If you had a blank slate to begin again in the craft, would you change anything? Would you switch scales, stick with the same theme, explore a different one or, do nothing different at all?

In my No More Troubles With The Curve post from last Wednesday, I outlined the changes I made to the layout, touching on how they are driven by my changing criteria for modeling. I wanted to explore this idea in that post but it was getting long, so I held off until now.

It truly is a journey
My interests are not what they were twenty years ago when I returned to the craft. The recent changes reflect a maturity that I didn’t have then. I’ve been active in this craft for a number of years now and have done most of the things I thought I wanted to do with it, though there are still  avenues I would enjoy exploring and pushing my own ideas of what a layout can be is one of them.

I’m really drawn to the idea of a self-contained module or shadow box with a bit of staging on one end. This is a common practice in the UK but has not yet caught on here. Long-time reader Herb “Matt” Mathews is experimenting with a series of self-contained modules that feature an interesting construction, inspired by the design of fellow modeler Marshall Stull. Their work is intriguing.

Size is not the only criteria
I’m very aware of the arguments and the bias against smaller layouts. Truthfully, discussions about the merits of compact layouts are simply preaching to the choir. When the word “small” is heard, people’s thoughts automatically center on what is going to be lost rather than what one might gain. For others, a small layout is just uninteresting. What I personally find so compelling is the discipline required to effectively design one. You have to be disciplined in your choices and expectations and not everyone is willing to do that or understands how to exercise such restraint. I think it’s better to frame the conversation around thoughtfully considered and well crafted design principles rather than square footage.

Everyone can have quality
What many of us really want is a layout that truly satisfies our vision. This is a quality in which the actual square footage involved is irrelevant. I call it a Freedom Layout, Trevor Marshall uses the term Acheivable Layouts and there are others. You can certainly have a room or basement size layout of very high quality but it will cost you significantly in terms of expense, time and effort in proportion to the square footage involved. In my own situation, I’ve always preferred to have a higher quality of modeling in place of a more extensive layout. My route to a satisfying layout has been to eliminate the compromises that assumed or seldom used features usually require, such as the toy train character of my curve. I’ve also learned the importance of other principles like focus, breathing room and managing my expectations for the features I do include. All of these ideas represent a relaxed approach to the craft that has brought me to a satisfying place. Still, there are other design ideas I’d like to explore.

I’ve never been happy with the lighting of my layouts over the years. When you really think about it, realistically lighting a room-sized layout is a huge effort that requires multiple fixtures, dedicated circuits and other expensive factors. Properly lighting a small object like a model is an art form in its own right that few of us understand well.

The shadows on the backdrop destroy any sense of depth in this scene.

The building shadows on the backdrop detract from the impact of this scene.

Like most modelers I defaulted to ceiling mounted fluorescent shop lights that bathe everything in a boring light that does nothing to enhance the work I put so much effort into. These proved noisy and poorly placed, so I built a separate lighting array and valance that cast more light on the front of the layout instead of coming directly from above. This was better but maybe it’s the impact of aging eyes or changing tastes, because I now prefer more intense light.

Lighting commands our attention
In his comments on a recent post, reader Simon Dunkley offered an analogy from the theater of the lights dimming at the end of a scene. I think that would be an interesting way to actually end an operating session. With the ever growing number of options (including dimmable) now available for LEDs, poor lighting can be a thing of the past.

If I were to begin again, a design idea I want to explore is integrating the lighting into the layout itself and the first thing I would do would be to light the backdrop from both the top and bottom to eliminate any shadows from three dimensional objects in front of it. Eliminating the shadows on the sky will vastly improve the quality and depth of any scene. I’ve pondered ways to do this on the current layout but, it would be difficult at best, with the reason being the layout is not designed with such lighting in mind. A truly effective solution needs to be built in from the start and, I don’t know if I want to put that much effort into remodeling the I&W at this time.

I’ve touched on this subject before and by presentation, I’m referring to the entirety of what one sees, from the actual modeling and how the layout itself is introduced and presented.

I have seen examples of exhibition layouts that would rival any museum display in their interpretation, signage and lighting. (I particularly enjoy this one.) I find this style of modeling very intriguing, because it speaks to the artistry and craft that I enjoy. I also think there is a wonderful opportunity in layout presentation to help the public understand our craft beyond the stereotype of toy trains. I’m thinking of ways to help people understand the craft, both in general terms and specifically with our layout. However, this topic is a post in its own right.

So where is all this going?
At 2 x 24 feet the I&W is considered small by quarter-inch scale standards and it’s given good service over the years. Consisting of three eight foot long sections tied together into a single unit, it isn’t going anywhere without considerable and destructive effort. I’m not getting any younger and I don’t want to saddle Susan or our children with the disposal of this big thing in the basement, so why not plan for that day and dispose of the layout on my terms?

In my eyes a self-contained layout would be easier to dispose of. Perhaps someone could make use of it as is, salvage the material from it, or strip it down to the base and start fresh. In any case, compared to hauling multiple loads of lumber and styrofoam to the landfill, it would be far simpler to load up a shadow box or two in the back of a pickup and call it done. (Oh and did I neglect to mention the disposal fees?)

