Tiny Layouts

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They are a marvel to behold and a challenge to build and operate, the truly big basement-filling layouts. And you are going to build one soon. But wait, you don't have that much room. You'll have to settle for one of those layouts that fits in a spare bedroom. But you don't have that much space either. Heck, you don't even have room for a 4X8 sheet of plywood. I'm in the same boat. My fantasy layout fills a vacant 200X300 foot warehouse I visited once, but I'm lucky to have 2X4 feet available. What are we going to do, give up on building a layout and hope that we inherit a basement? Not necessary. With careful design and selection of what to model, we can build a layout that offers prototypic operation and fidelity in a very small space.


This chapter is organized somewhat differently than the rest you will read in the Primer. The other chapters offer the author's views, with appropriate references, on a particular topic. Because so many model railroaders in the Layout Design Special Interest group had valuable contributions to make on this topic, I requested suggestions and experiences from them. Throughout this chapter, I will tell you not only what I think but what other modelers have said about building tiny layouts. I am being more of a moderator than an author. Each of these individuals participate in the on-line chatlist available to members of the SIG. Consider joining the Layout Design Special Interest group and subscribing to the e-mail list. It's a great place to read about what others are working on and to get your questions answered.

In this chapter, we will look at some questions defining what is "tiny" and make some suggestions for maximizing the operational potential of a tiny layout. Then we will look at some specific applications of the concepts to see how some model railroaders are dealing with the challenge of restricted space.

One last thought. This chapter includes some great ideas. But are any of them the final answer for you and your own set of space constraints? No, probably not! It is obvious that each person who contributed to this chapter has thought about how to solve a specific problem and provide the maximum amount of enjoyment in a minimum amount of space. I encourage you to be creative; pick the pieces that appeal to you and bend and shape and mold them to your own circumstances. Think unconventionally. Turn your imagination loose. You will be surprised at the great ideas you develop.

Why Build a Tiny Layout

Well, the only modeler who would be interested in building a tiny layout is one without more room, right? Not exactly. Ken Mackenzie, who worked on the S scale module standards for the NMRA, pointed out that many people build tiny layouts in order to have a railroad operating while they work on larger layouts, or to have a portable layout to exhibit their modeling at meets and conventions. It may take years to get the basement-filling pike completed enough to just run a train, and then you may get transferred the week after that first train runs. If you're like most model railroaders, you want to see some of your equipment run from time to time. A tiny layout permits that, and also allows you to sample different scenery and track laying techniques, or to develop skills in creating model scenes. Maybe you model the ABC Pacific but always admired one particular town on the XYZ Central. A tiny layout lets you model that town without changing your primary layout.

Here's an interesting observation: British modelers apparently do not think in terms of "lifetime layouts" the way that Americans do; many will occasionally tear their layout apart and model something else. Difficult to do with a bedroom-sized layout, probably impossible with a basement-sized layout, yet practical with a tiny layout. What if you like parts of several different railroads. That's one of my problems; and each of my interests represents drastically different eras, railroads, and geographic settings. Having two, or even three, tiny layouts would allow you to model railroads and eras that would not be compatible on one layout.

What Do You Want To Include In Your Model Railroad

David Gibbons, a participant in the Layout Design SIG on-line chatlist recently made an excellent point. "The unexamined assumption seems to me to be the biggest enemy of intelligent layout design". The most important part of the design process is to decide what features you are most interested in modeling. This is especially important in tiny layout design because you can't hide mistakes "over in the corner"; there just isn't room. Time spent deciding what you want to model will ensure that the final product is satisfying. Craig Bisgeier suggested that choosing a single element or two and modeling it/them well in the available space provides a better experience than trying to cram a lot of different elements into a limited space. In addition, Jon Cure observed that operating that element properly, following prototype practices, can be a fun experience.

What Model Railroad Elements Constitute a Layout?

You can build a scene that is 3" deep and 8" long complete with scenery and a piece of track running through it. Is that a layout? Probably not. That would be a diorama. The consensus of the model railroaders in the e-mail group was that a "layout" implies that the train appearing on it will perform some type of work. What could that be? Switching a single spur would certainly count. Shuffling cars at a small town or terminal would also. If you are modeling New England in the 1910s, you could have a milk platform alongside the track in your diorama where the daily "milk run" would stop to exchange milk cans; that would transform your diorama into a layout under this definition, but probably wouldn't hold your operating interest for too long. As with the definition of what is "tiny", the criteria for what is an actual layout is somewhat vague: there should be some on- or off-line staging and the train must perform some work (operation) in the modeled scene. Tony Koester said it best, the "concern is with the differences between a functioning layout and a diorama or a section of a functioning layout". The challenge is to craft your scene so that what the railroad does in it is credible.

