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Lance Mindheim | The Shelf Layouts Co.

| May 1, 2011 | 1 Comment More

Lance Mindheim

Just when you think you know a little something about model railroading you find there’s always more to learn.

Personally I find this one of the more fun aspects of the hobby. There are always new doors opening, always new and interesting facets to dig in to. I recently drew up a small plan for a switching layout and that really got me thinking. Why not talk to one of the experts in hobby who specializes in shelf / switching layouts?

The name Lance Mindheim kept popping up on user forums and on Google searches and his book on switching layouts is very popular. I also recall seeing his Hoosier Line in N scale in an issue of Model Railroader. Ok, this seemed to be the guy to talk to about switching layouts! Lance graciously agreed to this interview and helped educate me about shelf layouts… or are they switching layouts? Let’s find out.

Is there a fundamental difference between a switching layout and a shelf layout or are these terms interchangeable?
A shelf layout refers more to the type of bench work. As the name implies, it is a narrower style of bench work that is generally mounted tight against the wall or on shelf brackets. In HO scale, a shelf layout is generally 12″ to no more than 24″ wide. By contrast, your typical 4′ x 8′ layout in the middle of the room is not a switching layout. Shelf layouts have appeal on several fronts. First, they can be mounted in such a way as to not take up the prime real estate area in the center of a typical room. Second, they are generally set up so the mainline route only passes through a scene once, thus making them appear more realistic. A shelf layout could be small and set up to carry out just switching operations. However, the shelves could line the walls of a much larger room and contain a continuous run model railroad featuring multiple towns and yards.

A switching layout refers to a style of operations, not a specific type of bench work. Rather than moving a train from point to point, the focus is on switching individual industries in one place or one industrial park. The switching layout style of operation does lend itself well to small layouts because you can pack a lot of action and interest into a small area. However, there are some very large switching layouts out there such as those by Jim Senese, David Barrow and Chuck Hitchcock.

Is there a minimum or maximum size or shape that you think of for a switching layout?
No not really, particularly in Z scale! I would put more focus on watching the maximum size so as not to bite off too much. In Z scale it doesn’t take much square footage to keep a modeler busy for quite some time. I wouldn’t want to be filling up a ten square foot city scene in Z scale. You’d be at it awhile I’m afraid.

Given that we have the space in Z to create larger layouts; do you think there’s a need or a place for switching layouts in Z scale?
Absolutely! As I alluded to before, switching layouts refer more to a style of operations than layout size. Many modelers really enjoy the process of spotting cars at specific industries. Many enjoy this more than main line running from town to town. Just as with N scale, I don’t view Z scale being solely for those with tight quarters. Z scale really allows you to spread things out thus making the scenes more realistic. I think it you are missing the point if you use the relatively small scale as means of cramming more elements into the scene.

What’s your personal primary scale?
HO.

What drew you to designing and building switching layouts?
This was something that evolved over time. I saw some niches in the custom building market that offered potential, particularly in the prototype modeling area and started taking a look at it. It was something I thought about long and hard before making the leap. I certainly enjoy the business but it is much different than most would expect. If you approach it as a hobby as opposed to running it like a business you won’t last too long. Over time I’ve added other business lines such as layout design and more recently a line of ‘How-To’ books.

What do you consider to be an essential element(s) to a good switching layout?
The actual elements themselves are technical issues that, while important, are less so than what I call strategic planning issues. My experience has been that people start putting a pen to graph paper way too soon and often end up doing what I call ‘correctly drawing the wrong layout’. The first step has to be a realistic look at your available time, money, energy level, and skill level. Most people spend far too little time examining potential themes and thus pick something rather generic and end up being bored with it.

On the technical side, there has to be an ongoing attempt to reign yourself in and not put in too much track. Turnouts should be no smaller than number six. Select industries that provide a lot of operational potential per square foot such as freight houses, warehouses, team tracks*, food processors, paper mills, etc. If all of your turnouts are facing the same way (as is the case in modern industrial parks) you don’t need a runaround track. If you have your turnouts both in the trailing and facing position you’ll need a runaround track with enough room at the end for the locomotive escape.

What are some of the more common design flaws you see in switching layouts?
There is one primary design error in particular that crops up a lot. That mistake is trying to include more elements than a scene can support visually. Closely related is designing layouts that are too big and don’t match the modelers available time or skill level. We treasure our hobby and there is a sense of fear that if we don’t include everything under the sun that somehow the layout will be boring. We overcompensate by piling on more structures and more track until the design just collapses from overweight.

It really doesn’t take much to keep us happily occupied for some time on either the modeling or operations front. I talk to a lot of modelers in any given week. I have yet to have a single person tell me they grew bored with their layout because it was too simple. However, I’ve had dozens confide in me that their layouts were not very fulfilling because they were simply too large and too complex. The problem of biting off too much is so pervasive that is one of the primary reasons people leave the hobby in frustration.

With conventional layouts there’s the element of continuous train motion to hold a viewer’s interest. What do you feel are the most interesting aspects of a switching layout?
You have to pay attention to industry selection so that you have businesses that are interesting to switch and offer a fair amount of operations per square foot of footprint they take up. For example a very large structure that only takes one boxcar is not a great candidate for a switching layout.

