Thursday, October 06, 2011

HO Logs and lots of Stripwood

As I write in the October 2011 issue of Model-Railroad-Hobbyist magazine, a guiding philosophy can help turn a variety of interesting elements into a cohesive track plan. The owner's long-standing dream for this HO layout was "Believable scenery with interesting operations."

Scenic inspiration came from the former D&RGW's famed "High Line" in Colorado, the operating theme of logging was informed by the craftsman kits the owner was building, and the room presented a few challenges and opportunities.

Click here to see this HO trackplan in my Layout Design Gallery or read the original article in the October 2011 MRH.

Once again, I resorted to my old stand-by of a spiral peninsula with one central "blob". Hey, I use it a lot because it works! This created a walk-in track plan with more running length and adequate aisles. The increased running length helped provide the variation in elevations the owner desired while keeping mainline grades to less than 2.5%.

Returning often to the touchstone of believable scenery and interesting operations helped maintain focus and eliminate unworkable configurations.

One of the ideas I touched on in the MRH article is the unrealistic state of many designers' model railroad engine service areas. Often they just plunk down a few undersized rectangles and call it a day.

But watering, sanding and coaling facilities take up significant room and demand specific track relationships in actual modeling. Better to deal with these requirements "honestly" than to sketch-and-hope.

The layout owner is a talented craftsman kit builder and we worked with the footprints of some of his prize-winning structures to create featured scenes on the track plan. A layout that will look good and work well comes out of adhering to a guiding philosophy.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

1 of 43

It's always interesting to me to see where the track plans I've had published in Model Railroad Planning magazine will turn up next. When Kalmbach buys an article, they generally buy all rights, so the material can be used in another Kalmbach publication without involving the author again.

As an author, this doesn’t bother me at all with Kalmbach – the copyright terms of the author agreement are very clear. My designs have been re-published in special booklets offered to new subscribers or shrink-wrapped with regular magazines, in Kalmbach books, etc.

So I thought that perhaps one (or a few) of my model railroad track plans might be featured in the recently-published 43 Track Plans from the Experts. But the intrigue is in guessing which plans might be selected from roughly the last ten years of Model Railroad Planning.

While I was hoping for designs to be included that I believe are a bit more innovative (or at least different), such as the Oahu Railway multi-decker from MRP 2008 or the folding Alameda Belt Line switching layout from MRP 2003, my suspicion was that it would be one or more of the island-style track plans.

Which in the end, it was: the hollow-core-door-sized N scale Katy layout from MRP 2010. Certainly a layout that I and my custom client were happy with, but not breaking a lot of new ground.

The editor(s) added some meaningful comments and found a slightly more useful prototype photo (since I couldn't clear copyrights on the best photos). All in all, I'm happy to have even one plan in the book.

Publishing a book of past plans such as this is a balancing act. While there are some innovative designs, other plans may have been chosen because they come from well-known authors or had great artwork, even if these track plans aren't exactly pioneering in terms of design (or even buildable!).

I also found the tagline on the cover slightly amusing. It reads: "Plans from 4X8 feet to a giant 38X82 feet". But of course, my 30"X80" hollow core door plan is smaller than 4X8. I guess that it's always hard to resist promoting the "sacred sheet" 4X8.

But that's the nature of the publishing business – first, it has to sell! I'm happy to have had a track plan included and I think readers who haven't seen all of the original MRP issues will receive a good exposure to a variety of designs through this book.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Victim Mentality

I'd been emailing with a potential client about a custom track planning project for a while. His vision was for a freelanced layout with a bit of everything, to be built with Kato Unitrack. No specific theme except to have fun and explore the hobby. So far, so good.

But then he began to have second thoughts. Basically his worries came about because he had "heard" that nitpickers and prototype modelers "don't like freelanced layouts or click track" and he didn't want to be criticized. Where had he "heard" that? Internet forums, of course.

Yes, the "Nitpickers pushed me down and took my lunch money" meme is alive and thriving on the Internet.

And pretty much only there.

Many of those posting about the "mean old nitpickers" have themselves never completed any layout, prototype or freelance, generic or specific. But they rave on about the sinister layout police who savage layout owners for failing to live up to some unwritten set of rules.

I recognize that playing the victim has powerful appeal in today's society. In model railroading, it helps some excuse years of inaction. It helps others gain some Internet fame and notoriety (trivial and childish as it is) through hundreds (or thousands) of whining posts.

And it's pretty much totally false.

In fact, I've seen just the opposite first hand multiple times. On one specific occasion I remember from years ago, I happened to be on a layout tour with some very well-known and highly-skilled prototype modelers. One of the layouts on the tour was a freelanced design built with Atlas SnapTrack. To be honest, the layout didn't offer much in visual appeal or operating interest to most, though it suited the owner's interests. But the experienced modelers visiting still took a few minutes to offer a couple of thoughts and thank the owner for being open.

No, the experienced folks didn't spend an hour there and I'm sure it wasn't their favorite layout of the day. But they were courteous, respectful and pleasant. Just as 99% of modelers would be.

The "evil nitpickers" rants on the Internet have done much more harm to potential layout builders than have any actual nitpickers. So forum trolls, please. I recognize that it’s asking way too much for you to be accurate or knowledgeable. But maybe you could at least some up with something fresh.

[By the way, the fellow I was emailing with went forward with the design project, actually built it with Unitrack, and is having a great time. Meanwhile, the forum trolls are … not.]