Just How Small is "Tiny" Anyway?

This question produced a wide variety of viewpoints, mostly dependent on scale. To someone modeling in O scale, a 4X8 sheet would be very small while the same sheet would be "average" for an HO modeler. For the railroader modeling in N or Z scales, that 4X8 would be huge. Generally in this chapter, we will be looking at HO and N as being the most practical scales for tiny layouts. I do not have any experience with Z scale so cannot comment on its suitability, beyond sheer lack of size. S and above would generally consume too much space for the "area-challenged" modeler, but several successful modelers would be quick to challenge that assumption.

Assumptions, if 4X8 in HO is "average", tiny must be something less than that. Tiny for N scale would be less than tiny for HO. The "average" shelf layout plan in HO is 2X12 feet, and still too large for many, so a tiny shelf would be less than that. It is difficult to state a definition of tiny, but we "know it when we see it". Ntrak modules at 2x4 feet would qualify as tiny, as would HO modules at 2X6 feet. Just remember that we are trying to pack an operating model railroad into as small a space as we can.

Ntrak and Other Modular Standards

If an Ntrak module qualifies as "tiny", would a module make a good tiny home layout? Perhaps, but most likely not. Keep in mind that the Ntrak standard is designed to allow modules to all be built so that any number of them can be assembled into a working layout at a train show. The basic design limits what can be done for modeling an actual railroad location (how many locations have you seen with three main lines?). While many modules have successfully captured the look of a prototype location, most appear as caricatures of railroading, not models of it. I'm not picking on Ntrakkers here. Ntrak shows have done much to increase interest in model railroading in general, and N scale in particular. My comments about design limitations apply to modular standards in other scales as well. It is simply a case of the modular standards limiting the use of much of your already-precious space.

Where in the WORLD Can I Find Information?

Most of the layout articles published in the United States deal with 4X8s, bedroom-sized layouts, or basement-filling empires. Isn't there any published information on modeling in less space? Fortunately, the answer is yes. British modelers have less space in which to build their model railroads as well as different views about what is interesting to model and have perfected interesting techniques for operation in tiny spaces. Model Railroad Planning 1996 included an article on British model railroading. Model Railroader ran an article on the same topic in the March 1991 issue. Randy Gordon-Gilmore, whose layout plan we will discuss later, provided a pointer to the British magazine Railway Modeller, which showcases some truly magnificent yet very small layouts. Also, the popular press has been giving more emphasis to smaller layouts in the last few years. Model Railroad Planning 1997 has an unprecedented amount of small-area modeling information in it.

Chris Ellicot, who lives in the United Kingdom, points out that British railroaders are more interested in replication of specific locations based on actual track plans, and many are involved in several concurrent modeling projects (Chris is currently working on five!). To quote Chris, "The UK approach enables you to cover a number of railway interests simultaneously, or at least in a relatively short time-scale to a high state of detail". This level of activity also precludes building basement empires. He points out that the British modeling press often presents topographical maps showing every detail of a station and its surroundings or, at worst, sketch plans which at least show track layouts and building positions. These often show the layout over several periods. British layouts are typically a diorama with staging at one end; staging at both ends is far less common. These concepts can have great value in helping us to achieve our goal of squeezing a railroad into a small space.

One Town or One Industry?

If you look at the average model railroad, you see several relatively small towns with relatively small industries. That is generally all we have room to model and still include "everything". The problem is that we then try to serve those industries with a high volume of rail service. An industry that would only generate one or two cars in traffic each month is inundated with rail traffic. If the business were real, the owners would be looking to expand dramatically if their production supported the level of rail service we provide. How, then, do we provide for the significant level of rail service we want for our layouts? The best suggestion from several members of the on-line group was to model one traffic-intensive industry in the space available. This creates a prototypic basis for having lots of activity in a small space. This concept precludes modeling Sherman Hill and the UP Big Boys in the 1950s, but that can't be done effectively in a home-sized basement either. What industries lend themselves to intensive modeling? Steel mills, paper mills, cement plants, traditional produce markets, automobile factories (especially west coast plants in the 60s and 70s), coal mines, power plants, container loading/unloading terminals, refineries and bulk oil terminals. All of these, and several more industries we haven't mentioned yet, support high levels of rail traffic and would lend themselves well to single-industry modeling.

