A painter understands the power of a picture frame. The right frame enhances the art and the wrong frame detracts from it. The same principle applies to 3D model building.
As an artist, I’ve learned to see composition as an integrated whole rather than a collection of individual pieces. Much of the conversation about layout design tends to focus on the individual pieces. We obsess over track planning and benchwork, scenery and operation as separate entities. Cameo design considers all of these elements together to create a cohesive, thoughtful showcase for modeling. It’s an approach that I find very satisfying.
I want lightweight construction that is easily transportable and suited to a variety of room spaces. I should note that while I’m using UK exhibit layout design principles and methods, I don’t intend for this layout to travel. My primary goal is a self-contained package that can be moved intact if needed. To that end, I built a box of quarter-inch plywood around a piece of 1-1/2 inch thick Styrofoam.
Nothing fancy, just a simple box. I left the ends open this time. The hanging rail for the adjacent staging module isn’t installed yet.
Styrofoam and thin plywood may sound flimsy but there is plenty of strength in them. I only used thicker stock where it was needed most such as corner blocking, which was both glued and nailed. Along with the Styrofoam base, the back and top panels provide shear strength. Adding a top panel stiffens the small cross section of the lighting valance and directs the light downward where it’s needed. The C shaped end panels are cut from one piece for greater integrity and strength.
I chose good quality birch plywood that yields a smooth finish when painted plus, it’s a joy to work with. I chose eight feet for the length of the cameo because it fit better with the scene I planned. The Styrofoam panels are four feet long and I considered modules that length, but I didn’t see a good reason for the added complication of more section joints. Since I only plan to move the module occasionally, the length isn’t an issue.
The depth of the module comes from the precut foam panels. These are available in various thicknesses and come in a package of six sheets, sized to fit the standard 16” on center stud bays in a wall. The width feels perfect, even for quarter-inch scale, as it focuses your attention on the right-of-way and immediate surroundings. This suits my aesthetic preferences but can create problems for elements like buildings. My solution is to carefully select and compose the scene. If I had to include a full signature building or multiple tracks, I would increase the depth of that area but only after considering all other options available.
I want to bring all my skills to the craft. I think in images and learn best by watching a process being done. This impacts how I approach any kind of work, whether it’s a design for a cabinet, a room space or a model railroad. The appearance of things matter to me, and for the new cameo I wanted to explore ideas of presentation and composition for a larger scale.
I want a clean distraction free presentation. That means eliminating as much visual clutter around the layout as possible. For example, hanging the module on the wall via a French cleat system eliminates the need for legs.
The basement wall has a slight bow in it, so instead of attaching the hanging rail directly to the wall, I added uprights that I could shim as needed so the rail would be straight. An unplanned but positive side effect was how the uprights created an air space between the module and wall. (See illustration below.) In a basement setting, it’s always good to keep air circulating. I ran the hanging rail the full length of the wall, so I could be flexible in placing the modules. I attached a pair of cleats to the back of each module with glue and screws. The system makes it easy to place or remove things and gives a clean installation.
This is the basic idea. Nothing is to scale in this illustration and the parts aren’t nearly as thick as shown. I used up scraps of three quarter inch plywood to make them. Everything is screwed into solid structure and there’s plenty of support for the layout.
The clean simple presentation is very satisfying to me.
In this early image I had one light at the rear and another toward the front. I liked how the light faded toward the ends of the scene but didn’t like the glare in my eyes from the rear light. I thought of adding a baffle to block it but decided to position both fixtures toward the front.
The one comment I’ve received several times is how minimalist the cameo appears. Many modelers use the space below a layout for plastic storage tubs or shelving of some kind. It’s tempting since the space is there anyway. Lots of people hide the clutter with curtains or paneling. I dared to ask, why have such clutter in the first place? Eliminating that mass underneath the layout adds to the clean appearance. There’s simply nothing there to distract the eye and the room feels more open and generous as a result.
Focus On The Modeling
In addition to minimalist design, I want the eye to go directly to the modeling. I painted the cameo exterior a dark charcoal gray that has a dead flat finish. I also painted any interior areas that would be seen from normal view. Again, the dark color doesn’t attract the eye and these surfaces just disappear.
Light The Objects Not The Space
For lighting I used two 46-inch long LED strip lights with a combined output of 3200 lumens. They produce ample light, zero heat and use next to nothing in electricity. I played with the position of the fixtures before settling on their final location. My decision was driven by a desire to put as much light on the front of the scene as possible. It’s conventional yes, but putting a fixture too far back produced an annoying glare, so I shifted them forward and took pains to hide the cord, which exits at the rear corner. I want to see the light, not the fixtures.
For the most part I will turn off the room lights when operating. There is plenty of spillover light from the layout and the darkened space is almost like being in a gallery where each painting or object is individually illuminated. It creates an environment that draws me to the layout and I like the impact of being in the space.
Two LED strip lights get the job done. These are low profile fixtures with simple plug and play connections I found at Menards. I painted the inside of the cameo because my eyes were drawn by the light colored bare plywood. The backdrop is a piece of aluminum flashing stock that was quite thin and wobbly. I secured it with a batten at the top and the foam scenery keeps it in place on the bottom.
The Right Frame
A model railroad doesn’t have to overpower the space it’s in. Like choosing the right frame for a painting, the way we frame our thinking about the craft makes a world of difference in the choices we make; choices that can enhance our experience or take away from it.