For as long as I can remember, the focus of the hobby has been toward building things: a model, a layout, scenery. We long ago adopted a project mindset, with the assumption being that when finished, each project becomes part of a greater whole, typically a layout of some kind. One can read statements all the time to the effect of: “When my layout is finished, I’ll finally be able to…” However, upon reaching that mythical finish line, the usual outcome is a teardown of years, perhaps decades of work and starting over on something new.

I wonder, is this it? Just keep building various projects, finish them, build more and eventually move on, or could there possibly be more to this hobby than that?

Woods near Mill Street

Where I’m at and, maybe you are too
My Indiana & Whitewater has been essentially finished for several years now. I’m satisfied with this layout in terms of the overall size and the theme. So why has it been months since I’ve done anything of substance with it?

Work accounts for part of it. Getting our digital magazine The Missing Conversation going ate up huge amounts of time and creative energy, leaving me ready to crash at the end of the day. The basement doesn’t have heat and it can get very chilly down there when the weather goes south. Mostly though, I just hit a wall of no enthusiasm for doing anything with the layout. In a word: Bored.

So here I am. Is this it? Do I just find and build more projects and/or possibly move on to greener pastures? It’s beginning to look that way.

New year, refurbished layout
Truthfully, there are aspects of the layout I never liked. It seems overly crowded with track and much of the initial scenery treatment looked pretty generic and bland to my eyes. I entertained numerous schemes to move it to a different wall and reconfigure the basement to use the space more efficiently. I even shared these plans publicly and on YouTube no less!

As I grow older, I’ve a lot less enthusiasm for tackling such huge projects. I’ve tinkered with our house for fifteen years and serial home remodeling has gotten old. I want to have it over with before I die. (And so does my wife.)

All that said, there’s something about the start of a new year that gets the juices for change flowing. I recently got fed up with the boredom, took time off from writing and decided to clean up the basement and do something about the layout. One short Saturday afternoon, I filled two large trash bags with junk laying around and stripped off the wooded hillside in the middle of the layout. Huh??? What, you’re tearing it down?

Woods are logged out

What I’m doing, what I’m not

What I’m doing:

Admitting that things aren’t as I hoped they would be.
Every visitor to the layout commented on two things: the track and the trees. There’s no complaints about the track, except I now feel there’s too much of it for the space I have (I’m a heretic, so get over it). The scenery however, needed work. There are sections I like and ones I don’t. As of this writing, the scenery sections I didn’t like are gone, along with the rearmost yard track. I pondered the removal of one more track but decided to keep it. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean it has to be used. (Told you I’m a heretic.)

Why remove track?

Because it isn’t needed. For operations, this yard track is too far away and hard to reach for uncoupling and reading car numbers. In that sense it’s useless. It also crowded the area visually as I’ve written about before here and also here. So, it’s now gone and not coming back. I prefer more breathing room for the scenery.

Yard track gone

I’m admitting I can do better. 
Generic scenery isn’t what I envisioned for the layout. I have loads of photos for my prototype and it’s time to use them to more faithfully recreate the scene in miniature. I’m still an artist at heart. In my paintings I tried to capture the tangible and the intangible elements of my subject. I want to do the same on the layout. Our friends in the UK and Australia do a much better job of capturing intangible elements in their modeling than we do. I believe it’s possible and that’s 90 percent of the battle.

Artists will often return to the same subject for years, finding ever more inspiration and layers to explore. That’s how I’m treating this revamp of the I&W, as the fifth (this is my fifth layout using this prototype and theme) in a series of three dimensional art works. There is more I want to say and more layers of depth to explore with this theme.

What I’m not doing:

I’m not expanding the size of the layout.
I have no more urges to increase the size of the layout. It truly is the right amount for me at this stage in life. In that sense, it’s my Freedom Layout. A lack of space or some other feature isn’t driving these changes, dissatisfaction with what I consider sub-standard work is.

