It’s past time to dump the Sacred Sheet from the hobby

No 4x8 photo No4x8_zps1443fcfe.jpg

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 articles 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.

22 thoughts on “It’s past time to dump the Sacred Sheet from the hobby

  1. Totally agree! My first layout was a 4X8 foot monstrosity that I found so space consuming and so unwieldy, that it darn near forced me out of the hobby completely. What that particular hobby magazine needs to be pushing this time of year is small, simple switching layouts that can be built on top of a book case or on a shelf along a bedroom wall. The best thing you can do for someone who is just starting their first layout is to get them to go small. They will get their trackwork done faster, engines running sooner, scenery completed earlier, and will come out of the project with a much better sense of what they enjoy about model railroading for their next (perhaps larger) layout.

    • Hi Matt:
      I think switching layouts are one solution. But for those who want continuous running (and many of those new to the hobby will), I think experiened hobbyists – and especially those who consider themselves layout desingers – need to come up with workable alternatives to the 4×8. As Steve Lucas points out in another comment, the 4×8 is popular – although the reson it’s popular is it’s the most common design presented to new hobbyists as a “good first layout”. Compared to what can be done in the same space – the 8×10 space that a 4×8 really requires – it’s the worst possible idea to present to new hobbyists. Time to put it on a spike with the other dead stories in this hobby.
      As a start, I think we can take just about any published 4×8 plan, expand the design to fill an 8×10 space, and put the operator in the middle.

  2. Here, here!! I totally agree with everything you said. I remember my friend built a 6 x10 HO layout, (open in the middle) and we had a lot of fun operating that layout. I do feel strongly that a first layout will need some sort of continuous run, though, especially for first time model railroad kids.

    Mike S

    • Hi Mike:
      I tend to agree. Certainly, continuous runs are popular with new modellers so presenting alternatives that incorporate a continuous run will help sell the idea.
      That said, as Matt noted, we can’t ignore the attractiveness of shelf switchers. I remember the shelf swither plan in the Atlas book “Six HO Railroads You Can Build” was my favourite – and as a new hobbyist, it was one of the first layouts I built. In fact, it may be the first one I built that I picked, instead of having my dad pick a layout for me. Those were always variations of the 4×8 – probably because nobody at the local hobby shop told him there were alternatives…

  3. The Sacred Sheet is not meant for you and I, nor, dare I mention, most of the readers of this blog. It seems more aimed at the new North American modeller. John Armstrong would take the Sacred Sheet and cut the corners off one end at a 45-degree angle. The resulting 2′ x 2′ corner pieces were added to the other end of the sheet, creating a losenge-shaped layout base 10′ long by 4′ wide. Even John Allen’s Gorre and Daphetid started with a 4′ x 8′ layout. A recent article in that excellent UK publication Model Rail has a series of plans for 4′ x 6′ layouts, the Brits seeming to favour this size for a basic layout..

    I like Byron Henderson’s use of space in the article that you’ve linked, and agree wholeheartedly with them. I just think that in our model rail hobby as in life, we should choose our battles. If a modeller is having fun with a 4′ x 8′ layout, more power to them. Maybe we can get them to model a prototype line for the next layout, and get them to think of doing it as a point-to-point shelf layout while we’re at it?? There CAN be more that ONE Port Rowan branch modeller, after they get tired of that 4 x 8, after all 😉

    On the other hand, if you want to discuss “throwing a turnout” or how “two wires to the track” are all that is necessary to run DCC on a layout, be prepared for a poop storm…

    • Hi Steve:

      Thanks for the comments.

      I would agree – the 4×8 is not aimed at advanced hobbyists (and I never suggested it was). And, as you say, it’s aimed at those who are new to the hobby. The problem is, it’s a lousy form factor for any layout – beginner or advanced.

      You’re also right that the 4×8 is a popular format for a basic, beginner’s layout in North America. But my point is that its popularity is not based on merit – it’s based on the fact that many, many 4×8 designs have been published in the past (and still are), and when a new modeller asks for ideas at their local hobby shop, the sales person sells them a book of 4×8 layout plans.

