Layout appearance, fascia, valances, carpeting, etc.

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I. Necessity for neat appearance

Learning from museum exhibits

Given the debt that great model railroads owe to museum dioramas, it is only natural that we seek out just where the art of museum diorama excellence began. We need look no further than the Milwaukee Public Museum. This museum's diorama style and techniques have been much emulated throughout the country. It all began with a total habitat diorama by Carl Akeley in 1890. Its title was The Muskrat Group which is still on exhibit at the Museum. What became known as the "Milwaukee Style" soon set the standard for museum exhibit techniques.

Visit a local museum and see how they present dioramas. Note how they employ colors and coved rear corners. Admire their use of wings on the sides of the diorama you most enjoy. Compare the difference with an item or items in a plain glass case. To my mind, dioramas always win out over the plain glass case. A layout without side wings, valence, and fascia board is like that clear glass case. Note the effort diorama builders expend to carefully control what the museum visitor can or cannot see. Layout builders should emulate these diorama builders. Giving the viewer all sorts of opportunity to see our models is one thing when we are entering a modeling contest - we even place glass under the model to show off the underside detailing. But a layout strives for more than just fidelity to the prototype or the free-lanced vision. A layout seeks to create some magic, some mystery, and to propound the notion that the layout does not just stop at the basement walls or the layout's fascia.

I think we model railroaders miss a great many opportunities to learn from museums. After all museums and model railroaders are in the same businesses Ð communication and education. If you thought model railroads were only in the operation "business" you probably would not have read this far into this chapter. I still remember fondly all my visits as a child to New York's American Museum of Natural History and the magical dioramas created to display their animal specimens. I would hope that someone would write an article entitled Lessons from the Museums with ample photographs of techniques readily applicable to model railroading. Perhaps they could start with lessons from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, as Pete Matthews reports that it "has the most beautiful dioramas I've ever seen."

Learning from the Stage

We can also learn much from scenery designers about keeping our layouts attractive. While Frank Ellison used the stage metaphor to describe model railroad operations, the metaphor of the stage does not end there.

Learning from the Masters

Layout appearance has progressed considerably in the 1990s judging from the layouts that have appeared in the pages of Model Railroader. Any modeler would do well to keep a scrapbook of photographs that have appeared in Model Railroader depicting fascias that appeal to him or her. Get your hands on and read everything you can that comes from the pen of Iain Rice. Both Kalmbach and England's Wild Swan Publishers have published his works. Books published by Wild Swan can be readily ordered from the United Kingdom's In Kalmbach's Small, Smart & Practical Track Plans, Iain Rice shares with his readers many lesson about layout appearance. Most of these insights are expounded in chapter two. He goes to great lengths to explain the importance of side wings as he calls them. He points out that "to create a convincing illusion, it's important that we're not aware of the offstage actors, the trains that have departed."

There is much that we can learn from the operating dioramas or exhibition layouts that appear in the British modeling press. Take for example Chritopher Payne's Sutton Wharf exhibition layout. Payne explains how he built this layout in Volumes 32 and 33 (pages 42-46) (May/June 2004) of Narrow Gauge World . It is interesting to note that Payne neatly lettered the name of the diorama and its scale on the valance. As Payne puts it in a sidebar to his articles "It is perhaps stating the obvious that poor presentation can ruin a layout whatever the quality of the modeling." Anyone reading these two articles can't help but notice how many wonderful pages of photographs even a tiny layout can supply for such a glossy first rate magazine. If you have any interest at all in this type of layout, I would urge you to obtain a subscription to these overseas publications.

Anyone interested in an attractive layout room should first read Building the South Park Valley, Pt. 1:Planning ahead by Fran and Miles Hales, with John Lowrence which appeared in the February 2001 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman starting on page 75. This article features photographs of the first mocked up layout skirt I have ever encountered. On page 76 they discuss the need for step boxes for children and operators alike. Two very nice photographs accompany a discussion of the considerations involved with step boxes. At Cliff Robinson, Keith Guitierrez, Richard Kamm, and David Barrow have posted a Layout Owner's Guide to Better Operation. Point 4 of their discussion mentions the need for strategically placed stools for tired operators. I heartily agree with their suggestion.

