It’s only lumber and foam

A couple of weeks ago I downloaded all fifty-two episodes of The Model Railway Show. I have lost track of the number of times I have replayed the full set and like any other media item, I have my favourites that I return to more often than others. Among those favourites is episode 47 and the conversation with James McNab and the approach he’s adopting while building a superb representation of the Iowa Interstate’s Grimes Industrial track. Having just listened to this episode again, I felt compelled to share it here and add in my own “Yup, I liked that” sentiment. Here it is:

“…and you can always buy more lumber and foam.”

You really can.

I overthink things and to say that I enjoy falling prey to over-analysing an idea would be doing myself a terrific disservice. I love the research. I love design and naturally, I love the design of a layout. I dream in graphite and against paper. I think it’s terrific fun to plan layouts that fit into our home and sometimes dream a little outside into the realm of that ideal, albeit theoretical, location. Over the past year things have finally settled enough in my life that I find myself at a point where I feel it’s time to indulge in the execution of some of these ideas and actually build a model railway. I’ve kept so many of these layout designs and track plans catalogued either here on Prince Street or in notebooks around the house. A quick review of past blog posts returns some of those ideas that went further than just ideas on paper. Indeed, some of those became layouts. Almost none were “finished”. Two were spared by handing them off to fellow modellers and it thrills me to think that they have a new life and may actually be taken to a stage where I wasn’t able to. Remember when you were young and stood in front of the candy counter with your allowance trying to decide on what to purchase. It can be hard to make a good decision when you’re faced with all of your options and have told yourself that you are going to buy one. Maybe that’s just me.

So, back to lumber and foam?

I realise that I tend to regard layout construction as an act only satisfied by the production of a model railway capable of supporting train movements and realistic operation. It should have structures and be landscaped. It need not be fully detailed. Naturally, when another plywood prairie dissappers quietly from my home I’ve found myself wallowing in a little self pity and feeling like I’ve failed just a bit. I’ll be a little bold (forgive me) and confess that I think I’m pretty good at most parts of this hobby. In the thirty-odd years I’ve been playing with trains I’ve tried most aspects and practised many to a degree that I feel a certain compentancy in them. Reflecting on a waste bin with a small switching layout quietly tucked inside I know I could have completed, in theory it can be hard to shake that sense of failure.

Perhaps though, the layout isn’t the singular instance I am identifying it as. Each time I started another, I indulged in parts of the hobby you can really only attempt if you are working on a layout and each time I had a lot of fun re-introducing myself to them. I did some great work and felt really proud of what I had produced. Heck, that’s where all those blog posts came from. I built a lot of track and had a blast doing it. I tried foam core as a media for benchwork. I still hate wiring (because I just can’t force myself to produce clean work…that’s me, not the fault of the skill!). When I heard James McNab voice share “…and you can always buy more lumber and foam” it hit me like, well, being hit with a 2×4: “You really can!” Lumber and foam aren’t expensive. They can be but they really don’t have to be. 3/4″ plywood is still reasonably priced. The price of extruded foam has risen since I first started to use it twenty years ago but if used wisely, some of this price rise can be mitigated.

I’ve revelled in the knowledge that our small house will only support a small shelf-style switching layout. It thrills me to know that the small size of these layouts means that since I’m not buying a lot of any one thing or need to make a ton of things, individual pieces can be a little more labour intensive and even cost a little more. My approach can celebrate the small spaces I’m working in. After almost two years of starting small model railways I really can’t see even wanting to build something bigger since I’ve evangelised myself into the mindset of the richness these limitations can return. What I also realised was that I should be more accepting of the half-finished ideas. Every one was started with the best intentions and provided a tactile exploration of the idea. Sometimes, seeing something is the first time you really come to terms with a part of the design that isn’t working out as well as hoped. Perhaps a compromise just isn’t as acceptable in real life as I tried to convince myself that it would be. I failed to finish several layouts and regret the wasted materials but I now have an understanding of what I want from a layout that I really only realise I could have gotten from real experience. I’ve grown as a model railroader and that’s terrific.

It’s March break here on Prince Edward Island. I’m on vacation and spent about twenty bucks on a little more plywood. A lifetime of hoarding means I have foam leftover in the shed I can use. I’ve already started building another layout. I realised I needed a little more room and have pushed out the footprint to a full one by eight feet which feels huge compared to what I was attempting previously but having tried to make myself happy with layouts that could never support the style of operations I want to feature I already know this is better. Yup, lumber and foam are inexpensive. Don’t be afraid to start over. Commit to the hobby. Build a model railroad. We learn so much by practising this hobby. Why stem our growth fearing to redo or retry something to provide ourselves with a platform on which to exhibit and revel in this growth? It’s just a hobby. It deserves to practised in a manner that allows the model railroader to enjoy it to the fullest. Be fearless in this pursuit. Basically, why waste time being afraid of trying to do better?

I feel better now.

If you haven’t heard of The Model Railway Show podcast, I strongly urge you to take a moment and download a few episodes to listen to. The podcast is among the finest I have ever listened to. Model railroading is a diverse hobby and each individual modeller leaves his own distinct mark on the hobby, often expanding the definition of what it is to be a model railroader. Over the course of the fifty-two episodes of The Model Railway Show, we were introduced to a stunning example of how the hobby at its finest. Follow this link to a full list of the podcasts they recorded:



    1. The cart will become much needed workbench which is something I needed anyway. It’s been moved to the shed. With only a bit of foam glued to the top it really never got far enough along to be a “layout”.

      The more I operate on other layouts the more I realize I’m willing to sacrifice scenic elements and the overall width of a scene for a longer switching lead. Deep down I’m not happy with either compromise (scenery v. track) but feel a lot more like investing in the long thin shelf over the classic rectangle. Just rethinking the space and my utilization of it.

      1. Lumber and foam,
        Lumber and foam,
        Adding a layout makes me feel at home,
        Ask those around for some space.*
        It makes it more homey with a smile on my face!

        *or grace, as applicable
        (Sung to the tune of Silver and Gold)


      2. Ha!!! That was awesome, Eric. Thanks!

        I see perhaps we share a common fondness for these classic Burl Ives Christmas songs. I’ve been humming variations of Holly Jolly Christmas while picking away at things this morning.

        “Well, I’m gonna build a layout
        It’s a fun thing I can do;

        I don’t know if I should model GO
        but for sure it will be a Mears’

    1. Great to hear from you, Phil. I highly recommend the podcast so please check it out.

      Have you had much of a chance to explore any new layout ideas since we last spoke?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s