Harry’s stunning test layout


Here’s some shots of a test layout I built in the past year.

My interest in model railroading was rekindled after a nearly 40 year hiatus, by N Scale videos done by Mike Fifer in New Mexico.

I then ordered your beginners tips because I wanted to get the latest input on modeling. Being a retired aerospace engineer with nearly 50 years of working in electronics and computer programming, I was also interested in playing with Arduino and Raspberry pi micro controllers and computers.

I therefore decided to build a small N scale layout to test out ideas for scenery and train & animation control.

The layout is only 32 inches x 64 inches and has two complete loops that can operate two trains simultaneously or be switched to a twice around configuration to extend the run.

It also has a six track stub yard, a passing siding and 5 freight spurs, admittedly quite a lot of track for 32″ x 64”, but surprisingly it works well. I have all 17 turnouts controlled by small servo motors driven by Tam Valley octopus drivers and the entire layout is a single NCE DCC power district.

The mountain scenery is primarily florist foam, that stiff crumbly stuff used to hold flowers in a vase. It’s a bit messy to carve, but it’s surprisingly not as static-clingy as one would expect and it shapes incredibly fast with a rasp or sureform tool.

I then coated the foam with Sculptamold and carved the rock faces in it while still moist. I like the foam/sculptamold result as it’s extremely light and the sculptamold is easy to work for a half hour or more, unlike heavy quick curing plaster. I think the entire mountain weighs less than a pound and a half.

The upside of the foam is planting trees consists of just sticking them in the foam. I built my trees out of dried twigs of a plant called Heavenly Bamboo and the tree armatures are actually the berry clusters without the berries. They make pretty good looking deciduous trees with some poly fiber and foliage glued on and are rather quick and easy to build.

I have a rare earth magnetic uncoupler under the yard throat and can successfully build and break up trains remotely.

This required some care in coupler adjusting and properly weighting the cars, but now it works fine and is fun to not have to reach in with a skewer to uncouple cars. This “hand of God” approach never appealed to me.

I plan on installing more magnets for the spurs and siding, but I must make some of them retractable so trains don’t uncouple unintentionally due to “slinky” effect. I plan on using small servos for this as well as I’ve got the Tam valley servo control channels available and am now working on the retract mechanics.

I’ve installed several Arduino micro controllers to create the arc welding effect in the factory, the rotating beacon on the top of the smokestack, the intersection traffic signals and several other effects I plan to add such as a campfire scene on the mountain and random lighting in the hotel and business buildings.

As I said, this was originally a test of the various newer products and materials available to build a model RR layout, but now that it’s this far, I’ve decided to finish detailing it out and continue testing new ideas.

Despite it’s small size, I spend hours making up trains, shuffling cars around and simply running the railroad. I still have so many ideas of stuff to add, such as a hobo jungle under the overpass with a barrel fire using the same flickering Arduino / LED lighting routine as the mountain campfire.

So bottom line I have so much to play with I may or may not expand the layout to fill my 8’x14′ shed. If I do, I will likely cut into one end and extend the track around the room. Time will tell, but this little layout has achieved it’s primary purpose, it’s FUN!

Thanks for all the fine articles, and keep em coming.


(All images are clickable)

model train layout rock face waterfall

model train road crossing

model train railroad layout

model train shunting yard

model train freight yard

model train control panel

My word – a huge thanks to Harry.

Wonderful pics and a wonderful narrative too.

I asked Harry if he found the ‘Beginner’s Guide’ useful, and he replied with this:

“Yes I did Al. Like I mentioned, having been out of the hobby for 40 odd years, I saw many changes and your guide pointed out many things that I hadn’t considered and some things I once knew but forgot. Like you mentioned I thought I’d try a bit more planning this time and it has paid off.

Thanks for the help


That’s all for today folks.

Please do keep ’em coming.

A big thanks to everyone who took the time to do my little survey last week – I have a long list of things to do to make the site even more helpful for you all.

And that includes the ebay cheat sheet too.



28 Responses to Harry’s stunning test layout

  1. Joe Kincaid says:

    Holy Cats Harry. Go ahead and embarrass all us “expert modelers” with a ‘test’ layout. Stunning doesn’t begin to describe this layout. Seeing Hollywood on the hills would have tickled Walt Disney beyond belief….especially when you consider his love of trains, model or otherwise.
    Goes without saying, I can’t wait to see the real thing.

  2. Bruce Ganas says:

    Fantastic layout! You’d think it would take a rocket scientist to build such a layout – Oh, wait! One question: The track plan on the control panel shows a turntable which doesn’t appear on the layout. Is that for a future addition? Will it fit without removing some other trackage? OK, that’s two questions. 🙂

    BruceG in NC

  3. john seale says:

    nice layout…I like the colors & those trees…

  4. Rob McCrain says:

    This rocket scientist’s layout exemplifies what is great about model railway/road building. You get to use the skill you acquire over a lifetime to construct a stunning layout with a little magic hidden inside it. Nice going. Rob McCrain – Farland Howe

  5. Anton Bruce says:

    Wow….that’s a TEST layout??? Holy cow – what’s the REAL one going to look like???

    Incredibly excellent work, Harry!!!

  6. Norton says:

    A thought for Harry, you are working on a retract mechanism for your uncoupling magnets. I might suggest what may be a simpler method, something else that might be up your engineering alley. Develop and build some electromagnetic uncoupling ramps. That way you can just install them and never have to move them. They stay in place and you just turn them on to uncouple, then turn them off. They will overheat of you leave them on too long but you can figure that out I’m sure. And they shouldn’t be any harder to install than your retractable magnets. Sound like a Win, Win?

