My thinking toward layout design has fundamentally changed. I’ve moved on from the massive lumber and plywood framework that is custom fit to a specific space. While this form offers the advantage of efficiently using space via a bespoke design, those very qualities are also its fatal flaw.
I prefer a simpler cameo format that focuses on a single thoughtfully composed scene rather than multi-town long distance running. A cameo is ideal for the type of modeling I want to do and I find beauty in the way everything is considered together as an integrated whole. The cameo is an especially good fit for quarter-inch scale, as the models are presented in a delightful manner.
As much as I like this style however, there are a few downsides. The modules can become bulky. This is both a design and construction issue. While the thin plywood I used doesn’t create a lot of weight, as more wood gets added in the form of blocking or trim, the module becomes heavier and more cumbersome to move by myself. Mill Road is manageable and the eight-foot length isn’t that great a factor, though it is the maximum size I would consider.
Is It Useful?
I’m looking for a lightweight, self-contained systems approach that includes the track, scenery and any wiring or other hardware such as switch motors. My goal is a form that I can move easily if needed, and adapt to different spaces with a minimum of down time and disruption.
As an alternative to wood, using foam sheets, as a layout support isn’t new by any means. However, people default to treating the material as a monolithic slab that puts everything on the same level. Traditional practice is to add layers above or below and carve the terrain profiles accordingly. I’ve done this many times but now I question running multiple full width sheets below the track, as this increases the amount of material and cost, and creates a very thick surface to get feeder wires through. Speaking of wiring, how do you run and secure it? On Mill Road I used a tall front fascia to create a space for wiring and other hardware. This is one solution but what if you don’t want a deep fascia or any fascia at all?
Using solid slabs of foam across the entire width adds to the cost and amount of material plus, where does the wiring go? The idea of an inverted U shaped channel for bus wires and other hardwire integrates these items into the design of module itself while reducing the overall thickness of the roadbed. Strips of quarter-inch plywood on the sides add structural strength and pads attached to the bottom of the top piece provide a mounting surface for whatever goes in there.
I made this mockup to test different ideas and materials (photos above). I created a wiring chase down the middle and lined it with strips of thin plywood both for structural strength and as a means to protect the foam and secure bus wires or whatever. This chase can be sized as needed in both width and depth. On either side of the chase, I layered the foam as usual to create a fill for the track and right of way. Using narrower width strips reduces the amount of material, yet there is plenty for the terrain profiles.
Time To Go On A Diet
What really added excess weight to Mill Road was the fiberboard sub-roadbed from the section of old layout. This fiberboard is the usual half-inch thick material, similar to Homasote but less dense. I keep using this for hand laid track in the belief that it’s more durable and stable however, there’s no getting around the fact it’s the heaviest material in the entire construction and I’d like to find an alternative.
Shawn Branstetter builds wonderful handlaid track using GatorBoard (a high quality type of foam core) for his roadbed. (Link below) Inspired by his work I looked for this product locally and of course, there wasn’t any to be found. As an experiment I soaked two pieces of foam core board in water for twenty minutes and then let them air dry overnight. I wanted to see the impact on the paper facing from a prolonged wet and dry cycle, such as bonding ballast with diluted glue. Would the paper turn to mush or come unglued; is ordinary foam core material even a viable choice in the first place?
The next morning the test pieces looked and felt okay, although the paper of the white board seemed to suffer more. It’s a coated paper of some kind and the prolonged water bath must have diluted that coating to a degree. At only 3/16 of an inch thick, this board isn’t a good choice for roadbed. The ½” thick black foam board however suffered no impact that I could see. I believe whatever is used for the black coloring might be more water resistant and the extra thickness of the core is more durable.
Encouraged by this I glued up a strip of ties to test the durability of the material for spiking and normal track laying. Happily, the results were acceptable. The ties are well bonded and the thicker foam in the core doesn’t crush under the pressure of driving spikes by hand. The acid test is bonding the ballast with the usual bath of diluted white glue and water. After letting the mess dry overnight, the ties and paper facing are still secure. I’m satisfied with these outcomes of the test.
I wanted to test the duribility of the paper facing of this foam core board. Would it hold up to the typical process for hand laid track? Happily it does. The ties are well bonded and the soaking from the diluted white glue and ballast had no negative impact I could see. There may be questions about how it handles long term use but, it looks like a promising alternative to heavier fiberboard materials.
As you see in the photos, I designed this module to fit my existing support frame or even a counter top. For those with severe space constraints, such flexibility makes a layout possible.
I designed this test section to rest on my existing support frame or a tabletop. Such flexibility enables a layout to fit a wider range of rooms and circumstances.
I want a lightweight, low impact layout that fits well in a space whether it’s set up full time or temporarily. Whatever forms the construction and materials take, I firmly believe it’s possible to beautifully integrate a layout within a room without rendering the space unusable for other purposes. I’m also discovering that I need far less layout to be satisfied, both today and in the future.
I hasten to add that I’m looking at a very specific style of layout. I’ve only started to experiment with these ideas and don’t know if such materials are practical for a larger design. For a small layout though, they seem feasible and the knowledge I’ve gained is worth the time and material costs. If we don’t follow our curiosity, how else are we to learn?