By contrast a moderate size food processor, perhaps just represented by a flat against the backdrop, offers a lot of operational bang for the buck. It could logically accept reefers, box cars and tank cars of vegetable oil and corn syrup. In addition the cars needed to be spotted at a specific location within the industry thus making each ‘car spot’ a separate industry by itself. The corn syrup cars need to be spotted next to the tanks, the reefers, by the cold storage door, etc.

Is it necessary to have some type of hidden fiddle / staging yard in order to have a successful switching layout?
No, it’s not always necessary to have a hidden fiddle yard. The fiddle yard serves two purposes. First, it represents the ‘outside” world, the imaginary continuation of the rest of the transportation system. Second, for those that run more than one train it allows place to store them before their run, much like airliners at an airport. In a similar vein, some modelers enjoy sorting, blocking, and classifying cars in a train. The fiddle yard provides a place to do this.

If you are just running run one train, you can simply have it start its run at the far end of the layout with cars already blocked by hand. This is what I do on my switching layouts which is why you’ll notice I don’t have staging / fiddle yards. If I were running more than one train then I’d certainly include that feature.

On first glance it seems to me that often times the scenery work on switching layouts is more detailed and dramatic than on larger, conventional layouts. Is this an accurate observation, and if so, why?
This is more a function of layout size than style of operations. Although it isn’t always the case, often switching layouts tend to smaller. There are only so many hours in the day so for a given individual it makes sense that they would be able to bring a small layout to a higher level of detail than they would if they built a larger project.

On these layouts are you typically in the conventional block wiring or the DCC camp?
In most cases it’s DCC. The cost of entry level DCC systems has come way down and DCC offers so much more flexibility in terms of control capability and walk around flexibility. You have to ask yourself one question and that is, how many locomotives will run on the layout? If it will only be one engine and the layout is relatively small, say less than twelve feet long, then you have the option to run either a standard DC power pack or DCC. As soon as you increase the number of engines to two or more than you’re dealing with block control and spending a lot of time and money on something that wouldn’t have the same capability as DCC.

Lance Mindheim

Lance’s Books At Amazon

Tell us a bit about the books you currently have available
I have three books out. Those titles are: How to Design A Small Switching Layout, 8 Realistic Track Plans For A Small Switching Layout and 8 Realistic Track Plans For A Small Room. All are available through Amazon.com.

With the two track plan books I had a growing sense that many modelers are on the sidelines, frustrated by a lack of ideas for layouts that are both simple to build and yet offer sophisticated operational potential. For many, space or even money is not the problem. The problem is a lack of time and energy after a long work day. I wanted to put together plans that a person of any skill level could put together and yet wouldn’t insult their intelligence.

There is a lot of good design information in the press but I really wanted a vehicle that laid it out in procedural fashion such as do step A first, then step B, etc. That’s the approach I took with the design book. I have a  fourth book coming out now called How to Build a Small Switching Layout.

Last question, what didn’t I ask that you feel is important to designing and building a good switching layout?
None of the issues we’ve been discussing are really tied to any particular scale and apply across the board. One thing that frustrated me with my N scale layout and this applies even more so to Z scale is the assumption people made that I had limited space. That was not the case at all. The primary advantage of the smaller scales is the ability to really open up scenes and space them out. Doing so can really create some stunning scenes. Using the small scale simply to shoehorn more and more elements in gets back to some of the overload traps we discussed earlier.

I have two websites. My personal site, where I offer a number of modeling tips and information on my personal layouts, is www.lancemindheim.com. I also have a business site, www.shelflayouts.com, dedicated to my custom layout building and layout design business. I offer a number of tips on my business site as well.

*A team track is a small railroad siding or spur track intended for the use of area merchants, manufacturers, farmers and other small businesses to personally load and unload products and merchandise, usually in smaller quantities. The term “team” refers to the teams of horses or oxen delivering wagon-loads of freight transferred to or from railway cars. Earliest rail service to an area often provided a team track on railroad-owned property adjacent to the railroad agent’s train station

Small volume shippers and shippers with facilities distant from the rail line continued using team tracks into the early part of the 20th century.

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  • Bill

    I would not bet a plugged nickel on this but I think that until the mid 1970s SP had team tracks on its line leading east out of L.A. in between the East bound and West bound 10 freeway. Between Fremont and Atlantic there is a bend in the freeway and at this bend the opposing lanes separate leaving considerable space. I believe that SP had team tracks located here. You can see the separation on Google Maps.

    There was also a short team track on the Santa Fe line between Santa Ana and San Juan Capistrano. It was located at El Toro Road in what is now known as the City of Lake Forest. When the SF upgraded this line to welded rail they kept the turnout and the team track. There was no building or loading dock. There was only a dirt road leading to the track. There are only apartments and homes surrounding this team track. The business that used the team track is located across El Toro Road. The team track lasted into the 1990s. This team track was located at the crest of the grade that separated the Santa Ana River valley and the Aliso Creek canyon.

    In its final years I believe that it received only lumber shipments for a local lumber yard. I am sure that many other team tracks remained in operation in many other parts of this country far into the 20th century. I would bet a real nickel that quite a few exist even today after 10 years into the 21st century.

    Bill

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