Linda Sand suggests designing industrial layouts with somewhat less on-site siding capacity than the prototype, requiring more frequent switching movements. She also notes that many industrial-site rail complexes have a small yard where raw materials, loaded cars, and empties are stored. Many of these pocket yards have cleanout tracks for cleaning cars before returning them to the host railroad and have cars stored (and taking up operational room) for a class 1 railroad. To add operating interest, include broken switches and poor track due to lower maintenance. These problems create operational bottlenecks which makes the operator's job more interesting. Ken Mackenzie suggested using industries that tower over their surroundings, including the trains. This will give the tiny layout less of a toy train look, as will including slight variations in track level. Stan Ames reported that he saw a small layout in Chicago that modeled a railroad wreck; the problem was to get the rolling stock back on the rails using model cranes and prototype practices. Ingenious! All of these features add operational variety and fidelity to the switching scheme and are easy to incorporate into a tiny single-industry layout.

But I Want to See Some Big-Time Railroad Action

Fair enough. Where on the real railroads do you see lots of locomotives or freight cars being shuffled about. Engine service depots and car repair facilities, of course. Joe Brugger suggested the car repair shops at Union Pacific's Hinkle Yard as a perfect prototype. At Hinkle, there is a covered building with a couple of tracks running through it served by a small yard. Bad-order cars are sorted close to the main line by degree of repair needed then moved to the repair area. The repair yard has forklifts, jacks, a multitude of equipment, and tons of spare railroad car parts. The level of detail would be perfect for a modeled scene. Jon Cure suggested a crew change point as a scene to model, allowing a wide variety of traffic to pass through the scene. Engine service facilities, including roundhouses if you're modeling the steam era, would make a great, active scene also.

Where Do the Track Loops Fit?

Every "beginners" plan is based on a loop of track. A prototypical operating scheme can evolve from such a plan, but it is difficult to achieve. Model trains do NOT have to run in circles; real trains don't. When you are thinking of how to squeeze as much operation into as small a space as possible, eliminate having your trains runs in circles. It will make your planning much easier, and your operations more prototypical. Have them work from a staging yard to an industry or town site. That staging yard can be as simple as one spur at a junction with another railroad. British model railroaders have used the concept of a fiddle yard very effectively. In a fiddle yard, the operator manually exchanges cars between trains to give each train a unique identity. In the US, we refer to that as switching with the 0-5-0 (our hand!). John Ozanich (Model Railroad Planning 1995) and Paul Dolkos (Model Railroad Planning 1996) both expand on the fiddle yard concept and provide ideas for using the concept to overcome space limitations.

If I Had Wings I Could Fly

Ethan Rogers built a 1X6 foot version of the Alpha-Beta Yard design that has appeared in several of Kalmbach's layout books, which he calls Walbash Junction. The design worked well, but the switchbacks limited switching moves to one locomotive and one car. To solve this problem he added foot long wings to each side of the layout. These extensions fold when not in use but increase the capacity of the sidings considerably. We will see the idea of movable wings more in later sections.

Odd Places to Put Your Tiny Layout

James Hoefnagel found his home in the Netherlands filled with kids. Where could a model railroad be sited? He followed one of my favorite dictums, think vertically! James converted his bed into a "canopy bed", with his railroad modeled on the canopy. He noted some dangers working six feet off the ground, always standing on benches. And he noted that construction had to be solid to promote getting a good night's sleep (even an N scale layout dropping on you in the middle of the night would not be funny). But he did succeed in creating a tiny operating layout where it had appeared that there would no room.

Of course, there is always the layout-in-a-coffee-table technique. Several vendors advertise these layouts in either kit or completed form. Most feature trains running in circles, but that just reflects the designer's choices. Maybe this idea could allow you to have a model railroad layout of your favorite prototype located where you can use it conveniently.

Some Examples of Tiny Design Thinking

The Traverser

Randy Gordon-Gilmore has applied some solid engineering to solving his space limitations. His basic town is 1X6 feet with some expected elements, a single-track main with passing siding, a depot, and a couple of industry tracks. He has created a layout platform that is very light in weight while still being very stiff, expecting that a tiny layout will be subjected to moving stresses more than larger layouts. He has bonded 1/8 inch birch plywood to two-inch thick extruded foam insulation board to create a foam-core sandwich on which to build his town. He has a three foot extension available for a yard. Problem: a conventional yard ladder will consume most of the available space on the extension. Solution: use the entire length of the extension for yard tracks, and move the extension laterally to gain access to each track. The yard extension will literally "traverse" the width of the yard to connect each yard track to the main like a transfer table at a car shop, only larger. Randy is planning to use linear bearing slides (similar to drawer sides, but without overhang) to mount the yard, and a stepper motor to control the lateral motion of the yard. The yard can store complete trains to enter the modeled scene, or can provide access to cars for making a "local" for that town. Randy has applied the concept of "wings" and solid engineering to create a satisfying model railroad with prototypical operations in a minimum of space. His is an excellent example of thinking of unique ways to solve particular problems, and his design shows how thinking critically about what you want to model can make a difference in the success of your layout.

