Now then, this subject has been touched on many times before, including this blog, but usually the process is described as a step-by-step guide or as sort of a vague series of questions to ask. The fact is that a good model railroad is created by a blend of creativity and limits. Think of your model railroad as a fabulous painting. You, the painter, get to choose the colors, shape, texture, and paint medium. However, you are still bound by a canvas and the limits of the chosen medium. Similarly, the modeler gets to chose the era, region, style of modeling, and the process of building a layout. However, you are still bound by the shape of the space, the size of your budget, limits of the modeled prototype, and limits placed on your time and family.
If all this is complicated, it's because it is.
Givens and Druthers
Model Railroaders have created a simple system that takes this daunting task and reduces into two lists, givens and druthers. The idea is not a new one, John Armstrong (Wikipedia Link: John Armstrong) coined the term and adapted the idea from other hobbies. Basically, the Givens and Druthers serves as a basis of what can be done, an estimation. The two lists help determine the major physical aspects of the railroad and gives the plan some meat for the modeler to chew on.
The "Givens" list contains all the limitations and must-haves that your layout must adhere to. This would include the shape of the room, how big your budget is, major icons of the prototype being modeled, how much time you have, what areas are needed for other uses, limitations of the scale being used, etc... These are the limitations of your canvas and vision.
The "Druthers" list contains everything you would like to see on the model railroad, but these items are negotiable. These items can be whatever you want, but be sure to remember that in the end these come second to the "Givens" list. These items are the choices you have to make based on the givens list.
To put it another way, it's just like writing a play or book, or making a movie. Writers write many chapters that never make it to the book, directors shoot plenty of film that ends up on the floor of the editing room. We all would like to make a fantastic story, or model in our case, but to make the concept workable some things simply have to go. Which things go and which things stay is up to you.
The Ideal Railroad
Unfortunately, I've been chasing an ideal railroad over the last few years. The fact is that an ideal railroad does not exist. There is no universal design, track plan, or concept that will fit all modelers. To be blunt, there is too many variables at play, a near infinite amount. And once you take into account the opinions of modelers and limits of the various scales, it's clear that nothing can work for everyone. So rather than pursuing an ideal railroad, you will make much more progress by accepting that you can't have everything you want, but that doesn't mean the project will be any less fun.
Similarly, there is no one scale that works for everyone. If such a scale existed, it would be small enough to work on a 2x4 foot piece of plywood, have the detail of G scale, be able to run from any power source, able to be used on all club layouts, is very cheap, and requires no maintenance. There is nothing that fulfills all these requirements, but every scale does specialize in one or two of these ideals. And that leads us into the next area of planning...
Finding Your Scale
This is the difficult part of planning, because you can't have a track plan until you have decided upon a scale. There are plenty of scales out there, and a while back I compiled a list of all the scales and gauges (may have forgotten a couple) All Scales and Gauges
But to simplify, the main US scales include Z, N, HO, S, O, and G scale plus there is a 3 foot gauge and 30 inch gauge option for most of these. Basically, any US prototype can be modeled in one of these scales.
So how do you find your scale? From what I can tell, there are several factors that contribute to deciding the scale:
- Size of the space for the layout
- Your dexterity
- Your eyesight
- Amount of detail you wish to have
The smaller the space you have for a layout, the smaller your gauge will likely be. But that is offset by how good your eyesight is and how well you can work on models. If you have great vision and good hands, you can work on small scales. But if you need help seeing small objects and have shaky or arthritic hands, working in a larger scale is best. Then there is the amount of detail you wish to have. N scale looks great, but it's detail is nowhere near that of G scale or even HO scale. Of course, some things are just going to be too small to see in N scale, but if you really want detail, HO and larger is your best option.
Basically, choosing a scale is all about compromise. You can't get everything you want, but you should be able to have fun anyway. And in case you are wondering, the most common scale in the US is HO (1:87.1 scale), probably because it's the best compromise from the above list.
Coming Full Circle
Finally, after deciding on a scale, you can go back to the list of givens and druthers, take into account your prototype, and get to work on a solid track plan! Track planning in the next step before beginning layout construction.