You’re not supposed to have a satisfying

quarter-inch scale layout in 48 square feet.


Fortunately, I didn’t get that memo.

We in the US have been thoroughly conditioned to believe that anything less than a full basement for a layout is just too terrible a burden to bear. The mantra goes: “Gimme space, I need running room.” And we’re on our way down the well-beaten path.

Our Brains Are in Lockdown
From the first evaluation of a new site, our brains are in lockdown mode from the layout design legacy that says: “This is how you do it.” The process starts with one of the following questions:

What’s the biggest curve radius I can use?
How much track can I fit in here?

Both questions reduce our thinking to an exercise of fitting five quarts of matter into three quarts or less of volume and space. For all of us, including me, it’s a well-worn path. The volume of track desired leads to gross compromises in curve radius, that leads to compromises in the turnout sizes; which impacts the quality of operation and scenery, which detracts from my overall enjoyment, which…well, you get the point. Raise your hand if any of this is too familiar.

There’s a term from mathematics for this called path dependance*. Path dependance is the way we lean on what worked in the past, and believing that it will always work in the future.

Rinse, repeat.
In layout design we follow path dependance by defining the problem in the same way and by looking to the same sources for answers. We analyze those answers in the same way and turn to the same places for help when we’re stuck. Hence we arrive at the same solutions.

Small Places With Big Constraints Call For A Different Mindset
When faced with constraints, especially ones we consider severe, we go through different stages of thought and feelings. The first is a victim mentality. “Oh woe is me. I only have this tiny, minuscule little space for a layout. I’d rather leave the hobby than put up with this injustice!” People remain stuck in victim mode because they can’t deal with the new reality from their well entrenched ways of thinking. (Help me design my layout PLEASE!!!!!!)

The second is a transition stage. “Well maybe this could work, if I compromised on XYZ.” In this stage, we think we are attacking the problem, but are we? More often than not, the answer is no. Here we are trying to fit old solutions onto a different situation. Perhaps the outcome will work or maybe it won’t. In our example of a small space, we resort to tighter curves and shorter turnouts, compressed scenes that look more like DIsneyland than the real world, and employ whatever compromises are required to stuff it all in.

We are still path dependent but we’ll just tweak things as needed, live with the consequences and call it done. Okay, it ain’t perfect but what the hey. In transition stage, our thinking is still closed when it should be open.

The third stage is a transformation. We realize the old ways aren’t applicable in this situation and we begin to see and define the real problem and challenge our old assumptions. Instead of reducing the curve radius, we might ask if curves are even necessary for what I want to do? In this stage, we’ve let go of our path dependance and opened our minds to new solutions we couldn’t see before.

A Different Frame
As I continue to educate myself about design principles, I’ve learned about the power of framing questions properly, which is an underdeveloped skill in this hobby. With the prevalent emphasis on building as big a layout as possible, constraints of any kind are seen from a negative frame of reference that focuses on what one doesn’t have. Such physical constraints aren’t the real problem. The biggest impediment is our own mindset. We need to relentlessly understand where our thinking is closed before we can open it up.

A profound area of closed thinking is that we can apply layout design principles unilaterally. Since much of the layout design literature in North America is geared to HO and N scales, these paradigms cloud our thinking for S or larger scales. In these scales, problems compound at exponential rates because one has to consider volume as well as length and width. This is a trap that catches us all and it takes work to free yourself from it. Each scale has strengths and weaknesses that are unique and it’s important to understand what they are and design accordingly.

Another area of closed thinking centers on how we define the term layout. Regardless of overall size, we default to thinking in terms of multiple towns or other action centers (industries) with as much running space in between as possible. This path dependent definition more than any other is the source of the many gross compromises that characterize this hobby.

To challenge both conventions and the myriad others, requires a different set of questions and new frames of reference. One has to look beyond the conventional sources for understanding. This is why I present ideas from the art and design disciplines and other non-railroad examples of modeling. They allow us to see with fresh eyes.

What Is Abundant?
With only a small space to build in, how could we redefine abundance? If we can’t have as much layout as we think we want, then what else becomes abundant? How would the conversation change if we asked what am I willing to sacrifice in order that I may commit fully to something more meaningful?

If physical space is a limiting constraint, then the opportunity to truly focus becomes an abundant resource. I was happy to sacrifice a longer run in order to focus on a single location. I could have extended the length of run, but the insipid curve radius compromises required in quarter-inch scale were not worth it. I chose to focus on creating a scene that conveyed a sense of place rather than a model railroad. I didn’t start out with such clarity but achieved it over time, as I’ve shared on this blog previously.

