Layout size and reluctance to learn

Old Ways Are Best
(Fun for a wedding, or when on holiday. But if you want to enjoy the many advantages of a modern car, you have to learn to drive)

When I look at the model railway hobby and compare it to what I’ve experienced in other hobbies, I am often surprised at how much resistance people in this hobby offer up to the idea of lifelong learning.

Emphasis is often placed on finding quicker, cheaper, easier ways to do things – rather than better ways to do things. Concepts that promote mediocrity are embraced and spouted as gospel. A good example of this is the “Three Foot Rule” – the idea that as long as something looks good from three feet away, the project is a success and no further work needs to be done.

I’ve often thought about why we do what we do, and there are several posts about this on my blog. But today, while drinking my morning coffee and sharing thoughts with a couple of friends, I approached the problem of “reaching for the middle” from a different angle.

I wonder if the reluctance to learn has something to do with the nature of layout building? In other hobbies, project timelines are much tighter.

A golf game lasts a few hours – and then it’s done. The next game is a new beginning. It’s a new opportunity to do better. Some would say the whole point of golf is to improve one’s score, for the bragging rights.

Building a piece of furniture takes a few weeks or months – and then it’s done. The next piece is a new beginning and can be related to the first piece, or can be radically different. New techniques, materials, and tools can be explored. The resulting piece of furniture doesn’t have to blend in. It doesn’t have to match the previous output.

Military modellers build individual models – not entire fleets of ships or divisions of tanks. Each project stands on its own merits. And each new project is an opportunity to do better.

But in our hobby, we rarely look at each locomotive, or structure, or tree as a model unto itself. They’re usually part of a larger project – a layout – so we spend less time reviewing the project just completed. We tick the box – “That’s one more for the layout” – and move on. We don’t review what we’ve built and ask, “What could I do better – either next time, or right now?”

Old Ways Are Best
(The process of continuous review and improvement is why you’re not reading my blog on one of these)

I’m guilty of this. I have cut corners on many of the projects that comprise this Port Rowan layout. I have stand-in freight cars… background structures… and other compromises. I added them to the layout and then I moved on. And now, every time I look at my layout I see things I could’ve done better. (That said, I also acknowledge that if I had done them better, they probably would’ve taken longer and I would have less of the layout built by now. Would that be a bad thing? Maybe not.)

At least I recognize that I’ve made those compromises. And I also know that since I have a relatively modest layout – one that has taken me a few years to build, not a few decades – I have plenty of opportunity in the future to revisit those compromises and make them better. That’s my plan, anyway. And in order to achieve that, I am actively working to acquire new skills or upgrade as the hobby evolves. For example:

I’m learning to work with brass, through the CNR 3737 project.

I’ve upgraded the decoders in my steam locomotives not once, but twice in five years. Currently, I’m tearing out decoders and replacing them with Loksound decoders loaded with Full Throttle to take advantage of ESU’s sound reproduction and motor control.

I’ve upgraded my DCC system to take advantage of more powerful throttles and more advanced features.

I think sometimes people in this hobby get stuck in the mentality of, “I’ve built that. It’s done. It’s time to move on.” I get that. When building a large layout, one can’t keep revisiting the completed sections – there are still so many uncompleted sections to tackle. And if one has mastered a technique, and it worked on those completed sections, why consider doing things differently the next time?

Old Ways Are Best
(Okay when camping, or in an emergency… but do you really want to give up indoor plumbing for this? Old ways aren’t always the best)

Sadly, this means the resulting layout often looks like the builder’s skills froze in time the moment they started construction. If the first piece of the layout was completed in the 1970s, and the builder mastered the use of dyed sawdust and zip texturing, then that 1970s era scenery is likely still on display today (worse for the wear of being untouched for the past 40 years). And when the layout is viewed by those who have mastered more modern techniques – say, the use of static grass – they’re not going to leave feeling inspired.

I’m sure this isn’t something the builder wants. We all want to put our best effort forward, don’t we? To take pride in our work and inspire those who visit to see it? I sure do.

