organic framing (The Wing part 2)

Earlier this week I shared a sketch I had titled The Wing. I had in mind a vision of a freestanding model railway design and an alternative to how we design benchwork. Rather than thinking about how we use the space for track planning it’s the design of that frame that is different. By drawing each edge down to a fine point it has no need for fascia and released from a backdrop it works more like a feature in a room.

But there’s another design change here too. One that is fundamental. I created the above sketch based on pretty much how we frame just about every model railway we build. It’s a design not unlike the balloon framing style we’d use to build wood-framed houses built in the last century. The principle is based on a framing member that forms the perimeter. “Loads”, such that they are, from things within the model railway like the track and trains are distributed by stringers out to that perimeter. “L girder” or other styles of benchwork all work on this same basic principle of spreading the load outward to a perimeter of main carrying members that gather those loads and carry them to legs which, more often or not, are out at the corners of the layout.

In The Wing we rely on a single structural member that concentrates loads and those legs are moved inboard, like the landing gear on an airplane. We still have crossmembers that are placed perpendicular to this core but their length is ambiguous and determined only by how far from the core we need to reach outward to carry the scene at this particular section of the layout. Considering this form it feels more natural and it’s hard not to see that it’s pretty much also how most mammals are engineered. Our arms and legs and like extremities are tied back to our spine and the spine does the work both of coordinating motion. The spine is not rigid and can move fluidly, flexibly, to facilitate the movements of our life.

In my sketch I have shown an aluminum tube mostly as a nostalgic hangover from the days of selling model airplane kits at the hobby shop. Aluminum tubing is easy to find in most towns and isn’t something you need to buy at a hobby shop–if you have a hardware store you have it. Similar materials that would work as well include tubing used for electrical conduit or even plastic water or sewer pipe. The round section feels familiar and I just like the look of it in a sketch. A square section will work every bit as well.

I’ve been talking about this spine in The Wing considering it as a structural form but it’s tubing. Is it too much to suggest that, also just like our own spines, it too can be a conduit, carrying wiring from the tracks and other electrical appliances on the layout along its core back to where they go?

I think this is forming into a brief series of posts so I thought I’d start a category for The Wing so we can recall them all if we ever want to: the wing – Prince Street (

Categories: How I think, model railway design, the wing

13 replies

  1. I love these explorations.

    Other people doing similar things are Rick Candido, Jonathan Jones, Riley Triggs, and in their own ways, Professor Klyzlr, David Barrow, and the designers of the Tottenhoe Mineral Railway. There is an awful lot of architectural/engineering/design background amongst you.

    Maybe instead of “Wing Layout” posts, you could make a home for “engineered layout” posts.

    I think it was Vogue editor Diana Vreeland who said, “You can’t be too thin or too rich.” I think a model railroad can’t be too sparing of materials and too simple to construct.

    • Sorry for my late reply and thank you for your comment. Just as in Vogue you can’t and you can’t in model railroading, certainly in our conversation and our media, we are only just beginning to consider it from sociological and more architectural perspectives so have what feels like infinite space for more. I’ll cheer that we can never be talking about design of the layout (not track planning) or who the model railroader is enough. More and more please!

      And I like that there’s space to talk about these as conceptual ideas. Like in fashion or architecture (to name just two examples) we need to be considering conceptual conversations as a means of exploring the presumed boundaries of our work. None of these things need to be applied in practice but the lessons learned in conceptual work only enrich our understanding of what we’re trying to achieve.

      I think we often consider model railroading as a subset of an interest in real trains. In this way, real railroading and real places easily dominate over fiction with their fact and that extinguishes, I think, a kind of model railroading that is driven more by what the models could represent. “Could represent” as a function of creative expression.


  2. The initial thing that comes to my mind is, how would this conceptual theory work in reality…
    Many of us display things on walls, or along the edges of the room.
    The wing however would reward more of a coffee table centre piece presentation.

    That said, could the concept of the wing be cut in half… span our from the wall in the same manner? Is this not what the shelf layout does already? My own new project uses wall mounted racking to provide ribs, I use different lengths to allow the layout to flow around the available space and the plan itself… the edge can be as thin as I like, I’m going for 3cm though to better balance the lighting pelmet.

