How many potentially fine layouts will never be built because the modeler is convinced he or she doesn’t have enough space to do something worthwhile?

In the United States, we want to model every aspect of a railroad’s operations: end-to-end if possible or at least from one yard to the next. Reasons for this global view range from the reported satisfaction of starting and ending a run as full-size crews do, to the camaraderie of operating with a group of friends, all the way to fitting in with the crowd. (Dude, this is how you do model trains.)

A large basement-filling layout represents the ultimate dream of many people and with drive and determination they do get built, often to high standards. However, not everyone has the time, resources, space or desire for such an involved and admittedly, long-term project. But we treat this global perspective as if it’s the only choice worth making. We’re subtly and not so subtly influenced to believe that a small layout or single scene is something you settle for when all else fails. “This is my little chainsaw compromise. I’m not putting a lot of work into it because I’ll trash it as soon as I have the space to model for real.”

The criticism against a small layout goes: “You build it, run a train back and forth a few times and then what? Boredom.” Or: “Yeah I could just build a nice single scene but I still need the same amount of staging to hold all the traffic, so why not build the whole thing?” At least that’s the message offered by those who do indeed find small layouts boring. However, if the global view of railroading is the be-all and end-all, where does that leave people who only have a modest space to work with? Trying to fit an end-to-end design into an 8-foot square spare bedroom is an exercise in frustration. There is only so much you can include before the visual compromises get ridiculous.

What we’re really talking about is a matter of taste not size but could we also be talking about perceived limitations? A small layout can be satisfying if, and this is an important if, it fits your needs and desires for the craft.

I’m a fan of small layouts for what they enable me to do. The smaller form lets me focus on the aspects I find most satisfying without feeling that I’ll never make the progress I want because the project is so big. Like many, I don’t have unlimited amounts of time to dedicate to the craft and a small layout lets me practice and enjoy the work on my terms in the time I do have.

We might appreciate this craft more if we stopped thinking that the only work worthy of our best efforts involves a decades long commitment to a single overwhelming project. Instead, we might find enjoyment in discovering what we can do right now with the resources we have and isn’t that the kind of fun a hobby is supposed to provide?



  1. friesonmyburger

    So much truth here. Many times over the past several years I’ve undertook layouts that were always out of my league in terms of TEMS (Time, Energy, Money or Space). And I’m not even talking large layouts. They were quite modest really, but still exceeded the parameters that I had to work within in one way or another. Serious compromises to my visions were always made, which sucked the wind out of my sails and most projects barely got past track laying. If that far.

    So where am I now? Recreating a local prototype flour mill in N-Scale. With virtually no compression It fits into a 2′ x 4′ footprint and requires only a handful of grain cars to operate. With such a narrow focus I can lock-in without distraction and actually accomplish things that I haven’t done in my 20 years of being in this hobby, most of which have been spent as a modeller of the armchair variety.


  2. mike

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for commenting. It’s wonderful that you found a way that works for you and it sounds like you’re enjoying it immensely.


  3. Simon

    The late John Allison built a series of simple layouts in N, 0 and H0 scales. I remember reading about his first 0 gage layout, which was very simple. A lot of people had asked if he didn’t get bored with it, but he found it to be quite the contrary: with a simple layout, he could concentrate on the quality of operation. This requires care in construction at every stage: framework, road bed, track, ballast and scenery, and of course, the mechanical sided things. This is no sinecure, and not for everyone, but making a model move as if it really was 50 tons of metal being pushed around by an even heavier engine is a satisfying achievement.


  4. mike

    Hi Simon,

    The quality of operations can prove very satisfying. I deeply enjoy watching a well tuned locomotive perform like its full-size counterpart.


  5. Chris Mears

    Superb post.

    I couldn’t agree more with the satisfaction of watching a well made engine lumbering through a scene.

    No matter how large the layout or how complex it is. No matter how accurately it depicts the railroad it represents it can still only be related to on a singular level: one operator paying attention to one train performing one function at a time. In describing the work, we talk a lot about creating something you can immerse yourself in but then create something so overwhelming that it can hard to even want to spend any time with.

    It’s not about less. I think it’s about having more to invest in to have, take pride in, and enjoy. About making a conscious decision to engineer that satisfaction right from the start.

    Again: great post.

    Thank you,