For those just embarking on a layout, perhaps the biggest favour they can do for themselves is to ask if they honestly have the energy, time and commitment to not only maintain the layout they’re planning, but to continuously improve it. And if the answer is “No”, it’s okay to scale back one’s plans…

34 thoughts on “Layout size and reluctance to learn

  1. Trevor,

    You raise interesting points, as usual. I think it boils down to a simple question: what do you want to achieve with your hobby? Simple question, but the answer may not be!

    One comment you made was about your “stand-in” models, and how they have enabled you to make more rapid progress. I think that it is great that you have taken this approach, and there is nothing wrong with it. At some point in the future, these models will fall below your rising standards, and you will replace them with better models.

    As long as one is prepared to re-work something, or replace it (“That hard shell and zip texture from 40 years ago wasn’t great then, but it got me away from the plywood central, now I will replace it with something much better as my skills have increased,”) then the longevity of our hobby projects is no longer a problem, but a wonderful solution!



  2. One of the best things that has come along is the Canadian Railway Modeler Facebook group. There is nothing like a photograph of one’s layout to emphasize the modelling aspects that do not measure up. Some of the really good modelers have posted photos that makes us look twice, or three times to see if we can find anything that gives away the photo as being that of a model instead of a prototype. These photos can inspire us to do better on our own models – or perhaps it can make us feel that we can never achieve such techniques. I like to think that it inspires us – as do your photos of your layout.
    Unlike a golf game, our game is never-ending!

    • Hi Jim:
      Good point – social media and the ease with which we can photograph and share our layouts certainly provides plenty of inspiration, especially when the layout builder/photographer is willing to share techniques as well as accomplishments.
      Of course, the flip side of this is that the layout that used to look good using the “three-foot rule” may crash and burn under the “three-inch rule” of high-quality cameras on almost everyone’s mobile phones. I have been using the camera as a modelling tool for many years now, and I highly recommend that everybody learn to photograph their layout – not only so they can share with others, but also because it’s amazing what you see in photos that you don’t see when standing in front of the layout. My modelling has become much better since I learned to use a camera – but only because that camera forced me to do better by pointing out my failings.

  3. I see people buying readymade structures, it’s like modern life doesn’t have the time for building layouts anymore. There’s a big drive for fast and easy solutions. Nothing wrong with the readymade structures, except they make all layouts look the same.

    • Good point – although perhaps the fact that they make all layouts look the same is a problem with ready-made structures? Not, of course, if the owner is enjoying the hobby. But if the owner feels the layout is missing something, perhaps it’s that extra bit of personality that’s lacking…

  4. I read and thought about your post Trevor, and the comments that follow. At first I agreed with what you said. But then, I began to see a big difference in the comparisons. A golf game is just that, a single game. the whole idea is to do good and enjoy the doing. Once it’s done, it’s done and on to the next game. A piece of furniture is done when it’s done. you look at it and judge it on it’s merits alone. I think for most of us, model railroading is more like painting. It is an attempt to generate a feeling, a memory, a sense of being somewhere else. In that regard, it matters not how perfect it is, rather who well it conveys the feeling you’re trying put across. A charcoal sketch has no color, yet can convey a feeling. A modern art painting is almost unrecognizable, yet many people can see what the artist felt.

    I believe most of us are trying to build a layout that takes us to a place in either time, location or both. It it does that, then we’ve won the game. However, if we get better at it, more people will get to go to where we are.

    Don’t know if I said this as well as it could be said, but at least I tried.
    Bart Hollis

    • You did a fine job saying it Bart – thanks! You got me thinking about it, too.
      I’d love to hear from a professional artist about painting. Or another artist about their art. Or a professional musician about music. I suspect that for them, every project is an opportunity to learn and do better. I’m sure that most professional musicians try to improve how they play a song that they’re written, every time they play it. In fact, I bet that’s what separates the professional musician from the “guy who can play guitar”.
      Do professional artists revisit the same subject? Many of them do, trying to improve how they capture the mood or express what they’re trying to communicate.
      Do we, as modellers, review what we’ve done to determine if it’s the best way to communicate the feeling we’re trying to express? And if it doesn’t, are we ready to redo it?
      Using modern materials like static grass don’t make a layout great – any more than using the newest brand of paint makes one a painter. But just as a painter will try to improve their technique, I think many of us can improve ours. Me included.

