The Design of Small Model Railways

Self-contained box

[29×20×14 cm³ (l×w×h)]

Inspired by layouts in a suitcase, I started to ponder how small a functioning layout — with possibilities to move wagons around in some kind of meaningful manner — could be. And moreover, could this layout be Self-containded? I.e. all the supplies are included in the layout: tracks, power supply and so on. I started by selecting a ready-made wooden box with lid. When I found a candidate box, I designed the layout. A small station with one platform and a goods siding. Because everything is rather cramped, a goods turntable had to be employed to get some play value.

The trick of the design is to make the headshunt removable. It can be “clicked” on the layout and when not used stored underneath.

I bought a wooden box on the internet and turned the box around. Moving the lid to the bottom side. This created a large hollow space where all the electrics and controls could be fitted. I also wanted a fully functional turntable. To make something somewhat easy, I bought an electrical motor with 1 round per minute motor speed. This is a standard electric motor with a reduction gearbox. 1 rpm seemed slow enough for prototypical operations. These motors are quite large because of the gears, so I really needed the height of the wooden box to fit it all in.

The downside is that the scenic height on the visible side is limited. In fact, one 3 cm, this posed a problem designing the scenery in 00-scale (1:76). Again, my love for British narrow gauge inspired me to use 00-9 as scale. The buildings are in fact too small for this scale, but that was the compromise I had to make. The buildings are more H0 than 00. Our dear figurines would beat their head against the door posts.

Construction (2023)
Self-contained box: Overview (1) Self-contained box: Overview (2)
Self-contained box: Shelter (3) Self-contained box: Loading ramp (4)

The trackwork is a hotchpot of all kinds of 9 mm track. I’ve used Roco H0e track for the straights, N-scale curves from Minitrix and a H0e switch from Bemo. All continental parts were collected in the past decades for some reason.

The turntable posed to be quite a challenge. The 90 degree crossing was made by Arnold. The rings and turntable plate are made from PVC sewage pipe parts; these fit tightly together and are precisely circular. But the main problem was the electrical connections of the track on the turntable. The polarity has to switch according to the position of the turntable. The make the system work caused a lot of headaches and much failed solutions. But I found a way that works more or less reliable with sliders — contacts of a broken relay — over copper strips.


Would I make such a small lay-out again? I’m not super happy with the result. I spend too much time in making everything electrically controlled, the switch and the turntable. In the end, manual control would be easier to accomplish and probably more reliable. This would leave more space under the layout, making it easier to fit everything in the small space below. Maybe also with some room to store the rolling stock, making the layout truly self-containded.

Furthermore, I would use more ready-made parts. It doesn’t make sense building your own simple transistor-based power supply when you can buy cheap ready-made electronics from China. Or I could have used a second-hand transformer. I had lots of parts laying around, so in that sense it was relatively cost neutral. Otherwise, it would have been a rather inefficient build.

But all things put aside, I hope this layout inspires you to venture beyond the obvious. And build a Self-containded jack-in-the-box layout.

Photo Gallery (2023)
Self-contained box: Overview (1) Self-contained box: Detail (2) Self-contained box: Detail (3) Self-contained box: Detail (4) Self-contained box: Detail (5) Self-contained box: Detail (6) Self-contained box: Detail (7) Self-contained box: Detail (8) Self-contained box: Detail (10) Self-contained box: Wiring (11) Self-contained box: Wiring (12) Self-contained box: Overview (13)

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