Sunday, September 27, 2020

Framing a Layout: A Footprint Doesn't Dictate the Level of Action

 As I move forward to finally build something in my hobby room - maybe a layout? - I try to get a better understanding of what I'm trying to do. Maybe thoughts have crossed my mind since I've been starting to seriously take a look at that challenge. Several concepts I've designed over the years have clashed together and are now starting to coalesce into a more coherent vision.

I recall, many years ago, submitting the idea of displaying several dioramas in this room, each one dedicated to my various interests in railroading. At first, I envisioned this by a series of independent layouts stacked one over the other around the room. While a nice idea, it was plagued to become a collection of dead ends; well-crafted layouts with little purpose.

Later, I came with the idea of trying a layout that would run around the room. As much as I'm not a fan of layouts based on simply having a train running in the middle of nowhere, I must  admit many of my locomotives and freight cars have completely a single loop in almost two decades. This is a shame. I have enough freight cars and locomotives to weathered, detail and improve for a lifetime. Much more than I need to be honest and I know too well I'm not about to sell them. It would be nice to appreciate them from time to time. But in a more pragmatic way, I have no place to break-in my locomotives and program them in a decent fashion. It may sounds ridiculous at first, but it means I have quite a handful of rolling stock with serious mechanical issues due to not having ran enough since I acquired them.

Another point to take in account is the fact I have appreciation for trains from various eras and I must acknowledge it. Trying to fit it all in a single layout theme is an impossible task. It would result in a badly executed product that would fail to deliver anything convincing in terms of realism. However, I'm not that much eager to constrain myself to a single theme. This is why over the last decade I've been trying to understand what is at the core of railroading in North America, particularly in the Northeast (Ontario, Quebec, NB & New England). Some regular patterns have emerged that can act as a common core that bonds many eras and locales. This is something I'd like to exploit.

Also,  I've also discovered our vision field constrains how we can interact and get immersed in a scene. I'm more than convinced that we generally can get comfortable in about 7 to 8 linear feet, maybe 10 feet if you take a chance. Anything over that gets blurry and you need a scenic break or a subdued transition zone before moving over to another interest area. Lance Mindheim called it the Scenery Only Zone, but I've come to compare it to song composition in an old blog post. I really think this has to do with ergonomic and the human body in the same way the size of doors, windows and rooms relate to us. I've seen it in action on Hedley-Junction where scenes in our Villeneuve sections are far too long while the most recent Charlevoix areas are better defined.

Finally, I have a serious problem keeping myself focused when modelling. I am absolutely unable to follow a schedule or a coherent plan even if I do this everyday in my line of work. Most people can't understand how much keeping this blog alive made it possible to have so much coherence in our Hedley-Junction project. But be assured, this is abnormal for me and takes a lot of efforts!

Put all these things together and here's what you will see. I've been able to create interesting parts of layout for the hobby rooms. Scenes that pleases me. But when I try to spread them all over the room, I'm far to be impressed. Also, each theme comes with a particular set of restrictions that goes against my will to put my collection in action. In this regard, my desire for realism hits a wall if I go the fully prototypical way. In that regard, Hedley-Junction and Harlem-Station are two layouts I've built which satiate my appetite for replicating real locations. I'm not sure I want to thread this path for the home layout which is less operation focused and more about railfanning.

For theses reasons, I've came to the conclusion I should set a shelve on each wall, lay a loop around the room and then work on one scene. The Quebec South Shore diorama I presented a few days ago fit the bill. It is generic but yet prototypical in the sense it is based on a real set of rules found on railways, structure I wish to build are indeed real-life prototype and it can support both light operation and railfanning .By following the prototype rules and taking root in real life imagery that means something to me, this generic diorama is a perfect background for CN, CP, MEC, CV and all these roads I like. Be it steam, early diesel or later eras, it keeps its relevance and stay pertinent. The choice of industry is basic but representative and can support the use of many car types. Better, the continuous run makes it possible to both operate small local freight, passenger trains and large freight consists with multiple unit.

Interestingly enough, this scene is self contained. In about 12 feet of linear space, a world in minature is created, both immersive and compelling. Better, this project leaves the 3 other walls as blank canvas for future diorama that can be operated in the same fashion. They can depict whatever I wish, be it a QRL&PCo river scene, an early 20th century rural station, a simple overpass or a bit of Baie-Saint-Paul. The idea is not to go in the "I want it all" fest, but rather to create modelling opportunities for the future. I know a layout has a limited shelf life once completed. Having the opportunity to consider each wall as a self-contain scene means I can redo parts when I'm ready to build something else or even refurbish what I have when better skills are acquired. All these individual scenes, each framed by a cabinet section, would share a common running loop and there would be no need to fear anachronism single the trains of a particular era would be operated by getting immersed in a single diorama at once.

Another thing I like about this idea is its incremental nature. The loop can be quickly put in place and running. Building the first diorama will be also a simple endeavor. Also, I must take into account my health issues and professional responsibilities. My hobby time is limited and I prefer to make the best of a small area than waste my time trying to fill up my room. The end goal is running trains, having fun, modelling prototypically grounded models and doing some light operation for the sake of enjoying some action and sharing the collection.

