Layout room preparation

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Why Do Room Prep?

The first, and best, reason for improving the layout space is to make it a cleaner space to work in, and to maintain a layout in. Concrete basement walls and floors constantly shed fine dust particles that end up all over everything. Dust and dirt filter through the subfloor above or the roof panels, raining down on the space. Open floor joists above and stud walls are difficult to keep clean, and seem to constantly attract dust. By finishing these surfaces, even minimally, you greatly improve the environment of the space and reduce the need to clean the layout often. Of course, that leaves you more time to enjoy building or operating, instead of cleaning track and vaccuuming the scenery.

A close second is that by finishing the layout room, it becomes a more pleasant, attractive and happier space to work in. That may sound silly, but few would argue it is much nicer to be in a clean, warm, well-lit and brightly painted room than in a dark, dusty and cold room. It follows that by making the space more pleasant to be in, you are more likely to want to spend time there, rather than upstairs watching reruns of Gilligan's Island. And that means you'll probably get more work done on the railroad. A little finish work up front can pay off in big productivity dividends later.

(Note that smaller, tighter spaces may require more finish work than large, open areas to provide the same comfort level. A small, tight basement with short ceilings, for instance, will probably need more work than a large, open basement with tall ceilings.)

Building the layout in a finished space also lends a more finished, complete feel to the layout by association. Visitors and regular operators are less likely to be distracted by incongruous objects like water pipes and ventilation ducts, or dark corners with spiderwebs peeking out, or what they might step on if they aren't careful. Their attention will remain focused on the layout where it should be. And because they are comfortable in the space, they will feel more comfortable with the layout as well.

Finally, preparing the space ensures that problems difficult to resolve after the fact are considered and planned for before the layout is built. Adequate electrical supply, lighting needs and ventilation most be accounted for at design time, because they are very hard to retrofit after the problems have been discovered. By planning carefully and addressing these issues before building the layout, future satisfaction is ensured and possible future damage or unnecessary renovations to the layout are avoided. Surely, this is one of the best reasons for planning before acting.

Preparation Paralysis

Without question, an attractive and comfortable space to spend time in is a big advantage for the modeler. But a little perspective is called for before sinking huge amounts of time into stud walls and sheetrock. Don't lose sight of the primary goal, which is building the model railroad. Jumping into extensive living-room type remodeling to finish your basement or attic can be counter-productive if it causes you to significantly put off construction of the layout. In some cases, well-intentioned modelers have committed to extensive finishing plans, only to get burned out on the remodeling and never even start the railroad. I call this "Preparation Paralysis".

To keep from being caught in this trap, step back during the planning stage and realistically evaluate what needs to be done in your space, and what you can do yourself. Acknowledge your limits -- if you aren't handy, lack in funds or have a hard time getting motivated for this kind of work, consider the least difficult, cheapest or simplest options open to you. For instance, instead of installing a full suspended ceiling over exposed overhead joists in the basement, you might get by with simply painting the subfloor and joists overhead with a sealant-type paint like DryLok. Not as attractive, maybe, but it solves the dust problem and brightens the room. Paint the walls instead of building stud walls and sheetrocking. Usually there are several levels of finish to choose from, pick one that seems reasonable and you'll be able to complete.

Establish a time limit and schedule for improvements, and stick to it. If time expires, abandon the unfinished projects and move on. Don't be afraid to go back and finish it up later if possible and you're motivated to do so, but never lose sight of the primary goal.

Another option, if you can afford it, is to hire a contractor to make the improvements. While it may seem an expensive choice at first, you have to weigh the expense against what your time is worth, particularly your personal recreation time. Start adding up the number of hours you'll spend doing it yourself, multiply by your own hourly rate, and compare that to the contractors' labor charge. (Materials will cost about the same either way.) You'll probably find it's actually cheaper to have the contractor do the work, and you'll have the advantage of getting the work done much sooner than you'd be able to manage on your own. The work will probably be of better quality, and most important, it will be done legally (permits) and up to electrical and building code safety standards. Finally, if you own your home, remember you will probably be able to recover some of the cost if you ever have to move.

