Lionel Big Brute layout

John’s been in touch with how his Lionel Big Brute saved the day on his show layout:

“You asked for more standard gauge material. As I build one of these layouts a year for the club’s annual show, I have numerous photos.

The last set was of a layout which has been under construction for some time. It is permanent and thus is constructed with care and attention to detail.

The following photographs are of layout building at the extreme opposite. The club display is built each year starting with blank tables in three weeks.

In that time we must build a display which is worth seeing and which works. Thus, we use the quick and dirty method. We also try to limit the mess we will need to clean up after the show, thus, details like ballast are out.

Now, as I reported last time, a friend who collected antique Standard Gauge died last year. As he failed over the preceding few years, I knew that his collection would not long be available for the shows. I purchased replacements, but knock offs with more recent electronics. A shadow of the quality of the antiques, the only good feature is worm drive which keeps them from running away down hill.

Due to problems getting up hills during an earlier show I added two locomotives between shows to solve that problem, one a 39 lb. Lionel Brute.

One of these had been produced in the 1920’s but Joshua Lionel Cowen, the founder of the company, examining the prototype determined that a locomotive that heavy and big was not a toy. So the prototype sat in the show room in New York until it closed.

Now due to a market made up mostly of old men like me, this monster is being produced. It is roughly based upon The Milwaukee Road’s Class EP-2 bi-polar electric locomotives, the equivalent of rocket science in the mid 1920’s.

So the first two photos are of the first day of construction. The club members had unloaded the tables from trailers and set them up in a large L. This was to be shared half for Standard Gauge and half for subway models and O gauge tin plate.

My task was to build a loop around the short end of the L for one train to run and to build a dog bone, a single track between the three reverse loops at the bottom of the hill, holding tracks, thence up three levels to a top loop, for a second train.

A passenger terminal and city occupied the short end of the L and the mountain was to occupy the portion of the long end of the L allocated to Standard gauge.

The end result was two trains running at all times and others on display in the passenger terminal. Lighted ceramic buildings add are not to scale, but these are toys. Few if any notice any flaws.

model railroad benchwork

Day one a few hours after the tables were set up. The table work for the three lower loops is almost in place. The loops are on the table only at the extreme low end of the grade. The problem is to get high enough to clear at a point where the top of the rail is already two inches above the deck. That requires a serpentine route to add distance.

model railroad benchwork

This this the end of the first day. The Serpentine line is in place and there is clearance for all but the extended pantograph of the Bruit. That was simply removed, no one noticed.

model railroad benchwork

By the end of the first Monday, two long days and one evening the table work had reached the third level with the track following close behind. From comparison with one of my assistants you get some idea of how high that is. You can see the three lower loops. He is standing by the incomplete table work for the upper loop.


Toward the end of the first week, the track in place, the first structure of the scenery goes up. As you can see, this is cheap furring strips and 1x3s, dictated by the fact that this will all be in a dumpster within six weeks.

model train mountain benchwork

As I work full time, most of this was done weekends and at night, But each year I do take two days off to get this done on time. Here you can see the partially in placed frame for the mountain and at the far end window screening is already in place. The mountain’s terrane is made with good quality paper towels dipped in patching plaster, mixed to about the consistency of latex paint, laid over this window screening.

Lionel Big Brute:

A paint brush is used to smooth out the plaster and to try to hide the edges and the designs pressed into the towels. Additional plaster is painted over this layer just to fill bare spots. On steep areas, cliffs, plaster is painted onto the wire a and then paper towel is pressed into the wet plaster. When that sets plaster is then painted onto the towel.

If a towel starts to slide down the hill, placing a dry towel on it connecting it to a stable piece above will stop the slide. Both techniques avoid landslides during construction. On a permanent layout there would be more structural support and several layers of plaster would be painted over the initial layer. The final layer would be much stiffer and is applied with a small towel which is also used to carve rock formations on cliffs and in cuts. Patching plaster is a must, plaster of Paris will set much too fast and a second layer would set nearly instantly. Plaster is dictated for a project of this size as it is cheap.

If we used products found in hobby shops the cost would be prohibitive. This display used about 90 lbs. of dry plaster. A permanent display this size would use three times that amount as the carved layer is made stiffer and thicker so it can be properly detailed. We are building in a church basement, thus I pour cheap white vinegar in the slop sink every hour or so to keep plaster residue from our buckets from clogging the plumbing. This is critical.

On this display I do not have time to detail the rock faces very much, thus I rely on paint and foliage to camouflage these sins.

Lionel Big Brute

The last step of construction is putting a skirt on to hide the boxes and tools stored under the table. As can be seen the back of the terminal is open so the operators can access trains on the loops. The next day the crowds are to descend and the noise level in this room becomes similar to that of a factory floor.

Lionel Big Brute

This is the terminal. The red train to the left is Ives and we believe the coaches were from before World War I.

