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Before we draw the first line of a layout design, before we lay the first stick of bench work, the most important decisions present themselves and must be addressed. The big ones hit us hard, early, and unfortunately for those new to the hobby, at a time where we may not have the benefit of perspective and experience to guide us. Specifically, I’m talking about choosing a theme and setting the scope of our project.

Choosing the right theme can make the difference between a project that is propelled by enthusiasm versus one that stalls. If we make a less than ideal selection, sooner rather than later, we’ll lose interest. The feeling is a subtle, hard to define, lack of emotional buy in. If we over shoot the scope, bite off too much, we can become overwhelmed and the project stalls under the shear weight of a “to do” list that stretches to the horizon.

Before we even get to picking a theme and setting the scope, we need to step back, do some self examination, and try to get at least a partial grip on how we hope to derive enjoyment from our modeling. There are three basic areas. For most of us it’s a combination but one area tends to carry more weight. Those three areas are:

  1. Satisfaction of assembly. This is the enjoyment we get from the simple act of creating something where there was previously nothing. For example, taking a box of plastic and transforming it into something recognizable.

  2. The enjoyment of watching our creation operate as the real version does.

  3. Satisfaction of viewing. In other words, enjoying the act of simply taking in our work, much as we would a sculpture or painting, whether the models are in motion or not.

When you have a sense for what aspect of the hobby you are counting on for providing the lion’s share of your enjoyment, you can move on to the step of choosing the theme and setting the scope.

Theme relates to the railroad, region, and era we want to model. For some it’s an easy choice, for many it’s something they struggle with. It plays such a major role, both consciously and sub-consciously, in determining the level of enthusiasm and ultimate success of our project, its choice is crucial. If we don’t pick a theme that truly compels us, it will be hard to sustain momentum and maintain interest. If the theme is too arcane, getting the necessary information to bring our vision to fruition can be frustrating. If you find yourself struggling with theme selection here are a few ideas that may help:

  • Train yourself to make the distinction between themes that grab you emotionally versus those that leave you with a more detached intellectual interest.

  • Draw on pleasant experiences from your past such as rail images tied to family, friends, or rail fan trips.

  • Draw on the work of professionals who make their living creating art that evokes an emotional response and transports the viewer. Examples include film, television, and painting. I’ve been influenced by the paintings of Hopper and film and t.v. works such as Miami Vice, Burn Notice, Dragnet, and True Detective to name a few.

  • Reach out to other professional railroaders and modelers, explain what you are looking for, and ask if they know of any themes that hit the mark. It took me over a year to settle on the theme for my East Rail layout and ultimately the solution was pointed out to me by a friend of mine who was a retired rail executive.

Once we have a theme, we need to settle on the scope we intend to model. The scope relates to how much of our theme we want to bite off, the physical boundaries. Are we going to model from milepost 5 to milepost 8 or do we want to try to capture the operational theater of an entire rail division? When thinking about scope, keep in mind the importance of maintaining construction momentum. Although it’s not crucial that a layout ever be “done”, you do need to ask yourself “how much of the layout do I want to have complete by year x”? The answer may be that you don’t care, which is fine as long as it’s a conscious decision. If you do care, an example would be, “By the end of year two I’d like have the mainline done between towns A and B and the 10 square feet of scenery between x and y done”. If you look at your available hobby time and you realistically can’t hit that goal, maybe you should consider scaling things back. It’s a personal decision for each individual, just make it consciously. If you don’t, and you bite off too much as many do, you’ll become overwhelmed and lose interest. You can control the scope of your project by:

  • Limiting the length of the prototype you model.

  • Controlling the mix of urban versus rural scenery. Urban scenes take much longer to build.

  • Controlling your bench work depth. Deeper bench work takes longer to scenic and may not be necessary to make your point visually.

  • Controlling your turnout count and track complexity. If you’re primarily a builder and rail fan, do you need a lot of turnouts and spurs? Probably not.

When you know what you want to get out of the layout ( enjoyment through assembly, operations, viewing), the theme that grabs you emotionally, and the scope that aligns realistically with your available time only then are you ready to begin the more tactical aspects of the design process such as curve radius, track arrangement, etc.


One caveat, for beginners in particular it’s all too easy to become mired in paralysis by analysis, stuck in the mud looking for the perfect theme. If you find yourself in this boat build yourself a small starter layout with a more generic theme so you can at least be building some construction skills while you hone in on what you really want to do.

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