How many have looked in the magazines and said I wish I could build something that nice. Well guess what, you can. But before you start drawing up track plans that take up the whole basement along with half of the attic, let me ask you this, do you really need something so large? Most of the layouts in the magazines started out small, and were just added on too.
I recommend that you start small, say with an 8’ x 8’ C shaped layout that will give the ability to run a constant loop or track, without being just an oval. There have been some nice small layouts, that when done properly, have been award winning. By starting small, you learn the ins and outs regarding laying track, ballasting, wiring, scenery, building buildings, laying out roads and crosses. You can also add some future additions on your layout, to where you can add an additional 8’ of layout, and just make it look like a dead end. We’ll get back to the add on section a little later on.
A small layout can be very fun, especially if it is a family venture. When I was younger, I had a 4 x 8 layout, that grew to 6 x 12. It was small, but fun, which is what running trains is all suppose to be about. You will be able to enjoy trains quicker than if you started on a large layout, and this might give you ideas for any additions, or just a brand new layout all together.
If you have small kids, you will be able to enjoy some special time together, where they can also enjoy running trains. If your wife or another family member is artistic, they can paint backdrops or buildings, making them look almost real. Everyone can be involved; it does not matter the age or skills that they have. My son will just sit and watch the trains go around in a big circle, it does not matter to him, he is having fun being with his dad, and watching the trains. It does not matter to him if it is 10 cars or 50 cars, he is just having fun. Same with me, I love running long trains, but the short ones are just as much fun, because there is less train cars that need to be put back on their staging tracks. A small layout can also help you relax after a busy day, just start the engines up, and watch them go. The most important thing to always remember is to have FUN!!!
You might start designing and building a new layout, but at least you will have your smaller layout with which to have fun until your dream layout is built and running. This can be handy if you hit a brick wall, and can not figure out how to resolve it. Just take a break, and go and run some trains, have some fun, and then resume designing your layout. Who knows, you might even have a brain storm that will make your problems go away, and even become better than you thought.
Now that I’ve covered how a small layout can be fun, lets talk about the how you can learn from a small layout. The biggest advantage that you get from building a layout is the educational side. You are able to learn the correct way of doing all that is required for building your dream layout. I will not cover how to do these tasks here, but explain how they can be beneficial to your designs.
The first thing that you will learn with a small layout is envision what your layout will actually look like. Layout you track plan using pencils, and some scrap flex track. You will be able to make sure that what you want to happen will be feasible. You do not want to end up almost done, and find out that the roundhouse and turn table will not fit. If you had laid it out, this would not happen, and you would not be stuck with no place to turn your steam engines around.
The second thing that you will learn is how to lay road bed, lay flex track, and connect that flex track. It is better to learn now how to do this properly before you tackle that massive layout. A properly laid road bed and flex track, will ensure that your trains run smoothly and without problems. With straight track you can run longer trains. All joints should be soldered, to ensure that you have a good electrical connection the whole way around. Make sure that your layout is level. This will ensure that your couplers stay connected, and your train is not left somewhere, waiting for a surprise visit from the front engine on the next pass around.
The third important thing that you will have learned is how to wire your layout sothere are no dead spots and so your DCC system (if you have gone with DCC) works. You will have by now learned that drops are needed onto a main power bus, and that power routing switches are a must if you are not running a DCC unit. If you have not gone with DCC, you will have learned how to setup blocks on your layout for running multiple trains. Although, I say that if you can wire a regular layout, you will be able to wire up your layout for DCC.
If you do decide on DCC, you will need to install connectors around your layout for throttle connections, thus allowing multiple input locations for controlling your trains. If you need help on DCC there have been numerous articles written about this and your local hobby store should be able to answer all of your questions, and ask fellow club members or modelers, they will be glad to help with your questions.
The fourth thing you will have learned is how to create scenery for your layout with grass, trees, building, roads, and much more. You will also know which scenery to do first, especially before you do your ballasting. You might have even figured out a unique way on doing some of this, that you can pass on to others. This will also include where you may want lighting on your layout in the form of street lights, crossing signals, right of way lights, and lighting inside buildings.
Always remember to do small sections of scenery at a time. Make sure everything is like you want it and then move on. You will also be able to run trains during this time. There is nothing wrong with a plywood prairie (top) as long as you have envisioned where everything will go. Add some buildings to make your city come to life, then add the streets and grass, and finally add lighting. Do some of the easier stuff first, thus being able to knock out the most of your scenery first.
Ask others how they made mountains, or added so many people to their layout, or how their trees look life like. You may just be surprised that what you thought would take forever, may be completed in a few weeks time. Most of all, never become so frustrated that you just quit. Walk away, take a break, just run some trains and have fun.
Do not worry about what others think, this is your layout. If you like fall colors, then do a fall layout, if you think running water is cool, then add some. It is all up to your imagination. Always remember the golden rule of model trains is "have fun. "
Jim Ward is a member of the K & I Model RR Club for over 15 yrs, along with being a member of the Division 8 of the Mid-Central Region of the NMRA based out of Louisville, KY. He currently is on the Train Show Committee of the Division, helping them move to a larger location to better display the hobby to the general public.