More than micro

Back to the matchbox


It started with an idea based on a simple box of matches. (Before I get much further in, bear with me while I wander. It’s okay. I’m old. I do these kinds of tangents all the time.)


I’d had this idea: “Traditionally, a model railway remains fixed in place. If we need that extra length of track, we achieve it by adding to the layout by attaching staging to a free end like a pier jutting from the land out into the sea. In this case, I propose moving the layout out of the way to make room for the extra track we need. This is made easy by mounting the layout on a set of drawer slides built onto the top of the integral storage unit. It slides open and closed like a matchbox and in doing so, both reveals the trains stored inside and also evolves the plan from static diorama to operating model railway.”

Before I’d even talked about the matchbox, I proposed a tightly framed shadowbox of a layout. Even though it was never more than a series of sketches I still enjoy looking at this series of curated views of the scene to watch an imaginary first generation GP placing a few grain boxcars at the elevators.

One idea that did move beyond a series of sketches was the above. It became a massive foamcore mockup. Did I mention my curiousity to explore a tightly-framed view?


One by one, a series of ideas that invite me to look around my living room and wonder what I could store in something like an IKEA Billy bookcase. Of course, the problem with “in a bookcase” is, well are, those gable ends.


Something like the simple view above would fit ever so nicely in the volume created inside a bookcase’s shelf. In the above drawing, as in traditional layout construction, the layout is constructed as one complete unit and the layout is fixed into this volume, early on in construction.


What if the layout, instead, was built on a set of drawer slides?

The frame stays nested inside the bookcase. When the layout is simply on display, between uses, it fits nicely in the envelope of the bookcase. The biggest challenge with the layout is always when it comes time to interact with it and gaining reasonable access from the top. So, as I asked, if it could be slid out you’d have full access to the top so you could uncouple cars, fix some scenics, or attend to a wayward detail.


Freed from the confines of the bookcase, this is where I recall the matchbox-inspired idea that I opened this post with. The layout emerges from its frame like a drawer. Once opened, a wing that was previously tucked inside the main body of the layout is open as another drawer to extend the length of the layout. Over top of the drawer, you could rest of a storage cassette to extend the running track on the layout.

When you are done, the storage cassette is tucked into the drawer “wings” along with the leftover railway cars. Those wings are slide back inside the layout. Then, wings safely stored inside, the railway itself slides back into its frame. It’s a bit coy in its presentation and that playfulness? I think amusing its creator is something a model railway must do.

As a concept, it feels like a great way to use up a collection of drawer slides and indulge in some puzzle box construction. As much as any of that this serves the opposing needs of the static diorama and the operating model railway; most of all my personal need to create a tailored envelope not only for the scene but to contain all the “stuff” that follows a model railway around so I’m not left with a shelf filled with clumsy looking rolling stock and a rummage sale of loose parts.

Most of all it feels like an idea that belongs here.

I’ve referenced some previous posts throughout the above. Here’s some links back and in the same order as I’ve presented them above:

The Matchbox first appeared in this post:

It reappeared in this post, which I think did a superior job of illustrating the idea:

The prairie scene was revealed in an untitled post here:

That massive foam core mockup? Check it out:

Croft Depot

Thank you Facebook. Lately I’ve been discovering the Facebook pages modellers have been creating for their model railways. What they’re doing is like a natural evolution of the blog or website platforms we’ve been using for the same ends. The funny thing is, regardless of how I feel toward Facebook, I just never thought people would use it for this. I’m surprised and that’s good. Meanwhile, I guess it was only natural for Facebook to learn my new patterns and, in doing so, to start suggesting more pages just like those that I should like too.

Today it happened and the layout Facebook introduced me to was Croft Depot. A quick search should bring you to the Facebook page I was introduced to. Rather than share a link to that, I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the excellent Scalefour Society maintain a page for the layout on their site:

In addition to that page, there’s a nice thread on showing the layout at the show:

The model railway is based on a real life location and this page on the Disused Stations website provides some nice history and a map of the actual track layout:

It’s such a beautifully executed small layout. Built to the P4 (finescale) standard it’s an excellent example of creating something to such a high standard in such a small space (about three square feet). May as well mention that it’s another Inglenook track plan too.

But, it’s more. I really like the very well thought out execution. A study in even and muted colours, all showered in a well lit and cleanly framed design. Despite its small size it still has a short staging yard for trains to come from and go. Rather than being hidden behind a panel, even this small area is framed and well lit. I’m really impressed by this exposed staging model and it’s an idea that I want to remember.