  7. Absolutely beautiful. Thanks for all the tips

  8. CJ says:

    Wow! Inspiring !

  9. Robert Brady says:

    Harry real nice !
    Al we need to see more HO scale layouts.
    Regards: Robert

  10. Allan J Jelinek says:

    Very nice
    Shows what can be done with a small space. Now that I sold my last “O” Gauge equipment, I think I’ll be getting into “N” Scale.

  11. Wayne says:

    great work Harry very impressive

  12. Jim Logue says:


  13. Joe says:

    A test? That’s a model railroad!!! Great job and inspiring.

  14. CLARK DE MUTH says:

    HARRY, GREAT LAY OUT. So far I have not stated anything.. Have been looking into this N gauge , but they do not have much in that line. I have not done much , last time I worked on anything was back in the 1950s. I am a old RAIL AND WORKED on the NKP, UP, PRR and AMTRAK. Started out as a telegrapher on NKP while they still had steam running. Was a tower opr. and station agent on Ft Wayne DIV thru Ohio and Ind., Ill. Then came to the UP an worked LA to Salt Lake Div.. The most interesting job was tower opr on UP at HOLBART TOWER , East LA area. That is closed down now. But for years I have thought about a N or HO layout of that tower and all it covered.

  15. Greg says:

    Simply IMPRESSIVE !

  16. Rick says:

    Awesome Harry. As a fellow N’er I looked at your layout then looked at my 80X36 and realized I have got a lot of work to do. And your pics have given me a few ideas. Please send more if you expand or build an additional layout. Great work!

  17. David says:

    Well done Harry

  18. Stephen D Gispanski says:

    Looks great Harry, very inspiring. Can’t wait to start mine.

  19. Ian McDonald says:

    great looking layout looks like you have really enjoyed building this layout. thanks for sharing a bit of a fan for N scale.

  20. Harry, great layout, lots of great modeling.
    One of the things that is so great about our hobby, it is an individual effort by the modeler. The era, the type of scenery, the engines and rolling stock, gauge modeled , on and on.

    Many of us are limited by modeling space, and if that space will somewhat permanent. All along we have burning desire to get the track laid and something running. That impatience can cause problems later. Believe me, I have been there more than once. I still have a hard time taking my time.

    One thing I have seen over the years on many friends layouts, they look like a bowl of spaghetti dumped on the flat surface. It appears all those structures that were built, or the need for a wide yard, and go ahead an build the typical hump of a tunnel in the corner creates a jammed pack layout. I’m not trying to be critical, it is just as the layout gets to the final stages, it turns out to be something less than desired, too much in tool little space.

    I have come to the perspective that less is more, and to work on highly detailing what scenes I do have. My last layout (# 15) I planned hidden staging track to hold trains instead of having a large yard. I created view blocks so different scenes wold be separated as much as I could. even with the best laid plans, I still had scenes running together. I’ll never learn.

    Now this is just my way of modeling, and it is not better or worse than any other modeler’s style. My point is to maybe consider what it is you want. Running lots of trains, prototype operations, highly detailed scenes and line-side switching, there are so many options.

    Here is the main point; like that burger slogan, “have it your way.” Thanks Al for sharing so many great laYouts and sharing creative ideas.

  21. Bruce Meier says:

    Awesome Harry! Could you please post your address so I can move and become your next door neighbor? So much to learn …..So little time

  22. Louis F. Caputo says:

    As so many folks have already noted, Harry’s layout is most impressive in terms of appearance AND function! As someone who struggled in high school with math and science, I have to believe that satisfying model RR lay outs will NOT depend solely on competencies in “aerospace engineering with 50 yrs experience in electronics & computer programming”. Perhaps I represent a large segment of Al’s audience in that I engaged in this spectacular and unique hobby when my Dad brought home at Christmas a Lionel train set. How wonderful that memory remains still!!!

  23. Great Layout……………..

  24. Tom Snyder says:

    Stunning layout, Harry. Is it possible you could post the track plan for better viewing. I’m very interested in a continuous run multi train layout with spurs in a small space. Thank you.

  25. Cary B says:

    Absolutely amazing Harry, what you have accomplished in such a small layout is to be much admired. So much detail and not to much trackage to me, perfect.
    Thanks for sharing
    Cary B AKA cbgadget

  26. George Zaky says:

    Much thanks for the narrative and the greatest of test rigs. If you would please elucidate further on the servo & Tam valley controller- did you use the model 3 with the aligner, it looks like toggles at the board, and would you consider future signal lights at the switches. There are many out there who need guidance and your plan for switching is #1 and it looks like you’re the guy who can explain it..
    My first attempt at N was a tragedy because my trains would not behave at switches. Whose track and switches did you use?
    I am sorry but since you did such an awesome layout and description we have to bug you for more. Please explain how & what you will do with the Arduino & computer and the logic behind it.
    See what you started?

  27. Old Taz says:

    Wow my test Is 2 by 4 With an overpass I think I’d better start adding something to it great job


  28. Milton Beimler says:

    Excellent job. If this is a test track then the real thing will blow all our minds. I have been dabbling in model railroading since the early 70’s and now that I have finally retired I am spending a lot of time on my layouts. As others have said it is the accomplishment of a dream and the pure feeling of fun we have doing it. Keep up the excellent work and I too have used many of Al’s offering and great ideas from all the modelers out there that contribute.

    Milton B. Va USA

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