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Counting rivets

Rail Time - a Model Train Blog: Counting rivets

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Counting rivets

I recently read a post in the forum blaming so-called "rivet counters" for making the model railroading hobby too expensive and "out of reach" for the common man. It was a very bitter post written by someone who was obviously frustrated and looking to assign blame (after all, doesn't blaming someone else always feel better?). I took exception to that view... but other, more acrimonious posters that followed assured the thread was locked quickly. But the message is important; there's still this stereotype of the mythical "rivet counter" who goes around putting other model railroaders down and demanding perfection from the manufacturers, driving up the price. That no one can cite an example of these people is irrelevant; the myth is enough to incite hatred of all things prototypical.

Once upon a time they were also called "nit pickers." The nit-picker was someone who put the work of others down because it wasn't what he would have done. Usually nit-picking was accompanied by a dissertation of the nit-picker's vast knowledge of the subject matter. - EDIT: Read the comments section to learn were the term "rivet counter" comes from! - Oddly enough, when I was in Civil War reenacting, these same beasts were called "stitch counters." But then, most of us (in either hobby) took them in stride; we recognized their zeal to improve the standards of the hobby but dismissed their lack of people skills as the price.

But now there's this "guilt by association" whereby any of use who are interested in making our small trains look more like the big ones are labeled "rivet counters." That would be fine if that term didn't have such negative baggage. In a perfect world, rivet counters are people who want to assure the maximum prototype fidelity for their models. For example, when I built the 90F175 tender for this PRR class M1 4-8-2 in N scale from a pair of K4 tenders, I had to re-rivet the sides using a pin-vise, and I actually counted rivets:

Believe it or not, such behavior is sometimes viewed as "uptight" and "mean" by some in the mainstream hobby. I mean, after all, who would know it if I got it wrong?

...I would. And I model for me, not for anyone else. I can accept compromises (such as the driver diameter and valve gear for the M1 above; I couldn't get an eight-coupled mechanism with the correct 72" drivers and valve gear in N scale), but that's a personal choice for me. I don't force it on others, and neither have I seen other so-called "rivet counters" force their standards on the mainstream. Those of us who are deeply into prototype correctness tend to hang together in clumps where we can support and critique one another.

But where I make an adamant stand is the idea that "rivet counting" has made the hobby out of reach for many. Quite the contrary. Demanding more correct paint schemes and details from the manufacturers has resulted in the broadest and most correct range of products ever before offered. The cost rises for many reasons, and I doubt you can ascribe more of the rise to prototype fidelity than to, say, the cost of oil to manufacture (plastic is an oil product) and transport (it's all made in China) the stuff to the US. Perhaps there are those who would rather the hobby were still mainly Tyco almost-Alcos (see below) and generic 40-foot Athearn boxcars...

...but for the rest of us who love trains and want our models to look just like them, we are grateful to the rivet counters who work hand-in-hand (in most cases) with the manufacturers to get it right. After all, there's so much info available for free on the internet from blueprints to hundreds of thousands of prototype photos, that for a manufacturer to commit a major error on a model of a specific prototype is almost harder than getting it right. Many prototype railroads have technical and historical societies that will work with the manufacturer for free to ensure the new models are correct, including the rivets.

I'm a rivet-counter, and I'm proud of it. My choice of modeling style is just as valid as laying EZ-track on a grassmat and does not impinge upon anyone else's enjoyment of the hobby. There's something very, very satisfying about watching a locomotive you built run past with a string of hopper cars, all with the right number of rivets!

EDIT 2: I don't profess all of my models to be exact to the prototype. That most are made slightly closer to prototype than when they first came out of the box is what's important to me. This is only because of my deep, abiding love for the prototype (i.e., the real thing) and the resultant desire to better represent it on my model railroad, and not as a means to separate myself from the mainstream or assign myself some self-delusional elevated status among hobbyists.


Blogger challenger3980 said...

