Category Archives: layout design

I feel good layout design is essential to a rewarding hobby. These posts describe some of the design decisions I made, plus sources of layout design information.

“Too Much”

Over on his blog, Chris Adams has written a very thoughtful piece on eating the (model railway) elephant called “Too Much”. Like many of us – myself included – he hit the point where there was so much to do on his layout, it felt like too much. Click on his header image (below) to read more – including how he’s dealing with this challenge:

 photo ValleyLocal-Header_zps1633f898.jpg

I’ve been there – mostly on previous layouts. My adventure with Port Rowan is, in large part, my way of coping with that feeling. I purposefully curbed my ambitions to design a layout that I felt would best fit the demands on my time and the reality of living at least an hour’s drive from almost all of my group of hobby friends – which means I’m doing most of the work, and the operating, by myself. (The exception being David Woodhead, who lives about six blocks from me. Even so, we’re both busy so we see each other less often than one would expect.)

I call these “Achievable Layouts” – and occasionally add examples of such to a separate blog that goes by that moniker. Mike Cougill calls them “Freedom Layouts” – and it’s an excellent term, too.

Each time I start a new layout, I find it has less complexity. To provide but one example of this:

- Two layouts ago, my layout had 30 turnouts on it.

– My previous layout had about 15.

– This one – Port Rowan – has eight.

I sometimes joke that my next layout will have no turnouts at all, like the brilliant Eric Bronsky layout Noitcart Traction from the April, 1978 MR:

 photo NoitcartTraction_zps26a4290c.jpg

And sometimes, it’s not a joke…

I know Chris well enough to know that he’ll get beyond this feeling of “Too Much”. But I also know that when I feel like that, it helps to know that I’m not the only one. And while I’m too far away to offer help in person, I think he’s on the right track so he doesn’t need my help anyway. If you read his blog, you’ll understand what I mean.

I’m looking forward to more progress on The Valley Line – in due course.

Backdrop in LDJ-52

 photo LDJ-52-Cover_zps9edcd2ba.jpg

The latest issue of the Layout Design Journal is in the mail to members of the Layout Design Special Interest Group, and it includes an article on how I used fabric for the backdrop and valance on my Port Rowan layout.

In this five-page article, I discuss the rationale for using fabric, some tips for dealing with a 70-foot length of material, and offer ideas about things to do and things to avoid to get the best out of a fabric backdrop and valance. I hope you find it an interesting read.

(And don’t let the $12 cover price fool you: The Journal is a bargain, because you receive four issues as part of your LDSIG membership. The Journal really is a valuable addition to the library of anybody interested in improving their design skills so that they can build a better layout.)

Best of all, LDJ-52 debuts a new look for the magazine – including full-colour printing. I’ve seen a proof of my feature and the colour makes a huge difference. I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of the issue.

“Simple and Complete”

Chris Mears writes an interesting blog called Prince Street Terminal and his latest posting really resonated with me.

It’s a short post, but Chris nicely captures the advantages of designing and building what I call an Achievable Layout. He notes that life has been busy for him lately, with the result that even grabbing 15 minutes for a work or operating session is difficult – but when he does find that time, the layout is ready for him to enjoy.

I feel the same way about Port Rowan. Last night, for example, I was airbrushing a project and decided afterwards that I needed to run my airbrush through my ultrasonic cleaner. (It does an amazing job of cleaning the airbrush.) The process takes about 20 minutes, and I didn’t want to leave the parts in the cleaning solution overnight, so I turned on the layout and switched St. Williams.

The thing is, the layout was ready to run – and I can run it by myself. If I had a larger, more complex layout, I would not be able to do that – not without upsetting the set-up for a future, group operating session.

(The Sergent couplers, by the way, worked flawlessly last night.)

But back to Chris: Click on the Prince Street Terminal banner, below, to read his thoughts on this, called “Simple and Complete” – and enjoy if you visit.

 photo PrinceStreetBlogHeader_zpsb1b8a4c3.jpg

Well said, Chris!