      As Byron points out on his blog (referenced in my initial posting), the most damning indictment of the 4×8 is the fact that while many, many North American modellers build one as their first layout, almost nobody builds one as their second layout. (In addition, I suspect that a good number of people who build a 4×8 as their first layout never build a second layout, because the negative experience turns them off.) I’m proposing that, as more experienced hobbyists, we start offering new hobbyists some better choices, to increase the likelihood that there is a second layout in their lives.
      My concern is not with whether – down the road – they model a prototype or freelance, or opt for point to point or continuous run. My concern is that the 4×8 is doing more harm than good for the hobby – that we’re losing people after their first attempt, because the 4×8 is, generally, a bad design.

      As for Port Rowan, I’m a little confused by your comment, which suggests I don’t want others to model the branch. If that were the case, I certainly wouldn’t have posted a few hundred blog entries about it, would I? In fact, I know of at least one other modeller working in S scale who is building Port Rowan in his layout room – and the late Richard Chrysler was working on an exhibition layout based on Port Rowan. The more the merrier – I look forward to sharing ideas about how to do it!


  4. Well if continuous running is important to someone (and I do agree that it is a valid desire) then N scale is the way to go there. My second layout was an N scale layout built on a small door. I attached folding table legs to the bottom. The layout was small enough to slide under my twin sized bed when not in use and lightweight enough for me to pull out and set up myself with ease.

  5. Funny thing is, the same magazine that offers up the problem in the form of 4′ x 8′ layout plans also offers up another layout design process that seems to offer more to the modeller. The “Layout Design Element”. Far better an approach to me than either the formulaic Sacred Sheet or its N scale equivalent. And with the greatest respect to Matt’s experiences, there are a number of model layout plans based upon a door for the base–to me, those carry the same issues that the Sacred Sheet oval plans do.

    As for there being other Port Rowan modellers, with Rich’s passing, I had thought that this left you as the sole Port Rowan modeller. I’m interested in reading of this other modeller’s take on the subject contrasted to yours.

    Having seen your work in HO on Peterboro, I do know that I was not the only modeller interested in the CN Campbellford Sub., after all. And I stall share this interest with others–another modelling friend is building Omemee to Uxbridge through Lindsay circa 1958. One never knows who shares their protoypes!

  6. I’m not sure I agree with you here. I think the 4×8 gives the novice modeler a quick way to get up-and-running with a layout. Asking them to build a shelf layout will involve crossing a pathway to get a continuous run, so they either have to build a bridge section (complicated for a first-timer) or a duckunder. In my own discussions with new modelers, they seem overwhelmed with the notion of surrounding a room with benchwork.

    I know the 4×8’s an awful waste of space, but then most of those modelers aren’t yet mature enough to see that a switching style layout (no continuous run) can be loads of fun. If there’s kids involved (and there usually is), then the continuous run is a must have. They’re also typically not ready to devote a whole 8×10 room to the railroad, either. The old sacred sheet appeals to them because they can knock it together in a weekend, put some handles on it and store it up against a wall in the garage or bonus room. If they cut it down to a 4×6, it’ll store under a full size bed. What Dad and Junior have in mind is some old-fashioned Lionel-style fun. The trick is to get them to go beyond that some day. I think you do that by letting them run your layout (which means you have to have one) and showing them the ins and outs of realistic operation.

    I think about Bob Madison’s Dorrville Branch (40″x60″, 09/04 Model Railroader) or Jack Wright’s Schoharie Valley (5×9, 1996 Great Model Railroads). These fit the table-top form factor, but were operations-based. There’s no reason a similar approach couldn’t be taken with a 4×8. While it’s not the best use of space nor the ideal shape for operations, the ole 4×8 has its place!

    Best Regards!

    • Hi Rhett:

      Thanks for the comments – you make some good points.

      But I wonder why new modellers adopt the idea that a continuous run is desireable, and that a 4×8 is the only way to achieve it? Nobody walks into a bulding supply place and says “I’m looking to build a layout, so I’ll get a 4×8” – the idea of building on a 4×8 has to come from somewhere: From a magazine feature, from a hobby shop sales person, from a book of track plans, from talking to other modellers. Perhaps we’re doing a bad job of presenting the hobby to these potential newcomers…

      What if, instead of presenting the hobby as a small step up from a trainset under the tree, we presented the hobby to newcomers as a game – like Chess or Risk – where the freight cars are the pieces and the switching layout is the board? Wouldn’t at least some of these potential new hobbyists embrace that? And wouldn’t we have a better chance of recruiting them into the ranks of lifelong enthusiasts? The problem with a small, continuous run layout like the kind that can be put on a 4×8 is that there’s only so much time that someone will spend watching a train chase its tail before the mind starts to wander. And if that’s all that the layout can provide, I suspect it won’t be too long before they’re leaning it against the wall permanently (at least until they call in the junk clearing company), and buy an X-box or Wii to entertain themselves.

