Monday, 4 August 2014

Coastin', boy, just coastin'...

And so would say old Pat Smithers, when asked how he was doing, unfailingly.  he worked with unflinching regularity. Never too slow to be taking the Mickey and never too fast to embarrass the rest.  He was always pleasant, almost chatty, but intensely private.  Never mixed with the other contractors outside the studio, always rented a flat, never stayed in an hotel.  Rarely went home to England, always had a German lady tucked away somewhere, or so the rumours went.  No fuss, just...coastin'.

Lately, I know what he means.  I am not exactly idle, nor noticeably active.  I do a few bits on this job, a few on the other.  I blame the heat for my listlessness, but I think it's more.  I think I am just tired of modelmaking, or rather, the relentless making of models of things in which I have no interest for others, for money and not much of it!
I have much to do, but choosing which project, which job, is a daily grind.  I would rather just get in the car and drive somewhere.  Especially now my camera has been set up by my son.

So, during a protracted tea break, I was looking through Iain Robinson's old blogs and came across the one with a canal scene.
Now one of my many hobby horses is the paucity with which people portray canal scenes and especially the boats that belong therein.
I wonder how a man can gaze upon a simple shape like a canal boat and make something so obscure, so hideously wrong that a blind man could see it.  Iain was wise to keep any boat out of his very well made scene.  The dreariness, the cobbles (or are they setts?), the stasis of the average lock scene and the dirty water, (it's always dirty) are beautifully shewn.  Having lived on an historic ex-working boat and owned others, I suppose my fussiness about the making of boat scenes is understandable.  I have been around boats since I was 7.  Dunkirk Little Ships, fishing boats, canal boats, small harbour craft, Victorian racing cutters, classic speedboats, the humble dinghy.  Each and every boat deserves as much trouble taken over its portrayal as the grandest Pacific or the humblest diesel shunter.

So does the quay against which it rests or the mud in which it sits glued waiting for the next tide to squeeze it, sucking and whispering back to life afloat.  The ropes, chains, anchors, ladders, deck hamper, all need to be faithfully reproduced. There is no more a "generic" boat as a tree.

Because scenic stuff is something I don't do for money I can indulge myself and cut no corners.  Here's a lock gate that I spent several evenings on. One of three (the bottom gate is a single on a narrow canal usually).  It is for my Lantern Yard large diorama.  I made brass patterns for the lock furniture, which is based on the Welsh and Mongomery canals.  I got a chum to pop the masters in a mould for somebody else and then cast me just a few to make a set.
It's been around a while now and still doesn't have its brothers. A bit of paint chipped off, but that can be touched up.  What matters is that this what a lock gate looks like. It's how they're made. The furniture is accurate, right down to the staggered tooth rack which winds the paddle up. Incipient rot in the arm end. The ratchet to stop the paddle dropping suddenly.  This in 7mm scale.

This dinghy took about three days to make from pear veneer over a simple set of moulds like a real boat of this type would be built. Thin strips were soaked and bent in to the hull and oars made of bamboo, with copper shim wrapped round the blades.  Completely matt paints give it a well used air.
But a boat needs a quay, a staithe, a berth.
Here's the simplest staithe. Made of pear wood strips and then made to look like it was repaired ad hoc.
The mess underneath is the high tide seaweed and general detritus.

Here's what you need for reference. I'm glad I took these up in Border country as I've just received a commission to do a canal cruiser and a lobster boat.

What sweet little coastal craft.

Just coastin', boy, just coastin'....


  1. Your introductory paragraph had a wonderfully nostalgic feeling...lovely bit of writing...made me think somehow of Michael Caine as Harry Palmer. Thank you for the kind mention of my blog, too. I used to hang about around the Shropshire Union and helped in the restoration of the Huddersfield Narrow through Ashton, but still don't feel I could do a narrow boat justice. With your deep sympathy and understanding of waterways craft and your skill with the proper materials you seem to have a quiet confidence about you. Hopefully these new commissions will perk your modelmaking mojo again. I tend to get burnt out after a few years and have a month, maybe more, when I just can't do anything's terrible. Luckily it comes back eventually, I just have to go exploring mines with the missus. I do regret not having the time for a model railway of my own...Andrew Barclay, rusty steelworks etc... so I am glad you are doing something for yourself. And...that lock gate is sublime. My dear old Da' used to call the toothed rack the "Ranters"...when he was fishing on the towpath of the Shroppie, (I'd be about 11) I would help boats by working the paddles and getting the lock ready for them. I often got the odd quid for my efforts, but it was fun.

    I do like that little staithe, so well observed, you have a great eye for atmosphere and detail.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Iain. We used to winter on the Shroppie at Market Drayton, using the excellent Woodies Tearoom and Emporium most days for my fix of Staffordshire oatcakes.
      I need something to perk up the modelmaking mojo as I have really lost it just lately. I'd hoped you might like the staithe!

  2. That little dinghy is superb, modelmaking at its finest. You can tell that it was built by someone who really knows boats, most of us railway modellers really haven't a clue where to start (the answer of course is to study the real world). I've just spent an enjoyable week in Wells and spent a fair amount of time looking at and photographing various craft, especially those made from wood.

  3. Thanks for nice words. If we were not flooded currently, Paul, I'd have said you should have called in. We live not far away. I love Wells. So might we be seeing some well observed boats on your layout soon?

    1. If only I had a layout, not just several competing ideas floating around my head! I would like to build something either coastal or canalside, there's just a certain something about the combination of railways and water.