Lionel Big Brute

The Lionel Big Brute on the hill. The locomotive is pulling a 17 car freight and is nearly over its own caboose. Train length is dictated by the capacity of the upper loop. This is a 3% grade all the way from the bottom loops to the yellow coaling station seen in the distance. As controlling speed is important we try to keep the grade constant.

Lionel Big Brute layout

This is the upper loop. It is a bowl so the Lionel Big Brute can be seen as much as possible.

We do not use smoke as it would quickly fill the room and this is February so opening the windows is only an option if desperately needed. For a public display we need to be mindful of possible respiratory issues.

The backdrop seen here is tied to the drapery system on the windows. We can only use such a backdrop here as club members must access the trains under the scenery from the real and this is the only place where we can place a backdrop behind their walk way. We cannot attach anything to the walls.

The display ran for three weekends. After the last train is shut down, we must vacate the room in one week. We save the track, the foliage the buildings and trains, but all the plaster, wood framing and screening goes in the dumpster.

This show attracted 2,015 visitors in those three weekends. We know of no other display anywhere where standard gauge trains climb quick and dirty mountains. And of course it is worth noting that two of the three young men who assisted in constructing this display normally confine themselves to N gauge. So for us N gauge guys this is probably the equivalent of going outside and screaming.

Thanks for your work Al and for your interest in this somewhat obscure aspect of the hobby which our club seeks to preserve as long as we can.

John McHugh again.”

A big thanks to John for sharing his Lionel Big Brute. It was wonderful to read what goes on behind the scenes!

If it’s left you feeling inspired, have a look at the latest ebay cheat sheet.

Anyhow, keep ’em coming.



PS Thanks to everyone who has mailed me on the beginners guide. if you haven’t taken the plunge yet, it’s here..

42 Responses to Lionel Big Brute layout

  1. Bob Cassidy says:

    Very nice! All Lionel?

  2. Tony Grillo says:

    Just reading John,s voyge through this project , noting the time constraints and the finished product, is a display of what determination in the hands of a true artist can achive. John you are a Pro. I am sure that of the 2015 visitors no one was disapointed. The finished project rates110% in my book.

  3. Chuck Bartunek says:

    Simply outstanding,a well done layout

  4. Denis Mc bride says:

    Excellent job.!!!!!

  5. Brent 'Hooligan' Polson says:

    Very well done and detailed considering the amount of time you had and on such a grand scale.


    I’d love to see what you guys do with ‘N’ Scale!

  6. RICHARD says:


  7. paul says:

    excellent layout great to see how it was constructed. Vert impressed by the different layers. it has given me some great ideas for the future. Many thanks John

  8. Mike DeMuyt says:

    Brilliant John!! You and your assistance are just this side of incredible! I only hope someday I will be able to see a display of this magnitude in person. I am at the beginning stages of my “o” gauge layout and am realizing that there is sooo much to learn. Thank you for sharing.
    A special thanks to you, Alistair, for all the time you have invested in your website. I have enjoyed it immensely.
    Mike D.

  9. Pete Evangel says:

    In just a few days huh? WOW. tons of work, but I guess when you have lots of hands, the work gets lighter. Nice looking layout. I can imagine the wiring was a nightmare too!! Pete-San Jose

  10. ian impett says:

    a good job john

  11. Rod Mackay says:

    Fascinating! Hard to imagine making all that effort to create something you destroy afterwards. British exhibitions tend to be in leisure centres etc and you have to be in and up and running in about three hours, and we think it a poor go if we aren’t in the van and ready to go an hour from the closing bell, but these are layouts designed to be sectioned and shipped. I recently had an invitation to a one-day show (which I had to decline!) which was asking for arrival at 8.30, operating from 10.00 and close at four with the hall cleared by six and offered a “contribution to expenses” of £20 which wouldn’t even have paid for my operators’ petrol, never mind renting a van. Such are the harsh economics of modern exhibiting.

  12. Joseph Stately says:

    WOW! Fantastic layout. This needs to be featured in an issue of Classic Toy Trains magazine.

  13. holy shite Al
    one of the best EVER posts on this site
    these guys are so good and bet they were running ‘wide open’ with no weights on building this O gauge stuff as they are useably familiar with N scale…
    one of the best quick builds Ive ever seen
    and so much information in such a small diatribe
    thanks guys and Alistair
    keep ’em runnin fellas!!

  14. Tony Sharp says:

    Brilliant Layout John and a massive effort from all involved
    It brings many Happy memories flooding back of when I too was part of a Team of volunteers who set too each and every year to build a Purpose built End Layout of the Model Engineering Tent at the Enfield Town Show (UK)…….I am remembering 40 / 50 years back …….Each year we would take over the Orangery at Forty Hall in Enfield for a month and give as much time as we were able to construct a scenic layout on a theme………anything from a WW2 submarine pen to a futuristic Helipad…….which ever the scheme it ALWAYS involved Trains !!!!!!
    If there are any of there are any of the Old Crew of the Enfield and District Model Engineering Society reading this please get in touch via Ed I would love to contact any of the old crew that are still around … me they will be retired and RE living the modelling fetish of their youth…..
    Any way a brilliant effort John and your team of helpers…without you the show would NOT go on and the millions would not have the pleasure KEEP IT UP !!!!!

