Toys, Trains and Games at the New York Historical Society

IMG_4659Toys and games are on my mind year-round, but the holiday season adds an extra layer of history, tradition and nostalgia to my passion for play. And so, my son and I made our way this past weekend to the New York Historical Society on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and back through more than 150 years of childhood wonder.

Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection

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The museum’s ground level entrance and rotunda galleries are currently occupied by the stunning Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection. The name of the collection is derived from the names of Jerry and Nina Greene, the Philadelphia area collectors who amassed more than 35,000 toys over some five decades.

The Jerni collection, considered one of if not the largest toy collections in the world, represents a comprehensive story of what is considered the high water mark in toy making from the mid-19th through 20th-centuries. With a heavy leaning toward European manufacturers like Märklin, the railroad themed items in the collection are dizzingly ornate and go beyond locomotives and carriages to encompass railroad stations, amusement rides and detailed mechanical machines and vignettes. Boats, bridges and other transportation toys are also included. Everything displays an incredible level of detail and refinement in the use of metal, wood, paper cloth and hand-painted finishes developed through advances in manufacturing processes through the late 19th-century.

IMG_4664Toy military and civilian ships from the Jerni Collection at the NYHS

IMG_4661Futuristic-looking craft hold their place next to traditional trains at the NYHS

Just a few years ago, the Jerni collection began seeking a new home. After displaying some of the collection at Sotheby’s auction house in 2010, no appropriate buyer was found to meet the estimated eight-figure value of the collection. A small portion of the collection went on display again in November 2012 at the NYHS which generated enough interest from a group of donors to underwrite the cost of acquiring the monumental collection. Two years later, the Holiday Express exhibit offers just a glimpse of what the museum now has under its roof.

IMG_4662Some of the Jerni Collection’s trains in the rotunda at the NYHS

While the current Holiday Express exhibit of some 300 objects is heavily focused on railroad-themed toys, my interest was drawn to the side displays of toy cast metal soldiers. Several periods are represented, from early American and Old West toys to a fantastic grouping of World War I era soldiers, vehicles and artillery. The preserved original paint, cloth, string and wires on these toys is some of the most impressive I’ve seen. Thin bayonets continue to protrude from the ends of tiny rifles, and an olive drab fabric cot is still doing service holding an injured soldier. The survival and ongoing preservation of these primarily metal toys in the Jerni Collection is all the more remarkable given how many vanished through the decades of play and wartime scrap drives in the mid-20th-century.

IMG_4657Toy soldiers and artillery represent multiple nationalities

IMG_4658A patriotic display of toy soldiers, medical staff and railroad transports

IMG_4663Old West metal toys from the Jerni Collection at the NYHS

The Games We Played: American Board and Table Games from the Liman Collection Gift

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On the museum’s lower level, is the smaller yet no less important exhibit The Games We Played: American Board and Table Games from the Liman Collection Gift. The ongoing display offers a rotating view of American made board and card games selected from the 500 item collection. Focusing on the period of 1840s to the 1920s, the games help illuminate a period where a modern and less rural middle class America was on the rise. The late 19th-century also saw great advances in color printing processes, allowing for bolder and more complex graphics. The current exhibit focuses on games with the theme of “fate,” something very much on the mind of native and newly arrived Americans at the turn of the last century. I would expect similar revelations into the shared cultural experience through gaming as the exhibit continues to evolve.

With so many stories to tell, the New York Historical Society’s current exhibit space dedicated to toys and games is certainly a crowd pleaser. My hope is that serious focus continues in future exhibits at the museum on the themes of toys, games and play. Just as technological, economic and cultural shifts drove mass change in toys and games beginning in the mid-19th-century, these same factors are driving new evolutions to the way we play today and influence who we may become as New Yorkers and Americans tomorrow.

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A Gamer’s Guide to Manhattan’s Hobby Shops

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I’ve mentioned here more than once that my childhood was full of hobbies including model rocketry, model railroading, plastic kit building, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books and miniatures wargaming. Like generations before me, hobby stores and the now-vanished hobby areas of large department stores and five-and-dimes were where I felt at home from an early age.

