ON30 shelf layout – John’s

John’s been back in touch. He’s shared his ON30 shelf layout which you can see below.

But he’s also shared something that had me smiling from ear to ear.

As well as his shelf layout, he also sent in a youtube of his backyard railroad.

It really does capture the joy of trains whatever scale they are.

Have a watch and see if you agree:

“Hi Al,

Here is a short video of my backyard railroad.



Now here’s his ON30 shelf layout:

“At this point in my life, I have been in model railroading over five decades.

Through those years I have repeatedly heard three complaints repeated nearly endlessly; these three complaints continually spring up like daisies after a spring rain.

The first of the complaints is “I do not have room for a layout.”

The second is that “Model railroading has gotten too expensive.”

The third is that “I do not have time.”

There is a skin of truth to each of these… But it is only a skin; these excuses are veils that hides the truth of the greatest hobby that anyone can ever be involved in. It can be fun to be a spectator in any game, being a player is generally even more fun.

We first begin to play we are all amateurs, we play because we love the game. In model railroading, the game is the hobby itself. Al repeatedly says that “It is all about GETTING STARTED” and his Beginner’s Guide is one of the greatest values in this wonderful hobby.

Before one begins, one must challenge the excuses. No one has space to build the layout of their dreams. On the other hand: Everyone does have room for a layout.

50 years, they longest time that I have been without some form of layout has been two weeks. Space? I have lived in rented rooms, small apartments, and I currently live in a small mobile home.

Oh yes, at one point I spent about a month living in the camper of my Toyota pick up truck… One of the old small ones. It is all about desire and creativity. As to cost and time, creativity is again the answer. Since I got married almost 40 years ago, my answer has been to build very small layouts.

I live in America where things are generally done in grand scale. Across the “pond” in Britain, the scale is a bit different (and more to my taste in many ways). There the hobby flourishes, in America many fear for the future of the hobby.

In my opinion, one reason may be the exposure through exhibitions which are common in the UK but very rare in the United States. A layout built for exhibition must be portable — Often this means “small”. The layouts that I build are often called “Dioramas” here in the United States but make no mistake, they are operating layouts and they are a lot of fun to build and to operate.

Most of my layouts fall into the “micro” category in that they occupy a space less than four square feet. My most recent build occupies a space that is about 14 inches wide and 44 inches long. The track plan is sometimes called a “Tuning Fork” — It consists of a single point (switch), two spurs, and a headshunt (switching lead). I built this one for 1/4 inch scale narrow gauge (On30) but it can be done in any scale or gauge. This layout design is a great way for anyone who has never built any kind of layout to GET STARTED.

About my latest layout… About four months ago I was deep in the doldrums. Life events were more than overwhelming and the projects that I was working on at the time were not proving to be sufficiently inspirational. What changed everything was a “dare” made by a friend of mine, David Pye.

At the time, he was encouraging some fellow modelers to get out of their proverbial armchair and build a small operating layout. He was specific, one switch… One spur with two spots to park cars, one with three, and the lead that would hold a locomotive and three cars.

Dave’s Dare was just the goad I needed to get me out of my modeling funk (and life funk as well). The competitive spirit kicked in and the result is Pye’s Point… This layout has been just a little over two months in the building… No time? Two months. No space? The layout is 14 inches wide (actually a little less) and less than four feet long. It is a little larger than a bedroom dresser and I can use the top as a shelf. No money? I have less than $100 American invested if you do not count the trains — Less than $200 American if you do.

Let me now present the very beginnings of Pye’s Point.

shelf layout

on30 shelf layout

tuning fork layout

The layout is a simple one and very uninteresting at first glance.

It is in fact a very simple shunting layout — But it is a start and this is all about GETTING STARTED.

A little scenery begins to make a big change.

Note: at this point I had just a little over one hour into this project.

shelf layout

on30 shelf

A simple hill is one thing that helps bring this very small layout to life…

Adding a structure and ballast begins to make it even more of a layout.