      • “I’d love to hear from a professional artist about painting.”

        And now I have – thanks to Mike Cougill (a painter who also builds superb models, and writes a lot about the artistic processes as related to railway modelling):

        A Failure to Communicate

        Cheers, Mike!

        • A note: Mike got in touch to say that he rewrote the blog post referenced above. I’ve updated the link to the new post.

  5. The thing about “better” is that it is subjective. The cardboard mock up building was better than no building. An inexpensive kit is better than the mock up. A scratch built accurate representation is better still. You may choose to stop where the result is personally satisfying and go no further.

    But even if you do stop, there is nothing to say you can’t get started again. Sure that cardboard mock up (10 over par) stood for some time, but now you have a kit to replace it (now playing at par).

    I don’t know much about golf, so please forgive any inaccuracy in the analogy.

    • It works for me. I know nothing about golf, other than having an idea of how it’s scored – having reported on it in a past life. But golf, boiled down, is a pretty straight-forward sport – one that everybody can understand as an analogy: You try to put the ball in the cup with as few strokes as possible. Lowest score wins. It’s easy to measure improvement: Did you complete the same course, in fewer strokes? You did better. I also know that people spend money on courses and equipment to improve their game. I don’t see a lot of golfers trying to find ways to make golf cheaper by, say, foregoing a club in favour of a branch they found in the ditch. But people in our hobby sometimes measure success by how cheap something is, rather than how well it does the job.

      • ” But people in our hobby sometimes measure success by how cheap something is, rather than how well it does the job.”

        This galls me to no end as I agree totally with you.

        This could and should be a topic on its own–though I’m not sure if you’d like the poop-storm that might ensue. This hobby sometimes seems populated by cynics, the likes of whom Oscar Wilde described as “knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing”.

  6. Trevor, one of the problems in model railway as a hobby is the layout itself which involves a considerable investment in time and effort — not to mention expense. Unfortunately, once the layout reaches a certain point, starting over is difficult and this applies not only to the layout but also to the technology. Military and diorama modellers, as you pointed out, have the advantage of continually starting over with current and improving modelling techniques. Their progress is so evident that railway modellers are adopting their techniques especially in painting and weathering but also in other areas.
    I am not sure that you are correct about reluctance to learn. It is very difficult to be in this hobby without improving ones skills and “how to” knowledge. This also applies to new technologies as you have demonstrated in continually upgrading your DCC and sound system. However, at some point, the accumulation of equipment precludes upgrading to, say, onboard battery power which is probably the future for model railways especially in the larger scales.
    One solution is the “Achievable Layouts” you have been advocating. The blog posting on Roweham is a case on point. The layout is small enough that it can be finished to a very high standard and if, it became boring or lacked opportunity for more modelling, it could be expanded or replaced with a newer layout. Upgrading such a layout to the latest technology is not a massive challenge should one want do so. Secondly, it could be rebuilt to be more representative on ones increased skill levels and abilities. An example of your “less is more” message.
    Keep up the good work on your blog and keep raising topics such as the present posting.
    Bill Bear