    Many years ago I designed and started constructing a layout that protruded from the wall into the room. It was a single track branch line. No turnouts. Just the track appearing under a road bridge and into a station. The schemes intent was to model the dull mundane reality of railways in the UK today. However I lost interest and it’s size as I was working pretty much to scale, meant it was too large for anywhere but the garage:

  3. I commented on this earlier on my iPad and it’s vanished!

    I am excited by this wing idea…
    I think we often think linear because we display our models along walls…
    The wing lends itself to being a centre piece…

    I reflected too that in a way, my shelf layout has elements of the wing. I’ve used wall racking to allow a spine of supports, these vary in length to suit the space and the model…

    It reminded me of a layout I started but didn’t finish many years ago where I built a ‘wing’ or ‘plank’ on a wooden spine: the intent to mount and display it coming out into the space… it was too big though and only fitted in the garage which was a shame.

    I wonder if we’re traditionally a little shy of sharing our layouts in the home more overtly? Chris, your own description of how hobbies form part of your living space sounds like a lovely place to spend time with those you love.

    • I think I figured it out: somehow your original comment got flagged as spam by WordPress. It’s nice when we can blame the tools for a mistake.

      I was reading your blog on RMWeb (thanks for the link). You had me at Pacer. I’m sold. When I first set up the shelving that Coy and now Victoria rests on the original idea was not all that different from your Rose Hill plan. I wasn’t so much interested in complex operations as I wanted a place on which to practice scenery building technique. Further, I reasoned that in the space I have (about eight feet long; one foot deep) most plans only created a feeling of subtraction when I started adding in turnouts and other “operations” things to “create interest”. Since we share this space, I really did just want something bucolic I could wander over to–much in the same way I do the real railway these days. Because I considered these plans as ones with really just that one line of track (just like your Rose Hill) and because I wanted to build them in N scale or 2mm I knew all that adjacent space would be invested into building the scene and the scene itself would be both fascia and backdrop. Not quite a year later and, thinking about this Wing, I can see connection between the earlier design and this later conceptual thing.

      The first layout I designed for our home was based on one I wanted to build in our home in Charlottetown. Almost twelve feet long, barely six inches deep, it had more turnouts but less to look at. I imagined a semi-translucent backdrop (frosted plexiglass) where the backdrop’s edge created shadow that defined the space of this modelled sky but the semi-translucent nature of the material didn’t distract by actually being a sky. Structures and like static forms on the layout would be rendered in a light wood like colour. I would model actual sigificant things like the track and trains and a few structures. Seeing how Jonathan Jones is doing this with his layout helps me see how good it can look. This plan, to me, was always hung on the wall like a floating shelf. It needed to be so it could be seen.

      The Wing is free from the wall. As suggested in our conversation it should have a place atop a nice piece of furniture where it lives but the ease of moving it would make it easy to change its orientation in the room. For example: we also have a nice open kitchen and I could rest The Wing on a counter to at least photograph it from the opposite side that I’d be used to.

      I think I’m excited about the silhouette that The Wing could cast in a subdued lighting. Times when it’s only a thing in the room. Freed from the parallel lines of traditional rectangular forms every edge of The Wing–every edge–can be ragged so it casts a variety of natural and interesting shadows back into the room. Some familiar like the outline from a building in the scene and some less so like the ragged bottom edge of the framing.


  4. Chris, your idea made me think in terms of bendable tree armatures.

    The central core of the Wing being the trunk, with a series of bendable “branches” reaching out on either side.

    I can’t think of a practical way to do this or what material to use, but the flexibility of the branches would allow the landscape to rise and fall each side. And using a product like Shaper Sheets from Woodland Scenics to span the gaps between the “branches”, you’d create a thin, lightweight landscape shell without need of fascia. I like the idea of being able to see under the layout to it’s bones, and nerves.

    • Let’s keep this in mind because that’s a fascinating thing. Lately I want to interact in the form of my layout and shape it in real developmental time and guide its change as a response to what I have done so far. Tree armature? Yes, like bonsai.

      So how could we find a more flexible way of creating benchwork? Even the aluminum tube I’m proposing as the back is perhaps too rigid. It could be something more flexible. We could stick with the plywood outriggers like I initially drew but in place of the rigid tubing use something like a more pliable conduit material?