      What if, instead of presenting the hobby of model railroading as a toy that parents buy for their kids, we present it as a rewarding past-time for adults? What if we made more of an effort to market it to the 30 year olds who have just started their family, need to spend more time at home to look after the kids, and are looking for something to do with their evenings that’s more constructive than watching TV? If we take that approach, we have to give them something more rewarding than the 4×8 tail-chaser, I think.

      Here’s another thought: Real estate in urban areas is expensive and people who want to live downtown – to take advantage of big city amenities like attractions, restaurants, the music scene or whatever – are living in condos. The 4×8 isn’t just a poor choice for them – it’s an impossible choice. In this case, the predominence of the 4×8 as The Beginner Layout means these people won’t even consider taking up the hobby, because it doesn’t fit their lifestyle. If, on the other hand, we present some alternatives that make better use of the available space (say, a narrow L-shaped layout along two walls of an 8×10 den in the condo – which as I noted is the minimum space a 4×8 would require with access to three sides), then those people might – might – realize they could take up the hobby after all.


      • Trevor,

        My experiences come from talking with people at hobby shops (mostly stores that have trains but no one with knowledge of trains) and a few co-workers that I’ve somewhat successfully introduced to the hobby. You asked two questions in your first paragraph: 1. Why is a continuous run desirable? and 2. Why do newbies think a 4×8 is the only way to achieve it?

        To #1: Most folks get into this hobby by buying a set. It contains a loop of track. Putting it on a table is the next natural step. When folks go into a hobby shop, the display layout will be a loop. When you see display layouts at a show (in the US, anyway), you see loops. It’s a paradigm that’s set in their brain long before they pick up any sort of layout design book or ask for any advice. And I have to say that even I still get a kick out of watching a train roll by at “track speed”. That’s something I can’t do on a point-to-point unless I devote a HUGE amount of space to it. The continuous run is a holdover from the train set, and it’s a tough paradigm to shift.

        2. Statistics tell us that more than 3/4 of modelers are in HO scale. 40″ is about the minimum table width to turn an HO scale train. 48″ is a common lumber size. That sets the width, the length just sort of falls out from there. I don’t think any of the newbies purposefully think the 4×8 is the only way to achieve a layout…it’s just the most convenient way given their paradigm as to what a layout is. I’ve never met a newbie N scaler who was shooting for a 4×8, so I think this is strictly an HO scale phenomena and it’s prevalent because of HO scale’s market share.

        As for your second paragraph, I agree with the sentiment here. What would happen if we appealed to the gamers that meet at the local HobbyTown USA on Saturday mornings? I’ve seen a couple of hobby shops devote whole rooms to these guys who stay for hours playing card games and battle games with little metal pieces. They’re spending money, so the shop caters to them. What would happen if the operators among us were able to show up with a small operations-oriented layout and put it in the game room? My guess is that you’d get the interest of a few and those few would probably think “Wow, I never knew you guys did anything other than watch trains run around!” You might convert a few of them, but get ready for a model of Mordor with a combo platter of gargoyles and way freights as I think it would be hard to shift some of these guys away from their primary interest in the fanciful! I’m not being critical here, but I suspect most model railroad operators would be…

        When it comes to 30-year-olds, I’m 35 with two kids and another one on the way. So I guess I am your market. Albeit I already have a huge interest in trains! I think the way to appeal to our crowd is through socializing: The notion of a quick ops session and a cold beer or two after dinner certainly has an appeal! But you pretty much have to limit it to that because I’ve got a wife with a honey-do list and two kids that need my attention when I get home from work. Speaking of work, I’m trying to stay ahead of that new college grad they just hired so I’m likely wrapped up in work for longer hours than my senior management. Yes, a relaxing operating session with a few cold ones works out nicely for me! If I do build a layout, though, it’ll either be 1. a 4×8 to be shared with the kiddos or 2. something more serious provided you can show me how it’s done.

