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Stumpy’s Station – “Compressibility”

April 6th, 2012 · No Comments

A lot of us in S gauge have space problems. Oh yes, there are many basement or attic filling empires, and spare rooms allow for good size layouts as well. But not everyone has the space to go beyond 4×8’ basic layouts.
No matter how much space a model railroader in any scale has, it never seems to be enough! After seeing large layouts in the magazines for so many years, we have been “taught” that “bigger is better.” That unless you can run three or four trains at a time, have plenty of structures and scenery, your railroad is “second rate.”
To get all those “requirements” onto a small layout, you really have to jam things in, and pretty soon, it looks like a spaghetti bowl of track in a junkyard. That may be quite well for someone who just runs toy trains, but if you have even the slightest knowledge of real railroads, this won’t do. If you have an artistic eye, it looks bad too.
I hear folks saying; “But there’s no other way!”
You’re wrong! There are alternatives to either a gigantic, maintenance devouring layout, or a tight knot of track and buildings. But it will require an adjustment of attitude and some “thinking outside the box.” You also have to decide just what you want your layout to look like.

Planning is the MOST important factor for a successful railroad.
Do you like to run trains? Do you want to switch cars and service industries? Are buildings or scenery more important to you? Think about this, because as soon as you lay down the track, you’re stuck with that design.
Even on large layouts, there is such a thing as “selective compression” in order to fit things where they need to be. “Selective compression” or “compressibility” is the art of making something smaller than it really should be. For instance, some scale modelers try to model an entire “division” of their favorite prototype railroad on their layout. But even in N gauge, to really accomplish this could take a basement as big as a basketball court! Therefore, they choose what to model and what to leave out.
Now, let’s take that many steps forward. For instance a 4×8’ layout. Make a list of everything you want to have on your layout. Then measure how much space each will require, including where the track will go. The space each accessory or structure takes up is called its “footprint.” If a station’s base measures 4”” by 7”, that is it’s footprint.
I think the space requirements will be a real eye opener for many! But it is not a disqualifying offense! Go back to the list and start deciding what are your “must haves” from all the things you would like to have. Measure the footprints and track plan again. Rearrange the track or buildings and try again.
Yeah, I thought so! Now cut your actual “needs” from those “must haves.” At some point you will find out what is realistic for your available space. This is often very depressing. Go away for a day to “cool off” and then return to your planning.
You can draw designs on paper for years, but when it comes down to actual building and laying track, the reality sets in with a vengeance! But now that you know just what will fit, you can work out a way to do it, and do it well.
Yes, I know that most of you think that you can’t really make a nice layout in 4×8 feet, but my first S gauge display layout was just 34” by 54” and depicted a logging area and a small town! It was a single track line with one siding and used 15” radius curves. It always drew a crowd at shows because of the well thought out selection and placement of structures vehicles, people and scenery.
The biggest S display layout I’ve built so far is only 4×8 feet! And I have gone even smaller in On30 by building Micro Layouts for display. Micros are the ultimate in “selective compression” and there is a yearly competition for building an operating layout in a large pizza box! If you want to see what can REALLY be done in small spaces, go to Carl Arendt’s Micro Layouts website at
You probably will never build anything as small as a Micro Layout, but you CAN get some great ideas for use in S gauge! Even if you do have a whole basement to fill, there are things to learn. And if you have a smaller space don’t despair, you CAN build a nice layout.
While we’d all like to have all the space we need to build our dream layout, there are real advantages to building small; It’s easier, faster, cheaper, and requires less maintenance after completion! Plus, if you get tired of your layout, you can dismantle it and build another one with minimal loss!

The photos were both taken of the same layout to point out that small spaces can be interesting. This was my second S display layout and was only 36×49 inches with 15” radius curves.

…Stumpy Stone

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