I’m not changing the layout theme or prototype focus.
I’m still happy with the branchline theme and scope of operations. If anything, I’m narrowing things down and focusing more tightly on those elements that are important to me, which is another principle from art and design. By focusing more precisely and removing distractive clutter, you give the work more power and impact. It’s true for a painting and I believe, equally true on a layout.

As mentioned earlier, the common approach in this situation is to completely tear out years of work and expense and start fresh again. I considered that possibility more than once and decided not to. The thought of starting all over left me cold. I know my energy levels and how much creative juice I have to spread between projects. I know our personal finances are not in favor of significant expenditures toward the hobby anymore. These things are all important to consider and I did.

I’m in a position with the hobby where I can pick and choose how much or how little to engage with it without the time pressure to finish some gigantic thing in my basement. There are aspects I’d like to explore and some that I’m trying hard to convince myself I’d enjoy (don’t hold your breathe). In the end, I’m hoping there is more to the hobby than one project after another, after another.

We have a mountain of information on how to build and do stuff, but next to nothing on what it’s all supposedly for. We also gloss over the fact that your interest level is going to fluctuate considerably over the years and, that this is completely normal. I’m not in the middle of some hobby crisis, just a dull patch brought on by a lack of clarity and indecision about where to go next. This too shall pass.

What about you? If your big basement project is getting close to “done.” What are you going to do next?



  1. downeast

    As I read your comments as well as reflect on many you have made over the years concerning the layout I wonder about your conclusions concerning actually operating it.
    Almost every photo you submit has only track and trees. These don’t operate. Occasionally I have seen a staged car, but never a locomotive. I don’t know if you even own one. I guess that’s where we differ in philosophy. I build a railroad to operate realisticly. In fact, I call it a railroad and never a layout. To me that is an important mindset.
    Currently my railroad of some forty years has been sold off and taken down in preparation for a long distance move. I really miss being able to operate the railroad and so does my crew who were so faithful at exercising my concepts.
    As we await our move, I have been busy collecting materials and equipment to construct the new design. I will be moving from a small regional NY concept to a little known Maine Central Branch. The research has taken a good three years and has been quite rewarding. I have been fortunate to have developed a couple of relationships that have opened doors to understanding how the prototype actually operated and the reasons for its existance.
    Partly because of you I have decided to take on the challenge of very realistic trackwork to set the scene. It means moving to P48, which is not difficult because I have always built my own track. Changing out wheels sets is not hard either. That said, I am not building a model only of the railroad plant, but rather I plan to duplicate the railroad in miniature. This means ultimately I will use specific cars to simulate carrying what the real ones did. I have studied car movements and intend to have everything as close to the original as I can. I am very much looking forward to the operating stage as I believe that is where model railroading shines brightest.
    One of the early keys was finding a coupler design that made operation possible while at the same time looking correct. I settled on the Protocraft coupler which had the appearance, but also operated in such a way I could realize my goals of realistic operation.
    So I wonder, have you ever created a switch list and run a train that followed the work outlined? I ask, because as I look at your railroad I can’t conceive what it is actually supposed to do. On my planned railroad I will be handling can stock, mustard seed, sardines, fishmeal, fuel oil, lumber, hardware, machinery, etc., each car move having a specific purpose.
    I don’t mean to pick on you, Mike. But it seems to me that with out a viable operating concept, building a model railroad is only 3D art. I went beyond that stage early on and it was the ability to create operating scenarios that kept me satisfied for so many years.
    How about some discussion on the operating point I’m raising?
    Ben Brown

  2. Dunks

    I think you could have left the track in place, and simply have let nature take its course, well, modelled that nature had its course.

    Let me explain.

    I can’t speak for your part of the world, but round here track which has been denoted as out of use is often left in place, and things such as weeding just don’t happen. After a few years, the track is so overgrown that the rail closest to the boundary line disappears under a mass of undergrowth and saplings.

    I see this whenever I go on a rail journey. Is this the case in North America? Is it just a recent occurrence? (In the UK, this is partly a consequence of the separation of infrastructure from train ownership and operation, resulting from the structure of the privatisation process twenty years ago.)