Heck, if all I did next was build an exact copy of the layout I think I’d be okay. Rather than step through a list of reasons why I’m impressed I just want to say that I am. This is one of those layouts that so completely impresses me in every way.

I hope you like it too.



Riley Triggs’ DYNAMO

The first time I watched the above video it caught my attention but it’s taken some time to settle in before I really started to “get” just how very smart an idea it is. It’s unlikely I’m going to say much new or of value from here on out – not that it will dissuade me from writing anyway – so stop reading here and just watch the video. I’m sharing the video as I close out my thoughts on fitting big layouts into small or non-existent spaces as part of my More Than Micro series of posts.

We spend a lot of time discussing the art of “selective compression” in the hobby. We edit buildings deciding how much we can cut out to make them fit and we do the same to shorten lengths of track and even the trains themselves. The challenge is deciding how much fat we can trim before we’ve made the thing unrecognizable. Focussed on a set of standard module plans he describes how to model much more railway than could traditionally be placed in the room. Doing so allows us to stretch past the practical limits of the room’s walls.

That same dynamic nature also allows us to easily adapt the railway to various operating schemes too and the layout can always be the right size for the number of fellow operators we have at any time to help run the thing.

Armed with schedules and a plan of types of operations he’d like to model, Riley prioritizes the movements of the railway as the primary decisions guiding the design of the layout. We rely on that theatre metaphor a lot and I can’t help but wonder if what Riley describes isn’t the closest I’ve come to someone really finding a tangible interpretation.It feels like staging a ballet and I like it. Speaking of research, I find it’s been so much easier to find records of train movements and consists than it is to find a photo of the back wall of a station that burned to the ground twenty years ago. Riley’s approach really plays to the value and strength of this reality and might be a fun perspective to start from.

When we first set out to model a railway, we approach that design with a certain set of goals. As we lay track and run those first trains we are afforded a chance to test our understanding of the real thing in the miniature copy we’ve created. What happens when we learn that, in doing so, our interests mature and we’re left curious to explore something different from the same stretch of railway? Riley describes an opportunity to allow the layout to mature with our interests without having to start completely from scratch and the layout matures directly as our interests do.

Riley has clearly put a lot of thought into his idea. I’m quite grateful he produced the above video so he could share them with us. I think he’s developed something quite smart and I’m intrigued.

Thanks Riley!

You ONLY eat there?

Once upon a time we had neighbours who were passionate ballroom dancers. They were good too. They probably still are. I remember the stories of when they’d move all the living room furniture completely from the room so they could use the full floor to dance. I even remember, once, hearing a story of how they’d sold a pile of the furniture to make moving it out of the way easier – and therefore dancing too. It all seemed so wildly unconventional and was really the first time I had met someone who used their home as they needed to. This isn’t a story about prioritizing the use of space in the house but a vague attempt to say how, in terms of the home, I prefer a space that can be used for more than just one thing.

In my previous post I showed a couple of videos of FREMO modules built by the America-N club in Germany. I described renting a room in which to set up the modules. For that to work, I had to have somewhere to store railway between operating sessions. If I have the storage worked out, all that is really need is somewhere to set them up. That final space is really only something that you need when you’re actually using the layout. Could we just borrow that space from somewhere in the house while we’re between basements – so we can set up our miniature mainline and enjoy railroading on a bigger scale than just switching one town. To that end, I grabbed my trusty tape measure and went for a walk around the house.


Model Railroader magazine would often host a Layout of Month constructed in a spare bedroom. “Spare” either from a child who has just moved out or “spare” by design – we just bought one extra for the trains to grow up in. As often as I’ve read a great article about a nice layout created in this space I feel like I’ve read about how “something came up” and now the railroad was being dismantled and the owner was hoping he’d someday have the chance to build a new layout…if…and if…and if. We have a bedroom sort of like that right now. I’m reluctant to permanently install something there but the above drawing shows how a set of modules could be arranged to use the space around the perimeter of the room. Since the layout proposed is based on modules that can stand free of the walls and be moved or even put completely away between operating or work sessions it’s easier to propose something that blocks things like closet.

LayoutSpace0001Continuing to walk around the house, I arrived in the living room. We can’t offer to move the furniture from our living room but the next land of opportunity and promise I thought I could offer as a venue, in our home, was the dining room. With a bit of clever shifting to push tables and chairs to the walls, we could fill the biggest room in our house with FREMO modules.

