Desktop Micro Layout: 17" x 30"
Updated: Jan 29
A tiny layout with continuous running and some industrial switching operations.
Well, I've wrapped up the construction of yet another N scale micro layout. This highly detailed layout is 17 by 30 inches, features continuous running and multiple industries to switch. This is a great layout for a side table or even a large desk, and shows you can have a fun layout even in a very small space. The controller I'm using allows you to run the layout by either battery power or AC wall power, allowing you to operate it anywhere, even on an outdoor patio table like you see here. Scroll down below the pictures of the completed layout to read about the construction. There is a link to a video of the layout construction at the bottom of the post.
Anyway, let's jump into how I built this great little layout. So I started out with a 16 by 28 inch pine board that I picked up from Home Depot, and I framed that up with some 1/2" by 4" poplar to produce a sturdy base for the layout. I also screwed and glued some extra pieces of poplar on the bottom of the layout base to help prevent the layout base from warping, and to allow a recessed space for wires.
Once everything was glued and nailed together I cut a piece of 2" thick insulation board to fit into the opening and then simply glued that in place with some wood glue. In the past I used construction adhesive for foam board, but now just prefer to use regular wood glue since I find that secures the foam very securely as well.
Next it was time to figure out my track plan. I used Kato Unitrack and the loop of track has 7" inch radius curves. I'm using a #6 turnout as well as a 6" radius turnout that works with the Kato compact track. While it is a very tight curve, the 6" radius turnouts seem to be more reliable than the Kato #4 turnouts, and there wasn't room for two #6 turnouts.
I used a power lead on each of the sidings plus the main loop. I drilled a hole in the location of each power lead as well as where the turnout control wires came out. I decided not to actually wire up the turnout controls since the layout is so small and later just tucked the wires up into a hole in the base of the layout. It is easier to just use the built-in turnout throw switches on a layout this tiny.
Here are the track plan and Kato Unitrack parts list.
If you expand the layout to 20" x 36" you will be able to run a larger variety of equipment:
Once I had the wires fished through the holes and track put back together I glues the track to the foam using some hot glue. Then to make sure I had good electrical conductivity everywhere, I soldered most of the rail joints. Since I'm not fantastic at soldering I had to file some of the solder joints down to make sure the track was smooth. After some test runs showed everything worked well it was time to move onto the scenery work.
To make the layout more visually interesting I wanted to have a second level for some of the structures and to provide a way to hide part of the track loop. I cut a curved piece of foam for a roadway to connect the upper and lower levels and glued and screwed that foam into place. I wanted concrete retaining walls along the edge of the roadway as well as two of the sides of the upper-level. To make those I simply cut some chip board to size and glued that in place and used some weights to help hold everything in place and would later paint that and weather the chipboard to look like concrete.
Once that was all dry, I mixed up a couple small batches of Sculptamold and filled in all the gaps around the upper-level and also covered over all the screw holes.
While that was drying, I started going through all of my structure kits to figure out how I was going to build and arrange them on the layout. Most of the kits came from the Woodland Scenics Town and Industry building set that is designed to work with their 3x6 foot N scale layout kit. It is a great value, as you get numerous structures, as well as a bag of detail parts, all for much less than buying them individually.
I also picked up a couple of additional structure kits to use on the layout. I tried different arrangements of structure pieces and then decided to just scratch build the larger corner structure that would be placed over the track.
I mocked up the structure with chip board (and later used that for the structure itself), and then taped together various building kit pieces to figure out how I wanted to arrange the other structures. The Amazon ad below is the chipboard I use.
Since the corner structure was the largest, I started working on that one first. I cut some thin sheet styrene to place over the chip board, glued that on, then glued the wall pieces together using some 1/4" wood strips in the corners for support.
I cut some strips of styrene off of a larger sheet to help simulate panel lines on the structure, then glued those onto two sides of the structure.
