08/05/2013* My thanks to Glenn Sanders for his help in restoring the text of the missing entry from last week.

You thought I was going to say traveled didn’t you?

A few days ago I received a thoughtful email from a reader in Australia. He wanted to say
thanks for the ideas expressed in Volumes 1-2 of The Missing Conversation. He shared the
frustration he’d experienced over the last three years or so in trying to plan a layout for a
modest spare bedroom. He told of how he had tried all of the accepted layout planning
methods: givens and druthers, planning squares, LDEs and that none of these methods,
useful as they might be, were helpful in producing an acceptable outcome for his situation.
Needless to say he was frustrated. In time, he understood why; he was trying to follow
someone else’s path and ideas instead of listening to what his gut was telling him.

A 10′ x10′ spare bedroom doesn’t leave a lot of space for a layout in any scale. In such a
modest space it’s easy to overcrowd things to the point of excess and caricature. My
Australian friend was stumbling because he was trying to design a layout and operating
scenario that was far too large and complicated for his space.
He had his epiphany when he started paying attention to the qualities that attract him to
full-size railroads. He also gave himself permission to ignore the design conventions of
traditional layouts and operations because he simply doesn’t have the space for them. He
decided to focus on what many would consider a highly intangible quality about his chosen
prototype: the “mechanical presence” of an Australian Outback diesel. This understanding
led him to a suitable prototype location with the features he was looking for. The layout
design he came up with is a much better fit for his space and allows for the full expression
of that intangible mechanical presence. He’s now happy and satisfied with his choices. That’s
all any of us can reasonably hope for from the hobby.

As a writer it’s very gratifying to learn your work has had a positive impact like this.
Though I can’t take credit for his successful outcome. He did all the hard work and made the
choices himself.


If I can’t see it , it don’t exist.
I write a lot about the intangibles of full-size railroading. Things like atmosphere, texture,
mood and storytelling. Maybe some readers are sick of it and just wish I’d move on to
something more useful. I’m here to say, however, that those intangible qualities that we all
have a hard time articulating are what separates one layout from the dozens of cookiecutter,
look-alike efforts out there. I’ve cited my favorite examples of this many times and I
won’t embarrass those folks again.

We’ve become so focused on the tangible stuff: the locos, the cars, track designs and such,
that we think that’s all the hobby consists of. For most it is. The tangibles are real. You can
touch them, see, hear and interact with them to your heart’s content. In sum, we give them
value because of their physical nature. All this artsy intangible stuff? Ahhhh….I dunno (read,
“and I don’t care”).

Okay. Fair enough. Might we agree though that a model locomotive that moves with a silky
smoothness that conveys the ponderous mass of the real thing has value too? Isn’t that
impression of mass conveyed by the smooth motion a pretty intangible quality and far more
preferable to one that rockets off like a bat out of hell every time you touch the throttle? I
think so and I know which one I’d choose.

Furthermore, why do we add sound effects to a model, or background sound even? That
plastic air horn isn’t really blowing, nor the bell ringing, or birds singing, so why bother?
What purpose does it serve to make a hunk of plastic look old and rusty? Oh right, they all
add something intangible like an increased sense of presence, realism and life.
Whether we can articulate it or not, doesn’t the meaning of those intangible qualities have
value as well? My answer is absolutely yes. However, you’ll have to decide that for



  1. mike

    **Glenn also provided the texts of the comments. Here is Simon Dunkley’s initial comment:

    Nice post, Mike.
    I think the concept and value of “intangible qualities” can extend to include fine detail.

    To many modellers, there is a line beyond which they will simply not bother, often
    expressed in terms of the “3 foot rule”, i.e. if it is not discernible at a distance of 3
    feet, then don’t bother including it. Applied to scenics, this suggests that we should simply paint some plaster a yellowy green, and call it grass, yet we all know how
    good “static” grass can look, and how much subconscious impact this can have on the observer. It also ignores that fact that I could see more detail at 3 feet than I can now that I approach 50. The key issue here is not detail, per se, but texture: texture comes from catching the light.

    For example, a very well-known modelling friend told me that he was considering not adding the impression of rivets to his wagons, merely to suggest them with a shadow.

