Small Layout Success (Part Three)…

In the first and second part of this series, James and I talked about what makes a great small layout and gave some thoughts on composition and colour that can materially impact that we’ve considered in our own design work.

Those three principles were:

  • Deliberate scene composition
  • Consistent colour, both temperature and palette
  • Theatrical style viewing window
MRJ Compendium 2

In the 1990s I inherited my Grandpa’s collection of Model Railway Journal, and the story of their ‘Inkerman Street’ project layout showed an expansive scene presented in a immersive manner where the vertical height of the viewing area was almost totally taken up by a viaduct on the left, and large warehousing along the back, where the depth of scene allowed for a variation in height, where the goods yard textures at the forefront with the mundane and everyday coal wagon provided a foundation somehow for the suburban passenger operation above, all imbued with the dirt and smoke of an inner city location (despite only ever seeing black and white photos).

James Hilton, April 2021

I also recall the Manchester Model Railway Society’s 2mm scale magnus opus ‘Chee Tor’, a truly awesome scenic layout that completely dumbstruck me in it’s presentation of the dramatic Peak district limestone landscape. The depth of the scenery here really played with the scale of the trains, to provide something of the scale of the real scene. The layout filled your entire view with a bleak and well observed landscape, a subdued palette of colour, all finished to such a standard and with engaging presentation that it was bound to put the viewer in the scene.

However, whilst these larger layouts conveyed an immersive scene by literally filling your field of view, there wasn’t an obvious answer in the smaller scale, smaller footprint layouts. Exhibitions showed us styles from flat baseboards to those with high backscenes including a lighting rig, and everything in between, but all of these fell short of the impact of those large layouts.

James Hilton, April 2021

Even today, we don’t have exhibitions here in Canada like the ones James describes. Layouts in our shows remain the domain of the large modular layout. I think this is a contrast of culture that informs our design experience. Layout of the month articles from a British magazine inevitably include a comment by the layout builder discussing their plan to stand in front of, beside, or behind their layout and this creates a sense of connection between viewer, modeller, and layout (1:1:1). The American modular show layout, composed of sections provided by the individual modeller, still encourages a discussion comparing standing in front of the layout or behind it; but the ratio of viewer-modeller-layout is not the same because there’s no need to stand by your module so long as someone is near the layout to keep the trains on the track. While there is still someone in front of the layout the opportunities for connection are diluted by the conditions that are derivative of that design. This isn’t a conversation about what’s inside the box but how does the box itself affect our experience? More than just layout height but if we incorporate a structural lighting valance than the result is a letterbox-like design and how does that horizontally-biased viewing area affect our experience. Does the shape of the front edge of the layout change our relationship of what’s inside by modulating our interface, human to thing, with the model railway?

The smaller size of the Cameo layout lends itself well to experimentation since the Cameo layout doesn’t need a substantial structural form. These layouts often live on a shelf so they have no need for framing to support a load being carried; their backdrops and even lighting valances are smaller too so require framing to prevent warping but otherwise little else is needed. Modern life means that most of us are without workshop space. In the smaller Cameo-like plans the modeller can experiment with non-traditional materials, like foamcore or even balsa, that are more flexible in form, no less structurally valid (all those flying model airplanes do so on balsa frames), and can be worked with simple hand tools on any table-like surface. The smaller layout becomes an exciting opportunity because it offers something that the larger cannot: what kinds of layout shape and form can we create since it has almost non-existent structural needs?

I recall a conversation with my Dad over a pint, about the same time as a different style of layout was becoming popular on the exhibition circuit – the cameo… Dad had been a stage carpenter whilst at university and talked about the ‘tricks of the trade’ and how he had adopted that in his modelling, only creating what you see, not worrying about what you can’t, hiding tracks behind scenery and using half relief at the edge of the stage to disguise holes in the back scene… his evocative descriptions of that time in his life helped bring the ideas to life more than just seeing photos in the magazines and the concepts struck a chord with my young mind.

The defining character of a cameo layout is a theatrical style… a viewing window that allows you to strongly control the view. It’s presentation can be thought of like a stage set with wings hiding the entrance/exits to the scene, disguising where our actors appear and disappear, framing the view in a way where we are encouraged to feel the scene continues beyond the edges, to inquisitively gaze into the scene and fruitlessly try to gaze around the edges, to the beyond. The presentation with a top and bottom pelmet limits how we can view the layout from above, and whether it’s even possible to gaze along the tracks, or just across them. As important is the integral lighting, which as the theatre is an opportunity to control another important element ‘on stage’ highlighting what we want, and disguising what we don’t, ensuring our creation is presented at it’s best, as we intended.

