Best practices are those methods that have proven their worth over time. They’re a good thing but not always.

In our craft, one such idea is having enough track for a host of different train/switching moves to sustain operator interest over the long term. For decades I never questioned this misguided notion and in doing so, created frustration and discontent with every layout I attempted. Yes, including the I & W.

This early photo shows how I fit three tracks into a space that would be crowded with just two. For the first time visitor, I work in quarter-inch scale and the benchwork shown is just 24-25 inches wide (another so-called best practice for getting the most useable pieces from a sheet of plywood) and the three tracks are spaced on scale thirteen foot centers. Together they consume nearly half the width of the benchwork, leaving little room for anything else.

Early photo of mill area on the I&W

Too much track for the space.

The mess that evolved speaks for itself (below). To my eyes now, this seven year old scene looks horrid, which is why last year, I removed two of the tracks and extensively revamped the scenery. Those tracks never should have been there in the first place. And that tiny little mill building? It’s hardly adequate to fill a truck let along a railcar. I modeled it based on the charm of the prototype. Nothing wrong with that, but such a building needs the right setting, and this isn’t it.

Initial scenery around the mill

The resulting scene doesn’t work.

Both of these photos clearly show how crowded things became. I should have seen this coming and dealt with it immediately but didn’t. Why didn’t I? Well…oh, never mind. You already know the answer.

Are you building a house?
Another mindless decision was how the layout is constructed. Once again, best practice assumes that bigger, stiffer benchwork is better. I tend to agree but with a caveat. I’ve seen O scale layouts built with 2x4s or bigger lumber spaced on 16 inch centers just like a stud wall. Why? Often, so the owner can crawl around on top of benchwork that is too wide to reach into comfortably. If that’s your choice, go for it. But not everyone has to follow the same path.

The I&W is old school, built in place, screwed to two walls and can’t be moved without serious  repercussions. In other words, when the time comes to say goodbye to it, it’s landfill material. That is unless someone wants it badly enough to endure the headaches of moving the thing.

As I’ve gotten older, my image of the ideal layout has changed radically. It’s very small and self-contained (lighting and backdrop) with a removable staging cassette as the only piece requiring assembly. The idea of a locomotive and a half dozen cars (or less) working in a highly detailed scene holds a lot of appeal these days. Except for a difference in size, this is essentially what I have now, minus the portability factor.

My point is this: model railroading has defined so much “best practice” that the end result is a mind-numbing similarity. We have people using the same conventions in the same ways with the same products and producing the same results. Go on any forum and read the boot-quaking, bone-rattling histrionics from the true believers when some upstart dares to question the cherished doctrine. It’s both funny and sad.

Best practice says those extra tracks added operational variety that allowed me to have more fun playing train. Best practice says the extra car spots allowed me to switch up the scenario from time to time, or at the least, they gave me someplace to display extra rolling stock. (Someone just slapped their head and said: “What rolling stock? He never shows any!” Thanks for stopping by and sharing that.)

Best practice also says that benchwork built like a hurricane bunker eliminates problems down the road. Again, I agree with quality construction practice but now question the notion of benchwork you can live in. But, whatever works for you.

My best practice these days is to always question the “best practice” mentality in light of what I’m trying to achieve. And, would you still come here every week if all I did was parrot the status quo?