    I asked him how he was going to show the “lack” of shadow at the top of the rivet,
    and the gradual increase in as the shadow underneath. I asked as I assumed he had solved this, and had come up with a solution. His response was that he hadn’t thought about it like that, but that adding “rivets” would be less effort than coming up with an effective paint scheme, and that in any case, a painted effect would be fine on a fixed, two-dimensional canvass, but problematical on an item of stock rolling across a layout. We concluded that by adding the texture, we could let the lighting do the rest, and that the actual method of creating an impression of rivet heads (gluing mouldings in place, cutting and gluing small sections of rod, blobs of white glue, is simple embossing from the rear) was secondary to the effect. At normal viewing distances, you can’t actually see the “rivets”, but they do catch the light and you know they are there.

    However, I do not advocate that every single bar, bolt and clevis of brake-gear be
    included, but that a decent representation of it be made. Until a friend told me, I had not noticed that the sand-box operating linkage on his locos was made from a single piece of wire.

    On an operating layout, I had noticed that there was a linkage. His reasoning was simple. He doubted his ability to consistently make up a series of fine connecting bars, pivots and joints from separate components that would also stand the rigours of a layout taken to exhibitions up to 12 times a year, but he would notice the complete absence. What he did do, however, was to exercise care in bending the wire, so that it looked right. It also took him just a few minutes, but added
    immeasurably (and intangibly) to the feel of authenticity.

    Detail is tangible, perhaps, and texture is intangible?

    Just my thoughts – how far one goes is a personal decision, but to return to the
    starting point, static grass can be applied fairly quickly, so it is worth the effort.

  2. mike

    **Here is Glenn’s own comment:

    Hello Mike and thanks for the post
    I have been anticipating your weekly update and was surprised that my situation was a topic in of itself. You have captured the essence of my thinking in your description of the intangible elements. It hasn’t been that long since my epiphany but I have found my ideas coming together quickly, and more importantly, cohesively in relation to what is important – to me anyway!

    As an example of this intangible mechanical presence I alluded to in my email:
    I come up with (most likely stole) an idea of a removable sector plate that attaches to the end of the planned L shaped layout that would pass through an open door into the hallway to make use of wasted space when operating. In reality it’s just a large multi-track cassette for staging. Yet I need a scenic divider to draw attention away from this visible staging. And like all good plans the prototype has an ore hopper discharge facility in the right location. This small shed is on one of two parallel tracks that quickly merge to a single line that leads around the corner to a two track yard on the other arm of the L shaped layout.

    Sacrilege! – you can’t prototypically ‘operate’ a unit ore train of 100+ hoppers in 10′ x 10′. Strictly correct, but in Mike’s words I am after the intangible effect it provides.

    From staging an inbound loaded ore train with two to three locos on the head will
    appear through the discharge facility at the beginning of the layout and stop when the last loco clears the shed and the first hopper is ready to discharge. It may have only several hoppers behind it but the effect is the same. The train has entered the scene.

    It is a dirty, noisy, mainline modern diesel consist, with a little brake squeal on
    arrival and the occasional pop of the air valve, it awaits unloading. At this stage I
    have used less than 3′ of layout for this train and its hoppers are mostly still on the cassette. The train will wait here while it undergoes a crew change from the nearby crew vehicle (it has after-all traveled 1000′s of kilometres through central Australia to be here – more story). There is no rush and the train will continue to idle, besides it can’t go any further as the turnout just in front is locked as the yard is due to be switched soon. It may even use its marker lights to indicate the adjacent track is free and its track is occupied through red and white lights on alternating sides of the lead loco – nice photo op and some more story.

    From staging, the switching train will arrive and pass the stationary ore train locos to complete its switching moves at the other end of the layout. This train is the only ‘operating’ aspect of the layout. At the completion of the switching the train returns to staging, again passing the still idling ore train with a wave or a toot of the horn.

    Operations are complete … but are they?
    The new crew on the ore train have applied handbrakes to the ore train (or another
    locomotive has attached to the rear to provide air and braking) allowing the head end units to uncouple move forward onto the yard lead and reverse back to staging to undergo servicing and/or refuel. Another locomotive will handle the unloading process in due course. Now the session has ended.

    The end result is a large mainline train idling for the entire op session in the
    background. It’s sole purpose is to provide the intagible Mike has discussed. It gives texture, sound, a story and the mechanical presence I am seeking. Further it adds some additional events to the small layout with an impressive entrance and a departure to open and close the operating session and effectively two train meets with the switcher. It has also justified a scenic divider to detract from the visible staging immediately behind. And all in about 3′ of space! I envisage this could add AT LEAST 5 minutes of operating time over and above the ‘main attraction’ switching.

