Layout Design

Continuing our build out of Nick’s HO micro layout.

Nick's railroad

Once the base was set up and roadbed established we started to build up the hill and tunnel out of 4″ thick Styrofoam.

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We cut a mock tunnel portal for sizing.

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Then we gave everything that would become “ground” a good coat of dirt-colored latex paint.

Nick Paints Dirt

Then we started preparation for the installation of the trestle bridge by hot-knifing the end abutments and here I’m making a “story pole” that will be used as a template for the location and height of the bents. The track has been rough cut and painted but is not yet installed.

Picture 008

We used Micro Engineering code 83 flex track and here we’re preparing some matching Micro Engineering code 83 bridge flex track with appropriate ties and spacing.

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To make the bents we made a jig into which 3/16″ dowels will be held while being glued.

Jig for Bridge Trussle Bents

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While the glue dries on bent assemblies we started to make plaster molds of the tunnel interior using a Woodland Scenics mold.

Mold For Tunnel Walls

It looks like we’re going to be building an On30 (not On2-1/2!) micro layout and the typical question has come up.

When you say “micro,” how micro do you really mean?

We want to run trains round-and-round so we need a loop. The size of a small layout is dominated by its turn radius. The size of the turns will be decided by the size of the motive power. I have a bunch of Bachmann Porter 0-4-0s in On30 around so we’ll use these to rule the design.

Bachmann Porter 0-4-0

I love the Internet. A quick Google of “minimum radius porter 0-4-0” returned a link to a pdf:

On30 Commercial Loco and Car Minimum Radius Guide written by the infamous “Professor Klyzlr” [BTW, Professor Klyzlr, I would link into your site but it has no home page.]

And the data the Internet On30 community has given is that Bachmann says 18″ radius but people find that 12″ is a practical minimum and 6″ is absolute minimum. I’m going to shoot for 10″ radius — but I’m going to test that.

Nick's railroad

Nick joined our “build stuff” group with no idea what he wanted to build. We suggested he look though our library of books and he saw my copy of Stindt’s “Northwestern Pacific Railroad” and started explaining to me that this was the railroad that used to run through our neigborhood.

Lounging Research

This, I knew. What I had not known is that Nick was a rail fan.

We had Nick sort through and tag all the photos in the books he liked and ended up with a concept of a micro-layout with a tunnel and a bridge.  We had about 50 building hours available to us in the project series so things needed to be kept small and simple.

Nick tagged about 50 different photos and we scanned them quickly at low resolution so we could see them all together. We all saw that Nick was strongly attracted to tunnels and trestle bridges so I proposed a small diorama with a hill, creek bed, tunnel and a bridge.

To get things started we cut some plywood to define the footprint.

Dan Pulls

Although it is not my favorite technique, I had a lot of styrofoam around so we cut and built up layers of foam.

Nick Starts his First Cut

We marked where the tracks, bridge and tunnel would be. I suggested making the tracks “skewed” (not parallel) to the layout edge but Nick insisted he wanted it straight.

Nick's diorama

Pretty soon, we had something starting to look like a micro-layout.

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Volume 3

Volume 3: Electrical and Control (Including DCC) is a case study of how Joe’s layout is wired and an in-depth look at DCC wiring, installation, and configuration.

Joe Fugate was kind enough to send me a review set of his Siskiyou Line videos. The five volume set covers almost all aspects of the design, construction, and operation of his HO scale Siskiyou Line layout based on the Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in the 1980’s.

Please see my comments on Volume 1 and Volume 2.

This is a really excellent guide for someone like me. I’m very familiar with traditional (DC) layout wiring but this new-fangled DCC is hard to initially get your arms around. Joe works up from basic DCC wiring, on to DCC decoder installation and basic programming, and advanced techniques like “consisting” (double-heading for steam guys like me) and using your PC hooked up to your DCC controller to configure detailed parameters of your DCC system.

This DVD is completely free-standing in that if you just want DCC information this one DVD would be an excellent choice independent of the rest of Joe’s series.