To help add rigidity to the whole structure I cut a piece of 1" thick insulation foam board to fit inside the structure and to also serve as the structure's roof. I glued some random bits of things from my scrap box to the top of the roof, then glued on a layer of ballast to simulate a gravel roof. I then spray painted the entire structure with a gray primer. For the final finish I used a stone gray spray paint and painted the two sides of the structure that face inwards to the layout. I didn't worry about making the bottom half of the long side look good since it is going to be hidden by the upper-level of the layout and won't be visible.
I also assembled some of the structure kit pieces to serve as a brick portion of the large corner structure and sprayed that as well with the gray primer. For the final brick color I sprayed the building with a rusty metal primer from Rust-oleum which I makes for a nice brick color.
I also wanted the corner structure to have a concrete floor so I added some layers of chipboard and some sheet styrene to serve as a concrete floor which was sprayed a light gray color.
I figured out my final structure placement and assembled those structures so I could paint those as well. These were all painted with a gray primer first, then I painted two of the structures with the rusty metal primer, and the other three in various shades of beige and off-white.
With the structure placement figured out, it was time to work on the sidewalks and streets. I used evergreen scale models sidewalk styrene sheets for the main sidewalk area on the upper level. I cut a piece to serve as the sidewalk for the upper-level and painted that with a light gray color and also painted two more pieces of plain sheet styrene for concrete areas that will be under two of the lower tier structures.
While those dried, I mixed up a couple of batches of woodland scenics smooth-it to which I added some black India ink in order to color it a darker gray color. I poured that over the areas I wanted paved and to look like asphalt, and then smoothed that out with a piece of styrene. I didn't try to make it perfectly smooth since it will all be sanded and another coat added anyway.
Here you can see what the road looked like after being sanded as well as what the upper-level looks like with the sidewalk area glued down.
I mixed up another batch of smooth-it with India ink added and smoothed this next layer over all of the paved areas to get things as level as possible.
While that was drying I painted the concrete retaining walls with some gray paint, and then hit the corner structure and retaining walls with a black wash once the paint was dry. I also used some Neo-lube on the turnout areas to give those an oily look.
After sanding the road areas once again, I used some weathering powders to vary the shading of the roads and give them a worn and weathered look.
Next it was time to start some scenery texture work. I painted on some matte medium in the areas around the retaining walls, added some dirt, then a layer of ground foam, and finally some pieces of woodland scenics clump foliage. That was all soaked with diluted matte medium again to make sure everything was very securely adhered to the layout.
I did the same thing to a small hill areas by the two turnouts. I originally planned to have a small structure here, but decided to make it a tree covered hill instead. This areas was covered with paint, dirt, ground foam, and then lots of glue. Before the glue dried I added a layer of static grass, both here and along the retaining wall areas.
I added some more Sculptamold to the front right corner of the layout as well as between two of the tracks just to break up the flat terrain.
Next, while that was drying, it was time to work on the structures once again. For the long brick structure that goes on the back of the layout I painted it with a light gray paint wash to simulate grout lines. I dabbed most of the paint off the top of the bricks, trying to leave the paint in the grout lines. I used the same wash on the other brick structures as well, then let that dry.
Structures don't look quite as realistic when they don't have roofs, and so I moved onto adding roofs to the structures. A couple of the structure kits came with roof pieces that were already the correct size, but for the others I had to cut the roof pieces to size from sheet styrene. I used strips of square styrene that came with the kits to act as little shelves along the inside of the structures for the roof pieces to rest on. To cut the room pieces to size I just sit the structure on the sheet of styrene and trace along the inside of the structure with a pen or pencil, then cut along those lines. Usually I don't get a perfect cut and so either have to use some filler along the edges of the roof to hide the gaps, or I just cheat and do a gravel roof.