  3. mike

    Hi Ben,
    I do have locomotives, two of them in fact. The reason you haven’t seen them or freight cars in photos is two-fold. One is that none of them are what I deem camera ready in regards to detailing or even paint in certain cases. Second is that I feel they would distract from the scene, or the points I’m making in many of the posts.

    The railroad is designed for operations and I was running trains as soon as I had enough track down for something to move on. As for full blown op sessions that you enjoy, I’m less inclined to do so. The plan is intended for a single operator, as I’m not a social butterfly with the hobby like so many others are.

    My prototype has very simple operations, hauling car loads of mineral grit from Valley Jct, 26 miles to the shingle plant at Brookville. My layout represent the former yard at Valley and the connection to the outside world via interchange. The staging cassette represents the entire branch run as I simply don’t have room to model even a tiny portion of the branch.

    This was a deliberate choice on my part. Switching cars into spot order before heading out is the main focus of work at VJ and the layout.

    Not feeling picked on at all Ben. Even if I were, you’ve earned the right to tell me I’m full of crap. 🙂


  4. mike

    Hi Simon,

    Whether track is left in place or not largely depends on the company and the costs involved and priority given to remove it. There is century old track still in place in my town that hasn’t been in service in nearly thirty years. In other places locally, derelict track was removed because it presented a safety hazard to crews working the area. So the general answers is: it depends.

    I removed the one yard track after a lot of thought. Initially, I went the route you suggested with overgrown vegetation, which helped. However, as I noted in the post, this track was not being used and I wanted the breathing room for the scenery in order to more faithfully represent the scene on my prototype at this location. This track won’t be missed at all.


  5. downeast

    Hi Mike,
    My first reply was in essence a simple answer to the question you posed. Now what? Answer: operate.
    Of course it is much more complex than that, but yet for some the answer is quite simple. I have been amazed how many model railroads I have known that have been torn down before the owner even tried running it realisticly. So I for one am delighted that you have revealed your operating scheme. I know some would think it is awfully simple in concept, but in fact the operations into and out of a single manufacturing plant can get very involved. Jack Hill in his railroad switches prototypically a glass plant.

    Jack is a professional railroader so the above link has some very interesting and worthwhile information. His description is all the more fascinating to me because back in the 1960’s I worked in that plant when it was owned by Corning Glass Works. As I understand it, his plan was to have a simulated plant at one end of the line which didn’t have a run-around track, similar to your own concept. He also was developing his railroad for solo operation.
    I no longer anticipate anyone else running my next railroad when it is completed, therefore it is designed for just myself this time around.
    I know your railroad is designed to look the way it does and that is certainly your choice. If it were mine I would want to add more to the mill area on the right hand end and add a building flat group to simulate the shingle plant on the other end. Then I would sit on a stool to bring my eyes level with the train and have at it. That would get me into the scene further.
    As an aside there has been a shingle plant in my area for a very long time. It is now closed. However when it was open, it was a destination for many O Scalers to pick through the yard and pick up piles of shale particles that sifted out of the covered hoppers. That usually was a one time event because although free, it was very difficult to obtain a uniform color mix. Black chips tended to be in the white and blue into the gray and so on. It was miserable trying to eliminate the maverick chips and most fellows gave up.
    Thanks for clarifying your operation intentions for me.
    I’m disappointed that I may not see rolling stock on the I&W within my lifetime, but hopefully you will send me a shot privately to show something.
    Best regards,

  6. mike

    Take heart Ben, rolling stock may be closer to camera ready than I implied. I just feel that cars out of the box would clash or look silly given the amount of detail in the rest of the scene. My S12 could be brought up to speed visually with the simple addition of couplers. The Geep needs handrails, cab windows and the rest of the package. I’m waiting for suitable weather to do some spraying outdoors on several projects like this (no indoor spray booth). I will endeavor to get some action in my photos in the future.

    Good to hear from you as always.