Both layouts were proposed to host operating sessions with more than just one operator. Aisles become the great planning factors and it was those basic dimensions I laid out both of the above schemes. In the space not provided to the people, I placed the modules. Each concept might offer something for two to three operators. Unable to reach outside my comfort zone of small-scale railroading I proposed schemes where the operating session is focussed around the interplay between operators as they pass blocks of cars off between each other. I’ve shaded each operator’s territory in a distinct colour and then provided a bit more shading (in blue) to help show the room each operator might call his own without having to trip over the other guy. I was surprised by how much layout I could fit into these spaces. I tend to only think of my layouts as much smaller ones, in the more traditional and at least mostly-permanently installation style.

Have I found myself in this desire to build a large home layout? Not yet. This has been fun and I’m looking forward to where these thoughts could lead. It’s an enjoyable question.


This post is a part of a series of thoughts. Building a larger layout is still the dream of so many but I don’t believe we’re always blessed with the space to realise that dream. I started these posts as a means to work through some options. I never expect to break any innovative ground but just to think about it out loud. Read the other posts in this series by clicking on the “More than micro” category or, to the same effect, the link below:

The Waldbahner option

The above layout belongs in this conversation.

It’s something that could share space with other uses where space is at a premium. At its heart, it challenges the rule of dedicated installation space. Based on an innovative approach to modular design, I like how the overall layout can be modified to suit various operating schemes where the factors go beyond just the length of the operating session to how many car spots or how long a run between stops.

As built it’s narrow gauge and focussed on logging but I can’t help but think that the basic idea could just as easily sustain a theme of heavier mainline operations.

This sort of thing.

Desirée Gallant is one of the most fascinating creative people I know and likely ever will. The first couple of times I typed that sentence it sounded like “most gifted artist” and I still mean that but her gift runs deeper inside. She has a way of coaxing life from the work. To encourage it to stand proudly from the page. It’s a gift that extends beyond her paintings. That gift extends to subjects to which she has turned a camera, not so much to record but the way that those subjects were or to somehow involve them in her story but to help them find a voice that speaks through her lens. Her work touches me and it is with great pleasure that I have a photograph of hers to use here, to open this post. Thank you!

CN Freight Train

Amherst, NS, March 22, 2010

I’m drawn to a very localized style of railroading that easily translates into a smaller footprint and, more importantly, I prefer small model railways. I’m fascinated with the way they showcase their builder’s profound understanding of their inspiration and how hard it is to hide that relationship when it’s not there – I guess it’s the honesty that they convey whether we like it or not. It’s easy for me to advocate for things like this because I’m just making myself feel good inside by providing advice that might be little more than expressing a moment of self-validation. In these very small footprints I can imagine individual stories rich enough to invite me in and to live inside their moments. Of course, were more room available it could easily be incorporated. Not to welcome other stories or model railway sub-plots but for the way that more room could compliment and extend the initial vision. Like a second great kiss, somehow as good as the first.

But I know that’s just me. It’s with that sense of awareness I wrote my initial comment on Mike’s blog post and then reflected on in my own post last night. I didn’t then and don’t now want any of this to sound like criticism or negativity aimed at those who have pursued the basement empire. The direction I’m hoping to take this set of posts in, is to discuss the idea of modelling railroading where the context in which the railroading occurs demands a stage larger than we can sustain, either because we lack the resources to invest or the space to house this grand vision.

The big prototype

Desirée’s photograph is of the lead engine of a massive Canadian National freight train. It depicts a train that is hard to fit into the space of the four square foot micro layout no matter how small the scale. Standing trackside with my family as this train hammered past it’s hard not to be affected by sound, the vibration, the rush of wind; all the various parts of watching mainline railroading. No model train will ever match that feeling but we can create a miniature that provides queues to trigger memories of these moments and our rich imaginations can easily fill in the missing parts. That is, if we have the room for that large a train.


Where in Desirée’s photograph we’re provided with a train that just doesn’t fit, what happens when the train fits perfectly fine with our design criteria but the place where it is found does not? I’ve always felt that the hardest part of modelling Canadian railroading was not just finding models of the trains but communicating the distance that the trains covered in their daily operations. Sure, we can model the train at its destination but if our inspiration is finding the train out on the line we have a challenge: All that nothing takes up a lot of room.