James Hilton, April 2021

We see a lot of “advice” on how to fit track into a space and as much on how to move trains across the model railway but almost nothing on how to move the viewer around in the space. That’s funny isn’t it? I mean, the connection point between the human viewer and the model railway scene is a lifeline for the model railway. What matters what happens inside the box if you never get to lift the lid to look inside? 

Borrowing from the study of traffic on roads or efficiency within our kitchens we learn that changing the shape of something, changing lighting, or the dimension of a space can alter our relationship with it. A pocket in benchwork might invite the visitor into explore; narrow aisles might discourage people from lingering; a slit in the side wall of our backdrop might tease a curious eye. Lessons from beyond the world of model railroading could be applied to guide the viewer. This isn’t about controlling a human but about curating an experience. This isn’t a power trip but a question on how to do something with design so that when we share what we’ve made with someone important to us they get to see it the way we do? Maybe feel it the way we do? It’s about asking how to leverage design to enrich that connection potential. 

I mentioned my Long Siding as a tool to convert the sense of distance by time lost. Navigation within the scene might be a helpful tool too. If we add obstructions into the scene and weave the path of our trains around these things how does that affect our relationship with distance? If we simply arrange our shelf with all the tall bits at the back and then the trains at the front the scene is too easy to understand. By interpreting it too quickly perhaps it doesn’t create a moment long enough to trigger a curiousity about what goes on inside it. It never asks us to climb inside to look around. 

In the examples above the placement of buildings creates obstructions you have to look around. You can hear the train working behind those things and you can see it move behind there. You’re invited to follow it into the scene to see what it’s doing and where it goes. By moving within the space you’re exploring its dimensions so instead of your experience being limited to the length of the layout as the only way of defining the space you’re adding the depth of the scene or the projection of sight lines to that length and as a sequential experience that initial length of the layout is increased by distance added.

Controlling viewing angles is not only the job of the non scenic framing, as Chris suggests it’s possible to use structures, trees and even the landscape to add what is almost the inverse of traditional modelling, placing things at the front of the layout rather than the back, getting ‘in the way’ on purpose. The engine shed at Pont-y-dulais is perhaps a curious illustration of this as it’s obviously an interesting structure and features some internal detail that encourages further closer viewing and drawing the eye into the scene. However it also serves as a view block, controlling the angle that the left hand end of the layout can be viewed at allowing the crossing and it’s surrounding overgrown bushes to use a fixed photo backdrop that is never viewed from a sub-optimal angle. It also has a third element, it hides the engine momentarily, building anticipation, the waiting time slowing our interaction, adding the opportunity of occurrences to interact, things that increase the time we spend in the space, perhaps even increasing that feeling of space.

James Hilton, April 2021
The engine shed on Pont-y-dulais, with Hornby B2 Peckett ‘Bronwen’

Physical stage set presentation, as we call ‘cameo style’ is something I’ve experimented with somewhat accidentally on recent layouts. A few years ago I built East Works and I set the viewing window height at 12”. When viewed at eye level, at close quarters many remarked about the feeling of space (I’d say attributed to previous blogs) however to me this vertical height made me feel somewhat lost in it, it didn’t draw me down to the layout scene, it allowed me to float about above the scene looking down rather than into it… contrast this with Pont-y-dulais where I was restricted by the layouts original home, above my work bench (in fact squeezed under East Works) where the letterbox view means the window height is significantly lower yet somehow suits the subject, an overcast day in South Wales as well as tightly controlling how the layout is viewed.

James Hilton, April 2021
East Works, set up for viewing at ExpoNG 2019, operated by Harry Dawe

When you consider the presentation of a small layout as part of its overall conceptual design then you carefully think about its physical structure and how you want it to be viewed, including what height it is best presented. The control offered by a cameo presentation allows the subject to be presented in a controlled manner, by limiting how it can be viewed we can help guide the onlooker around and into the scene. It may be your layout is home based and doesn’t ever leave the comfort of your lounge, however it’s ability to capture the imagination of visitors and casual viewers, to be a real creative addition to your space to be enjoyed by all who have a chance to see it mean that how it looks, how it is presented is as important as those that spend hours under the gaze of the paying public at exhibitions. At home a floating shelf, or perhaps atop a bookcase give a great home to this style of layout, almost a 3D painting, not hidden away, a proud addition. That means a neat finish is important, to not detract, just as the frame of a painting should support and add something to the content, the same should be said of our layout framing and casework.

