Planning Our Display – Tips You Can Use for Larger Layouts Too

One of the greatest challenges in building any model railroad – no matter how big – is planning. What do you want to include? What will fit? Although the small display we’re building here won’t have all the planning concerns of a full layout, the concept and process remain the same. So how can you plan a better layout?

Visualize the Finish Line

Laying out a plan

Using actual models can help visualize a space. We typically underestimate the width of roadways and other details in our plans.

Start with the end goal and work back from there. What do you really want in your layout? Will it be filled with tracks and trains or would you prefer more realistic scenes? Do you want to recreate a specific place or time? Realistic operations? Lots of operating accessories? You can’t figure out how to get what you want until you know for sure what you want.

Since we’re building a display module, the goal for this project is a simple but realistic scene that will showcase a model in the best light. Most of our small platform’s area will be consumed by scenery – not track. The scene will be very simple, a single track will pass through a small rock-cut and over a culvert. A road will parallel the track on a raised hill behind. And the whole scene will be set in winter after a fresh light snowfall.

Simple? Yes. But it will give the opportunity to demonstrate a lot of scenery making techniques and will ultimately yield a beautiful display for photographing our products. If you’re building along, it will be a great way to learn a lot in a small amount of time and space.

Maximize the Space

Now that we have come up with the concept, the next step is to begin making the often-tricky compromises that will make it possible. On a larger layout there can be many compromises – curve size, grades, etc. Even on a small display like this there are limitations – and ways to make the most of what we’ve got.


After working with a design, it can be helpful to sketch out your ideas directly on the platform with markers. Trace the footprint of track an accessories, use contour lines to suggest topography and other natural elements.

One easy way to help lay out your layout is to position the actual parts, including track, buildings and accessories until you find what looks best. If you don’t have the actual pieces, you can often find dimensions online or in our catalogs and make a scale footprint from cardboard.

Sometimes a small change can make a big difference. For example, we often use the edges of the platform as a guide to align our tracks. Visually however, scenes are often more appealing and feel larger if tracks are not laid parallel to the edge. Even a slight change in elevation of different scenic elements can also make a scene feel larger and more life-like. You can also use a mountain ridge or a group of tall buildings as a view block to help separate different scenes.

Cater to Your Audience

At the end of the day, whatever you build has to pass the scrutiny of your harshest critic – you. There are many ways to build a model railroad, no two are the same. Build a layout that makes you happy.

That being said, if you’d like to share your ideas and work, we’d love to see it! What are you doing with your 400 square inches? If you’re building a module along with us, please share your comments here and post photos of your progress on Facebook. Let’s see how creative you all can be and inspire each other. Get those creative juices flowing, next week we’ll start building up the base for the track and scenery.

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