“Layout” space – or “layouts” space?

I continue to ponder what sort of layout to build. The question has bothered me since moving into my new space in September 2020. But over the holidays, it occurred to me that I need to step back and frame the question differently. Maybe the issue isn’t “What layout?” but “What layouts?”

I had some help with this.

One of my favourite thinkers about the hobby is Lance Mindheim. Years ago, he self-published an important book on layout design:

You haven’t read this? You should!

I think this is a book everyone in the hobby should read – regardless of whether they want to build a small switching layout. That’s because the most important part of the book has nothing to do with what we traditionally think of when we think of layout design. It’s not about curve radius, or turnout size, or aisle space.

Instead, the big takeaway is what Lance called “strategic planning issues”.

These include our current construction skills and our interest in learning new ones… the time and money we have available to devote to building and maintaining a layout… our attention span… and the number of people we can realistically rely upon to help build and operate the layout. They also include an assessment of one’s interests in the hobby – from era and theme to the aspects of the hobby (operations, structure-building, scenery, locomotive and rolling stock detailing, etc.) that appeal to one the most.

Lance points out – and I think this should be printed at the top of every blank sheet of graph paper – that ignoring strategic planning issues while focusing on technical issues like track spacing and minimum radius “will often result in correctly drawing the wrong layout. In other words, a layout that is technically correct but isn’t a match for your lifestyle and interests.” That’s great advice.

Lance expanded on his thoughts more recently in a 140-page book that’s as close as your local chooch emporium:

Essential reading.

Kalmbach published this in 2021 and I somehow missed it – although to be fair, we all had a lot of things going on that year. I picked up a copy as 2022 drew to a close and it reminded me of those important strategic questions. (Thank you, Lance!)

So, I revisited those questions over the holidays – and that’s adjusted my thinking.

Regular readers know I have a generous if awkwardly-shaped space for a layout, plus a wide range of incompatible interests. Try as I might, there’s no way I can build a single layout that allows me to enjoy the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, circa 1959, in 1:64 and the Edwardian era Great Western Railway in 1:43. Add in other interests – such as the Southern Pacific in 1:48 – and it’s obvious I have a tough choice to make.

Or do I?

My space is generous – so why not indulge all of these interests, with shelf layouts? And not tiny ones, either: I could easily fit three 40-foot-long shelf layouts into this space.

My current NS&T Car Barn project was designed to be the start of a larger empire, but also intended to stand on its own if I decide that I do not relish the thought of filling my space with track under wire.

British railway modelling is famous for its shelf layouts – so much so that the GWR BLT (that’s “Great Western Railway Branch Line Terminal”) has become a classic go-to design.

And my Espee interest leans in the direction of a branch or even an industrial spur serving California packing sheds – again, something that would nicely fit on a shelf and enable one to get up close to big models of small steam.

All of these ideas represent niches in the hobby as it’s practiced in Canada – the NS&T for being under wire, the GWR for being across an ocean and a century, and the SP for being Proto:48 as opposed to the far more common O gauge. All, therefore, require dealing with suppliers who are often the sole source of critical components and almost certainly in another country.

I can’t zip over to the local shop for anything more complex than basic materials such as paint, glue, and styrene. So having multiple interests might mean that when I’m waiting a month or more for a needed supply to arrive from south of the border or overseas, I can simply switch focus and work on a different layout. The same holds true when I run into a confounding construction puzzle – or just get frustrated/tired of the current project.

There are other compelling reasons, too…

One thing I have realized since moving is that I’m far less likely to be hosting large groups of operators in Saskatoon than I was in Toronto. My previous layout – Port Rowan in 1:64 – was really only designed for one or two operators, yet I often had groups of people visiting and the layout simply couldn’t support five or six.

I thought that might be the case here and my initial thought was that I’d want a layout that could keep a half-dozen people entertained. But I now suspect I’m more likely to be running trains by myself. Having multiple layouts would give me a choice of what to run depending on my mood. This would also give one or two guests some variety, too.

And of course if a half-dozen people did show up, there would be nothing stopping us from running all of the layouts simultaneously.

The key, I think, would be to make sure each of the layouts has its own character. This would extend beyond prototype and appearance to purpose and operating scheme. My current trio of interests already have that baked in:

My NS&T Car Barn has “engine terminal / motive power depot” vibes written all over it. And operating under wire is definitely novel.

The GWR is already a novelty in North American hobby terms – from its use of three-link couplings to the very different ways in which real railroads evolved across the pond, as reflected in everything from track arrangements to train consists.

The SP in Proto:48 is arguably the most mainstream theme in my basement, at least for North American modellers. That said, it would make for a tightly focussed study of the mass and movement of O scale equipment and would lend itself nicely to what I refer to as “finescale ops“.