        That last part is where most model railroaders fail. They talk about all this stuff, but they don’t have a layout of their own to show or its never presentable or its something they just don’t want to share with others. I can’t count the number of 50 year old “expert” modelers I’ve run across who are this way. I won’t respect someone who’s never done it themselves and I can’t learn from someone who isn’t able (or willing) to show me. Given that, I’ll default to a 4×8 with the kiddos.

        To your third paragraph, I think most condo-dwellers will default to N or Z scale. Why? They can turn a train in a 2′ width or less (can’t seem to shift that continuous-run paradigm). As you’ve said, the 4×8 and its space-eating doesn’t enter the discussion here. Perhaps a hollow-core door represents an N scale 4×8, but all the same rationale applies as to why someone would want to go there.

        I think yourself and Lance Mindheim are doing a great job of helping folks to think about how much layout they really need. I’ve been in this hobby for 30 years now, 20 years of it “seriously”. In that time, I’ve had a 40″ x 72″ HO layout that rolled under my bed, an 8’x8′ HO table-top layout, an 8′ x 16′ HO layout with an operating pit in the middle, a 30″ x 72″ N scale layout, a 1′ x 4′ N scale Inglenook Sidings layout and a 7-1/2′ x 7-1/2′ “movable” N scale layout. All except the Inglenook had a continuous run. All of the N scale layouts were designed for prototype-style operations. I think my 30″ x 72″ N scale layout was the most satisfying.

        Now I’ve got a 14′ x 29′ room to devote to a layout and I’m designing an S scale layout to fit the space (nerve problems are forcing me to go larger). The hang-up in my design: I can’t seem to figure out how to get the tracks to connect for a continuous run! Hard to shift that paradigm…

        Best Regards!

  7. This discussion is long overdue in the hobby. I wonder though, if we’re still off track a bit. What is the objective in all this? A defense of the status quo, or a way to present the hobby with empathy towards people?

    I wonder if our cast-in-concrete opinions toward what beginners want and/or are capable of understanding, reflect more of our own bias than their ability to understand the hobby as anything more than expensive toys.

    I wonder why we assume people are just incapable or helpless when it comes to anything related to this hobby. Around the room benchwork is too hard? If the person makes a living as a carpenter, well….
    If they are expressing enough interest to spend money on a trainset, which is no longer cheap by the way, might that not be saying something?

    I also wonder why we feel the need to dump the whole load of hobby info all at once? Could it be that it’s easier for us to sound like experts rather than taking the slower, but ultimately more rewarding route of understanding their needs like a good mentor or teacher would?

    When I read the polarized comments that this topic invariably generates (not so here thankfully), I have to wonder what the real issue is?

    Mike Cougill

    • Hi Mike:

      Very good points – thanks for wading in. As you note, we’re selling the hobby short if we assume that all newbies are helpless. I know some guys with carpentry skills and they can assemble elaborate benchwork faster than I could take photos of them doing it.

      And certainly, understanding what new hobbyists are looking for is important too. That said, I wonder who many of them are looking for “a train set” because that’s what has been presented to them as “model railroading”. Those people may continue to want a train set – but if we present an alternative approach, we may attract others who have looked at the train set and already dismissed the whole hobby…


  8. Interesting discussion that you’ve stirred up, Trevor.

    A UK perspective might be to wonder what all the fuss is about. Having a 4×8 layout to start with would be a luxury over here, unless you have a mansion. I also suspect that most novice Dads and kids get their inspiration from attending the many train shows that we have over here, and in distinction to those shows found in the US, most UK train shows have a pre-dominance of enthusiast and club supplied portable layouts rather than traders.

    The need to transport layouts to attend such shows tends to be a major factor in most individual enthusiasts own layouts, resulting in a large number of “shelf” type layouts some as small as 4×1, but frequently around double that perhaps to 15 to 18″ by eight foot in two sections as the maximum size that will fit in a normal UK size car, plus stock plus the owner and maybe a travelling companion/fellow operator.

    Most adult enthusiast home layouts in the UK that I’m aware of tend to be of the shelf around the room style where the room is typically either the garage or the loft/attic, simply because a separate train room is an extreme rarity over here given our property styles and prices. Another popular style is the modular with a common interface that can be taken to a meet for the day.

