Workbench Talk

Custom Layouts on a Budget

by Raymond G. Potter

Let’s not joke about it; having a layout custom built for you is not an inexpensive endeavor. There’s a lot more involved to it than just whipping out a 4×8 sheet of plywood, tacking down some track, and throwing some ground foam at it.

There are ways, however, that we as layout builders can reduce the costs to a client so that having a dream layout built just for you is still feasible.

One approach we offer gives you several options as to what stages of the layout we can build and what stages we can leave for you to do on your own.  Another of our approaches allows you to choose differing levels of finish detailing for scenery, bridges, tunnels, and structures. These elements are generally the most costly to provide, so cherry picking where to indulge, and where to cut back can help you reduce your costs. Nevertheless, regardless of which approach or set of options you choose, the most expensive part of creating any custom model railroad layout is the labor time. In this regard, model railroad construction is similar to having a custom home designed and built. To complete this project, the tasks involved require the skill sets and disciplines of architecture and engineering, cabinet making, electrical and electronic manufacturing, artistic talent, and the precision finesse of a fine jewelry maker, especially in the smaller scales. Though this may sound daunting, there are many time intensive tasks (and more pleasant endeavors) not involving such demanding skills that you can do on your own, long after your layout is complete and installed.

Let’s look at the O scale layout described above in the Picture of the Month. This layout has complete track and electrical work (the most intimidating part of building a layout for many enthusiasts, even the skilled ones), but the client chose to complete some of the finish work himself. The scenery is intricate, and in places, quite detailed, but the client elected to leave areas more easily reached as projects for himself to super-detail at his leisure. The trees were handled similarly, with the hardest to reach spots, those requiring standing or climbing on the layout, done by us in our shop, with the easier to reach locations left for future development. The ballast work, too, will be completed by the client.

Because the client has  a large collection of operating accessories, he opted for very few custom structures, so we built his towns around the pieces he provided, even embedding the accessories into the street to increase their visual appeal and realism. The area where the client allowed us to go the extra mile was on the bridges, since they are part of the track support system and needed to be done during preliminary assembly. The client opted to have us provide a number of intricate but sturdy bridges with extensive weathering in places to really bring the layout to life. In short, we provided the client with a finished product which he could plug in and enjoy, but still left room for future expansion.

In the end, we at SMARTT  try to do whatever it takes to please a client, often making a new friend in the process. Cost conscious enthusiasts can have us do as little as benchwork, trackwork, and electrical, and save the scenery and structures for themselves. Alternately, they can take a middle-of-the-road approach as we discussed above and have SMARTT  complete all the difficult hard-to-reach areas which become hard work to complete after delivery, as opposed to being a leisurely pleasure-time activity. Finally, we still offer the choice of a complete, museum-quality, mega-detailed layout with no compromise.

This hobby is all about fun, and letting us provide you with a layout that has as much or as little as you like can be an effective strategy in today’s more difficult economic times.  Give us a call, and we’ll help you decide what features you desperately want and what you can leave for later. We’ll do the hard work and leave the fun for you.

from the June, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter

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