    Mike you have again put into words the epiphany I had when reading your work and the thought processes arising. I hope others can see the benefit of changing the traditional focus to one that speaks to them.


  3. mike

    **And lastly, Simon’s response to Glenn:

    The end result is a large mainline train idling for the entire op session in the
    background. It’s sole purpose is to provide the intagible Mike has discussed.
    Wow: Aural ambiance!


    My thanks to Glenn for providing this backup text. International cooperation as it supposed to be!!

  4. SpoorwegNL


    The idea that some hobbyists have; of the 100 car ore train and multiple diesel locomotives, is an idea that drives the layout planning process for many. I do believe that many following your blog are reeled in by incredible detail and accuracy, with some liking the small shortline atmosphere.

    I have been a Class One prototype modeler, though I have taken the branch line operations of said Class One. Approximately a year ago, I decided to back date to 1958 and change prototype. My decisions brought on the layout planning rush that always follows the Good Idea Fairy.

    In my experience, I had a layout in a smaller scale, with some of the benchwork being used for O Scale trackage in my early 1/48th modeling. Eventually, problems with inconsistent track standards in standard O Scale brought me to Proto:48 track standards.

    This was a benefit and a curse, as I was able to lay ready made switches and flex track in an effort to fit the benchwork. This was a benefit, in that aisle space and benchwork depth remain the same for any scale. Too much of one lessens the other, with dire consequences later.

    My original layout was being built to fill a basement. Years, work and children see much of that space used for other purposes. The more recent layout dream sessions saw many ideas written down and sketched out on a drawing tablet. Always have a sketch pad handy- it will bring back a good laugh when you look back months or years later. It is also part of the learning curve. That pencil can curve track into a radius no locomotive can ever track.

    What I see today is a layout that has been planned to fill half the basement, eventually expanding into the entire basement. Fill is a generous word, as I limit my layout benchwork to what will actually benefit the operation of the railroad. No eight foot deep scenes planned or needed. Shelf style construction will make the layout space more comfortable, as the hobby is meant to be enjoyable.

    The other glaring aspect is I realize I can build a section of the “Big Layout” and generate enough operation to keep me interested. The ends can be expanded with a “main line” track to be used as staging. Eventual expansion to additional towns can be accomplished when time and resources allow. Allow – you can’t wave a magic wand and make more time, unless you take it from some other activity (employment, family, home upkeep, other interests). Resources – Planning a basement empire sounds great, until you start pricing all the materials required, which includes more than the DCC ready locomotive(s).

    The lead discussion mentions a 10 foot by 10 foot room to build a layout.

    Consideration could be applied to dreaming of that basement empire. Construction may be a chunk or portion of that empire. What section of that empire can be built into a 10 X 10 room? Building this “chunk” can yield great rewards, as it puts the builder on the path to developing their dream. It will also prevent the modeler from getting frustrated by biting off more than they can chew and digest.

    My layout construction today? The basement empire plan still exists, but only one quarter of the basement is being filled. A room. As the resources and time become available, it will be expanded. The near future will be happier, as I will be able to accomplish something more than just obtaining kits to fill storage shelves.

    Nice articles and I look forward to reading more.

    Thank you,


  5. mike

    Welcome Joe,

    I give the impression on this blog that I’m dead set against large layouts. That’s only true in part. While I’m no longer going that route as a personal choice, that doesn’t mean that it’s a wrong choice for everyone. Far from it. All I want to convey is that one enter into such a project with eyes wide open, understanding that there will be numerous compromises required.

    I’m no longer willing to make such compromises, as I discovered and analyzed what was truly important to me about the hobby. I’m a detail person. This stems from my artistic background and personality. If I can see it, I want to try and model it, whether it’s practical or not. This is my idea of fun. Clearly, others will disagree and that’s fine.

    This is my only message here. I don’t want to impose my will on people in the hobby, only a fool would try that. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned about myself and what model railroading has brought to my life. Hopefully, others have found some value in it.

    I’m all for having fun with the understanding that “fun” has numerous definitions. What really makes my blood boil are those who insist on one and only one definition for all, whether they be individuals or publications.

    I’m glad to learn about your journey and thought process. It’s true, one may incorporate a small section into a larger project when time and resources allow. Lot’s of folks find real satisfaction that way. I question though, the reluctance on the part of many who simply can’t see a smaller project as an end in itself. I think Glenn will be happy with his choices, only time will tell. I hope he continues to share his progress with us, so we can learn from his experiences too.

    Sorry to have taken so long in responding.