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The Importance of Mock-Ups!

With apologies for the substantial delay, welcome back to the SSLR!

Before we focus on the construction of the scenery of the layout, I felt it important to dedicate a blog entry to a crucial step in building layouts; mock-ups!

For those that have seen the video on the Taunton SWAG event, whilst I talked about how important sight lines are, I neglected to mention the use of paper/cardboard mock-ups (as well as 2D and even 3D drawings) during the planning stage; hence why I thought I'd write about it here instead, as it is something that I feel more people should consider doing when planning their layouts.


In a way, it's sort of the town planning equivalent of the model railway world; much in the same way an architect or town planner would try and mitigate the impact of a building to its surroundings, I find it incredibly important to get buildings/structures on a model railway to "sit right". The difficulty comes when you consider it's not really a quantifiable subject; it's more of a "What looks and feels right?" kind of deal. That said, that doesn't mean it's a difficult thing to master, and since there are many ways of doing it, there'll be a method that will surely suit you most.


Why bother with mock-ups?


  1. Efficiency - Helps you work out the best use of the space before committing money and time to an idea that may well be wrong yet entirely avoidable with a bit of planning
  2. Visual Balance - Makes sure elements of the layout don't overpower or block (or perhaps the opposite depending on your goal!) the overall picture
  3. Money Saving - Reduces the chance of a costly mistake early on! Plus, mock-ups can be made from whatever off-cuts of paper or cardboard you already have lying around.


With Sandy Shores, there have been quite a few areas where mock-ups and similar have proven invaluable; all despite the layout being so small. But why? Well, to answer that question, it's a case of thinking about how best to make use of the limited space, and being careful not to overpower the layout by cramming in too much, or by having structures that (visually) unbalance the layout.


Don't be afraid to throw out the rulebook!


Sometimes, the well-recited "rules" or "trains of thought" (if you'll excuse the pun!) of model-making churned out by even the most talented and experienced modellers can be broken for the better. Sandy Shores' lighthouse is a good example of this; a tall, imposing structure right at the front of the layout is more often than not discouraged. But actually, by doing exactly that, not only is there a really big focal point that makes the layout stand out from the other end of an exhibition hall, but the view blocking that is created makes people naturally hunt for more interesting angles to view the layout from. As an added bonus, this also means no immersion-breaking shadows are cast on the backscene; and with the lighting pelmet extending a few inches beyond the board edge, the lighthouse remains well lit from the front.


Options for mock-ups:


  1.  Paper/cardboard mock-up using masking tape, and a fine line pen
  2.  A 2D sketch on paper or on the computer
  3.  A 3D model  on the computer using a modelling program (i.e. Sketchup)
  4.  A mix of stuff, including old track/track templates, buildings from previous layouts, bits of rolling stock,  etc.


What you choose to do your mock-ups with is mostly irrelevant; the core intention here is that you experiment with different configurations until you find the "best" choice!

Let's take a look at a few examples from Sandy Shores, and how and why they were used, starting off with one of the (many) early mock-ups; the initial layout planning.

Initial Layout Planning:


For this, I often find that the most useful approach is no.4 in the list above; that is, to find whatever bits I have lying around from old projects, and use them to roughly figure out what I might be able to get away with in the space. I tend to make my own point templates by drawing around existing points; it's a nice cheap way of doing things! As you can see, at this stage it was important to decide the average length of train, which in turn determined the length of headshunt (on the far left) and the diameter of the turntable (top right). Usually you'd also have a run-around loop which would also need to hold a whole train, but Sandy Shores won't have one as it would take up too much space:




By taking an "aerial" photo, I can use free software (in this case Paint.NET), to annotate the image, and roughly mark on the position of the proposed board edge and backscene. In reality, after more detailed mock-ups, the layout ended up being slightly different; as the tiny tracks in the fiddle yard (top) were never added as they were too small, and the backscene was straightened on the right hand side to follow the tracks there. But even in this bare-boned state, you can already begin to visualise where the scene might be heading:




Terrain, Buildings & Structures 


Now that the general board shape and layout has been worked out, it was then time for two things; firstly, to mark out the terrain onto the polystyrene base, and secondly, to start making mock-ups of the various buildings.


With regards to the former, making the top layer of the board out of a thick piece of polystyrene (or similar) is something that I find particularly useful as it allows me not only to draw the location of features, but also play around with different depths with relative ease. Looking at the photo below, it's easy to see where things have been changed; for example, the black pen shows the first attempt, whereas the red pen shows the second. Note how the angle of the track and position of loco shed and the grounded carriage have changed to allow better lines of sight:




You'll also see how the position of the backscene has moved; the initial black line at the back has moved further back to the new blue line, so that more of the pond and rearmost sand dunes can fit in. All this moving around means that the most efficient use of space has been achieved with no extra cost; the headshunt now has more distance from the backscene; allowing for more room for the trestle bridge feature, and the grounded carriage has been shortened from the original so that there is more space for scenery around it. The fact it is all on a polystyrene base means that when it comes to working out the height of the terrain, it's easy to take off a little bit at a time to check for "balance" as you go.


