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Design a layout you'll love in 6 easy steps

Points to ponder before you draw your next track plan
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Some of the brightest minds in our hobby are gifted with the ability to put pencil to paper and whip up an original track plan. Even though I’ve designed a fair number of plans for Classic Toy Trains magazine, I can assure you that I’m certainly not a person with that kind of raw talent. So don’t worry if your genius also falls short in this area – you’re not alone.

Like most of us looking to craft “The Perfect Plan,” my efforts at track planning require a methodical approach. In fact, even before I sit down to render any track plan – large or small, simple or complex – I work through a number of preparatory steps that help me sketch a quality design.

Since many of you have the same goal, I’ll gladly share my six-step pre-design ritual. Granted, my method and the resulting plans won’t suit every taste, so I encourage you to adapt my steps or develop your own process.
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1. Study your space. It’s one thing to know that you’ve got a bit of real estate to erect a toy train layout. But in addition to knowing the precise dimensions of that space, you’ll want to consider any unique characteristics of your proposed layout area.

Observe and note the location and orientation of doors, closets, windows, vents, and light switches. It’s rarely a good idea to obstruct these fixed features, so you’re better off designing around them from the onset. Also consider the height and construction of the ceiling to make sure you account for new layout lighting, backdrop installation, and even exceptionally tall framework.
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2. Make room improvements. After surveying your proposed layout area, you’ll want to make any essential room improvements right away. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that it’s much easier to install carpet, paint walls, hang a suspended ceiling, and add lights if you aren’t distracted by efforts to plan a layout or maneuver around sections of a layout you’ve already assembled.

Even if you never get around to building a layout, you’ll at least have made improvements that enhance the room for any use. More often than not, you’ll be so inspired by the fresh coat of paint or bright lights that you’ll immediately want to start designing a layout. But for now, hold on to that thought.
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3. Draft a room sketch. While great layouts have begun with something as simple as a sketch on a paper napkin, I prefer to have a more formal drawing of the space for my design.

Typically, I’ll start by drawing a pencil sketch of the room on graph paper. After defining the walls, I record each of the previously noted room features. When I’m satisfied with this sketch, I make at least a half-dozen photocopies I can use for doodling out various layout designs any time an idea strikes.
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4. Take stock in your toy train inventory and hobby interests. Though it may seem like an inconsequential step, this is often the make or break point for many designs. In fact, this step was so significant to John Armstrong, the author of hundreds of track plans published in Kalmbach books and magazines, that he rarely began a sketch without completing his “Givens and Druthers” – a list of layout design criteria.

Case in point, when my father first considered building a new layout, I asked him to survey his collection. That’s when he realized his latest acquisitions were mostly command-controlled locomotives marked for the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy RR. Hence, the basis of his new layout – a design that reflects the Burlington Route along the mighty Mississippi River.

Additionally, never discount the importance of dreaming up a layout that reflects you – not your friends, family, or the latest trend in the hobby. As the chief operating engineer, you’ll be much happier with the resulting layout.
5. Choose your track. The type of track you choose for your layout will influence your design. The cost of each brand is certainly an important consideration, but you’ll also find that the physical characteristics and geometry of the various track types may dictate how it fits into a space.

For example, consider the track plan for CTT’s Retro Railroad [see the September 2009 issue of Classic Toy Trains]. The builders of this 4 x 8-foot O gauge pike opted to use tight-radius O-27 track to accommodate a layout scheme that wasn’t feasible with broader curves. As you consider the many track options now available, be sure to reference Bob Keller’s tips for selecting the right track, found here.
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6. Pencil and paper … or PC and printer. Many layout builders still prefer using a pencil, some paper, an eraser, and a few helpful drafting tools and track templates to develop a sketch into a detailed track plan. My preference is to use my personal computer installed with RR-Track layout design software (rrtrack.com). Featuring multiple libraries of track, operating accessories, structures, and even scenery elements, this is the most robust design software available to toy train layout builders.

These features are ideal, but the real bonus is the provision that RR-Track includes for printing a full-scale (1 inch equals 1 inch) plan using a standard computer printer. These black-and-white printouts on 8½ x 11-inch paper can then be placed on a layout tabletop to test-fit a plan – all without the expense of purchasing track sections first.

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