I hope Joe produces updated versions of this disc as time goes on since some of this material will eventually become dated.

I think viewers will get the most value from this video if they have seen Volumes 1 and 2 first but this video is also very valuable all by itself if you just want the DCC information.

Joe’s DVDs may be purchased at model-trains-video and retail for $24.95 each.

Volume 2

Joe Fugate was kind enough to send me a review set of his Siskiyou Line videos. The five volume set covers almost all aspects of the design, construction, and operation of his HO scale Siskiyou Line layout based on the Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in the 1980’s.

Please see my comments on Volume 1 here.

Volume 2: Design and Construction is mainly a case study of how Joe’s layout design evolved and an outlune of construction techniques used. 

Starting with design and concept Joes walks us through each stage of the process beginning with the importance of finding a layout concept that really excites you. That excitement and engagement is really important since it is what will carry you through the work it takes to stick with the project.


Joe goes through the role of a CAD system in designing a layout but his emphasis is on the design process, not on the mechanics of running a CAD program. I think this is a good point. WHAT you are drawing is much more important than how you go about making the lines on the paper.

Early in determining how he was going to use his available space Joe decided that some form of multi deck style layout was what he wanted since it would significantly increase the possible length of the mainline. Joe goes into excellent detail showing how a mushroom style multi deck configuration works and his approach to construction. I think this will be really helpful to people curious about whether this is an approach they want to tackle themselves.

Multi deck design

Joe demonstrates the process of creating a list of “Givens and Druthers” (In software projects I call these “Musts” and “Wants”) to help prioritize Layout Design Elements (explained below) that are contemplated for the layout. Additionally Joe shows how requirements for adequate aisle room, minimum curve radius, and room size and shape all interact in shaping the plan.

A Layout Design Element is a scene or other aspect that you really want reflected in your layout design. For example, Joe showed that one layout design element he wanted was the Roseburg yard; another was the bridge crossing the North Umpqua River. Looked at this way, track planning really becomes arranging desired layout design elements, adjusting their size and shape to fit the available space, and connecting with tracks.

This demonstrates for the viewer a very approachable technique to designing their own layout.

As Joe finishes his design discussion he emphasizes that a plan is only that. During construction, plans can change.

Joe’s discussion of benchwork construction very reasonably focuses only on those aspects that are unique because they are a direct result of his particular planning decisions. These particularly include details of how the mushroom aspects of the benchwork were constructed.

Joe gives a really interesting story about the trials-and-errors encountered in the design and implementation of the helix required to move trains between his lower and upper levels. This was really helpful to me in particular since it explains the trouble I’m having with my darn hill : From Joe’s disussion I see how I neglected to appreciate the required grade compensation caused by my tight 18” radius mainline curves adding effective grade to an already steep 4%+ grade. Argh for me – but also Ah ha! Now I have a better handle on how to fix the issue.

Joe details the very straightforward lighting system he uses on the layout and then moves into some straight How-To sections showing how he builds Masonite spline roadbed. Another how-to is on flextrack laying techniques.

Finally, included on the disk as Special Features are quick notes on how to add power routing and handling complex installation with his Easy Throw switch controls as well as a Power Point style presentation of metrics you can use to numerically measure and compare different tack plans.

Overall, I think the most interesting and useful thing found in this video is the problem solving process Joe demonstrates since this is where I really felt I was learning and gaining experiences that would help improve my own design and construction work. Although Joe flags this video as Intermediate/Advanced I think beginners will see how to avoid common mistakes and also learn from Joe’s experiences that mistakes can and will be encountered but can also be overcome.

I think viewers will get the most value from this video if they have seen Volume 1 first.

Joe’s DVDs may be purchased at model-trains-video  and retail for $24.95 each.

Volume 1

Joe Fugate was kind enough to send me a review set of his Siskiyou Line videos. The five volume set covers almost all aspects of the design, construction, and operation of his HO scale Siskiyou Line layout based on the Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in the 1980’s. I tripped across Joe’s website several years ago and was struck by the excellent scenery (especially the trees and ground cover) so I was really pleased to have a chance to see the videos he has made.