    • Thanks Bill. I’ll keep raising the topics. You keep providing the feedback!
      One interesting observation you make is about the accumulation of equipment. Many times, I’ve heard people say, “I won’t upgrade to DCC because I have so many locomotives, it would be too expensive.” I wonder, “Why do you have so many locomotives in the first place? Did you really need all of them?” The answer is probably, “No”. I would guess that all of us could get by with half the locomotives we have – and still run our layouts just as well as they do now. I certainly don’t need all the locomotives I have (although I’m happy to have them). I could get by with two locomotives – one to run, and one as protection power. Yet I have four steam locomotives that see regular service on my layout, plus a couple of diesels and a steamer or two that are completely inappropriate for Port Rowan.
      What this means is, if cost was an issue I could upgrade two of my locomotives and be done with it.
      Perhaps the problem is the accumulation of equipment, or buildings, or other pieces of the layout. Perhaps it’s the size of the layout itself – and the value that we place on these things. As you note, I advocate for achievable layouts, and one of the things I like about them is that if and when I decide they’re outdated, or I’m tired of them, I can abandon them and start over – redoing the same theme, or exploring a different theme entirely – and take advantage of new materials and techniques.

  7. I have a friend who designs and makes Windsor chairs and Windsor chair derivatives. He started designing and making them all by himself, but his designs were so beautiful that he could not keep up with demand. He stopped being a designer in favor of being a furniture maker.

    But he missed designing chairs in the Windsor mode, so when a local furniture maker retired, my friend bought his factory and suddenly had sixteen employees turning out beautiful Windsor chairs while he went back to designing and custom making Windsor chairs for the very top of the market.

    But there were customers who wanted his designs for their libraries and offices but needed them in volume and couldn’t afford the cost or the time for the work of his atelier. So he signed an agreement with a larger contract furniture maker who took on the manufacture of his furniture for colleges and libraries and restaurants. And he got to design and make chairs again.

    There are similarities to model railways here. For my friend to do what he wanted to do, both design and make, he had to bite off ever smaller pieces from the pie. We read of Joe’s layout, but the bigger the design and the higher the quality required, the less Joe did directly. Good writers and honest layout builders acknowledge the many who contributed to Joe’s layout, whoever Joe might be.

    There is a middle ground in which people select from a matrix of opportunities those aspects of the railway that most appeal. I love kit bashing structures, and I am never going to buy a preassembled structure. I don’t mind assembling rolling stock, but I would rather weather it, so if I come home from a train show with a few assembled cars, I am happy to head for my weathering kit. It is not going to happen that I install my own decoders in my favorite locomotives. There is only so much time to make Windsor chairs and too much demand on that time.

    This makes model railroading problematic in two ways: first, beginners are both attracted and intimidated by the multiple demands of the hobby. The intimidation is increased by pressure to excell at certain subsets of the hobby if one is to be considered a real model railroader. But if you file all your caboose lanterns from brass stock, you are not going to lay a lot of track or spend much time operating beyond moving engines around a motive power depot. If I want to do the parts of model railroading that I love, all by myself, I can’t do it all. And how do I know what I love? Those are the parts that I constantly go back to and rebuild because I see another way to do it.

    • I think Marshall has hit the nail (or at least one of them) on the head. Every now and then, I reflect on the work I’ve done and the work left ahead of me and marvel at the scope of the skills and methods needed. My railroad was responsible for major plumbing and masonry work, for goodness sake!

  8. In terms of building a model railroad, the layout, our challenge is that we’re creating this single massive collage that is both a multimedia project as well as an interdisciplinary one.

    In an activity like golf or painting the action is constant. You can play more holes of golf or paint on a larger canvas but what you do is the same basic thing. Your skills are improved by repetition and can be enriched by then applying those skills to different golf courses or alternative subjects. However, you have a cultivated method of swinging a golf club or painting and that remains basically the same – what you’re looking for is a different venue in which to swing a club or a brush.

    Model railroading is more complicated than that. At its core, we expect that our installation be both a static display and also a piece of kinetic sculpture. The demands of both are wildly different and yet we expect the same to co-exist in equal amounts. Equally, the skills of the model railroader are not transferrable. For example: the model railroader might enjoy handlaying track but the skills involved in making up a turnout are not like those required to program a DCC decoder or create a model tree. The work ethic would remain as a constant and the successful modeler is the one who can apply his approach equally to those tasks that really speak to his imagination as well as those he loathes. Over time, we continue to fiddle with track or upgrade wiring but if we hate scenery than we learn to live with what we’ve done as it’s not primary to our interest in the hobby.

