Long time readers know that I often return to the same familiar places time and again. There is comfort in the familiarity, along with a sense of belonging built over many experiences of those places. Mill Road attempts to capture a sense of place, an essence if you will, of familiar Indiana farmland to see if a modeled location can create similar feelings. For me the answer is yes. Each time I walk past the scene, I have the urge to pause, turn on the lights and look. There is something satisfying here.

This relationship to the work is well known to artists and other professional creators. The deeper one explores a theme, the more there is to find. It goes beyond technique. Technique, in its many forms, is just a tool creators use to express an idea or emotion. You will reach a point as a modeler, where many techniques are second nature, in that you don’t have to think about them. Going forward, I’m more interested in exploring what I truly enjoy about railroading and finding a uniquely personal way to express that.

Clarity Is Key
Mill Road started as such layouts often do, with a section of track from the old Indiana & Whitewater. This saved a modest amount of construction time but this approach has a stumbling block: it’s very easy to let the old track configuration overly influence the direction of the project.

This salvaged chunk of the old layout forms the core of Mill Road

At first I couldn’t see past the old track arrangement, which created problems. As outlined in this post, the unnecessary foreground track and one of the two turnouts were removed to create more breathing room in the scene.

In trying to find a good balance between the amount of foreground and background scenery, the track wound up too close to the backdrop. This eliminated any possibility of placing a grain elevator, an idea that was an afterthought to the original plan. I considered a number of options but got stuck at the same place with each one: a lack of room. Nothing kills realism faster than a wafer thin sliver of a building jammed against the sky. In the end, the concept of the siding changed from serving a grain elevator to an interchange track. This mental shift doesn’t affect the operating concept and in truth, without a defining marker, this track could function as anything.

To be very clear, this only became an issue because I changed my mind midstream. A grain elevator could have been included from the start but doing so would have required a different composition altogether. The narrow depth for the scene was a deliberate choice that has worked well, in that it forces me to focus and eliminate the usual clutter that creeps into a layout. The lesson to be learned is to trust in simplicity. This scale needs room to breathe in order to look convincing. Buildings or scenic elements jammed in haphazardly simply won’t look right. They need to be part of the plan from day one. Restraint and a clear vision is the only way to go in my view.

The original plan was sound but the three tracks on the left are too much for the 15-inch depth I chose. I also decided that eight feet of staging on both ends isn’t required for such a small scene. Simplicity really is key in a design like this.

Cameo Designs Work Well For Larger Scales
The cameo format works well and I wouldn’t consider building another conventional layout. For me the flexibility far outweighs any perceived disadvantage. I like how the format enhances and strengthens the close-up viewpoint of the scale.

The modules frame a scene in a way that typical construction doesn’t. Visually, I appreciate this focus and degree of separation. Design and visual presentation matters more than people realize. With the normal room lights off, the cameo is the clear center of attention. You’re less aware of the room space, yet can move around easily in the subdued light. I’m only beginning to discover the design potential in this.

My 13th and North E Street cameo demonstrated the power of visual framing in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Here the warehouse dictated the height of the viewing window. With a future cameo I want to experiment and see how much I can reduce the height of this opening and still maintain practical access.

One thing I would explore in the future is reducing the height of the front opening as far as practical. I learned from my work on the 13th And North E Street warehouse cameo, how strong an impact properly framing a scene can have. I would like to experiment more with this concept using a rural setting. Reducing the height of the opening would allow the built-in lighting to better illuminate the front of the rolling stock. I also believe that the wide range of LED fixtures now available allows for more creative placement than the current practice of mounting strip fixtures overhead in the sky. Again, this is a part of layout design that is wide open for exploration.

Strip fixtures in the “sky” are beginning to feel archaic to me. We default to them because they are a cheap way to cover a large space and tend to ignore their obvious drawbacks. I always wonder though if there are better ways to light a scene.
I’m also very happy with the design of the revised layout support. The original French cleat hanging rail was visually intrusive. The system in use now produces less wall acne. Separating the actual layout from the support structure proved to be a wise decision. The modules can be moved or rearranged easily to try different compositions, something traditional benchwork doesn’t provide without a lot of destructive chaos.
Separating the modules from the support structure proved to be a wise move. I love the clean lines, ease and flexibility this system provides.

Cameo Design Is Rich With Many Layers

I’m strongly influenced by certain visual forms such as the evocative black and white photography of O. Winston Link and Phil Hastings. Both men found inspiration from placing the railroad in a wider context, rather than focus solely on equipment shots. It’s images of the railroad in a time and place that inspire my modeling as well. I don’t need the constant presence of a train to find joy in a scene. This is why I’m so content to return to the same locations repeatedly.

Imagery that mimics what I see when I’m trackside is what I’ve been striving for with my modeling. With or without a train, this makes me happy.