Randy has graciously consented to allow me to include his e-mail address in this section in case you have further questions on this technique. My assumption is that you would rather get answers to your questions directly from Randy rather than my interpretation of Randy's ideas. His e-mail address is gord-gil@ix.netcom.com.

The Paperclip

Steve Holzheimer developed an interesting variation on the loop design which offers very realistic operation and great savings in space. Basically, he took a true point-to-point design, two stub yards connected by one town, and bent both yards around to the back of the layout. The yards do not connect end-to-end; instead, they sit parallel to each other at the rear of the layout, sharing only a connection which allows continuous running. Steve models in N scale and his layout is built on modules that are roughly the size of Ntrak modules (2X4 feet). His track plan forms a complete compact loop in a spare bedroom that must be shared with, and does not impede the use of, the usual furniture that occupies such a room. The two stub-ended yards (three tracks each) allow trains to be "dispatched" in each direction along the main line, which creates meets between trains and a realistic operating pattern for his railroad. "Locals" or "turns" can be dispatched in each direction, providing local services in the town, as well. The plan could be modified to provide for a shared runaround track in the yard area for making/breaking trains. Steve's plan includes extensive "givens and druthers", which tells us that he has thought carefully about his modeling interests, and which contributes to the success of his design.

Steve, as well, has consented to including his e-mail address in this section. If you would like to ask any questions about his design, you may contact him at TKNODOC@aol.com.

Shelf layout for an Office

An interesting article appeared in Model Railroad Planning 1996. An executive wanted a model railroad in his office so Paul Rayner built an Sn3 Rio Grande layout to fit in a set of teak shelves. Overall size was 12 feet long by twenty inches wide (approx.), certainly tiny for the scale. Design criteria included a level of quality that would blend with the shelves and the decor of the office. The article includes many good photos of the layout and its installation. You should read the article for loosening your thought processes. Who knows...maybe you can use several abutting shelves from the bookcase in your living room. A couple of tunnels ("I dunno, hunny, maybe it was mice that chewed through the bookcases") and some concealed kitchen-style lighting and you could have a 15"X120" layout. Tony Koester suggested that some particle-board computer desks have high shelves that would be suitable for small layouts.

All Tiny Layouts Are Not Small In Scale

Kelvin White, who lives in Oxford, England, models the Canadian National on Canada's Acadian Peninsula in S scale. His Finistere sectional layout is used primarily at shows but can be set up in his small 13X6 loft. Yes, an operational large-scale layout in a tiny space. The layout consists of narrow modules with two modeled industries and two unmodeled industries on a hidden sector plate which are switched from the scenic part of the layout. The sector plate is also used as a run-around for the locomotives. Kelvin has worked out a table that determines the number of cars in the train, the maximum number of cars to set out, and the maximum number of cars to be picked up based on rolls of a die. Large scale models are easier to photograph, generally produce more realistic-looking photographs, and are easier to work on for those of us whose close-in vision is disappearing. An S scale layout only needs to be 2 ´ times as large as a given N scale layout so a tiny layout in S might be a way to sample that larger scale you've always wanted to try.

Taking It with You

One example of the creativity and unconventional thinking that makes tiny layouts interesting appeared in the October 1982 issue of Model Railroader magazine. The author, Rick Spano, wanted to be able to travel with an Ntrak module. He built his 2X4 foot module with hinges in the middle and hinges on features hanging from the side of the module which allowed him to fold the module and place it inside a box that conformed to the requirements for carry-on luggage. That's right. He took his module on the airplane with him! And this was not just a flat module with a few tracks. His module featured a working rotary car dump, a lakes freighter at a dock hanging off of the front of the module, and a tethered remote control. Now there's a way to pass the hours on a long flight; have your friends all sit in the same row and connect two or three modules for an airborne operating session. I can just hear the announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has begun his gradual descent into {your favorite city}. Please turn off all computers, electronic instruments, and model railroads".

