I can’t find this book

2018_04_17 18-10-28

The seed for every model railroad is its plan. The plan can be a scope defining the theme or a procedure that will guide its construction but without “the plan” there is nothing. We make synonymous terms like layout design and track planning. How we execute the creation of the plan is as different as each of us. Why we do it connects us like a language. Nourished by the media of layout construction the layout plan flourishes into a fully formed layout. The best layouts, we agree, were born in good planning.

One of my all time favourite art gallery shows presented Hamilton’s collection of Art Deco structures by exhibiting the original architectural drawings created for the construction of each. These drawings were all drawn by hand. When we draw this way we leave evidence of our humanity in each line each time that line projects past an intersection with another line and in the smudges on the page from stray graphite caught under our hands as we move about that drawing. Those marks connect us through time to those designers and looking at these drawings you see them as each building’s designers did and you share a moment with them. The title block on each page assigns a designer, by identity, to each design but those marks on the page breathe life into these things showing how their hands passed across each page and the beauty I see is from that evidence of life where this paper was touched and how those lines were guided.

A few years ago we attended a presentation on Canadian typography. This presentation was an education on the history of Canadian type designers offered by one of its members. It left us with a beautifully crafted book created of their work. I love the way the book was designed to make a bold presentation of each style and then provide each designer with a place say something about the time, the type, or themselves. Each designer was given full control of how each typeface would be presented and what story they wished to share so as you leaf through the book it’s like moving through a room of people at a really good party: the constant is the book’s form but the change is the personality left on each page. When typography is presented this way it is releases the beauty of type from the practicality of its purpose: to tell a story or convey an idea when voice or action isn’t possible.

I would like to have a book like this for model railway layout design that takes away the physicality of the layout and spends time with the designer and their influence on our hobby. Where before we might consider a plan purely in analytically terms like certain curve radii, turnout sizes, or passing siding lengths, this work considers the plan simply as what it is in the terms of its presentation and asks: Do I like the presentation of the idea?

In a way, model railroading is like the world of fashion. Just as a fashion designer almost trademarks their mastery of the colour red, a thin line of yellow thread against black leather, or a particularly attractive hemline, we can develop a history of our hobby in terms of those popular designers and their influence on what and how we create in this hobby. Even if we don’t own a direct example we see evidence of that designer’s influence in other work. The stark, efficient style of a Mindheim track plan that will be used to stage a celebration of Miami’s amazingly rich and vibrant railroading scene is so easy to distinguish from the classical pen and ink style Wild Swan apply to the presentation of an Iain Rice design. So strong are their individual design aesthetics that it no longer matters what they are creating we can still pick out their design by the way that designer stages each scene, arranging components within it, and even how they draw the parts like a turnout joining two tracks in the plan. Their influence is not just in how it inspires a new generation of model railroads created but their style becomes our design primer as the place where you and I learned track planning and layout design, their published plans are the toolkit we draw from.

In my library, scattered among the books I keep, are examples of designer’s work I admire. I think it would be so completely enjoyable to collect it all together in one beautifully bound copy. Something I could savor over a nice glass of wine. These designs spread across pages as the muse of contemplation for the joy of studying another artist’s work. This book is a collection of favourite designers and it is a catalogue of their style presented in their voice. It doesn’t exist, or at least I can’t find it, and I would like to purchase a copy. Since I can’t reconcile my desire to have this book with its non-existence, perhaps it’s time to declare my interest in it. I have a suite of layout designers whose work I am a great fan of. I can see a two-page wide spread showing just one plan. Style of presentation is the designer’s decision as is how they use this full spread and then turning the page provides two more pages for the designer: page one is a smaller presentation of the same plan and its companion page shares the designer’s notes:

Paper? Pencil or ink? Computer? Why?

Design is a negotiation between things that you can change and things you can’t. You chose this plan and I suspect that within it there’s a place that you’re particular proud of the way you proposed a resolution to one of these situations. Can you tell us about it? Not how well it crams something into the space but did you create something in this plan that made you feel like you grew as a designer when this happened?

I opened with an example I chose from the designs I’ve previously posted on this blog simply because I felt that in a blog post about design I should actually show an example. Where, at the time, I probably presented this in terms of how it fit into a space in our home or how I envisioned it as a means of expressing a vision of railroading that was vivid in my imagination I am now sharing it as an example of a drawing that I know I simply like looking at.

I have been sketching layout designs for most of my life. Not all become fully-formed formal design projects and fewer still were ever realized in lumber, foam, and flex track. In the last few years I have been cataloguing more and more of these designs so I can return to them to identify themes even within my own work that are almost constants: A certain arrangement of compound curves and complimentary lines that most of my designs emerge from; I also realize I draw right-handed plans where I intend to turn to the right to see the rest of the scene and I find I don’t draw as many where I’d turn to the left. Do you?


I have an extensive portfolio of design that was created on a computer and for formal work never question this tool in this application but it’s a bulky and clumsy device during the conceptual phases of design where my energy needs to be expressed quickly to vent the idea efficiently without waste and my pencil moving over paper is an unbeaten athlete in this race.

Maybe it’s the start of something. This is the book on layout design; for the layout designers who start on paper and screen. Maybe next time a companion book for those who find it easier to express their vision in live media. More efficient to vent their creative process immediately in lumber, foam, and flex track, than to start on paper first.

For certain: I can’t find this book but I’d collect it if I could and nowhere in this book are my plans.

Categories: How I think

2 replies

  1. I’d consider myself a brand new modeller with little to no experience so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

    I started two years ago and built what I thought would be a fun layout: a timesaver. I did read online warnings against this but at the time I wanted lots of tracks, plenty to do, in the least amount of space possible. And while eventually I had to face the depressing decision to tear out all my hard work to build something that was more suitable, I did have fun with it. If anything, I got to enjoy it until it was no longer enjoyable: I grew up in model train terms and levelled up. I am not sure if I would have learnt the same way had I done something more “correct” first as outlined by a book.

    I bring this up as I have found Lance Mindheim to sort of have the philosophy that you are talking about. Lance, who seems to be a model railroading rock star from what I have been reading online, presents plans that are the complete opposite of a Timesaver yet end up being significantly more enjoyable. Plenty of sneaked in 15-minute switching sessions throughout the day with my Lance-inspired plan with far less track and only five switches.

    Perhaps then the book you’re looking for may be one of the many Lance (and maybe Iian Rice of MR fame?) have put out: they’re outlining a philosophy that grown modellers understand yet provide a template for new modellers such as myself to visually grasp what the philosophy is all about. Then ultimately, much like a book on typography, you know what to do if you want to do it.

    Just some random thoughts in response. Take them as you will. Criticism welcomed.

    • You raise an interesting conversation. My primary interest in the hobby is often one of the relationship between the model railroader and the model railroad. Too often, our advice serves the hobby instead of trying to help the modeller discover what it is they need in return from the hobby to feel as it was worth their investment. While the Timesaver may not have worked out for you it sounds like it was a successful investment in helping you identify what it was you were looking for. The hobby press presents the hobby as if there were one Utopian answer but like footprints or clouds, there’s no one answer and no static moment.

      The book I’m looking for isn’t about the layouts or their complexity. I regard the trackplan itself as an art like any drawing or painting. This book isolates the drawing from its role of guiding layout construction to a standalone thing. Mindheim and Rice I mentioned because their presentation style is so different and worthy of consideration the same way we’d look at a Hopper painting or charcoal drawing by Kentrige. Why does one prefer digital over paper media? Do they draw within the walls of the room or redraw to fit after?


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