I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating. Simple layouts – such as mine – can be very rewarding.
Ages ago, a reader of this blog advised me to stop building my layout and rethink my plan, because he didn’t think there would be enough switching to hold my interest. Since I’d been operating the layout for some time when this warning was issued, I knew that this person did not understand my goals or preferences in the hobby. But it does highlight a problem that many hobbyists face, which is this:
We get so worried that our layouts will not be interesting enough when they’re built that we tend to make them overly complex.
A couple of recent developments reminded me of this.
First, my friend Terry Smith – a fellow enthusiast of Maine two-foot gauge railroads and the modelling of them in On2 – called my attention to the January 5th, 2014 blog entry by Lance Mindheim. To read it yourself, go to his blog and look for “Why Layouts Fail: The Three Headed Monster”. But here’s the argument in a nutshell:
1 – the layout was too large
2 – the design was too complex
3 – the layout was uncomfortable to build and maintain
Lance makes some really good points to explain why these three factors often lead to layout failure. And I agree, 100 percent. These are lessons I’ve learned from my own, previous layout-building experience, and from watching many hobbyists grow disenchanted with their large, complex, difficult to build/maintain layouts.
In his post, Lance suggests that hobbyists engage in a design exercise to put one in the mindset of simplifying their plans. I won’t rob him of visitor traffic by explaining what it is – you’ll just have to read his blog to find out more. But I am curiously pleased to discover that if I were to take up his challenge, I would actually have to double the complexity of my layout.
Thanks, Lance, for another thought-provoking read.
(And thanks, Terry, for alerting me to it!)
Related to this, I recently read the following observation on a newsgroup I follow:
“Branchlines should be at the top of the list for those without a lot of time or money.”
I appreciate what the author was trying to say: If you’re short of hobby time or disposable income, you might want to rethink modelling the Northeast Corridor, Horseshoe Curve, or Toronto Union Station in favour of something more modest. But while layouts based on branch lines do offer a choice to those with limited time or money, describing them as such suggests (to my mind, anyway) that those who choose to model a branch line are somehow “settling for less” – that if we had more resources, we’d focus on a larger, more complex prototype.
That’s not always the case.
Another way – a more positive way – to look at it is that a layout based on a modest branch line allows the hobbyist to devote more time and money to each element of the layout. To cite two examples:
– If the layout only needs one or two locomotives, the enthusiast can invest more into each.
– If the layout needs only a dozen or so structures, each can be carefully detailed to a higher degree than on layouts that need a couple hundred.
I did not choose to model the Port Rowan branch because of either a lack of hobby time or available coin. Rather, I wanted to enjoy building each element of my layout without worrying about how many dozen more of something I needed to realize my vision.
I’m a process modeller: I like to figure out how to do something once. I’m less interested in doing it five or six times. This is one reason why I’m unlikely to model a subject that requires big blocks of identical cars – whether that’s coal hoppers, intermodal equipment, or commuter coaches. I understand the appeal of this type of prototype – moving lots and lots and lots of the same thing is part of the economic argument for building a railway in the first place. And I admire the perseverance of those who can build two dozen identical kits, assembly line fashion. But I know I can’t do that, and don’t want to.
I also know that as I get into a project I look for opportunities to add details. I’m particularly susceptible to this when it comes to structures. It’s not about detailing but about understanding – and properly representing – the construction of a prototype and how to model it. I engage with this hobby in part because I like to learn about the world around me, and learning how a building’s intended function influences its design is something I find fascinating.
The five tobacco kilns I plan to add to St. Williams are a good example of this. A couple of summers ago, I went on a field trip to measure and photograph the prototypes. When I did, I was fortunate to find one with a wall that was partially missing, allowing me an opportunity to photograph the interior. I’m currently debating whether to model all five kilns as shells with closed loading hatches, or do one with open hatches and a full interior… or do all five with full interiors. Doing the full treatment on a single kiln will require a lot of hobby time – probably more time than it would to build all five as shells. I’m more likely to enjoy the prospect of this if I don’t have to build a couple hundred structures for a layout.
And we won’t even talk about the number of trees I’m building from scratch.
I also chose to model a branch line so that I could do it in a larger scale than HO, because I wanted to work on what my friend Chris Abbott has coined “larger models of smaller prototypes”. I’m working in S right now, but have previously worked in O scale in my layout space. I could have opted to build a more complex layout in HO in my layout room – or an N scale layout worthy of a club effort. But that’s not what I wanted. In fact as I’ve said previously on this blog, if I had 50 percent more space than I do, I’d build the same layout but with larger radius curves and more open-country running between St. Williams and the staging area.
Rather than consider simple layouts and branch line themes as our second choices – rather than revere the massive and the complex – how about celebrating the opportunities for craftsmanship that such layouts offer? My friend Mike Cougill has written about what he calls a Freedom Layout. It’s a great term: A very positive way of looking at simple layout designs – regardless of the space, time and money one has for the hobby. As I interpret it, a Freedom Layout is not about settling for less – but about deciding what we actually need to enjoy the hobby, and ignoring the rest.
If you’ve made it this far, then thanks for reading! More to come, as always…