David's Rules for Small Layouts

Part 1 of 3: Keys to Success

So, you're interested in what makes a successful small layout. But you may be skeptical: what makes me an "expert?" I don't claim to be one; all I can do is cite my experience: roughly five and a half decades as a modeler (always working in N Scale, or smaller), a dozen or so small layouts and dioramas under my belt, and plenty of accolades from other respected modelers (including a couple of awards).

Now that I've got that awkward bit of horn-tooting out of the way, let's deal with a caveat of sorts: it's arguably debatable as to what constitutes a "small" layout. Indeed, it gets even thornier when one speaks of so-called micro layouts. My own shoot-from-the-hip definitions of such vague terms are as follows: I consider "small" to be of a size easily carried; "micro" I reserve for layouts that could easily fit in your lap.

As an aside, I'll add that the following rules could just as easily apply to "big" layouts—i.e., permanent home layouts or "basement empires." The overarching point is that the smaller the layout, the more important these rules become. In my opinion (and opinion should be recalled and underscored in reference to any "rule" I may invoke), small layouts live or die by their success or failure at creating the sense they're part of a larger world.

Now let's get to business.

Rule 1 (and it's not the one you may think): While the track plan may be contained within the boundaries of the layout for functional purposes, it should have "connections" of some sort to the outside world. One connection would be considered a bare minimum; two or more are preferable. Such connections may or may not necessarily be functional; they may only be cosmetic, although functionality enhances operation. Either way, having one or more tracks appear to extend beyond a layout edge implies that the layout itself is not an "island" railroad (even though such rare beasties do exist). This is—like all of the other rules—merely a psychological trick.

Rule 2: Any object, be it structure or scenery, should not be influenced by the edges of the layout. That is to say, it serves no useful purpose to keep all buildings and roads neatly contained within the layout's boundaries; indeed, it's somewhat counter-productive and needlessly tricky to pull off. Having things sliced off (at odd angles, preferably—see Rule 3) enhances the visual trick of expanding the apparent space. Of course, it would be silly to include just a half-inch wide corner of a building, so some degree of planning to avoid such awkwardness is required.

Rule 3: To the extent possible, orient things at angles relative to the layout edges. Just about any small track plan can be improved by cocking it on an angle. But, when that's impractical, do it to everything else (buildings, roads, etc.). This adds interest and helps reinforce the psychological effect that the layout is part of a larger universe. Plus, anything set on an angle within a rectangle will in fact be physically larger: a road oriented at 30-40 degrees to the layout edge will be longer than one that runs parallel, and longer roads and such make the layout appear larger than it really is. One exception: building flats. In certain situations, they can disguise layout edges quite well. But, they require very careful planning to work.

Rule 4: While angles allow things to be larger, try to keep objects smaller. More objects in a given space will make that space seem larger. So, instead of one or two big buildings, use several smaller ones. The same principle applies to rolling stock: use freight cars no longer than 40 feet, and switchers instead of road engines. And, if you must include passenger cars at all, consider using Overland or even Overton (older, shorter) cars. Anyway, long rolling stock looks absurd on sharp curves.

Rule 5: Visually break up curves wherever possible. Real railroads rarely have 90-plus-degree curves, particularly sharp ones, whereas über-sharp 180-degree curves are pretty much unavoidable on small layouts. Breaking them up visually helps reduce the "circle under a tree" effect they create. Try one or more of the following: a short tunnel; a road bridge overhead; an industry with a "sky bridge" (elevated walkway) across the tracks; tall structures packed closely on either side; or, at the very least, a deep cut through the terrain. Any trick to disrupt the line of sight between viewer and a train on a loop will help.

Rule 6: There is no Rule 6. (That's a joke for Monty Python fans.)

Rule 7: The world goes up and down. Unless you're modeling, say, a desert scene, there will always be things that rise above and—more particularly—descend below the track grade. The unrealistic "built on a board" effect created by placing all of the track directly on the layout base is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes beginning modelers make. Even if it's just a ditch with some water and weeds, place something—anything—below track grade. Where practical, position the grade somewhere between the lowest and highest ground levels.

Rule 8: Take things seriously. Small layouts suffer from a severe lack of believability right out of the gate owing to their absurdly small size, so don't make your layout seem more toy-like with casual modeling or silly features such as goofy industry names or glow-in-the-dark "nuclear waste" containers (unless, of course, that's your goal, in which case none of these rules apply!). Counter the "toy train" stigma with your best modeling effort; go the extra mile to add realism with careful model building and extra detailing. It is, after all, a small layout, so it won't take forever to super-detail. Think of it as a diorama you'd like to enter into a contest. Remember: the more you can distract viewers with trees (details), the less likely they'll notice the forest (the itty-bitty layout).

Rule 9: As an adjunct to the previous rule, research what you're modeling. Freelance layouts benefit from it even more so. The Internet provides an opportunity to look at virtually any locale in detail, and to research just about any topic, without leaving the comfort of your armchair. In perhaps only an hour or two you can get what you need to be more convincing. When a layout is based on real information, even casual viewers have an intuitive sense that they're seeing something realistic. Show them your research and they'll be even more impressed! Incidentally, Rule 9 is significantly expanded upon in Part 2 of "David's Rules." If you've gotten this far, please consider taking the time to read it as well.

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