Toy Trains vs Model Trains – What’s the Difference?

For people who aren’t involved in the model railroading hobby, there’s really no difference between “toy” trains and “model” trains. After all, both hobbies involve small trains that are controlled by some sort of power pack. There is a significant difference, however, to anyone who is an enthusiast. Calling a model railroad a “toy train” is like calling a classic piece of literature a “novel”.

Toy trains are generally marketing to children, and are the way many of us were introduced to the hobby. They tend to be quite plain looking and not based on any real-life trains. Model trains, on the other hand, are often a true art form with scale reproductions of real or potential trains and layouts (a technique known as prototyping).

Some of the earliest toy trains were available in the early 19th century. They often had wind-up motors or even steam-powered locomotives and were generally made from cast iron.

In the 1850’s a German company named Marklin, who made dollhouse accessories, introduced a box set of a train and track to try to broaden its market to include boys as well as girls. They also made extra tracks, rolling stock and building that were available as accessories.

Electric trains followed soon after, commonly believed to have been introduced by Carlisle and Finch in 1897 in the United States. The Lionel corporation revolutionized these model and they rapidly gained popularity and sophistication.

Things such as lighting, ability to change direction and “real” smoke were some of the earliest realism features that were added. There was still little distinction between “toy” and “model” trains until the 1950’s, however, when the modern emphasis on realism really started to take hold.

Today there are various gauges of model railroads, with a vast array of accessories available. They can be controlled by computer and entire railyards can be operated exactly the way they would be in real life. Many model railroading enthusiasts spend thousands of dollar and hundreds of hours creating prototypes of actual railroad lines, both past and present.

There are clubs and associations that offer resources for beginners and experienced railroaders alike. The internet has also helped to make it easier to find information on model railroading, as well as a much larger selection of trains and accessories than the average hobby store could hope to stock.

What’s Up With the Ship Model Building Marketplace?

Some readers of this article may find it too provocative but it needs to be said. After spending 30 years building ship models, and twelve years selling radio controlled and wooden ship models to the hobby enthusiast, I find there are some frustrations that never go away in the ship model building industry.

Let’s face it; the business of ship model building, operates as a niche industry. Nonetheless, radio controlled and wooden ship models are, to the hobby enthusiast, a very important past time. Rich in history, technical challenges, and a form of art and legacy; ship modeling is a very rewarding hobby. The ship model market, by its very nature, caters to a very small group of like-minded people with a particular passion to create a unique piece of work. It is characterized by higher prices, limited availability, and limited manufacturer’s model choices. And, those kits rely heavily on our skills and innovations as builders to complete a historically accurate ship model to be proud of.

Let’s examine the manufacturing and distribution chain a little closer.

MANUFACTURERS of ship model kits and fittings often temporarily remove popular ship model kits from the market place, redesign them, and then, re-offer them. What reasons would a manufacturer have to do this? Have you ever considered any of these possibilities for ship model removal from the manufacturing chain? 1. Improve the overall quality of the kit? 2. Respond to customer comments about the build difficulties in a particular ship model? 3. Reduce manufacturing costs? 4. Re-locate manufacturing center? 5. Add additional features? 6. Improve the plans, drawings, or instructions? While kits can be removed for any of the above reasons; ship model manufacturers are facing the same economic realities as other types of industry. Often times, it’s the bottom line that has to register the most strongly with a manufacturing company. Put in stronger terms, the reason is to increase the profit margins also known as we need to “make more money”!

Don’t get me wrong; to stay in business all manufacturers have to make a fair profit. Most manufacturers of ship models provide a good quality product for a reasonable price. They do need to place a little more consideration on the needs of builders. This would certainly help in growing the hobby and their market share.

Another frustration for builders is manufacturers that are still providing only die-cut parts in their ship model kits. Die-cut parts have a tendency to become less accurate with the greater number of parts produced and they are frequently difficult to work with. Getting a die-cut keel out of a 1/8″ thick piece of basswood without losing any important curves can sometimes be enough to drive a builder to close up shop for the night. Listen up kit manufacturers; if you are going to be in the business then do yourselves and your customers a huge favor and get some laser cutting machinery! Or go forward thinking and investigate the possibilities of a 3D printer.

