Monday, 8 October 2012

The Argument Against: Design

I have a thing about micro-layouts, cameos or moving dioramas, call them what you will. Over the years I've built quite a few, including the oddity half way down this page , an Inglenook layout in the garden.

Sometimes a little caution is needed, especially where beginners are concerned. It is very easy to presume that a micro layout is a good starting point for a beginner. In fact in finescale circles the first micro layout to try out techniques such as track laying has become something of a rite of passage. There is a big difference, though, between an established modeller making a change of scale or standards, and the absolute newcomer.


How hard can it be to design a micro-layout? Well quite hard actually if you want it to appear both believable and  attractive from all the likely viewing angles, and especially so if you have aspirations towards any sort of half decent operation. OK there are a lot of designs already out there, but some of them can be quite misleading unless you know the exact dimensions. Even small differences can make big differences to the practicality of schemes in small spaces. Be particularly wary of trying to shoehorn in slightly smaller versions of trackplans you admire, or building layouts based on someone elses conceptual sketch.

Now I'll come clean and admit that two of the ideas at the back of my mind are both based on someone elses concepts, but neither of them will get built until I've done an awful lot of exploring of those concepts with dimensioned drawings, full size track templates and dummy buildings to check that they actually  are workable.

Never trust someone elses back of the envelope sketch,
Especially not one of mine.

As well as the practical aspects, such as allowing for sufficient clearances, there is also an aesthetic aspect to consider. Many years ago Roy Link published a Railway of the Month in the October '78 Railway Modeller under the title "The Art of Compromise". It was a simple 6ft by 1ft GWR branchline intended to use then commonly available card models for the structures. By coincidence at the same time that I managed to track down the back issue with it in the plan was republished in the  October 2012 RM  to accompany an article on a layout built to the plan. Obviously I wasn't the only person it made an impression on all those years ago. Yet look at the layout in the flesh and you notice two things. The first is how much tighter the space is in the real world than on the drawing board, even though the builder has actually built it on a larger baseboard. The second is that the builder has made a subtle, possibly unconscious, shift in the setting of the line. Roy's original plan was clearly set at the end of a very rural line, probably miles from the nearest settlement, and almost certainly with the name "Road" in its name as a hint to the hopeful traveller that a long walk awaited them before they could get to their final destination. The version presented in 2012 has the hustle and bustle of a station in the middle of a settlement, there are buses and taxis parked outside the station and barrow loads of luggage waiting to be loaded onto the train. Key buildings have been increased in size, so the waiting shelter has become a full blown station building. The result is a different kind of compromise altogether. A good "home" layout in the style of many Railways of the Month twenty years ago,and one I can imagine many wanting to emulate, but too much of a quart in a pint pot for me. The art of the micro-layout is putting a pint in a pint pot, with just enough head on top.

So getting the design right can be a real challenge, and small mistakes and inaccuracies get magnified and can end up as a big mistake that ruins the whole layout. If you want an idea of the challenges design poses even for very experienced modellers then have a look at the story of Roy Link's own Crowsnest Tramway.

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