If I may conclude, I found out over the last few months I didn't need nor wanted a large layout but only a way to interact with trains and immerse myself in this creative world. I made the mistake to conclude running large trains meant a large layout. I made the mistake to think a diorama or a switching layout was incompatible with continuous run. I made the mistake of repeating a lot of ridiculous assumptions made by this hobby which always create the false dichotomy between the ideal layout and the compromise layout. As if the idea layout had to absolutely be large to fulfill large dreams which is probably the most ridiculous idea out there in this hobby. Isn't ridiculous to think a continuous run means a continuously scenicked layout? Isn't ridiculous a switching layout should be a terminus at all cost (nothing against them, they are cool)

The funny thing is that I only started to realize you could more with little by watching a lot of British modellers' YouTube videos. Not the finest ones, not the finescale ones, simply the average Joe ones. Those who aren't at the top of their game, but are clearly learning lessons from experimenting with their hobbies. Their approach struck me because they had a surprising validity beyond their low bro appearance. They shared a similar vision to the better examples from the UK: they were a slice of world where you could have a glimpse and enjoy the trains. Trains could run continuously, but it didn't meant the builder over extended his vision, but he simply made in such a way the outside world could still exist whatever the size of the layout. It meant to me that the size had nothing to do with the amount of action occurring. The most simple location - be it a flag stop - was still part of a network and didn't have to be the most complicated staging ever or a series of insufferable gimmicks. I all had to do with framing your subject.

That brings me to my initial point: I find it hard to frame a subject when it must fill a room. Give me a limited space and I'll have a vision. Give me a large room and it fills like the blank sheet syndrome. It is probably why I always come back to my old Quebec South Shore design experiment because it distillates what railroading in the Northeast means to me: rurality, feed mills, muddy team tracks, small roads and ondulating topography. As long as I can find these common features, I feel in my element and can dream of a local Central Vermont train, a large CP Rail consist or a CNR Mikado pulling a string of single sheated boxcars or hoppers.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm ready to get myself a pair of IKEA Ivar shelves, build a benchwork and lay some tracks. No real idea how it will turn out, but judging by my past efforts, I believe it will make sense and pass easily for Quebec Central Tring Subdivision, CP Newport Sub, NTR Monk Subdivision and many other tracks crossing the border.


  1. Matthieu, you've put your finger on a condition we share much more eloquently than I could have. I have a 12'x3.5' rectangle, with a 4' extension for staging - essentially a big "Q" shape. I model in N scale, so this allows me a bit more scope, but I'm finding i really can model one town, with a large paper mill on one side to provide me industrial switching, the town itself at one of the ends, and a three track yard and couple of sidings on the other long side to round out the picture. Think Berlin, NH.

    My version of the malady you describe is trying to incorporate all the railroads I like to model in a plausible way - so what I've come up with is a plan to swap the St. Lawrence & Atlantic (Emons era, so it's CV and GT GP's) and Berlin Mills motive power out with Montreal, Maine & Atlantic / Iron Road era power when the mood strikes. One of the aspects of especially northern New England is the architecture doesn't change much over the decades!

    1. Geoff, it's why I think knowing well our prototypes shouldn't restrain ourselves. A realistic and plausible setting should work well if the various railroads share a common geographical area and purpose. A paper mill town is probably the most ubiquitous setting in the Northeast. It is one reaso why I designed and proposed here several small paper mills idea. As a matter of fact, if there is a depot, one could use a common footprint and model several structures from various prototypes and era than can be easily swapped in concordance with the motive power. It also provides a lot of modelling opportunities without having fill a basement. Good luck with your project. I'm actually working on CV Alco switcher #8081 and other CV-related projects right now.

  2. I really like this idea: simply setting a generic shelf up on the wall and installing just a plain loop of track. It would act like a massing model to help you test this idea of how a layout in the space will work. Operationally anything more than this will only ever detail this basic loop so this simple plan so if the basic loop isn't enough it's not too great a cost in resources to step back from.

    With that simple and very plain loop in place you could do, as you suggest, build one diorama to replace a section of that plain shelf. That would be an evolution in the design and respond to ongoing questions like "Does this add to my experience?" and "Is this what was missing?"

    When we sit down with pen and paper and start sketching to fill the space our work is to organize options into an elegant form. In what you propose it considers the design of the layout more like how we'd cut into a mass of raw material to expose a sculpture waiting inside of it and away from the phased design-build paradigm.

    I often say, to myself, this is the way forward. Then I ignore that good advice.


    1. Well said Chris... I also have the same problem, I don't follow my own advices! But yes, I'm kind of taming the beast aka the hobby room right now and I don't feel that excited about filling up the space.

  3. It's interesting to think about "purpose" as you note above.

    There's purpose that reaches outside the envelope of the benchwork. That purpose is where our trains come from so they can arrive here and to the work they do here.

    There's purpose within the scene - what happens here and why it happens here.

    As modelmakers our purpose is to practice the skills of designing, creating, and presenting our work. Our work has purpose as a communication medium.

    I kept thinking how versatile "purpose" is as a term in model railroading.


    1. Purpose is indeed a crucial block in this thought process. Often purpose and "operation interest" are conflated. While they relate to each others, they aren't exactly the same. They should inform each other. The purpose really helps to frame and size the project and ask fundamental questions about our relation to the hobby and what we want out of it. I'm far to a perfect answer, but having built several small layouts made me discover their lack of purpose outside the benchwork was the reason I abandoned most of them in the long run. Still surprised the Murray Bay subdivision still capture my imagination... probably because it does have several purposes.