Pick two.

That’s the typical option given to clients regarding the triangle of cost (their budget), quantity (the size of house or addition they want) and quality (the level of finishes, cabinetry and trim materials they want).

Given a fixed budget, either the quality of finishes will have to be downgraded or the size of the house or addition will have to get smaller. If the client won’t budge on these two, then the budget has to grow to cover the real world costs.

Layout design is no different.
Long-time modelers have learned this dance between quality and layout size from experience. Newbies, however, are often in for a rude awakening when reality hits that dream of replicating the Pennsylvania RR’s Enola Yard and operations in the 1950s down to the last museum quality detail.

I know it’s hard because I’ve been there. Given that most of us work with discretionary funds from the family budget for our hobby activities, compromises in quality on a large layout are inevitable. This isn’t rocket science.  We’re all bound by this reality.

There is another factor we can employ: time.
Time can be the equalizer for a higher quality basement size layout. Investing time spreads out the costs of buying higher quality materials (rolling stock, locos, scenery details, etc.) in quantity. This works very well if your are focused. The trouble is that few people are focused in this hobby. Most of us spend our early years buying this, that and everything in between.

Focus comes from experience and understanding what you want from this craft. That type of mature understanding comes from making mistakes and going off in directions that don’t pan out or that change over time. In a real way, if you are aware enough to understand, you are teaching yourself about the hobby and how you want to engage with it. I digress, however.

It’s all relative.
Quantity, quality, cost and time spent are are relative, in that they mean different things to people. In truth, what is a large layout? What is a small one? The quality of a given product or work may be more objective in nature, but opinions will still vary widely. How much is enough? Who knows?

There’s a tendency to reduce this to dogma. Doing so is simplistic and largely unproductive.

Layout size isn’t that relevant.
I’ve bashed on large layouts pretty hard on this blog and doing so has been a clumsy and short-sighted approach. All I want to emphasize in this work is the idea of building a better layout, one that truly serves your interests and needs. Layouts fitting that description come in many sizes and that’s a truth I’ve willfully ignored and de-emphasized in this space with impunity. That was, is, wrong on my part.

Wrong, because such a dogmatic stance short changes the opportunity  to have a deeper conversation. To discuss what one can gain by building smaller, rather than focus on what one is giving up.

My experience of so many false starts with basement size layouts taught me that quality is more important than size. This lesson took a long time to sink in because I wasn’t thinking for myself but following the crowded conventional wisdom that promotes: Got space? Fill it with layout.

We automatically think that smaller means less and that’s bad. We seldom consider that smaller can also be better. When the lightbulb finally went on, I understood that if the detail I love is there, the size of the layout was irrelevant. I found that smaller was, in fact, better because building smaller let me focus on what I truly enjoy about the hobby and ignore things I didn’t care about.

Regardless of size, a true Freedom Layout is one where you’ve found the balance between size and quality that enhances your experience of the hobby and brings you joy. For some that’s a simple shelf, for others a spare room, and for still others something larger.

I’m not changing my stance on the benefits of smaller, more focused layouts but simply softening my tone a bit; because encouraging you find that balance for yourself is the only goal here on the blog and in TMC.

This craft has so much depth and so many layers of nuance to explore and enjoy. Turning it into the dirt cheap commodity that some think it should be is a horrible waste.



  1. Simon

    A friend started modelling in S scale, 41 years ago. He had no grand scheme, and for twenty years had a small, portable layout which he took to shows. He had three steam engines, two passenger coaches, and maybe 20 wagons.

    Twenty one years ago, he took (partial) early retirement. He doesn’t have any other active hobbies, but enjoys “classical” music and opera, and can happily listen to those whilst working away at his modelling table. Not all of his free time was spent on the hobby: he has a family, and enjoys vacations, but when he is in the right frame of mind, he gets on with and uses his time productively. He also makes most things himself, including wheels where necessary. Apart from raw materials, and a few items like wheelsets and detail castings (for which he made many patterns) other than motors and gearboxes, his most expensive purchase was a lathe many, many years ago.

    But, in those 21 years, he has produced a prize winning layout with two extensions, which now occupies 33′ in a large outbuilding at the back of his house. I have lost count of the number of locos – all hand built, many with working (replica) inside valve motion – coaches and wagons he has built. But what he discovered to his surprise was how much he enjoy making buildings from very simple materials. A plywood shell, hand scribed and hand painted cartridge paper for brickwork, scribed air-drying modelling clay for stone work, and thin wood veneers and paper for things like window frames and doors. Not expensive, but each building took somewhere between 100 and 200 very enjoyable hours.

    Whilst he didn’t set out to build an empire, he has amassed one by default. The quality is as good as it gets, the level of detail is appropriate without going too far, the cost very low, layout design flexible according to circumstances (after all these years, he only recently had a suitable outbuilding available for the layout) and desire.

    The only major input has been time. But more importantly, effective use of time.

    Like life, it’s all about making the best us of what you’ve got, not about wishing your life away with “If only I had…”


  2. mike

    Hi Simon,

    What an interesting story. If I may infer a couple of things from it, it sounds like your friend has found the balance that works for him by starting small, due to circumstances and only then expanding as his skills and means increased, yet he remained focused on a theme that is important to him, rather than buying whatever caught his eye in the moment. My thoughts are he avoided many of the pitfalls modelers fall into by attempting too much too soon.

    From what you say, it seems that he dictates the amount of time and resources spent on the hobby rather than feel frustrated by lack of substantial but unrealistic progress on a monster-sized project. Those are excellent lessons to apply for all of us.

    Thanks for sharing that.


  3. Simon


    You infer (and summarise!) correctly.

    There is an interesting chapter on “Not amounting to anything” in Raymond Smullyan’s book, “The Tao is Silent”, for those who like this sort of thinking.

    PS For those who don’t know, Tao is pronounced “Dow”, as in the index involving Mr. Jones..