The Tradition of Making: Transcending Generations

Building model trains may seem like just a hobby, but it’s also a part of a larger movement among millennials.

Depending on which generation is asked, model train building might be dismissed as an eccentric middle aged man’s hobby, but this form of building dates back to the mid-1800s and is making a comeback in what is called “maker culture.” Model building is a form of “making” and is growing in popularity among millennials.

Maker culture is a contemporary subculture that involves do-it-yourself building of new devices or artistic creations as well as tinkering with existing ones. This can involve robotics, 3-D printing, metalwork, woodworking and traditional arts and crafts. The maker culture emphasizes open-source learning-through-doing or active learning, especially in a social environment.

Without realizing it, Cy Varnum, WWII veteran and retired Boeing aerospace engineer from Montana, brought the maker culture to Wesley Homes Des Moines. Two years ago, when he and his wife first moved to The Terrace, Cy spotted a model train set being thrown away. He decided to salvage it instead.

Cy hadn’t fiddled with model trains since his youth but saw this train set as an opportunity to experience the joy of assembling one again with his new neighbors. Along with a dozen or so other residents, Cy lovingly reconstructed the 25 year old model train set by the woodshop in The Terrace leisure level.

“We rewired it to get the trains moving and the lights working, and some of the ladies here at The Terrace helped to assemble and paint the model buildings, trees and figures,” recalled Cy.

Most of the model trains are from Germany, are heavy and are made with real metal. He’s currently working on getting more of the trains operational and is looking into the use of liquid smoke to simulate steam driven engines. Cy also has plans to potentially build a retractable bridge between the two train set tables.

Along with an abundance of small scale models, the train team also moved in books and magazines about trains and model kit assembly. While the books are not read all that often and the room is somewhat tucked away downstairs, the model train set itself is still a frequent source of curiosity by staff and family members.

“I get requests once a week or so from folks who want to show the trains to their children, and that’s always fun,” he said.

In addition to providing something fun with which kids can interact, Cy views model building as an opportunity to get creative and practice a variety of skills.

“Woodworking skills are required to lay the track and then electrical skills to successfully install all the wiring. You improve your artistic and modelling skills as you build as well,” explained Mike Hughs of the National Model Railroad Association. His article, published by “The Telegraph” in 2015, explained why people, specifically men, enjoy working on model trains.

“Making” can be any kind of creative process, such as knitting, gardening, painting or scrapbooking. It’s all about the satisfaction of turning an idea into a finished physical product.

Every hobby has the driving potential for innovation in an endless variety of industries. According to Boston Consulting’s Andrew Taylor, many industries and brands are looking at external sources for innovation. “It is absolutely faster and more efficient to go outside than to depend only on internal R&D to drive innovation,” said Taylor in an article published by “Adweek.”

As this creative and skilled process continues to cross over generational boundaries, hobbyists can take pride in knowing that what might seem to them like inconsequential tinkering is actually a valuable tradition of invention and creativity.

Further Reading:

Jonathan Wells, “Why Do Men Love Model Railways?” The Telegraph

Joan Voight, “Which Big Brands Are Courting the Maker Movement, and Why” Adweek

Tim Bajarin, “Why the Maker Movement Is Important to America’s Future” Time Magazine