Why Scale? An Introductory Essay

 

Scale! There is a term that commands a wild array of images. It is what is left on the floor of a swamp when the water has evaporated and the primordial ooze has dried. It is a skin condition that fish take for granted. but humans abhor. A sailor chips it from the hull of his dry-docked ship, a butcher weights his thumb with it, amusician plays it, and the astrologer recognizes it as the sign of Libra. All of these and more are the images of scale. Yet out of this confusion of images, scale has a definitive meaning for miniaturists and craftsmen.

As the craft of creating miniature houses and furnishings has emerged from the less critical realm of toys into the more critical arenaof exact measurement, and from the workship of the commercial artisan into the broader world of the do-it-yourself hobbiest, the general awareness of scale modeling in the hobby has increased. What is the meaning of scale for the miniaturist and how does its meaning affect the hobby? This is a question of obvious importance to the editors of The Scale Cabinetmaker, for this quarterly is intended for the miniaturist, whose primary concerns in the hobby include a concern for reduced scale reproduction of full scale, or life size, houses and furniture. 

The language of the hobby is crowded with words that only indirectly imply the meaning of scale: diminutive, Lilliputian, mini, tiny, wee, small. These terms serve well enough to express a universal fascination with the comparative size of miniatures. Yet scale goes beyond the simple comparison of large and small, great and tiny life size and reduced size. It deals instead with the exact proportions by which the comparison is made. “Tiny” is not the same as “one inch to one foot” and “wee” is not necessarily 2.5 centimeters in length. Therefore, while a l l miniaturists share a fascination with smallness, the scale modeler is attracted in addition to the standardized units of measurement in feet or meters by which the exact proportions of smallness are established. The pleasure of seeing or building a miniature is heightened by reference to that standard and by the degree to which the miniature is true to that standard. 

If the question of scale reproduction is accepted as important, then two further questions must be considered: What size should the scale be?, and How important is it for the modeler to follow the scale size that has been chosen? The choice of a scale may rest on practical, technical, or aesthetic grounds. In practical terms, the scale we choose for our collections and craft is a reflection of our energies as well as the size of our budget and our house. In another popular scale craft, the model railroader. who is fascinated by the chuffing and pounding of a steam locomotive. would gain instant notoriety among his neighbors were he to park a CB&Q Ten Wheeler in the side yard. The neighborhood kids would love him, but it would be extremely hard on the petunia beds and might strain his relations with his wife. “George.” she might say over the supper table, “I hope you are not planning on bringing that thing into the house.” So to satisfy his fascination with the full-scale locomotive, or prototype, the railroad buff turns to the collection of scale models that will do less violence to neighborhood, flower beds and marriage. He chooses ascale that is geared to fit both space and budget. It is a matter of resources and convenience: O guage, if space allows it, T guage, if little space is available, or HO guage as a compromise between large and small. It all depends on whether he wishes to devote his backyard, basement, a room, or a coffee table to the housing of his collection. In the same manner the collector and builder of miniatures may choose a scale, whether 1/2 “, l”, or 1 1/2 “, because the pieces collected in that scale fit into an available space. 

Aesthetics, or a sense of beauty, also play a role in the choice of scale size: we simply find one size more appealing than another. Some miniaturists gain their greatest satisfaction in a bust of Washington or Jefferson carved on the head of a sewing pin. Others find greater beauty in doll furniture scaled to three inches to the foot. For both, the miniatures serve the aesthetic sense. For both, the hobby is a type of art. 

As the hobbiest turns from collecting to building scale models, a new meaning is added to the choice of scale: the modeler’s level of skill and goals in the craft. The extent to which the modeler can reproduce the full detail of the prototype, as well as the ease in achieving this goal, increases as the size of scale increases. As the size of scale expands, fewer of the problems that plague the craftsman in the smaller scales appear. The grain of the wood becomes less critical, exact measurements are easier to make, cabinetmaker’s techniques are more readily duplicated, and hardware that is in scale is more widely available and easily applied. In the larger scales, the exact details of carving and decorating can be more precisely reproduced, while in the smaller scales they can only be approximated. 

Beyond practicality, beauty, and technique, a further reason exists for the choice of a particular scale. This is the simple availability of particular sizes of miniatures and modeling materials. Just as the mainstream of model railroading has tended to reflect the widespread availability of O and HO materials, so the current range of miniatures and craft materials in 1″ scale will influence the choice of size by many in the hobby. Reflecting this general trend, The Scale Cabinetmakrr will employ as its standard a scale of one inch to one foot (1″:l’). 

Once the size of scale for a miniature collection has been chosen, and as the hobbiest moves from collecting to constructing miniatures, a second property of scale becomes important: the consistency of its use by the hobbiest. If consistency contributes to the degree of harmony between a miniature and its prototype, as well as to harmony between miniatures within a room setting, then it is part of both the art and the craft o f the hobby. As an element of art, harmony appeals to the aesthetic sense, and ascraft, it reflects theextent to which theskills and techniquesof the craftsman have been equal to the demands of scale compatibility. Technique and beauty, craft and art are not mutually exclusive categories in the world of miniatures. 

The search for consistency between the model and its prototype becomes appirent in this historical interests of the miniaturist. Indeed, the history of prototypes is the first form of scale modeling experienced by most miniaturists. As collectors we become engrossed in the historical settings and origins of the styles of furniture and architecture represented by the small objects in our collections. We scour libraries for references and antique shops or museums for examples. We plan vacations around the logic of visiting those museums, restorations, and historical sites that offer us a glimpse of the immediate or distant past. 