Then there are the manufacturers that give you materials that are almost impossible for the average ship model builder to work with. For example, some kits provide wire that is to be fashioned into chain assembly parts. This is a sure-fire way to turn off a novice builder. Turn off the builders and watch the niche market we occupy get even smaller my friends.

The reason DISTRIBUTORS exist is to represent and consolidate numerous manufacturers’ products under one roof, providing an inventory, warranty, and technical support system, often in a different country or continent than the manufacturer. This addition to the supply chain should enable smaller retailers to improve their competitiveness.

One frustration in this system, with today’s emphasis on internet sales, is the distributor who competes with the retailers he is supposed to be supporting. This can lead to reduced supply, increased prices, and an unfair (to the consumer) marketplace.

And, while the global marketplace has allowed us all shorten the delivery cycle and to become more price conscious and price savvy, it has also become a thorn in the side of the retailer, particularly the small business person. As we have continued to move inventories out of bricks and mortar buildings and into the ‘cloud’, retailers have seen stock levels in North America fall to much lower levels. Cost concerns have led manufacturers to source manufacturing in countries with lower wage levels, fewer health benefits, and longer working hours. Unfortunately, these moves have also provided barriers to effective and efficient information concerning product availability and longer delivery times in some cases.

In order to address product availability, longer lead times, higher shipping costs, and extremely price conscious retailers (as an extension of their customers), distributors have been taking steps to improve their ability to provide cost effective products. Sometimes, in a smaller marketplace (like Canada), this can mean a limited supply of product in the warehouse, a longer ordering cycle, and longer shipping times in order to take advantage of lower cost transportation systems.

And we retailers aren’t all saints either.

Certain RETAILERS are known to dramatically increase their list prices and then offer fabulous sales, advertising 60% or more off MSRP. I know I’m attracted to a 60% savings sign! I also know that I have to be aware of the ‘real’ regular price, what other retailers are offering for the same object, and how service differs between retailers. The net effect of this illusion is an inflated advertised discount which should leave end users – YOU – with a bad taste in your mouth and a determination to avoid retailers who try to put one over on you.

Ahhh, the internet! Such a wonderful tool, it has opened up chains of supply never seen before. It offers the consumer a chance to browse without leaving the comfort of their living room. But what about the consumer who lives in a rural area, the fellow who can’t get high speed service? Or the consumer who without access to the internet at all? Or the customer who wants to touch and browse? Often times these customers are overlooked in our race to go digital.

There are many fly-by-night radio-control and wooden ship model retailers out there. They don’t have any print catalogues for customers, they don’t have any in-house stock, they’re not willing to send samples, and they don’t accept returns without expensive restocking and handling fees. And worst of all – minimum shipping costs that don’t reflect the true cost of shipping products you order. Many of them offer poor customer service, corresponding only by email, offering no warranties on the products they sell, no follow up customer service, and only rarely do you find a retailer with any staff expertise to answer the wooden ship model hobby enthusiast’s technical questions. If you don’t have a computer or are not comfortable using this technology, you could have a difficult time finding what you need to be able to enjoy the great hobby of ship model building.

Now, let’s suppose you do manage to get someone at the hobby shop on the phone. Who are you speaking with? Could it be a ship model builder, a long term full-time employee who understands the ship model hobby world, a small business owner, a part-time student? Most likely you will be speaking to a part-time employee or a small business owner and while owners and employees have a vested interest in your business, they don’t always have the experience to address your concerns or the ability to provide personalized ship model and parts and fittings searching services. Sometimes they can’t even get replacement parts from the manufacturers for you (see the information about manufacturers and distributors above)! The hobby market has changed in recent years and most hobby businesses are catering to the general consumer. In other words, their focus is elsewhere and it’s because sales of ship model kits, fittings, parts, and accessories are a very small part of their overall business.

Look for a retailer that will provide products at a fair price, have both a digital and print presence, are ship modelers themselves and enthusiastic about the hobby. You want to deal with a company that has a history in the business, and responds to your phone calls and emails in a timely fashion; a company that has more than a single manufacturer’s product lines, a wider distribution network, and a ship model building focus. When you find a company like that, don’t lose their contact information!