What do most of us really want from this craft? The most basic answer is an achievable, satisfying layout. One that we can build, maintain and enjoy for many years. One that reflects our personal vision of what railroading and the craft means to us.

What really prevents you from having that? Beyond life circumstances out of your control, I’d wager it’s a lack of clarity and understanding of what you want.

When I hear a hobbyist recite the harbor goes in this corner, the narrow gauge branch to the coal mine goes here, next to the grain elevator, and so on, I have the strong sense he doesn’t really know what he wants and I can predict the outcome. One month, two or six, he’s back with Dream Layout v.4.6, because reality got in the way of the first 4.5 versions. He’s afraid to make a clear choice because it might not be the right one. He might miss out on something good and that would be horrible.

When a modeler says that scratchbuilding or handlaying track is too hard or too time consuming, that’s often the outward expression of an internal voice that says: “I’m not sure I can do this and I don’t want to deal with failure or look silly.”

I believe fear is the root of such thinking. I know because I’ve been that guy. Our brains hate not knowing what to do or whether we have what it takes to do it but we’re empowered by clarity. When we know what to do and know that we can, there’s no conflict, we just do it.

There are a lot of strong opinions and conflicting voices about the best way to approach this work. Trying to listen to all of them will only leave you confused, maybe even frustrated and with all the noise, it’s hard to listen to your own voice.

Many voices might offer perspective but too many can also create chaos. By simply following the noise of the herd, you’ll be letting others do your thinking for you. You’ll be tempted to embrace the fad of the month and when that grows old, there’s always the next one. If that’s what you want, then yes you may be having “fun,” but isn’t this craft about more than a series of failed layouts that only add to the landfill?

Like others, I can offer an insight or series of questions to ask and on this blog and in my books, I encourage my readers to understand why certain choices of prototype, era or operations appeal to them more than others. I stress this process because I believe it’s the bedrock foundation upon which a satisfying layout is built.

We each have to decide what our level of involvement with this craft will be and what meaning it brings to our lives. Without a clear understanding of what you want or hope to achieve, might you be wasting your time and other resources?

There is another story about this craft that needs to be told. A story about discovering and listening to your own voice, because that’s where the clarity you’re looking for is found. You need to learn how to trust your instincts. I believe you truly know what you want but all the rhetoric and noise from people with their own agenda gets in the way of listening to your own voice. Do you want a satisfying layout that expresses your personal vision of railroading or do you want the safety of following the herd? If you want the first one, OST Publications can help. Check out my books to learn more.



  1. gene48

    What is the right choice? If you don’t know enough to have a clear vision the choice doesn’t matter. If you see it in a book or magazine and like it, just build it. You can always redo.


  2. mike

    Well Gene, that’s an interesting question. One that goes to the heart of what I had in mind as I wrote this post.

    The right choice will be different for you than it will for me and, different still for others. It ranges from considering this craft as nothing more than children’s toys with crude details to the polar opposite, which is the museum quality work done by craftsman like Tom Mix or Jim Z. That right choice includes freelancing and cherry-picking one of everything, and also includes the most faithful prototype replication. It includes watching trains go in circles to recreating a sense of historical time and place and everything in between. What I rail against is the mentality of generic model railroading, that homogenized, nondescript watered down mindset that so many want to apply to everything. If we’re to make any choice, we need to understand that a choice is available to be made.

    Yes, magazines can inspire as I wrote of with my Mentor Texts post. The point I’m making here is that inspiration is only a starting point. To go further means that one has to let go of being a copycat and discover whether you have anything to add to the conversation about this craft that has been going on for eighty some odd years now. The simple truth is, 99.99 percent of the people practicing this craft in whatever form will be content to copy what’s been done before and at the end, sell their stuff for pennies, so that somebody else can do it all over again.

    It’s that way because there are vested interests who want to keep it that way. But, it doesn’t have to be and how will anyone know if the ideas aren’t presented?


  3. Simon

    When I hear a hobbyist recite… …I have the strong sense he doesn’t really know what he wants and I can predict the outcome.

    Assuming that this has happened, what do you hear that makes you rejoice that someone has a clear idea of what they want?


  4. mike

    Hi Simon,

    Remembering that this is simply one person’s point of view, a list of features that form a cohesive whole rather than a disjointed list of unrelated items picked because they sounded nice to have. A sense that some thought has been applied rather than a one of everything approach. As I said in my reply to Gene, the right choices for each individual include all of the above. I’m expressing a personal preference in these choices as others do with theirs.


  5. Simon

    Hi Mike,

    I realise this is all personal points of view, but to me the word that stands out in your answer – and I think this may be the key concept which would be common to all successful layouts – is “cohesion”.


  6. mike


    Yes, absolutely agree. A cohesive vision, theme, or whatever you prefer to call it, is what separates a model railway from a trainset. The only reason I emphasized personal opinion was for those dear souls who read what they want to hear rather than what is written in the text.


  7. mike

    Simon and all,

    Thinking about this some more, I realized another, perhaps a better word to use is intent. What is the intent of the modeling? I will expand on this idea in the next post and hopefully make things clearer.


  8. Simon

    I see where you might be going with this and intent is definitely a better word:

    “What did you set out to achieve with this layout? What was your intent?”

    This post has possibly had more individual impact on me that any other, but this was only possible because of the discussion which preceded it: a discussion which would have otherwise been missing from my “journey” in the hobby.

    The cohesion is one of many measures of how well this has been achieved.

    And yes, folks, that is an encouragement to both read through the blog, buy copies of The Missing Conversation and get involved with the exchange of ideas. The questions we ask of each other are what drives the discussion.


  9. Matt


    I can not speak for what most of us want from the hobby, only myself. I want something that as an “end product” is entertaining. However, it’s really the journey, learning new skills, developing ones skills through the various stages of becoming a competent craftsman. I do not think one can do that with one layout. Each layout is its own classroom teaching you what you like, what you can do, and what you need to do the next time.

    Unfortunately, not everyone views the hobby of model trains like they do say woodworking or painting. It seems this hobby is more about following an idea generated by others rather than following an idea unique to oneself. The craft I follow is incredibly different when compared to others, but it is my unique journey. My hobby is dictated by available time, interest in developing a highly portable shadow box type of layout that tells a story of a time and a place. I may not have an operating layout at the moment beyond a small N scale switching layout, but I do have a enjoyable path that I follow. My goal is my own learning and continuing improvement.


  10. mike

    Hi Matt,
    I don’t presume to speak for others in my opening line. But building a layout of some kind is considered as a given by most people. You’re quite correct in saying that people are content to copy rather than explore their own path. It’s how we’ve framed the work. (See the Sept. 16, 2015 post for more on that).