Volume 1: Modeling a prototype is a really nice overview and I found it reminded me favorably of Allen Keller’s Great Model Railroads series in overall format. The DVD starts with a rail-fan style trip following trains around the 800 square foot layout. We then meet Joe as he describes the creative process he followed to end up with his layout’s concept. One twist is that he maintains a strict 20 year date offset so if it’s July 4, 2008, then it is July 4, 1988 on his layout. Next we see how the layout’s mushroom configuration and clever construction plan allows a functionally 1200 square foot layout to fit into his 800 sq. foot space.

Vol1 still 1

After that Joe takes us section by section through the layout describing how each relates to the prototype and features of operational interest he’s implemented. Next we follow the Coos Bay Hauler along its route as Joe demonstrates the dispatching and schedule system he uses. I’m a small line steam guy and plan on strenuously avoiding most operational paperwork but Joe shows that attention to this detail can help you feel immersed in running the train over the branch.

I have say it: I found a continuity error. Joe carefully demonstrates how he realistically includes adding and dropping water cars (cars which drop water to help prevent fires) from the train but immediately after dropping the two black water tank cars the train pulls out and the siding where the tank cars were spotted (indicated by the red arrow below) – is mysteriously empty.

Vol1 still 2

The video closes with a straight how-to showing how Joe uses ordinary brass door bolts to manually actuate his turnouts.

Production quality is good. I viewed this video on a 46″ HD TV and it looked good and sounded great.  Joe is an excellent narrator and my son and I both really enjoyed watching the video. Joe did an excellent job introducing and orienting us to the layout and I’m looking forward to seeing how he builds his excellent scenery and track work.

Minor nit picks: Joe’s lighting is a bit too shadow-free and could have used key lighting. Admittedly, this is tough to do on many layouts. The editing pace is a tad slow.

I think Volume 1 is free-standing in the sense that it is a good value all by itself without the rest of the series. However, I’ve already gone on to Volume 2 (full review later) and can report it presents a wealth of new material and is a great follow-on to Volume 1.

Joe’s DVDs may be purchased at model-trains-video and retail for $24.95 each.

Planning how you’re going to build and clean those far corners is a challenge that I think you will always have with a diorama-style layout. The payback is deep immersive scenes that photograph well. I seriously considered fitting a shelf style layout into this space (see The Shelf layout plan – not for me) but decided it was not the kind of model building I was interested in.

John Applegate asks “how do you reach the corners?” in a comment on my post
Roughing up the town of Tiburbon

I was wondering if you have any “reach” issues with this layout. Are the right-hand & left-hand corners within 36″ reach limit? I noticed you placed the layout against the two walls thus disabling you ability to reach from behind. Any access hatches needed?

Reason I ask is that I am planning to do the SJC in Sn3. And in Sn3 I will have reach issues.


Since my Northwestern Pacific layout is a walk-in style layout and not a shelf layout it is really hard to avoid having places that you can’t reach. 

The quick answer is that from above, both corners are out of reach but I’m making them accessible from below or beside the layout.

Here’s my track plan and room arrangement (from My Track Plan):

For the “left” corner I’m following Malcolm’s lead and leaving the back of the hillside open. From below I can almost stand up under the hill and service the loop of track in the back corner.


Note that the illustration above was made by mirror flipping and marking up a photo of the original San Juan Central layout so it matches the orientation of my layout.

For the right side I’m going to leave the side open (or have a removable fascia board) so I can reach in.


Note again that the illustration above was made by mirror flipping and marking up a photo of the original San Juan Central layout so it matches the orientation of my layout.

On a larger version like the Sn3 layout John is thinking of (or On30, On3, etc.) it would probably be a good idea to allow some access from beneath this area as well.

I’m very pleased with the new version of 3rd PlanIt. I’ve been a happy user of 3PI for many years. I have been hesitant to recommend the product to others because I was a bit worried about the many years since the last product update. However, version 8 is here and works great.

Highly recommended.

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