Interview of the month: York Modelrail

17 November 2022
"We're expanding our TT range to coincide with Hornby's new range of products in the scale," says Director, Julie Lightburn.

With origins in producing models for town planners and developers, Julie Lightburn's business is now a firm favourite with railway modellers. Howard Smith uncovers more. 

Howard: How was the business founded? And, how has it grown?

Julie: York Modelmaking was established back in 1968. I started my career here as an architectural model-maker in 1985, building models for town planners and developers. The way we worked was transformed when we got our first laser-cutter, imported from China in 2007. It speeded up making building elevations that we’d previously cut by hand and allowed for far more intricate detailing, previously unattainable with a scalpel.

But only a year later, recession hit and most of our contracts were cancelled, so with the laser-cutter idle we decided to try making architectural components for railway modellers. We put together a basic range of windows and doors, canopy brackets, and our self-adhesive roof tiles – they’re still our best selling product and save so much time. Life's just too short to be doing it any other way!

Recession hit again in 2017, and combined with uncertainties over Brexit, the MD decided it was time to retire and close the 'York Modelmaking' architectural side of the business. At that point I took the decision to take over the ever-growing York Modelrail business.

Julie Lightburn

Julie Lightburn who has managed the York Modelrail business since 2017 is a talented model-maker and artist.

H: You’re one of the few manufacturers to produce products in Rowmark plastic – why?

J: The smooth white surface is ideal for our architectural pieces like the windows and canopy valances. It can be left white, but is a good base for any other colour, taking paint very well. It's a modified acrylic manufactured for use outdoors by the signage industry, so it won't buckle or delaminate if left in damp conditions or with changes in ambient temperature.

If customers prefer working with timber or card it's not a problem. We laser-cut everything here in our workshop so we can make any of our Rowmark components in the material preferred.

York Modelmaking stained glass windows

A number of imitation stained-glass sheets can be purchased from the manufacturer.

H: Your range is now extensive, with many difficult-to-manufacture or repetitive architectural details – how many lines do you now offer, and in which scales do you work?

J: When I updated our website in 2019 it was a mammoth task. With all the variants in scale, size and colour I had to upload details for 1706 products and 2042 associated photographs and diagrams! We keep adding new lines to our N, OO and O scale categories, and are currently working on expanding our TT range to coincide with Hornby's new range of products in the scale.

Building facade TT scale

A building facade by York Modelrail manufactured in TT scale.

H: Is it possible to scale 'up' or 'down' any of the products in your range, or customise them?

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J: Yes, we can change the scale of existing products 'up' or 'down', so we cover all scales this way. And of course, we can also 'tweak' the designs – if you want your bargeboards without the punctured holes or your bridge kit with an extra set of steps, we can make it happen.

H: Can you produce from external designs, or must these be drawn in-house?

J: We can work from customer's drawings, sketches or photographs. Unfortunately, there isn't a magic gadget that can turn a hand drawing into a computer file so everything needs drawing on the computer, either by us or by the customer.

Bespoke model for 'Blowers Green'

York Modelrail's bespoke model for 'Blowers Green' – the intricate canopy supports are made possible by laser-cutting Rowmark plastic.

We have guidance notes on our website for anyone with basic computer skills to follow – for example different colours are needed for us to be able to tell the laser-cutters what power and speed we need it to cut through or etch into the surface of the different materials.

H: For modellers wanting custom projects, what limitations should they consider?

J: Our lasers are set up to cut and etch fine detail, so work best on thinner sheet materials. We can cut up to 4mm or 5mm thick MDF and acrylic, but often laminating thinner sheets can create more realistic designs. There's a full list of the materials we stock on our website, via the 'Info and Resources' tab.

Styrene and 'Plastikard' can't be laser-cut because of the acid fumes they produce, but the Rowmark plastic is very similar in appearance, and safer to cut. We only charge for the exact amount of material used, so customers don't have to fill an A4- or A3-sized sheet.

Broad Gauge Society.

York Modelmaking offers a range of rolling stock bodyshell kits, and has made custom models for its clients too, such as this van for the Broad Gauge Society.

H: What’s the largest model that York Modelrail has been commissioned to manufacture?

J: Most things we make are very small and can easily be posted, but our largest laser-bed measures 900 x 600mm, so we can create large items, too. The plywood roof girders we laser-cut for Giles Baxter's spectacular model of York railway station, featured in the November issue of BRM, were almost 900mm wide. We used a 'man-with-a-van' to deliver those!

We don't supply shops with our products, so our unique range is only available via our website, or mail-order if customers prefer not to pay online. I take great pride in the quality of our work and the customer service we provide and love seeing the resulting models made with our products.

I encourage everyone to share photographs of their models with us. With many customers coming back to us again and again, as their layouts grow, they feel like old friends. I was delighted, but I guess not altogether surprised, at the number of messages of goodwill and support we received during 2020 from all round the world.


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Can't fault their products, which I've always received next day in the post.

Posted by Tim Woodland on Thu 24 Nov 11:08:12