Making a Start

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Beginner's Guide to Building a layout ('Sough Lea')

Edited version, original series published in Journals between 1993 and 1996

By Yvonne Shillabeer (27 July 1965 - 22 March 2005)

This is the first in a series about how to go about building a layout from the beginner's point of view. I must emphasise that, being a beginner myself, I am writing about my own particular way of completing this task. However, there are other ways of doing things; if you wish to follow my methods, please do so; if not, they may be useful as a guideline to developing your own style. For me, building a layout will be a completely new process of discovery.

There are many questions to consider before you even think about getting your modelling tools out (that's another thing you need to consider if, like me, you haven't got any!). Below I have listed some of the most important questions, but I may have missed some that apply to your particular circumstances.

1. What space have I got available?

This is a very important consideration. If you get really enthusiastic, you may start to think that you can take over a whole room in your house, but this may not be very popular with other members of your family who are not as enthusiastic as you are!

Another thing to bear in mind is not to build anything that seems alright initially, but eventually becomes so complex and big that it is unmanageable and never gets finished. Remember, we're beginners.

You may be lucky enough to have a spare room/loft/basement/workshop/garage/shed where your layout can be sited as a permanent fixture. If not, it will need to be portable, and you will also need to consider where the layout will be stored when not in use, and where it will be put when it is being used.

For the purposes of my own circumstances, I have decided to make the layout about 5x2 ft. in size. This will then fit on top of my dining table when in use, and can be stored under the bed. If your circumstances are different and you are still unsure about where your layout will go, a visit to Pecorama in Beer, Devon, UK should give you some ideas. My husband and I went there and saw lots of ideas for model railways sited in different rooms of a house.

2. Which scale/gauge do I want?

This may be determined by the space that you have available. I've chosen N Gauge because of space restrictions. Although small space doesn't necessarily mean small scale. OO/HO or even O can be squeezed into spaces not much bigger than I've got! Even G has been used indoors.

3. Do I want steam or diesel/electric?

This is really a matter of personal choice, as well as what is available. I have chosen steam because, being the nostalgic type, I want to recreate the `romance' of the steam era. On a more practical note, I am told that there are not many diesel/electric branch lines.

4. Do I want a terminus or a loop?

I have decided to go for a loop of track. I am assured that this is good for beginners, and has more `play' value. There is also more entertainment value for the public if the layout is exhibited. I am also going to include a station for added interest.

5. Do I want a branch/main line?

Although a main line is possibly more interesting, I have decided on a branch line because of the space I have available for the layout.

6. Do I want a town/country scene?

As I love the country I am going to recreate this on the layout. There are a large number of scenery/landscape items available from suppliers such as P&D Marsh, Ratio, Dart Castings, and Langley, among others.

7. Which prototype should I model?

It's up to you! I've chosen to model the UK Peak District because I enjoyed a holiday there. Maybe you could recreate an area of your childhood. Or model an area you've dreamt of visiting, but have yet to go there.

8. How much do I want to spend?

I have left this until last because it is a difficult issue. Potentially you could go on adding to a layout until the cows come home, but this obviously costs money. When more experienced, scratch building helps to cut down some costs, but for the beginner, scratch building is best avoided, unless you like a real challenge!

I have decided that the best thing to do will be to set a monthly budget, and to stick to it. Depending on your circumstances, this figure will be up to you. I am told that the most expensive part of the layout will probably be buying a couple of locomotives, a transformer/controller, and baseboards.

By the way, for the uninitiated, a transformer/controller is the device that produces the low voltage needed to run locomotives on the track.

Also, don't forget that, like me, you may have to budget for tools if you can't beg or borrow them. (What's a hammer?!)

9. Have I done anything like this project before?

If, like me, you've never done `anything like this before', do not be daunted by your lack of experience. It is an opportunity to learn lots of new skills, and many of you have an advantage over me with carpentry or other skills you can bring to the project. Hopefully, you will end up with a layout that you can be proud of.

Now that I've answered the questions, I can get on to the interesting bit of building. The next article is about the first stage - baseboard construction - which will also cover what options are available for building them.