As a young Train-head, this week’s builder is a rare beast among our tribe. You may know Matt Hamann from his fine assortment of model engines and rolling stock or from his entertaining writing on the Twee Affect, but you’re about to know him much better. I sat down with Matt on a bicycle made for two about halfway through the Wabash Cannonball Trail in northwest Ohio. We talked about Los Campesinos!, Huffy vs. Roadmaster and the persistence of chain-slap.
KG: What is the most challenging thing about building trains? Where do you stand on the classic 6 wide vs 8 wide debate, and do you also pine for exotic track geometries and 9 volt engines like so many Train-heads?
MH: The most challenging thing about building trains is that you have to recreate something out of a building toy. When building other themes, that is not always the issue since you are working from concept art or your imagination, unless, of course, you are building a scale model of a spaceship from a space opera, or an all terrain vehicle from a movie about dinosaurs. Modern locomotives have odd-shaped details everywhere and weird angles that do not translate easily into Lego; steam engines had greebles everywhere and moving bits that the builder has to selectively compress, yet still be able to make the model identifiable, not to mention that most steam engines are matte, whereas most Lego parts are glossy, which adds another challenge. But that is not to say that one is easier than the other; it is still a challenge to simply create something that is not yet another fighter ship or pile of grey bricks with a parapet, gate, and all your minifigs lined up perfectly in the courtyard.
I build 6 wide trains. When I joined my Lego train club in 2006, it is what my club mates were building and what our layout is scaled to. Bigger trains would just look silly among all the small buildings and cars and I am not about to start my own layout, not in this decade, at least. Bigger models can also be more parts intensive, which, depending on the model’s color and what pieces you are using, can be more expensive than building a smaller models. That point is especially important to me because I am (for now) a full-time student with only a part-time job. More and more I would rather spend my money on things other Lego, like camping gear and stuff for my touring bike, so to build smaller, less expensive models lets me keep doing both of my hobbies. I also like to be able to pull about 30 train cars with just two 9v motors, on unmodified wheels and transformers. Power Functions is changing that, but with the current system, you can’t beat light weight 6 wide trains if you are going for pulling the most train cars. I won’t say that building 8 wide is any easier than building 6 wide or visa-versa, if both are done right. Building a smaller model means selectively compressing more but you have the convenience of a lot of train specific parts (windscreens, grilles, etc.) that are mostly designed with 6 wide in mind.
If I had my own layout I would probably pine for a better system of track. Right now I don’t. I know for sure that my layout wouldn’t be 9v. 9v is dead. Power Functions is (supposedly) less expensive than 9v, which helps keep Lego in business, which keeps us AHOLs happy. Power Functions also does not have the connectivity issues that 9v has. Every little break between the tracks means lost current, so on large layouts, you have to have multiple power drops. If I had the resources I would probably build my layout to be in scale with 7 wide trains, since they are the best of both worlds.
KG: Many builders claim that Lego is a great stress-reliever. Do you find this to be true, and if it is, why do so many people seem to get stressed about it so easily?
MH: I am melancholic when I build. It feels great to be struck with inspiration, to solve problems, to finish a model, and to get good feedback and have discussions with other AHOLs, but, since I am so anal retentive, it can be stressful not to come up with a solution for a gap here or the funky dynamic brake blisters that GP7s and GP9s had. It can also be stressful to source the parts that you need, especially when they only came in a $50 Star Wars set from the mid 2000s and you need 20 when only 2 came in the set, in a color that Lego doesn’t make anymore. That scenario seems to happen a lot. With the financial involvement and the contrasting dogmas. it is really no wonder that people stress out.
KG: You’ve tried your hand at Steam Punk, but you failed to embrace many of its popular conventions. Talk about the theme, the good, the horrible and what direction is ripe for exploiting.
MH:The popular themes among fans draw inspiration from everywhere. Space builders draw inspiration from all the popular movies and series, train builders from the world’s trains, and castle builders from history, fantasy, and mythology. Lego steampunk seems like a giant circle jerk. Instead of looking outside of their community of practice, they have created an inbred style. That is not to say that there shouldn’t be common themes in the style, but that there should be more variety. Put away the parts from your Prince of Persia sets and your Jawa Sandcrawler and tear open those Power Miners sets that, for whatever reason you still keep sealed, and introduce some lime green to your build! Steal some of the Scala and Belville that you gave your daughters and put some light yellow and aqua your model! Look to World War One and interwar vehicles and aesthetics for inspiration. Most Studio Ghibli productions are a great source of inspiration.