Getting most of the mechanical portion of a layout done early is vital to maintaining morale. It's equally important, however, to slow down and enjoy the ride once you hit that milestone.
The pace with which we build our layouts plays a subtle, but major role, in our long term enjoyment of the hobby. If we lose sight of that, we run the risk of waning interest, or even leaving model railroading entirely. There are two common pitfalls when it comes to managing your pace with a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
By far the most common landmine is a case where the project stagnates completely because the builder gets mired in construction complexity and becomes demoralized by the lack of progress. The underlying problem here is typically a design that didn’t match the owner’s available skill, time, or energy level. Because this is such a common trap, it’s a primary focus when I work with my design customers. Lines on paper are interesting, but if the layout can’t be built, the primary objective of the design hasn’t been met.
The second, and less common case, is much more subtle especially for those who get most of their hobby enjoyment from “building things”. It’s finishing your model railroad. Driving the golden spike. It can be the death knell for a layout. I’ve seen it with myself and numerous friends. With no more projects to draw you to the train room, interest slowly tapers off. It’s human nature to fall into mission mode and pursue a goal of project completion with tunnel vision. We forget that what we are racing to get out of the way, building stuff, is what we enjoy the most. The layout gets finished and then a few months later we get a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Wow, didn’t expect this feeling. Now what?
Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot. It is crucial to hit the gas early on and get at least some trains running. Getting a few square feet of scenery in helps with motivation too. It’s really an issue of awareness and self-management. Being aware of the need for a quick launch but also understanding that there is a time to throttle back and enjoy the ride. What if you come to this revelation late in the game? You have two options. The first is to enjoy the finished layout for a while and then build a new one. If you’re still happy with the design, and drawn to your theme, you may not want to do that. Often layouts come together over many years. Your skill level now is likely far greater than it was a decade ago. You can go back and upgrade your previous efforts applying your much higher skills. Pick an area of scenery and re-do it. Replace early structure efforts with better models. Repair and restore.
Every person’s situation is different. Throwing out an admittedly arbitrary rule of thumb, shoot for having enough track down to run some trains from end to end within the first year. After that, put on a second push to get ten square feet of scenery down. If you have a sound design and a theme you love, the sweet spot is somewhere in the 1/3 to 2/3 “complete” zone. Morale can suffer if you get too far out of that range by being bogged down or running out of fun projects.
On a business note, many modelers love scenery and structures, and view the underlying mechanical foundation as a necessary evil. About half of my commissions are what I call layouts that are “mechanically complete with no scenery or structures”. I build the bench work, lay the track, install the wiring and control, and then deliver the layout. This keeps a customer from getting bogged down and allows them to immediately delve into “the fun stuff”.