into the woods, loading logs was something we did at a clearing and onto railway cars waiting on the main line of this lightly laid branch. Our tools were mostly our bodies. Over time the mainline was relaid and a siding added. Horse teams gave way to trucks and trailers and our shoulder and peavey combination gave way to heavy cranes and pulleys. We’re able to load way more logs here but the basic function hasn’t changed; it’s still just “put log on wheels”. 

I can read about logging and then walk into the woods and touch that data. Tapping this to release model railway design becomes not a plan to miniaturize the evidence but represent why it exists. I think this is why sometimes we look at a model we’ve built and feel confused because the process was followed correctly but the product doesn’t feel right. Maybe that disconnect is because we were only concerned with what we saw on the outside without considering what happens inside? 

I’ve never visited a logging railroad. I’ve never seen a Shay. I can read books, I can watch videos, I can find inspiration, information and purpose in secondary sources. Once lost in this source material imagining yourself in the space, observing first hand what is happening and then translating that in whatever medium you feel comfortable, be it written stories, pencil sketches, cardboard mock ups. In this process we’re using information about what is happening in a previous reality to create a model in our moment.

I can remember even in recent times building a model, enjoying the process, even pleased with the result, but somehow what started out fuelled by inspiration later left me cold. Is this perhaps the same disconnect? Perhaps creating a model at a very shallow emotional level, where we haven’t engaged with a deeper function, is not as fulfilling as a model that is the result of a much deeper dive into what lies behind that first inspirational photograph or video?


Taking the same approach with our models as they evolve, drawing on our own experiences of the world to help inform decisions in miniature. I have never stepped foot on the footboard of GE 44t switcher, but can draw upon parallel experiences in the UK, exploring lines of un-restored locomotives at preserved railways in my past, back before these were shuttered away due to a mix of health and safety and public image. Look at how the human touch modulates the finish of the prototype, where boots and hands polish metal, chipped paint on a handrail doesn’t rust or the chequer plate on a step reveals high spots, high lights in the finish. These observations, things we have seen, perhaps touched, can be used to deepen the emotional connection we have as model railroaders with models of prototypes or locations we’ve never been, or that have long since vanished.

I think this can be employed as a method informing decisions so that a connection to function reveals the coda of the log car and maybe resulting in models that look capable of doing the work I claim they can. Similarly, embracing my personal connection to time spent in the woods becomes the language informing the design of the layout making it something created because it just felt right and, well, sometimes you just know.


I enjoy sharing this writing with James and seeing where this exchange takes us and observing in me how I’ve changed because of it. This is the latest in a series of Hilton & Mears articles. They’re all linked from the top of this page but these two come to mind as related back here:

Feels like Driven not Pushed

Complete or Finished

Categories: hilton & mears duo

1 reply

  1. Holy smokes, this post sure has me thinking about the connections between my real life and my modeling life, which encompasses not only trains but a lot of other ‘things’ as well. Real-life electricity, wonder, and escape are themes that flow or have flown through my life and hence almost every model I work on, rails and flanged wheels or not. (It would be a long, boring, and possibly even Freudian tale to explain in detail, but you have my wheels turning) Thanks for kicking off my day with your unexpectedly relevant and resonant post, and I look forward to reading more in this series.

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