    I agree that it would be interesting to learn from other crafts. When we have in the past it’s usually to identify techniques that can be learned in one and applied here at home but there could be a more significant lesson learning about the other’s work ethic. How does the athlete or artist move past something he doesn’t enjoy? How does he continue to push himself to learn if the only reason is a gamble on professional growth?


  9. Great post, Trevor.

    One significant thing that your post reinforced to me is something that I’ve just recently come to realize – I get great satisfaction from ANY type of modeling or construction as long as it’s of the highest quality possible. Inherent in this approach is that if the quality isn’t there it will soon be replaced with better, more improved, modeling or construction.

    To go along with this approach, I’ve become more and more comfortable with the idea of not being in a rush to complete the layout, but rather to take whatever time is necessary to achieve what my vision was and is for a model or scene. (Note: I have a very small layout so I don’t experience the same pressures of those trying to build a large layout.)

    I just recently (after many false starts and promises) started hand laying my track. I thoroughly enjoy working on the track because I take whatever time is comfortable to make the finished modeling as perfect as possible. For example, one turnout I recently finished took me 4-5 hours to complete. That baby is perfect and I spent a fair amount of time just pushing cars through it for fun and imagining the same actions on the real branch.

    Some people might think this approach is nuts. But I’ve found just relaxing and embracing my perfectionism has made the hobby a lot more enjoyable. And if that perfectionism means tearing out parts of the layout to rework it to make it closer to the prototype and give me greater satisfaction, well, that’s a good thing because it becomes almost automatic.

    I used to joke with my close modeling friends that my perfectionism was a curse that I needed to beat back with a stick. But since I decided to embrace it rather than beat it back I’m in a much happier place and changes to the layout come easy and without hesitation.

  10. Frank Ellison compared the model railroad to a theatrical presentation. The trains are the characters, the layout is the stage and the operations are the story or play. Upgrading the models is akin to improving the wardrobe or the set, much like a tailor or set designer might do as they moved from high school productions to Broadway productions.

    I think the best thing about your layout is that you have a compelling SET of stories to tell on the same stage, e.g. The Daily Effort, the plow train, the doodlebug, the Work Extra. Within those stories are varied characters, some entirely accurate and some not. But while you have a beautiful set and characters that fit the era and the setting, it’s the storylines that keep the layout compelling.

    Just as it takes a compelling play to be worthy of Broadway production, I think it takes a compelling story to inspire better modeling. The more good stories that can be told with a layout, the longer it will provide satisfaction and inspire better modeling.

  11. Great post and great replies!

    I have far more locomotives then I can, or will ever want to use, and especially now that I want to use DCC, most I CANNOT use. That’s fine, I have locomotives dating back to the 1970’s, and why would I want to use what was perhaps the state-of-the-art then when the hobby has progressed so much!

    Likewise, I have far to many buildings (almost none prebuilt), but once I get my layout completed (at least as far as the scenery and structures go, most of those will ‘go away’, I just want to keep my options open right now, but I know full well I cannot use 80-90 percent of what I have. And that is fine.

    I know (or least hope) also that once I get going, my skills will improve and I will want very much to go back and rebuilt/revise what I’ve done before. And as you suggested, photography of my efforts will be a key part of my improvement program. John Allen taught me that through his writings, and this after he was taken from us all too soon.

    I think that one of the best things about this hobby (besides the camaraderie) is the fact that what we often build builds upon one another, building blocks if you will. While I have the greatest respect for serious model builders (in many ways, I believe, they are far more advanced then their model railroad counterparts), I personally dislike the idea that once I model one subject, then it’s done. I think usually while you can build multiple aircraft/cars/ships/tanks etc, generally they do not interact. And again, that’s what I love about MRRing!

    I know of a local modeler who as been active with his current MRR for at least 35 years. I have no idea how many times it been rebuilt and revised, but always for the better! He’s not afraid to make drastic changes if it improve his railroad. His MRR was featured in MR a number of years ago, and I didn’t even realize that it WAS his MRR since it had be refined to such a degree since that article had been originally written. Plus he’s a great guy too!