Rethinking St. Williams

 photo PtR-StWilliamsDepot_zpsfcb72781.jpg
(I like this scene as rendered on my layout and I’m not willing to lose it…)

This post could also be titled “Dodged a bullet”…

This week, reader Mike Livingston was able to share with me a photo of the Hammond Mill in St. Williams. Unfortunately, Mike was unable to obtain permission from the photo’s owner for me to publish it here, but I can tell you that the mill was a 1.5-storey structure with a barn roof – like the roof on the next to the team track in Port Rowan:
Team Track Barn photo PtR-Barn-01_zps2cd0bf26.jpg
(Like this, but larger. Click on the image to read more about the team track barn.)

This structure has been elusive, so in the meantime I’ve been using a stand-in – a scratch-built model of a grain storage bin based on a structure in Cheltenham, Ontario – as shown here:
M233 at St. Williams west photo M233-StW-West_zps28961473.jpg
(Click on the photo to read more about the grain bin)

Now that I have a photo of the real mill, however, I’m thinking about building it for the layout. And that got me thinking…

My rendition of St. Williams has always been fanciful – a situation dictated by the size and shape of my layout space. Unlike Port Rowan, which I was able to model fairly faithfully, I took several liberties with St. Williams:
 photo StWilliams-LayoutPlan_zpsd05c9c7a.jpg
(St. Williams as built. Click on the plan to view a larger version)

Like the prototype location, my 1:64 St. Williams features a doubled-ended siding and a single spur. But my siding is curved – and actually about twice as long than the prototype’s four-car capacity. As well, my spur is located too close to one end of this siding and points the wrong direction – back towards the siding, not away from it.

Could I model the town more accurately?

Here’s St. Williams from the air, with the railway’s former right of way highlighted:
St Williams from the air - labelled photo StW-Labelled.jpg

Port Rowan is to the lower left, while Simcoe (staging on my layout) is to the upper right.

The location of the station is indicated with an “A”. The four-car siding was located to the right of the station, and used as a team track. Meanwhile, the Hammond Mill was on the north side of Queen Street, just to the left (west) of the railway crossing. The spur to the mill went behind the structure, so the mill was tucked between the spur and Queen Street.
 photo HammondMill-LocationGuess_zpsc3584f43.jpg
(The Hammond Mill area today, looking north from Queen Street. This is not the original structure. The RoW is now used as a utility corridor.)

With this information to hand, and inspired by the vintage photo of the Hammond Mill, I decided to draw out St. Williams more accurately, to see if it would fit my space:
 photo StWilliams-TestFIt_zps67ac8f17.jpg

Comparing this quick sketch with the layout plan, I’m convinced I’ve made better use of my available space by taking some liberties. Reworking St. Williams to be more faithful to the prototype would require several changes I’m not willing to make:

- I would have to lose the Stone Church Road overpass – a scene I really enjoy – because it would interfere with the Hammond Mill, the mill spur, and the Queen Street level crossing.

– I would have to bump out the benchwork to accommodate the mill, which would affect my ability to maintain (and enjoy) the track through the east end of the Lynn Valley scene – which starts immediately to the west of Stone Church Road.

– I would have to move the station to the aisle side of the track, so that it would be viewed from the back. Since the only picture I have of this station is taken from the front (see the lead photo), and since this is the image that inspired me to model this station, I’m not prepared to lose that view on the layout.

There are several alternatives, of course. I could flip the station/team track portion 180 degrees, so that the station was to the left of the team track, and the first scene a train encounters upon leaving the sector plate.

But as built, I have almost four feet of running room from sector plate to Charlotteville Street, which gives operators a chance to get up to speed and blow for the crossing.

Having an unscenicked and very unprototypical sector plate immediate to the left of the scene would also seriously limit the angles from which I could view/photograph the station. And I do like the view…
Extra 80 East - St Williams, Ontario - August 1953 photo X80East-StW-2014-01_zps347cae5c.jpg

So, no: Unless I can another eight or 10 feet of wall space to the left of the sector plate – which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future – I’l stick with the St. Williams scene as I’ve built it. It was an interesting exercise in “what fits”, however – so definitely worth the time to try it out.

