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About Meccano

(Author: Charles)

What is Meccano?

Meccano


It's metal with holes in it.

Ok, slightly oversimplified. And anyway, some of the bits are plastic nowadays. This page is an introduction to the hobby of Meccano, rather than the Meccano itself. As with any popular hobby, there is a lot more to it than first appearances suggest.

Newcomers to the hobby are generally of two types -- those who are interested for their kids, and those who are coming back to the hobby for their own benefit, often on retirement. I happen to be one of the former, having had Meccano as a boy, and the catalyst for me was finding a copy of the Meccano "Standard Mechanisms" booklet on the internet. I remember reading this aged 10, and wondered what the alternatives are for the current crop of 10-year-olds. With the possible exception of the Lego robotics outfits, there's nothing even close. For that reason I decided to ensure that my kids will have the ability to follow the Standard Mechanisms book as soon as possible.

But there's more to it than that... a whole other world of mysterious people muttering about boxes, cord, card, and manuals. Nothing to do with Meccano models at all. Welcome to the world of the collector.

The dark side

Collecting Meccano is an entire hobby on its own. There seems to be a great deal of animosity between the two halves of the hobby, as I suppose you get in every similar supposedly relaxing subject. As a Meccano enthusiast with a foot in both camps, I hope to give a reasonably objective view.

Collecting Meccano can cover all sorts of areas. Some collect entire sets, some concentrate on the rarer single parts, others on spare parts in boxes and still others on the huge array of documentation connected with the hobby. Meccano Magazines, manuals, price lists, trade literature, shop displays. The list goes on and on. Beware -- the more you see of these items, and the more you get to know about them, the more tempted you may find yourself.
What turns you on?
If you like to build models, you'll want a big stack of manuals to start with. And then maybe some of the Supermodels leaflets, and their descendents that have been produced more recently. But whether you like model-building or collecting, you'll want a copy of what is known in the hobby as the "Bible". This is the book "The Meccano System and the Special Purpose Meccano Sets" by Bert Love and Jim Gamble, volume 6 of the Hornby Companion Series published by New Cavendish Books from 1978. It's known simply as "Volume 6", or sometimes "Love & Gamble", for obvious reasons. It's been out of print since the beginning of 2006, but has been changed from "out of print" to "currently considering reprint" status, and it would be a surprise if it didn't get reprinted again. Normally £35, it almost always fetches more than this on ebay and similar sites when it appears.

Not to put too fine a point on it, you need a copy of this book. There is nothing like it describing the full history of Meccano from start to (effective) finish. It's a good job I don't work for the publishers otherwise you'd think I was biased. And no, my copy's not for sale!

Where can I get Meccano?

Lots of people will tell you it's difficult to get hold of Meccano nowadays. This is complete rubbish. You should never underestimate the absolutely enormous amount of Meccano that was produced. Even given the quantities that have been thrown away, stored in attics, and bent beyond use, there is still a very plentiful supply. In fact, compared with Dinky Toys, Hornby Trains, and other similarly aged toys, Meccano is an accessible and relatively inexpensive hobby.

The first place to go is your local Meccano club. Yes, these still exist. There aren't several thousand like there used to be, but there is almost certainly one within a reasonable drive of your house, if you live in one of the historically Meccano-friendly countries. Obviously the UK is the biggest market, but there are several clubs in the US and Canada, and plenty in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and so on. France has several clubs too, as it was always very well supplied with Meccano and of course it still has the Calais factory.

All of these clubs are very welcoming to visitors, and someone there will know who can supply you with reasonably-priced Meccano in the local area. Most often these are club members who have large collections, and sell on useful parts to fund their on-going collection. There are a small number of full-time dealers, who can also be contacted, but bear in mind that they are in it to make a profit, and you will generally pay more for less from a dealer. To be fair, they are buying from the same places you could, and then selling for more, which is how they make their living.

You can also look on ebay, or whatever similar auction site you have in your country. I would suggest, though, that you be very wary of auctions when you are inexperienced, as you can easily be fooled by the small photographs and imprecise (or sometimes downright fraudulent) descriptions.  In particular, there have recently been some part-time dealers who throw together a mish-mash of parts and put them on eBay at enormous buy-it-now prices.  Don't buy anything unless you're certain what you're getting.  You have been warned!