I moved to New York City in the mid-1990s when much of Old New York started breathing its last gasps. Along with the closings of many storied NYC bars, restaurants, clubs, book stores, comic shops and movie theaters, hobby shops of all types are becoming more and more a thing of the past here in the Five Boroughs. The causes of the decline of hobby shops in the city are many, including rising rents, loss of customer interest, the growth of online hobby retail and many owners simply retiring or passing away.

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The New York Times recently did a great little story on Rudy’s Hobby and Art in Astoria, Queens, and I’ve also become a semi-frequent visitor to Trainworld just a few subway stops away from my apartment in Brooklyn. These outposts in the outer boroughs hold on, but many of the classic shops in Manhattan have not. At the top of many city hobbyist memories is Polk’s Hobby Department Store which once occupied five floors at 314 5th Avenue. Like many businesses, Polk’s was a family-run affair headed up by two brothers beginning in the 1930s. The iconic store carried radio controlled boats and planes, slot cars, plastic model kits, trains and all matter hobby supplies which fueled the imaginations for generations of kids and adults. For the observant nostalgic, a quick glimpse of Polk’s survives in a scene from 1972’s The Godfather (photo at top).

Like Polk’s, most of Manhattan’s other hobby stores, like Carmen Webster’s on 45th Street and America’s Hobby Center on West 22nd Street, have likewise vanished from the city’s streets in recent years. At the same time, Brooklyn has seen a surge in gaming-specific stores and play spaces such as Kings Games, Brooklyn Game Lab, Twenty-Sided Store, The Brooklyn Strategist and Nu Brand Gaming. In Greenwich Village, The Uncommons now sits along the old “Chess Row” south of Washington Square, and a Games Workshop can be found a few blocks away well stocked with Warhammer and 40K players on any given weekend.

For the dedicated scale model hobbyist and gaming enthusiast, a few remnants of the traditional densely stocked hobby store of the past still live on in Manhattan. In almost all cases, online suppliers are a more economical option than purchasing from a local hobby or gaming brick-and-mortar store. However, it’s still hard to beat the experience of browsing a shop in person and having conversations with fellow customers and proprietors who share a passion for a hobby. I recently spent a sunny late summer day poking around in a few of my favorite NYC hobby shops that tap into that unique experience that still lives on.


Jan’s Hobby Shop

1435 Lexington Avenue

(212) 987-4765

IMG_4284Way up on Lexington Avenue in the East 90s,  Jan’s Hobby Shop is just the kind of store that fired my youthful imagination. Plastic soldiers, model kits, model rockets, paints, brushes, videos, books and hobby magazines are stacked floor to ceiling in the tight space of this classic hobbyist’s paradise. Kits from hundreds of manufacturers from around the world, from the common to the obscure, cover all eras, skill levels, scales and price ranges. Ships from the Age of Sail sit across from Star Wars X-Wings, ancient siege weapons are just down the aisle from Cold War artillery and all manner of cars, tanks, ships and planes fill every bit of space between. For the more advanced scale modeller, a handy selection of balsa, plastic styrene, brass tubing and specialized glues and construction materials sit at the ready.

IMG_4286Plastic soldiers from a variety of manufacturers, eras and scales at Jan’s

IMG_4287Paints and plastic model kits line the walls at Jan’s

IMG_4285Fred Hutchins’s WWII era experimental aircraft models

At the heart of the store on any given morning, store manager Fred Hutchins sits behind his workbench working away on his latest project. In my short visit with Fred, I learned of his lifelong love and work in aeronautical engineering. His ongoing project, at the rate of 30-50 models per year, is to build to scale every experimental aircraft built during World War II. In the cases nearby, much of Fred’s exquisite work is on display, and if you are a polite and patient visitor, he is more than happy to engage in a brief history lesson. Conversation with Fred, modeller-to-modeller, is just the kind of experience only found in a hobby shop and makes a visit to Jan’s worth the trip.


