I have written before about my thoughts on kids in the hobby, namely I don’t think it’s that important. Get them into Thomas, take them on the train, make sure trains are a part of their lives… and they have a good chance of being the model railroaders of the future.
But when the kid comes to you and wants to build a layout, you of course have to dive into it 1000%! My son, Boaz, really wanted a layout in his room. He is almost eight. From when he was five, we used to set up Bachmann E-Z Track on his floor and run trains, but invariably he would have friends over and the layout would get destroyed. The answer to this dilemma was to build a shelf layout for his E-Z Track. We started it last summer, and we finally finished it this month.
Boaz’s Shelf Layout, East End
I built a permanent layout (4×8 sheets on saw horses) as a child with my father and brother, and I have built two small sectional layouts. This was my first time building a more permanent layout as an adult, and it was a chance to put some of the lessons I’d learned as an armchair modeller to the test. Most importantly, Boaz built it with me and learned how to use a drill and driver, a chop saw and a bench press – all with Daddy’s help, of course!
I want Boaz (and Dalya and Isaac) to feel comfortable using power tools but to have a healthy fear of them so that they don’t become complacent or cocky. Safety is paramount in our household, and safety goggles are mandatory when using any power tools. Ear protection is necessary with all saws or other loud tools. I also teach them to wait until saws stop moving completely before grabbing the work or the offcuts. I don’t believe in mollycoddling my kids (“Yeah, right!” says my wife), but I also don’t believe in being cavalier about safety. I find it amazing how people I know will scream that my kid’s car seat isn’t tight enough (they can still breathe – make it tighter!!!) but then go and chop wood wearing flip flops and no eye protection.
Wooden corner cleats under the west end of the layout – don’t try this at home, kids!
The way the benchwork is constructed is quite simple. It’s “open grid” construction, which means it is essentially a box made up of 1/2″ plywood strips about 3″ wide that I ripped on my table saw. On the west side of the layout, Boaz and I built the box (except for the front panel) and attached it to the wall by screwing through the rear strip it directly into the studs. This would have been much easier to do if we had twelve hands.
We then attached the front and we made a bit of a mess of it. We used 2×2 cleats and screwed into them from the front of the layout. Many of the countersunk screws didn’t countersink (the 2×2 is a lot softer than the plywood). So it looks a bit of a mess, but Boaz doesn’t care. You live and learn.
Much improved benchwork on the east end
For the east end, built a few months later, I started to put the little grey brain cells to work and went rummaging through Home Depot for some metal angles. This time we just installed the rear panel of the benchwork and then attached everything else in situ – no need for twelve hands! Because the angles are installed from behind with 1/2″ screws, there are no screws visible on the outside of the layout. Now the east end of Boaz’s layout looks a little less like a “bodge.”
The top of the layout is more of that 1/2″ plywood, and I reenforced the shelves with three heavy-duty shelf brackets per side. It’s not going anywhere. This entire model railroad was built from two sheets of 1/2″ plywood with plenty left over for other projects.
Boaz’s CN Turbo pulls out of the east end station.
For another few months, the layout sat as two separate shelves on either side of Boaz’s room, and I started to worry that I would be one of those dads that starts a million projects and never finishes any of them. This past Victoria Day weekend gave us the chance to finish up.
Dalya jumps on Boaz’s bed while the Turbo crosses in front.
We finished up the east end and then got to work on the bridge. A while back I picked up a piece of 1x2x1/8 aluminum box channel. If you are looking for a model railroad bridge capable of spanning long distances without sagging, aluminum box channel is the way to go. The bridge is, coincidentally, 4′ 8 1/2″ long. I cut the channel to length using an aluminum blade in my metal-cutting chop saw and then clamped a 6″ wide piece of that ever-useful 1/2″ plywood on top. Boaz and I used the drill press to punch 9/16″ holes through the pair at 6″ intervals and I drove #10 screws into the bridge assembly. That was it – the bridge was done in about half an hour.
An easy bridge – aluminum channel and plywood
The bridge is supported with scraps of plywood on either end and nothing more. For now, Boaz just assembles his E-Z Track right over the bare plywood bridge. At some point we might add permanent curved approach tracks with feeder wires and a permanent track on the bridge. But now just running the E-Z Track over it works just fine.
I made a conscious decision to make the layout flat and the track impermanent. Boaz is still young and he enjoys setting up tracks. This way he can change the track plan any time he wants to.
Boaz prepares his CN Turbo for departure. It was his 7th birthday present.
The E-Z Track is not 100% reliable for power, as we sometimes have to deal with rail joiners and track sections which defy reality and don’t convey electricity no matter how much we clean or crimp them. But overall it’s been great to use. The NCE Power Cab has been rock solid as always. There is plenty of room for Boaz to add more kits that we build or more kits off of the layout I built as a kid – the kits are still sitting in my parents’ basement! And I plan to install fascia-mounted plugs for the Power Cab. Right now Boaz is using my portable Power Cab, installed in a Budd brake housing…
Dalya brings the Turbo into the west end station…
…through the steam-age coaling tower!
Every morning before school Boaz likes to take his Turbo for a spin. He does things properly, playing all the announcements and the step warning chimes before departure. He is getting great satisfaction out of his layout and it’s obvious he’s proud of what he has accomplished. One drawback is that most of his friends do not have the dexterity or attention span to slowly run a train along a shelf layout mainline that is only about 35 feet long. They tend to want to go fast or pick the trains up off the tracks. So for now he mainly enjoys his layout on his own or with his daddy and sister.
This sort of project introduces kids to engineering, planning, construction, and the safe use of tools. I hope that when Boaz is older he will look back on the time we spent building his layout and remember it fondly as something special that he shared with his daddy. Building a layout with your kids or grandkids also allows you to get your toes wet and learn a few things about what to do and what not to do for your own future layout (I’m just starting mine now). But model railroading is not for every kid. Don’t force it on them – follow their lead and their interests.
Building this layout with Boaz has shown me that there is a huge difference between being an armchair modeller and a layout builder. As an armchair modeller, I pay close attention to tiny details in model photos and I am quick to mentally criticize the work for this omission or that compromise. But when you actually start building, your concern is to get the thing built and to make it work properly. While spending an hour trying to figure out why power is not reaching one bit of track you are not so concerned with how many rivets that freight car should have.
It really has given me some perspective on my modelling and has helped me realize that getting a train up and running is a lot more important than creating a masterpiece. If I set myself attainable goals (run a train without derailing or stalling; make sure the benchwork isn’t sagging, etc.) I can deal with the other stuff (lineside details, fancy fascias, joint bars) afterwards. It took Leonardo several years to paint the Mona Lisa but before he started his masterpiece he still had to prep the canvas and prepare his paints…