Next, I needed to finish painting the structures. Usually, I tend to do the minimal amount of painting needed. For this structure I painted the non-brick areas a dark green. Then, for the windows I used a thin gray paint that was close in color to the grout color. So, if some ran in between the bricks it wouldn't be noticeable. With a small brush and thin paint, you can get the paint to flow along the window frame pretty easily. I chose not to paint the window sills since there was a higher chance I would goof that up. In general, it is better to not paint something than to paint it badly. People will overlook details that aren't painted or not applied, but will quickly notice ones that are done poorly. Also, avoid bright colors. Use gray instead of white, for example. If you keep the contrast between colors lower, then you mistakes won't be as noticeable.
For the long industry building I just painted all the doors and didn't even bother with the window frames at all since there were a lot of windows and it wasn't something that really needed to be done. I cut out two of the existing loading doors though since I didn't like how they looked and just glued on some gray styrene to the back of the opening.
Roofs need a lot of details, and so I worked on the roofs for quite a while. I added some of the chimneys that were included in the kits, then added some other random square bits of plastic and such to look like mechanicals on the roof. I did have to paint the chimneys, then I painted all the pipes and detail bits a gray color. Even though I planned to do gravel roofs for some of the structures I went ahead and painted all of the roofs a dark gray anyway so the brighter white of the styrene wouldn't show through gaps in the gravel.
I hate adding window glazing more than anything when building structures, but I had to tackle that project next before I could glue the buildings to the layout. So, I did my best to glue in the glazing without getting any glue showing through in the window openings, then I added various view blocks to the building interiors, using either the black construction paper included in the kits or pieces of styrene.
Before I returned to working on more roof details I took a break and worked on the scenery for a while. I did some ballasting, and added ground cover and static grass to the one end of the layout that I hadn't worked on yet.
I figured I should probably get the wiring done before installing the structures or I would be sure to flip the layout over and crush all the structures. I drilled a hole through the side and bottom of the layout where I wanted to feed all the wires through, then worked on soldering the track power leads together and running those up to the hole. Since I didn't plan to wire up the turnout controls, I just drilled a large hole in the bottom and bundled up the turnout control wires and stuffed them in the hole. This way they could always be wired up to controls at a later time if needed. Again, with a layout this tiny, remote turnout operation isn't really needed.
I also needed to add a push button control to the front of the layout to allow for easy operation by people viewing the layout. So, I wired up the push button switch and ran that wire back to the other end of the layout as well. I taped the wires into position temporarily, then hot glued them all in place. Later I'll add a cover to the bottom of the layout to protect the wires.
With most of the wiring done I glued the structures to the layout. I used a combination of wood glue and styrene cement to glue them to the layout depending on whether they were being glued to styrene or the foam base. By the way, that Plastruct Bondene will melt through foam insulation board with frightening speed, so you really don't want to spill that on a layout with foam insulation board. Trust me on that one. I weighted all the structures down and let them dry overnight to make sure they were good and secure before removing the weights.
Trees were next. Since I did a blog post (https://www.steves-trains.com/post/super-trees) and video on how I built the trees using the SuperTrees kit, I won't go into full detail here, but will just give you the quick summary.
The SuperTree material, also called sea foam and other names, has a realistic branch structure. You need to paint it a realistic color though since it tends to be rather yellowish out of the package. I used a RustOleum flat camouflage brown color which might not be exactly correct or most bark colors, but looks close enough and is what I had on hand.
Once the paint is dry you need to soak the tree armatures in a diluted matte medium mix. This both provides a means for gluing on the flocking material and also helps to strengthen the tree armature themselves, really just helping to keep them more flexible and slows how quickly they dry out and become brittle. Then, after letting them soak for a good while, pull them out and apply various shades and textures depending on what kind of tree you are going for. Adding some leaf flake material helps to create an even more realistic looking tree. After flocking you need to spray them down with the diluted matte medium mixture once again and then let them dry.
Installation is simply a matter of poking some holes in the scenery and then gluing the stems into the holes. You can see what a difference the realistic looking trees make to the layout.
I jumped ahead a bit here as I hadn't finished the ground cover prior to making and installing some of the trees. I needed to finish that up in the same way I did on the other portions of the layout, as well as finish up all the ballasting.