    My 2 pence worth,


    • Hi Terry:

      Thanks for adding this – it’s important to see that other perspective.

      I think the UK experience is going to apply, increasingly, here in North America. I live in a major city in which the new real estate builds have been predominantly condominiums. (This relatively recent report from RBC illustrates the point – in May, 2012, 44,100 condo/apartment units were under construction in Toronto, plus 6,200 semi-detached and row houses. The number of single family homes being built was a fraction of that, as shown in figure 4, page 2).

      Condo dwellers simply can’t accommodate a 4×8, so unless we present those people with an alternative they’re going to dismiss the hobby of model railroading as impractical for their lifestyle. And yet, they could get started in the hobby – and build their skills (and enthusiasm) – with a Free-mo module or a modest shelf layout over the book case. So, maybe more experienced hobbyists – especially the layout designers who submit to publications – need to offer some so-called Beginner Layouts in those form factors…


  9. Trevor,

    As one who is planning to introduce my kids to the hobby–specifically the electrified version vs. the wooden railway–I’ve given quite a bit of thought to the continuous run vs. point-to-point we favor.

    I was introduced to the hobby by my grandfather after the requisite Lionel set as a kid. Naturally, the 4×8 appeared, hoisted upon saw horses in the garage or spare room and we set about replicating the track patterns which appeared in his old Atlas track plans, with and without modification. These were all continuous-run because it is something we grasped as children and it held our attention. The 4×8 and 4×4 sheets were readily available and required minimal effort and no power tools. The roll-out grass mat was even 4×8 and one didn’t even need a staple gun to put it down!

    Throughout my high school years, I spent quite a bit of time designing and building layouts for myself and friends, but they were all rectangular sheet stock and required walk around room as you pointed out. Again, they were all continuous-run, however something did change for me. While I was spending a lot of time laying a lot of track on those large sheets, I was relatively content running a small N scale switching yard I had on a shelf in my bedroom, but I didn’t “get” the appeal of point-to-point.

    A few more years would go by before the switch had finally flipped: continuous-run wasn’t prototypical, it took a lot of space and it wasn’t what I personally wanted to model anymore.

    That switch does not flip for everyone. From all of the videos I show my kids on YouTube, many, many adults have not moved past the continuous-run layout and that works for them. Like I at a younger age, they may not “get” point-to-point and we should be supportive and great foul they are helping keep our hobby going.

    It may be in our interest to suggest to new people the narrower layouts, with the potential for end loops allowing continous-running, to save space, money and time (labor) to get from substrate to running a miniature railroad as soon as possible (or desired) in comparison to the large sheets of plywood/homosote/cork.

    So, once the room is set aside and I start designing my On2 layout, there will be a continuous-run Lionel layout below it for the kids until (if) they switch to point-to-point and they are content to run with me on the top level.

    Sorry for being long-winded and good thread.

    – Rick.

  10. Trevor,

    I agree whole heatedly with taking on the 4×8 sacred cow, and with just about everything you said. . . . There was a time when folks might have had that much spare space, but no more. That said, I think those of us who would propose alternatives have to keep a two things in mind:

    1) Not overwhelming the intermediate modeler. Nothing breeds success like accomplishing something. Simple construction really helps in that regard.

    2) Not requiring too many tools to get started–I owe so many of the skills I have now to my early interest in model railroads, but certainly did not start with those skills or tools in my arsenal.

    I spent my teenage years imitating Malcom Furlow and John Olson. . . with mixed results. The results, however, were all the encouragement I needed to keep going. I worry that we sometimes overwhelm new modelers with a wall of information and complexity, when really we just need to find out what inspires them and nurture that for a while.

    Our hobby is best served (in my opinion) by people who are actively engaged in making models and railways. This is doubly important for people who care about operations, since getting to the point of having an operating railroad is a big step in understanding operations. Incidentally, this is the primary downfall of most 4×8 layouts: limited play value. The other downfall is the amount of space there is to scenic–there is a lot of waste space in the middle, no matter how clever you are.

    I think this really raises the stakes for layout designers. The layout needs to be both easy to build and operationally satisfying. My 2 pennies? I think a switching layout that is Fremo compatible would be a great leap off point–simple to build–functional, and an invitation to “join up” with other modelers. . . . .