A lack of physical space for a layout also changes our relationship with time in a positive way. With a tighter focus, we have more time to go deeper in modeling. Rather than have our resources scattered across many square feet of layout, we can indulge ourselves and learn the craft in ways not possible with an all consuming larger project.

In many ways, the design of a small layout reduces or eliminates the severity of the typical compromises because there simply isn’t room for them. It is the same principle of placing a large piece of furniture in a small room. It seems counterintuitive at first but it is quite easy to pull off, if (and this is the key), you don’t overcrowd the room with other items.

Let the large piece be the focal point of the room and accessorize it accordingly then stop. On a small layout, the same principle of restraint applies. Let one item become the focal point and resist the urge to stuff in competing elements. Less truly does become more.


*Credit where credit is due. Much of this post was inspired by the book A Beautiful Constraint -How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden. It’s a business book that has nothing to do with railroad modeling but I saw the applications to our craft.


  1. downeast

    I have far more than the 48 square feet mentioned, but the very real constraints still exist. This time around I am limited by some allotted space in my daughter’s basement. It’s what I have and I am determined to make the best of it. The mind set here is that this is probably the last railroad I will build, as one of my constraints is age. There are several decisions I have made in order to make the effort fresh and new. I have chosen to do some new things in order to provide a satisfying challenge. I have chosen to model a specific prototype and to do it as close to scale as possible. I also refuse to use the term ‘layout’, rather I think and refer to my work as building a railroad. To model in 1:48 is also a given. After a lifetime in O Scale, I don’t do well in even thinking in another scale, let alone have the proper parts and materials to match. That sets the stage for putting forward a best effort in what I am already comfortable with.
    I will not go into my philosophy deeply here, because that’s why I chose to record my thoughts and effort details via a blog. I will, however, say that many compromises are necessary in order to fully capture the essence of the prototype. This means that I have reduced a 16 mile long branch line into four signature scenes with almost no running room to spare. As a result one scene had to be reversed in an operational sense to make it work for my version, while another scene has an awkward siding to capture the overall effect.
    Am I satisfied ‘ruining’ the original in this way? Absolutely, because it allows me to model a little known branch that I have always been intrigued with.
    Where much of the satisfaction has come from so far is doing the research which has opened up so much more of what I never knew or suspected. The research itself has spanned five years and has more than breathed life into the project, it has invigorated it. I have never experienced so much pure enjoyment in modeling as I do today. My blog is known as the Eastport Branch and can be found at ;
    Best regards,

  2. mike

    Hi Ben,
    We each bring a unique vision to this craft. That’s a core message behind my writing, one that sometimes gets lost in the other rhetoric. I emphasize it so often because I strongly believe in the power that comes to the individual once they understand it.

    I’m well aware of your thoughtful blog as we share many of the same readers.


  3. Simon

    Terrible joke coming up, I warn you, but it illustrates, I think, the loop in which so many are trapped. Here goes.

    Did you hear about the computer programmer who got stuck in the shower, washing his hair?
    On the shampoo bottle it said,
    “Instructions for use: Wet hair, lather, rinse, repeat.”


  4. Chris Mears

    Simon, glad to see we may share an unfortunately similar brand of humour. I’ll be laughing at that one for some time now.


  5. bagustaf


    Thanks as always for promoting thought. My tenure in the hobby goes back to the 1960’s when I read about Bob Browns Finescale dioramas. My interest has always been in O scale and I built two 2 foot by 8 foot dioramas with hand laid code 100 rail in On3 inspired by his work. I have had to move four times in forty years and that diorama continues to be the basis for my “layout” to this day. The basic design is two feet wide and sixteen feet long with a total of five turnouts. I agree with and support you philosophy regarding concept, design and practice. Space does not need to restrict but can enable very constructive model building.

    Lee Gustafson

  6. mike

    Thank you Lee. -Mike

  7. CVSNE

    Interesting post, as always.
    Although my current layout is HO and certainly not “small” it’s been an interesting long-term project – at times fulfilling, at others frustrating.
    Your post is particularly poignant since my wife and I have spent some time discussing “What’s next?” and questions like “Where and when will we retire?” and “What do we really want to do in retirement?” are getting asked more and more frequently.
    We all know some model railroaders who approach retirement as a chance to finally build the “big one.”
    My thoughts at this point are leaning more and more towards a smaller, more focused project that will allow time for other interests. I don’t see the logic in replacing one job (working) with another equally time-consuming activity (building a massive layout).
    This is, of course, completely foreign to those model railroaders who can’t figure out why I didn’t fill the entire basement with my current layout.

  8. mike

    I agree Marty. The older I get, the simpler I prefer things to be.

    And folks, here’s my gentle but truly annoying reminder to sign your comments.