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Should A Layout Ever Be “Complete”?

One of the most important layout planning decisions comes early on. Specifically, you need to answer the question, how big should I make my layout? Not only how big, but how complex. Model railroading is recreation. In order to maximize our enjoyment we need to be truly dialed in to which aspects of the hobby we enjoy most. We need to be equally cautious of subtle traps that can sap our enthusiasm. One such trap is not hitting personalized completion milestones at the specific points in time we would like. We all have our own unique interests but one common element that applies to all is that if we don’t feel we are making adequate progress (something each individual has their own subconscious definition of) then we grow frustrated and lose enthusiasm.


The time to address the size and complexity issue is at the earliest stage of design. In order to accurately answer the question requires more than a little self-awareness. We need to know what aspects of the hobby we enjoy most (which most of us don’t) and how much time/energy we have (which most of us grossly over estimate).


Is it important that you finish your layout? Not at all. In fact, hitting that “all done” point often thwarts interest in the model railroad and hobby in general. Without projects to look forward to, it’s hard to stay motivated. Personally, I don’t think “finishing” a layout should be a goal…..”but”. “But” it IS important that you have enough done early in the process to maintain enthusiasm. It’s important to set ourselves up for success via hitting our own internal completion milestones. Of more importance is that the early milestones be hit on time. Longer term completion milestones are less critical. It’s important to front load our efforts so that at a relatively early juncture we can at least run a train part way around the layout and have a scene or two done so that you and your visitors can have visual, 3D, in the flesh proof of what your vision is.


The following targets aren’t set in stone but are put out there as a rough guide:


  • Bench work complete: 3 to 6 months

  • Enough track to do at least some train running: 3 to 6 months

  • 8 square feet of at least one signature scene: 1 year

If you can design your layout so you hit these targets in the first eighteen to twenty-four months, then it’s all gravy from that point on. You can throttle back and jump around to whatever project seems interesting to you in any given week.


Energy levels, skill levels, and available time varies greatly from person to person. If, however, you bite off so much in terms of project scope that years go by without seeing even a smidge of your vision come together, then interest will slowly wane. Be aware of this potential pitfall, plan accordingly, and set yourself up for success at the earliest stages of the planning process.

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