I also did a video recently on the Woodland Scenics fence kits. I installed these along the top of the retaining wall on the upper portion of the layout. These fences are very easy to work with and give you a realistic looking fence in a hurry. The posts and rails are oversized for N scale, but unless you have a figure or something like that next to them you really don't notice it that much.
Anyway, I finished installing the trees and also used an upside down roof vent as a large pot to create a potted tree on the sidewalk area on the upper level. I sanded the top, or what is now the bottom of the pot, flat, and then added some glue and dirt into the opening, and stuck in a small tree along with a bit of clump foliage to make a nice looking potted tree.
With most of the scenery work done it was time to get back to working on more roof details. I used a Walthers Cornerstone kit for all the roof details. You get a nice selection of vents, blowers, AC units, to make your roofs look more realistic.
These details don't come assembled, which I was somewhat sad to discover, but they do all assemble easily. There are a lot of small parts, so you just need to take your time.
To paint the parts I taped some blue painters tape onto some cardboard sticky side up, which allowed me to stick all the detail parts to the tape so I could spray paint them without having them blow away. A few of the vents I could just stick directly into the cardboard.
I sprayed all the detail parts with a gray hobby spray paint and then when that was good and dry I squeezed out a bit of burnt umber artist oil paint onto the cardboard. Using a piece of sponge off of an old foam brush, I dipped the sponge into the paint, removed the excess, and then dabbed the sponge all around the edges and tops of the detail parts to give the appearance of rust. This is a fast and easy to give the appearance of rust, and dramatically improves the appearance of the roof details. I then glued all of these in various places on all the structure roofs.
Next I spray painted some power poles and street lights that came in the Woodland Scenics building kit a combination of camouflage brown and camouflage tan, as well as some pallets that were also in kit. These are all white metal castings and look pretty nice when painted.
To install the poles on the layout I just laid them out where I wanted them, trying to keep an even spacing. Then, using a small screw driver, I poked holes into the scenery where I wanted each pole and secured the poles with a bit of super glue.
Since the roof details were all in place, I moved on to adding gravel roofs to four of the structures. Gravel roofs are my way of cheating when I want to hide any roof imperfections and it still looks pretty good.
The woodland scenics kit also came with a couple of ladders so I installed those on the sides of two of the structures to add a bit more detail.
Since I made a spot to dock the controller onto the layout I wanted a way to keep the wires that extend from the back of the layout to the controller nice and neat. I saw that I had a pile of Allen wrenches that were all the same size that I had accumulated over time, so I decided to use a couple of those here. I drilled holes for the Allen wrenches to fit into, and then glued them in with the short arms facing away from each other to provide a nice set of posts onto which I could wrap the extra wire and keep it secure and out of the way. I also have a toggle switch on the back of the layout that connects to the button on the front of the layout. If you throw the toggle switch one way, you need to push the button on the front for power to flow to the track, and the other way the button is bypassed. The button on the front unfortunately no longer worked because some matte medium mix had spilled down into the button gumming it up. So, I had to remove the button and replace it.
To cover the exposed wires on the bottom of the layout I glued on some pieces of chipboard, then added some screws to make sure the chipboard would stay securely in place.
Next I painted the bottom and sides of the layout black and then stuck on some self adhesive felt feet to the bottom. Once the bottom was dry I painted the edges of the layout as well as the one side I hadn't yet painted.
After the paint dried I lightly sanded everything and applied a second coat of paint to ensure a nice smooth finish.
Once that was dry, I mixed up some matte and gloss medium together about two parts matte to one part gloss in order to produce a mix that would basically give a nice satin finish. I then painted that over the black paint to help provide some protection to the paint surface.
I also glued on some vehicles and other detail parts I had on hand to the layout to finish things up.
So there you go, a really nice, small, portable layout, only 17 by 30 inches in size. Certainly small enough for an apartment, dorm, your office desk, or even to take with you in an RV. Watch a video of the layout construction below.
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