A Movable Feast - My Temporary Layout
by Barrie Lovell

I had better start off by saying that I am not really a railway modeller. I started building up an N scale collection two years ago after seeing some of the Kato models in operation at the annual N Scale Society show in Leamington Spa, here in the UK. It was the bullet trains that initially caught my eye but I was particularly impressed with the Kato track system - both with the ease of setting up the track with no need for a permanent baseboard, and the fact that the points and crossovers are already powered and required electrical expertise to install them.

At the time I thought it would be nice to build a small collection so that when my new grandson was old enough we could set it up together and have some fun. I'd better point out here that I run my own business, and have several other well established hobbies, and these leave me with little in the way of spare time for playing with new toys! I had also better confess that I have been a professional model maker for a number of years and have my own company designing and producing model buildings and scenery for the miniature wargame and model railway markets (www.timecastmodels.co.uk). I also have a large collection of about 18,000 model soldiers and assorted scenery (trees, hedges, model buildings etc) for creating miniature battlefields.

Anyway, I do not have room for a permanent layout but I do have a 6 foot square table in a spare room which is usually found doing duty as a miniature battlefield. However I can use it to set up a temporary layout for a week or so at various times during the year. Unfortunately at the moment work and other commitments mean that I can only find the time to set up a layout every 5-6 months. However, this isn't really a problem as my grandson isn't old enough to join me at the controls yet, and the long delay between running the layouts means that it is like opening the boxes for the first time again each time I design a new layout. The railway models stay packed away in boxes until required and stack neatly in a spare cupboard or on the racks which hold my model soldier collection. I was pleased to discover that some of the multi-compartment tool boxes sold by the big DIY stores are perfect for storing the smaller Tomix and Kato buildings as well as keeping the cars, trucks, buses and other small items safe and secure (see photos). Of course the really big advantage of packing the models away between sessions is they do not gather any dust!

I was also against the idea of a fixed layout for another important reason. Just as I can create different miniature battlefields for my model soldiers by varying the layout of the scenery, I was attracted to the idea of using the flexibility of the Kato track system to design a new layout when I felt like it rather than simply setting up the same layout each time.

As a result I have designed all my scenery in a modular format so that I can place the buildings wherever I want and then fill in the gaps with scenic “clutter” to add interest and life to the layout.

The table top consists of two sheets of MDF board. The first couple of times I used it for a railway layout the MDF boards acted as a soundboard and amplified the vibration and noise from the track. It was surprisingly loud. When using the table as a miniature battlefield however I usually cover the table with a dyed cloth in various shades of green. Underneath this I place a thick blanket which smooths out the contours of the miniature battlefield and gives the appearance of a gently rolling landscape. I tried this same system with the model railway and found it worked just as well. The green sheet disguises the MDF boards and blends in well with the scenery bases while the blanket pretty much absorbs or muffles the unwanted vibration and noise from the track while still leaving enough noise to enoy as the trains move along the track.

Buildings and The Urban Areas
At the moment I have a mixture of Kato, Tomix and Tomytec buildings, plus one or two others from a company which specialises in traditional Japanese buildings from the Samurai era. Although the latter are designed for the wargamer and are not really N scale the models do look just fine when mixed in with the other buildings. I tend to use these for traditional style shops and businesses.

I have left most of the buildings on their original plastic bases but I have painted and weathered the majority of them. Some have had additional items such as gardens,vegetable plots etc added to give extra interest. In some cases I have used an idea from the wargaming fraternity and designed “sabot bases” for use with the buildings. A “sabot base” covers a larger ground area than the model building and has a flat space left to allow the model building to sit on top. The rest of the “sabot base” is landscaped. This gives me the option of using the building on its own, or as part of a small landscaped diorama with its own built in scenery. The photographs show the various style of bases, sabot bases etc.

I also have a few industrial buildings of my own design which, with the addition of Japanese signs and posters, fit in well with the Japanese model buildings.