As I’ve sat and thought about, distilled my thinking and written my small part in this trilogy the thing that has struck me most is how much I personally love small layouts. The best part of a small layout is the ability to start, create and finish your inspiration in perhaps as little as a few months, certainly within a year. The cost in terms of both space required and £££ are low, however the chance to scratch that itch and model a prototype or photo you’ve wanted to for ages… that’s priceless. When I look back, as with Chris, a lot of my own ‘planned’ schemes fall into the ‘small’ category. Despite planning and building larger longer term projects, I will continue to find a home for small layouts.

James Hilton, April 2021

I start a lot of layouts that never progress far. That’s an embarrasing part of my story but almost every one of them has been atypical of different design. Scrolling back through a thousand posts on Prince Street I see so many examples where I learned something about design that has made helped me understand what I want from the next model railway. I don’t understand this idea of a lifetime layout because no life is an unchanging static thing. We should grow. These things we express love toward and give life into will grow with us and mature alongside as part of the collective experience of our life. Years ago during one of our amazing discussions on craft and the human experience Krista casually dropped the phrase “human-centric layout design” on me in her usual effortless style and like her, I chase that phrase as part of my reason for being. Too much of our design places the model railroader in a position of serving the needs of the layout yet what we’re building is for us. This hobby is not “cool” like rock’n’roll or really knowing whiskey so its something we do because we need to. So much of our participation in it salves a need from deep within our soul. We should do things that respect the investment of our self we make into what we create so that the experience of doing this was worth it. 

These three elements have no hierarchy, each must be considered in turn and the result iterated through a process of conception and evolution during construction. The result will be a layout that delivers on your initial aim: to reference a scene, a prototype, in miniature and evoke the emotional response in yourself, as well as others. That is my measure of small layout success…

James Hilton, April 2021

This series was something that grew out of a conversation James and I are having. It excites my creative self in ways I can’t describe that we’re thinking like this and hosting a design conversation like this. As always, if you’re still reading this far in I can’t thank you enough. Also, if you made it this far what do you think? If this is really human-centric it’s about all of us, each of us, you too. What do you think?

Categories: hilton & mears duo

13 replies

  1. Train show modular layouts are like mini-fortresses that spectators have to place ladders against like they’re scaling the castle wall. Inside, the defenders dump the boiling oil of sarcasm and disinterest (sometimes) to keep them at bay.

    I applaud the ‘out front’ nature of the layouts you’re discussing. If we are able to work again on our Hanley Spur modular layout, our plan was to be able to access 360-degrees, with a rope line to demarcate operations from spectating. But there would be no fortress. And in Kingston, a city dominated by stone walls, forts and prisons, that’s quite a thing!

    Thanks for sharing these insights!

    • The old fashioned N Trak zoo style presentation was just insulation protecting the fragile model railroader from the public that they were ironically hosting the show for. Weird eh?

      Here in our region two clubs have broken that once invincible barrier and I’m so proud of them. Their large FREMO-style layouts sprawl across the exhibition room floor but are never hidden behind fences. I’m so proud of these clubs for doing things that create a space where we can interact with those who visit the show to see these layouts. In that shared space we can connect and enrich the quality of our experience by sharing in that interest in model trains. It’s not just brilliant layout design we are learning from our European friends but how we show off our work too. It can only get better.

      Always, always, always wonderful to hear from you. I can’t wait to return to Coffee Time again. There needs to be more Trackside Treasure-Prince Street confectionaries and coffee time.


  2. Chris, maybe slightly off topic but I always feel inspired whenever you show that photo & drawing of the foamcore mockup. I think it’s a super interesting idea – like a Swiss cheese with a train running through it. I’m starting to build a series of 230mm x 230mm micro layouts that aren’t thematically unconnected but which I’ll connect up in a line, and I’m wondering if your idea could be a way to display them. As a series of shadow boxes seen through a perforated front panel. A train running through that could look very cool, especially with the perforations at different heights depending on the varying heights of the scenics above or below the track. The artificial nature of that appeals to me.

    I also like your Prince Street image, particularly the way the (red) layout projects past the (blue) backdrop. It breaks out of the proscenium arch idea and is more like a stage apron or even a catwalk. Again it adds an aspect of artificiality that I like, but this time, projecting out rather than being contained within a frame.

    Thanks for the inspiration,

    • Hey Kev! Great to hear from you.

      That layout was cool. I still think about it and I’m glad I made up the mockup to test a theory of its design. Because of that, I have a sense of reference points that, even if not literally, I should be considering in future layouts I’d built. The full post was here:

      That layout worked like your series of scenes will work. I felt it crucially important to divide these scenes not just with a fractional thickness of a backdrop but with that half car length white space. Something obtrusive that broke your attention, resetting it before you moved into the next scene. The same way we use some kinds of food during a meal to cleanse our palette and ready us to receive the next good thing to eat.