This approach is an opportunity to travel the roads not taken – to explore ideas and either embrace them outright or put them to rest for good. I’ve had many of these competing interests for some time – and, for me, none of the three I’ve outlined here has ever resulted in a layout.

Maybe by building two, or three, or more smaller layouts will enable me to determine which theme deserves a bigger canvas, and which can retire to the display case.

This seems like as good a time as any to find out.

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and retired amateur shepherd who trained a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

12 thoughts on ““Layout” space – or “layouts” space?

  1. If I had your space I would 100% be in the “Building multiple layouts” club. My interests might not be quite as varied (or as in as large a scale as yours), but I would absolutely have something similar to Liberty Village to scratch my 1950’s urban love affair, and some kind of British OO layout, likely either a real or proto-freelanced preserved railway to let me scratch the bit of everything in my British Collection. As it is i look at some of my bookcase dioramas and wish they were just a bit longer for trains to run on them!

    I’ll have to check out Lance’s latest book, even though I have no plans on designing another layout in the near future!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent little article and very apt for these times. I’ve previously used many of Lance’s tips and techniques for my recent layout. I imagine I’ll be consulting his books again as I build the British OO layout, the Framlingham Branch.

    Another option to building multiple layouts is the use Lance also espouses of using fiddle yards, much like the British, on one or both ends of the layouts for off layout locales.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Trevor,

    I have reached the same conclusion as you. The strategic concerns, modeling in somewhat obscure scale and gauge combinations, and varied railroad interests have me working on several projects. It helps as parts come available as well. Each little project helps build experience across all of the projects. For me it has made the hobby far more interesting. Enjoy your thoughts and doodlingscof shelf layouts. Thanks for the tip on Lance’s new book. Had not realized he had one out!


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Funny…
    Your reply to my tease last night made me think this morning that you would go this way!
    And why not?
    Do you think you may have trouble focusing in on one of the two or three layouts?
    I suppose they could be staggered in different phases such that if you feel like building a locomotive you can, or if you want to build some benchwork, you can, or if you want to draw the design, you can.
    But Rome wasn’t built in a day and this is the ‘lifetime hobby”.
    Best Railway Modeling Wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with you on all fronts. Further, as I wrote in response to one of your blog posts several months ago, having multiple layouts is sort of like having your own railway museum in your basement. Even when you aren’t operating it (which is 95% of the time) you will have beautiful areas to display your models. And, if you ever switch your mind about a layout’s purpose down the road you are not starting from scratch because you have other layouts to get you through the lean times.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Some ideas re a Southern Pacific packing house themed shelf layout, probably all of which you’re familiar with:

    – Jim Lancaster’s great site on packing houses: http://coastdaylight.com/ljames1/scph.html

    – The Railroad Citrus Industry Modeling Group (especially old historic photos): https://groups.io/g/RailroadCitrusIndustryModelingGroup (Bob Chaparro moderator)

    – Books on the Visalia Electric Railroad and SP’s Friant branch, both of which I believe you have. (Though the latter book is seemingly unobtainable the former by the late lamented Signature Press (https://www.signaturepress.com/VE/VE.html) is available at close-out prices, along with other remaining stock of Signature Press titles, at Arizona Hobbies and Perry’s Hobbies.)

    And as refreshers:

    – Andy Sperandeo’s classic layout plan “The San Jacinto District”, which you riffed on in an ‘Achievable Layout’ post.

    – And finally, and not least, your “SN – California Juice Jacks” achievable layout post from way back. I always thought the included track plan vignettes were inspired: intriguing and beautifully proportioned, which lent themselves well to “slow” operations (a la Mindheim) with their many road crossings and industry gates. And though the prototype discussed is Sacramento Northern, it wouldn’t stretch reality for some location to have overlapping SP and SN trackage. You could roll out your O scale SN ‘juice jacks’ (no overhead wires please!) along with your O scale SP steam!

    p.s. Although I understand the probable reasons your old posts on “Achievable Layouts” and those researching the NS&T were taken down, I do miss them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post Trevor. I find myself in a similar, but smaller boat. My office is 12’x15’ with a 60” opening to to the rest of the house in one corner, and my desk and window across from it. I’ve already built shelves along both 15’ walls, but I can’t seem to decide on one subject or scale to build, and I don’t really want a layout over my desk. I work from home, so I need a nice space to work in. I have been considering two independent shelf layouts with removable cassette staging over my desk. I got the idea from Iain Rice, who had several layouts that he could drop onto his 12’ shelf. Not only will this allow me to modify several different subjects, but the modular design will let me do all the dirty in the garage, not my office. I won’t be able to keep each layout up like you can, but if don’t right, I could offer different layouts when visitors come over. This could be really cool during something like a convention. Anyway, I appreciate your posts, so please keep it to. I am especially excited to see what you do with the SP in California.

    Liked by 1 person

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