Sent here by the pen and some paper

Hamilton is a place on a map. It’s a place that is something real. As real as I profess that it is, you really have to go there to relate to it and maybe even appreciate it the way I do. I guess this is a rambling way of opening up a blog post about foamcore mockups I’ve been working on, to help translate some ideas I’ve had for the future direction of my model railroad and its design.

“So just how tall should a backdrop be?”

Armed with some foamcore I created the mock-up shown above, based on a backdrop about twelve inches high with the valance installed. I could position this mockup on the layout and test those dimensions in way that can’t be approximated with pens on paper.


The beauty of working with something like foamcore is how fast you can execute changes to design to test subsequent theories. Pictured above is a modification of the original mockup, changed to incorporate a design feature below the track. More importantly, I reduced the height of the backdrop to five inches.

Five inches seems like a really low height. From what I’ve read, most modellers seem to work with a backdrop in the range of twenty-four inches in height. When I looked at photos of model railroads, most of those backdrops are just paintings of sky. When I looked through photos of real trains, I started to notice that most of the time we don’t compose a similar view and most often crop most of the sky out. Given that my layout is installed quite high above the floor, I don’t feel I need as much sky and surprisingly this five inch backdrop seems to offer something I want to consider more seriously in terms of the experience.

More than just reducing the amount of sky I might be making a model of, this short backdrop addresses a design concern I have: when the layout is really just a narrow shelf I feel that it’s just too easy to delineate visually between the backdrop scene and the three dimensional model that exists in front of it. When the backdrop is a more traditional height I feel like I can stick my head into the scene and look down on the model. In this example, it’s not physically possible to assume that same position and my focus remains looking more at the side of the model instead of the top. Since I can’t easily see the seam between the modelled landscape and the photographed one it’s easier to control that sense of where those borders are. Additionally, by reducing the height of the backscene I feel like we draw attention to the horizontal proportion of the scene and, in doing so, make the scene feel longer than perhaps it really is.

To further explore this idea I constructed a second mockup based on the same basic dimensions. By this point I’m moving away from simply testing a theoretical solution that responds to a design issue with the current layout and more toward a conceptual idea I have been exploring. To provide further context, here are some basic dimensions:

  • The deck area where the model railroad would be built is 6 inches deep and I believe around 12 inches long;
  • The backdrop is five inches tall;
  • The base is itself also five inches tall and the valance over the scene is 2-1/2″ tall;
  • The frame behind the backdrop is about 2 inches deep;

I find I rather like the almost Brutalist aesthetic this form takes on. The visual mass of the layout’s envelope is greater than the actual models though it doesn’t feel out of proportion compared to the room in which it is situated or the wall on which it would hang. The idea is to explore using the fascia surrounding the layout as more than simply a means of cloaking the structural elements of the model railroad and ask it to actually frame the scene and focus your attention on it.

Moving forward from this point, some thoughts:

  • I find this short backdrop attractive visually and like the effect it has on the scene contained within;
  • Access to the scene from above now must be maintained by leaving the top of the scene open;

If the layout is considered as a whole that includes the fascia that surrounds it should it’s design aesthetic be similar? (e.g. perhaps a 1970’s-era suburban setting). Even if not, with so little area provided to the model I feel that colours and textures within the scene should be quite deliberate in their selection for the way they compliment each other and homogenize the message they illustrate for the viewer.

Categories: How I think

19 replies

  1. I absolutely love planning 1:1 with mockups. I usually uses boxes or shelves or whatever is handy. The foam core mockups here are fantastic!

    • I remember your post in which you described the mockups you created to explore benchwork heights, viewing angles, etc. and still think your approach was spectacularly elegant in its simplicity.

      Comparing all three options and considering each as a planning tool I can certainly see the value of managing design using the strengths of each: I’m using sketches to map out the general arrangement of objects and test practical things like siding lengths or space utilization. As the design moves to three dimensional forms I feel like I can work faster in corrugated cardboard or foamcore to manage the evolution of the plan. The short backdrop is a good example of this – I kept hacking out an inch of height until I was feeling content with what remained.


  2. I hate to be the practical guy again, but the reason I made my backdrop as high as I did was so that I could easily lean in to work on things toward the backdrop. So backdrop height is a function of layout depth. Minimally, you need room to swing tools around (a drill for making feeder holes), and get your head in there to sight down the track if you need to ever figure out a kink.

  3. Having said that, in the room, my layout looks like a skyscape.

  4. What scale are you working in here?

    It seems that maybe there’s a relationship between backdrop height and layout depth that will generate the desired effect? You’ve moved pretty close to 0.8:1 in that regard where most shelf layouts are 1:1 or greater.

    I’ve often thought that using a valence and fascia to frame the scene would allow a “zoom effect” if scenes could be made shallower and shorter. This seems very much like proof of concept!

    • I assembled these with 1/87 scale models in mind.

      I feel like there is a ratio here and wanted to explore it. The idea being not unlike discussing the composition of a photograph or a painting.

      What intrigues me is that I don’t think the ratio I used for HO would change in a linear fashion with a change in the scale of the models. I’m thinking about using up a bit more foamcore to recreate these same modules, or even just the single “Brutalist” one in 1/160 and again to support a 1/48 model so see how my relationship with the stage changes.


      • By saying that the ratio won’t scale, would it be fair to say that there’s an optimal aperture for layout viewing that’s more dependent on a person’s height relative to the layout height?

        My S scale layout is set at 42″ layout height, with the intention of being viewed from a seated position. By seating the viewer, I can take out some of the viewing angle variation created by the person’s height. With adjustable chairs, I can probably take out all variation by setting the chair height so the viewer’s eyes are at a consistent 48″ or so.

        If the scenes are only 5″ tall, then it becomes possible to have multiple decks that can be viewed from the seated position and it may be possible to control the optimal viewing height for each viewer with stops on the gas-operated chairs…

      • That’s a great point about arranging the layout to work with a seated viewer as a means of leveling that viewing angle to suit both the taller and shorter viewers. I hadn’t thought it from that perspective (or even this sentence as a pun until it happened).

        Stemming from this curiousity: we tend to think of the fascia as simply a way of dressing up the exposed edges of the layout but could instead use it as a means of controlling the viewing angle of the scene. As you suggest, even the experience of the viewer in a very direct way. We put a lot of effort into the design of the “stage” and by guiding the viewer might help them to see what we do.

        I’ve increased the aperature for my latest effort to 8″ (vertical) and am contemplating moving the layout up to 56″ from the floor over my previous 52″. I’m looking for a height that works equally well standing on seated on something like a bar stool.

        I’m really enjoying this thread. Thank you.


  5. There is an article on layout lighting in the latest MRJ (253) that will fit right in with this concept.



  1. 1, 2, 3, 4. | Prince Street

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