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Jeff Kraker explains his “less is more” theory

First off, I normally do not refer to myself in the third person as the subject of this post may imply.

I was made aware that there was a long thread on the subject of my layout being better because it is smaller by another poster, so I thought I would clear the matter up and explain what I meant.

My layout is not better than a bigger layout, it is better for me than a larger layout because it got me to the point I wanted to be, at the quality level I wanted, and for the amount of time and money I had to spend.  My first layout was large and required a lot of money to build, and I just did not make very much money at that time.  First off, wood is expensive, and good wood is even more expensive.  My first layout required large amounts of plywood, and since I wanted to use good quality 3/4″ plywood for the subroad bed and it was costing me a small fortune.  When I started building the first layout my wife and I just got married, bought a house, had two kids, and had very low paying jobs.  I could only afford a sheet of plywood every few months.  My larger layout had a big staging yard on a lower level which required a helix to reach the first level.  To build that helix and staging yard, plus the Atlas code 100 flex track, took me a very long time because I had to buy small amounts of those materials over a very long time.  After five years I only had the staging yard done, the helix built, and the visible tracks into the main yard which was located just as you exited the staging yard.  I did have most of the lower level benchwork in and about 80% of the subroad bed in before I stopped construction.

That first layout I was building had nice wide aisles and 36″ min mainline radius with #6 and #8 turnouts.  There was a nice long run up a grade and over a few bridges, and some tunnels.  The layout had more of an open Appalachian mountain feel with coal tipples spread along the line and even had space for a branchline that split off the main a ways up the mainline from the yard.  Almost all the track after staging was visible except for a few tunnels for effect.  Trains would have been 20 cars average.

I started building the first railroad with the idea that it would be set some time in the 60s and be all diesel powered, but along the way I became more interested in steam operations and decided to switch eras.  the cost of switching from diesel to steam was pretty high, at the time there was no ebay (at least that I was aware of then) and I purchased my steam locomotive kits new from the local hobby shop, and being someone that liked a high level of detail found that steam locomotives can eat up big bucks in brass detail parts.  Diesel builders have it made with the lower cost styrene detail parts while steam builders have to use high cost brass castings.  Most of my steam locomotives have $80 or more of detail parts added, and if you consider that I was adding sound decoders (at the time were about $180 off the shelf), and can motors, most of my steam locomotives were running me $300-$400 per locomotive.  My operating schedule was going to require about 20 steam locomotives to simulate all the trains, and that would be just enough.  To ease the transition I decided to start at the mid 50s so I could use some of my diesels and work toward the day when I would be all steam. The current layout operates with 7 locomotives, but I keep 9 on the layout for fun.

I also had to deal with the amount of freight cars that I was going to require with the larger layout, at the time I started the layout your average Athearn blue box kit was about $3.50 per hopper, add Kadee couplers and metal wheels and your average hopper without paint and decals (which I had custom made by Rail Graphics) was about $8 with tax, so a 20 car train was going to run me about $160 dollars.  I also figured that I would need to have almost tripled the amount of hopper cars to account for cars spotted at tipples, cars in the yard, and cars in trains on the staging tracks, so I was looking at needing about 300 hopper cars to fill the layout, and that is not counting general freight cars.  So even if I had built more tracks to run trains on I only had acquired and built about 50 cars and only had about 20 of those weathered. My current layout operates with 100 hoppers and 60 general freight cars.

Some said in the post that they did not understand why after five years I did not run a train more than a few feet, and that they could build a layout with snap track and have it running in a weekend.  Once again, due to cost reasons I had to hand lay my track because it was cheaper, which was something new to me and took me several hours to make one turnout when I started.  Once I had a few made I got it down to under two hours per turnout.  I was building turnouts for about $4 apiece, and at the time all that we had for code 70 and code 83 turnouts were about $15 dollars apiece. The only cheap track at the time I was building my first layout was Atlas code 100 and I wanted to have finer scale looking track. Also, turnouts at the time were not DCC friendly and it took a lot of work to convert those expensive prefab turnouts.