For Mill Road, the chosen dimensions and restraints help me focus the composition in ways I wouldn’t have with more space. As with a painting, I had to establish priorities and edit out the nonessential. Beyond surface appearance, I’m focused on the layered nuance and richness a single location may offer. It takes time and humility to truly understand a place. With the relentless way the generic hobby urges people to build a layout as fast as possible then dispose of it at the drop of a hat, how are we ever going to develop any depth to our understanding?

Many people will look at a cameo design and only think how quickly they would become bored with it. This fear of boredom, or missing out on something better runs rampant in our literature and thinking. It drives a relentless desire for more at the expense of depth. I’ve discovered there is a deeper enjoyment that comes from understanding what it is one actually wants. Going beyond the over emphasis on mechanics and technique, I believe such understanding is a way to thrive with this craft. By thriving, I mean the craft contributes to your well-being and helps you grow in a positive way that generates more ability for success.

A cameo layout isn’t for everyone. With a clear focus however, it can be supremely satisfying. The form provides the enhanced focus I’ve sought for years. While it may lack features many others consider essential, I see Mill Road more as a concept that can be revisited and refined as my understanding grows. In that light, it’s a physical expression of the things I most deeply enjoy about railroading in a form with different layers to discover and appreciate.



  1. Simon

    I wish you had been able to bring this to the UK exhibition circuit.
    It would have created a major impact.

  2. Chris Mears

    “This is why I’m so content to return to the same locations repeatedly.” Exactly! I do the same, as we’ve discussed before. Today there’s so much pressure that everything must exist to stimulate and entertain. We do the same in the hobby when we ask: “Is this enough?” For me, places like the feed mills in Moncton and Truro or even my one place I photograph trains in the Dartmouth yard are not (no longer?) places I go to, to see something new that thrills me but to return to a place of sanctuary. The connection hammered stronger by visiting. In a first date with a place everything is exciting but over time we learn to study the changes in a place as time, weather, and other interventions change the place and our lives. I think there’s a similar experience in model railroading that’s a story we don’t tell and a relationship we don’t publicly encourage: what it’s like to live with the model railroad. Instead of asking it to thrill us in new ways, how can we study it over time and nurture its existence?

    I love seeing these updates on Mill Road because that conversation on nurturing the layout is so often absent in our hobby’s media. This sense of interplay between yourself and your work as you each mature alongside each other. Further, that Mill Road exchanges lessons with 13th and North is even more fascinating.

    When I read your comment on lighting I immediately thought of these large LED light panels I saw at our local IKEA store earlier this year. They were like tiles and offered an even and warm light. In terms of size they were perhaps 12×12″ in area and maybe an inch or two thick. I believe Paul Marshall-Potter is using something similar on his layouts though also suspect he’s using something more than just what I’d seen in IKEA. Do you think we could import light into the layout temporarily? Like we could light the layout for a median effect but on occasion add a spotlight or filter to add a focal point to change our experience once in a while?


  3. mike

    Thanks Simon. I assume you’re referring to 13th and North E Street. If so I’m curious, in what way would it have such an impact as you suggest? It barely made a ripple here. People don’t know what to do with it.


  4. Simon

    There is a much more active “exhibition scene” over here. There are many layouts which only get assembled at exhibitions, sometimes because they are simply too large for the usual UK home, other times because a “micro layout” is the only things that will fit.

    If you have looked at any of the websites dedicated to micro layouts, you will be aware that all too often they are attempts to force a gallon of railway into a model pint pot and frankly not very realistic.

    The cameo layout concept is starting to catch on more, and lately you have honed in on the bit where the interesting things (coupling, uncoupling, throwing turnouts) takes place, to the exclusion of most everything else, and concentrated in the fine details.

    I was actually thinking more of Mill Street, but 13th and North E Street is also an alternative approach for the builder who isn’t interested in operation, and is also starved of space and indeed tools and materials.

    But were it within the constraints put into the MRJ Cameo Layout Competition (not sure if it is or is not, not going a bundle on such gimmicks), it would have been a great entry and exemplar of the genre.

  5. Craig Townsend

    You comment about making the scene have room to breath hits home at the moment. I’m smack in the middle of creating the benchwork for the signature scene on the layout. Its all measured out to scale with no selective compression. At the moment it looks too big. And the temptation is to chop the size down in half. But in doing so, I would lose the open look of the prototype. Lots of negative space will draw the eye to the focal point.

  6. mike

    Stay the course Craig.


  7. mike

    I agree Simon. It seems the smaller the footprint, the more things people want to stuff into it.


  8. mike

    Chris, I’m reminded of Ben King, who spent thirty years working on a 3×10 layout. If I recall correctly he was a clock/watchmaker by trade and brought that precision to every aspect of it. It was the exception forty years ago, today, that degree of longevity to a layout is unheard of. Thinking of this I’m convinced it’s the character of the person that makes the difference.

    Do you think we could import light into the layout temporarily? Like we could light the layout for a median effect but on occasion add a spotlight or filter to add a focal point to change our experience once in a while?

    Why not? Sounds cool to me.