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Evolution of Technique

Twenty Years of Scale Model Building in Meccano.

By Phillip Edwards

I have always been interested in making models of something in real life. I have become somewhat of a nutcase when it comes to gearboxes and computer control, but my aim has always been to try to build a scale model. The added complications that have appeared in all of my major models have been to suppliment the basic model; to help bring it to life. Thus, a scale model is, as far as I am concerned, a model that looks the part. So much so, in fact, that people instantly recognize what the model is a model of; they see past all of the little holes. (not literally, I hope !)

I did not wake up one morning when I was younger, and start building scale models. I had to learn how to do this. Usually there was an egotistical reason for doing so. I was heavily involved with the exhibition scene in the UK and I had to continue to outdo myself, else I felt I would appear to have lost it.

When I started thinking about writing this article, I quickly realized that I have been building models out of Meccano for quite a long time. I do not exactly put myself forward as a 'old' modeler, but twenty years is, I suppose, quite a long time.

I can remember well, back to the early Henley Shows run by Geoff Wright. The first time I exhibited there must have been 1975, at the fourth show. I had a small model car, not really modeled off any car in particular, but it was my design. I was fully in awe of the huge and splendid models that were all around me and at that time I made up my mind that I would have to get cracking if I wanted to be worth talking too.

My next model was the old 60's set 9 dockside crane (9.13) and I built that according to the plans. After that came the track laying Pull Shovel (model 9.11) It wasn't laying any tracks, but it looked the part anyway. I pretty much built it per the plans and to my amazement it basically worked. I was getting the hang of building cranes and being able to get some semblance of realism out of the models, albeit having built the models from published plans.

Enthused with interest, I decided to redesign it and turn it into a high jib crane. I pulled it apart and started again. This time I used the Meccano track and rebuilt the upper structure pretty much as before, but using two PDUs and a couple of ripped apart LEGO motors (oops, sorry for that Blasphemy, but I did say ripped apart LEGO motors ). I found that they were great little motors, having five pole armatures and a nice little speed reduction unit. One of the final drive gears also meshed with a Meccano 19 tooth pinion.

Once operating as a crane, I got bored, so I decided to turn it into a crane with a coal loading grab bucket on it. This was my first mistake. Henley was coming around again and I needed to take a model. How could I make a presence without a working model ? Consequently, I spent many hours per day working on this crazy grab system, getting all the more frustrated with the fact that all it did was tangle it's own strings !

Henley arrived and I went off with my older brother and his models, with my heap of gears and non functioning grab crane. This was the show where I learned my biggest lesson in model building. Don't be proud - STEAL SOMEONE ELSE'S IDEAS !! There was a large dockside crane working with a fully functioning grab. In a fit of extreme keenness, I pulled apart my mechanism and started rebuilding it. People started talking all right. Who was this crazy kid taking apart a model during the show ? After two days of being surrounded by a pile of parts, I got the thing working, ready for the last hour of the show !

After this little episode I realized that I needed to be prepared and vowed never again to go to Henley with a model that didn't work. The only positive side of being buried in parts all around me was that a newspaper photographer took a great photo of me and used it in the local Henley newspaper to indicate that there had just been a nutters convention in the town !

Moving onto 1978; the family had just been on Holiday to the West County of England. I had found that there was a British Army tank museum in Dorset, so I talked my sister (who was trying out her new car and therefore driving) into going via there. I fell in love with a British tank design; the COMET. It was asking to be built:-it had reasonably narrow tracks; ideal for modeling with the Meccano track pieces. I had already built my first tank, an attempt at a British Centurion. The suspension killed me. I could not fathom out how to get the springing system working, so I scrapped the model. On the contrary, the COMET had all the required features of a tank, i.e. it looked like my impression of what a tank should look like. It had one notable feature. It used Christie suspension and I had easily worked out how to build that. I needed to build up some sort of plans for the model as I had learnt from the Centurion that without some kind of scale drawings the model would never quite look right.

I decided to use the only technique I knew and started hand drawing. I had already decided to use the three inch pulley (P.N.19b) as the main road wheels. The resultant drawing is shown here, in Figure 2. Figures 1,2: Tanks

I used some computer paper that my older sister was littering the place with as she learned all about these new-fangled things. As far as I was concerned, computers were great. They spewed out huge amounts of paper that was about 24" wide and each sheet was attached to the next. Ideal for scale model plans !

I built the model over the summer school holiday and took it to Henley in 1979. It was a great success, as far as I could tell. It worked quite reliably, but I was not happy in that it did not have enough power for my liking. Over the next two years I improved the gearbox and drive system, until I had enough of looking at it.

The year was 1981. I was at University and was learning about electronic engineering. Thus started a new phase in my modeling existence. I now had the tools (both mathematical and engineering) to design scale models. For a change, I actually knew and understood the theory of how to build something to scale. All of the hand drawings that I had previously undertaken took on a new meaning:- they were merely sketches.