Hi Dave,

Rivet counting goes pack to at least 1937. Believe it or not LIONEL built the first MASS PRODUCED scale model the 700E, a model of the the NYC Hudson in 1937. The onl discrepancy that a serious modeler was able to find was the number of rivets on the tender was off by THREE. When Joshua Lionel Cowen was told, he was so incensed that he demanded a recount, and the modeler was proven to be right, but JLC still refused to alter his Master piece, but a term, wether viewed as derogatory or not was born.

July 13, 2008 at 2:37 PM  
Blogger Dr. Dave Vollmer said...

Wow, you learn something new every day! That's a neat story. JLC was known as a stickler, and I know that Hudson was his baby...

That's good to know. I'll edit the post accordingly!

July 13, 2008 at 2:40 PM  
Anonymous Randall said...


The German company Tillig produces inexpensive children's sets, and more expensive sets for serious modelers. Their children's TT scale sets start at around $70.

The only model train sets I've seen at Toys 'R Us are LifeLike HO sets. I assert that American manufacturers, particularly in N scale, need to pay more attention to children and entry level modelers.

The rivet counters aren't ruining the hobby, but manufacturers catering to them at the expense of the newcomer certainly isn't helping.

I admire the work of serious modelers like yourself. I also think people should just be able to snap together track and run trains if they want.


July 13, 2008 at 3:59 PM  
Blogger Dr. Dave Vollmer said...

I don't understand; this is an argument I often see but can never grasp. How does making models more realistic NOT cater to newcomers? Don't they also want trains that look more like trains? Is it somehow cheaper to make a GP30-something than a correct GP38-2? The design, tooling, and manufacture is roughly the same; where you pay extra is in the mechanism and the amount of free-standing detail. Look at Atlas Trainman; they've figured out a way to be true to prototype with lower cost.

My last question... How does having some modelers aspire to prototype fidelity PREVENT others from being "able to snap together track and run trains if they want," as you suggest? Even the complete foobie stuff out there is still rising in cost, so it can't be just "catering to prototype modelers" driving the prices up. It's the decrease in demand coupled with inceasing manufacturing costs... That's not the rivet counter's fault.

But I maintain that my style of modeling does not prevent you from enjoying yours.

July 13, 2008 at 7:04 PM  
Anonymous Randall said...


I believe that the details do add to the cost of the trains. The low cost children's sets from Germany have, in my opinion, better mechanisms than the LifeLike stuff. But they have very little detail. That, and smaller ovals of track, are the only reasons I can see why the German sets sell so inexpensively.

On the other hand maybe American N scale prices are inflated. The MSRP on low-end LifeLike N scale GP 38 locos is something like $58. But a while back Walthers was unloading them for $14. I have a difficult time believing that they were taking a loss. Why couldn't they throw those locos into a set with an oval of track, a couple freight cars, and a caboose and get kids started in N scale for around $60?

I'm sorry, I guess I was unclear. I don't think that serious prototype modelers prevent others from snapping together track and running trains, I believe that current prices discourage many who would like to investigate model railroading and I think less detailed models, as an option to, not instead of, highly detailed models might be good for the industry.


July 13, 2008 at 7:31 PM  
Blogger Dr. Dave Vollmer said...

True... I agree that free-standing details like seperately applied grab-irons and such do increase the price.

I'm not adverse to doing those things myself, so I'm not screaming for the manufacturers to do that for me. Where I get irked is when a loco has the wrong trucks or, as in the case of the long-awaited SD45-2 from Intermountain, the wrong size fuel tank. Those things are harder to fix than adding new grab irons.

A good compromise is the new Atlas GP15-1 in their Trainman line. Heck, anything in Trainman is a good example (low detail but otherwise faithful dimensions and paint). This loco is cheaper than the standard line, but is expected to run just as well (and be DCC capable) and has all the correct dimensions and paint at 30% or so less cost. If I feel it needs more detail, I have no problem adding it. But were the loco a few feet too long or had the wrong number of fans, I'd be upset. But Atlas took the time to do it right, offering old hats and newcomers alike an affordable but accurate loco. That's win-win.

July 13, 2008 at 7:55 PM  
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August 18, 2009 at 9:46 AM  

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