This simple shed is one found on your site… With some kind of water tank.

I built this model while on a weekend vacation and I believe you have featured it before. That was a lesson in having a modeling tool box to take with one when traveling…

This was the beginning of hiding the “End Of The World” on the headshunt.

model railroad shed

model train shed

model railroad hut

After beginning to hide the headshunt, it was time to begin working on the “business end”.

My first projects here were to build a loading platform and a small freight shed.

Note: What made this card projects possible were the skills I learned from watching John’s videos and building the kits.

For the reader — I want to encourage building Al’s kits… The help support the site and they help build your modeling skills. One likes to encourage the things that bring them joy and I cannot express in words the joy I have gotten from the information on Al’s site, watching John’s videos, and building Al’s kits.

This is the freight station that I built…

It is about 3 inches by 5 inches and 100% from card… Recycled soda can boxes. The roofing was cut from a dryer sheet and painted in place.

model train loading platform

on30 shelf layout

model train loading platform

After working on the freight station, I decided that a backdrop/backscene was needed.

This was not part of the original planning for this project. With the original “dare” the expectation was that it would be a simple project. As I was looking at the structures and features that I wanted to add however, it became clear to me that the overall scene needed to be “framed”.

The little locomotive in this picture was a Model Power diesel that I got for $20.. Some plastic card gave it a new cab and took it from HO scale to 1/4 inch O scale. — Modeling does not have to be expensive even in the “King of Scales”.

model railroad storage carriage

model railroad hut

With the backscene/backdrop installed, I could now begin on the second business to complete the operations side of the layout. This is Lou’s fuels. It is a small oil distributor. The oil storage tanks were made from a common toilet paper roll tube. The balance of the buildings are again card recycled from soda can boxes.

Note: The office for the fuel distributor, the little yellow house flat in the background, the railings on the fuel tanks, and the little outdoor loo were all built in one week while I was “on holiday” at my mother’s house in New Mexico, USA. They were built as “stress relievers” as the trip was not much of a “holiday” with my mother passing exactly 10 days after I arrived. This was not totally unexpected and had been one reason for the depressive funk that I was in before I started this layout project. The grand old lady missed her 100th birthday by exactly two months and one week.

If anyone is looking for a really good reason to “Get Started”, the stress relief is available in making models is far healthier and effective than any other palliative.

shelf layout

on30 shelf layout

shlef layout

Up to this point the layout has been a desert scene.

Trees will help… Mine were built mostly from weeds and moss… The weeds I found and the moss I purchased from a local craft store. A couple do use Woodland Scenics foam and one was modified from a Woodland Scenics HO scale tree that I had left over from an old layout.

narrow gauge


narrow gauge

With trees added, a few more finishing touches became appropriate.

Like the story with the backscene/backdrop, these were not part of the original vision.

What drove these little touches was the “incomplete look”.

One of these touches was another flat building… It is another of Alastair’s houses… One that I have used as a start for several of my models. The other touch was the layout cover that will actually hold some lighting. This was not part of the plan but for the space starved modeler it really makes the layout more of an art piece that can have a home anywhere in the house. The top is great for a bookshelf or “collectables” shelf.

I have removed the blue tape in this picture but have not yet painted the wood…

At this point the layout is 99.5% complete… I may add people and will add paint to finish.


narrow gauge

I do wish I had made my backscene taller as it would have made the photography easier. What I installed is only about 12 inches tall. 18 inches of backdrop would have really helped when it comes to taking pictures and hiding the “real world”.. A lesson for my next project.


John from California, USA”

A huge thanks to John.

I do love the way he outlines the three mains reasons why people don’t make a start. It just goes to show, there really is no reason why you can’t start and have fun.

That’s all for today, folks, please do keep ’em coming.

