Layout Planning 101

Model railroading offers something for just about everyone. If you have an interest in modeling, and some patience, you qualify. Everything else is easy to learn (or find someone who is more than willing to help).

Some model railroaders just like to run trains (with little thought as to scenery) and some want to build the most super detailed structures and scenes that are humanly possible (they rarely run trains). These are the two extremes, and most of us fall somewhere in between. What are your interests? What skills do you already have that you would like to use? What do you really want in a train layout or diorama?

What makes an outstanding layout?

According to Russ Larson, past editor and publisher of Model Railroader Magazine, there are four requirements to build an outstanding layout:

  • Concept
  • Compromising
  • Craftsmanship
  • Creativity


What is the story behind your layout? What is the story behind the railroad you are using as prototype? What was the reason for building the prototype railroad? Very few good layouts just happen. Most require lots of good planning and good prototype reference materials.  For many of us collecting prototype reference material is part of the fun in building a layout. Using the reference material gives us great ideas for building better scenes that come to life.

Choosing Time Period and Location:

What time period do you want to model? Do you like steam or diesel? Do you like steam engines pulling short trains in the mountains, or diesel engines pulling longer trains through any type of landscape, or do you like funky little locomotives switching on a very small layout?  What is popular today?

Choice of scale:

Z scale = 1 : 220  
N scale = 1 : 160  
HO scale = 1 : 87  
OO scale = 1 : 76 British / European
S scale = 1 : 64  
O scale = 1 : 48  
Garden scales = 1 : 29, 1 : 22.5, 1 : 20 ... and others

Each scale, standard gauge and narrow gauge, has its strong points and its drawbacks.  N and Z scale are great for modeling wide-open spaces, but difficult to super detail, although many well detailed structures are available. HO is by far the most common scale, and therefor, the most economical for building a model railroad. Currently about 68% of all US modelers model in HO scale. If something is not available in HO scale, you really don’t need it. What about narrow gauge? HOn3, Sn3, and On3 all require relatively expensive locomotives, rolling stock, and track (unless you love to hand lay track). Some of the best layouts around are built in these scales, but not on a limited budget. On30 is the exception to this rule, and it is currently very popular. Simply stated it is “O” scale narrow gauge equipment running on standard gauge HO track (or track with correct tie size from Peco). There is also a HOn30 gauge that consists of HO scale buildings and equipment running on N gauge track. It was somewhat popular 20 years ago, and is still around, but not very popular.

Why do some people get so excited about narrow gauge?

If you are into logging or mining in mountainous areas narrow gauge might be for you. Initially it cost about 20% as much for early railroads to build narrow gauge in the mountains as standard gauge. Trains were very short due to the limited pulling power of small steam engines on steep grades. Tight curves were typical. No matter what scale you choose, you can put a lot of model railroading in a small space and have it look more prototypically correct with narrow gauge.

Two basic types of track plan:

Continuous running (some type of oval)
Point to point (just like a real railroad)
Millions of combinations of the above, dog-bone, folded dog-bone, point to point with continuous running.

Two basic types of layout construction:

  • Open grid, sometimes called table top
  • “L” girder

The Art of Compromise:

We will always have to make compromises when building a model railroad, what are some of the best ways to compromise and have a good-looking railroad?

  • Choose prototypically correct scenes to model (follow prototype photos)
  • Make each scene as complete and correct as possible, details make the scene come to life, try to put some action into each scene.
  • Curved backdrops, curved fascias, and curved track make more pleasing scenes, and make the scenes appear larger.
  • Remember: less is more, except when adding details
  • Scenes should be the usual not the unusual


Good craftsmanship never goes out of style. It can make the difference between an average layout and an excellent one. Strive to make every building better than the last one. Learn new techniques, and if they are more fun, use them. If you are not much of a scratch builder, buy good kits and completed structures, and learn to paint them and weather them. Learn to kit-bash.  If you don’t have adequate tools to build something (and build it well), there is someone in the club that does, and would be more than happy to help you.


Each of us is good at certain things and not as good at others. But we all have ideas, creative ideas. Look at the entries to our recent contest. We had about 16 entries. Were any of them the same?  Not a chance!!!!!!  Every person had a different idea of what to build and how to build it. What do you like? What kind of scene would you like to recreate?

What if I would like to model but really don’t want to build a layout?   No problem – there are many exciting options available:

  • Build a diorama
  • Build an operating diorama
  • Build a mini layout
  • Build a micro layout or pizza layout
  • Build a structure, super detail it, put it on a scenic base
  • Build or kit-bash rolling stock

A good layout does not have to fill your entire basement or garage. Consider building your layout as a modular or sectional layout even if you never intend to move it. Build it one module at a time so you can show some early progress. The techniques we are demonstrating at our meetings work equally well for home layouts as well as modular layouts. Modular layouts are fast, easy, efficient, and quite cost effective.

Make a Scene:

Both you and your visitors will see your layout as a scene or a series of scenes. How pleasing or exciting these scenes are depend on how much planning you do, and how interesting the locations are that you are trying to model.

Operating Trains:

Do you want to operate your layout like the prototype trains do? Planning for operating in a prototypical manner is another fascinating subject. Perhaps we can present that another night?

(Presented May 3, 2006 with Bob Trump moderating)