For the buildings and structures, I turned to another low-cost method; paper/cardboard models. This is where checking the visual balance of the layout comes into play. As I mentioned earlier, the lighthouse is an unusually large building to have at the front of the layout, which would normally upset the balance. However, by positioning it as far away from everything as possible (i.e. at the front centre of the layout), it actually creates a pleasing view block, and almost forces you to look down towards the rear buildings, which are much smaller. As I've placed the buildings at either end of the layout, a nice triangle is formed, which subconsciously draws your eye to different parts of the layout. In fact, you can quite easily ignore the lighthouse once you get close enough, which in itself forces you to look past/around it:




Note how, whilst the grounded carriage and waiting shelter are relatively detailed with pen, the lighthouse is a much rougher and altogether more basic shape. That tells you how important it was for me to get the right height and shape of lighthouse, as I knew spending time making a detailed mock-up was pointless given that it was likely that I'd need to go through many variations before I settled on the final design. Something immediately apparent with the mock-up above was that the lighthouse was just slightly too tall, and there needed to be a more obvious taper towards the top to reduce its overall impact.


I'd also like to focus on the platform shelter, as it's a structure that also changed size during the planning stage. The original (at the back of the photo below), was, whilst appearing fine on first glance, actually far too big. It dwarfed not only the locomotives, but also looked too imposing. It also didn't help that it was a scale 1m too tall, as I forgot to allow for the height of the platform! By keeping the proportions but reducing the scale somewhat, the end result was a structure that "sat" better in its surroundings, and one that a tatty seaside railway would easily manage to build on the small plot of land available:




Testing Scenic Techniques


But it wasn't just the overall layout, and the structures that needed to be mocked-up or trialled before being built; I also found it important to do a small scale test of scenic techniques away from the layout. To that end, I decided it would be worth producing a tiny portion of the terrain using offcuts of wood and polystyrene.


Using the montage below:

 1) The basic shape was determined by a tiny piece of plywood I had on my desk that I had been scribbling notes on, which then had a piece of polystyrene cut to shape (with a hot wire cutter), and glued with PVA; before being left to cure overnight.

2) The final shaping of the polystyrene could then be carried out with the hot wire cutter. The plan was for a tiny section of sea on the left, building up to an embryo dune, and then a "yellow dune" at the furthest right (complete with an abandoned section of track).

3) Air drying clay could then be rolled out (with the small rolling pin seen in the background), and then applied with PVA. Smoothing of the clay was carried out with a bit of water on the end of my thumb.

4) This is where the mock-ups come into their own as the first technique I tried (pressing in small amounts of sand) failed to produce a good representation of sand.




This meant further trials were needed. So, following the next photo montage:

1) The new idea was to paint over the whole of the clay (including the sand) in various colours and shades to try and get the look I was after. Whilst getting closer to my goal, I still couldn't trick the eye into seeing the sand as a whole rather than its individual grains.

2) So the next step was to cover the dunes in a layer of PVA and sprinkle play sand on top. Unfortunately, this left a very blotchy sand dune!

3) However, after further painting (with the "wet" areas of sand painted a slightly darker shade), the blotchiness started to disappear.




The only trouble now was how to represent the compacted sand that forms on the pathways? So:

1) In order to try and smooth out the sand a little, filler (in its unaltered powdered form) was liberally sprinkled on top of PVA brushed onto the existing painted sand, and then painted.

2) Which left a need for a proper path boundary, which was simply achieved by more PVA and a sprinkling of sand.

3) Once painted, and with a couple grass tufts placed and a few layers of PVA to represent the water, it actually looked like a proper sand dune!




Which just goes to show the importance and usefulness of carrying out trials and mock-ups; had I not done any, I would've wasted time, money, and effort producing things that would've looked entirely wrong or otherwise unbalanced.


So there we have it;

Before you fire on all cylinders, and steam ahead with your plans, (sorry/not sorry for the puns!) consider taking a more leisurely and risk-free approach to model-making; it may just save you from making a steaming mess of things!

On slightly more serious note, I hope that for some of you at least this will be an informative read, and may even encourage you to do the same. Unlike most aspects of our hobby, mock-ups is a tool that actually helps you to save money in the long run, and it also helps you to create a better layout in the process. And remember, lines of sight are one of the most important things; particularly for a small layout. Imagine you are a photographer looking to find exciting and pleasing angles. Can you add a bridge that forces you to look up at the locomotives crossing it? Or perhaps you can create a view block as I have done to force unique angles. Can you position a building to hide the hole in the backscene? Don't be afraid to break the "rules"; every now and then you may come up with a more interesting scenario because of it!


