Monon’s northbound Thoroughbred weaves through the hills of southern Monroe County, Indiana on my old Monon layout.

Acceptance.  Acceptance of the reality of our situation.  Acceptance of constraints.  Acceptance of the fact that the subject we are trying to represent typically runs arrow straight for miles and miles and our available canvas is measured in a few square feet and is rectangular.

A great design has a sense of balance to it.  It consists of key elements and an equally important supporting cast of negative space and the mundane structures and features that typify the rail scene.  It doesn’t try to do too much. It simply flows with what we have available to work with.   The first, and often most crucial, step in achieving that balance is getting to a place mentally of understanding that acceptance isn’t the same as sacrifice.  It may feel like it during the early planning phases, but if you can pull everything together into a unified piece of work that transports you, you’ll find the sum of the parts exceeds the whole.

What do we need to accept?

  • We have limited space and we can’t represent hundreds of square miles in several hundred square feet.  The space we have is the space we have.  A twenty by twenty foot room simply can’t house an entire rail division consisting of a dozen towns.  It just can’t.  That needs to be accepted.
  • Prototype railroads are engineered and built on the reality that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  Rooms have corners.  We NEED to turn ninety degrees every several dozen feet or so.
  • When a railroad turns right, often our room design is such that we’ll need to turn left in order to fit the room footprint.
  • Some prototype elements don’t scale down.
  • With most rooms there is generally one ideal bench work footprint for the shape of the space.
  • Even within the context of a single town you will need to eliminate some elements, even those you really like. 
  • Elements exist within the context of their neighbors.  You will achieve a far better look with one key structure surrounded by three mundane sheds than trying to feature four star elements in that same space.
  • There are times when we need to “let go” of the prototype, accept the reality of our space, and freelance a bit in order to get a better look.

A much more cohesive look is achieved doing a few things really, really well as opposed to overreaching and trying to incorporate more elements than your available space can support visually.  For example, you are better off representing two or three towns convincingly as opposed to caricaturish versions of twice that many.

On my old Monon layout, rather than representing an entire division, I set geographic boundaries of just a ten mile section of the line surrounding Bloomington, IN. Only three towns were featured on the layout. The centerpiece was the town of Bloomington itself. The other two were relatively small and didn’t compete with the central subject. To the north was Ellettsville and south of Bloomington was Clear Creek.

When we can get to the headspace where we can begin the design process understanding that constraints aren’t our enemy, they aren’t synonymous with sacrifice, then we are well on the way to creating something with a unified sense of balance that we truly enjoy looking at and interacting with.