Don Cabral's H&LP featured in Great Model Railroads 1998 on page 79 is an example of a layout with excellent appearances. As described in GMR, "The room colors are subdued and there aren't train pictures or award certificates atop the backdrop adding a lot of visual clutter". Another layout I have admired is that of Stephen Cavanaugh, whose Western Pacific in the Feather River Canyon appeared in the January 1994 Model Railroader starting on page 106. David Barrow had brought so many insights into model railroading that it is perhaps all too easy to overlook his achievements in layout appearance. Readers should also consult Operating the South Plains District by David Barrow which appeared in the December 1996 Model Railroader starting on page 100. This article is loaded with photograph showing the neat fascia built by this Texan.

Not to be missed is Lowell Ross' HOn3 Galena, Colorado module. Lowell makes a daring and effective choice of valance materials when he used corrugated steel for his valance and and side wing. The reason this material works is that it was a common material in use in the West. Seeing the corrugated steel sends a signal to visitors of the area that Lowell models. While most modelers do not model this area of the country, Ross' techinique can stimulate the rest of us to experiment and try materials that would evoke the era and/or region we seek to model. To see a color photo of Lowell's results get your hands on a copy of the March/April 2004 Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette and turn to page 46.

Don't miss an opportunity to attend home layout tours at National Conventions or those sponsored by your NMRA division. See what others have done right. Also note where others have gone wrong in terms of layout appearance. Dedicate yourself to not repeating their mistakes.

While lighting is a critical dimension to layout appearance, that subject is beyond the bounds of this chapter of the Primer.

Keep an open feel to the room. I believe that we send subtle hints to our guests when the layout room tries to squeeze too much layout into a given space. The subtle hint is "keep out". Leave some open space in the room beside simple aisle requirements. Your guests will thank you.

Components of a nicely appointed room

The components of a nicely appointed room include: drywall walls, a finished ceiling; room appointments, and neat benchwork. The watchword is simplicity. Be sure that nothing in the room detracts from the layout. Examples of room and benchwork features that detract from a layout include: bright colors; shiny colors; certificates that are cheaply framed and put in places they do not belong; mis-placed railroadiania; and busy patterns. While we are at it, a host who is a chain smoker can ruin the visit of any model train admirer. As his/her guest, you cannot say a word. However, I have had more than one otherwise thoroughly enjoyable visit to a model railroad tarnished by a chain smoking host.

II. Room Construction

See Craig Bisgeier's Chapter D(8) on Layout Room Prep. But let me weigh in with the following personal observations. Heating and air conditioning are nice touches but any discussion of that goes beyong the boundaries of this chapter. Drywall is best for ceilings in a model railroad room. Ceiling tiles are distracting and tend to give the room an office or rec-room feel. For the best appearance your ceiling should be professionally installed. Some will opt for ceiling tiles to be able to reach the gas, water, and electrical lines without having to tear a ceiling out. Simply painting your cinderblock walls, while a step in the right direction will likely not please you in the long run. Professionally installed drywall will make for the best walls. This approach will add value to your home that in some measure you may be able to recoup upon its eventual sale. Carpeting may be the most attractive and comfortable choice. Carpeting should be: neutral, low pile, and have subtle pattern that can hide some stains. Avoid very expensive carpeting so if it is ruined by a spill you will have less heartache.

III. Room Appointments

A neat stool for working on your layout is always handy, but Guests will appreciate a sofa. The fabric should not be too busy. Be sure the sofa is comfortable. A dark color should hide dirt better. You need not spend a fortune on this item. Try stores like IKEA or watch the Sunday newspapers for a sale. Given that many of today's modern layouts are designed with high benchwork, give some thought early on in designing some areas where children and those of short stature can stand to get a better view of your layout. You could use portable library-type stepping stools or you could build permanent elevated standing areas. If you build a permanent area, be sure to paint it or cover it with carpet that coordinates or matches your existing room surface coverings.

A nice bookcase to hold your research materials and railroad books will add a nice touch to your layout room. DonÕt let a rickety bookcase mar an otherwise beautiful layout that you have put a lifetime of effort into and untold or un-admitted thousands of dollars into. DonÕt forget that a half round bookcase may well use an often otherwise wasted space Ð they are available from IKEA at a good price..

