Paint the rest black

The track plans I’ve been posting as layout ideas I’ve been considering have often featured nicely flowing benchwork designs. I’ve been trying to design a layout with a pleasant track-to-scenery ratio but that also encourage the trackwork itself to determine the shape of the board it rests on.

Years ago I came across photos of the Totternhoe Mineral Railway exhibition layout and instantly “fell in love” with their approach to layout design and the space it occupies. In line with what I’ve been trying to explain above, it’s builders determined the arrangement of track and scenic elements within the overall scene and then wrapped beautifully flowing benchwork around the whole thing. Trying to make such a free-flowing design structurally stable would be very difficult for a layout that stays home and even more so for one that is expected to be portable and to attend exhibitions. To respond to those practicle demands they developed a very innovative approach that feels so beautifully architectural in it’s very nature and just so elegant: They perched their beautifully flowing scenes on top of regular, rectangular, frames and then painted everything flat black. The layout is carefully lit to focus the lighting on the scenes. In many ways the presentation style draws a lot from theatre design and it just works so well. The lighting focusses the viewer’s attention squarely on the layout itself without any distraction away from the show. Furthermore, the whole layout, not just the track, appears to meander through it’s environment. A viewer seeing the layout for the first time can instantly relate to it and the builder’s intentions with little explanation and that’s the essence of good design.

Pictures tell a story so much better and I found a nice collection of photos of this layout on the Gn15 (minimum gauge modelling) forum:

While no where near as grand an empire as this example, it’s an approach I’ll be adopting for my own design.


  1. One thing to note, Chris, is that (apart from a bridge, but even then look at which side the handrails are on) there is always a hedge or a fence (usually solid, palisade style) at the back of the layout. The eye “stops” naturally at this point, so whilst black looks really professional, you can also do this with a pale blue. I know this as I have done it myself in the past, and it is still in use on the exhibition layout I built despite lots of rebuilding since it passed from my ownership: .

    There is one place on where the layout was extended and the hedge disappears , and I think this is a noticeable mistake, but then, I would say that as this bit is nothing to do with me. ;)

    The idea is not mine, and indeed, not new. It was brought to my attention by Cyril Freezer back in 1977, in the Railway Modeller (“Dugdale Road” article, possibly March issue that year) but he mentions that both Peter Denny and the York 0 Gauge Group had independently made this discovery some time before.

    1. I like the idea of using a hedgerow to mask the back edge of the scene. Not only does it provide a natural border on the layout in much the same way as it would “in real life” but it’s also not a harsh or hard line. That soft edge that is natural to something like a hedge really softens the appearance of that border, the eye almost bounces off the border and that further distracts from the border. I really like this when the layout features a painted or printed backscene as it hides that awful border where the three dimensional scene ends and the two dimensional image of the world beyond begins and prevents the eye from contrasting the two directly.

      While I am a believer in backscenes or backdrops I don’t have plans to include one on this layout currently. Given it’s portable nature I plan it to be operated from either side so need to treat both as the “front”. I think this is where I could really use the flat black approach effectively. In my case, I don’t want a big, flat black, box in my living room so I’m hoping to rub on a dark stain finish that will visually “read” like a black without being black and work as a compromise I need to create that border definition but still respect the fact that this thing lives in my living room.

      1. Many layouts totally overdo the ‘fascia’ so that it’s distracting. I have a simple 4′ Masonite, unpainted, then storage below. I can’t fool anyone that there’s not a lot of stuff under the layout. (Though Karen recently complimented/noted that I have a lot under there (nicely organized, though – maximizing the space available!) Tried curtains but they just got in the way.

        Like these theatrical approaches – an important consideration to bring your new layout alive, Chris.

      2. You’ve raised an excellent point regarding the storage area under the layout. I’ve visited layouts where there’s just piles of stuff rammed in the space and it’s distracting.

        I agree, too, on the fascia. My example works best for exhibition layouts, like Tottenhoe Minerals where you can really showcase the theatrical effects built into the design to good use. It really works well given that layout’s length.

        Mostly, what attracts me to this is how it showcases another example to keep away from modelling railways inside boxes. Just as the railway followed the landscape, I like those layout designs where the benchwork follows the track.

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