I traveled to Canada to visit my sister, who was living now living there, in Newfoundland. Whilst there I came across the Newfoundland Tractor Company. They caught my attention by parking a number of huge excavators right by the roadside. My head reflexes never recovered. (Even to this day, whenever I'm with my sister and we drive past a hydraulic excavator, she exclaims "look, Phillip, a digger. Should we stop a photograph it !") I picked up the courage and went into see the company and ended up walking out with a number of the Caterpillar sales brochures. I started there and then, on designing my Shovel Loader, the CAT955L.

The CAT955L was one of my favorite models. It really looked the part. I contacted Caterpillar in England and they sent me the Operator's guide for the machine. I went out to construction sites and watched them work. I tried to get the feel of the machine in my bones. I hand drew up the scale plans for it (this was still the only way I knew how, but this time I used an electronic calculator instead of a slide rule.) The slide rule was a great tool; once finished calculating one could use it as a ruler ! So much for the age of electronics. Who ever used a calculator as a ruler ?

I had found a small diecast model of the 955L, made by Joal, a Spanish company. This served as my source of reference scaling and using a fineline ruler and a calculator I drew up the model size plans. I was still using the computer paper that my sister had used in years gone by, but it was still good enough for me.

After running the 955L for two years, people at Henley were beginning to pass comments as to when they might see a new model out of me. By accident, I was strolling around a scrap electronics store near to my parents home and I came across a tray of miniature joysticks. These were being sold of 50c each, so I purchased ten of them. I stared at these things and suddenly it came to me:- build a backhoe excavator and use these as the control joysticks, operating from within the model's cab. Now there was something I had never seen done before!

I looked at all of the documentation from Caterpillar that I had and compared the design of their machines to everyone else's. I realize that the Caterpillar machines offered one major advantage to the serious mechanically bent modeler. They had a very high back, compared to the competition. This would give me plenty of room for the works. I next had to choose which excavator to model. I used the little joysticks as a reference and predicted how big each of the model designs would end up. I chose the CAT235, as this was big enough to be bigger than any Meccano model backhoe that I has ever seen and also it was only going to be around 5ft long (at maximum reach); something I thought was a reasonable size !. So, thus started the digger.

I was now aware of something called a Micrometer and I used one (together with a calculator) to generate a 1/24 scale model of the CAT, from a tiny scale drawing in the Caterpillar paperwork. Figure 3: Cat 235

The micrometer enabled me to overcome parallax problems and truly gauge the distances between the lines, outlining the shape of the machine. Luckily the drawing was set against a dimensioned grid, the purpose being to indicate the digging reach of the different options of Stick length (the end piece of the digging arm). I used the fact that I was planning on using the 146a circular plates as the main wheels for the track system, to fine set the scale. The resultant 1/ 24 scale drawing is also shown (considerably smaller than scale) in figure 3, together with other useful dimensioned views from the Caterpillar sales brochure.

Once the 1/24 scale drawing was complete, I did minor tweaks to it to ensure that the feel of the model would prevail. One thing I learned here is that the overall scale is what is important. If one little dimension is slightly off, then one can get away with this. If the overall width/height ratio is wrong, then you've got a major credibility problem ! To move onto the final scale of 1/8, I designed a 3x multiplying pantograph and used this (much to my mother's annoyance on her kitchen floor).

This mechanism was somewhat like a pantograph used on small electric trains, like the Light Rail, here in San Jose. I made a base and weighed it down with encyclopedias. I then had a five foot long arm jointed to another five foot arm, coupled together with a parallelogram linkage. I used a pencil to mark out points, being directed by a Meccano Drift sitting on the parallelogram. I was moving around the 1/24 scale drawing, using the Drift to locate from, and transferring the major corners and points of interest to the larger scale. For this operation, out came my sister's old computer paper again ! I had definitely made sure I had a good stack of this paper !!

So this was the limit of the technical aspects of my generating scale views for the model; Meccano arms, paper, pencils, the all important Drift and a calculator ! To view a fully detailed image of the model, go to Phil's home page.


My next model was somewhat smaller. I had emigrated to California in 1989 and found myself getting ready to go back to the UK for a vacation.. I had arranged the time of year carefully. I was to be there for Henley ! Unfortunately, I could not perceive of any way of showing up without a model and there was now way I was going to ship over the monster CAT235. In a shear fit of desperation, I went back to what I knew well; a tank !

