Designing a layout is hard. We’re not civil engineers or traffic managers. Layout design articles tend to focus on arranging the maximum amount of track in a space, while leaving everything else to chance.

I’m of the opinion the mindset, beliefs, even the language we use gets in our way. We’re almost preconditioned to think any room space, regardless of how generous it is, won’t be enough for the layout we want.

From this viewpoint, it’s an easy choice to use track standards and turnout dimensions that are one or two steps removed from a child’s train set, believing they are required to fit things in. Track planning is exactly what it sounds like: a process of fitting track into a space that often sacrifices comfort and common sense in exchange for a few extra feet of running.

Layout design, as currently practiced in my view, is a series of isolated steps rather than a cohesive, integrated design process that considers all aspects of a layout together. As mentioned, it’s hard. Even skilled professionals with many years of design experience struggle to find satisfying solutions.

One such design professional is Matthieu Lachance, an architect from Quebec City, Canada. Matt writes an informative blog called Hedley Junction. During October of 2019 and in more recent posts, Matt shared his thinking and design priorities for a small layout based on Connors, New Brunswick in the early 20th century, for his office at home.

How much is enough?
With a deliberately limited space above a bank of cabinets Matt faced a series of hard choices. A central question he struggled with is how much layout is enough? Matt believes the answer to this question is central to understanding what we want from the craft. He is clear about the subject for this layout but not about the presentation he wanted. The home office is a multi-purpose space and Matt wants to avoid the typical chaos a layout creates. Instead he seeks a design that compliments the room rather than overpower it.

Fitting a layout in a shared space involves more consideration. He asked a lot of questions about his priorities along with more practical matters:

“Many questions arose: how much layout, what to crop from the scene, how to frame the subject, how to work on it in a practical way, etc. I no longer approach design as a set of steps to follow in order, but I take a lot of time contemplating my work and looking how to make it better.” –Matthieu Lachance

As an architect, Matt is trained to see how individual details contribute to a cohesive final design. It’s more involved than simply adding something haphazardly. It’s making certain each element relates to the others in a pleasing way. For most of us a layout in such a space would result in a heavy-handed visually intrusive mass that looks out of place. We would think about the layout as a separate feature from the room instead of seeing it as a way to enhance the room.

Original artwork by Matthieu Lachance. Used with permission

Being clear about what he wants with operations was the key that unlocked his thinking. Finding an historic timetable for the location he’s modeling, Matt learned the train activity he found most interesting took place at the depot during the afternoon. He focused the scene there and included the relevant nearby tracks but eliminated the excess track beyond. The editing process also eliminated aspects like an engine house, that many of us wouldn’t dream of sacrificing. However, Matt easily let it go, as it didn’t interest him. He is clear on what he truly wants from this layout.

Compromise isn’t always required.
The early 20th century theme of this layout includes small rolling stock such as a 4-4-0 locomotive, thirty-foot freight cars and 50-foot passenger stock. By doing away with excess track, Matt can more faithfully model what remains. He considers the belief that short rolling stock automatically means we can use short turnouts and tighter curves to stuff in more tracks are a myth. As he outlined:

“When I asked myself if I could compress Connors, I instinctively veered toward using unrealistic #6 turnouts. Then, doing some math, it was quite evident the intended #10 turnouts did have a place even if they took 15 inches [of length] each.”

“… My small Bachmann 4-6-0 looks absolutely great on a #10 turnout. Even from a technical standpoint, small steamers do perform better on large radius turnouts. Their light and short tenders no longer randomly derail, which can be a real letdown when operating with old time locomotives.”

With the focus of the layout in hand, Matt turned to the presentation.

Original artwork by Matthieu Lachance. Used with permission.
A layout is more than the sum of its parts.
It’s one thing to have a dedicated room where the chaos and mess can be closed off but a layout in a more public space deserves careful thought. Matt is aware of the unflattering image the general public may have of our craft but realized from recent conversations with non-hobbyists that people are open to seeing this craft in a different light.

“Train sets are no longer a staple of childhood and many, due to 3D modeling and video games, are now more open to this craft. It was evident that more people admire the sophistication involved than I initially thought. If they have a good grasp of workmanship, technology or simply creative arts, they generally recognize immediately the merits of the hobby. It’s not a matter of hiding it, but rather showcasing it in a proper way that makes people appreciate this piece of art and technology.”

Reflecting on his own desires, Matt feels that having the layout close to his books and online resources is a positive thing. Being able to enjoy it on a moments notice in a comfortable space is also a plus. He understands the wisdom of separating the scene from the support structure, which allows taking a section of the layout to a workshop for the messier aspects of construction. It also provides the flexibility to switch themes via a set of new modules in the future. As for the presentation of the layout itself, here’s Matt one last time:

“I’m coming close to a vision for this project. Like a professional photographer, I framed the subject from all possible angles then worked on focus and lighting. I now feel I’m ready to shoot the final picture. I suspect this picture will be blurry, kind of impressionist, with not so well defined borders. Light will be uneven, drastically enhancing some details and leaving others in the dark. Colors and textures will play an important role too and trains will be set in such a way they are the main actor on the stage. The framing goes beyond the scenic nature of this small layout and will also imply the action itself.”

I need to disclose that Matt was inspired by some of the ideas I’ve shared from my Mill Road cameo project. We approach the craft in similar ways and have independently found the same solutions to our layout problems. That aside, it’s interesting to see how another modeler approaches the design issues we all face.

Matt is a thoughtful, intelligent designer who sees things I don’t. He is self-aware enough to think through and address the obvious and non-obvious design issues that go beyond mere track planning. His writing confirms that a different conversation is possible around layout design.

Track planning has a place to be certain, but a satisfying layout is more than track or a formula to blindly follow. We are individual modelers first and foremost, not some non-descript group lumped together under a bland adjective. Layout planning includes our experiences and personal stories among other things seldom touched on in our literature.

In closing, how many of us would let a small scene breathe rather than stuff in more track and buildings? How many would prioritize the quality of operations over the quantity? How many of us care about the presentation of a layout or how others see it? These questions and others like them are just the tip of an iceberg we’ve yet to explore. I want to extend my thanks and appreciation to Matt for sharing these excerpts from his blog. Matt’s blog and the original posts are linked below. Please check them out for yourself.


Hedley Junction Blog
Framing A Subject
How Much Layout Do You Need?


  1. Jonathan Jones

    Thanks for posting Matt’s writing on this blog and commenting on it. I’ve read the post before and it resonates with me. I am also a big fan of this blog and the idea of thoughtful layout design in general. I see so many designs that could benefit from a little bit less, or going down in scale while using the same amount of space. Thanks for posting, and keep up the great, thought-provoking work, both of you.

    Jonathan Jones, RA

  2. mike

    You’re welcome Jonathan and thanks for the kind words and encouragement.


  3. Chris Mears

    My only comment is to express the joy of seeing Matthieu’s work here. The two of you represent modern thinking toward how we consider this work beyond the realm of hobby and in a way that is deserving of artistic consideration. Gosh, I’m just so thrilled to see this post. Well done, both of you.