Last week I assembled an Ikea bookshelf for my office, which does not require the brains of a rocket scientist. The instructions are simple and straightforward, made up entirely of pictures. There are images of Philips and Flathead screwdrivers (the tools you’ll need), pictures of parts with the quantity of each item along with numbered, step-by-step drawings. Even a Neanderthal can do it, as the commercial says. The only way you can really mess up is if the box is missing parts. They tell you to check that all the parts are there before you begin, but who does that?
During the early years of HO scale model railroading, from the late 1930’s through 1960’s, the majority of the products available were in kit form and included elaborate and detailed written instructions and diagrams. Locomotive kits were diecast or brass, while freight and passenger car kits included wood and/or metal parts and details. Gordon Varney is considered by many to be the HO kit “pioneer”, founding Varney Scale Models in 1936 in Chicago, IL. He revolutionized modeling in HO gauge by building a small enough motor sufficient to power locomotives of this reduced size.
Perhaps Varney received far too many calls from modelers who failed to read his instructions first; they are replete with sarcasm, jokes and even insults. Here is a sampling of Varney’s wry style from his Rigid Frame HO Berkshire Locomotive Kit (the CAPS are his):
“CAUTION! This is a hobbyist’s construction kit. In the interests of economy, the small drilling operations on the boiler are left to the constructor. MOST MODEL RAILROADERS can drill a hole. If you are “not the type” – DON’T BUY THIS KIT! Remember that although [the] mechanism is ‘ready to run’ as soon as the wheels are attached, this kit requires some mechanical gumption to make a good locomotive model. If you are new at the game, READ THE INSTRUCTIONS, because an otherwise good kit can be made into junk in jig time.”
While wading through Dad’s archives, I discovered many similarly ornery instructions written by these “craftsman” kit manufacturers. Here’s an amusing one from American Beauty Lines, manufactured by American Model Builders Inc. of Detroit, which went out of business in the mid-1960s:
“We do not recommend that you try the assembly of these small springs if you are over 80; if you have had a fight with your wife; or are in the midst of a hangover.”
Imagine finding such advice in your furniture assembly instructions or while putting together your child’s new and potentially explosive hover board.
A few months back I contacted the LaBelle Woodworking Company, manufacturer of all-wood model kits since 1947. My father collected many of these craftsman kits, which are highly prized by modelers for their prototypical realism and challenging assembly methods. I spoke with the current owner, Rick Steele, who runs the company from Cheyenne, Wyoming. We got to talking about “kit humor” for which he had a plausible explanation: “Model manufacturers were like 1970’s garage bands; they ran their operations from their basements or garages, part-time.”
These small, domestic manufacturing businesses were built on a love of the hobby, so their owners often needed a day job to make ends meet.
Steele told me how LaBelle’s got started (in 1947) by a Wisconsin cabinet maker who needed work to do in the winter months. When he died, his widow sold the business to a farmer with nine kids. Steele chuckled, “When a customer called, the phone would ring and ring until eventually a child would answer the phone. Then, the customer would hear the screen door slam, followed by the kid yelling, “DAAAAD!”
Like LaBelle, the people who designed and manufactured the kits wrote the instructions themselves in their own style. Eventually most of these craftsman kit companies went out of business or were bought by larger outfits, although some are still humming along, like Steele’s LaBelle Woodworking Company www.labellemodels.com and Duncan Campbell’s Campbell Scale Models www.campbellscalemodels.com.
Many of today’s kits, known in the modeling world as “Shake the Box” kits (you shake the box and the kit is magically assembled) are made of pre-painted pre-decaled plastic and as easy to assemble as Ikea furniture. Sadly, the instructions aren’t funny at all, at least not like this from the now deceased E & B Valley Railroad Co.:
So, for my next trick, I will attempt to assemble a craftsman kit. Stay tuned…
Happy New Year!