I may have to replace the grain building with a more accurate model of the Hammond Mill, however. I’ll add that to the “someday” file…

A cleaned up layout plan

It’s been almost three years since I first posted a plan of my layout on this blog – so it’s time for a new one:
 photo PtR-LayoutPlan-MasterLabels_zpsb1cdf2bc.jpg
(Click on the plan to view a larger version)

This plan is based on an original, drawn for me by my friend Chester Louis for an article I wrote for the Layout Design Journal. (Thanks again, Chester!)

There have been few alterations from the original design. Some of the benchwork is slightly different, which made the layout easier to build. But for the most part the changes are minor and cosmetic – involving the tweaking of structure locations and suchlike. The most obvious change is that I split the Lynn River into two segments to make it easier to scenic this area.

Still, I thought it would be nice to add a cleaned-up plan to this blog since my rough scribblings – while adequate to the task of building the layout – leave something to be desired from an aesthetic standpoint:
Port Rowan layout photo PortRowan.jpg
(Click on the plan to view a larger version)

The good news is, regardless of the quality of the drawing, I remain throughly satisfied with the track arrangement and the building and operating challenges this layout presents.

S at the GBTS

There were lots many things to see at the 2014 Great British Train Show this past weekend, and I spent about three hours at the show catching up with old friends and making new ones.

But a special treat for me was this S scale layout, built and displayed by Mike Watts. I didn’t take a camera with me, but my friend David Woodhead did and shared these photos:
 photo GBTS2014-MikeWatts-DW_zpsbdc06851.jpg

 photo GBTS2014-MikeWatts-DW-02_zps0efbf0c5.jpg

 photo GBTS2014-MikeWatts-DW-03_zpsca6af59a.jpg

(Thanks, David!)

David also reminded me that Mike was responsible for the S scale Wandle Valley Railway – a layout that was very influential on my thinking when I first saw it in the 1990s.

Unlike most exhibition layouts of the time, Wandle Valley was built as an oval, with about one-third of the loop hidden to create a staging area. The track plan (included on the link above) was simple yet realistic – and the overall presentation was most elegant.

I remember Mike had a set of flip cards to let viewers know what was happening. I can’t remember for sure, but I seem to recall that he used ambient audio – mostly bird calls – to set the mood. And he definitely showed that a simple layout, with few turnouts and spurs, could still be engaging to operate.

It was great to see Mike’s new layout – well, new to me anyway – and I look forward to spending more time enjoying it at future shows.

Thoughts on the forest

 photo LynnValley-East-Trees-19_zps2879f4c7.jpg

In the comments on a previous post about progress on the Lynn Valley forest, Mike Cougill asked:

With the addition of the trees, how are you and your guest operators adjusting to the view?

It’s a great question and I felt the answers deserved more prominence on the blog, so I’m copying them from the comments on that previous post into this post.

To start the ball rolling, here are my impressions as the layout designer and builder:

This area has developed rather quickly. It’s gone from a very spare scene dominated by grass to a forest…

That said, I planned from the beginning that this area would be forest. I felt it would offer me a different modelling challenge than the open areas of Port Rowan and St Williams. And when operating, I’ve always envisioned this area to be full of trees. Therefore, my perception of the area hadn’t undergone much by way of adjustment.

 photo LynnValley-East-Trees-08_zpsf8692fea.jpg

Hunter Hughson operated on the layout a couple of weekends ago, and offered these observations:

The new forest makes a huge difference…

When I most recently operated on the layout, I felt that there were three distinct locales emerging on the layout – Port Rowan, Lynn Valley, and St. Williams. One very important factor contributing to the realism of the layout is that the entire train is within a single locale while work is being done there. For instance, work at St. Williams involves stopping for waybills and spotting cars on the team track accordingly. The locomotive and train never move into the next scenic space do any of that work. The same is true for the Lynn Valley and Port Rowan locales.