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A "Layout Vision" Fulfilled

Whew! I'm still recovering from the Sacramento X2011 West NMRA National Convention. It was fun to meet a number of blog readers in real life, along with the special treat of meeting some past custom layout design clients in person.

I also enjoyed presenting the Layout Design Bootcamp again with Layout Design SIG President Seth Neumann. Unfortunately, we had been placed into one of the smallest meeting rooms at the convention center, so it was standing room only for four hours! Thanks to those who hung in there with us.

It was a hectic week. When I returned home, my wife asked, "Well, did you have fun?"

"I don't know, I'll have to check my notes," I answered. Yep, it was that kind of week.

One of my favorite parts of any convention is the layout tours and I saw a lot of interesting layouts, large and small. But it was especially rewarding to visit one layout in particular that had been built from one of my plans.

Many of my custom layout designs are under construction by clients, but this one was unique in that it was constructed expertly and (relatively) quickly by custom model railroad builder Rick Fortin for his clients. I had the opportunity to develop the track plan based on an original design by Dan Murdock, the Metro Belt and Terminal, published in the April 2001 Model Railroader magazine.

To meet Rick's clients' space and interests, we mirror-imaged the design and added substantial hidden staging and a large working yard. You can see Dan Murdock's original plan, my adaptation, and photos in my Layout Design Gallery.

It was a unique pleasure to see the track plan beautifully brought to life by Rick's modeling talents. The metal fabricator scene, in particular, is just the way I had seen it in my mind.

Thanks to Rick Fortin and to his clients for allowing me to contribute to a terrific finished layout.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Relaxed and Realistic GN Ry. in HO

We often approach model railroad design projects with the goal of fitting in just as many layout elements as possible. And sometimes that's the right approach, potentially giving us more interest in a given space.

But it was refreshing recently when my client gave me very different instructions: include only about half the elements typical of a roughly 400 square foot space in HO. Rather than packing in more towns, he wanted to use the space for broader curves, more realistic scenes, and a longer run between elements.

The resulting design suggests nicely the wide-open-spaces of the upper Midwest along the Great Northern Railway's lines in North Dakota and Minnesota. Designed in sections, the layout can move to a new room without starting from scratch. And it should offer plenty of operating interest and scenic potential.

The full story of the concept and design of this layout was featured in the February 2011 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist mediazine, always free for download on the web. You can also see the layout in my online model railroad layout design gallery.

"Relaxed and realistic" was definitely fun for a change!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Chicken, the Egg, and the Sacred Sheet

No, this is not a joke about the three of them walking into a bar …

I'm always pleased to have an article in Model Railroad Planning magazine. The magazine looks great and inevitably has a number of interesting articles. I must confess to having slightly mixed emotions about my contribution to the 2011 issue, however.

It's an HO 4X8 switching layout based on Linn Westcott's Famous "Switchman's Nightmare" shelf switcher. I've published a similar HO 4X8 version on my website.

In the article draft, I tried to make the point (as I do over and over) that the HO standard gauge 4X8 is not the ideal layout form-factor. But combined as it was with about a dozen other 4X8s published in the last few months in MRP and Model Railroader magazine, a newcomer to model railroading could be forgiven if he comes to the conclusion that experts believe that the HO 4X8 is the perfect layout format.

Some at commercial model railroad publishers (though not all, to be sure) feel that they need HO 4X8s because "readers want them". But from whence does that desire spring (beyond the fear of cutting wood)? Is it because there's an innate human longing for HO curves that are too tight and awkward monoliths of benchwork that dominate a mid-sized room?

Or is it because these newcomers are fed a steady diet of HO 4X8s from books and magazines? Which is the cause -- and which is the effect?

To their designers' credit, some of the recently-published 4X8s are pretty interesting, especially those that are not HO standard gauge. But of the good ol' "Sacred Sheet" HO 4X8s published in the last couple of months, there are number with nearly impossibly steep grades that start as abruptly as a hockey stick, overly tight curves, and the usual litany of HO 4X8 woes.

That's not doing a hobby newcomer any favors, in my humble opinion.

Look, I recognize that HO 4X8s are popular. Of the over 24,000 unique visitors to my website last month, nearly half came looking for HO 4X8s. But hopefully the ones who stayed and read more than a page or two (and there were lots, thankfully) got some idea that there are HO alternatives that look better, work better, and are a more efficient use of space.

It’s just a shame that newcomers don't always receive the same exploration of alternatives in everything that they read.

In the end, some HO 4X8 track plan was probably going to be published in the pages my article occupied in MRP 2011. I certainly do appreciate the opportunity to include my design -- one that at least makes some effort to mitigate the Sacred Sheet's well-known shortcomings while providing an engaging operating experience.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Layout Design Step-by-Step

After a long hiatus, the model railroad Layout Design Special Interest Group (LDSIG) has published the latest issue of the Layout Design Journal (LDJ).

LDJ-40 (Fall 2010) has a variety of interesting articles by a number of authors. My contribution is "Layout Design Step-by-Step", a description of the Conceptual, Structural, and Detail Phases which I think comprise one good approach to model railroad layout design ("Draw no line before it is time").

The article includes some of the same concepts I will present in the four-hour Layout Design Bootcamp with Seth Neumann and the LDSIG at the Sacramento X2011 NMRA Convention this Summer. You can get a feeling for the LDJ article and the Bootcamp by downloading the Layout Design Bootcamp notes and references.

LDJ-40 is now listed on the LDSIG publications back-order page, available for $8.00 plus shipping.

The Layout Design Journal is a great benefit of LDSIG membership and I'm glad to be taking over as Editor with the next issue.