The making of scale models of machines such as steam engines, combustion engines, railways, railway equipment, machine tools, agricultural machinery and vehicles, aircraft, ships, boats etc from stock materials rather than kits.
|Historic area of significance
|UK – chiefly in industrial or post-industrial areas.
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Formally recognised in the 19th century with formation of clubs and magazines but individual practitioners existed in much earlier times.
The term ‘model engineering’ has been in use since 1888. While now mainly a skilled amateur pursuit, in the past engineering models were used as aids to technical education, either as apprentice projects or as classroom or public institutional exhibits. They were also produced as commercial props to support a patent, to visualise a proposed capital venture, or to advertise a manufacturer’s trade. Many museums house original collections of mechanical models stemming from the earliest days of the industrial revolution.
Model engineering remains popular despite major social changes over the past century. Among these changes have been the elimination of steam power (still the most favourite subject for model engineers) from rail transport and industry; and the widespread de-industrialisation of Western countries beginning in the 1970s, along with a shift to consumer society and the introduction of a wide new range of competing leisure pursuits. These changes, along with the older age of many model engineers and decline of new apprenticeships, have prompted a long-running debate among model engineers whether the craft will die out.
- Sheet metalwork
- Thread forming
- Pattern making
- Use of hand tools such as saws and files
- Silver brazing and soldering
- Draughting either using traditional drawing skills or digitally
NB: there are too many separate skills to list here
- Model wheelwrighting (around 5 people making models, 3 to their own design, and 1 in the traditional way, with all dry jointing and conventional wheelwrighting). Although there are examples of model wheelwrighting dating back many years, it was probably only when the Model Horse Drawn Vehicle’s club was operating in the 1960s and 70s that the hobby was seen as a separate branch of model engineering. At that time there were probably in the region of 300 active members supported by those drawing and providing plans of actual vehicles, with a small support network of specialist parts suppliers. Following the demise of the MHDVC, the Guild of Model Wheelwrights came into being in the 1990s to continue support of the hobby, until now with the demise of members and advancing age. Without a follow-on of working members the hobby is very much on its last legs.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- The public perception of this craft can often be inaccurate, as the word ‘model’ makes people think of toy making rather than the high level of engineering involved in making these models.
- The craft is kept alive purely by amateur involvement as there is not really a market for the models, which are built for personal satisfaction, challenge and peer recognition.
- It is a rapidly ageing craft, with the vast majority of its participants over 60.
- Industry requires fewer people with traditional ‘bench’ skills due to the digital revolution in manufacturing. Retirees having such skills will become much fewer, endangering not only the hobby but the ‘experience base’ from which new younger talent can be drawn.
- Whilst there are many people involved in the craft the majority are making from published drawings rather than creating their own.
- Although the best engineering models are highly attractive aesthetic objects in their own right, they are not often appreciated in the wider craft world and not often welcome at general craft shows.
- The craft requires access to expensive tools, such as lathes and milling machines, so is difficult for the beginner to enter the crafts without a degree of investment and commitment.
- There are safety issues such as boiler safety and the risks associated with demonstrating working models to the public.
- An infrastructure of suppliers (tools, materials, etc) does exist but is also diminishing, especially in terms of quality. In times past, everything was made in the UK. The serious engineer sometimes has to resort to making his own tools and fixings.
- Northern Association of Model Engineers
- Southern Federation of Model Engineering Societies
- The Society of Model and Experimental Engineers
- Guild of Model Wheelwrights
Until recently there were five annual model engineering shows in the UK – two in London, one in Bristol, one in the Midlands, and one in the North. The Bristol show has been temporarily cancelled and one of the London shows may not be continuing.
Craftspeople currently known
The Model Engineering website lists the clubs up and down the country.
The combined club membership may be around 25,000. There are many more who do not belong to clubs. It is thought that the number of active members (in the making sense) might be less than 10 per cent. Of these a tiny proportion could be considered highly skilled.
- Model Engineering website
- Magazines: Model Engineer, Engineering in Miniature, The Model Engineers’ Workshop.
- The magazine The Model Engineers’ Workshop has published a series by Stephen Wessel all about the trade that outlines some of his working methods. This would be a good read for anyone contemplating entering the field.
- The Guild of Model Wheelwrights Magazine, Wheelwrites, is still available as 70 issues on a disc.