Givens and Druthers

As I mentioned, I am starting to plan for my new layout.

Two layouts ago, I made a list of givens and druthers. That term was coined by John Armstrong.

Givens and Druthers

Givens are features or limitations you must have, either forced on you by the size or shape of the room, economics, etc., or your own desires. For example, in my case the size of the room is a given. It’s not going to change and I have to live with it.

Druthers are things you’d rather (“you druther”) have, so they are negotiable. List all your druthers and accept that you are not going to get them all.

There is some good discussion about Armstrong’s “givens and druthers” here.

Here are my givens and druthers.


Room size – 20 feet by 8.5-12 feet with a door in one corner and a window on one wall
Mainline curves have minimum radius of 24″ to handle 89′ cars
HO scale in standard gauge
Capability for continuous running
DCC operation


Two-cab wiring so one cab can be DCC and one DC
Signaled operation (ABS or CTC)
Minimum 24″ aisle width
Duck-under or lift-out bridge will be required
No need to reach more than 24″ into the layout
Designed for realistic operations – this means numerous industries
Interchange(s) with other railroad(s)
Longest main line runs possible
10-12 car trains
More than adequate staging
Yard switching

Note that none of these talk about the track plan at all. It’s important to record what you want the end result to be before you figure out what to build to get what you want. You need to know the destination before you pick the route. I haven’t talked about whether it will be single level or multi-level, about helixes, wyes, and other somewhat exotic track arrangements. Those will come soon.

Did I forget anything? What are your givens and druthers?


I was contacted by a company called Shapeways. They provide an interesting model-making service where it appears you send them a design, and they print it out as a 3D model and send it to you.

For example, here’s an N scale railway station one of their customers made.

They use several different kinds of material.

Just thought you might want to check them out. 🙂

DISCLAIMER: I have no relationship with this company, other than the unsolicited email they sent me.

Building a layout – shelves

My new layout is an around-the-walls style layout, with a peninsula coming from one end of the room. I decided to build the layout on shelf brackets screwed into the wall studs, with shelves cut from 4×8 foot sheets of plywood. This way, I would not have legs under the layout, leaving room for storage of my model railroad equipment and railroad ephemera.

I started by deciding what height to make the layout. As I mentioned before, the whole layout is on one level. Most people say you should build it somewhere between belt height and shoulder height. I chose a height of about 44″ from the carpet to the top of the plywood. I wanted it a little on the low side so kids would have a chance of seeing what’s on the layout with a little stool.

After borrowing a friend’s stud finder, I set about marking where the studs were on the walls with a pencil. I used a laser level on my tripod to make sure I was building the layout perfectly level.

Maybe I was geeking out a bit too much. Maybe I just wanted to use my Christmas present. 🙂

I screwed the supports into the wall at each end of the plywood sheet, then screwed the supports into the sheet from below to ensure no screw heads would be on the top. I then filled in the supports between the ends and screwed them into the board too. The result was a very very firm layout with no wobble. I’m pretty sure I could stand on it, but I haven’t tried. 🙂

In the corners where I couldn’t get supports in, I used little metal connectors to screw the two boards together and prop up pieces of plywood I cut to fill the corners. I reasoned there wouldn’t be much weight there so they didn’t have to be as strong as the rest of the layout.

For the end with the peninsula, I built a traditional box structure and put legs on it. The peninsula is going to be on legs and I figured it would need a firm, rigid structure to attach to.

I haven’t built the peninsula yet, since my layout room is doubling as a spare bedroom for a few more weeks. Soon, soon!

So far I’m very happy with the method I used to build the layout. It has made tracklaying a breeze and I appreciate the rigidity of the structure. The NSER was built on legs, and wasn’t attached to the walls, so it was a little wobbly until the whole thing was built. This layout is rock solid.

Latest layout plan

Finally we come to the plan I am building to, version 5.

This version features four long tracks of staging each for Miramichi and Campbellton, as well as a single track of staging for each of the Caraquet Subdivision, the Nepisiguit Subdivision, the Irvco spur in Belledune, and the Smurfit-Stone industry in Bathurst. Can you ever have enough staging?

I wanted to model the Smurfit-Stone facility because they had their own switcher, caboose and plow. I thought that would be a nice feature to show them come up to interchange with CN at the junction, just like the prototype did.

There are no provisions for grades in this, which may make it boring from a scenic perspective. Obviously my layout is skewed toward operation, given the number of interchanges and online industries.

I would appreciate any comments, good or bad! 🙂

Track Planning For The New Layout

With my new layout room, I needed a new plan. My initial thought was to continue with the Dartmouth Subdivision idea that the NSER used.

This plan is basically a single-level dogbone with some around-the-wall staging. No doubt you can see a number of problems with the design, including restricted aisle space. On the plus side, I would have had a wye for turning and fairly good switching opportunities.