The Red Caboose

23 West 45th Street

(212) 575-0155

www.theredcaboose.com

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For a hobbyist like me, basements are portals to secret worlds of play hidden away from the normal world above. That’s where you’ll find The Red Caboose, tucked at the end of an easy-to-miss entry hall and then down some narrow stairs to a subterranean hobby wonderland. Focused largely on N and HO scale model railroading, The Red Caboose is lined with glass cases of rolling stock and engines from the steam era to today. Tourists may also find their way here to buy up some authentic scale New York MTA subway cars which may be special ordered to reflect specific routes past or present.

IMG_4283Cases of trains and row upon row of model kits at The Red Caboose

The Red Caboose is a place beyond trains, too.  Rows of shelves are devoted to kits for all sorts of buildings, bridges, industrial complexes and natural scenery, some of which have made their way to my wargaming tables over the years. Rotating racks of scale scratch building plastic, metal and wood parts, along with paints, brushes and other supplies provide a solid inventory for miniature modellers. A decent selection of military and civilian plastic kits and pre-built die-cast scale models can likewise by found, making a stop at The Red Caboose about much more than just trains.


The Compleat Strategist

11 East 33rd Street

(212) 685-3880

www.thecompleatstrategist.com

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As a budding role playing gamer in the 70s and 80s, I was fortunate to live near a college town where the local bookstore and five-and-dime each stocked a handy selection of Dungeons & Dragons books, miniatures and magazines. Tucked in the pages of later issues of those magazines, I occasionally saw ads for The Compleat Strategist with an inventory which sounded like a dream for my hungry gaming appetite. As a resident New Yorker today, a quick visit to “The Strat” over a lunch hour or on a weekend is an amazing escape for a quick purchase or just time spent browsing the latest in gaming.

IMG_4281The Compleat Strategist is NYC’s destination for serious gamers

The store is long, narrow and deep, with shelves of games, books, miniatures and accessories piled to the ceiling. Boardgames, chess sets and puzzles occupy the rear half of the store. A massive selection of boxed historical strategy games stretch down one wall toward an inventory of paints and miniatures ranging from Games Workshop and other fantasy lines to collectible games like Heroclix. RPG books and reference materials fill out the front of the shop along with buckets of dice, stacks of collectible cards like Magic: The Gathering and two large racks of gaming periodicals. Downstairs, the Compleat Strategist also hosts mini gaming tournaments most weekends, rounding out the total experience for the city gamer looking to stay connected to a vital hobby community.


Gotham Model Trains

224 West 35th Street, 13th Floor

(212) 643-4400

www.gothammodeltrains.com

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Down a generic block just north of Penn Station, the tiny and well kept Gotham Model Trains occupies a thirteenth floor space in a building housing a jumble of small businesses and professional offices. The shop is mostly about trains, and the tight inventory offers a well-edited counterpoint to the sprawling warren of shelves at The Red Caboose. I like the nice selection of Woodland Scenics ground cover, shrubbery, trees, gravel and other scratch-building materials in plastic, metal and wood on the walls and racks.

IMG_4279The well-curated inventory of Gotham Model Trains

But trains are the thing at Gotham Model Trains, and over the years this has been my local go-to for a few pieces of track needed in getting a little circular railroad running under my Christmas tree. Multiple scales, controllers, buildings, scale figures and a small selection of railfan books round out the inventory surrounding the sweet little N scale layout greeting you at the shop’s entrance. Stopping in at Gotham Model Trains, like a visit to any of Manhattan’s surviving hobby shops, you can’t help but have the irreplaceable experience of a living breathing hobby.

Micro Armour: Getting Started

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After years of wargaming World War II with Flames of War, I’ve been looking for a change of pace for the period. I’ve recently caught up on the vast majority of my modelling projects, including fairly extensive American, British and German Late War forces as well as a bunch of terrain. I’ve also been interested in playing larger battles, something that becomes a bit unwieldy with FOW. In looking for a way to expand my WWII gaming experience, I’ve been weighing factors of scale, cost, storage and time. After a lot of thought, I’m going small and getting started with WWII in micro scale.

