What Isambard Kingdom Brunel could teach us about model railways

Isambard Kingdom BrunelLooking for advice on how to build a model railway? Who better than Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest ever engineer and patron saint of ModelRailwayEngineer.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel needs no introduction. A famed engineer of the 19th Century whose designs revolutionised public transport, changed modern engineering and whose signature work – the Great Western Railway – shaped the towns and cities of South West England.

Over the course of his 53 years, IKB revolutionised public transport, constructed an entire railway network and built an observatory, pier and dock systems and ships and reshaped the English countryside along the way.

He also devised a new signalling system, dug the Box Tunnel — which in 1840 was the longest tunnel ever built — and constructed 130 bridges and numerous viaducts, embankments, excavated the deepest cutting of its time (at Sonning) and pretty much created the railway town of Swindon.

Who better to learn from when building model railways?

Think big

Although Brunel had to solve lots and lots of small problems when building his viaducts, bridges and railways he was also a Big Thinker.

He didn’t just build a collection of unconnected and individual of railway lines and the buildings around them. No, the prolific engineer had a grand vision.

Thinking on a huge scale, Brunel wanted to link not just towns and cities of England but London and New York. GWR was just a part of his vision and was later joined by three steamships of his design to reach across the Atlantic.

When building your model railway, follow Brunel’s lead and think big too.

I’m not talking about creating large room-spanning layouts – although Brunel would have undoubtedly approved – but rather consider the macro picture of your layout.

Brunel: The Man Who Built the WorldLearn more about Brunel
If you’re interested in learning more about IKB and his engineering, I strongly recommend Brunel: The Man Who Built the World by Steven Brindle and Dan Cruickshank.

It’s packed full of insight into the man and his projects and is a gripping read too.

At the time of writing, it’s available from Amazon in paperback, hardback and Kindle formats.

Don’t just lay track and then build things randomly around it.

Instead, create a Brunel-esque vision of the landscape or the setting your track sits in and work out every aspect of it. Should the railway go through, under or around hills for example? Doing so will give your railway a unified feel rather than looking like a collection of disjointed structures.

Thinking big was part of Brunel’s genius and why his railways and buildings have stood the test of time make it part of yours too.

Invent, create, make

Brunel was a prolific inventor. He continually broke new engineering ground, tried new ideas and found ingenious solutions to solve the problems he faced and tried new ideas.

If Brunel was building a model railway today it’s unlikely he’d buy plastic kits for the buildings or even the rolling stock. Rather he’d design and build things himself, from scratch.

His choice of broad gauge track for GWR instead of the standard gauge used elsewhere is just one example of this DIY spirit and skill.

Do the same with your railway. It may take more work to make things but it’s a lot more rewarding in the long run and you’ll learn a lot along the way. He’d be sure to approve!

Attention to detail

Another trait Brunel was famed for and which modellers can learn from was his attention to detail.

Inherited from his father, Marc Brunel, he got involved in almost every aspect of his projects. On the Great Western Railway, for example, he surveyed the route, wrote specifications for the engines, designed the tiniest decorative details on buildings and picked the colour for the livery of his trains.

Model railway builders who follow his lead will have railways to be admired.

Think about every aspect of your models, no element should be too small or left untouched. From decorating the insides of buildings visible through windows to colouring trees and plants to match the growth in the season you’re modelling to the texture of the scatter to reflect the soil that would be present.

Tiny details mount up which Brunel knew all too well, and this applies equally to railways and models.

Even the smallest misaligned rail will come back to haunt you later, buildings not bedded in will scream fake. Don’t skimp on the details.

Start with the principal points of your layout and review every aspect, what small detail could you make better?

Don’t give up

Brunel rarely admitted defeat even in the face of monumental challenges.

Take this lesson from him and use mistakes as a learning opportunity. You’re bound to encounter problems and setbacks when making your railway, keep trying. (I’ve made just about every mistake in model-making that can be made)

And when faced with a problem, read every model-making and railway blog (hint, hint), book and magazine you can. Try different things. Experiment. Start again.

Just don’t give up!

If he’d accepted defeat England, and arguably the industrialised world, would be a different place than it us today!

Lastly, Brunel was a natural publicist and never missed an opportunity to promote his railways; so take a hint from the master, let others see your railway and share photos and videos of your layout with the MRE community.

In the memory of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, April 9th, 1806 – September 15th 1859.

> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.

Picture: Isambard Kingdom Brunel at Swindon GWR Steam Museum, (c) ModelRailwayEngineer.com

Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.

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