What should I get?

The Meccano outfit 10 has always (at least since the 40's) been considered the 'ultimate' outfit for Meccano builders. But that's not really true. It was always the ultimate for a small boy to dream of, mainly because of its inaccessibility. It was three times the price of the next outfit down. However, it doesn't have a very good selection of parts for building models. It has a wide range of the Meccano parts, but rather too many of the very expensive ones, and too few of the very useful ones. There are never enough gears and other brass parts in a 10-set, nor many other useful parts such as short angle girders and flat girders.

In my opinion, a 10-set isn't really where you should be aiming. The original outfit 9 (supplied between 1937 and 1969) is a great set, with lots of useful parts and nice models to build, and yet is only about a quarter of the price of a 10-set. It's easy to buy an outfit 9, and then choose what kind of models you want to build from there. If you are a crane-builder you'll need to buy lots of angle girders and that kind of part. Lots more than there are in a 10-set. You won't need most of the large circular expensive parts, or the huge number of flexible plates that make up a 10-set. If, on the other hand, you like making small mechanisms, gearboxes, orreries, that kind of thing you'll want to buy a stack of brassware and gears to go with your 9 outfit.

There were lots more useful parts in the older outfits, in the 20's. When the biggest outfit was the outfit 7 (1921-1934, the heyday of Meccano), the outfit 6 was a fantastically well-appointed set, larger than the later outfit 9 in all the important areas, with all sorts of useful angle girders and flat girders, and a whole lot of handy brassware. In my opinion, the ideal 'building' outfit would consist of a stack of outfit 6's and then perhaps one outfit 10 (to make sure you had at least one or two of every normal part).

There are also plenty of parts that were never supplied in any outfits, particularly the 10. You will come across these and have to pick them up bit by bit as you need them. And you'll know this by the parts list of the models you want to build. So, perhaps get an outfit 9 and build a few things from the manual, then decide which of the supermodels you want to build and get together a shopping list based on that. After a few models you will find you have a great collection of parts and can build almost anything you fancy.

The other "dark side"

Apart from the builders vs. collectors debate, there is another subject that will always raise the blood pressure of Meccanomen, and that is the issue of reproduction parts. One side of the debate will build with anything they can get their hands on, including reproduction parts made by several companies (and many one-man-bands in their sheds), and parts that they have made, cut up, and otherwise mutilated with their own hands. The other side won't have a bar of this, and it can lead to the extremes of people refusing to accept Meccano parts that weren't made at Binns Road, or even parts that aren't of their favourite colour (normally red and green).

Of course, it's your hobby and your model. You make it how you like, and don't get wound up about anything. It's hardly life and death, is it? The only people who should be removed from the hobby by whatever means possible are those who get cross about the way other people choose to spend their spare time. So let's all lighten up, ok?

In many Meccano competitions, it was fairly early on realised that if you let people make anything they like (for a competition entry) then you will end up with a whole load of models that have very little to do with Meccano. It is obvious that one of the best parts of the hobby is that anyone can re-create a model that they see and like. Frank Hornby's reason for designing Meccano in the first place was to remove the need for lathes and drill presses, allowing everyone to become an engineer.

For this reason, it is usually stated that a Meccano model must be able to be re-created by any Meccano enthusiast. There's no problem using reproduction parts so long as they do the same job as a real Meccano part. Most often, the string, rubber bands, and springs are allowed to be non-Meccano parts (principally because the Meccano-branded ones are effectively 'consumables', and don't last long in a serious model). Power supplies are treated the same -- and in the modern world it is pretty much illegal to sell the genuine Meccano transformers anyway, for safety reasons.

The objective of these rules is to give everyone a reasonable and level playing field to design their own models around the limitations presented by the Meccano system. Many modellers like to modify existing parts by cutting or otherwise permanently changing parts, or creating new ones that perform more functions. However, you will almost always find that the most experienced and skilful Meccano modellers can work around the limitations of the system and devise a solution using genuine parts. Often, these solutions are the most elegant parts of a model. It is rather too easy to 'give up' in these areas and make yourself a new part sometimes.

