Mood in the trees near Mill St.

What makes a freedom layout? Lots of folks would prefer clear rules and guidelines so they know they’re doing it right. It would be simple to codify the concept by publishing The Ten Rules For Building a Freedom Layout and saying it’s a layout of a certain size and operating format in this or that scale.

I have no intention of doing that. I’m well aware that if the concept spreads, others will want to put their own opinion and interpretation onto it and there’s not much I can do to stop that. However, laying down a bunch of rules and regulations about what is and isn’t a freedom layout is an insult to your intelligence and a disservice to your hobby enjoyment as well. We already have enough rules and self-appointed hobby police to enforce them.

In the simplest terms, the concept behind a freedom layout really refers to a state of mind more than the physical layout. My published definition that it’s a layout big enough to be challenging but no bigger, one that fits in to my life with out taking over my life, speaks about the qualities of a layout in place of the specifics of design, operations or scale.

As an example, what makes the Indiana and Whitewater a freedom layout for me? The foremost aspect is that it satisfies my desires for this stage of my hobby practice. It is smaller than most layouts, especially for one built in quarter-inch to the foot scale. The size of it is only relevant because my criteria for a layout changed from wanting a large basement filling effort to preferring one smaller in size and scope.

It’s also a freedom layout in terms of the amount of detail I included. This is related to the scope of the scene I chose, and secondarily, the modeling scale. The single most important criteria I wanted for this layout was a focus on modeling the track to a very high level of detail and realism. My focus on a single scene of modest proportions made this more achievable. I let the track speak more clearly as a model by limiting the amount of it. Yes, the smaller layout size and larger modeling scale limited what I could include, but that proved beneficial instead of restrictive. If I had attempted this on the typical large layout, it would have become an overwhelming and dreary task. The urge to take shortcuts, compromise quality and suffer burnout on one aspect of construction would have taken much of the joy away. In this case, it proved to be just the right amount of work. Enough to keep interest up without burning out over the thought I would never be done driving spikes. It freed me to enjoy the work instead of seeing it as work. When I finished the task, I felt the most satisfying sense of accomplishment I’ve ever experienced.

In sum, you have a freedom layout when you have looked closely at what you really want from this hobby and made choices based on the answers you found as a result. If you can look at your unfinished layout without feeling any unpleasant, nagging pressure or guilt about finishing it in your lifetime, you have a freedom layout. If you’d like to learn more about the I&W grab, a copy of Pieces of The Puzzle. They’re going fast with fewer than fifty copies left.



  1. Matt


    Being one of those folks that worked for a year (if not more) on a double deck narrow gauge plan, I can say that freedom layouts are much more fun! I look at Trevor Marshall’s latest layout and realize that his medium size layout is just right. Very relaxed operations and time to enjoy the many aspects of model railroading.


  2. mike

    There is something to be said for smaller projects that won’t consume every spare moment and resource you have. Thanks for commenting.


  3. willbacker45

    great points here! while i want to build a small empire its just not doable at this point in life. My freedom layout has freed me to have fun! thank you!

  4. mike

    Thank you Will. Glad you’re enjoying the hobby your way.


  5. harmsway

    My wife set me free.

    Some years ago my wife suggested placing a loop of trains along our ceiling. We have a valance in our living room that was ideal for this. I dismissed it because it would be much less then my dream empire. A few months ago when she mentioned it again I was all over it. Once I began and to my surprise there is a lot more space up there than I imagined. Today I have a finished operating layout with two sidings. This has brought me great satisfaction and happiness. Yes it is very simple but boy I feel free.

    Gene Harm

  6. mike

    Hi Gene,

    I’d hang on to her. She sounds like a keeper.