      I struggle with communicating distance in small layouts and I hoped that this presentation style would help truncate that sense of distance travelled. It would be really fun to explore it by way of a series of more distinct scenes. If you ever get a minute I’d really like to learn more about what you’re thinking of here in terms of scenes.

      It took me a second to figure out what you were referring to in the Prince Street image but then I realised you were referring to my Matchbox:

      I love the Matchbox. The way it works like a puzzle box unfolding and expanding to reveal a fully functioning model railway. I also like the way it acts as a disconnected series of things. Traditional model railway design, like a lot of things, establishes a perimeter that becomes a boundary and the Matchbox by its nature constantly escapes from that envelope. That feels precocious and I like that feeling.

      Looking forward to hearing more about your projects.


      • The matchbox is a fun idea. I like it b/c it makes the entire layout a work of art, including the off-scene parts, and makes playing with it more of a ritual than just turning on the power. The modern version of antique mechanical furniture. And the idea that all parts, including tools, are stored within it is great as well. In it’s closed position I even wonder if the valance could rest on the layout, so it’s a fully closed, long box just sitting on the wall – then before you slide the layout to the right, you first have to slide the valance upwards, unrolling a fabric backscene like a window blind (I once owned an old home-movie screen that folded out from a long wooden box). I’m a fan of ikea and I wonder if some of their parts could be used.

        Actually, with batteries and a fold-down stand, it’s a “buskers-layout” – quick to set up in a town centre and equally quick to fold up and disappear with, before the police arrive :)

        In the past I’ve been stuck getting started with a layout b/c there are SO many scenes I’d like to build – so for my micro layouts I’m allowing myself to forget about having a common location and instead just make micro scenes as I feel like it. I had thought of just stringing them together on a table as one long straight line but I think your idea is the way I’ll go. I’m not someone who cares about running the correct trains and I just think it’d be fun to see a train running through weirdly incongruous scenes.

        At present I’m working on a swamp scene over a low bridge, and after that I’ll have a go at an Australian outback scene (I have a photo of a railway line where the ground is almost 100% orange). Other ideas are a mountain-side line in fog (the joke being that the train is obscured by the fog), a burning rubbish pile or tire-fire (don’t know how I’ll do that yet), the Oland Loren Bahn in Germany, La Petite Ceinture in Paris – and now I think about it, a section of Underground/Metro would be perfect as well.

        I wonder if a way to think of your idea is as a freestanding block you can walk around, where the viewing apertures are on all sides and even the top – I especially like the middle part of your mockup, the way you can see past the bridge and out the other side. Again I’m thinking of Swiss cheese!

      • I’m excited to read we see so many of the same things in this idea. That feels so exciting.

        I too thought about creating this like one of those old projection screens. It could even use the same kind of folding, telescopic stand making its transport or storage as simple and quick as could be imagined.

        I hadn’t thought about how self sufficient it could be but your absolutely right in that we could set some batteries into it and it would be completely independant. You can buy (I have) some really nice little PWM motor controllers from eBay these days and coupled with those batteries this could be really fun!

        Thank you for sharing your ideas. I started wondering about connectivity between the scenes–Canadian, Australian, etc. railways use rolling stock based on United States design so might it work to have trains that looked similar traversing these scenes as a form of secondary connection linking them together?

        I like the question about forming this into a block that could be viewed from more than one side and the design cutting into that form to expose the story going on within that core. In this way you could easily use or recycle track from one scene as staging for the others depending on what scene you would like to enjoy during that moment’s play.

        Thank you for continuing to share ideas into this. I really appreciate it.


  3. Yep I’m enjoying bouncing ideas around with you. It’s good to find someone open to thinking about different ideas.

    “ scene as staging for the others..” That jumped out at me as something interesting. Could there be a way to focus attention on specific scenes while underplaying others that are acting as staging? Perhaps a lighting system that turns on and off as the train enters and exits the “on stage” scenes.

    Or even sliding panels that close off the scenes that are not on show.

    As for what rolling stock to use, I guess it depends on how much HORROR you may feel about running the incorrect train :) I take your point that a generic North American/Australasian train would help. I’m not planning on making my scenes look too accurate to place, so the layout as a whole could depict a very long fictitious line, that travels through very diverse country.

    But equally if someone wants to model a strictly real-life line, with accurate rolling stock, each scene would be a snapshot along that route, picking out only the most interesting parts of the real-life line. I think that’d be a worthwhile challenge.

