Wednesday, July 23, 2014

E. L. Moore’s Legacy in the 21st Century: The Tao of E. L. Moore

“Today’s digital special effects houses are obsessed with realism — ever more realistic scales, smoke, fire, jaws. Harryhausen’s work is better because it’s not realistic… it’s magical.” Joe Alterio, at HiLowBrow, commenting on what made Ray Harryhausen’s on-screen animation so special.

I never knew or communicated with E. L. Moore. My only connection was with what he published. So, does this so-called Tao reflect the actual man behind the writings? It might, but there’s always the possibility that his writings are just a public persona and only intersect glancingly with the true E. L. Moore. So, this Tao, this way of approaching model railroading and model building, is based on only what Mr. Moore published. And, it’s just my assessment of some common trends in his catalogue.

I’ve been writing this series for close to a year now, and you can leaf through the index of what’s been posted so far here. It’s been fun to wade through old magazines, build a few projects, stage photos and discover things I’d hadn’t known. I think I’ve still got a few posts to go in the series, but they’ve taken more time and effort than I thought they would, so I’m not exactly sure what my future output will look like. So, I thought I’d take a first cut at assessing what Mr. Moore’s legacy in the 21th century might be. I’ll likely come back to this subject of legacy when I think the series has run its course, but for now I thought it might be good to write down my initial thoughts.

I’ve used ‘Legacy’ in the title of every post in this series, but never explicitly stated what it was. Maybe ‘Legacy’ is too strong a term. Maybe it’s just a message or two. I’m still working that out.

First, the most obvious part of his legacy is his huge collection of published articles about how to build a wide variety of HO scale model buildings. As well, there are several articles dealing with building layouts and rolling stock. My current estimate is that he published 112 articles over a 25 year period. As well, a number of them were turned into plastic kits during his lifetime. That is a significant accomplishment in and of itself. He was likely the most prolific freelance mid 20th century writer in the American mainstream model railroading press.

For those interested in the retro model building experience, one can build his projects as specified just as Mr. Moore and hobbyists of his era would. Also, the projects can be updated in various ways for modern use. I’ve done a bit of both from time to time. I suspect that many of his articles could be kitted as laser cut wood projects by an industrious entrepreneur. Others might lend themselves to 3-D printing. Although I have no idea whether a significant market exists for these things to make such a venture financially worthwhile.

Various types of article-based kits would be interesting to have on the market, but ideally I’d like to see a decent hardcover book that reprinted all the articles, included a selection of photos, had some commentary and notes about old-school construction techniques along with some guidance about modern alternatives. It would be an art book of sorts, something like those published by Taschen. If done up right, and situated it within the broader framework of mid 20th century hobby activities,  it might be a handsome object unto itself and appeal to a slightly broader audience. Although, I can see speed bumps on the road to making this happen. Financing is one. Maybe a Kickstarter, or some sort of institutional grant for an art project? Licensing and copyright issues might be difficult to resolve. Could be a rocky road. Would it sell? I don’t know, probably more a labour of love than a gold ticket to riches.

However, the sad fact is that even the most prolific of writers and modelers can be left in the wake of history by the relentlessness of time. It’s been 35 years since his last article was published, and 60 since his first. The technology and social structure of the hobby has significantly changed over those years. I’m thinking his most lasting and practical contributions might be the more abstract ones.

If one were to read all of E. L. Moore’s articles today, and then practiced model railroading, and built model buildings and structures and rolling stock in strict accordance to their instructions, you’d be pursuing the hobby in more-or-less complete negation to how it’s practiced today. You’d be a radical. What in Mr. Moore’s time would have been considered practical and sensible approaches for building out a model railroad - leavened with some stories, tall tales and humour - would today be seen as eccentric and out-of-touch with the 21th century. And not in a good way :-) So, here are a few of the abstract components of his legacy, teased out from the overall patterns in his writings and presented in no particular order.

One of the more abstract legacy points is economy and self-reliance. There’s a vast array of products and kits available today. It’s a golden age; no denying it. Kits and pre-made products can be purchased – over a range of price-points – for just about every facet of the hobby. However, his writings demonstrate that you can do a lot of things yourself with rather simple materials at low cost. Now, today inflation has taken its toll, and there are more types of raw materials available at hobby retailers as well as around the house, so the prices and means will differ from Mr. Moore’s, but the philosophical approach is the same: you can make something satisfying for a rather modest cost. And if you do, your layout won’t suffer from using the same kits everyone else buys, but will likely express what you want to express.

I often get the impression that for him the hobby was still something to be practiced as a hobby even though he himself was something of a professional or semi-professional at it with respect that he made some sort of income from articles published in the mainstream hobby press. Mr. Moore’s example suggests that there are other satisfactions still be had as a self-reliant hobbyist trying to capture the essence of something important to themselves that they want to communicate. 

Storytelling and creativity is also a big part of his legacy. A model railroad can be a storytelling machine as well as an operational simulator, and when viewed in such a way, opens up creative avenues that can be overlooked when just railroad business operations are emphasized. I went on at length about this idea in the 25 Years at the Movies post.

Storytelling and selective-staging, economy and self-reliance, creativity, and no doubt a few more things I’ve yet to realize, all built upon a large catalogue of projects and photos. A great legacy and a thoughtful message for our era.

There’s probably some other points I’ve missed, but this is enough for now. The adventure continues.


  1. A bound file of ELM's articles is a large book. It must open flat so as to make use of the scale drawings. And if you add in all these beautiful color photos you've recently come upon, it would be a heavyweight tome!

    I got my modelbuilding education from Mr. Moore's articles, starting with his step-by-step Figet's Cheese Foundry. The more I built from his work, the more I became self-sufficient, as you described. Where E.L. made extensive use of balsa, I began substituting matte board and computer card strips. When I converted to N scale, I found cereal box cardboard sufficient.

    I used balsa for home-embossed shingles, but short of a wood burning pen, I used a sharp pencil or the edge of a metal scale ruler to make pressings. I also had good results (in N) scribing the siding and window casings.

    At first, a ruling pen with Floquil gave me colored window muntins against clear acetate. Then I found that straight thin lines could be brush-painted using craft-store acrylics, guided against a straight-edged ruler (held at a 45 degree angle against your work surface).

    I found that where ELM liked to use 1/16" at the corner of his right-angle wall joints, with cardboard I could eliminate that step and glue on creased cardstock strips. You crease the card firmly before you slice off a strip. I eyeballed them, skipping measuring. By the way, this same method will give you crack-filling strips between hard-to-fit roof pieces.

    E. L. Moore gave me the push to scratchbuild and showed I didn't have to use commercial parts. My finished models were far more satisfying because they cost next to nothing and truly were built from scratch.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I've got a few projects on the back-burner and I'm thinking I'll be using some of the techniques you've described when I get back to building.