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Starting Your Layout

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You want to run trains? You need a layout.
Layouts can range in size from simple space economical shelf layouts along a desk to massive plywood empires that fill entire buildings. They all have two elements in common, a foundation and a track plan.

The foundation can be your floor. That has obvious drawbacks yet the fact that many people do not have the space to build a dedicated layout is what inspired model train makers to release track embedded in roadbed. The roadbed helps protect the engines from sucking up dirt, carpet fibers, etc. The traditional foundation is wood. There are many books about building layouts on plywood sheets, or splines of wood, and even on wooden doors.

Wood is good but wood needs some tools, it can expand and contract in humidity and temperature changes, and is relatively heavy.

I do not know who first came up with the idea but in the early 1990’s the great model railroader Bill Darnaby experimented with building his excellent Maumee Route on a foundation of extruded foam. The foam is ridged, super light, does not significantly expand or contract, and is easily worked with. In fact, Mr. Darnaby even used a hot wire tool to carve the roadbed directly into the foam!

Foam’s drawbacks are that it is noisier than running over wood, it’s just as messy to cut and sand, nails don’t hold the roadbed and track forever, and it is arguably more dangerous should it ignite. Back in the early 2000’s there was an interesting debate about foam safety at Layout Design SIG Discussion Group on Yahoo. I know models who use it and I know modelers who don’t trust it. For this demonstration I am using it.

Your track plan can be as simple as a circle, an oval with a turnout / switch or two, or as complex as the dreaded “spaghetti bowl” (tracks running everywhere). By the way, don’t get caught up in the lexicon of turnout / switch . Railroads call the track which transitions from one to another a switch; modelers call them turnouts so as not to confuse with electrical switches. There are many books on track plans. Some model companies even sell track plans with the required track. Atlas Model Railroad company offers a free download of a track designing program, Right Track Software (RTS).

Everything else goes from those two elements. Now here’s a basic tutorial in getting started.

About the Author

About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR)

I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art. My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling! My interests--if built before 1900, or after 1955, then I proba...