  15. dennis spivey says:

    Looks nice and love the layout but im into ho because of limited basement space !

  16. paul Otway says:

    A nice 3 rail tinplate layout.

  17. Michael Heffernan says:

    WOW outstanding, what a layout

  18. Ian Mc Donald says:

    nice layout unbelievable how quick you guys worked.

  19. Austin Wilson says:

    That is awesome John. Truly amazing especially the dedicated time allotted and still working a full time job. Well done.

  20. Gerry says:

    This is very impressive John. Our club puts on an annual show at the local train depot in Anchorage, AK during their annual Fur Rondezvous (Fur Rondy or just Rondy to some). This usually co-insides with the start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Races. We have N, HOn3 and HO layouts that are on NMRA specified moduals. The show last a little over 10 days and then we tear it all down, inspect for damage (or possible changes for next year) and put them back in storage and/or start repairs for next year.

  21. Robert A. Peinert Jr MD says:

    Would love to see video of John’s layout in action! HINT HINT!!!!!!!

  22. Richard sappelli says:

    You and your crew did a super job building this display. I have many of these trains and accessories and love to see them enjoyed by so many people.

    Way to go and a big thumbs up.
    Rj sappelli

  23. Thomas Scott says:

    That is a fantastic lay out John

  24. Thomas Scott says:

    I’m going to do a suspended standard gauge in my bedroom.

  25. Gary Manganiello says:

    WOW…………Great job………..

  26. Rob Morrow says:

    Hi John –
    Excited to see your standard gauge construction narrative. Your Dynamite Layout is inspirational! Three of us are working in Standard Gauge near Philadelphia. Lucky me – My Good Wife just issued me a long term lease for the entire basement. The first step is basement renovation and then construction of the layout to follow. I want to have ascending and descending track with levels and bridges like you have on your layout. Very glad to hear that 3% grades work. For my planning and design – What are the dimensions of the layout, and could you provide us with a track plan? A sketch would be very helpful.
    Rob in Wyndmoor, PA

  27. Robert Brady says:

    Of all the brands out there why did you choose Lionel? You should have modeled HO. .those tracks have to be the cheapest one’s out there..

  28. Robert Brady says:

    To Thomas,What exactly is standard gauge ?
    The Critic

  29. John Kane says:

    Great Job ! This is how the hobby will go on beyond our lives. Having young adults see and experience this display will we find their interest peeked when the inherit our “stuff”. I want to thank you for sharing the short cuts to getting this completed.

  30. george zaky says:

    There are people who give and make and there are those who see and take. You sir are a give and make man. Awesome job and we thank you. You and your crew must be commended for the talents to create so quickly and so well.
    Be safe and well
    George from LI, NY

  31. Mike in NC says:

    Not many of us can touch the lives of a few thousand people with our work – congratulations and on behalf of those who couldn’t….Thank You !!

  32. Patti says:

    Wonderful. Simply wonderful!

  33. Will in NM says:

    Wow John! Amazing what you and your club members could accomplish in just three weeks! It puts all us procrastinators to shame that we haven’t done nearly so much in years. I love the back story of how this layout came about as well as the great photos of your progress. Next time, it would be great to see a video of the final product with all those wonderful standard gauge trains running. Thank you for sharing your story and photos.

  34. Erick says:

    Very Nice.!!!!!

  35. Jim Marek says:

    Very nice good job man, all that in a couple weeks. Frikn amazing you are truly a professional. I’m partial to O it even N.All that and ya work 40 a wk. WOW you go man

  36. Ken of Lakewood Shores says:

    Just amazing!!!!!!

  37. Absolutely amazing

  38. Dave Karper says:

    This brings back wonderful memories of the wonderful Christmas demonstrations in our department stores in the late 1930’s and the early 1940’sThese were the most wonderful sights to a seven and eight year old boy.

  39. Andrew Aves says:

    If this is John’s “Quick and Dirty” i cannot imagine the detail he can achieve. Awesome
    Andrew in Oz

  40. Duane Trowbridge says:

    Thanks for taking me back to my childhood with the Lionel trains. We had a Lionel Santa Fe Diesel and tender car and a Marx steam engine and tender with tank car box car, flat car and caboose. A trestle bridge and a tunnel. Not a lot but we had fun, unfortunately it’s all gone now.
    Thank you for the pictures and all the hard work everyone puts into their displays.

  41. Terry Patti says:

    Absolutely amazing! What you do in such a short amount of time. Also gave me ideas for my layout in my basement. Thank You.

  42. robert dale tiemann says:

    great layout lots of work

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