For reasons we’ve talked about before, my layout will live in a shared public space within the main house. Instead of returning to those threads, this post should note the way this venue has changed my relationship with the layout and what it is.

Great design is perhaps a measure of how we respond to those things we can not change.

If it is to be placed in a room in our house than it is, essentially, in public display mode all the time. Unlike the typical train show, most of the people who will look at it just aren’t interested in model trains and any sense of validating this work should be in line with the way we display the other work that is around our house from painting, sculpture, or Krista’s latest amazing knitted work. In short, this is an opportunity to introduce what the hobby means to me to those who might be curious.

Small house and small furniture. Small layout?


The layout should work with the house and be in scale or proportion to the other furniture of our life. Wandering around the house with my tape measure in hand it’s so very easy to find walls ranging from ten to fourteen feet in length on which I could hang a shelf. We think of the layout only in terms of its footprint but when completed with a backdrop and some sort of overhead lighting rig the definition of space is not so two dimensional and we need to account for that vertical element too. I just can’t make myself comfortable with how this looks so the footprint might need to be smaller than the space I can find.

Back to the closet for you?

Over the course of successive renovations our house gained closets and lots of them. That said, they’re full of the sorts of things most people keep in closets. One option for the layout is to create something that can be put away between operating or work sessions but that “away” space just doesn’t exist or boils down to a question of whether or not I’d rather see a model railway in my living room or a stack of Christmas decoration bins. I think I’d rather the former so it’s “back to the closet” for the decorations and “welcome to the house” for the layout.

Categories: How I think

17 replies

  1. I’ve recently dealt with a constriction of train space and had the space I do have is no longer behind a door from the rest of the living space so I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff you’ve mentioned here (I have the complication of partially finished free-mo modules taking up too much space)

    What my comment is on is the backdrop/overhead lighting etc bit and I’m a little torn. On the one hand not doing so eliminates much of the vertical encroachment. On the other hand I can see how a backdrop and valance with lighting done right could give it a better look/acceptance from non-train enthusiasts

    This post has really got me thinking and I’ve got a lot of thoughts bubbling around in my head now

    • Thanks Matt

      I’ve been involved in a string of simple layouts over the past few years. None incorporated a backdrop or dedicated lighting.

      My interest in these is more a function of the layout between operating sessions when it’s just on display. Would the layout itself be better if showcased in a shadowbox or similar presentation style? Lounging on the couch and staring into the space where the layout could be resting (if it were real…right now) I think the answer might be “yes”.


      • I think non-train people who view my layout, which is in a shared multifunctional area of our house (though not the living room), mostly notice the backdrop. Relative to the backdrop, the layout kind of looks like a slightly messy shelf until you get up close. I expect this becomes a stronger perception as you get closer to T scale.

    • Matt, Chris
      Due to retirement preparations all my Model RR stuff is now put away. But in thinking about this one item, I would think – What is the desired outcome… A backdrop and lighting do take up space…. SO my next question would be What is the intent of the layout? If its to place somewhere for demonstrations or competition then there is no question…. its needed. However at home, for my own interest, I might want to forgo an elaborate installation, especially if the final home spot is not determined. When I do re-establish a layout I may go for TT…. Even a shelf layout was not in my cards!!! there was just too little room. With TT I can make something (one scene) and as I accumulate more sections, then I can begin to think about a permanent space. But if backdrop and overhead are desired w/ lighting look into “Brooklyn 3AM”….an awesome layout that has been in competition and shows all over Australia.( http://n-rail.blogspot.com/2012/07/brooklyn-3-am.html)

      • It’s great to hear from you Phil. I was wondering how you were getting along with your projects?

        The micro layouts I worked on over the past few years were all designed to be stored in a closet or like location and then set up on the dining room table to operate. For these, there was little need or desire for a backdrop and lighting from the room was sufficient. Their transient nature encouraged me to operate them from different vantage points so it’s difficult to figure out where I would have added that backdrop even if I would have added one.

        TT is a nice size to work in. I’ve had a lot of fun with the models I made in this scale and it’s one I could see returning to at some point.


      • Wow 5 years since my last reply. Im now retired officially for 4 years now. Moved to a new location. North Carolina! Weather is nice and now have a home with more space. I’ve done some research for a model layout. NScale of course. For Paterson NJ and surrounds. There were lots of locations that caught my eye while commuting. Lots of history too. My plan is for a small layout 2x8ft. Modular. I saw a design for a double segment, each 4ft long. When stored one fits on top of the other, the backdrops serve as the supporting part to make a box. Then it can be stored safely with no damage to the inside. Being a member of the MERG group in England, there’s lots of information about CBUS and lots of other electronics for model RR. CBUS is overkill for such a small layout. But there is plenty of room to experiment with other electronics. Alas there are other projects in front of the hobby that need attention. Who says retirement is a time to relax and do nothing!

      • Wonderful to hear from you!

        I like the idea of self-contained layouts that can almost put themselves away so I’m keen to hear more about your plan.

        I’ve look into the MERG group and certainly need to dedicate more time to learning about their projects. Where things might seem like “overkill” on a smaller layouts I wonder how the smaller scope creates opportunities to do things to a greater level? What ways can we enrich the depth of the presentation?

