Inside the York club of tinkers' dreams where model engineers make tiny trains from scratch

There is a place where ideas and steam and a lathe and a mill can make magic before your eyes.

This is the York Model Engineers, with tracks and a clubhouse and now a fancy new workshop that means members can build big and better.

It’s a heady mix for those in engineering. There’s the chap crafting clocks, a wood-turner, wagon maker, and locomotives that purr with precision.

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To Bob Lovett, who has built a flat wagon from a neighbours’ table, the new workshop is a “game changer”. This indeed is tinkers’ heaven.

Bob Lovett with a locomotive he has made in a bottle. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

“It’s about creating,” he said. “It’s about having a plan, and bits of metal, and cutting and shaping it to make something special, and knowing it looks the business.

“What an achievement, when you can make a single-cylinder steam engine that goes ‘put, put, put’,” he added. “There’s nothing more satisfying than that.”

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The model engineers club, to be found off a little track near The Pastures in Dringhouses near York, has around 150 members.

Tom Barnes with his York City model locomotive. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

The craft means making things from ‘authentic’ materials, like brass or cast iron, and using tools like a lathe or a drill, soldering on a small scale.

There are traction engines, stationary engines, model wagons and tiny boats. Tom Barnes, a retired town planner, has made a scratch-built 2.5in gauge steam locomotive.

As a boy in the 1950s, he had lived close to Bootham Crescent, as fascinated by its football matches as he was by rolling stock on the nearby railway line.

He built a LNER B17 class called York City, based on drawings from books and archives. It took seven years.

York City and District Society of Model Engineers. Image: Jonathan Gawthorpe

The gauge size means the distance between the railway lines, he patiently explains. At 2.5in, it makes the engine more manageable. Coal fired, live steam, it’s quite the impressive feat.

He said: “I always like steam locomotives. I thought I couldn’t possibly do this. But I bought a little lathe and a little milling machine and set off. I’m building the third one now.

“Somebody said to me once, ‘all you do is make one piece at a time, and eventually they come together to make an engine’. It’s true. Though in my case, it might take several tries.”

'Living Wikipedia'

York City and District Society of Model Engineers. Pictured Bob Lovett. Image: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Mr Lovett, a former city marketing director in London, turned to model engineering with a long list of projects when he retired.

His model is a 5in gauge, crafted from the neighbour’s wooden table in Kirkbymoorside. Now he is building a Midland Railway guards van.

With 150 members, he said, the club is a “living Wikipedia”, with lockdown companionship over WhatsApp groups “growing like topsy” as they leaned on one another for guidance.

He said: “It’s like tapping into 3,500 years of experience. There’s almost nothing, when you’re stumped, that someone can’t answer. Some folks are really wizards.”

The club, at its five-acre site, has a carriage shed and railway lines of differing gauges, and hosts school visits, open days and events. Now, with a new workshop, opportunity rises.

With the open space, it can mean bigger projects, on site, which means more sharing of expertise, especially to new members or those that might want to try their hand at a lathe.

York City and District Society of Model Engineers. Pictured club chairman Brian Smyth using the 16mm garden railway. Image: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Mr Lovett said: “We love having new members. Especially slightly younger ones – there are fewer people stepping on the bottom of the escalator than are stepping off the top.”

Family fun day

Brian Smyth is club chairman. The hobby brings together people with a common interest, he said, in finding out how to put something together, and how to take it apart.

He said: “It’s that satisfaction, in what we can achieve. It’s finding out how things work, and making models that represent some of what we’ve lost in the past.”

The workshop, he said, means opportunity for bigger projects and learning new skills. He said: “For all people with an interest, we want to encourage that.”

A family fun open day is to be held tomorrow, with steam trains, rides, and children’s activities. To find out more visit

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