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Join the Fun! Micro Layouts are a Blast!

December 13, 2008

Micro Layouts are probably the most beneficial section of the hobby due to the fact that they, in the definition given by Micro Layout compiler and modeler Carl Arendt: “Micro layouts are small model railroads, usually less than three or four square feet in area, that nonetheless have a clear purpose and excellent operating capability. “


There are four main types of micro layouts, and about 80% of micro layouts are based on these concepts:

 4 types of layouts

1. The Pizza Layout is a classic. Originally devised for HO or N scale, the pizza layout is a circle of track, usually scenicked. Rarely are these layouts build with any other trackwork like spurs, but there are notable exceptions. The term originated from either the pizza like look of the loop of track or the fact that some Pizza layouts were built in pizza boxes!

2. The Ingelnook Switching Puzzle dates back to 1978 and is the brainchild of Allen Wright, according to this source. The ingenious 5/3/3 ratio of 5 cars on the main and capacities for 3 cars on both sidings has been lauded as the “perfect” switching ratio. This type of layout is very portable and mentally challenging to shunt or switch cars around with. The Inglenook puzzle exists in real life on some railroads all around the world, like Italy and the US.

3. The Traverser is another very popular method of switching in even less space then the Inglenook. The problem is that a transfer table, a rather unusual piece of railroad equipment that is rarely found outside of railroad backshops, is the hallmark of this plan. This eliminates the need for switches, but realistically limits the modeling subject to a handful of prototype locations. Some variations on this layout can be found on Carl’s site.

4. Ridiculously small micro layouts like the curious “dime layout” that uses a US 10 cent piece as the inner portion of track in what one could term a “bite sized doughnut” layout. (In keeping with the food theme presented by the pizza layout. ) The coin conducts electricity and the outer rail is bent to an improbable radius. Here’s photos of one in action!

5. (Not Illustrated) would have to be the sector plate layouts. I really don’t like sector plates, because they’re not very realistic, and none exist in real life unlike turntables and transfer tables. They do add flexibility through the ability to move an entire train from one track to another, which is interesting.

These are certainly not all of the types of micro layouts out there. Some base their switching maneuvers around a turntable, some are actually small “traditional” loop layouts that feature sidings and the like, somewhat similar to MR 4X8 foot project layouts, but squeezed down to less than 4 square feet. Others offer unorthodox track-work or very complex track age with tight curves and clearances and lots of #4 switches.


There are infinite stories a model railroad can tell, and micro layouts push the boundaries of the traditional railroad themes. Some of the more traditional layout themes, like Anthracite coal mining, or modern intermodal terminals would be an impractical. The interesting part of micro layouts is that you can create small portions of large industries and use the micro layout as a small vignette to portray that specific industry.

Some of the more popular themes include:

1. Railroad back shops. Rebuilding cars and locomotives required a lot of specialized switching maneuvers and is one of the few prototypical places for turntables and transfer tables.

2. Wharves and seaside scenes are always popular. From the dock to a point of interchange, or from a mine to the dock. Some layouts even incorporate “live loads” of coal, ore or soil that dump from the railroad cars into the awaiting vessel. Car float operations are also another interesting facet of this theme. A good number of micro layouts feature lighthouses.

3. Urban Traction is a great space saving theme to explore. It’s one of the few places in which railroading can be accomplished with ultra-sharp curves and overhead wire. The scratch-built trolley cars, street cars and MOW motor flats whizzing around a small layout make for great fun.

4. Mining and Logging operations are popular subjects for micro layouts, although It seems silly to have a lumber mill 5 inches from the stand of trees being harvested..the same goes for most mining layouts.

5.  Using unusual gauges narrow gauge railroads are popular. Examples like Gn15, (1:29 scale using 1:87 HO gauge track, which scales to 15″ industrial gauge in G.) or On3 (1:48 O scale using scale 36″ gauge track) On30 (O scale on HO gauge track representing 30″ narrow gauge) Sn3 (1:64 S scale on their 36″ gauge track, which is almost HO gauge track)   HOn3 (HO 36″ narrow gauge) or HOn30 (HO scale on N 1:160 gauge track)  some crazy modelers even use Nn3 (N scale on Z gauge track)  are the backbone of the Narrow Gauge Movement.

6. Food related industries are popular. Winery layouts, Brewery operations, pickle factories and even a maple syrup factory are all represented among the  cadre of micro layouts.  

7. Brick works, Lime kilns, Railroad Tie creosoting plants and other realistic narrow gauge industrial railroads are very popular modeling subjects, this is another portion of micro layouts in which you can make a realistic layout in a small space.

8. The last main theme is dictated by the package it comes in. I’m building a shoebox layout, which when completed will be a small mining operation in HOn3 (The photo shows the plan in full HO gauge.) The packages can range from an orange crate, to a wine box to a shoe box, or even smaller, like a CD case. The business card layout is by far some of the most entertaining modeling I’ve seen. These unusual puzzle layouts can be excellently designed.


Shoebox layout plan

A small mining operation in HO scale is the theme, still a lot to be decided upon. Here are some photos utilizing my shoebox.

The Hopper will go from the mine (above track) out onto the Ore Trestle, where it will be dumped into a barge or equivalent.

For More inspiration, please visit his site, which features HUNDREDS of fantastic layouts that can be built on a shelf, in a briefcase, inside a pizza box or a shoebox, as a traditional diorama, or even as small as a CD case.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2011 2:01 pm

    You must not forget the gorre and Daphatid RR by Linn Westcott. Many micro layouts take after this form wth multiple levels and an, “empties-in, loads-out” theme.


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