Why choosing a prototype is important

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A key concern for the Layout Designer is choosing a prototype. What will the prototypes be? What degree of fidelity to each prototype will be taken? The questions are important for many designers, including those who intend to design a freelanced layout. This chapter addresses the concept of prototypes, explains the nature of the choices to be made by the designer, and explores several issues common to most designs.


The word prototype means an original from which one takes a pattern. For instance, a HO scale boxcar is a pattern taken from the original. Within our hobby the phrase "The Prototype" often means real railroads, especially their names. For me, a broader interpretation of the prototype is more useful: the prototype describes any form of 12 inches to the foot reality.

Choosing a prototype - or more accurately, a set of prototypes - is a very broad question, touching upon most, if not all, features of a well-designed layout. Save for the person with unlimited resources and time, a design usually involves making compromises to the prototypes. There is no escaping it: from a small diorama to the largest club layout, historically based facts to literary fiction, a craftsperson to the most casual modeler, all confront the question of prototypes. The skill possessed by the advanced designer is knowing where to compromise, where have strict fidelity to the prototype, and to understand the consequences of each decision. What is at risk is the judgment between fine art and ordinary craft.

To start, let us address a bit of dogma: There is no single, correct answer in choosing a prototype, nor in choosing the specific degree of fidelity in modeling that prototype. Each person must determine what works for themselves, within their skills, budget, interests, and space. To push the point, the prototype does not have to be real. Consider the "reality" expressed in a well- written novel; it has a fictional prototype found in the authors mind. But the layout designer should understand that using a literary prototype is exceedingly difficult to do, as it needs to be as robust as factual reality to retain plausibility. Having dismissed the common dogma, a key assumption guides this chapter: Plausibility. If the designer intends most of the design to have a basis in reality (historical or fictional), the presentation of which is scaled down in size, then a high degree of uniform fidelity to the prototypes recognized by the audience will most easily serve that objective. Easy-to-recognize is the key concept behind plausibility: you have less to create from thin air when you pattern your model after plausible prototypes; Less that you need to explain to visitors; Less you will need to replace when you tire of the fanciful joke.

All designers can and will compromise the fidelity in one or more areas. The skilled designer will make up for it by adhering strictly to the prototype in other areas - but be advised that the more noticeable the compromise is the more difficult it will be for the other areas to compensate. What is meant here is ideally the visual and logical integrity of the layout will match the average viewers own expectations of reality. This is not to say that we must precisely pattern everything after the prototype. Simply that in total, the visual and logical clues should hang together in some homogeneous form that bears sufficient resemblance to the prototype to convey a scaled model. Enough fudging of fidelity and the overall integrity will be degraded and the layout will take on the characteristics of mobile toys.

Determining what aspects of reality will be modeled and to what degree of fidelity must wait until the designer has formed some opinion of other objectives: A commercial display in a store may dictate answers quite different from a club layout, which in turn can be properly different from a home layout. Usually, the first questions to answer are those of scope and include era, location, physical appearance, logical identification (i.e., names), and expected behavior (i.e., how will it be used when built). The critical decisions come when one applies the question of prototypes against the chosen scope: What degree of fidelity to reality will apply in modeling the selected prototypes? Where should one compromise?

Let us examine the issue of fidelity - or integrity if you will - in context of key questions of scope:

Layout Era

Era should be used to control the appearance and behavior of the design. Locomotives are often the most visible means of expressing the era. Freight and passenger car types, paint schemes, lettering and other visual tips all convey eras as do operating behaviors (although often in a more subtle way). The prototype is merciless: A specific moment in time on a single day. Achieving a fidelity to this reality requires an admirable discipline many cannot manage to achieve - yet several have accomplished it and with great success. Accepting a compromise means setting a range of dates within which the layout exists. Too broad a range of dates and the incongruities are increasingly visible and distracting. Too narrow and frustration may rise in the inability to find commercial products that fit. Clubs in particular have a hard time with this issue. Usually, the more experienced modeler will notice the deviance from reality and if the designer does not, eventually a guest will, creating that awkward moment of dealing with a nitpicker, especially difficult when they have got well-known facts on their side.