Primary Items to be Improved


Between room lighting, layout lighting, track power and accessories, model railroads use a lot of electricity. And besides the dedicated items listed above, there is usually a need for supplying numerous power tools and other items used to work on the layout, like power drills and saws, air compressors and soldering irons. Chances are the space you're preparing isn't set up to handle this much power draw, and that means you'll need to add some circuits to the room. It helps to have some idea of the layout plan ahead of time, to ensure wires are run to the places they are needed when the layout gets built.

You'll probably want to keep certain things on different circuits. For instance, if a power tool develops a short and blows a breaker, you don't want it taking the room and layout lights in a dark basement with it. likewise, if you use solenoid switch machines to throw your turnouts, it's a good idea to have them separated from the lighting system and track power system. If possible, establish separate circuits for room lights, layout lights, layout track power, accessories, and general power outlets in the room. Install plenty of general outlets, there are never enough.

If you haven't worked with electrical lines before, talk to a local electrician before going ahead about what you need to meet your local electrical code and how to install it. Be sure any wiring or other hardware you add is heavy enough to handle the current it will draw, and that connections are made correctly and carefully. Seriously consider installing GFI (Ground Fault Interrupter) breakers, which greatly minimize the risk of accidental electrocution. The best choice is to run the wires and mount the hardware yourself, and then hire an electrician to come in and make all the connections. Please! Note that 120 volt power lines are dangerous and should be handled with great respect.


Decide what kind of lighting you will use both in the room and on the layout. Flourescent lights are a good choice for both general and layout lighting, since they provide a smooth, even light at a reasonably low current draw. They also operate at much cooler temperatures, which can be a major factor when considering environmental factors (see below). Incandescent lights are run much hotter and provide a warmer, more focused light. It also takes more current to light a specific area with incandescent lights than with flourescent lights, something to consider with larger layout designs. Other choices, like halogens, may have specific uses but aren't generally useful in most layout situations.

Be sure to include plenty of light in your layout space. Brightly lit rooms tend to make us feel better, happier, than darker spaces. Also, as we get older, brighter light helps older eyes see fine details and lettering better. Remember the better the lighting, the more likely you are to spend time in the space working on the railroad. It's also helpful in finding coupler springs that shoot off into odd corners from time to time. Fortunately, inexpensive lighting instruments are usually not hard to find at your local home improvement store so expense should not be a serious impediment to installing adequate lighting in the space.

Ventilation and Air Circulation

Ventilation is a property of the space easily over looked until it is too late. Without good ventilation the space can easily become overheated or stuffy in a very short time, making it uncomfortable to operate. Excess heat caused by transformers, lights (particularly incandescent) and human beings builds up quickly in confined spaces and needs to be exhausted, or at least circulated.

Venting excess heat and stale air can be as simple as a set of open windows on opposite sides of the space allowing cross-ventilation, a breeze to move fresh, cooler air through the room. A window-mounted exhaust fan or permanently installed ducts and blowers vented to the outside are a good addition for days when breezes are light. Be sure there is an inlet for fresh air as well as an outlet for exhausting stale air.

Sometimes layout designs isolate areas of the space, bottling the air inside a section. In this case the designer should provide for a fan to force air into the isolated area from areas with better circulation. Either place a fan under the benchwork, or install a duct and blower through the layout or ceiling to force stale air from the area. If there is a corner of the room out of the normal circulation path (windows on opposite, adjacent walls), direct a fan to blow fresh air into it, even if it's not actively isolated.

Finally, consider methods to control the climate of the room if temperatures often swing to extremes. A window air conditioner, or extra vents cut into central air ducting, can make an attic bearable in the summer months. A couple of electric saftey heaters can take the chill out of a garage in the wintertime, and are efficient enough for occaisional use. (Besides, once you get the lights and power supplies cranked and 5 or 6 operators running around, you'll probably be able to turn them down or completely off.) And of course, you can minimize the effects of seasonal weather and temperature by insulating the walls and other surfaces (see below).

Protection Against Moisture

A very thourough article on protecting your layout space against moisture by Rich Weyand is (will be) available for review by clicking here. If wetness in your space is a concern, please examine it after completing this section. It contains many tips and tricks to help keep your space dry.