However, as an interest in scale reproduction grows, the tolerance for just looking without touching declines. The demands for consistency between the model and its prototype demand that we look inside, behind, and under the original piece in search of those details of the cabinetmaker’s art that will lend authenticity to the model. Where were dovetail joints used? Where did the original cabinetmaker substitute hidden shortcuts for morrstandard procedures on the ground that”outof sight isoutofmind”? What variations in style and craftsmanshipdid thecabinetmaker use? In this fashion, the scale cabinetmaker reveals an interest in scale by attempting to reach beyond the velvet rope, during a museum tour, for the sake of consistency and harmony between the model and its prototype. 

Consistency of scale is also revealed in the compatibility of the objects in a miniature setting. Two chairs of the same style, but different scales, sitting side by side in a model setting, make the scale modeler a bit uneasy. As a disparity in scale increases, uneasiness gives way to a determination to come closer to the proper scale dimensions with the next try, It is the same intuitive uneasiness that most parents of school age children have felt more graphically when forced to endure through a two hour PTA meeting, while seated on the child-size chairs and desks of a third grade classroom. A sense of scale consistency tells us either that something is wrong or that harmony has been achieved. It is the view of The Scale Cabinetmaker that scale modeling represents one of the growing edges on the miniaturist’s hobby. The hobby has begun to shift from collecting and displaying miniatures toward a combination of collecting and scale modeling. It is a movement that parallels the development of model railroading forty years ago. During the 1930’s and 1940’s that hobby moved from a focus on the collection and operation of toy or “tin plate”trains in the larger guages to the scale crafting of prototype equipment and layouts in the smaller guages. And it is no coincidence that many modelers, once engaged in the crafting of model railroads, are now discovering the challenge of constructing scale houses and furniture, for the challenges are the same in both. Many outstanding scale cabinetmakers today were formerly model railroaders. 

The threshold between collecting and scale modeling is indistinct, but real. As was true in model railroading, many present scale craftsmen began their careers in scale modeling by collecting and displaying toy and, subsequently, scale miniatures. The intimation of scale modeling is found in collecting, or at least in the urge of the collector to add bits and pieces of everyday material to a room setting because they somehow “look like” the object intended. So we add a piece of jewelry finding to a room because it looks like a lamp base, or half of a fishing bobber because it looks like a lamp shade. At this stage, the approximation is close enough, even though it is not exactly in scale; but the urge for scale modeling is there. It is the itch to add something of your own construction to the setting. It is “modeling by substitution,” but it is not yet scale modeling. 

Perhaps the threshold to scale modeling is crossed by the majority when the miniaturists turn to the construction of kits. With these predesigned and and often precut kits, the fledgling cabinetmaker begins tolearn the basicelements of both cabinetmaking and the scale modeler’s craft. The kits serve as aids in learning how the parts of a piece of furniture, prototype or scale, are assembled. The appearance of an increasing number of kit manufacturers in the miniatures market is an encouraging sign for the development of scale modeling. These range from large manufacturers like Scientific, X-acto and Americana to smaller concerns like K & B Designs, Craft Creations, and Avalon. Yet as with modeling by substitution, kit construction is only a step in the direction of scale modeling from prototypes for at this stage the reference point is the instruction sheet in the kit and not the prototype itself. 

A further step in the development of scale modeling lies in “free lancing” the details of a kit. This occurs when a knowledge of the prototype and a growing confidence in modeling technique combine to urge the alteration of the basic construction of the kit for the sake of producing a unique variation on the common theme. Mitered joints may be added to a bracket foot, or a crown molding may be modified to conform to that on a particular prototype piece. Details of carving or inlay. observed in a particular cabinetmaker’s work, can be changed or added. As confidence increases, the basic dimensions and constuction of the kit may be altered to conform to those appropriate for an entirely different period of furniture style. In this fashion, the superdetailing and modification of kits represents a clear step forward in scale modeling. 

The final stages of scale modeling are approached when the miniaturist moves beyond the security of kit construction to the greater freedom of building from either full size or scale plans and patterns and finally, from the measurements of the prototype itself. Again, the emergence of manufacturers and suppliers for the miniaturist, who builds from scratch, is encouraging. In addition to such well known companies as Northeastern Scale Models, Illinois Hobbycrafters, and Architectural Model Supplies, an increasing number of local hobby shops are stocking materials for the scratch builder in miniatures and are organizing craft clubs and instructional classes.

The content of this and future issues of The Scale Cabinetmaker is intended to reflect this view o f the miniatures hobby. We recognize that it is only one of several companion views of the hobby. As our articles focus on the historical setting of prototypical houses and furniture, encouraging their reproduction through scale patterns and plans, our ultimate goal is to encourage our readers to develop beyond the stage where they would need the content of TSC in order to pursue their craft. 

We welcome the contributions of those who have discovered modeling by substitution. We encourage those who have begun to explore the fun of building kits by offering articles on the modification and superdetailing of kits. We will produce plans of prototype, historically-identifiable furniture and houses, drawn in scale, in the hope that our readers will go beyond the simpler pieces to attempt complex projects as well. We will offer information on tools, materials and techniques necessary for the growth o f the reader’s expertise in scale craftsmanship. We will present the guidance of those masters in the craft and art of miniatures, whose work has been themeasure against which the rest of us have guaged our own efforts. And in all these things we hope that the editors and readers w i l l share in something that is at every point a great deal of fun. 

In an enchanted book, whose personalities were part of youth form many o f us, The Windin the Willms by Kenneth Grahame, the Mole is talking to the Water-Rat. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life,” said the Mole. “What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed, “never been in a,. . .you never.. . .well, I… what have YOU been doing then?” The measure of the success of The Scale Cabinetmaker will come when all of us in miniature crafts can look back a t the development of scale cabinetmaking without asking “Never built a scale miniature from scratch? Well, I. , . .what have you been doing then?”

Jim Dorsett, Editor
The Scale Cabinetmaker 1:1 (October, 1976)

 

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