Try placing little tables by the couch for visitors to place their drinks. I have done this in my layout room and am pleased with the results. For some, avoiding a cluttered look may be best when installing maps and railroadiania on your walls. In no case should framed photos be installed where a background more properly belongs.

Keep a telephone in your layout room. If possible, have the wiring installed while the room is still under construction. A portable phone may be best. The phone helps insure family harmony. I have also found an intercom to be a handy item in my layout room. Have the wiring installed while the room is under construction not after. This too helps insure family harmony - remember, an intercom is a great deal less expensive than a divorce. Use it to let your family know where you are.


Legs should be painted a neutral color. Preferably a dark color. This is necessary as it may be a while before you get to installing skirts. Even if you have skirts, you want the place to look finished during those times the skirts are off. I have painted the rest of my benchwork where it can be seen by visitors. This is for those times when the fascia is removed or until the fascia has been made.

When it comes to fabric for your layout skirt, choose a neutral, flat color. Avoid the distracting fabrics that boasted railroad designs. You remember these from a generation ago in old Model Railroader articles. Don't forget that you will need someone to sew this skirt's hems.

Another alternative is wood skirts. However, wooden skirts have their negatives. They make accessing any storage units under the layout more difficult. With wooden skirts, one also needs to cut out openings for any large sound speakers. David Barrow used this method with his Dominoes Benchwork. Be sure to paint any wooden skirt a neutral, flat color. Dark colors may pose the least distraction to your layout. I wanted to avoid seams and so was planning on 4 x 8 foot panels. I found these too cumbersome to handle and so cut mine to 4 feet by 4 feet in size. I used 1/4 inch Luan. Some of the cuts with my circular saw were too rough so I switched to a plywood blade with 200 teeth.

V. Fascia

A neutral, flat color is best. It should be coordinated with the setting of the modeled portion of the world. A layout in which eastern forests prevails might want to have a green fascia. A layout featuring the west may wish to feature a fascia with earth tones that mimic the western landscape. A number of layouts have experimented with black fascia as well, using it to create a theatrical stage appearance. While Masonite seems to be the material of choice for a fascia, I would like to hear from those folks who have tried using plastic as a fascia material. The size of the fascia seems to vary from layout to layout. I would like to see a comparison of fascia heights conducted by one of the SIG members.

According to Howard, a fine alternate exists to Masonite as a fascia board. That product is called Duralux. Howard maintains that it bends to take a curve more readily than Masonite. He has even used it for his layout's backdrop. To read more about Howard's layout check out Model Railroading July 2001 page 44. Drop me a line if you agree with Howard's experiences with Duralux ( Gary Boyd, of Elmira, New York, wrote in the March 2006 Model Railroader that he used a painted chalkboard for his fascia. Gary reported that this is a tempered hardboard made by Georgia-Pacific that is sold in 2x4 panels. It is painted chalkboard green and comes in 3/16" and 1/4" thicknesses. If you are happy with green, this is one way to really speed up the fascia process. Gary writes that he set the blade of his saw to break through the surface by about 1/4", to avoid chipping the board.

Shields to protect sensitive areas such as signal brides near the edge of the layout are a must. Ross Allen tells me that most use Plexiglas and that for example he uses 1/4 inch. Allen suggests that a better material may be Lexan. According to Ross, the latter is almost indestructible, so you can use 1/8 inch instead of 1/4 inch. Trouble is, Lexan costs about twice the cost of Plexiglas. Charley Hepperle wrote an interesting article for Railroad Model Craftsman entitled Acrylic Layout Shield. Starting on page 93 (I have lost the month and year of the issue) he explains how he built a removable acrylic layout shield. For those who contemplate additional work on that part of the layout or who wish to photograph that scene, a removable shield may be just the ticket.


Ross Allen writes that "One day, it came to mind that the valence would be a great place for holding the car cards. The fascia repositories were removed and simple hooks (nails) were arranged on the valance. Each car card is inside a plastic (actually photo holders from 20th Century Plastics) envelope which has a hole in one end. An array of labeled hooks make car card locating very easy. An operator can see the labels just above eye level. With car cards arranged top to bottom (cars left to right) locating any car in a congested area (like a classification yard) is fast and easy. Looking up is harder than looking at zero degrees but not nearly as hard as it is to extract any kind of visual information from a waist high fascia."