An extremely important step for those who work in spaces with exposed exterior walls. The blazing summer sun and chilly winter winds can combine to make unfinished garages or attics unbearably hot or cold for much of the year. By insulating the walls and roofs of these areas, the extreme temperature swings can be minimized and even controlled with ventilation, heating or air conditioning techniques. At the very least it can buy you a few more useful months out of the year.

There are many methods of installing insulation. The most common is fiberglass batts hung in between the wall studs or roof joists. Other options include styrofoam panels that can be glued in, or shredded paper (treated for fire resistance) that can be blown into walls with sheetrock already installed. Please note that styrofoam insulation, as well as the kraft paper backing of many fiberglass batts are flammable, even fire accelerants. You must install sheetrock over these to ensure fire safety. Also, you'll want to cover fiberglass batts because fine fibers can come loose and get into the air circulating through the room, where it can be inhaled. Non-flammable fiberglass batts with foil backing can be had for a higher price, but it looks awful! You'll want to cover it anyway. See your local home center for details and more insulation ideas.

Wall coverings

At the very least, be sure to throw a coat of good-quality paint designed for the surface on the walls to seal them from collecting or passing dust through into the room. Sweep dust off studs and joists before painting (use an old broom, or better still a shop vac with a brush head). Buy a good masonry paint for walls, or a sealing paint like DryLok. But good quality paint, you want the coating to last as long as possible since the area you are painting will likely be inaccessible for a long time to come. Use two coats of paint.

Wood paneling is also a choice, if your taste runs that way. Much less difficult to hang than sheetrock, and only a bit more expensive, you can use paneling to cover quickly conceal stud walls, or hang it on furring strips glued to a concrete wall. (please paint the concrete wall first.) Paneling can be used to easily seal up fiberglass insulaton in stud walls and keep the fibers out of the room. Beware, though -- without a sheetrock barrier you have no fire protection and may be in violation of local fire codes. In a normally unoccupied space like a garage it may not matter. Check with your local building or fire department.

The nicest and safest wall covering is sheetrock. Of course, it is the most difficult to install as well. Really smooth, well done finishes are probably best left to a professional, but even an ametuer can do a creditable job with a little practice. Beware, though, if you have back or lifting problems -- it is heavy stuff. Taping (hiding dents and joints with joint compound) is even more difficult to do well, but a beginner can probably get by following instructions and do a decent enough job. Sheetrock also provides a small measure of insulation, by creating an air pocket between it and the wall. It's worth putting up, even if you just tape the screw holes and joints and throw a coat of paint on it. It can make an incredible difference in the appearance of your space.


Ceilings get very similar treatments to walls. You can paint bare wood to seal it, put up furring strips and staple on accoustic ceiling tiles to cover it, hang a suspended ceiling or just sheetrock it. Instructions for each of these methods can be found in any good do-it-yourself home repair manual.

My personal favorite for basements is the suspended ceiling, since it allows the homeowner easy access to overhead electrical and plumbing lines, while hiding them effectively. It is a lot of work to put one in, but it's worth the effort. The best feature is that it allows some flexibility in wiring the layout later, since power lines can be easily moved or installed long after the room have been finished.

For garages or attics with reasonable overhead clearance, I'd recommend either a sheetrock ceiling or accoustic tile, with an access hole somewhere to get upstairs in case changes or roof repairs need to be made. Hanging sheetrock on ceilings looks great but can be problematical if leaks develop, and is really best left to pros with special equipment.


At the very least, paint a concrete floor with good masonry floor paint, and give it another good coat every few years. Concrete floors are a huge source of fine dust in basements or garages and shound be kept sealed. Wood floors, if in good shape, should be polyurethaned every few years to ensure they stay nice, clean and undamaged.

Strongly consider covering plywood subfloors or concrete floors with resilient vynil flooring. You can probably find a reasonable choice cheap in your local flooring dealers collection of last years' styles that didn't sell well. It will make standing in the room much more comfortable for longer periods of time (bare concrete floors are hard on the feet and tire you out much faster). Vynil flooring tiles are also a possible choice and easier to install, but may be more expensive. It also holds up fairly well to damp environments.