  2. Interesting as always, Chris. One thought in particular resonated with me…

    “If it is to be placed in a room in our house than it is, essentially, in public display mode all the time. Unlike the typical train show, most of the people who will look at it just aren’t interested in model trains and any sense of validating this work should be in line with the way we display the other work that is around our house (SNIP)”

    I find it interesting that hobbyists generally set different standards for themselves. I think most of us try to make our homes presentable for others – there’s a matter of pride at stake – and yet when it comes to the layout and its environment, many people tend to let that standard slide. In some cases, they let it slide a lot. We’ll dust the furniture and paint the walls in the living room – but then not dust the layout or paint the fascia.

    Many of us would not put up with our layouts if they were other pieces of furniture. Many layouts are the equivalent of a sofa with a busted frame, covered in worn fabric replete with drink stains and the remains of last night’s pizza. And yet, the rest of the house can be just fine.

    So, I wonder why so many hobbyists feel that their layouts are not (as you put it) in public display mode? Surely we display our layouts to our friends, to friends of the family, to the guy who reads the meter or repairs the furnace, and so on…

    I realize that many layouts are works in progress – but even then, the standard that one is trying to achieve is often apparent. There are also layouts that are built to a high standard – layouts designed to reflect one’s sense of style. And there are some layouts that, while mediocre in all aspects, look right at home because the rest of the house is a disaster too. But in the middle, there are many examples of “one standard for the real world, and another for the modelled world”.

    Having written this, I must also acknowledge that I’m guilty of that double standard. As an example, I’ve left my fascia in its unpainted masonite state for far too long. If I had been neater about creating it, I might be able to pass it off as “Fascia in the Ikea style”… but the truth is I need to patch the joints, pick a colour, and get it painted. Equally appalling, I have supplies and other things stored under the layout and I could do a far better job of organizing them and hiding them away. Sigh… more projects to tackle!

    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

    • Funny you mentioned IKEA, if only in jest. We were wandering around IKEA in Montreal when I started thinking about the presentation again. I was looking at their collection of pre-finished floating shelves and just felt like I’d seen something so vastly superior than anything I was doing for a layout base – these things were dimensionally stable and finished on all sides, just build a layout on top.

      The subject of how we present the layout is an important one. My thoughts were canted toward my placing a layout in a more public space in our house but, as you note, the need is no less great when the trains are in the basement. Just as we can’t do good work in a messy space it might be just as hard to convince others that our work is relevant if we’re not caring for or presenting it with as much commitment. It feels like I can’t get away from IKEA in this comment but even if your layout is in its own space why can’t that be a space we might just want to be in even if we weren’t there to run the trains or add a model?

      Just a thought but the presentation is really how we introduce the work to the viewer. Coffee shops teasing us with the scent of great coffee beckon us inside to see more just as a great album cover grabs us hopefully just long enough to want to listen.

      This presentation subject is the one that feels like it hits closest to home. I’ve built a lot of layouts with unfinished or missing fascia and exposed foam edges. Getting that presentation right is the one thing I really want to resolve, almost more than anything else.



  3. Trevor’s comments bring the “model railroad culture” to light. He’s correct in saying there is a double standard by the fact that a house is shared space with a spouse and children and there is a different set of expectations as to the appearance of that family space.

    The typical basement/garage/spare room layout however, is often the domain of one person, whose habits (or lack thereof) are given free reign. A room size layout is a messy affair by its very nature and the drawn out construction time, often measured in years.

    I would suggest that a layout that will share family and public space needs a different paradigm altogether to avoid conflict and other issues like a child’s safety.

    Mike Cougill

    • There is a double standard that I never really fully grasped until now. Why do our fellow model train guys get a different standard of finish than the rest of the people that visit our home? Is it the situation where we are all hiding the same level of finish…”I won’t say anything unless you do”. It’s a funny paradigm. On layout we excel at the quality of the finish investing so much time, effort, and money yet at the layout’s edge it all comes to an end.

      I agree that for a larger project the environment is staged to be finished later. Maybe though, this is when we need it the most? Nice clear-finished wood might be too early when we’re still slinging plaster around but why not hang a bit of fascia and paint it? What we do isn’t critical but what is, is creating an environment we’ll want to be in for the next five years while we work on the layout. If the room looks like a mess it will be gradually hard to get excited about being in and there is another of those seeds that kills the layout prematurely.



      • Even on a large project – where quantity often overtakes quality – it seems to me that one can, very early one, complete a section to the standard that one wishes to achieve across the whole layout. It would help visitors – those in the hobby and those who are not – understand where the layout is going. It might also inspire the owner to work harder towards getting the whole layout finished to that standard.

      • Having that one section is often regarded as an opportunity to practice some skills but then also as a reference point to help guide future development.

        As the layout progresses we have this finished scene and we can compare our latest work to help us gauge our current work against that design?

        “When I first finished that scene I thought the scene would look more like that but now that I’m completing more of the layout…things are turning out like this…is this good? Am I going in the right direction?”

        Agreed also to help communicate that final vision to the new viewer who might not so easily comprehend our ultimate vision for all this lumber and foam.



  4. “Is this good? Am I going in the right direction?”

    Or, “Has my interest changed?” Or, “Have my skills improved such that the original portion is no longer up to my current standard?”

    Even finished sections can be changed, of course…

    But as you note, having some section(s) of the layout finished can go a long way towards communicating the vision for all this lumber and foam.

    And I should’ve mentioned earlier that I love your thoughts – Chris and Mike – about the double-standard. I need to up my own game in this regard. But then again, I’m currently trying to improve the standard throughout the house so I expect the layout presentation will follow suit.


  1. Shelf Layout Idea | Matt's Railroad Blog
  2. No more double standard | Pembroke:87

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