The standard in micro scale gaming is GHQ. Founded in the late 1960s and based just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, GHQ manufactures an extensive line of pewter miniatures for WWII, Modern, Napoleonic, American Civil War and various naval eras. In the early 1990s, GHQ also began offering N and HO scale vehicles targeting model railroading enthusiasts. Along with their gaming models, the company has developed a number of rulesets and terrain-building supplies appropriate for various eras of combat at the micro scale level. For over 40 years GHQ’s models have been held in high regard by wargamers as well as the US military which uses the company’s products for training and planning excercises.

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World War II miniatures scale comparisons (from www.historicalwargames.net)

The 1/285th (6mm) scale of GHQ’s WWII models offers a number of differences and potential advantages to larger scales, such as 1/100th (15mm) FOW miniatures and 1/56 (28mm) models from the expanding Bolt Action game line from Warlord Games.

  • Scale: In 6mm micro scale, an entire infantry platoon can be represented with approximately 3-5 figures mounted to a small square or round base. An inch on the table approximates 100 yards on the battlefield. This allows for larger multi-company or battalion level games compared to smaller single company and platoon skirmish games at a 15mm or 28mm scales.
  • Cost: Wargaming at any scale is an investment, but micro scale allows for the depiction of large battles for a fraction of the cost of larger scales. The starter sets from GHQ provide around twenty tanks for $40, making individual armour models just a couple bucks each compared to the 15mm scale where tanks can run easily to triple that cost. Fielding an entire 6mm infantry and armor company might run just $10-20 while that same company at 15mm could run hundreds of dollars. And, since each micro scale tank represents a platoon and a platoon in FOW may run to maybe six tank models (or more), the game scales cheap and fast into grand scale engagements.
  • Storage: As the website says, I live in Brooklyn, NY, so storage is always an issue for my board games, cards games, miniatures, terrain and hobby supplies. I keep a lot of my miniatures at my local club, Metropolitan Wargamers, but I like having stuff around the apartment for when the gaming mood hits. At the micro scale level, dozens of tanks, infantry and vehicles can be carried in a shoulder bag or kept in a drawer. Compared to my FOW collection which sprawls over multiple bags and boxes, micro scale makes for some quick and easy game deployment just about anywhere.
  • Time: Painting micro scale takes a fraction of time compared to larger scales. A quick spray of white primer followed by a thinned color basecoat, a couple dots of detail, a wash and maybe a tiny decal is all that’s needed to get forces on the table and ready to game.

IMG_3211GHQ’s US Shermans vs. German Panzer IVs box set

IMG_3210GHQ’s US Armoured Infantry Command 1944 box set

To get started at the micro scale, I ordered two sets from GHQ. The Shermans vs. Panzer IVs Battle Box comes with ten tanks per side, a storage case and a set of rules — everything needed to get a game started. To this, I added the US Armoured Infantry Command 1944 set with additional tanks, half-tracks, jeeps, armoured cars and a bunch of infantry. To get some Germans into action, I think I’ll be going for the German Kampfgruppe 1944 for a nice mix of infantry, transport, Marders and even some horse and wagon teams.

IMG_3214Assembly of my first GHQ micro armour sets

In well under less than an hour’s initial work, my first sets of micro armour glued up fast with some careful organization of parts and assembly with superglue and tweezers. Already I’m loving getting so many models ready for paint and then on to the table in no time at all. The saying is “go big or go home” but my new micro armour project looks like its already going to be a massive amount of fun in a very small package.

A Trip to Brooklyn’s Trainworld

trainworldbknyI’ve written several times about my lifetime love for model trains which served as my gateway to the scale modelling hobby and eventually to miniatures wargaming. Walking into a model train convention or local hobby shop as a kid was like opening an alternate fantasy world of endless possibility. On occasional nights after dinner as a young hobbyist, my dad’s announcement that we were climbing into his truck to take a trip to Kurt’s Trains & Hobbies in nearby Caledonia, NY was like declaring we were about to take a journey to another universe.