Each locale is comprised of a number of intimate scenes. The Lynn Valley, where Trevor has most recently planted trees, serves to break up the flat farmland/flatland scenes of St. Williams and Port Rowan. The locale is comprised of a number of engaging and well-planned vignettes. The branch line operating speed affords the crew some time to enjoy the subtle variety. None of this feels forced or rushed because the landforms, river bed, and forest canopy are comprised of natural and familiar lines, colours and textures. The visual effect of all of this is amplified by the soundscape, featuring cicadas and a range of bird species.

Trevor was still in the process of building and planting trees, but it was clear to me that the Lynn Valley is in the process of being transformed from a transitional space between two locales to a locale with its very own strong sense of place.

 photo Ops-20140419_zpscde1779c.jpg

Chris Abbott, who took part in last weekend’s operating session, used the question posed by Mike to make some observations about the role of trees in every locale my layout represents:

Port Rowan’s trees, which most properly dwarf the trains, provide an analogue of urban canyons with its silent looming structures – but in bright green & gold instead of drab brick, grimy cinder block, and rust splotched corrugated iron. The semi-transparency of the delicate foliage allows the simulated sunlight to vividly dapple the equipment as it rolls through a lush countryside strongly reminiscent of the rural setting of my boyhood home.

The effort of accurately capturing the lackadaisical droop of the willow and stark white of the birch trunk (amongst a myriad of other details) instead of the vague and unsatisfying caricature presented by popsicle sticks and garishly dyed reindeer food is a welcome visual treat offering rich texture and depth not present on the vast majority of layouts in this or any other age.

Currently, the actors enter the stage through an evergreen curtain to trundle along the edge of a hinted-at vast field of tobacco (a crop prominent at my childhood locale), cross the distinct separation provided by a wide public road, and stop under an almost ethereal canopy providing shade to the St. Williams station platform. The arrival of the train greatly entertains wide-eyed children peeking from their impregnable treehouse nestled in the boughs above a tidy row of neighbouring homes.

Returning once more into the full light of day, the equipment arrives at the St. William’s siding – parenthesised as it is by the grove encompassing the station and the bold edge of the Lynn Valley’s forest. Shunting activity is greatly eased by depicting only gently rolling terrain and a low stand of corn between operator and track.

Continuing on towards the Lynn Valley, the train plunges headlong into a shadowed tunnel of leaf laden, arched limbs to quietly disappear behind a stand of massive trunks, affording only tantalising glimpses of our lead player as it rounds the broad curve therein. Bursting back into the light only moments later, it coasts over the low trestle spanning the tranquil river.

Our protagonist drifts along as it approaches the water tank, largely ensconced by a towering backdrop of primeval forest stretching off towards a dark and foreboding distant sky. More winding water under the girders of a characteristic bridge leads the eye to a herd of cattle obtaining refreshment from the flow and respite from the harsh sunlight in the cool shade of the trees edging the river banks.

Itself replenished, the train surges forward once more, thumping mightily over the aforementioned bridge deck, exiting yet again into the stark brightness of the summer’s day. Wending its way through a reverse curve, it approaches the organised splendour of an orchard of apple trees which, in appropriate contrast to the wilds of the virgin forest and in consideration of the manual gathering operations of the time, is pruned to permit harvest via step ladders and a ubiquitous pickup truck.

Once through the orchard, wide expanses of low grasses (studded liberally with wildflowers and hiding an array of local fauna) offer excellent and unimpeded access to the (relatively) extensive trackage of the Port Rowan terminus and its associated rural industries.

While it remains for more trees to be added to this end of the layout, careful placement will retain access to all necessary points of uncoupling while likely creating yet another scenic break between the team & coal track areas, and the station & Co-Op zones proper.

The addition of the trees to date has already created, to my mind, 7 visually distinct zones on the layout. If the terminal peninsula were to be visually split, (as suggested above) there would then be 8 such zones. Quite an achievement considering the small footprint of the benchwork, all without resorting to the threadbare artifice of diving through backdrops or making mountains out of molehills.

It’s interesting to see how different people interpret the same scene – and I’m pleased by how my friends are reacting to the evolution of the Lynn Valley. Hunter and Chris have done an excellent job, I think, of analyzing the role of the forest – and they’ve definitely picked up on the design goals I had in mind for the forest when planning the layout, which tells me that my plan is working as it should.

