What if layout design articles were written about people instead of a trackplan? How would that change the conversation? Author Seth Godin poses two questions that I think make a good starting point for our purposes:

What is this for?

Who is this for?

What Is This For?
Why are you planning /building a layout? What purpose will it serve? What outcome do you hope to accomplish with it? What story are you telling yourself about how life will be when you have this thing?

We seldom give any thought to such questions. What kind of experience of the craft might we create for ourselves if we did?

Who Is This For?
In all seriousness; whom are you building this layout for? Is it for you alone, or to entertain a group of friends? Whose input matters the most, your own or your friends? If you’re building for yourself, then the choices are greatly simplified, but if others have to be considered, then there’s a tendency to revert to the lowest common denominator for every decision. Do you really want to make people use a box or crawl on the floor to reach a portion of the layout?

How Open Is Open Enough?
The smaller the space, the more we fear missing out on something good because we automatically compare this space to the unspoken basement empire standard, we’re conditioned to want. What matters more, an extra lap of track that will take a train twenty seconds to cover, or a more comfortable design and space you can move around in freely?

How Will You Use The Space?
It’s a guess on my part but I’ll wager there are probably more layouts in spare bedrooms than big basements. In a spare room, how will you get supplies, modules and the rest of the hobby paraphernalia in and out? Is the door wide enough? Can you turn a corner with a large section? Do you want to deal with such headaches in the first place?

What about workspace for modeling? Where does storage for supplies and tools go? What do you need, and can you fit it all in and still have room to breathe? How comfortable do you want to be?

Design That Ignores People Is Poor Design
A layout doesn’t exist in a vacuum, yet that’s how we think about it. We’ll obsess over an extra six inches of bench work, telling ourselves how critical that miniscule amount is to our grand scheme and leave all the rest to chance if we even give it a second thought.

Yes, I’m biased. I prefer a layout that speaks to me in a clean, comfortable, roomy space that I want to be in. Back at the beginning, I asked how the conversation would change if we focused more on the human element. To make those choices, one has to know what’s important and that involves an understanding of what one wants. I’ve done that work and I admit that doodling around on paper is easier and even entertaining as a mental exercise. But then reality intrudes as it always does. Lines on paper or pixels on a screen don’t tell the whole story. What about you; who and what is your layout for? The answers aren’t written in stone, you get to choose them for yourself.



  1. Simon

    In the U.K., where the hobby is quite focused on an active show scene, the who and what combine in an additional question: am I going to take this out on the road? If so, then there are extra considerations affecting the construction (the need for portable, sectional and above all transportable baseboards for example) but the questions about who and what the layout is for can become very confused.

    Some address this by building expressly for “entertaining the paying public” even though no one can easily define how to achieve that. Some enjoy being able to build something bigger than they can set up at home, others wish to provide almost an educational experience with accurate recreations of the past. Some layouts are designed to do nothing more than provide a scenic setting for their stock.

    Me, I just want to show other (potentially!) interested railway modellers how I enjoy the hobby, and introduce them to my chosen themes. But that doesn’t mean I am building it just for myself: I at least need to make sure the audience can see what’s going on, and to present it attractively.

    When I first read this post, my heart sank. I could answer the later questions, but the what and who struck home as difficult. I really thought you had thrown me back to square one. I genuinely read the opening lines and thought I didn’t know what I wanted and who it is for. But in composing this reply, my thoughts returned to the small, portable layout that came back into my hands earlier this year, after 20 years in the hands of a sadly and untimely departed friend, and how I would enjoy taking it out and about occasionally to share my hobby with others.

    Yes, I am ultimately building a layout for myself – and it really only needs a single operator at any one time – but I do want to share it with others, provided that they are interested in the more “finescale” end of the hobby.

    Now, the [i]next[/i] layout, on the other hand…

  2. Matthieu

    It may sounds absurd to some, but after years of building a layout and incidently building friendship with the two other modellers helping me, I have to admit I designed the layout not exclusively for me, but mainly for a friend who is a dedicated operator. As much as I love building things that I like (which can be described as an addiction and a solace), adding a veneer of function/goal/purpose to this whimsical activity is in itself a great reward. When we rebuilt a section of the layout last week, I took great satisfaction in seeing that friend bringing this miniature world to life and witnessing his happiness. I’ve never been satisfied building static models (planes, figures, cars, ships) in the long term, but the very nature of model railroading makes sure everything object I craft have a purpose and a life in itself. When you complete a model, the game is not over and you don’t know exactly where things are headed…

  3. mike

    In considering questions of this kind, one should never assume that I have a single or “right” answer in mind. Given the wide range of people and interests, it would be arrogant and foolhardy of me to think that way. However, we do too many things by rote in this hobby and I ask such questions as a prompt to your thinking. As a way to shake your mind out of the hobby rut and consider that there are different outlooks and ways to approach things. It seems useful to many of you and I appreciate the feedback offered here and privately.


  4. Galen Gallimore


    This line really struck a chord in me, “We’ll obsess over an extra six inches of bench work, telling ourselves how critical that miniscule amount is to our grand scheme and leave all the rest to chance if we even give it a second thought. ” I remember my previous benchwork, how it included a small 6″ x 6″ bump-out to allow a slightly larger radius curve and to shorten the length of a lift-out section. That one made sense, though I never got to build the lift-out.

    But I repeated it two other places where, when the track was eventually laid, it didn’t make much difference. When planning I just HAD to have those bits on there, but they really complicated what could have been a pretty simple benchwork construction. Same with the allowances I made to make track re-alignment possible at a later date, after I moved the layout. HA. The track came off and the lumber went to a carpenter friend as scrap wood.

    These lessons have really informed my planning efforts since then. I caught myself including similar “gnats” on plans and that pointed me away from those attempts toward what I eventually arrived at. I’ve learned these lessons from experience – thank you for sharing them here along with many other good thought-provoking ideas. It helps.

  5. mike

    Hi Galen,

    I’ve built a wide variety of projects. For some I drew up plans and for others I designed on the fly. For the ones from a plan, I almost always modified the design in some way as it came together in three dimensions. Visualizing from two dimensions to three is hard even for experienced designers let alone laypeople.