Carpeting is a luxury that is very nice to have. It's very easy on the feet, attractive, and provides a luxurious feel to the entire layout room. Of course, it's difficult to keep clean, it will get moldy if it gets wet, and forget about finding small parts like coupler springs that fly off to far corners. A reasonable compromise is to use rubber-backed (no-slip) carpet runners in the aisles during operating sessions, that can be rolled up and stored when working on the layout.

Optional improvements:

Workbench / Workspace

Many of us don't have the luxury of a shop area physically separated from the layout. So put some thought into making the work area as friendly as possible to the work that must be performed there. Make sure there are a few extra power outlets in the work area, as well as an immediate source of bright and general lighting. If the layout design extends around the workbench area, be sure to have some vertical separation between the bench and layout height, and try to keep the layout depth in the work area to a minimum. Remember you may need to work on very long wood or metal parts, in excess of the width of the workbench. Try to plan for clearance to at least one side, accomodating these items without risking damage to the layout. Consider floor to ceiling length curtains to isolate the work area from the rest of the layout when working, which will help keep dust away from scenicked layout surfaces.

Dispatchers' Office

If you operate with a dispatcher, you'll need a place for him or her to sit and work. If you can't locate them in another room, you'll need to find a place in the layout room for them. Many layout builders want to create an "office" somewhere to physically isolate them from the operators. One good spot is under a staircase, normally a somewhat wasted space anyway. The DS office will need extra electrical service for lights, space for control panels and associated electronics modules and wiring, and some method for communicating with the crews (see wiring for telephones and computers).

Wiring for Telephones, Computers and Electronics

Telephones have long been a part of model railroading, and computers more so every day. Installing an extension from your home phone line in your layout space might be a distraction, but rushing to get a ringing phone in another room is worse. Place it near your workbench, if possible, to avoid having to get up and cross the room while working on a project. Install the phone lines when you do the power lines. If you plan on including a party-line phone system around the railroad, be sure adequate power is supplied to the main unit where it will be located. Since wires for a party-line system are usually installed under the layout and mounted to the fascia, it probably isn't necessary to plan for them this early.

With Command Control becoming more popular daily, and many real-time model RR computer programs becoming available, you may want to consider including some sort of computer network cabling in the wall before finishing them off. It's difficult to say today what will be available tomorrow, or what the cabling requrements will be, but there is little doubt they will change the way model railroads are operated by increasing realistic control and expanding operating schemes. If this appeals to you, consider including some type of network wiring inside the walls. Make sure several extra outlets are planned for around the room, especially if it's possible your design mage change...

Finally, electronic accessories like syncronized fast clocks (digital and analog) are becoming affordable and very popular. If you know you'll be using devices like this, plan ahead where you'll need them to be located, and include cable for these accessories when wiring the power lines or logic buss. You'll be able to provide a much more clean finished and professional look when everything is completed.


It can be helpful to have a half-bathroom or sink located in the layout space to keep operators and helpers from trekking through the house during layout construction or operating sessions. Sinks are very useful for cleaning and other model work, like rinsing models before painting. If you have access to water lines and waste lines in your space, you may want to consider installing a small sink, or even a small bathroom. Consult a plumber to ensure your work won't result in dangerous problems like sewer gasses venting into your home.


If you have a crew lounge planned, you might want to consider some amenities like a mini-refrigerator to cool drinks, eliminating the problem of crew members hanging out in the kitchen. An air conditioner, saftey heater or other temporarily or permanently mounted appliance should have an adequate, dedicated electrical service line installed and located nearby, avoiding extension cords dangerously draped across floors.


In conclusion, I want to repeat that one must not lose sight of the primary goal -- to build the model railroad. Improving the space to make the layout room a nicer place is important, but if it gets in the way of working on the railroad, STOP and concentrate on the railroad. Get the "must do's" done first, then add the "want to's" and "nice to's" later if you can, and when you have time.

About this content:
Original author: Craig Bisgeier. Last revised in 1996.
This LDSIG article is ©1996 by Craig Bisgeier (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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