Hunter, Chris – thanks for your thoughts on this. And Mike – thanks again for asking the question!

A decision on kiln numbers

I was flattered to have so many thoughtful responses to my posting about the number of tobacco kilns I intend to build for St. Williams. To recap, I originally planned for five kilns in this scene, but lately I’ve been thinking about doing just three.

Many of you offered an opinion and with some very sound reasoning to support your thoughts. Thank you!

As I mentioned in my January 30th post, I planned to play around with the mock-ups a bit more to determine whether three or five worked best for me.

While shooting the video I posted yesterday of Extra 80 East through St. Williams, I realized that I should go with just three kilns for this scene. There are many reasons in favour of three (and of five, for that matter), but what cinched the decision was an experiment I did with photography and video angles with the kilns.

Here’s the set-up for three kilns. Note the space between the right-most kiln and the road crossing:
Kiln Test - 3 (Set-up) photo KilnTest-3-02_zps68ce2fb6.jpg

Now, here’s the set-up for five kilns. (Not all are shown – I simply moved the three mock-ups on hand to the relevant positions.) Note how much closer the right-hand kiln must be to the road crossing in order to fit five kilns:
Kiln Test - 5 (Set-up) photo KilnTest-5-02_zpsb65c9a84.jpg

While it doesn’t seem like that much – it’s one kiln length, so only about 4.5 inches. But note also in the above two photos that I’ve had to reposition the camera in order to shoot the station scene without it being blocked by the corner of the right-hand kiln. With just three kilns in the scene, I can successfully shoot a photo of the station that looks up the mainline, under the trees, and including the tree fort:
Kiln Test - 3 (Result) photo KilnTest-3-01_zps93bbce83.jpg

If I reposition the camera to shoot past a five-kiln scene, and still capture the entire station structure, here’s the best I can do:
Kiln Test - 5 (Result) photo KilnTest-5-01_zps5fa06280.jpg

It’s not a bad photo, but I like the first one better. (And of course I can shoot that second photo in a three-kiln scenario – but I can’t shoot the first photo with five kilns in the scene.)

The St. Williams station scene has become a favourite for me and it would be a shame to limit my photo-taking opportunities by placing a kiln too close to the crossing. And I don’t want to create removable structures so I can shoot past them, because that presents opportunities for accidents involving scratch-built structures and the train-room floor. So – three it is.

Thanks again to everyone who commented on the original posting. It’s difficult to offer an opinion when you don’t have the whole picture but every observation – in favour of three, five, or another number – gave me stuff to think about and helped with my decision. A number of you raised possibilities I hadn’t considered, or made me think about the scene in a different way.

It’s now time to resume building my kilns – with confidence!

A prime number of kilns

Having recently started my models of the tobacco kilns for St. Williams, I’m now paying more attention to the kiln scene on the layout. And I’m pondering whether five is the right number of kilns to build. I might only need three.

It’s not a question of shirking from the task: I enjoy building structures. But I moved the mock-ups around on the layout a bit today and took some photos – this is the advantage of mock-ups, after all – and I’m of two minds.

I still like the look of five better. It helps convey the impression that this is a big-time tobacco operation – the sort that might take advantage of rail service via the team track in St. Williams:
Kilns - Overview - 5 photo Kilns-5-01_zps5221811d.jpg

But to achieve this look, I’m forced to place the kilns much closer together than they are in real life. For the five-kiln arrangement, the kilns are spaced “one kiln-length” apart – like this: K # K # K # K # K. Here’s a photo showing the spacing:
Kilns - Close-up - 5 photo Kilns-5-02_zpsd3e17052.jpg

When I measured my prototypes (in Scotland, Ontario a couple of years ago), I also measured their relationship to each other, and they were spaced “two kiln-lengths” apart – like this: K # # K # # K # # K # # K. While more prototypical, this creates a much more relaxed view as the two photos below demonstrate.