    Change is, I feel, good for you. Perhaps changing scales (although I do not currently foresee this happening with me due to my very limited space), eras, prototypes (I’ve done this a LOT as I’ve met few real railroads I didn’t like! ) and locations. Also changing, and improving, as has been pointed out, structures, rolling stock and especially scenery as the hobby progresses and our skills and knowledge, etc., improve.

    Naturally, as the saying goes, YMMV!

  12. An interesting post for sure, as the number and length of the replies confirms. I’ve been active in the hobby since 1995 and have witnessed a lot of change in the hobby in both ideas and materials.

    When I hear the “Three Foot Rule” I think of Allen Mclelland who was certainly not unsympathetic to the idea when it helped him achieve his goals. His book “The V&O Story” about his first and highly influential layout contains many references to this “good enough” approach. He made no excuses for prioritizing “modelling operations” as opposed to modelling motive power, and rolling stock etc. Nevertheless Mclelland updated his layout by advancing the era modelled and by incorporating new technologies and equipment. Eventually he had the courage to tear down a by then famous icon to start over. His next layout featured many of the new ideas developed by hobbyists who were no doubt inspired by his groundbreaking concepts. The point is, his first layout was as groundbreaking as it was famous, yet he was not content to sit on a masterpiece. I’ve seen the same pattern repeat itself with other well known hobbyists over the years and it has always inspired me to keep growing.

    I finally got around to building my first layout 2 years ago. Many things both real and imagined kept me from starting sooner. Despite dozens of magazines and literally hundreds of ideas I couldn’t for the life of me get started.

    Eventually I stumbled upon Lance Mindheim’s step by step guide on how to build a shelf layout. While it was completely unlike any layout I had envisioned for myselfI it was a “good enough” approach to get me started. The hands on learning and sense of accomplishment I derived from that layout was my breakthrough.

    We moved this December past and the layout came down and made the move. Thanks to the construction methods used it would be easy to simply bolt it to the wall and pick up where I left off. However I have new ideas, confidence and aspirations I want to follow.

    Ian Wilson’s books are a great inspiration to me and I am excited to be in the final stages of design for my next project. My plans are to start with a small section that will be expandable when my son leaves for university in 18 months.

    I must say Trevor, I really enjoy this blog and have started following Chris Mears’ Prince St as well. Many thanks to both of you for sharing.

  13. I often think of model railroading as an art form. More so than just a technical exercise of creating structures, cars and locomotives. Indeed it is more so an art form than any of those technical tasks.

    Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it also goes that as the artist I may be happy with less originally to get things going, and add more over time as I get the technicalities of physical operation (power, running qualities, etc.) under control..

    Does this make me a poor modeller? Who cares? And there’s the rub. It’s art, and I’m no artist. But I know what I want to achieve and how I want things to work.

    My breakthrough moment was operating on the 2005 version of the Cat Mountain and Santa Fe (David Barrow’s outstanding layout in Austin Texas). There was mostly plywood scenery, blank white architectural buildings or note cards for industries, yet the operating sessions were always packed out.

    There were lines and for good reason. Because you came there to operate. And you were so focused on what needed to be done to get a train over the division that you didn’t have time to notice the scenery, it was something you had to get through to get the job done on time and correctly per the switchlist.

    I only had the chance to operate on David’s layout the once. And it was life changing. Hence my layout designs changed over the years to focus more on operation than anything else. Yes you can add stuff to pretty it up, but my art focus is on operation, getting loads in and out in the quickest way possible.

    Beauty being in the eye of the beholder I’ll operate before almost anything else and be happy with that while I build the rest of the layout. Not sure I’ve added to the conversation one bit. As the owner of the joint luckily I get to make that decision. Being an anarchist in that regard is good. I go my way, make myself happy and allow others to do likewise.

    It’s a good compromise.