I also had very little time on my hands back then (still do) and I was only getting a couple hours a week to work on the layout, and most of those hours were not in a row.  Most of the time I would get about 45 minutes of time to work on stuff, and with so much to do I would spend a good amount of that time just trying to figure out what to do next.  I had to change the way I worked on stuff and learned to be much more focused.  I would use my lunch breaks to plan my work flow so that when I did get to the layout room I knew exactly what I was going to do and could start on it right away, a technique that I used on the current layout to get a lot more done in a shorter amount of time.

So the first layout suffered because of time and money, I just could not afford to build the layout I wanted with the funds I had and the time I had to do it, which is why it never ran, there was just too much stuff to do and I was young and did not have a life time or equipment saved up, I had to buy it all as I needed it at list prices from the local hobby shops.  Things have changed with internet hobby shops, ebay, new and cheaper technology, and more personal skill and knowledge to be able to work better.

My goal when we moved into our current home was to get a layout to the point that all tracks would be in and I could host operating sessions within a couple years.  To meet my goal would require a layout that did not have a ton of track, need a ton of rolling stock, require several DCC throttles, and require a mountain of lumber to build.  I learned how to use CAD software and used my lunch breaks to design the entire benchwork and roadbed in scale, which I plotted out full size and made templates that could be placed on the plywood to minimize waste when cutting out the road bed.  I again wanted to use high quality lumber because I had some trouble on the previous layout where I tried to skimp and used some old plywood shipping crates to speed up construction and keep cost down, well most of that wood warped so bad I had to tear it all out.  For the new layout I carefully made cutting diagrams of the 1×4 boards so I would also minimize waste.  When I went to the lumber yard I purchased kiln dried lumber and when I went home I marked each board out and numbered all the pieces so that I could just sit and cut lumber all at once.  Having the layout that is smaller allowed me to not be overwhelmed by this kind of tedious design work, in the past I just grabbed a board and cut off what I needed, normally doing it that way causes a lot of boards that are just a little too short to use and a new board is required.

Once I had all the boards cut I took a day off work, told the wife I was going to be busy, got a box of screws and grabbed my fully charged screw gun and when at it.  It took me one night to get the benchwork in and two more days to get all the roadbed in place.  Two weeks after that I was gluing my first tie strips in place.  If I was starting over on my old layout, knowing how to plan with CAD, had a power saw (didn’t then), and if I had four times the money, I could have had the benchwork done faster the second time around.  I just don’t have a ton of time and money to throw into my hobby, it is still a hobby for me and I spend a very small amount of time and money on it, not because I don’t want to, I just can’t at this stage of my life.  I wanted to have a layout that operated, looked somewhat finished, and looked like it had a high level of detail, and I just can’t do that on a larger layout.

Now, for the track plan.  What I wanted then and what I want now are very different.  When I planned the layout featured in Model Railroader I thought that maximizing operations meant better operating sessions.  To maximize operations on my layout I had to focus on the trackage around the major operating areas, the tipples and the yard.  Basically what I have is three switching areas that are connected by hidden track.  The track between the three switching areas in made as long as possible so you don’t have your locomotive in one switching area while your caboose is leaving the previous.  Yes I would have liked to have a long exposed run with bridges and tunnels but that was the stuff I had to give up to have maximum operations. If I had space I would have made the aisles much wider than I have them, they are very narrow but we operate with only three people on the average and we get it to work out. If the room was two feet wider I would have built the same railroad with another foot of aisle at Roda and another foot at Derby.

Because I run steam locomotives I needed a way to turn the locomotives for the return trip back to Appalachia from Roda. Originally I had a turntable at Roda, but to get more operation in I removed the turntable and build a small truck to rail coal loader in its place, it also gave me room for a freight house. I had a wye at Derby and decided that steam locomotives would always run boiler forward to Roda because of the steep grade to prevent boiler explosions. Trains coming back from Roda run tender first and then turn at Derby for the trip back to Appalachia. I have mile markers on along the branchline that are numbered in a way that show that “in theory” there is more miles between Appalachia to Derby than there is between Derby and Roda, so it would make sense that they would want to turn the locomotives at Derby for the “long” trip back to Appalachia. Turning Steam locomotives is also one more operation that added time and fun to the run.

