A World In My Lap

Layout Summary


Europe, early diesel era




18 by 28 inches


sectional Märklin


battery power/rheostat throttle


Homasote over plywood


Plasticine over cardstock strips






long gone

Something New

Sandwiched in between two significant N Scale layouts was this little outlier: an unnamed Z Scale layout I built while in college, and working part time at a hobby shop. Its claim to fame was being the subject of my first published article ("A world in my lap," Model Railroader magazine, October 1975, p. 42), and possibly the first article on Z Scale ever published in North America.

As an example of realistic modeling, the layout was not a contender by any stretch of the imagination, but as a hobby shop display, it was a winner. It had a number of features that would catch the eye of passers-by, including a convoluted track plan that would keep kids (and even some adults) guessing where the train would emerge next.

Although it had no name, the railroad did have an agenda: to ship spring water in tank cars from a mountain spring (1) to a bottling plant (2). The only other structures were the enginehouse (3) and two passenger stations (4 and 5). All of the structures were scratchbuilt, and except for the long bridge at the top of the plan (6), which was Märklin's arched steel truss, all of the bridges were scratchbuilt as well.

Scenery was quite strange: I decided to try using Plasticine (a modeling clay that never hardens), which I applied in a roughly half-inch-thick layer over a cardstock support structure. While it did offer some unique advantages—for instance, I could simulate stone by pressing a small screwdriver into the clay, and plant trees as quickly as I could pop them into the landscape—Plasticine had as many negative qualities, including excessive weight and an objectionable odor. It was, nevertheless, an interesting experiment.

Another experiment was a way to ballast the track without applying loose material or glue onto the track, which I was certain would cause problems, especially for Märklin's delicate turnouts. Back then, Arnold Rapido used to sell a ballast-like material made from ground cork. I painted the cookie-cutter Homasote roadbed with thick dark gray acrylic paint, then sprinkled the cork onto the wet paint. When it was dry, I vacuumed away any excess and then attached the track with straight pins; the cork compressed under the track, giving it a more fully-ballasted appearance. The layout could be powered either by household current (using a doorbell transformer), or by a 6-volt lantern battery, and a miniature tethered handheld unit controlled everything, including the throttle, turnouts and lights.

Ultimately, the fate of the layout was determined by attendees of model railroad convention at Princeton University in the late 70s, where the layout was put on display. Owing to a bad back, I was unable to be present, but I was assured by others that the layout would be carefully guarded. Sadly, this was not the case; when the layout was returned to me, it was badly damaged. People had poked their fingers right through the scenery, torn out trees, and generally made a mess of it; making matters even worse, a locomotive and a couple of cars had been stolen. I was too depressed by this to make repairs, so I dismantled the layout. It was a painful lesson to learn: never trust anyone, not even modeling colleagues.


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