There are a couple of significant areas where Meccano falls down, particularly when the models get really big. One is often the axle system. The 4mm diameter axles are fine for small models, but simply can't cope when building a large model weighing tens of kilogrammes. There are third-party 'heavy-duty axle systems' that can be used for the final drive, and most Meccano enthusiasts wouldn't deny a fellow modeller using these where the standard axles simply wouldn't be able to do the job. Similar reasons are understandable for the reproduction of hydraulic systems, remote control of a model, or computer-controlled operation. These are quite simply beyond the scope of the Meccano system as it was designed.

Sticking my neck out

Personally, I try to stick to the Meccano parts. I am also a keen railway modeller, and build locomotives from scratch. When I'm building a model (train), I use anything and everything available to me to make the model as close to the real thing (scaled down) as I possibly can. But when I'm building with Meccano, I see no point in using anything else. Once you've used one part that isn't Meccano, you may as well use as many as you like. Then, if you want to make the model even better, you should remove all the parts that have holes in them -- they're unrealistic too. What is left? A great model, but certainly no Meccano. As with most things, you either cross the line or you don't. I really don't go for the idea of crossing the line 'slightly', but then choosing not to in other areas. That's just laziness.

There are many dealers out there who will sell you reproduction Meccano parts. Of course, Meccano is not being made any more (at least, not at the moment, not the parts you want). And overall, the manufacturers of reproduction Meccano (principally Exacto, Ashok, and Jack Parsisson, but there are many others specialising in one area or another, like brassware) are doing a fabulous job keeping the hobby alive and helping to introduce new people to the hobby.

But there are a couple of issues to be careful of. The first is that Meccano, even if it's more expensive, has a 'collectable' quality which means that it will retain its value far better than reproduction parts. The other is that some reproductions are 'improved' in assorted ways. This sounds good (and is a regular marketing technique), but can land you in trouble occasionally. The trouble is, the 'improvements' are changes, and you can often find that the new parts don't work or fit together in the same way as Meccano parts do. An unexpected use of a Meccano part can be found to be impossible with a reproduction part, because of the very slight differences between the two. Not often a critical issue, but one to be aware of.

The other issue is that of price. Some buy reproduction parts because they're assumed to be cheaper than genuine Meccano. Be very careful indeed about this. Many parts are substantially more expensive as reproduction parts than even mint unused Meccano parts. Do your research carefully before making your purchase, and consider the second-hand value if you like, then make your choice. An E-type Jag is only an E-type Jag when it was made by a certain company. When it gets tatty, you can restore it. You can almost entirely rebuild it, strip and repaint it, and it becomes a restored E-type. You can also buy replica E-types, which are great, but different things. One will never be the other.

Dealers (and private sellers) who deliberately attempt to blur the distinction between Meccano and reproduction parts in order to get a better price should be shot on sight, just like anyone else attempting fraud. Take appropriate amounts of care when buying from an unknown source. The manufacturers never do this and in fact sometimes go out of their way to make it clear that the parts are different, but sadly not all dealers are quite as morally upright.

That's enough of that soapbox stuff. Hey, now you know what I like doing, but you just feel free to read all this through and make your own mine up. I hope you enjoy your models and/or your collecting as much as I do!

For some thoughts on what's wrong with modern Meccano, click here...

Richard      (at 5:20pm, Wed 24th Jun, 15)

Peter,
I think we will have to agree to differ. My experience of Meccano seems to be very different to yours. I have managed to build reasonably successful models using only Meccano factory manufactured parts, all of which have their original paint.
Luckily there is a place for everyone to enjoy this hobby, no matter where their stock comes from, united by the love of model building with metal parts perforated at half inch spacing.

Peter Harvey RSA      (at 12:54pm, Wed 24th Jun, 15)

I just feel that you have lost the plot a tad. Meccano does not exist any more, you are a purist and a bit over critical. My experience of replicas has been positive, at least someone is keeping the hobby alive. Binns road could NEVER produce a decent and compact electric motor, they had to relent and copy the Germans just replacing the packaging. Who is right and who is wrong. I can go on and on. The factory could never paint meccano parts properly to prevent rust. Aftermarket powder coating is unbeatable and works forever. Sorry that I am going on and on. Meccano is dead in the modern world and it is only a few diehards that must keep the hobby going, I personally would NOT be in this Hobby if it was not for replicas to complete projects and models. Just by the way some of the replicas I have and used are far superior than anything Meccano produced;thats PROGRESS for you.
Happy Modelling
Peter H


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