That's it for today, feel free to discuss or ask questions in the comments below, and I'll be back soon with the next instalment!

Happy model-making!


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A really interesting and informative article. Plenty of food for thought there. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us lesser mortals! :D

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Thank you, Tony; I'm glad this entry has potentially been of use. But you are not lesser mortals; I fear my original decision to start using mock-ups was more likely a product of my own indecision and anxiety! That said, I now wouldn't do it any other way, and the benefits of throwing up simple cardboard models that you can move around along with old bits of track and whatnot far exceeds the "cost" of spending the time doing so. If anything, it's actually quite a nice exercise as it gives you a glimpse of how your finished project may look, and what you could change to make it look that bit better!



Here's my previous layout (which I will resume building once Sandy Shores is finished!) circa 2015, with all its mock-ups in place. In fact, I still have most of them in the cupboards in my room ready for when I get around to building the structures!



Edited by SouthernRegionSteam
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I totally agree, mock ups really do help with getting a design from a sketch to something you can look at from many angles and see whether it all works. 


If I can I also get a photo (even an old monochrome one) , scale it to size, cut it out and stick it onto a rough box. 

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That's an interesting idea, and not one I had considered! Perfect for if the prototype building still exists, or even if it doesn't you may still be able to form a rough approximation with a bit of virtual cutting and pasting with images found on the internet (or a scan out of a book?). I shall have to remember that one for next time I model an existing building.

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NHY 581

Posted (edited)

Morning Jamie. 


Interesting points being raised here. I've never made a small scale mock up preferring to make things up as I go along. 


However, I see the logic behind it. In particular, working out potential views the layout will offer. 


I've come to the conclusion that each layout will have 'THE ' view, an angle which totally captures the look you set out to achieve. 


Setting this out before construction starts would be advantageous. 


I can see me doing this ahead of my next project.........due to start soon.....ish....


Good stuff, 




Edited by NHY 581
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Hello Rob!
Absolutely; there are definitely advantages to making mock-ups, and one of the many great things about doing so is that there are different ways of doing it; all practically free. That's not to say there is anything inherently wrong with making things up as you go; there's not a project that goes by without something having been made up out of nowhere. However, perhaps it's the apparent perfectionist in me that dictates things will likely go smoother if I put the effort into the planning stage; it's pretty enjoyable anyway!


I love your thought about "THE view" - it's not something I've specifically thought about, but I'm sure it's one of those subconscious things; quite often I'll know the overall direction I want to head in, and there does tend to be certain angles I envisage that could be worth exploring.


With regards to small scale mock-ups, it's not something I've done (yet!), as I tend to use existing track and locomotives to help set the scene; but there are quite a few people who swear by them; particularly if you have a large layout in mind. Typically the most useful aspects of cardboard mock-ups for me are making a representation of the building size/height/placement, as well as that of trees and any tall-ish objects that might "upset the balance".


While others' mileage will vary, typically, my layout ideas always start the same way;

  1. Rough sketches on a notepad (or even on my old touchscreen phone at night; as that seems to be the time for ideas!).
  2. A rough mock-up of the position of track/track templates, interspersed with either cardboard mock-ups of buildings, or temporary buildings from an old layout.
  3. A 2D drawing on the computer using my Wacom tablet to get an idea of how the finished scene may look. (this stage is definitely not necessary, but I enjoy doing it)
  4. Final adjustments to the mock-up, usually with slightly more detailed paper/cardboard models.
  5. Sometimes I will then make a 3D model of some aspects of the layout; usually baseboards, as I favour odd shaped boards; so 3D models help me work out the odd angles and the best placement of cross-members etc.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing your next project; and remember, mock-ups don't need to be complicated; just a simple cardboard shell will often suffice for most uses!
All the best,


Edited by SouthernRegionSteam
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NHY 581

Posted (edited)

Morning Jamie. With regards to 'the view', this image perhaps illustrates it best. 


I see Bleat Wharf as a pretty run down place in a long hot Summer with a thunder storm or two.  Long periods of quiet with the occasional bit of activity. Wind blowing in the grass, sound of birds chattering away......the smell of warm creosote with a waft of wild flowers.


In this view the grass was on its first fix and the buildings were plonked in place. I stepped back and looked at eye level along the 2ft of baseboard towards the edge....and there it was. 







Edited by NHY 581
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That's a fantastic composition, I can see why it really struck a chord; as it shows the real essence of a railway on its' last legs!
I think it's one of those things that, whilst hard to physically explain, you just know when you've hit the right balance.


There are times where I do the same thing and take a breather from working on the layout and look at the layout from a low angle. As I love photography, quite often I'll take the time to move the camera about until I find a composition that makes me think "Y'know what? That's exactly what I envisioned when I imagined a narrow gauge train winding its way through sand dunes and sunbleached wooden structures in the height of summer."


I shall have to find an image, as you have done, to show a good example!


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