How I build a Meccano Model

by Michael Adler

Anyone who has built an original Meccano Model will tell you it is not an easy process. One is always in search of something new to do, something that is interesting and challenging. The possibilities are huge given the scope of the Meccano system. There is no doubt that almost any mechanical device can be copied into Meccano. To make a scaled down version of the real thing, that looks real and works well, is the challenge. Often one is driven to build something that one knows has never been done in Meccano before. Often one feels one can make an improvement on a well known model.

One has to stick to engineering principles. This is a basic rule of model building, yet how many of us have been trained as engineers? But having lived in the world of Meccano, one begins to take on the feel for the subject, almost as if living in the shoes and the mind of the original designer. This can be a very exciting experience. We become engineers in our own right, something to be tremendously proud of.

There is a further challenge, and that for the purist is to use only genuine Meccano parts for what I would say is 95% of the Model. There are some who turn to a lathe for that extra special section of the model, and there are those who will strive to do it only with Meccano, indeed some stick only to the era of Liverpool Meccano when doing so. Do they do this only for sentimental reasons? I am all in favour of new parts development. On the other hand, if one is building for the pleasure of others, particularly where ModelPlans are concerned, then one should remain within a certain range of parts, which the majority of Meccanomen are likely to own, or be able to acquire without too much added expense. The choice is yours. But whatever one does, there is great pleasure in seeing the real prototype in one's own home, whether it is a model of the Forth Bridge or the Eiffel Tower, or a clock or loom or designing machine. It is there to admire, to control, and to love. The product of much thought, and much time invested.

I am very much in favour of scale modelling. To me there is no other way but to make it look like the real thing. When deciding on how big a model must be, one is often required to take into account the constraints of the range of circular Meccano parts, the wheels discs and curved strips, for example when building a model locomotive, the size of the wheels will determine the size of everything else in proportion. To me, there is nothing worse than to see a model that is out of scale.

The prototype should be photographed from as many points of view as necessary, or perhaps plans can be obtained, at the least some sort of drawing, often made in a museum. A note book should be kept for the purpose.

When building a scale model, one can often position the mechanisms in the very place where they were found in the prototype, a neat thing to do. But this is often impossible, given the constraints and parts available, and so ways have to found to deal with this, motors at a distance, mechanisms hidden away.

I have never been put off by the holes in Meccano parts. I doubt if any Meccanomen are. To me the beauty of the system is being able to build up a structure and a mechanism quickly and with relative ease without any need for an engineering workshop. That is the fascination. And of course to be able to re-use the parts. This is exactly what Frank Hornby had in mind when he invented the system, but he would be amazed at the complexity of modern Meccano models and how the hobby has developed in recent years. Just a look at an exhibition will serve to show how wonderfully inventive are Meccanomen. It is a tremendously stimulating experience to see what one's fellow Meccanomen have achieved. There is always something one can learn, some new idea to pick up, something that rings a bell, and sets one off on a whole new interest.

So structure and function is what it is all about. When I start to build, I find myself making a dash for the mechanical part in order to get the mechanism to work in a very crude way. I say to myself, if I can get that to work, that's a big achievement. Now I know that I can do it, lets start all over and build it properly. The next stage is to build the structure the right way, often taking into account the requirements of the machinery, and then to start all over again with the mechanism, taking the greatest care this time. I make many many mistakes, build and rebuild. My work-bench is littered with parts when I am working. I am not at all logical, and find myself taking down quite a large section in order to do something I have forgotten, or to incorporate an idea I never thought of when I started out. I am ruthless with myself, because I feel that if I can't do it for my Meccano, where can I do anything better?

I am very careful about using washers, very careful about the choice of the colour of the parts I use. Very careful about little details which will enhance realism, like letting nuts show where you would expect to find them in the prototype. I like to use strengthened bearings, not just a rod going through a plate. I am careful about steadiness of structures. I don't want them to wobble or vibrate, and I want my speeds similar to the real thing as well. I am often envious of my fellow Meccanomen the way they solve these problems, and spend a lot of time at meetings figuring out how problems were overcome. This is quality time for me. You need to talk to people, have note book to hand, and try and take pictures.

I have long been frustrated by the lack of a suitable electronic interface between the computer and the Meccano Model. Lego managed to do it, and so did Fischer-teknik. Why did Meccano lag behind? And why is there no hydraulic/pneumatic system, the basis of so much that is mechanical today. It has been left to a few very skilled Meccanomen, often with access to the skill of others, to build quite astonishing models. But the problem is that others have not been able to emulate them. To state the problem in simple terms, we need an interface to link a PC computer to motors and sensor devices with the appropriate software.

There has been a tremendous burst of activity in computer aided design. It is now possible to build a virtual Meccano model with the greatest of ease. The latest developments with allow one to actually rotate the whole model to one's hearts content in full 3D. This is a tremendous achievement, and will make model-building a real pleasure. Having a virtual Meccano set means also that one has the largest Meccano set of all time right in one's own home, because parts can be increased in number just by pressing the duplicate button. One can also have a virtual Meccano competition, something which has already been suggested.

I want to end by telling you how important Meccano is for me. I was given my first Meccano set at the age of 10 by my aunt. Why do I mention this? And how many other Meccanomen remember their first sets? To me Meccano was magic, and it opened up a vast new world. That special magic feeling has never left me. The Meccano world is far more than just bits and pieces of metal. I am far more observant than the average person when I see a mechanism or structure, and try to analyse and assess it. I have found many people with similar interests to myself, and they have become firm friends. The computer has opened up a huge new field of interest directly related to Meccano. And so the story goes on. But one which I have saved to last, its that I have had my Meccano to fall back on when I have felt low, and more important, it has stayed with me more or less constantly with varying degrees of importance over the years, and will be a constantly source of stimulation and interest to me as my working life draws to a close, something I had always had in mind for retirement.

Michael Adler

Last modified 2 February  2002