Model Railroad Planning Services

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines planning as: "The act or process of making a plan to achieve or do something." In my humble opinion, that pretty much says it all. No matter what definition you might find, planning is most critical part of developing a custom model railroad.

No doubt we all want to see trains runs as soon as possible but you really can't skip this vital step. Sure, If you're just laying down some track for some weekend fun, your probably aren't looking for intensive planning. However, if you want a custom model railroad that captures the feel of a realistic environment to run your trains through, or the latest bells and whistles available on the market, then a plan is what you'll certainly need before you begin building you dream project.

The planning process of each custom model railroad contains many elements with each one needing to be individually analyzed and carefully planned out. Many elements are extremely dependent on the other and all must come together in cronological order to complete the project. Good planning allows your layout vision to come together before any wood is cut, track is laid, or time invested.

Elements that certainly need planning for a custom model railroad project might include:

The following information is a glimpse into the the chronological approach of the planning process that I take when working with a client. It is a general brushstroke, yet is an informative overview that should help you understand more about what is involved in the actual process itself.

My goal with every planning project is to combine both the client’s ideas and my experience to present a clear vision of what the project should look like on paper. Whether it's a basic track plan, a fully developed and detailed layout plan, or a diorama concept model, the detail level of each plan is tailored to meet the customer’s needs to move on to building. The graphic examples provided are all snippets from different planning projects I’ve done over the years.

Step 1: Concept

When a client contacts me to have something designed to be built, it’s ideal that they have some collection of materials or direction for me to reference as a concept. It may be a simple sketch, perhaps another layout to refer to, or even an actual location they wish to model. For example, some concepts are base around industries and eras which are helpful because that can determine the general scope of the terrain, track work, trains and features that could be considered during planning. The more information the client can provide can be a big time and money saver. The simple sketch above provided by this client, above allowed me to see the concept, ideas and elements that initially needed to be worked into a plan.

Should a client not have much or any concept materials, I can certainly start working on a concept from scratch after understanding the client’s wants and needs through brainstorming and mutual feedback. This is virtually a blank canvas to work with and typically does require more time to develop, which is why having some sort of concept is important, but again is not mandatory.

Step 2: Research

Research materials come from many sources. They can be provided by the client, accessed through books, magazines, and especially conducted online. I can't stress strongly enough though, that if a client’s project is a very prototypical in nature such as a historical project, research and accuracy of their project needs to be of paramount importance. There is no better way to capture the true essence and details of a location like me physically visit the location in person to take photographs and notes so I can plan to build an accurate model. This visit should be conducted before any serious planning commences.

If the size and shape of a project needs to be exact in nature and will need to be, for example, affixed to walls or ceilings, or onto, or into, special cabinetry, etc., I highly suggest having all measurements done and an installation access assessment done prior to initiating planning. This can be either done by me in person or by you furnishing me with accurate specifications.

Step 3: Drawings

Once a concept has been formulated and approved by the client, a plan can start to take form using drawings and sketches. This particular example above is an accurate pencil drawing of an around-the-wall layout featuring a peninsula and lower level multi track staging. It also had a benchwork frame concept plan incorporated. This stage of plan development allows the opportunity, for example, to pinpoint where under table switch machines may conflict with benchwork support. The more you plan at this stage the better chance you have of actually building a successful project. Detailed paper drawings like this sample do take a few days from to draw and edit and are essential before utilizing the computer to further develop the accuracy of the plan.

Step 4: Testing with CAD

CAD drawn plans not only look professional, they are very accurate. They are a fine tuning and testing method I utilize in conjunction with traditional sketches and drawing. There is no better way to obtain exact dimensions and calculations to work with. With that being said, it’s not carved in stone anywhere that just because it’s been drawn with a CAD program, that a track plan will naturally work. A project needs to be worked out with each fundamental element building on top of the other to ensure it will work.

Step 5: Benchwork Planning

The example above is a combination track plan and benchwork plan. This example I used here was a dimensionally changed version for a client of an already popular HO scale layout “The Small Town on the Prairie” found in Iain Rice's book “Shelf Layouts for Model Railroads”. The primary purpose of my example here is to show how the track work is positioned in relation to the benchwork framing. As mentioned above in Step 3, benchwork cross members and turnouts intersections were analyzed to ensure sufficient clearance for under the table switch machines. If this layout were to have a signal system installed, operating crossing gates, or other scenic element requiring additional clearance below the surface of the terrain, necessary changes could easily be identified and corrected. By taking this same graphic and using it as a template, I also can created individual detailed drawings for track wiring, switch machine wiring, track radius centers points, elevation changes, scenic elements and topography, roads and structure locations, just to name a few.

Step 6: Artistic Rendering

Much like the magazine illustrations we've all are familiar with, your planning package can include this same style of overview presentation. They are undeniably nice to look at and essential in helping a client visualize what their finished layout will look like. This particular graphic example shows the location of all the industries as well as lays out other elements to be included in the project.

Step 7: Concept Model

Occasionally a project can be quite complex and a scale concept model is a great method for working out details. This is always an option and is best done when the final plan looks good and the overall concept needs to be tested for accuracy and scale. Concept models that are the exact scale to be modeled, such as this example, are typically reserved for very large and complex projects, and are additionally used to gain a client approval to move on to the final build. This Smith Mine concept model featured carved foam & stained hard shell terrain, railroad & mining track placement, and scale cardstock structures. It took approximately 2-1/2 weeks to build after a month of research and detailed planning.

Step 8: Build What Was Planned

After wrapping up the planning process, comes putting the plan in motion and building what you planned. I really can't find one single photo that best captures this more than the projects that I have done. Here’s the link to my Project Gallery page. All the projects you will see have followed the above planning process before any materials were bought and assembled.