And don’t forget the Beginner’s Guide is here if you want to make that start.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

27 Responses to ON30 shelf layout – John’s

  1. Paul Case says:

    John you provided a wonderful explanation of reasons to enter this great hobby. Do you actually plan to operate the equipment or leave it as an art piece? Now that I am “finished” with my large layout I can see taking on a challange to build a small layout such as yours with materials I have left from the large layout. It certainly looks like a good winter project that I can use when not playing with my large layout and want keep my fingers nimble. Thanks again for your great writeup. Paul

  2. Brian Messenger says:

    I think that what you have done in a small space but larger scale is brilliant. You covered the three reasons not to do anything very well by what you have described here. Well done John and if you add more “finishes” to it, post more photos please.
    A footnote, my previous layout was in a 22ft by 12ft room and after moving to a smaller house, all I had was a 14ft by 10ft room. I did not stop me from building a better “new” double deck layout and correct all the mistakes I made on the previous one.
    Brian – the HOn3 guy, Knysna – RSA 🇿🇦

  3. Paul Michell says:

    Brilliant and inspirational. What else is there to say.

  4. Dan Hulitt says:

    Condolences for your mom, and a very well done for you. Thank you John.
    Mn Dan

  5. Phanlon says:

    That was really cool and beautifully done.

  6. NJ Mark says:

    That was just sweet! I never thought the end product would be so wonderful after seeing the first photo. Sweet! Cheers! NJ Mark

  7. Benjamin Wright says:

    What a great story to read! I really like his small layout. I had a shelf switching layout that was 8×6, but I am going thru a divorce so no more shelf layout. I did keep all my buildings, trees, people, locos, and freight cars. I’m going to start a small switching layout soon! Can’t wait!

  8. Cary B says:

    That’s a great looking switching layout. The detail is beautiful
    Cary B New Market Maryland

  9. Ron Schultz says:

    this was a different RR to see build . I understand how he went the “extra” mile to make it look interesting. Great job. Its the little things that make the RR look and feel real. Mine is point to point and I would love to do some . just run a train around the “circle” and watch it. that’s an other day by building a shelf around the room above the Table layout . then the long freights and passenger trains can just run while I do the pick up and set out of the local train crew.

  10. Wow! Great story and very well done in modeling. I seem to always find a way to stop working on my layout. I just wish I had the brains to come up with all the items he has done. My hat is off to him. I will start again. Thank you so much for the post!

  11. Eric Rayner says:

    Wow, fantastic job John, love your narrative, if you ain’t got space, you can make it if you really want to join the greatest hobby available. And it doesn’t have to cost the earth. Excellent work.

  12. Bill in Virginia says:

    John you said it all. Great narrative and great motivation to Just Do It !!!

  13. To Al Lee…
    Thank you for stitching the whole narrative together with the pictures…
    To Paul Case…
    I do operate my small layouts… You mentioned having a large layout…
    Within the hobby, many famous modelers with large layouts did build
    some small ones as well — To have fun with. Perhaps the most famous
    was John Allen who passed in 1971… His Gorre and Daphetid began
    small and grew into a basement monster… So he built the Time-Saver
    shunting layout.
    To everyone else…
    Thank you for the very kind words… I love this hobby and sincerely
    believe that it is the greatest of hobbies. I also believe that it is more
    fun to build layouts and run trains than merely to look at pictures.
    I really got “hooked” on these very small layouts several years ago
    when I built the first one for exhibition at a local hobby shop…
    Each one has been a test of new ideas and a development of new
    skills… I get a chance to try ideas that I would never try on a more
    traditionally sized layout.
    I find these layouts fun to build and fun to operate… Some join the
    art collection in my home after a while and others get sold…
    This one will be run for a while and then end up in my living room.
    Once “retired” it will still make its way from a shelf on top of the television
    to the dining room table every so often where trains will be run for an hour
    or so before it goes back on the shelf…
    John from California

  14. John N. Stevens says:

    John, I returned from California to live in my native New Mexico about 21 years ago. I was pleased that you built a structure for your switching layout here in New Mexico, but I am saddened that you were here to be with your mother during her last days. My mom (another native New Mexican) passed within six weeks of her 96th birthday five years ago. We are blessed to have had our moms for so many years. Your contribution has spurred me to get a small layout going while preparing for something larger. It seems foolish to wait for the ‘grand’ layout to get started. I have plenty of track, engines, infrastructure, and rolling stock after a two year eBay shopping spree, Getting started is seemingly the hardest part! You’ve inspired me to battle inertia and quit fantasize\ing.