    • i think it’s less about modelling vs operation and more about avoiding stagnation. Barrow makes no apologies for a minimalist approach to modelling but has continually advanced new ideas regarding layout operation and construction. Lifelong learning in the hobby can take many forms.

      • Scott;
        I absolutely agree. Mr Barrow is and always has been a learner and improviser. He just sees what is not quite right and then drove himself to make his creation better.

  14. This post probed a very tender spot in my psyche.

    I lived outside the USA for a total of 20 years. That allowed me to partake in some of the finer things in life: steam locos in preservation and British and European railroad modelling. The differences between ‘there’ and ‘here’ are profound, but in only two ways.

    The first is in approach. Modelers here have an engineering mindset while modelers there are artists and craftspeople. Here you follow formulas, rules, plans and instructions; there you invent-cum-create following good design principles and skill.

    The second is in narrative. Here, modelers show you what they’ve put together; there, they tell a story. Here, explanations are needed; there, no explanations are needed. Viewers there figure out and appreciate the details and nuances that make a scene come alive.

    You have a story behind your work, but you need not tell it to us so we can appreciate the gestalt you created. We look and see how the story holds together, how rich it is, how it reminds us of places we might not ever have been.

    I once asked Pelle Soeborg how he knew where to place trees and shrubs. He replied that you put them where they need to be. An engineer would say, “Well, where exactly is that?”. An artist would look at the basic scene and consider shape, form, textures, landforms, interplay of objects, and on, and on … .

    Art and artists are somehow suspect in the USA. They’re odd, freaky people, ‘sensitive’. Being an artist is either at the fringe or outside the mainstream, un-macho. Being an artist often requires learning, practice and hard work. It means developing a keen, critical eye toward spatial relationships, color and content. It requires a special kind of analysis.

    Perhaps the best way to characterize it is right brain versus left brain. Two different outlooks, approaches and methods of problem solving. My friend, Jerry, is a natural artist, you can see it in the subtlety of his weathering. Me, I’m ‘condemned’ by equal strength in right and left brain, can’t quiye lean either way.

    Still, the critical difference is storytelling, having something to ‘say’ and saying it incredibly well. The idea need not be complex, but the strength of visual language is make or break.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking commentary.

    • This response is a very intriguing perspective on the possible difference between model railroading approaches in Europe and the United States. (I wish there was a theory or a model for what goes on in Japan as model railroading culture there has always intrigued me but I no next to nothing about it.) While I am not a fan of unitary/overarching cultural models to explain contrasts between large groups of diverse people, your insights and experiences strike me as having a great deal of insight and possible merit.

      The divergence between art and engineering approaches, coupled with what you define as the willingness or ability to tell a story/or support a transparent narrative that seemingly drives a layout, strikes me as very insightful. The amount of space available for home layout construction is also an oblivious difference between the USA and much of the rest of the world since say 1945. While John Allen gave the hobby the small timesaver layout, most –not all- of the trend setting model railroads and model railroaders found in magazines like Model Railroader were big layouts with an approach just very different in scale and scope than what one sees in Europe.

      I also think the scale of operations –no pun intended- between large home basement sized layouts in the USA such as seen on the V&O, compared with something much smaller as seen in British exhibition layouts such as Roweham, lead modelers, not to mention magazines and bloggers, into very different directions that nonetheless can have a great deal of overlap. For me it is difficult to “tell” a model railroad layout based story unless the scenery and most of the structures are complete. Which is why I would not enjoy operations on a minimalistic David Barrow-like layout… It would seem too much a military board game. But others find such approaches quite invigorating, which is good.

      As always, an interesting discussion here on Trevor’s blog.


  15. I don’t personally see any conflict between modeling and operation, they go hand-in-hand like pick-ups and set outs.

    I greatly admire the talents, skills and contributions of both David Barrow and Lance Mindheim (and others), and mean no insult to them. But David’s minimalist approach leaves me cold.

