Oly’s Rules

I was thinking the other day, which in itself is dangerous enough, about what constitutes to me a decent layout. All this thinking has been generated after Chris and I have been discussing at some length the ‘third generation’ of layouts to replace SQ and Chris’ current project.

Although me trying to pin myself to a single prototype is near enough impossible there is always common patterns that develop and I do not mean in terms of what attracts me to a prototype. I can go from 1990s Manchester DC lines in P4 to 1930s Argentine logging railroads in On30 in under an hour. This is more planning ideals and how I’d capture the essence of a said prototype. A sort of Oly’s rules to an exhibition layout if you like.

With all that said above the first unfortunate step is to actually get over your inability to not settle on a single prototype and actually decide. Chris unfortunately has not finalised the true vision of his ‘tri-period modelling’ dream quite yet. My final decision on a prototype is one that usually involves a bit of scope around bodging, with enough sprinkling of out of the ordinary but with the core that during that period of the year when your modelling ability and mojo disappears there is still something you can do. It’s why I couldn’t do P4 because you have to be on your game all the time, and quite simply on a wet Wednesday in November I just want to get a wagon out of a box and make it a bit dirty.

Then comes the good bit. Research. Not so much geography and history (although to some people that’s number 1) I’m talking about research into what you want. Not 893 photos of class 20s in the Derby area either. You need to create a digital (or physical if you are that way inclined) scrapbook of the colours and textures you require. This is when you need to look at every train photo you’ve ever looked at again but forget the train in it. You need to understand the exact colour of the track, the exact colour of that embankment. There are 365 days in a year and 4 seasons, its worth deciding what section you want to convey, but you can boil it down to more than that by simply asking yourself ‘what feelings do I want to convey to the person who is looking at it?’

When you build a layout you become so wrapped up in it it’s no longer fresh so it’s always good to think of what a complete stranger would think when they saw it and how you want them to react. When I built SQ I wanted it to look like you would not want to visit it. I wanted the onlooker to pull their jacket a bit tighter. So I knew it couldn’t be a summer in the 1930s. It had to feel like rain and industrial strife. Regardless of a prototype it had to look what it was. A loco and a train is not anywhere near enough to give a sense of setting and place. We cannot rely on them to carry the scene on their own. No matter how amazing the detailing and weathering. 

Now my favourite rule, no track should be straight with the baseboard edge. How many layouts do you know where the curve is only there because it has to be and is merely a unfortunate requirement to get the track back to being straight? I know a few. Humans have a tendency to make things straight, we don’t lay the table at Christmas with wonky cutlery or iron a work shirt with creases into it, or build round sheds. We like straight. However at the same time the most beautiful objects on earth are rarely straight. A good looking car is not one made of right angles. You may be constrained to keep your board square edged but your track shouldn’t be. Whatever plan you’ve drawn, draw it again so nothing runs straight with the baseboard edge, you’ll like it a lot more.

SQ as is


SQ straight as could be

That leads me nicely to Kevin Lane’s (one of Flickr’s leading railway pornographers and all copyright to Kevin) photo of a YEC 0-4-0 during work at Pilkington glass.

The original is here

The entire scene on your layout is probably 1 X 1, but the detail and sense of place it gives you is beyond amazing. Classic trains magazine do a great photo every issue completely explaining all the background details and it’s worth looking at this one in more detail.

Firstly the train’s orientation to its world around it is key to my point above. Nothing about that loco is straight to it’s surroundings. Look at how the gate angles across the track, nothing straight and parallel. (10)

Then there is the detail. So much it’s almost painful to take it in. Look at the handmade bench (5), the tramway track and the differing ground colours (9). It might be black and white but it screams weathering and colour. Look how the more modern building sits (again not straight) behind the older building and wall (2). The signage (6). The lampost is also lovely (1).  The way the ground transitions also is important for deciding on what materials you are going to use (3 and 4). Detail that is easily missed is the wire runs and change in material on the gate house (8 and 7). Also look at the general crap under the wall. There is lot to take in and model and that’s just in 1 X 1. Also a lot of it is not going to cost a fortune to model, it can be bodged with the materials you would of brought for the main modelling of the building.

Then we get to the signal (Obviously 11 but I was having fun). The signal is in dangerous territory. It’s the second thing we see when we look after the locomotive. Bob Fallowfield over on trainmasters.tv makes a good point about never modelling ‘the weird and wonderful’. To me what that means is balancing the desire to model something against what you are trying to achieve by the overall scene.

I’m assuming you are using the photo at Pilkington because you want it’s ‘vibe’ and its part of your scrapbook rather than because you are modelling an exacting prototype, if you are then you are going to model it. However if your freelancing a bit more than the thought process would be ‘is that going to jar against my scene?’ rather than ‘that is amazing I need that on my layout’. If someone walks up to your layout an item like that signal could ruin the scenes entire impact because the eye is simply drawn to it and then unable to forget it. Again this is when you can get your layout stranger and say ‘what do you think?’ and they say ‘whats that funny white thing?’ it probably falls under that ‘Weird and Wonderful’ and should be scrapped.

Presentation is an important thing to anyone, you don’t go to an interview looking like you’ve slept behind the bins. Nor should you show off your hard work on an ironing board with lighting made from white PVC guttering.

There has been enough written about presentation beyond the confines of this blog, but it doesn’t have to be hard. If it was I wouldn’t do it. If you can build a baseboard you can present your layout nicely. It just takes thought and a conscious decision to make it part of the process.

Finally you need to tread a fine a line between capability and learning. Modelling something with code 100 track when you know deep down you are ready to start making copper clad points is never going to lead you to modelling nirvana.  Same if you pick a subject or style that you constantly struggle to achieve, say for instance if everything has to be made from a kit. Your goal should ultimately to be a learning curve mixed with satisfaction.

Some, or most of it in fact, probably makes no sense. However I hope that one of you somewhere has found all that useful.




4 thoughts on “Oly’s Rules

  1. bawdsey

    With you 100% The other aspect is consistency, try and do all the components to a similar standard, that way nothing stands out like a sore thumb. The dissection of the photo technique is well worth doing too, but one element you have missed is that you have a design/asthetic element in your designs apparent from the first layout you two exhibited. I can think of some very technical modellers who’s layouts are ‘lifeless’ almost because they are too clinical, too exact, with little ‘blending between the disciplines of ‘engineering’ or ‘art’.

    I’m not sure the cars and curves analogy works completely, Ford Granada Mk3. Jus sayin ….

  2. David Gander

    Great post – should be essential reading for all modellers. Given the number of rentaclone layouts at shows these days you often wonder if some modellers actually look at the real world.
    Loved your layout at Uckfield. Very atmospheric. Keep up the good work!

  3. That’s a good post, well worth any new modeller reading. I am 100% with you on this, especially the ‘curves’ thing. I am a firm believer that ‘straight’ just doesn’t look right in a model. Look at ‘Parkstone Goods’ the real thing was straight but for the model i bent it slightly, it just looks so much better.
    I think any good Photographer will tell you that a good Black and White photo will show up far more detail than any colour pic.
    I went through a spell of loosing interest in ‘Parkstone’ but at recent exhibition when local people, who know the area, stand there and try to work out what is what and realise what use to be there, They tell you that the next time they drive up over the bridge they will see the area in a different light, it makes the hobby all worthwhile.

  4. Totally agree – it is all about balance and consistency. The straight-track-parallel-to-the-edges thing must come from starting with train sets. I’m sure this is why so many layouts, even exhibition layouts, are two track parallel lines joining 36″ radius curves. I don’t ever recall travelling on a real railway like that.

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