Lacking any other criteria held by the designer, try a date range of 3-5 years and determine what that means for the typical visual clues. Tighten the range if you are comfortable with the constraints that result from this time span and re-evaluate. One successful strategy is to pick a specific month or season representing one or more years and use the visual clues from scenery, train consists, and lighting to reinforce the plausibility of a specific time of year. The compromise of spanning several years may recede in the viewers mind, replaced by the strong fidelity to the prototype season.

If a narrow time horizon is too confining for personal objectives then consider how you can minimize the incongruities that will become apparent when the time line is larger. For instance, older or more modern than expected equipment might be accommodated by minimizing their numbers to oddball quantities plus appropriate painting and weathering (e.g., the modern in manufacture's demo paint scheme and the ancient as old hulks in work train status). While these tricks bring back some degree of plausibility do not push it too far as each incongruous instance is yet another challenge to the viewer's own sense of reality. When control of purchasing is not possible (e.g., club members have diverse tastes), maintaining consistency of an era within each operating session (using the Time Machine trick to replace structures and roster) or failing at that, consistency of era within each train.


The fidelity to location is always problematic for the American Designer - it is a big country, and Americans are used to traveling great distances. In the model environment this usually requires many compromises, as few persons have enough space for pure fidelity to location when great distances are involved. The result of the American design is often a severe compression of distance combined with an excess of objects: too much track, too many structures, etc. On the other hand, the British Designer, normally within less space, creates layouts with very high fidelity to location - that is to say, a single location, almost diorama-like. Often lost however, is that sense of travel across distances and a visual clue to long trains moving at speed.

Whatever the preference of style, the design must still address the question of fidelity to the prototype. The British approach involves a higher level of fidelity to the prototype location; the traditional American approach or transportation scheme is less so given typically available space. However the designer following the American style can compensate the fudging of distance by clever use of scene dividers, consistency and quality of scenery, once through the scene trackwork, and backdrops to modularize the mainline run into individual vignettes, tricking the viewer's mind into accepting the suggestion of greater distances.

One of the better examples of this technique is found in the shelf layout: strong adherence to the prototype within the boundaries of the narrow shelf and reliance on a painted backdrop, strategically placed scene separation, and hidden storage to convey a beyond the benchwork existence. The reason this works is that the mind is receiving two conflicting statements: false distance and highly realistic, seemingly true visual clues of a specific place. If the visual clues are strong enough the mind will dismiss, or at least allow to recede in significance, the inaccurate longitudinal measurement as that is merely an abstract concept. The tangible, visual clues win. Both David Barrows Cat Mountain and Santa Fe and many N-Trak modules are excellent examples of this style.

Logical Identification

The names used in a layout are one area where we have easily achieved fidelity to the prototype. Hobby shops sell equipment with real names; an atlas and phone book can fill the rest. Yet many modelers strike out on their own inventing names - freelancing. As stated above, no dogma mandates one or the other choice being the one right solution. Still, experience argues that plausible names mean a lot.

For the identification of locations, sometimes real names can be a problem. Some places are so well known they create an impossibly high standard to meet in the scaled model. Consider substituting real district names for cities: China Basin for San Francisco, or a fictional name using the same linguistic style: New Versailles for New Orleans. Reinforce the plausibility of the substitution by using imagery from the prototype - scenery, commercial signs, etc.

Similar suggestions apply for the identification of railroads. The name 'Puget Sound & Seattle' simply does not retain plausibility when the scenery is correct for the southwestern desert. Trite names are particularly difficult. In contrast to obviously implausible names, the freelanced V&O has a name that is such a minor departure from reality that one does not really notice. Issue 13 of the Layout Design News contains several excellent articles for creating freelanced names with corresponding heralds.

Physical Appearance

I have already discussed physical appearance to some degree, above, in Era and Location. Continuing that line of thought, accessories to the layout, such as building architecture, automobiles, signs, and other scenery are all strong visual clues that should be in alignment with the overall design.

Nature has few straight lines. Avoiding straight lines on benchwork and parallel lines of track and aisles, helps to minimize the man-made origin of our layout. Where straight or parallel lines are unavoidable, consider using the vertical dimension or other skewed lines to visually breakup what must be straight. Both military camouflage and mother nature herself provide many examples of this technique. Another alternative to conceal the man-made benchwork is painting it in flat, a dark color. Non-scaled physical items can distract the viewer if they are noticed: tools, lighting, flooring and walls are best when they are not diverting attention from the layout.

