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Best Practices and Tips

Layout planning comes before design.  Often the terms planning and design are used interchangeably when, in fact, they are two separate subjects.  Planning issues are more strategic in nature and must be addressed before the actual nuts and bolts of the design begin.  Ignoring, or giving lip service to planning, puts the modeler at risk of ‘correctly drawing the wrong layout’.  In other words, having a layout that looks fine technically but doesn’t address the builders key goals.  Giving serious consideration to planning issues prior to putting a pencil to paper insures that the final design is of the right size, complexity, and contains the necessary elements to be satisfying.

Key planning  questions to ask yourself include:

  • What is your energy level, available time, and commitment level?

  • Is model railroading your primary hobby or is it secondary to others?  In other words, will you be totally immersed in model railroading or simply satisfied to spend a few hours a week?

  • What is your skill level?  Have you built any layouts in the past?

  • How will you interact with the layout?  What do you want it ultimately to do for you? Will you be a railfan/observer watching trains passing through scenery?  Are you  primarily interested in the chess game of replicating actual railroad operations?  Or, are your interests primarily with building structures and sculpting scenery in which case having the trains even run at all is secondary?

  • What aspect of the hobby do you enjoy the most?  The design should highlight those interests.

  • Are you an accumulator?  Over the years have you acquired a large number of structures that have no direct relationship to any central theme?  A design driven by the desire to incorporate these unrelated structure elements may not produce the best end result. Plan first, design second, obtain the structures that will go on the layout third.

  • What is the expected life span of the layout?

  • Have you given careful consideration to your theme or are you SURE you will be satisfied with something that is generic?


A successful design should take into account your skill and energy levels and available time and highlight the areas of the hobby you enjoy most.

You must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply. The code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.   

~ Captain Hector Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean


Keeping with the spirit of Captain Barbossa, shown below are some general model railroad design “best practices”.  Nothing is absolute, but utilizing these values, in general, will serve as a starting point and keep you out of trouble.

It's nice to have a set of standard specifications as the technical basis of a design.  Me telling you “it depends” won’t likely be very helpful, but the truth. With that disclaimer, I’ll go out on a limb with the following. Although there is no one size fits all, in my experience there IS a one size that fits most.  Can you cheat these down to less conservative numbers?  Probably, but at least use this as a starting point.  (Measurements assume HO scale).



Minimum turnout size: #6


Parallel tangent track spacing:  2 inches


Maximum Grade: 1.75%


Minimum curve radius:  4 axle power 60 foot cars: 24 inches

Minimum radius: 6 axle power passenger cars: 32 inches


Parallel track separation curve apex: 2 3/8” (test it though)


Track set back from fascia: 3 inches minimum


Track set back from backdrop: 4 inches


Maximum reach in distance to track: 27 inches

Layout Height: Armpit level

Aisle widths: This depends on how long the aisles are and how many guest operators you’ll have.  If it’s just you alone, 24 inches.  If you’ll have guests, 36”




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