  15. Welder dave says:

    Was John’s railroad featured on toy man tvs you tube channel ? Looks like it .

  16. Richard H Chapple Sr says:

    Wow John, you hit every nail on the head with one whack and drove em’ home. I built my first layout in 1948 and since have built so many more, and have gotten several people started in model railroading over the years, they would challenge me with those 3 excuses and together we overcame them.
    Terrific narrative and super example with the operating switching layout. Just wonderful inspiration. Any and all material is fair game to use to build a railroad in virtually any space at very little cost. I think of the late Carl Arendt’s amazing website of micro size layouts he featured and published 3 books of all kinds of operating micro size layouts.

  17. John Birch says:

    One of the best (and major) aspect of this hobby is that it caters for all tastes, abilities and interests. If one is an electronics whiz, the scope is endless; if the focus is on running trains, it provides hours of fun; creating a world in miniature, the limit is only in one’s imagination; an artist can create a stunning backdrop, and so on. For me, operating trains is secondary. I like to re-create a spacious world where trains are part of the scene where people get on with their lives as we all do. My railway world is a nostalgic recreations of what I remember and enjoyed so much as a kid where holiday destinations always involved railway journeys. They were magical!
    Get started, one does have time (less TV watching?) and can create a layout on a very small budget if one is creative and patient. Amazing deals can be acquired on eBay, for example or through a club. (I needed two locomotive nameplates that are no longer available. Someone in a club had them and gave them to me.).
    Just get started! Be creative! Enjoy!

  18. DJfromNJ says:

    You have made the BEST EVER presentation. Well done!

  19. Peter Bayley-Bligh says:

    Let’s just say “Wow” – phenomenal.

  20. Erick says:

    Wow pretty neat.!!!!!!!!!! I Hope mine turns out that good.

  21. The outdoor cab ride was a hoot!

  22. Doug in Kodiak says:

    You talked me into it. I think I’ll do the tracks by my Grandmums house outside of Toronto in Long Branch. Their house was was condemned so the rail way could do an underpass on the street. I,ll do the rail offset and construction of the bypass. Thanks for the inspiration. Sorry about the loss of your mum. it’s a sad day when we loose part of the family especially your mum. Best regards

  23. Amazing train ride. I hope his neighbors get an occassional ride.

  24. Louis Frederick Caputo says:

    John’s incremental upgrades show that a layout doesn’t need to be an unimaginable project! (That is perhaps the 4th excuse for not beginning a layout). Completing a step at a time and enjoying the result serves as a reinforcement to then take the next step and pretty soon a masterpiece is born!! Thanks to John for his sharing a pathway to enjoyment and satisfaction.

  25. Dave Karper says:

    John, your cab ride was just like looking over the nose of an EMD E o r F unit. Large scale gives the ride the perspective of the real thing. and, yes, I speak from experience.

  26. A few updates.
    The On30 layout has become an interesting memorial.
    While I lost my mother on June 24, 2019, I lost my wife on January 20, 2020.
    All the structures have an odd connection to the two events.
    I built the little yellow shed on what would be the last family trip to Silver Lake in California. This was a special place for my wife that she loved to visit. Alas her lungs really began to fail in a major way about 10 months later.
    The other structures were built when I was visiting my mother on the last 10 days of her life.
    I had a chance to meet the individual behind Toyman Television this last weekend at an event in Carson City Nevada. As soon as my steam engine is running I plan on inviting him to visit and operate it.

  27. Mark T. Pianka says:

    That is very sharp wish I had a riding train on my 11 acres!!

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