You’ve only got a small space for a layout and working out a design has you frustrated. The real question is one we all struggle to answer: Will this layout be satisfying?

We look at less than ideal spaces and only see the shortcomings. We’re afraid of missing out and focused on what we can’t have we turn to tactical solutions like short turnouts, tight curves and other compression tricks to fit more in. The results are often disappointing at best, so we conclude that more space is the answer. But is it?

Will this layout satisfy is an internal question, one that forces us to look within for an answer. Yet we’re stuck on the external circumstances of room size or curve radius in the belief that’s where the answer is hiding. We seldom question our most basic assumptions about the craft, or the tricks and tools we use. Instead we just double down on the usual tactics and wonder why we’re stuck.

My Mill Road cameo is ridiculously simple, yet it’s one of the most satisfying I’ve built because it’s a meaningful expression of what I truly enjoy about trains, model making and craft. It’s the layout that I want instead of what the hobby says I should build. It isn’t meant to entertain twenty people for six hours at a stretch or to impress the hobby intelligentsia. Its sole purpose is to bring me joy.

Will this layout be satisfying is a question only you can answer and you do that by asking and answering other questions like:

what do I want from the craft,

do I really need this feature,

how much is enough?

The question of enough is maybe the most important of them all and one that all of the track planning tricks in the world will never provide an answer to.



  1. Matthieu

    Your post is timely. Over the last few weeks, my fellow club members and I looked at our club layout which would be considered simplistic by most current standards yet medium sized. Most people would ask themselves how they could improve and add features… Our train of thoughts was rather to ask ourselves how much layout we could remove before reducing our enjoyment. The answer is surprising, but about half the benchwork could be put out of service and it wouldn’t harm our enjoyment of this hobby or reduce the scope of our commitment. In one room is a large cement plant complex yet to be built. We know it will take a lot of time and efforts while we rarely use the tracks there. In our current layout era, this plant is shut down since a few years, in dire lack of repair and being demolished by real estate developers. The temptation is strong to simply do that and not bother ourselves with something of very limited value and providing very few rewards except bragging on social media we built it.

    The power of this hobby is how at any scale you can be immersed in an interesting universe. Be it a broad vision of a panorama or simply focussing on a perfect rail car like your hopper projects, we all know it will be rewarding. There is no particular success recipe, except for accepting the truth about our limitations and real interests. Know thyself.

    At some point in this hobby, everyone wants to show off, to prove it can do it just like the big boys in the press. It’s all right, we all need to find our limits and strengths. For some it will build confidence (it did for me) but sooner or later, that bravodo transforms itself into a burden and it’s time to scale back and achieve a personal vision rather than fit the standard. It’s a matter of coherence. Your attitude reminds me of Ceasar’s words “rather be first in a village than second in Roma”.

  2. Simon

    Simplificate and add lightness.

  3. Dave Eggleston

    Sometimes a well-crafted model of a car sitting on a shelf is enough to satisfy, even without sitting on a layout. The craftsmanship and art presented by that model transport us.

    The hobby has long gone off the rails around layout size. I think there are far more small and cameo layouts on the planet that present fine craftsmanship and, more rarely, even art. And the potential as interesting operations as their larger cousins.

    I respect Matthieu’s view of “how much layout can we remove before reducing enjoyment” mindset. It is refreshing to see. Now if we could all ourselves ask the hard questions around our own dreams, maybe we’d see a lot more models and layouts built rather than an army of armchair modelers waiting for the space that might come in the future.

  4. Jeff

    I don’t read many of the mainstream hobby publications because they’re formulaic and still mired in the past yet wonder why young people are not entering the hobby. Perhaps they should examine the points you make in this post and embrace them. Young people today are entering fields that pay them more than enough to support a simple approach to the craft but things move quickly for them. They’re not going to be attracted if they’re only shown layouts that take a decade and need 10 people to operate. If they see an example like a cameo, simple yet well executed and doesn’t need 100 freight cars detailed to the Nth degree and 20 locomotives to operate they’ll be more attracted.

    Simplicity is beautiful.
    Simplicity is affordable.
    Craftsmanship is wonderful and satisfying.

  5. mike

    I agree Jeff. We’ve erected significant barriers for people entering the hobby. While the press does suggest starting simply, I can’t think of anything more useless than the 4×8 tabletop layouts offered to beginners. It sends the message that the primary or sole value the craft offers is entertainment or a way to spend money. Like you, I believe we can do better.


  6. mike

    Thanks guys.

    Matt, as always your point is well taken. I’ve discovered that every time I’ve scaled back my designs, I’m happier and more focused. If the industry you mentioned isn’t operational in the era you’re modeling, then like you, I don’t see the point of including it. It’ll be interesting to learn what you guys ultimately decide.

    Dave, my take is that people aren’t encouraged to ask the hard questions. I guess the thinking goes that if you’re building a layout, you’ve all ready figured that stuff out and it’s time to start flinging track everywhere.

    Thank you Simon.


  7. Rene Gourley

    Hi Mike,

    There is a subgroup of the hobby that enjoys or perhaps more often aspires to enjoy operations. For them, the mega layout seems to be a requirement. I would have included myself among that number, and would have said I was settling for a compromise with Pembroke. I included myself amongst them until I actually tried out operations on the Brio version of Pembroke many years ago.

    For the somewhat skeptical operator out there who wonders if they can simplify, I encourage you to build a simple Brio layout and operate it the way you would a real layout. The outcome will surprise you.


  8. mike

    See my next post. -Mike