So, after some 16 years living in Brooklyn, NY I recently made my first stop at Trainworld in the Kensington neighborhood just a few subway stops from my front door. Located in an light industrial stretch of McDonald Avenue right under the elevated F line, Trainworld is an old slice of Brooklyn brimming with charmingly coarse but knowledgeably helpful staff and one of the largest inventories anywhere of model railroading and related hobby supplies.

IMG_2906Trains running on the layout at Trainworld in the Kensington area of Brooklyn, NY

Trainworld and their Trainland location in Lynbrook, NY in nearby Nassau County lay claim as “America’s Largest Discount Mail Order Discount Train Store” powered by their extensive and well-built website. The retail location in Brooklyn features a main store space packed from floor to ceiling with N, HO, O, G and S scale model trains, track, buildings, scenery and supplies. A small phone staff manages customer service queries in a second space off the main store which also features a small train layout which loops and clatters around all day long. The enormous warehouse opens through a door just past the main retail counter space, granting any walk-in customer full access to the store’s massive inventory.

IMG_2904Scale scenery supplies at Trainworld

It’s been years since I’ve had my own model railroad layout, but having a place like Trainworld nearby is a huge resource for a wargamer and miniatures modeller like myself. On my recent visit, I was able to grab a few bags of various ground cover products from Woodland Scenics right off the racks stretched the entire length of one wall. When one specific color I needed wasn’t on display, a quick call to the warehouse brought a package to the counter in about five minutes.

IMG_2905Shelves of trees and natural modelling details at Trainworld

A little further down the aisle are several shelves of ready-made model trees of varying quality, size, coloring and price point, as well as other packaged details like rocks, gravel, crop fields and a flowering meadows. All these scenic materials are just the thing  I enjoy in making my various tabletop battlefields come alive, a topic I touched on in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

I’ve got a number of scenery projects on my list for the coming months, including a re-basing of my trees and scratch-building bocage hedgerows. Discovering a place like Trainworld just 10-minutes from my apartment is going to make these projects all the easier and provide fuel for more ideas for some time to come.

Gaming The Rails

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I’ve been a railfan for as long as I’ve been a gamer. I grew up taking daily school bus rides past the rail yards of the short line Genesee & Wyoming Railroad. As a kid, my brothers, father and I built an enormous HO scale model railroad in our basement, complete with mountains, tunnels, trestles, lamp-lit streets and a working waterfall. After graduate school, I found myself living in Western Pennsylvania surrounded by and visiting railroad landmarks like the Gallitzin Tunnels, Horseshoe Curve National Landmark and East Broad Top Railroad. To this day, I rarely walk by a magazine rack without leafing through the latest issue of Model Railroader Magazine. There’s just something about trains.

For dual fans of railroading and gaming like me, there are a lot of options. Railroads lend themselves to gaming with their familiar cultural history coupled with thematic economic and mission/route-completion mechanics. Real-world competition among railroad companies, investors and promoters also contributes easily to any game presented within a railroading context.

AARailBaronAvalon Hill’s Rail Baron from 1977 is widely considered the grandfather of railroad games. Based on a 1974 board game called Box Cars, Rail Baron presents players with a map of the US with 28 historic railway routes. Players compete, as did the railroad moguls of the past, to complete routes, upgrade to faster trains and collect more cash to pour back into their empire. Rail Baron became one of AH’s all-time best-selling games, and most modern railroad board games owe more than a little to this classic.

Ticket

A longtime favorite at my house is Ticket To Ride, the award-winning 2004 game from Days Of Wonder. TTR is a pretty straightforward game where players complete routes between US cities, scoring points based on the length of the rail line and connections made along the way. Players balance holding cards in their hands attempting to build more longer valuable routes with the risk of their opponents building the highly-prized lines before them. The game is great for kids since play is fairly straightforward with little-to-no reading required, and various expansions have added to the replay of the game over the years.

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A couple weeks ago I had occasion for a first play through Steam at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. Steam, released by Mayfair Games in 2008, is similar to many train games in that it has a a route-completion component. The basic game comes with a two-side board featuring the US Northeast and the European Rhine/Ruhr region on the flipside. Aside from building routes, players transport goods between cities and upgrade towns to become new hubs. The game is competitive, but players can also balance sharing the wealth over some lines as tracks are strategically completed. Various map expansions add geographic possibilities in Europe, Africa, Asia and the West Coast of the US. Steam Barons expands the game further with a heavier economic mechanic of investing in the stock of multiple railways.