I don’t know when the end of the current I&W will come. Maybe soon, maybe not. Will I replace it? I don’t know that either. Probably, but who knows? Things change over time and, it’s wise to change with them. I still look forward to many years of active modeling but the direction the modeling will take is certainly changing. My time in the craft now is truly focused on bringing a higher level of overall quality to the modeling. I see that path as moving toward more modest efforts, while others will choose a different direction. For each the final criteria should be is it expressing my vision in a satisfying manner?

All due credit goes to work and writing of residential architect Sarah Susanka for inspiring many of the ideas about the power of design presented in this post.



  1. Simon

    Hi Mike,

    If you have access to Model Railway Journal issue 46, you will find an article by Dave Rowe about his Spanish layout, which had controlled lighting. Back in 1991, that issue, and the layout wasn’t new then!

    Personally, what would I change? A slight change in thinking, maybe, to establish “projects” rather than ideas of a slowly evolving theme, but nothing else. I sometimes wish I had made more models, and made fewer mistakes (some of them, at least – the stupid ones). But generally, the journey has been enlightening. I hope it remains so.


  2. Matt

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for mentioning the “C” module. It has been a process within the process of presenting a theme to an operator, usually my son and I. The advantages are nice, and the few disadvantages are, at least in my mind, challenges for a craftsman to overcome.

    I agree, the word “small” is a misnomer. It is a mindset, they are not small layouts, but sustainable and achievable. The difficulty of telling a story in an area that is defined in an initial step is like writing a one act play or the artist choosing a smaller canvas. One must define what you want to accomplish, what skills do you have, what new one must be learned, and of course scale, and for me gauge (18″ through 56 1/2″). It makes you include planning, layout construction, lighting, weight, even supporting the layout in the initial phase. Even the scenery and what part of the story you tell is part of the initial plan. The same skills as a large layout, just boiled down to a more intimate size. In building an achievable layout one uses all the same skills as one would in a large. The benefit is that the level of good enough is extremely high and each success drives one to go beyond the next time.

    What would I do if I started over, well what I am doing now. Attempting to build a sustainable layout, one that pushes my skill level, and gives me satisfaction with the end product. I wish I would have switched long ago, this approach is much more challenging and the end results have been rewarding beyond what I could have asked.


  3. mike


    Sometimes the best gift we receive is the knowledge we’ve hit the sweet spot with what we’re doing.


  4. mike

    Hi Matt,

    Maybe the term is a “just right” layout. Not too small and not too big, but just right for our needs.


  5. Aultsville Lad

    I would say we are at the end of the “super size” era which has not only added to the waste of the waist but also driven the thinking in layout design. If you drift back through early issues of the model press to a time when 4 X 8 was the norm and painted plaster was considered detailed scenery it is easy to understand why the hobby took the path to grand layout design and, of course the advent of electronics that allow us to move with the trains fortified this thinking. Perhaps the biggest factor in this new age is the cost of the elements needed to present and contribute to the end goal of a layout. I was, until recently, more of a buyer of consumables and not a creator of models but, with the move to P-48, I see the general lacking that the large accumulation of boxes now represents. My thoughts of selling off this horde has slowly evolved to the point where I am ready to cast most of it to the cyber selling god at a poor rate of return. This would now be “change” number one. The second change is to further explore and use skills that will generate elements more representative of my goals.
    The layout that is presently on the build is small at 40′ X 3′ of which I am building half. For Mark, who is building the other half and is new to O, when we first contemplated this size he envisioned a grand plan with a complex, track filled design. Then came the reality check, #10 switches and many head scratching attempts with track planning software soon showed that this would indeed be a simple “small” layout. My half will, with staging at both ends, will become a very satisfying entity unto its own and will provide hours of pleasurable running.
    Mike, as always your thoughts have aided in opening my eyes to what matters most, thank you.

  6. mike

    Hi Dave,

    I agree there are signs that tastes are changing but I’m not going to pronounce the end of anything. The size of a layout will always be a matter of choice and there will always be those who have the drive and resources to tackle such projects. I do tend to think that the mammoth layouts we are treated to in magazines are not as common as we’ve been lead to believe. As you pointed out, most of us have limited resources of time and discretionary funds and likely have a modest sized layout.

    It sounds like you and your friend have had your own reality check on your project. But small? A forty foot long layout in P48 is nothing to sneeze at.


  7. Aultsville Lad

    Hi Mike, yes 40′ X 3′ seems big but if you ratio this back to say HO then it would be 20′ X 1.5′ and that would be a modest shelf layout format. The key here is how much actual track is attempted. I too enjoy the shadow box format and have one built in 00 gauge as part of my other scale which will also go to some local shows. It will need a sector plate at each end and after your mentioning the same above I now realize that this is the answer to our staging needs for the P-48 layout too. This, of course will add to the overall length and perhaps make it difficult for show organizers but it will resolve our need to set up interesting car movements at shows.

  8. Simon


    I am not sure I have hit the sweet spot yet, merely certain that I wouldn’t change much of the past.


  9. mike

    Hi Dave,

    When you put it like that, I guess size is relative.

    I’m looking into ways to integrate staging into the layout itself rather than as an add-on. I report about it shortly.

    Thanks for writing.