      We don’t need the benchwork we create (not always) and if we could rethink how we create it could we be more interactive with its form. Creating that shell? An exoskeleton design.


  5. Dear Chris, James,

    “First Sunday in June”, an SM32 layout from the UK, is actively building a version of the concept you’re investigating. RMWeb thread here

    Hope this helps,

    Happy Modelling,
    Aim to Improve,
    Prof Klyzlr

    • Good morning. I remember FSIJ from the Model Rail Radio podcast but don’t think I knew it had a corresponding RMWeb thread. I’m really keen to go read that both for the relation to what James and I are discussing as well as my own burgeoning interest in 16mm scale narrow gauge practiced as we would smaller scale scenicked indoor modelling because, if I remember correctly, they were attempting a finescale style of modelling in this large scale.

      Thank you!


      • It’s interesting looking at that layout on RM web. The presentation is heavy and far from the wing, in my opinion. It instead feels to me like a promotional display rather than layout, but then I used to see style like this whenever I went to trade shows as an Engineer many years ago…

        The wing felt like a pure isolated floating structure. For that I think it might be unique.

      • And you make an important distinction. When I proposed The Wing crucial parts of its design were not so much the live edge scene as the way it appears to float in mid air and not have a connected structural backdrop. Like an island floating in space.

        As the scale of models goes down and particularly when the scale and gauge combination has the visual mass landing somewhere between HO and N the presence of the trains makes them so difficult to relate to until you are very deep physically into the scene. This happens because the fascia and backdrop are just so visually massive and loud they distract from the purpose of the railway. (If we think of an OO9 or N scale model in the scene we’re talking about a two inch tall model within a context of a six to twelve inch tall fascia against a twelve to twenty-four inch tall backdrop. Our little model is a thin stripe of interest which feels contrary to our purpose).

        Sorry for the rambling but very grateful for the conversation.


      • Dear Chris, James,

        “…As the scale of models goes down and particularly when the scale and gauge combination has the visual mass landing somewhere between HO and N the presence of the trains makes them so difficult to relate to until you are very deep physically into the scene. This happens because the fascia and backdrop are just so visually massive and loud they distract from the purpose of the railway….”

        I’ve been considering a vaguely similar thing recently, that being “how to do a layout base, and lighting pelmet/tray-assembly, but without a backdrop or visible means of support?”

        The problem, I fear, is not so much “can it be done?” (the answer being “Yes”, and the “How?” being “foamcore and some visual subterfuge”), but rather _should_ it be done?

        Lemme explain with a simple GIF example.

        Now, the layout itself is the gorgeous “Florida Springs” by Chris Gilbert, and the display is typical of a higher-spec UK exhibition layout. However, that gaping hole between the layout surface and the lighting pelmet, typically left for UK-planks where “operating from the back” requires operator view over-the-backdrop to be maintained, leaves all of the backstage “visual clutter” of an exhibition on full display to the viewer, and arguably detracts-significantly from the scale model presentation. Indeed, I’d argue the “visual mess”, inc people moving around, etc is far more distracting than a _tastefully_deployed_ backdrop, or even a simple coved piece of well-lit matteboard… ;-)

        Thru the magic of Photoshop, I just had to see what a “fully enclosed proscenium” would look like, and while I agree it significantly “encloses and encapsulates” the viewers eyelines, it also measurably _improves_ the overall visual focus on the layout, which after-all is what the modeller has spent many many many hours carefully crafting in order to put on display “best foot forward” so-to-speak…

        Using “the wing” to foil the common “hard vertical fascia edge” on the “viewing side” of the layout is absolutely a good thing to investigate, and I do look forward to more of your musings on the subject. However, throwing out the backdrop along with it, in any situation where the layout is not shown in a perfectly-dimmed museum-grade environment, (IE where anything visually extraneous to the visual focal-point model scene is minimised below conscious “noisefloor”), I fear would visually spoil much of the gains…

        Happy Modelling,
        Prof Klyzlr

      • I’d definitely plan to present the wing against a plain back drop, be that a wall at home, or plain black or dark grey screen in an exhibition. The lighting would be purposeful, to light the scene, and the background just needs to be muted, non-distracting.

        The layout you show above would definitely benefit from a backscene, but then, as you say, would need hands free or front operation. Not always possible to reverse engineer…

        Thanks for the reflections.

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