    Now you have me thinking of the staging tricks the English modelers use, like the traverser and the section plate. There’s even a guy on YouTube who has a vertical mechanism lift an entire train & track from staging below, up into the inside of a long engine shed*. Throw in a scenic section that’s on a turntable and the whole thing would be an amazing mechanical marvel!

    I had been planning on carefully finishing each scene before starting the next, but I may instead have to slap up a few scenes on raw foamcore and see what they look like together in three dimensions.

    *search for Train Lift on Piccadilly N Gauge Model Railway by John Warner if you’re interested.

    • This is awesome.

      “Perhaps a lighting system that turns on and off as the train enters and exits the “on stage” scenes.” would be easy enough to do mechanically. I’m hooked on your idea of a cube that you can move around the outside of where parts have been exposed to reveal scenes from within. So a question on this modulated lighting would be: should it vary to lead the viewer? We’d assign a main scene and in here we’d have all the lighting we ever dreamed of; then in the next scene (adjacent or related) the lighting effect is subdued perhaps by half; finally the unrelated scene is dark. Maybe it’s in the reverse? The main scene is still fully lit but the next one we should move warms up to invite us to move?

      I grabbed the Australia-Canada-USA example because it meant models that were closest in appearance but I think there’s a universality in many of the scenes we consider that we could go way broader in these and things don’t look that far off. This type of work is clearly removed from the photo-precise modelling in the mainstream finescale modelling and while it wanders into the more subjective it could easily use that to its advantage. I’m wandering into another tangent but you could use a constant and follow it around. That “constant” could be a shipping container. You could follow it as it was moved from one country’s container train to another as if following that shipment on its journey.

      I’ve seen some train elevator ideas and I will certainly look for the John Warner example you mentioned. In our conversation so far I think that its important the the train move fluidly from scene to scene and that an elevator might be too harsh a shift into another direction. What I need to do is think about this more and see where its advantage is.

      This is fascinating. I really appreciate it. This feels like such a wonderful reward for creating those initial concept models for these plans to explore this idea in the first place. Modelling things like distance and movement through it are real challenges only amplified by the small space of these layouts. I’m excited, really turned on, by a conversation about how to explore what it means to move.

      Thank you


      • Yes. I think that lighting plan would be great. I’d even wonder if, as well as reducing the lighting level, the off-scenes could be lit with say, red lighting. So everything would be low level red, except for the multicoloured scene on show at that moment. That way the whole layout is still visible and interesting, but there’s no mistaking which scene is on show.

        Following a shipping container around a series of diverse scenes is a really good idea, and not too much of a stretch from reality. It would be a statement on modern supply chains (especially if a background image could show a container ship stuck in the Suez Canal). And yeah, I think this idea would really only appeal to someone who doesn’t mind a lot of abstraction – or who just wants a break from finescale.

        I really like the idea of a freestanding layout. One reason is probably its portability (I’m not someone that wants a built-in layout), but also it’s because it creates even more of a finite, self-contained world than a typical layout. I think that is one aspect which you’re getting at with your Wing idea. There’s no backscene, so no attempt to suggest the layout goes on and on. The world ends at the very fine edge of the scenery. I’m really comfortable with that level of abstraction. This idea, as well as your Wing idea, are beautiful objects where every aspect is thought out, even the undersides.

      • As another moment in my never-ending interest in abstract and conceptual thoughts on model railway design I had wondered about night time operation by light. You know, those little clip-on LED lights you can attach to a hat or helmet to provide focussed high intensity lighting for work, rock climbing, or exploring caves. What if the layout room was dark and the only light source was this? That would be more than enough to see couplings or read car numbers but its focus would remove adjacent visual noise and concentrate the experience.


  4. This could be fun. I think those forehead things give pretty powerful white light. But something toned down to a yellow, focused beam. This would be great. I’ve done some pre-dawn work with my grandparent’s truck, so remember the experience of using a torch in a moonless sky. It creates a world only a few metres in diameter.

    So I’ll see you, and raise you..
    I suggest periodic dipping of the hands in ice water to simulate the physical difficulty of working with cold hands on freezing metal.

    • I can “see” that moment of working on your grandparent’s truck. It reminds me of replacing the alternator in our old Mercedes one night in January outside. It was so cold and, laying there on the ground around midnight I worked. In between cursing the frigid cold it was a kind of peaceful I will always remember. That car and the moment are gone but the emotional memory of it is as strong now as it was then.

      I’ll try the cold hands and promise our hypothetical operators during this sensory operating session that there is fresh coffee on and worth having a cup of even if only for the embrace.



  1. Big. Small. – Prince Street

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