Regarding trackwork, one way to increase the fidelity of the model to the prototype is adherence to a once-thru-the-scene approach. As Chicago and Boston are not in the same visual "scene", neither should two track routes, logically separated linearly, occupy the same scene. This is often problematic when the layout design requires a turnback. Fortunately there are enough prototype loops to provide the designer ample examples of terrain to make such loops appear to be the only practical solution under the circumstances. When such examples fail to provide a good solution, consider using view blocks to minimize the turnback effect.

More ideas for addressing the physical appearance of layouts are in later chapters of this section.

Expected behavior

How the designed layout operates is a major visual clue contributing to the overall effect of a scaled model of reality. Operation has many components. At a minimum the designer/owner needs to be aware of plausible speeds and frequency of trains reappearing within the same scene. While we can consider the different tastes of the public (often poorly informed of the subtleties of our hobby who, on visiting at an open house, may expect trains, Trains, and TRAINS), graduates of the Gomez Addams school of dispatching will have a hard time living it down afterwards with his or her pals at the local hobby shop.

The reason is simple: even the beginner is aware that the prototype railroads are in the business of providing a transportation service to shippers and consignees. Railroads provide such service in context of a rather complex set of operating rules and intended practices to protect life and property. That is the prototype. While finding the right balance between fidelity to that prototype and practical compromise to meet personal objectives will vary, what one can be sure of is this: Operating a layout in a manner obviously unlike the prototype will invalidate all of the carefully constructed visual and logical clues outlined above. It is like the utter failure of the beautiful and romantic silent film star, who, on doing her first talkie, sounded like a duck.

In choosing an operating behavior, consider the differences between transportation and car distribution. Transportation often appeals strongly to persons who want to work with a whole train - either from the engineer, tower operator, or dispatcher perspective, and also those who have very large equipment rosters. We more easily accomplish it in smaller scales as a longer train is feasible in moderate space (yet when done successfully in larger scales, transportation can be most impressive). The car distribution approach often appeals to persons interested in small trains, or parts of trains - the expert scratch-builder of cars, locomotives, or buildings for instance or the average modeler with limited space, or modelers in larger scales where the ratio of layout to real distance is simply harder to do without unacceptable degrees of compression.

The "right" combination of location and behavior depends on the designers' objectives. These several examples come to mind:

  • One location with a transportation focus: Richard Hendrickson's
  • One location with a distribution focus: Doug Gurin's New York Harbor design.
  • Many locations with a transportation focus: San Diego's Tehachapi Line.
  • Many locations with a distribution focus: ???

The choice of an era should also influence operating behavior. For example, we most often see contemporary railroading in its transportation behavior whereas railroads more widely practiced car distribution in historical times. Methods of dispatching trains over a modern mainline are greatly different from a 1920's rural branch.

Again, this is not to say there is only one right way to operate: simply that the design and expected method of operation are ideally congruent with the viewers own sense of the prototype given all the visual and logical clues presented.

The Primer addresses specific ideas for operation to consider in the next five chapters of this section.


The overall theme present herein is one of blending a variety of components to produce a uniform scale model that is consistent with the viewers own sense of the prototype reality. Minimizing the incongruous elements is one key in obtaining that uniform balance. Maximizing clues of common reality is the other. Consider if Leonardo Da Vinci painted a clown nose on the Mona Lisa: it would be amusing but not a memorable work of art. By using both techniques of uniformity and reality Da Vinci explicitly controls the viewers' attention to what he, the designer, wants to say. It is the moderation, the subtleties in color and form that directs the viewers' eye to the wry smile and the thoughtful eyes of that portrait. And if the art historians are to be believed, it gave Da Vinci the freedom to reach most daringly and paint a self portrait in the guise of a woman. That rather broad departure from the prototype was so well compensated by what the artist did with the other elements that it took several hundred years for anyone to notice. I submit the proposition that the great layouts of our hobby were all created by artists who consciously or not, achieved the same degree of control and in the process, created a reality out of their imagination.

About this content:
Original author: David H. Nelson. Last revised on ??/??/96.
This LDSIG article is ©1996 by David H. Nelson (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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