Building A Successful Layout


To me the definition of a successful layout is very simple.  In my view, it’s simply a layout that provides the maximum amount of enjoyment given the owner’s circumstances.  What other’s think of it, its technical characteristics, the theme, the degree of detail etc. really is irrelevant.   If an individual would truly enjoy placing Star Wars figures on his layout and enjoy running civil war era locomotives around them, that’s the way they should go.  They shouldn’t cave and build, say a 1950’s era Santa Fe theme, simply because others would enjoy it more.   We (particularly me) have to be very careful not to dismiss or be condescending towards the modeler that is truly enjoying themselves simply because their project is not of interest to us, viewed as un-realistic, or does not have operational potential.  The twelve year old student, with unbridled enthusiasm for his newly discovered hobby, oblivious to the crudeness of his early efforts, is light years ahead of the old curmudgeon who spends his time doing nothing more than pontificating on a chat forum.

Having said all of that, there are some things that can be done to maximize your enjoyment and increase the odds it will meet your definition of success.

  • Know your interests and be true to them regardless of what others think.  Are you primarily an operator, structure modeler, rolling stock enthusiast?  Are you trying to recreate a specific place, represent it reasonably, or go totally freelance?   This type of deep self examination is not that easy but well worth the effort.
  • Be realistic about your skill level and the time you have available for the hobby.
  • It is critical to have early success in the construction process.  Being able to get at least one train running from A to B will build momentum and keep you going.  If your design is so complex that nothing can run until some very complex construction projects are done you run the risk of getting bogged down.
  • Put a high premium on reliability and low maintenance, even higher than other modeling factors such as degree of detail or prototype accuracy.
  • The layout must be comfortable to interact with.  Multiple duck unders, long stretches of track that are not reachable or accessible, etc. will gradually sap your enthusiasm.


I had a lot of reservations prior to building the East Rail layout.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I was fairly pre-occupied with what others would think.  Here we had what I thought others would view as a rather boring industrial park, in a less than popular era, all located in a region of the country that was not as popular as say the west or Appalachia.  In addition, the layout was not very big.   In the end I put my natural desire for accolades aside and proceeded anyway.  The end result was a layout that provided me more enjoyment than any I had built since.  It was (and still is) a total joy and until I started the Downtown Spur I practically ran the rails off of it.  Surprisingly, people I had never met before came out of the woodwork expressing their interest in the theme, simple design, era. etc.  So now I could count among my misjudgments how inaccurately I judged what others interests were.    Don’t be afraid to be utterly selfish and design a layout for yourself not others.  The vast majority of the time it will be you and you alone that is around it so make sure it satisfies the primary audience – YOU!