When Bill Brown read the original draft of this chapter, the carry-on layout reminded him of an article he had seen. The October 1993 issue of Railmodel Journal featured an article by Rick Mugele about how he created a 12"X18"X30" box that opens into a 4'X7' HO layout. Rick took the carry-on box one step further and built the box out of the modular layout! The box, when closed, is designed to fit in the trunk of an average mid-size car. The article describes how to build hollow-core panels, hinge them so they will fold together to make a box, install carrying handles, and to how to determine where to put buildings and scenery that does not interfere with closing. The layout featured 12" radius curves in an urban switching setting. Maximum building height is limited to 40 feet. If you adapt the idea to N scale, maximum building height becomes 70 feet, and 12" radius curves are easier to deal with. If your railroad has to make room for other family activities as mine does, a layout that can be folded and stored is definitely attractive.

Bill Kronenberger, an N scale model railroader, liked the idea of using a hollow-core door as a layout platform but needed something that could travel better than a full-size door and that could be stored at home when not in use. He decided to use a bi-fold hollow-core door with both pieces hinged to allow folding. Hinges usually hold both halves close together, a situation not conducive to preserving buildings or scenery. Bill developed a different method of hinging. He mounts L-brackets to the door surface, placing the hinge point about 5 inches above the layout surface, then uses barn door hinges to complete the joint. The hinges and brackets are hidden in mountains. When folded, scenery and buildings are protected by 10 inches of clearance between the door halves. Machined-pin DB-25 connectors (same as on the back of your PC) make electrical contact between the halves and control table-to-table alignment. He lays track across the joint and cuts it over the break. He reports over two years of use and travel without electrical or track alignment problems. When not it use, the layout, which weighs about 26 pounds, is folded and stands in a corner.

Port Townsend On The Seattle & North Coast

I admit it. I am a sucker for a neat shortline. Especially one that has failed, one that probably never had much chance of success, but one which featured neat equipment and interesting operations. Rather than freelance a shortline, I wanted to model an actual line and recreate its operations. My line-of-choice is the Seattle & North Coast Railroad. Isolated from any physical rail connection by 45 miles of Puget Sound's deep water, abandoned by the Milwaukee Road as it retrenched east in 1980, the Seattle & North Coast was born of the blind optimism that fed the shortline craze of the early 80s. The S&NC, located on the scenic Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, was 50 miles long, interchanged rail cars by ferry, operated F7s and SW1s, and had one of the neatest railcar paint jobs around (some can still be found in original paint but with BN reporting marks). Primary traffic was generated by huge kraft paper and pulp mills. I have 14"X52" available to model the railroad; how can I do it, even with the advantages offered by N scale?

I have decided to take one kraft paper mill and model an extremely compressed version of it. Buildings that are 150 feet wide will be a scale 15 feet wide, but that compression will be along the viewing axis so it won't be as noticeable. Remarkably, I will able to model all of the actual track alignments for this one mill, although somewhat compressed. Randy Gordon-Gilmore's idea for a traverser prompted me to look for room for a clamp-on extension. Yes, I could add a 2 ´ foot extension, a "wing" if you will, that would support three tracks. I can model the switching operation of the mill. I only need to have about 10 cars available at a time, switching them on and off of the extension, so a three-way switch will work. The extension will also serve as the connection to the rest of the S&NC, including ferry service. Buildings will be created with a CAD (computer-aided design) program and be printed on cardstock for easy removal and replication (moving can be rough on model buildings).

What great creative engine was at work building this design? I stole ideas (well, borrowed might be a better description) from Randy and Steve and Linda and several other contributors. That's right. I picked the best ideas I could find and applied them to what I wanted to accomplish. I modified them for my own needs and combined them in ways the originators hadn't thought of (yet). And I'm not done borrowing yet. Rick Mugele's self-covered carrying case could allow me to model the car ferry dock at Port Townsend, the paper mill, AND Port Angeles (with appropriate changes in scenic elements); maybe it's time to head back to the drawing board...


We've looked at how several model railroaders have addressed the problem of a lack of modeling space. Yes, you can have an interesting operating model railroad layout just about anywhere. What does it take to accomplish that? A little creativity, a little ingenuity, a little unconventional thinking is all. And a desire to have some kind of operating layout, even if it is small.

About this content:
Original author: Bruce Conklin. Last revised on 11/17/97.
This LDSIG article is ©1998 by Bruce Conklin (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

Some more resources

As model railroaders, we often complain about not having space for a layout — Can you ever have enough space? There have been some wonderful small layout designs and there are at least two locations where some of these small designs can be viewed on-line:

  1. Carl Arendt's incredible site: http://www.carendt.com
  2. The Small Layout Design Group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/small-layout-design/
  3. Operations Focused Layout Designs: http://andrews-trains.fotopic.net/

Ian Rice also wrote a book for Kalmbach on small layouts which is quite good.

Hope this helps. Additional resources and comments are welcome.

Bruce Morden
Carpinteria, CA

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