VII. Descriptions

Try a tasteful sign at the door to your layout room that indicates the time period and place your guests are entering. This has been tried to good success by one modeler whose layout appeared in one of the popular model railroad magazines. Some modelers may wish to avoid some of the goofy signs seen in many layout rooms. These signs -- often include stale jokes -- accomplish little more than labeling its host as crotchety. As modelers, we must do nothing that feeds the stereotype that we are playing with trains and want to keep the "girls" out. But by all means go ahead and post a neat sign(s) asking visitors to refrain from smoking or from touching the models and scenery.

Be thoughtful of your visitors do not put delicate items too close to the edge of the layout unless you build some sort of clear shield to keep errant elbows from damaging your prize possession.

I am still undecided about the merits of placing photographs of prototypes along the fascia so that guests can compare your modeled scenes with the prototype. I would hope that one of our SIG members would deputize himself to collect photographs of layouts where this technique has been put to good and even not-so-good use. Jack Burgess recently communicated to me that, for his Yosemite Valley Railroad, he has printed a dozen or so "scrapbooks" which intentionally duplicate the look of 1930's era scrapbooks. These books have black pages, with the photos held in place with adhesive corner tabs. The photographs in the books were scanned and cleaned up in Photoshop. The pages are numbered and small numbers on the fascia correspond to the page number. In addition, there are arrows next the number that represent the angle of the photographic view. During tours, visitors are given a book and Jack points out the numbers on the fascia (which he calls "Kodak moments").

Labeling Techniques Above all else be consistent in your labels. Cue your visitors to different categories of messages by using different, consistent type sizes or fonts or colors to. Labels can be: engraved brass mini-plaques; engraved plastic; Dymo-style plastic Label maker Ð to be avoided. I have had bad luck with these falling off. They also do not possess the professional appearance I seek. Computer generated labels, probably should be covered with clear Plexiglas.

Label all features: major roads and points of interest; Geographic directions, East, West etc. How about bus routes in urban areas? City dwellers place great importance to bus routes. DonÕt forget Structures (on the nearest point on your fascia); bodies of water; and bridges.

Maps should be posted on the fascia indicating how each spot on the layout relates to other major towns, etc.

VIII. Operating Tools

Boxes for car cards should be neat. Quite a few model railroad authors have covered how to make your own boxes in the modeling press. A particularly nice article in this regard appeared recently in Model Railroader written by Lionel Strang. For those of you who would rather purchase an already built car card holder, Bill Pistello manufactures very neat acrylic car card holders. I have purchased quite a few and find them quite attractive. BillÕs address is: 624 S. Princeton, Villa Park, IL 60181 Telephone 630 832-9152.

Don't forget holders for uncoupling tools, pencils. Some modelers have installed holders for soft drinks. I tried cutting down a drink holder meant for slipping on an open automobile window, but found that the final result left much to be desired in terms of esthetics. Others such as Ross Allen object to this approach. Ross adds that he uses Plexiglas tables that fit on the top of his fascia protrude over the layout, not into the aisle. These are used for card sorting. All Ross' car cards normally reside on hooks on what he calls the TOP fascia but that others would call the valence.

IX. Workbench

Look to place your workbench in an otherwise unusable part of your layout room. I had an irregular space in my future layout room (it supported a bay window) that I put to good use by installing a custom made workbench. This put an otherwise unworkable space to good use. Put your certificates over your workbench so as not to tempt yourself to put them over the layout. Workbenches for doing carpentry and other such uses may be better kept in a room apart from the layout.

X. Storage

Storage should be planned at the time you are designing your model railroad. Don't forget to include this in your plans. Provide for neat storage of all your model railroading supplies. Place these storage units in a way that does not detract from your layout. Plastic cubbies are a god-send to hold small items neatly. My favorites are made by a firm named Akro - they are designed to resist tipping over. Plastic cubbies will not substitute for shelving - they supplement it by keeping your shelving units organized.

About this content:
Original author: Nicholas Kalis. Last revised on Feb 1, 2006.
This LDSIG article is ©2006 by Nicholas Kalis (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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