I was more than a little disappointed to see a popular hobby magazine run a feature at this time of year highlighting several plans for HO layouts based on the tried and tired four-foot by eight-foot sheet of plywood (hereafter called “the 4×8”).
I’m convinced that the 4×8 – often offered as a first step for beginners to take beyond the “train set under the tree” – does more harm than good in the hobby.
I have several problems with the 4×8 from a layout design perspective, all related to the fact that a 4×8 takes more space than people think:
– A 4×8 layout needs access on both long sides and at least one short side. If we assume a fairly tight 24″ for each aisle, that means at a minimum a 4×8 layout requires a space of 8’x10′.
– If we allow for a more comfortable 30″ for each aisle, that increases to 9’x10.5′.
Running a layout around the perimeter of an 8’x10′ space (or 9’x10.5′), with the operator(s) standing in the middle, enables one to design and build a much better layout. There are many reasons, but here are three:
– If the layout builder wants a continuous run, the curves on a 4×8 must be so tight that they restrict the type of equipment that can be run. What’s more, the tighter the curve, the more precisely it must be laid if operation is to be reliable. Track switches are also often limited to smaller sizes. Many published plans feature 18″ radius curves and Number 4 switches. By contrast, a layout built around the perimeter of an 8×10 space can take advantage of broader radius curves – 24″ and above. There’s also room to use larger switches: For example, all turnouts off the main and all crossovers can be Number 6.
– It the layout builder wants switching, a 4×8 places some serious limits on the design of sidings and spurs. Often, plans are forced to introduce diamond crossings or unrealistic switchbacks to make spurs fit. By contrast, a layout built around the perimeter of our space has room for more industrial spurs, longer spurs, longer run-around tracks, more thoughtfully designed yards, and so on. There’s even room in an 8×10 space to incorporate more sophisticated layout design concepts, such as staging tracks. This would introduce new hobbyists to the concept that their layout is part of a larger system.
– The 4×8 pretty much fills an 8×10 space. There’s not a lot one can do with a room that has a slab of plywood taking up the middle. By contrast, a layout built on narrow shelves around the perimeter of this space leaves the middle of the room open. And the space under the layout’s shelves can be used for anything from bookcases for one’s collection of hobby magazines, to rubber tub storage of seasonal items, to a workbench and tool storage for the new hobbyist.
Why is this something that should concern us? The limited possibilities of a 4×8, coupled with the engineering challenges of tight curves and switches and the space-hogging nature of the slab, can create multiple causes for frustration and disappointment for new hobbyists. It’s very possible that those frustrations will drive most of the new hobbyists that we pick up, especially at this time of year, back to the TV chair or to another hobby. And that’s a shame because we might be losing someone who, with a different start, could have become a great model-builder, or layout designer, or author, or club organizer, or NMRA association volunteer… or even just a person who loves the hobby and helps support manufacturers, publishers and others by buying lots of train-related stuff over a lifetime of engagement with model railroading.
This is why I feel the only thing a 4×8 sheet of plywood is good for is raw materials for a better layout design.
I’m not alone in thinking this way. Many modellers would like to see the Sacred Sheet excommunicated from the hobby. But one of the best arguments I’ve seen against 4×8 layouts can be found on the Layout Vision website of my friend Byron Henderson. Here’s his take on the issue, called Why Waste the Space on an HO 4×8?
So what can be done about this?
For a start, those who create layout design article for the popular hobby publications can pledge to ban the HO scale 4×8 from their design language, and instead submit articles that offer alternatives that are appropriate for new hobbyists that fit an 8×10 (or smaller) space. We also need to explain to new hobbyists – whether they’re people we meet at the hobby shop, a train show, online, or in the pages of a magazine – why the traditional 4×8 is a bad idea, and why the alternatives we propose are better choices that are just as easy to achieve.
Byron’s website offers many examples of 4×8 alternatives to suit all tastes – from around the walls, to dog bones, to point-to-point shelf switching layouts.
Meantime, Scott Perry is another advocate of alternatives to the 4×8. Scott has designed a beginner’s layout (in HO) that I think does a much better job of introducing new hobbyists to the full potential of model railroading, even as it allows them to build the skills they will need once the bug has bitten and they’re ready to tackle a larger empire. It’s called the Heart of Georgia Railroad (The HOG) but with a swap of paint schemes and some industries it would work for almost any short-line style operation across North America.
I interviewed Scott about the Heart of Georgia on Episode 51 of The Model Railway Show.
Scott maintains a blog about the HOG, and runs The HOG Newsgroup. Both offer details on building the layout, as well as places for those new to the hobby to ask questions.
Byron’s web site and Scott’s HOG RR are two great places to start thinking outside the 4×8 box: Have a look.