    To me, when I op on my friends Milwaukee Road, it’s quite a difference between switching a sceniced area and one sans scenery, and between one with either cardboard boxes and a nicely detail structure or structures. My friends are making great progress with their scenery, and it all takes time, and it’s neat to see the progress that they make each session (or almost each session – they have life’s beyond the layout after all!).

    I do have to say, I got a bit turned off by Lance’s otherwise great suggestions about building a layout. I don’t mind someone making suggestions, but don’t tell me I MUST use a certain color for the ground cover! Jiminy Crickets!

    While I enjoy most all of the threads, this one really has turned into some very interesting indeed! Talk about the power of the blog.

  16. Maybe we should be advocating for drastically shorter lifecycles for the model railroad? Instead of making every layout a life’s work. I wanted to say “life sentence” but thought the idea a bit too dramatic.

    Why not establish how long it will exist right from the outset as a planning criteria in the same way we’d establish the space it will occupy or the track plan?

    For example, still start from the same points:
    – how much time and money can I afford to invest?
    – how much space do I have?
    – what fires my imagination right now?

    Maybe from the above, we chose to model something like the Canadian Pacific Railway operations in northern Vermont in the spring of 1996 – no change here at all.

    To the above list we add in this new commitment:
    “I will give myself a year to build this layout and at the end of the year I will tear it down.”

    That time band is not established to rush the process in any way but simply to create an end point – we could regard it as a way of saying that we’re going to explore this idea for a period of time and no matter what happens will learn something from this. With that year of growth behind me we’ll have a stronger working knowledge of the inspiration and goals and we’ll be better modelers as a result:
    – Starting over since the new work will be better than the previous as evidence of the growth;
    – That the work we do is practicing the hobby and investing in our relationship with the work;
    – That we need to commit to the work and then make room for the new work so it can carry us forward in the craft.

    I think we have the hobby backward sometimes and place The Layout at the top of the food chain where the hobbyist should sit. That the layout should exist to support the modeler and not the other way around.

    I’m rambling again…


    • Chris,

      what you are describing is typical of many layouts on the UK Exhibition circus – small layouts that can be completed (to a reasonable degree) that have a finite lifetime (all that erecting and dismantling takes a toll) and are replaced by a different one as the owners interests and resources change over time.

      Perhaps this is the model that more US/Canadian modellers should be following rather than the life sentence in the basement?


  17. If I ever get my MRR built, the LAST thing I want to do is give a finite lifetime! I hope to have it for a long time.

    BUT, if it becomes “not fun” and/or is non-fixable, or is too much trouble to make it right, then it is time to move on. And I would do so. It is a hobby, and it is supposed to be fun.

    I have to add to someone else’s comment, I think in some cases, for some people, it’s not how cheap or inexpensive an item is, but the more expensive it is the BETTER it is!

  18. I’m late to this message, and quite honestly, I’m not willing to take the time to read all of the posts…..Better off modeling or working or others….But I have a few comments.

    I think this post is insightful, in recognizing the differences between Model Trains and specifically the layout form other hobbies such a golf or furniture building. Each of our models is taken within the context of the layout.

    I appreciate that the layout may be more like a painting to capture the feel, not being exact. That is true. But that goes for all of our models. I wonder if there is a counter argument that a duffer is just trying to capture the feel of being a great golfer like tiger wood (or is tiger woods just trying to get the feel of being tiger woods….oh…got off course…I mean track…oh you know…)

    Is a Layout more like a House…..It get’s built, we fix things in it…we improve the gardening and decoration…then change it…sometimes because we feel we can do better, afford better or sometimes because our desires change…Some people leave there homes as they bought them or moved in….They are content and do not have the will/means to make the change. As we age in the home it becomes done that so why do it again here…Then we move on to our retirement home….

    In the end a layout meets our desires and personality and much else about us as the owner…It’s OK if it is not someone else would build. Hopefully we cull some enjoyment out of that layout and the process we went through to get there and where it is now and into the future…

Leave a Reply to Andrew Martin Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're not a nasty spamming robot thingy * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.