I decided I wanted to try something fresh. Based on my own railfanning experiences, I settled on a layout loosely based around the Bathurst area in the early 1980s before CN started ripping up the old subdivisions. The layout would go from “Moncton / Miramichi” (staging) through Nepisiguit Junction, Bathurst, and Belledune before “Campbellton” (staging). It would feature run-through trains that just went from one staging yard to another, switching along the way, as well as VIA’s Ocean and local passenger service.

This is a very rough around-the-walls plan just to get an idea of where the stations would fit. I kept the around-the-wall staging and obviously designed for continuous running. Time to flesh it out.

It’s almost the same plan, with more detail. Notice how the staging for both “ends” is in the same place. This is still very rough as the space allocated for switches is not realistic. One must always use real switch dimensions to ensure you don’t get impossible angles.

I had this idea that I could get more track into the same space by doing a twice-around layout, spawning this plan.

This time the staging is on both sides of the room. The twice-through idea does give long main line runs but I decided it would not look realistic.

Next time I’ll show you the “final” version. It does away with the twice-through idea but looks a lot like this one.

The Nova Scotia Eastern Railway – My Druthers

In this post I will discuss how I designed the Nova Scotia Eastern Railway to achieve my “druthers”/modeling objectives, under the limitations of the “givens”.

Given that I had decided on HO scale, I had a limited amount of space to work in and a lot of operation I wanted to cram in there. I initially started with a single-level plan but realized I didn’t have enough room for staging AND a decent main line length. So multi-level it was. I shifted to a two-level design with a helix, but the helix ate up so much space in the room that it was impractical. I finally settled on a two-level design with a long, steep “escalator” track to connect the two.

I did not use any published model railway track plans, since I was basing this on the real CN Dartmouth Subdivision. I did have to make some compromises to fit the trackage in the room:

  • no space for a wye at Windsor Junction
  • no double track east of Windsor Junction (fiction becomes reality, as the double track has been removed on the prototype)
  • simplification of the Burnside Industrial Park trackage
  • gypsum facility in Dartmouth moved to staging

Since operations was a high priority for me, I included lots of switching opportunities. I set up a spreadsheet with a list of industries, what car types they accepted, and the length of each siding. This gave me an idea of how many cars I would need for the layout and how much operation could take place in one operating session. I tried to base the industries on real ones, but had to make some adjustments to get a good mix of cars.

I designed two staging yards, one at each “end” of the CN main line that the NSER interchanges with. Given the size of the room, they could not be too long, but I could stage three or four 6-7 car trains (plus engine) in each yard. That would give me enough room for a passenger train in each direction, plus a couple of mainline freights.

The penalty for having a multi-level layout was the connecting track between levels. To avoid looping around the room too much I made the track fairly steep, hence the name “escalator” for it. I think the grade was a fairly constant 4%. It became a bit of a challenge to get trains up and down the escalator, as some engines were just not powerful enough to “make the grade”. I expect that if I had continued with the layout for much longer it would have become an operational problem requiring double-heading most trains.

Another penalty for using a room of that size was the radius of the curves. I decided on a minimum of 18″ radius, which fit well into the room but did not permit reliable operation of cars longer than 60 scale feet. That ruled out modern autoracks and containers, which is a real problem when you want to model modern railways. I never progressed enough on the railway for this to become a problem, but it would have been an issue.

In the end I had the following standards:

  • Code 100 rail
  • 18″ minimum radius
  • Peco medium radius switches for mainline, small radius for industrials and yards
  • Two cabs for operation of two trains simultaneously
  • Manual switch operation using Caboose Industries ground throws

In my next post I will share some photos of the layout at its most complete, just before tear-down.

The Nova Scotia Eastern Railway, part 1

My first model railroad was the Nova Scotia Eastern Railway. It was a two-level around-the-walls layout built in an 8′ x 12′ room. The NSER was a fictional shortline that took over CN’s Dartmouth Subdivision in Nova Scotia, and interchanged with CN and the Windsor & Hantsport Railway at Windsor Junction. The Junction itself was a centerpiece of the railway.

The station at Windsor Junction

The NSER was never completed (are any model railroads actually finished?). In the end I had completed the lower level with track and scenery, and had track up to the upper level and had begun the Dartmouth yard. I had begun operating on the upper level to some extent but there was no scenery there.

Modelers may be familiar with John Armstrong’s “Givens and Druthers”. The “givens” are what you cannot change and the “druthers” are the key features of your layout you want. For this layout…

Room size – 12 feet by 8 feet with a door in one corner and a window on one wall
No room for expansion into other rooms
Cannot make permanent changes to the room (i.e. no holes in walls, no additional walls)

H.O. scale
Semi-accurate depiction of the modern Dartmouth Subdivision
Designed for operations
Longest main line runs possible
6-8 car trains
Adequate staging

In my next post I’ll talk about how I designed the railway to achieve my “druthers”.

View other NSER posts