My grades are steep buy they are not exactly 4% as MR measured. In MR defense they did ask me if the grades were 4% but I could not exactly measure them because of the hidden track goes over areas that are hard to measure their exact elevations. There is some trickery at Roda to allow the tipple tracks to go over the Helix track under it and keep the grade to a minimum. We run 12 car trains with one 2-8-0 and a caboose without needing a helper, and if you read about “putting on the brakes” you’ll know that my cars pull hard, I would say that one of my cars are almost equal to two free rolling cars. I have to use non free rolling cars to keep them from rolling out of the Roda tipple, which is on a grade to get the tail end tracks to clear the track going under them from Derby. When I first learned about the “brakes” trick from a local modeler I liked how nice and slow you could couple up to a single free standing freight car without having to either ram it at a higher speed or chase it down the track until it gave in and coupled. Besides, if one considers that our trains are compressed versions of the real thing that it would make sense that one freight car would equal a few actual freight cars, requiring short trains to really need helpers to get up a steep grade.

When I said “a smaller railroad was better” I meant that for me, with my given constraints of time and money it was better for me because it allowed me to meet my goal of a layout that looked finished, operated, simulated the operations I thought I wanted (more on that latter), and had a higher level of detail. I would not ever state that smaller model railroads are better than bigger one, it was just better for me.

The rumor is true that I am planning on tearing out this layout in a month. The decision was not a sudden one, I have been planning the end of this layout three years ago. I pushed ahead and finished the current layout to meet the goal of finishing a layout, I also wanted to get it published (a goal from my bucket list I had since I was a kid first starting model railroading). The narrow aisles that I once convinced myself were fine have grown old and I am tired of twisting and turning my way down the aisles to get at stuff stored under the layout. The space I allowed for my work bench is too small and working on stuff has become frustrating. I have also changed my ideas about operations, I don’t feel that the more tracks and sidings make the operating sessions better, and I sorely miss the open scenic running of trains through the mountains of Appalachia. At one time I thought that I wanted to host groups of people for operating sessions, but that has been replaced by just wanted a layout that is fun to run by myself or with one other person. I still like operating with groups of other people but where I live there are plenty of layouts close that I can participate in operating sessions at and not have to deal with all the work of scheduling people and setting up the layout. Once you start hosting operations sessions there is a lot of maintenance work to the layout between sessions that takes away from progressing on building new models or areas of the layout. Some people are fine with doing lots of maintenance work and enjoy planning operating sessions, but I found over the years that I enjoy the model building part of model railroading a little more than the operations part of it. When I built the Derby section of the layout I stopped having operating sessions on the layout for 2 ½ years. My new layout will feature more detailed models (structures, rolling stock, and scenery) and I don’t care how long it takes me or have to worry about a pending operating session.

My current Roanoke and Southern is a blast to run, was fun to build, fun to take pictures on, and looks as good as I could do at the time, but my desires have changed and I want to build again and raise my bar higher, and I am excited to try and reach a new goal. It is going to kill me to take down something that I have worked so hard on, but I have been modeling the concept of the R&S for 23 years and now I want to close the book on it and do something different. I am switching to O scale narrow gauge, something that has been lurking in the back of my mind since I was young and has just surfaced in the last year as something I want to try. The new layout will have everything on it scratchbuilt (except a few locomotives, but they will be extensively reworked) and I want to try to do highly detailed scenery and track. My new layout will be just around the walls leaving the center of the room open, giving me a 6’ wide center by 15’ long where I can have a larger work bench.

I hope this cleared up some of the talk of my layout and why I did what I did, and said what I said.


here are some photos that were not in my MR article.

Roda company store

Roda Tipple

a look down the aisle between Derby and Appalachia

Roda Coke ovens

the other end of Roda

looking back at the town of Derby, wye tail track

Derby stores

Coal truck to rail loader on Derby wye track and the lumber mill with lumber drying stacks

Derby wye tail track

A long shot of Derby

Jeff Kraker

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