Through the course of a week I get photos of modeler’s progress on their  layouts.  Many of them are switching layout based on the Palmetto Spur or plans in my books.  To a person, I’ve been very impressed with what I’m seeing.  Many are first efforts from those just entering or re-entering the hobby.   It gives me a lot of satisfaction to see folks coming off of the sidelines and joining the fold, Xacto blade in hand.  True model railroaders!

Unlike larger layouts which generally are never 100 per cent “done”, a small project will often get to the point where it is substantially complete.  What next?  This is a nice problem to have and the answer is an easy one.  One choice would be to start over on another layout, no harm in that.  Let me suggest another option though.

The first step is to take a moment to pat yourself on the back for an effort well done.  Just getting trains running is no small task and probably puts you in the minority.  Being able to even run equipment is no small thing.  The layouts I’m seeing are very neatly constructed and trimmed out.  Not lavish, just very clean looking and neatly executed.  This is something I’ve tried to emphasize as it builds morale and impacts how the owner feels about his layout.  I’m also getting some feedback about happy spouses, some which are even going so far as to help with videos.  The reasons the wives are happy are: a) the layout is complete so they can now see what the fuss was about.  Talk has been replaced by action.  b) you’ve done a neat trim job so it looks good in the house c) it’s not some massive, half finished, ratty dinosaur swallowing up the house.  O.K., everybody is happy, let’s get to the next step.

Since you have something visually complete that runs, let’s keep it that way.  My suggestion is to make another slow pass at the layout gradually replacing key portions with new efforts based on your current skill level.  It makes sense that what you can build today will be better than what you could do a year ago.    Pat yourself on the back and acknowledge that what you built was your best effort based on your skill set at the time.   The reality is you are a better modeler now.  Next year you will be even better.

Take a note pad and carefully examine the layout making notes of things that bug you or you think you can improve upon.  Pick small sections, say half a square foot or so, and re-build them pushing yourself to exceed your previous effort.   Get some high quality prototype photos of  the area you are modeling, print them out, carefully examine them, and compare the photo to what you see on your layout.  Take particular note of color, weathering, scenery patterns, and details.  See how closely you can match the feel of the photo with particular emphasis on subtle color patterns.   Compare the material cross sections (posts, poles, etc.) on your layout versus the photo.  Typically we model things too ‘thick’.  For example a prototype 4 x 4 post should be represented by something  .045” square.  Modelers commonly model that post as something much thicker which sort of stands out as being a bit “off”.  A scale HO “inch” is .011”, a key number to remember (in other words a 2” diameter steel post should be modeled with . 022” rod or wire).

Some ideas for a second pass across the layout are:

  • Pull up a short section of your Atlas track (maybe 18” to 24”) and replace it with Micro Engineering track.  Add super details to the rail such as joint bars, rods, etc.  Add dummy switch throws with dummy rods to your switches.
  • Replace one or more of your structures making a concerted effort to really get the color and weathering right. In terms of color and weathering focus on a light subtle touch.  Print out a photo of the existing structure model you are replacing.  Circle blemishes or key areas you want to improve on the replacement, second effort.  Go a step further with the details adding gutters, power meters, etc.  Exceed your previous effort in terms of clean seams and finish work.  Details alone don’t improve realism.  In fact if the details are oversize, crooked, or the wrong color they will hurt you rather than help.  They need to be cleanly applied.
  • Purchase a static grass applicator and put a LOT of time into detailing a grassy area.    Again start with a small section.  Anybody interested in this should email me and I can elaborate.
  • Add prototype line side details such as private crossing signs, mileposts, etc.  Watch the material cross sections of your details making sure they aren’t too thick.
  • Add a few super detailed, very high quality foreground trees.  Work from a photo of an actual tree.  Make an effort to avoid unrealistically sharp branch angles or overly thick and blunt branch ends.  Make sure the tree is vertical when you plant it.
  • Do a photo neatness check.  Take a photo of your layout and view it in large format on your screen.   Is all of the ballast cleaned off the rail sides, vertical items vertical, and structures seated squarely?  Print the photo out, circle the blemishes and then correct them on the layout.

These are just a few ideas.   You’ve already succeeded by virtue of getting this far so it’s nothing but upside from here.