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In my first play through Steam I really enjoyed the Eurogame feel with choices made each round in various focuses of upgrading trains, building track, establishing new stations and moving goods. Bidding for turn placement also becomes increasingly important throughout the game as the board becomes crowded with competing routes and available goods begin to dwindle. Access to capital also shifts during the game, as access to lots of money becomes less important late in the game after a focused growth mode early on. Having played through the game, I’m anxious to give it another ride soon with the Steam Barons expansion’s added stock market elements.

RussianRR

The latest favorite rail game hitting the table at the club in Brooklyn is last year’s Russian Railroads from Z-Man Games. In classic Eurogame style, Russian Railroads is driven by worker placement mechanics as players push to develop increasingly technological superior trains ahead of the competition. While I haven’t had a chance to play the game yet, it did make a lot of people’s top games of the year, so I’m certain to jump into a game in the very near future.

Like myself, I’ve found a lot of gamers who are passionate about trains. Maybe it’s the competition inherent in railroad history that make them appealing. It could also just be the boyish thrill big trains never cease to bring. Regardless, like a passenger waiting at some rural depot with ticket in-hand, we’re all waiting for the next train to arrive with the possibility of adventure and fortune somewhere down the tracks.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Dover Cut & Assemble Books

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I had a whole host of hobbies as a kid. There were plastic model kits from Airfix and Revell. I had a huge HO-scale train layout in my basement. Model rockets from Estes regularly launched from my back yard. Roleplaying and historical miniatures gaming finally came along, allowing me to incorporate a lot of my passion for models  into the terrain, buildings and countless metal figures I’d need for my dungeon crawls or fields of battle.

dover fort

One of my fondest early memories of scale-modelling was with the Dover Publications “Cut & Assemble” or “Easy-To-Make” books. I recall a steady flow of these books in my house with my mother picking them up with some frequency off the book racks at five-and-dimes, toy shops and book stores. There were so many of these and other activity books piled in my room as a kid, and it seemed like nearly every time we went shopping there was a new one to add to the collection.

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These books offered models from many periods including ancient castles, Viking outposts, European villages, Old West towns, Victorian mansions, seaside settlements and even some modern structures. Along with the main buildings, many of the books included details like fences and walls, wells, animals, vehicles and people. These made each book a playset of its own but also allowed for a few different books to be used together. My western town might be settled right outside the fronteir fort, and civil soldier cut-outs would fight among the buildings included in the New England-themed village sets. The HO scale of the models also lent them for use with my plastic soldiers and livestock , and I’d often throw in some lichen bushes or custom-made roads to the set-up.

dover western

Assembly of the models in the Dover books did take a fair amount of time, and the details on things like porches, roofs, stairways and chimneys often involved tiny multiple folds. The hours I spent cutting and gluing together the buildings, often with minimal instructions, certainly gave me plenty of practice in a small scale. The heavy cardstock made the buildings fairly sturdy once built, making them easy to throw in a box when done playing with them.

dover soldiers

The rise of at-home printing has created a resurgence in papercraft modelling no longer constrained to books like those from Dover and Usborne Books. A lot of miniatures gamers swear by the relatively-inexpensive and quickly-accessible papercraft terrain made specifically for gamers by companies such as Paper Terrain or uploaded for free on a number of gaming sites and forums.

Despite my time paper modelling as a kid in the 70s and 80s, I’ve moved on from it with my gaming today. That said, I have been spending a fair amount of time with my youngest son who has developed an interest as of late in searching, printing and assembling Minecraft papercraft models. With his new passion for papercrafting I’m thinking that revisting the Dover books of my past with my son may be a great way to nurture a newly-seeded hobby to last another lifetime.

Collector’s Note: While some of the Dover “Cut & Assemble” or “Easy-To-Make” books are now out of print, many are still available online both new and used starting at under $10 each.