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?



  1. Nigel


    Your blog and Lance Mindheim’s have opened up a new vista of layout design and operation for me. I had never previously questioned the status quo of needing an abundance of track to make the operation interesting. I had also never questioned the status quo of only operating when there’s a group available. Looking back it doesn’t make much sense because I realise now I was missing out on really enjoyable solo sessions.

    House construction style benchwork seems a very North American model railway ‘essential’. The layouts I’ve been involved with here in Australia have generally been light weight (some probably too lightweight) and exhibition oriented. Maybe this is an aspect of layout design where the British approach is influencing progressive US modellers?



  2. Jed

    I’ve been heading towards smaller, lighter benchwork myself. My current layout is a 1×14′ shelf.
    But it’s way overbuilt-1×12 pine on 2×4 frame.
    And the pine warps,too-not a good thing.
    I didn’t consider it warping when I built it, despite being a woodworker.
    So I’ve been experimenting with foam board on frames. I built a module out of 3/4 inch foam on 1×4 framing spaced 1 foot apart, and I’m very pleased with it. But when I go to build my next layout, I’ll just use 1×3 and 1″ foam, which will work much better and be still lighter.
    I, too, am questing for a smaller, less packed layout- most likely 8′ by 16″ with only one or two turnouts.(HO scale)

  3. mike

    Hi Nigel,

    The practice of single owner, self-contained exhibition layouts has never taken hold in the US. Probably because the train show culture here is more oriented to vendor sales than layout display. The modular layout concept expressed as a bunch of separately built units that are assembled and only operated at a show demands conformity to rigid standards. Even the more flexible Free-mo idea comes with dimensional strings attached so modules will interface on each end.

    Since the US model press always promoted the construction of home/basement sized layouts, we can thank the mainstream magazines for the adoption of rigid benchwork, from the initial framework needed to support a sheet of plywood, on through L-girder and whatever is currently popular today.

    It’s a matter of choice and we have more options now than in the past but people default to the tried and true whether from habit or whatever.


  4. mike

    The foam insulation sheets are interesting stuff. I once had an HO layout where I sandwiched the one inch foam between a sheet of fiberboard for the layout surface and a sheet of quarter-inch plywood on the bottom that protected the exposed foam and provided a way to attach things if needed. I mounted a strip of quarter-inch plywood along the front edge for a fascia to finish it off and to protect the raw edges of material. Even though the design was flat, I could have modified it to lower or raise a track.

    I had three sections, each eight feet long by 16 inches wide. To join them I offset the foam to create a mortise and tenon type of joint, where the sections just slipped together and were self-aligning. Homemade brackets attached to the wall provided plenty of support.

    It worked beautifully, was lightweight and simple to build. Running the wiring wasn’t a problem and were I to do it again, I would go with battery power and integrate the backdrop and LED lights for a shadow box presentation.

    In fact, I probably should stop talking about this as my mind is starting to shift into high gear on…how I could…hmmm. 😉


  5. Jimbofin

    Interesting both because I’m involved in the development of best practices in the real world – which often prove not to be – and because once again the geographical differences in what is considered the norm are highlighted.

    In the UK group operating sessions are, generally, the preserve of the railway club meeting at a dedicated venue. There are a few exceptions, both historic and current. Sherwood, and Pete Waterman’s Leamington Spa, but the majority of home layouts are designed for operation by one or two people, and are often portable. Portability (and hence lightweight) is both because of the role exhibitions play in the UK scene and also that in many homes there isn’t the space to keep the layout erected all the time. Hence we’ve developed our own conventions that might or might not be the best way of doing things.

    Personally copperclad tiebars are my bugbear. Functional but totally un-prototypical.