  7. Robert

    Hi Mike,
    After reading your piece and Ben’s response to it, I felt obliged to add my couple of cents to the mix.
    I believe we owe ourselves a reward for building a scale model railroad. After the years of design and construction to whatever level of details you personally have decided upon…you deserve more than to confront…”now what” …and answer that question by planning its demise only to perhaps chase after another.
    That reward, frankly speaking, is “operation”. If it were not so, then finely detailed, but non-operating locomotives and rolling stock with non working couplers could become the normal. After all what uses are such features if we do not plan to task the equipment and the railroad?
    I know Ben Brown, and have enjoyed his prototype expertise and his operating railroad in person. It was a grand quest, and he made sure it came to life by bringing together others who aided in the stage play which Frank Ellison first recognized as the required essence of model railroads. This ensuing activity becomes all consuming and our railroad comes to life before our eyes. The imagined purpose is fulfilled and the entire hobby comes full circle.
    I propose one cannot culminate pursuit of this hobby without a methodical examination and subsequent internship in the wonders of serious prototype based operating…anything less is short changing the quality operating equipment we now enjoy, and the time it took to develop the stage only to cancel the play for lack of interest. Just a point of view of course.


  8. mike

    Hi Robert,

    Welcome to the blog. I’m happy you’re here.

    You have a valid point, one that I agree with wholeheartedly. I’m not anti-operation and the I&W is designed to support prototype operations based on the line I chose to model. The point of my post is to challenge this idea of tearing out ten, twenty or more years of work just because the building aspects are over. I think the conventional assumption that a new beginning is the only or primary option at this point is a horrible waste of resources.

    This is why I strongly urge people to consider their objectives for participating in the hobby and even more strongly, suggest a thorough study and understanding of the prototype before the first board is cut, nail driven or piece of track laid. This hobby has become driven by the ideas of build, build, build; buy, buy, buy, and, in my view, we’re paying a steep price for this shortsighted, unfettered consumerist mindset.

    I do feel there are alternative approaches to the hobby that we brush aside, simply because they are “different.” I’m writing from the perspective of someone who is taking a different path than the mainstream crowd. Not everyone will agree with my views, nor do I expect them too. But for those who are dissatisfied with business as usual, there are other pathways worth exploring together.

    Ben and I have corresponded via e-mail for several years and I alway appreciate his insights into the hobby.

    Thanks for writing in Robert.


  9. Robert

    This hobby is largely populated by collectors. More is better verses less is more mindsets drive the average guy forward. He doesn’t have a plan beyond planning to get more stuff. The eclectic monster he builds is a closet or worse full of everything that appealed to him or was on sale.

    If, and I say that with hesitation, if he eventually realizes this passion has no direction or purpose, and perhaps redefines his model railroading interests, maybe a railroad will get built. But then there is the matter of what to do about the twenty something road names represented by his locomotive collection alone.

    I guess all I am saying is the pathway to some sanity in this hobby is most likely best served by those who strive for its ultimate expression. An operating railroad in miniature. Having a prototype either real or fictitious…that’s optional, but either way it serves to condense the collecting madness and focus ones attention on a goal. The Roundy rounders will point fingers as such scourge. But we aren’t even close to be discussing those folks here in the context of your blog.
    I appreciate your views and value the worth of such discussion.


  10. mike

    Hi Robert,

    Yes, I agree. The collector mentality is not going away any time soon and it’s more prevalent in scales like O, more than others. In many ways the popular press has done a good job of encouraging operations and in others it has failed miserably (just my view). I notice the hobby is still largely driven by thinking that would be right at home in the 1950s and ’60s despite all the advances we’ve seen in technology. It is more fragmented than ever into various factions, special interest groups, and mindsets, a fact of life we all need to get more comfortable with.

    My assumption is that people will self-select with regard to the content here. Those who find it interesting come back, those who don’t move on to someplace more suited to their views. This is as it should be and how I want it. I’m never going to change anyone’s mind unless they are ready for and open to a different approach.