  11. A number of people have suggested that a continuous run is necessary because kids want to see the trains run. I’ve had a thought about this:

    If I look at the many games available for Xbox, Wii, PlayStation, computers and smartphones, all of them are interactive. Kids learn strategies to move through the levels of a game.

    Many games designed for smartphones have achievements and goals. To provide but two examples of achievements:

    – a road game may challenge the user to travel one mile without applying the brakes.

    – a combat game may challenge the user to get through a level without using a certain weapon or enhancement.

    Such games are obviously popular with kids. They like the challenges and the bragging rights of succeeding. And they will play them for hours at a time.

    By the same logic, kids should embrace a layout that presents a challenge – switching cars into a certain order, for example – provided they understand that there’s a game involved, and how the rules work.

    A great example, I think, is the Inglenook – a UK layout that involves two switches. There’s a good write-up on the Inglenook on Adrian Wymann‘s Model Railways Shunting Puzzles web site. The late Carl Arendt devoted much space on his Small Layout Scrapbook site to the Inglenook as well, and it’s a staple of his Micro Layout Design Gallery.

    (Incidentally, one of my favourite versions of this layout is Ingleton Sidings, built by UK modeller Paul Allen. Paul has created a professional-looking video to promote his layout to model railway exhibition managers. And as shown in this photo, he has created game pieces – tiles featuring photos of the model freight cars – that can be placed on a shelf to show the order that the finished train must take.)

    By contrast, I doubt that a game would hold a kid’s attention for even a minute if all they had to do was press “start”, then sit and watch the game play itself. Yet that’s often cited one of the “strengths” of the continuous-run layout – that one can watch it, without having to actually engage with it.

    So, maybe we need to rethink the value of including a continuous run in a beginner layout plan? I’m not suggesting that continuous runs are bad, but I don’t think we should assume it’s a requirement.

    • “So, maybe we need to rethink the value of including a continuous run in a beginner layout plan? I’m not suggesting that continuous runs are bad, but I don’t think we should assume it’s a requirement.”

      I second that!


  12. As I’m the fellow with the “4X8 Alternative” website, I think a lot of good ideas expressed here.

    But I think it’s important to note that eschewing the HO 4X8 sacred sheet _doesn’t_ necessarily mean forgoing a continuous run. Many of the basements and garages where HO 4X8s are started (and often abandoned) would easily hold a 5X9 or 5X10, a much better form-factor for an HO island layout.

    Or a donut with a duckunder for an inner branchline. Or a dogbone … and on and on. Too often, people equate continuous run (which I believe _is_ important to many beginners) with HO 4X8s and raise alarms whenever the 4X8 is questioned.

    One can easily piece together a flat-top 5Xsomething from plywood sheets cut by the lumber yard, if a saw is so intimidating. And of course, there are many other ways to build benchwork.

    Bottom line, an argument against HO 4X8s is not an argument against continuous run … nor an argument against beginners … nor an argument against smaller layouts. Exploring alternatives to HO 4X8s simply recognizes the inherent (and unarguable) limitations of the sacred sheet for HO standard gauge.

    The 4X8 worked great for an O-27 oval. That’s probably why it carried over to HO. But if building materials came as 5X9 sheets from the factory, that’s the size layout that the commercial press would promulgate.


  13. Before I expanded it, my layout was 4×8 and I loved it. It didn’t take up 8×10 either; it took up 4×8 of my basement because I put caster wheels on the legs. I was able to put the whole layout against the wall and pulled it out with ease whenever I needed to get behind it. Personally, I prefer a longer, rectangular layout to a more square one, but that’s just my preference.

  14. As Brian points out, the argument about around the walls versus 4×8 island doesn’t take into account portability. My 72″ by 44″ layout is purpose built for portability- space constraints in the past required being able to take off the trains, trees and structures and put up against a wall every now and then. It is a fiber-tape reinforced chunk of 2″ insulation foam. It’s light and solid and would sit on boxes. Now I have a more permanent spot and suspend it on tie downs from picture rails in the room. The thing is, it’s still easily moved around for any access needed, and takes up only the less than 4X8 with operation aisle in front with about 20 inches on the side, whichever side I choose is the key.

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