What a craftsman kit is in model trains

In model railroading, a craftsman kit is a model kit consisting of wood and sometimes paper, and detail parts cast from soft metal. There is usually a fair amount of measuring, cutting, and gluing involved to build the model, and it usually requires a fair bit of patience and skill. That’s where the name craftsman kit comes from. You could get kids to build structures and even model railroad rolling stock.

Craftsman kits lost some prominence due to the widespread use of plastics, but they are starting to see something of a resurgence in modern times. Here’s why.

Craftsman kits described

Craftsman kit
A craftsman kit contains wood and metal parts. The contents require a fair bit of gluing, painting, and even filing or sanding to make a finished model.

A typical craftsman kit consists of wooden pieces, often basswood, with components printed or scribed into the surface, for the hobbyist to cut out and then glue together. The whole thing comes in a bag or a box without glue. The simplest kits don’t necessarily even come with instructions. But many craftsmen kits are comple enough that they do require detailed instructions. Some kits, especially older kits, required so much cutting and measuring that it was possible to use the instructions after assembling a kit to build additional models using wood from a hobby shop and the instructions.

In the early days of the hobby, craftsman kits were the norm. Wood was economical. And people tended to have more leisure time. Television and radio were in their infancy and provided less competition. Also, extended work weeks beyond 40 hours weren’t necessarily expected as commonly as they are today.

Buying inexpensive kits and clamping and gluing them together on the kitchen table and assembling a kit over the course of several evenings to then place on a layout was commonplace.

Craftsman kits became less common over the course of the 20th century as plastic kits rose to prominence. The plastic kits lacked the detail of the best craftsman kits. But they provided a better level of detail than the simplest kits, while being easier to assemble. Some of the kits even snapped together without the need for glue.

The resurgence of craftsman kits

In recent times craftsman kits have experienced something of a resurgence in the 21st century, due to technology. 3D printing gets all the glory. But technology has also made small scale production of craftsman kits far more practical than it used to be. Computer controlled cutting machine are surprisingly affordable and available, which means anyone who can learn to draw a design on a computer and can afford a $200 machine can produce their own craftsman kits if they so desire.

This means the barrier for entry to produce kits at scale is much lower than it was a century ago. A cottage entrepreneur can design a kit, have the computer cut it out of thin basswood, then sell the kit online, say, via eBay or Etsy.

The same technologies that produce competition for model railroading as a pastime ironically are bringing the hobby back to its roots.

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