On Prince Edward Island we have a railroad that provides the examples of the required short trains and even the small venues – to suit the smaller space. What I find so fascinating about Island railroading is the way that it prepared for and supported the potato harvest. With limited track and a finite number of cars to move the harvest the successful Island model is realised during the operating session in how we represent the almost perpetual re-staging of cars to respond to the needs of the farmers using the various public sidings. Space here is required not to represent the long trains. Neither, to represent the “nothing” but to count the number of local sidings and move the fleet around without feeling like one is just shuffling cars from one yard track to another. (I’ve picked the home team for this example but I’ll wager the local prairie branchline or coal hauling line in the Appalachians was playing the same game too.)

The big model

Elsewhere I’ve been proposing the hypothesis that model railroading itself has matured to the state where it no longer requires a direct connection to real railroading to survive – that we have so many examples of great model railways that we can draw inspiration from that we never need to learn about real trains at all.

Building on that idea, I believe an attraction to the hobby exists in the promise of camaraderie it offers. I enjoy participating in operating sessions on large model railways and consider myself so lucky to be able to have been offered these opportunities. To feed these, we need the layouts themselves. Ever the gregarious host, what if our desire is to host these bigger parties? Where? How?

Now what?

I’ve wanted to have this conversation for a while now. I think it’s an interesting one and I’ll take advantage of the blog to at least voice my questions and to think out loud, albeit over the keyboard, on the subject. As I bring my second post on this particular subject to a close I think I have a better sense of the question. I do expect to refine the question further as I attempt to reconcile what I’m thinking to what I’m writing. So, with two blog posts now completed on this subject the initial question becomes two:

  1. We don’t lack ideas for how to use the space we have. We don’t lack the interest of those passionate about providing examples of what we could use the space we have for. How do we learn to understand our relationship with our inspiration so that we know how to best represent it in miniature?
  2. We have evolved so far in the hobby in terms of the quality and accessibility of the models yet our exhibition of them remains still largely fixated on the rule of private and permanent installation. Where that paradigm can’t be negotiated we must find a compromise. How?

I’m only considering this as a design challenge and a conversation to that end. I’m not trying to find an answer for my own situation, it’s just something that I’ve been thinking about and a conversation I’d like to be a part of.


Saturday night cattle.

A little while ago, Mike Cougill asked:
What sacred cows are we clinging to that will soon be as antiquated as outside third rail power distribution?

The above is a paragraph quoted from his blog as part of a post titled It’s a Continuum. He’s asked an interesting question and one I hadn’t thought of quite in the terms he was asking.  I strongly encourage you to take a moment and read the rest. Here’s a link out to it:

With my constant interest in the relationship we have with the hobby and how we represent that in our work, I wrote, in a comment on that post:

It’s certainly a fascinating time. Maybe it’s just me but the hobby feels old enough to have developed a history layer and we are at a time where we’re far enough “in” that we can start to gaze back and compare then to now. Conversations like this one certainly fit.

I wonder how the point of entry for the typical new modeller will change. In the mid-century period we had folks entering the hobby through train sets on Christmas morning. Today we have new modellers who arrive at the hobby as a modelmakers who might traditionally have gravitated more toward plastic models like tanks and like military vehicles.

I’m wagering that changes in the definition of where we call home will have an affect on the hobby. I guess, this is asking how much longer for the basement empire layout? How long until we just can’t have those any more and what will the new “serious” layout look like?

It’s that final paragraph. I wanted to ask how we would find a home for a model railway when the traditional locations weren’t available any more. It’s easy to respond that we’ll just create something small; change scales to use something smaller in size; just make some models; or build a module. It’s well-intended advice but it doesn’t address the question: What about when your fascination asks for a stage or actors bigger than the traditional four square foot micro can sustain?

I can’t find a conversation about a compromise. I can’t find it anywhere and given my obsession with design, I’ll never tire of looking for it. What happens when you have tried to be as critical as you can and all it did was help you more clearly understand that what you want is that miniature mainline. The conversation never seems to shift to trying to find ways to make that happen, even when it seems impossible, and I think I’d like to ask if it could? What if our only limit was the lack of available space? What could we do?

I have edited this post a couple of times since originally posting it last night. Once to tighten up the question at the end and again, this morning, to include a link out to Mike’s original post.

I’d like to expand this post across a span of several and will create a category to gather them all together as one. Clicking on More than Micro should return all the posts that work with this idea.