This time I really went with the technology flow. I used a photocopier. I had chosen to make another Christie suspension tank, the Cromwell. I had a British book published my Airfix and there were line drawings showing the outlines of all of the tanks that the book covered. I chose the modeling scale, based upon using the Meccano track (yet again) and using the 2 inch pulleys (P.N.20a) as the road wheels. This put the model at around 15" long. Quite a suitable size for packing into a suitcase and flying with it all around the World. I generated my 1:1 scale plans by setting the work photocopier to maximum enlargement and copying the relevant page from the book. I repeated this time and time again, slowly enlarging the drawings. When I got to the point of the view showing the tank as being around a foot long, I got out my trusted calculator and did the fine scale adjustment so that the final pass of the photocopier would bring the model exactly to the size I wanted. The end result is shown in figure 2.

I have used this technique on a number of other occasions and by careful use of the photocopier scaling factor, quite reasonable resizing can be achieved very quickly.

I am currently working on a model of a Ferrari Testarossa. I started planning this when Meccano France came out with the little suspension units (P.N.120d) for the motorbike kits. I immediately knew what these could be used for ! I started by looking at all of the clearly recognizable sports car styles and immediately discarded the Porsche. I was not going to fight with all of those curves. Bob Brooker has succeeded, but I know of no one else. The 1984 Testarossa appealed to me as it was a very distinctive shape. This goes back to me saying about the fact that the model has to give the impression of the real thing. The holes must vanish and people must immediately say "I know what that is; it's a Porsche !!!" I kid you not; most people think that any car that looks like it means business, must be a Porsche.

I came across a 1/18 scale Burango diecast model of the car. It cost me all of $25 at a toy fair. At this time a colleague of mine at work had just purchased a CDROM drive for his home computer. He was taking photographs and having Kodak convert them into computer readable images, so that he could play with them on his computer. I decided that this seemed like a good excuse to bury yet more money into my other hobby; my computer systems.

I purchased a suitable CDROM drive for my computer and got out my camera, loaded it with a roll of Kodachrome 25 film, (for the ultimate in resolution), put it on a tripod and started taking photographs of the model. Using a telephoto lens enabled me to overcome most of the parallax problems. I paid Kodak something like $1.30 per shot and had the entire roll put onto a CDROM. Each view is stored at five different resolutions, from a 'thumbprint' occupying a couple of hundred kilobyte of memory, to the supper high resolution 30 megabyte, full color poster size views. Now you need a pretty fast computer once you start using the higher resolution pictures. My 486 machine and fast video card that I had at that time were working overtime to move multiple views of the car around on the screen, but I finally got the shots that I wanted loaded into a CAD (computer aided design) package.

Once in the CAD software package, I had to scale the views with something. I had found that Kiyosho, who have pretty much cornered the radio control car market for 1/10 scale model cars, were selling Ferrari style wheels. I purchased a set and this gave me my scale. On my CAD program, I can show multiple layers of a drawing. Consequently, I set up a top layer and drew a red circle, the diameter of the Kiyosho 1/10 scale wheels. I then moved to the next layer down and scaled the side views of the car so that the front wheels of the model appeared to be the identical size as the circle that I had drawn in red, on the layer above.

I then moved the views around on the screen and by scaled the top view of the model, by comparing the total length of the car in each view, in it's relevant 2D view. After a couple of evenings work, I had a full set of model size views to work from. At this point they were only viewable on the screen, so I printed them out on my laserjet printer at 600dpi (dots per inch). This gave a near photographic quality to the prints, even although they were only in black and white.

I now had a dilemma. When I used the CAD program to tell me the effective length of the model and when I divided this into the actual full size car's length, I came up with a scale of 1/9. This was interesting…. I had scaled from 1/10 scale wheels ! This slowed me down a bit. I finally figured out that as Kiyosho were manufacturing model cars kits, all based upon one basic chassis design, they must have taken liberties with the precise nature of the scaling. On the other had, my Burango model was not a kit form, so I concluded that there was no reason why it should not be to scale. What this meant was that the Kiyosho wheels are too big a scale for the models that they are designed to attach to. This seems reasonable, when you come to think about it. Kiyosho had to get all of the mechanics and suspension inside the wheels, so having them a little too large could only help make life easier for them.

I also made contact with the Ferrari club of America, and their Newsletter put me in touch with a gentleman on the East Coast who runs a Ferrari Bookshop. I purchased a very interesting technical book from him, detailing the design of the Testarossa. Included in this book, was a reprint of the original chassis drawings from Ferrari. Out came my computer scanner and after a number of hours of messing with the images that I had scanned in, I came up with a 1/9 set of chassis drawings; shown here in figure 4.

I now had a complete set of building plans showing me practically every aspect of the original vehicle design that I intent to copy. All I have to do now is find the time to finish the model !

So, I have progressed from a mere pencil and paper, to using thousands of dollars of high technology to generate plans. Even with this technology, I still have to build the model ! Using a computer doesn't make that job any easier !!

Last Updated: October 1, 2000