I use square or rectangular sheets of 2mm MDF fibreboard to represent the concrete urban jungle – at the moment they are spray painted a light grey, but this looks a little too bright so I am considering changing to a more natural “earth” or dirt colour. I haven't quite made up my mind on this yet. I am also still thinking about the best way to represent modern tarmac roads so that I can change them around depending on the layout design.


I have bought in a number of telegraph poles and street lights. I have simply fixed these on MDF bases (either singly or in rows) so that they are free standing and can be placed as desired.

Other Scenery – Trees and Vegetation
The “natural” scenery, vegetation, trees etc, is all modular so that I can add trees, hedgerows, fields etc as required. The trees and hedgerows are a mixture of commercial and home made, although I think the majority are in fact home made. Personally I think the home made trees look better than the commercial ones but that is really a matter of personal preference. All of the these are permanently fixed to bases, which have been textured with a mix of PVA wood glue and coarse sand, and then decorated with various makes of commercial static grass, foliage clumps, and similar. I have to say at this point that I am a big fan of the scenic materials produced by Realistic Terrain here in the UK. They come in a wide range of natural and realistic colours and textures and avoid the sometimes rather garish colours used by other manufacturers. When not in use the trees are simply stored in a 3 drawer storage cabinet which keeps them safe and dust free (see photo).

I haven't got around to making any rice paddy fields yet, so most of the fields are simply cut from carpet tiles in varying shades of green and brown. The tiles which have a ridged surface can often be used for fields with growing crops. Add a few hedges and trees round the edge of the fields and the result can look surprisingly effective.

The small gardens with rows of vegetables are made up from modular garden/allotment sections of my own design. These were produced originally as N scale model railway accessories for my own company, but we also sell a lot to wargamers who wish to add extra detail to their miniature battlefields. In this case I have built them up into the small cultivated plots frequently seen in urban areas in Japan.

Model People
I have seen many layouts with hundreds of model people carefully fixed in position to create little scenes and vignettes. This is fine for permanent layouts but obviously will not work if the layout has to be broken up and put away after use. The model figures will quickly get broken or damaged. However I do feel that a model railway, no matter how beautifully assembled or detailed, really does need model people to bring it to life. To get round the problem of having such fragile models on the layout I bought some model people and glued them onto small round plastic bases so that they can be placed on the layout as desired, and then easily packed away when not required. In order to build up a reasonable number of people as quickly as possible I bought a bulk pack of a hundred or so unpainted n scale people from a company which makes accessories for architectural displays. These were glued securely to their bases and then painted. The end result is, I think, quite pleasing, having a rather stylised effect not unlike an architectural display model. Incidentally, painting the model people was quite fun and certainly not as difficult as painting accurate representations of historical military uniforms on hundreds of model soldiers!

Anyway, I now have sufficient track to fill my tabletop and over the next couple of years I plan on adding to my collection of Japanese buildings, scenery and accessories. I have a small, but growing collection of locomotives and rolling stock and plan on expanding this as and when funds and model availability allow.

I use the XTRKCAD layout design software for designing my layouts and this really saves a lot of time when laying out the track on the table. I can play with the design for several weeks if necessary to get a layout that I feel will be both interesting and fun to operate, and be pretty confident that it will all work as it should when the track is laid down on the tabletop.

The layout takes about 2-3 hours to set up the track and catenary system, plus another 1-2 hours laying out the scenery and trying different combinations before settling on a final version. Personally I am very pleased with the result - the track is easy to set up, the trains run perfectly, and I have enough scenic clutter to fill in the gaps and look good. I realise that the layout will never look quite the same as a permanent one, but I have achieved what I set out to do and I am sure that my grandson will be happy to play with it in due course!

Just as importantly, I have also had a lot of fun over the past two years - choosing what part of Japan and the JR rolling stock to model, learning how to use the track design software and planning layouts, learning about how real railways operate, designing scenery, choosing the buildings and adding the details and weathering and so on. I have also found that simply sitting down and having a beer or two while watching the layout in operation is actually quite relaxing and a very good way to wind down after a busy day at work....and after all, a hobby is meant to be something you enjoy doing for its own sake.


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