On the plus side of the “three kiln” argument, the spacing allows one to see more of the main track behind the kilns:
Kilns - Close-up - 3 photo Kilns-3-02_zps025375c9.jpg

On the negative side of the ledger, the overall scene looks too small to my eye with just three kilns:
Kilns - Overview - 3 photo Kilns-3-01_zps7f289992.jpg

I won’t do four, since identical objects look better to me when they’re clustered in odd numbers. And I must also be cognizant of the practical purpose of these kilns, which is to serve as a view block and distraction – drawing the eye away from the train as it exits the layout and enters my open yet unlit staging area.

I expect I will still build five kilns, which is what I’ve started. But it’s something to think about, nonetheless…

A very brief moment of weakness

Valley Mallet portrait photo SP-1767-05.jpg

While Hunter Hughson and I waited for Mark Zagrodney to arrive for yesterday’s ops session, layout design discussion and dinner, I hauled out some of the Proto:48 equipment that I’d acquired for a planned Southern Pacific layout. Hunter is a musician as well as a modeller, and we had been talking about the shortcomings of trying to push full-sized locomotive sounds through the tiny-and-therefore-tinny speakers that we’re forced to install into our models.

I thought Hunter would enjoy hearing what can be done when one has the space for a decent-sized speaker. And even in a small prototype, such as this SP 2-6-0, there’s a veritable cathedral of space inside the tender. In this case, I was able to fit a 1.77″ diameter High Bass speaker. As this brief video from a couple of years ago demonstrates, the sound is pretty spectacular compared to what one is used to in HO – even captured through the condenser mic on my camera:

The detail on the O scale locomotives in my collection is also impressive. I take no credit for it – it’s all the work of the builder (Boo Rim) and the importer (Glacier Park Models):
A study in piping photo SP-1767-06.jpg

Cab light photo SP-1767-03.jpg

Back-up light photo SP-1767-04.jpg

And the couplers – retrofits from Protocraft coupler kits – are as realistic as one could want. They even operate correctly: to uncouple, one uses a dental pick to lift the cut bar, which in turn pulls the pin.

After playing with the locomotives and some other equipment for a bit, we went onto other things – but it got me thinking about whether I’d picked the right scale (S) and the right prototype (CNR) for my current layout. Did I make a mistake?

So this morning I re-read one of my earliest postings, called “Why S Scale?” I reflected on my observation from more than two years ago that, as I put it:

When trying to draw an O scale plan for my layout space, I always came away unsatisfied… (and)… my two primary objectives for the layout were in conflict.

That took care of the waffling – and serves as an example why it’s useful to document one’s progress in the hobby. Re-reading my blog this morning, I was able to cast the hard, cold light of reality on yesterday’s moment wistful nostalgia for O scale. 1:64 is definitely the right scale for me – for this layout room, at least.

I also had a look at my entry about the SP Friant branch on my Achievable Layouts blog. In that post, I included a rough sketch of an S scale SP layout for my space. It reminded me that in O scale, the already-compressed scenes in that plan wouldn’t fit at all:
SP Friant Branch Layout in S scale (space test) photo SP-FriantBranch_zps8053816f.jpg
(Click on the plan to read more)

That said, I’m going to hang onto my O scale models, which slumber in a display case in my home office. I enjoy looking at them – and I really enjoyed running a couple of them on a simple test track yesterday.

Maybe – someday – I’ll figure out how to use them as the basis for a layout:

It might have to wait for a move and a bigger layout room.

Or perhaps when I get the S scale layout a little further along I can think about doing a UK-style exhibition layout: Another advantage of those big speakers is that the sound the generate can actually be heard in a public hall.

Failing that, maybe I can find space in my current house for a shelf switcher. It may seem counter-intuitive but when the trains themselves are so big, even a simple “Inglenook Sidings” style of layout can be entertaining.

Well, we’ll see. It’s a hobby and I’m in no rush to make a decision on this. But in the meantime, yesterday’s fun also reminded me that I still have to install DCC and sound in some of these locomotives, a procedure that includes a second decoder to provide independent control of headlight, back-up light, class lamps, illuminated number boards, and cab interior light. Working on these will be a nice project when I need to a break from Port Rowan and recharge my enthusiasm for layout-building.

It’s all good!