What’s Stopping You From Building Your Layout?


By Nicholas “Nick” Kalis




            As someone who is embarked upon his second scale layout, I have long been interested in what keeps so many of us from building a model railroad layout. Having served as layout tour coordinator for a few years, I understand that only a minority of our Potomac Division members have a layout, let alone one suitable for entertaining visitors. How does this happen? I have a few of my own theories I would like to share with you. I won’t stop there. I will give you some solutions for overcoming these roadblocks to the operating layout of your dreams.


            Heed these suggestions because they are not often repeated in the modeling press except in a cursory fashion. The modeling press seems to have as its “duty” to conveying an upbeat message to their readers. They don’t want to harp on a problem that runs deep in the hobby, lest they scare off a few of the timid. My goal is not to harp on a problem but simply to clear the air and get us moving constructively.




            One impediment to a operating layout, is spending too much time, money, and energy in accumulating a wide assortment of supplies that  rob us of the time, money, and energy we will need to build our layout. What’s worse, is that many of these items just don’t fit together into a coherent railroad, region, or era for a plausible layout. OK, I hear it now, “But I am buying what I like, and who are you to tell me otherwise.” No one can or should stop you from buying what you like. However, for many of us facing up to the fact that these acquisitions may be pushing off the day we build a layout rather than hastening it may bring us to rethink our purchases.


            What I propose is a purchasing moratorium for those of us who have not started their layout. Now I don’t mean to put Howard Zane out of business. In fact, once these fellows get started in earnest on their layouts, his sales to them may very well increase. But a transformation will have set in. The purchases will be more coherent and focused on seeing a layout to fruition.




            Spending every last dollar on brass may be leaving precious few cents left for lumber, structure kits, re-motoring, custom paint jobs, a backdrop artist. Now stop right there some may say, “a backdrop artist?” What do you think I am made of dough? To that, I would respond: Considering the thousands of dollars some have socked into their brass collections, gathering dust for no one to see, what so strange about spending what should amount to the price of one brass engine to have a backdrop painted?


            Planning To Fail


            Have you ever heard of the old refrain – “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”? It applies just as surely to building a layout as it does to life. With the abundance of layout planning software, there are far fewer excused for not having some track plan in hand or in progress. Take the first step, buy that layout planning software you have seen advertised. Not ready to take that plunge? Order the demo version first to be sure it is something you feel comfortable with. Still cannot bring yourself to start? Get a friend to design your layout. Or join the Layout Design SIG and circulate a draft to local members of the SIG for their comments and recommendations. Still think you cannot do it? Hire a commercial layout designer to get your plan done.


If you have a track plan in progress, finish it. Don’t let it linger forever. If you think it needs work, circulate it to a few friends and set a deadline past which no suggestions will be accepted.  Remember, there is no perfect layout and no perfect track plan. Any track plan will be a set of compromises. Anyone who disagrees, has never tried to build a layout, let alone, completed it.




            Research (we won’t call it rivet-counting) can be a double-edged sword. While research is a basic element in any good model railroad. Too much time spent researching can lead you to the “best model railroad never built.” Know when enough research is enough. Don’t let paralysis set in. You can always replace a building or a locomotive or rolling stock later that research reveals doesn’t fit your layout.


            Fear of Annual Growth


            Fear of Annual Growth is a pun aimed at those afraid to work with wood. No problem, just visit a good lumber dealer and have him cut everything up for you. Or employ someone else to do the wood working for you. I discussed Colonial Hardwoods in an earlier article as a great source for pre-cut lumber – check that article for further information. Or simply contact General J. D. Smith and find out who he used. Another alternative is to check out some of the fellows who advertise their benchwork systems in Model Railroader. Don’t forget that if you put a good table saw on your Christmas list, you just might have the incentive and wherewithal to get the job done by yourself or with the help of a few friends. A final option is to hire one of the firms who build custom layouts to simply build you the benchwork and leave the rest to you.




            My wife is fond of saying “the enemy of good is perfect”. What she means is that one who is always striving for the perfect can botch things up in the process. Also, one hesitating and procrastinating over a job in the pursuit of perfection is bound to never get it started. The same holds true with model railroading. Allan McCleland had a name for his solution, the “good enough” approach. I highly commend it to you.


            What to Expect


            Expect to break things, make mistakes, and foul-up. It’s called learning. Have the right attitude – every model you toss in the trash because it failed to meet your expectations is taking you that much closer to getting the layout of your dreams. I may be the biggest culprit in being hard on myself because I botched up a model. Remember, you were not born with modeling skills, and you probably didn’t take any classes in this arena. The only arena for developing modeling skills will be the trash bin – every trip to the trash bin will make you a better modeler. You are not the first nor the last modeler to botch up a model.


My friend Aris Pappas tells me the International Plastic Modeler’s Society has held contests where entrants bring in the worst model they have ever built. I think this would be a great idea for our Potomac Division to adopt at its mini-convention. The purpose of such a contest is not just to get a few laughs. Such contests can be very instructive – they teach us that even the best modelers started out with a few really awful attempts, they just didn’t quit. It also teaches us that what we thought was an awful try is not nearly as bad as what some other poor guy turned out.


Every time you run out of a critical supply and have to put the project on hold until you get to the hardware store, you have crossed a point of no return. Once you make that trip to the hardware store or the hobby shop or the crafts shop you are one more step closer to your dream layout.


            Remember, just as in life, there is a workable solution or accommodation to every obstacle thrown in front of you in your quest for a layout. If a project is beyond your skill level, settle for a mockup, ask a friend to build it for you, pay someone to build it for you, buy a book or attend a clinic that teaches you how to solve your problem. Another escape route is to contact a MMR who may be able to help you.




            Just as in the world outside your layout room, we need some goals or deadlines, if you will, to make our layouts happen. I know, I know, “this is a hobby, I don’t want any pressure, I want to have fun” I can hear you say. Don’t worry, there are no dire consequences to you missing a deadline in the model railroading world. You can always make a new deadline. But you should understand that you must make progress towards those deadlines or their revised cousins.


            An open house for the division is another sort of deadline or goal that can do wonders for your modeling. Ask anyone who has had an open house how it affected them. They will surely tell you how it stimulated progress in the layout like it had not seen in years.




            Put nitpickers out of your mind now and forever. Here is a handy weapon to disarm all nitpickers – ask them how their layout is progressing. I learned this chestnut from my friend Pete Matthews. It works all the time! Don’t be shy about it – the nitpickers may not even have a model built let alone a layout. Nitpickers should be submitting articles for publication in historical society journals, not trashing your work. Remember, while we may, at times, wear our historian hats in the building of a model railroad, we are primarily modelers who, when it comes down to it, are trying to have fun.


            Some Parting Thoughts


            So get started on that layout right now! Get out of your armchair – none of us are getting any younger. You might never get to climb Mount Everest  or own the Redskins, but if it’s an operating layout you want, its not beyond your reach.


Draw up some plans, put some deadlines in your calendar. Buy the supplies that you need to bring your layout to the next level of completion – not the supplies you will need when the layout is nearly finished. Contact – even bribe --  some friends or strangers to help you.


For that extra incentive, call Edmund “Ed” McGill at 703 528-5419 and commit to a layout open house for the Potomac Division.  Good luck. I hope to see your layout on a tour next year. Just be sure to have some chips and cookies for my kids who will invariably come along.