This year, only one locomotive by the Faberge of finescale, the late Stanley Beeson, is being offered at auction. 'Dunalastair', a Caledonian Railway 4-4-0 loco and tender, is not one of his most detailed and probably took him a mere 400 hours to make. It will be interesting to see whether bidding exceeds its pounds 1,200- pounds 1,500 estimate at Christie's South Kensington's Trains Galore sale on Monday, 20 December (2pm). Today's makers charge pounds 10,000 or more for a 1,250-hour locomotive.
Beeson died aged 82 in 1990, having made 1,500 locomotives in 66 years. Fewer than 300 survive. At least 1,000 were plain, undetailed commissions given before the war by firms such as the train-set maker Bassett-Lowke, which offered better- heeled customers batch-produced models said to be 'from our own workshop'.
But in the last 20 years of his life, Beeson became so obsessed with detail that fewer than 30 locos left his workshop in Ringwood, Hampshire. He worked for himself rather than for customers, logging hundreds of hours of work for which he was never paid. He asked pounds 8,000 each for two of a batch of four passenger locomotives (in the Castle, King, Star and Saint classes) which had taken two and a half years, the last commission he completed. Only pounds 6,500 had been agreed and both customers refused to pay the extra.
Although he worked a 10-hour day, he got so behind with his commissions that a locomotive chassis shown to one customer as evidence of progress would be likely to end up as another's completed model.
You can spot a Beeson, even early models, by their sharp edges, the exquisite machining of the tiny fittings and the immaculate paintwork. One of his tricks was to bathe paintwork in thinner when it was barely dry and then apply lacquer. Self- taught, most of his secrets died with him. His favourite challenge to model-makers making the pilgrimage to his bench was: 'How do you flatten nickel-silver?' (He preferred this to brass, which he considered 'greasy'.) Having received the usual reply - 'Pass it through bending rollers' - he would retort: 'You obviously don't know, so I'm not going to tell you.'
I learnt some secrets when I inspected his lovingly preserved tools, lathes and vertical milling machine. Bought by Neil Corner, owner of a contract furniture business and an assiduous model loco maker, they now reside in stone buildings in Coverdale, Yorkshire. It was he who paid a record pounds 7,150 for Beeson's Kingswear Castle 4-6-0 passenger locomotive at Christie's South Kensington two years ago. It is one of 70 finescale locomotives, including 30 by Beeson, which line his walls in glass cabinets and run on the world's biggest finescale layout, his 75ft-long replica of the West Coast line at Tebay, Cumberland.
As for the machinery, Mr Corner says he bought it 'hoping some of the magic would rub off'. He has made five models of Edwardian locomotives, but does not aspire to be Beeson's successor.
Although some purists chided Beeson for using machinery for batch production while Bernard Miller, the other great name in loco modelling, stuck to hand tools, the machines have a Dickensian flavour. His mill, for cutting out wheel spokes and tiny fittings, is an 1875 German Wolf Jahn and the cross-slide handles of his primitive lathes lack calibrations. His notes contain directions such as: 'Turn handle four times and take a cut.'
Beeson did sell some of his secrets, such as his anvil-like riveting dolly, the size of the palm of a hand with pins for 160 rivet sizes. A hammer blow on a captive pin indents a rivet-like bump in the plate. If the blows vary in force, it shows.
At weekends, Tony Reynalds, a professional loco model-maker, teaches Mr Corner his craft and helps him to unravel Beeson's secrets. 'We'll never know what a lot of the tools were for,' he said, 'but we do make discoveries - like this fly-cutter. It was used to cut out the spokes in the brass moulds used for the wheels. But then,' he added, 'there is this even more peculiar bow-shaped fly-cutter. I've machined metal with it to see what shape it generates - but still not a clue.'
Mr Corner exposed the underside of his 'Cobham', Beeson's model of an 1875 2-2- 2 Great Western passenger locomotive, begun in 1963 and incomplete at his death, despite 3,500 hours of work. It has finely machined connecting rods, all accurately reproduced from prototype plans, all invisible when the model is upright. In the cab the tool-box handles are whisker-thin. The leaves of the chassis springs are all separate parts. He made his own electric motors - small enough to fit inside the boiler instead of the tender. Mr Corner said: 'Nobody in their right mind would attempt what Stan Beeson achieved.'
The same Beeson detail can be found even in his 'coarse-scale' models. This scale is one of the three divisions of '0' gauge - to which finescale belongs - each one determined solely by the thickness of the wheels. Coarse-scale wheels are 5.13mm thick - suitable for sturdy, open- air track but strictly bigger than scale, cramping other components and therefore a discouragement to perfectionist model- makers. Finescale wheels are 3.5-4mm thick. An even more exact scale, 'scale 7', so far favoured by probably only 2 per cent of model-makers, is a precise 3.35mm.
Rich collectors have promoted finescale. The late model-maker Bernard Miller, its pioneer in the Twenties, fascinated them with his slightly distressed paintwork, which made the boiler seem hot, and by the occasional realistic ripple in panels. Finescale's slowly growing popularity was set back after the war, when 4mm '00' gauge such as Hornby Dublo, too small for detailed modelling, dominated the commercial market. Finescale did not make its mark until 1956, when Miller collaborated with Stanley Norris, a wealthy partner in a whisky business, in building a massive finescale layout. Many of the locomotives were bought from among the 10 Millers and 20 Beesons on the model railway of Laughlan Rose of the lime juice family, whose son Tom holds the annual Trains Galore auction.
An increasing number of finescale locos changes hands in private deals between collectors. Up to pounds 7,000 for a Beeson has been paid. Provenance counts: Mr Corner owns two 4-4-2 Great Northern Atlantics built by Beeson in the Thirties which are ex-Laughlan Rose, ex-Stanley Norris, and the late ex-Colonel Ronnie Hoare (who was Ferrari's colourful British representative and who salvaged much of the Norris railway). And the secret of flattening nickel-silver did not die with Stan Beeson; 20 years after an initial rebuff, Mr Reynalds visited a mellower Stan and wormed the secret out of him: rub the back with coarse emery paper.