This piece on the miniaturist’s hobby workstation was originally written for and submitted to Model Railroader Magazine in 2011. Due to a hiccup in their submission system, it fell through the cracks and was lost for over a year. By the time my article resurfaced, I had moved onto other things and did not have the time to make their requested revisions. And so, it was never published – until now! I have also added some Amazon affiliate links to better help you get your workstation set up.
As a model railroader (or dollhouse miniaturist!), you spend hours upon hours designing and building your layout to perfection, down to the smallest detail, but often you neglect your workspace. This is a big problem because the workspace is where you spend a considerable amount of your time. It should be a fun and comfortable space. Let’s fix it!
First, make a list of the different types of activities you do as part of your hobby. Most model railroaders build kits, test locomotives, make scenery, and do weathering, painting, soldering or electrical work and other similar tasks. Some also do more specialized tasks like working with brass plating. You need to have appropriate workspaces for all of your activities. Most activities can be combined in a general purpose desk. Tasks such as spray painting and even soldering should have other places, or ‘stations’ if you will, that are more suited to them for health and safety reasons.
Location and Lighting
The next thing to do is take a good look at the space your work area is in. Are you physically close enough to your layout that you aren’t running back and forth too often? You need an area that is close enough to your layout and has good lighting. It also needs to be at the correct height for your working habits, and is large enough.
Is your workspace under your layout, in a garage, basement, or outbuilding? Many of these areas have substandard lighting. Consider the differences between incandescent light and fluorescent light. They give off different colors of light which affect how your painted projects look. Fluorescent is a whiter and brighter light than incandescent lights, but many people prefer the ‘cozy’ feeling of incandescent. Fluorescents are good for replicating middle of the day outdoor lighting. Incandescent do better with sunrises, sunsets, early morning, and late evening light.
Chairs and Work Surface Sizes
Look at your chair. It needs to have a back and ideally should be height adjustable. You might consider lowering your chair so that you aren’t bending over the table as much. This will prevent back and neck aches. Chairs that rotate and are on wheels can help you reach things easier. Arm rests are a personal choice. You’ve already poured so much money into your layout, splurging on a good quality chair can save you from a visit to the chiropractor.
As for the height of the work surface, some model railroaders like table height, while some prefer counter or bar height. It really depends on whether you spend long periods of time sitting down, or if you run back and forth enough that you do a good part of your work standing. There is no perfect height, just the one that works best for you.
To determine the length of your desk, sit at the center of your desk with your chair at the height you like and stretch out your arms. Make sure everything you usually need is within arm’s reach. You should set up permanent work zones for your special tasks like painting and soldering which are not at your desk. You’ll also need a storage system for tools and for projects in progress. With only general tasks going on at your hobby workstation, you do have enough space for it all.
Like the rest of us (myself included!), you have a lot of different tools for different tasks and for different scales of projects. You have your larger power tools for building the layout supports, your regular hand tools, your smaller scale construction tools, and the really fine tools for tiny detail work. Dividing them further might help keep them organized and prevent accidental repurchases.
Your large tools are probably in your workshop, garage, or elsewhere, away from your main hobby workstation. If they aren’t, you should consider setting up a dedicated area for them. You often do not need these tools at the main hobby workstation desk.
Now divide your hobby tools into task groups. Put all of your painting supplies off to the side. Also set aside your soldering iron, glue gun, and related supplies. This should leave you with a collection of cutting tools like small saws and X-acto knives, clamps, tweezers or tools for holding tiny things, and a plethora of specialized tools. Put them into groups and store them somewhere within arm’s reach of the center of your hobby workstation.
Maybe your desk has drawers. If so, you can use silverware dividers, small boxes, or pencil trays to keep things organized. Maybe you have space above your desk for a pegboard with hooks and chalk trays. Organization is key, and you should be able to visually locate any tool within 6 seconds. If it takes you longer than that to find something, you should put it someplace better.
Hot Zone Station
‘What, a silly little glue gun dangerous?’ Say that and you’ll soon be sporting a spiteful burn from your scorned tool. I’d be willing to bet almost every one of you have at one point burned yourself with a soldering iron or a glue gun. If you haven’t, then I’m sure you’ve had a least one close call.
Glue guns and soldering irons are very hot and need their own workspace. I call it the Hot Zone. They need access to power, of course, and you should watch that their cords don’t get in your way. If you are right handed, put the outlet (or extension cord) to your right. If you are left handed, the cord should go to the left.
You might also want to consider using a raised work surface. This will bring the parts and tools closer to your eyes. You shouldn’t need to bend down, squint, or try to solder it all in the air. Leaving the parts on the table and bringing the table closer to your eyes is a much better idea.
The last two tips for you on this topic are actually pretty neat. Consider purchasing a Fireworks heat resistant mat and a fume trap. Heat mats are just like your green Alvin self-healing cutting mats which protect your table top from cuts, but instead, heat mats protect your table top from burns and scorch marks. Stained glass artists use them all the time to save their work surfaces. A fume trap is a must-have because soldering releases dangerous fumes that you really shouldn’t be breathing. A small hobbyist tabletop version would be quite adequate.
How many of your projects have been put on hold because you weren’t set up to paint or glue them right away, and consequently, those projects have never made it out onto your layout?
My dad always sprayed his models outside on the front lawn. When it got too cold, he sprayed them in the garage if he could get away with it. If you’ve ever run into this problem, you need to get yourself a spray booth. They aren’t so expensive anymore. There are plenty of hobbyist models on the market today. A quick Google search on “spray booth” brings up several to choose from, in all different sizes and price ranges. Find one that fits your hobby and working habits.
Almost all spray booths require some sort of ventilation system. That might be a bit tricky, but get creative. Run a little laundry hose out the back window. You can use the excuse that it is preventing cancer. If that isn’t good enough, at least it’s keeping the smell of the paint fumes out of the house. If that won’t work, try a fume trap instead.
The second thing you need for your painting projects is a place to set them while they are drying. Having a bit of space on the table next to the spray booth is great, particularly if you line it with wax paper. Paint won’t stick to wax paper. If you want to be extra fancy, you can probably find a system that lets you cleanly rip off used parts of the roll, like art teachers do for their kindergartners. Some painted items need to be held in the air. You have two options for that. Either create a hanging system with things like alligator clips or straight pins (from the sewing basket upstairs), or create something that supports it from the bottom.
Your tools and supplies for your painting activities should be stored close by. Check the labels on paints and chemicals for storage instructions to be sure your area meets the requirements. These tools and supplies can be further away from the spray station than arm’s reach. However, you need to dedicate a spot for them. This prevents things from getting lost, disorganized, or repurchased.
Has this happened to you? You just got a new kit or idea and head to your workspace to work on it, but the place is a complete mess. Among all the tools are all the unfinished projects you put aside for one reason or another. What if you had a better place to put your in-progress projects? Your hobby workstation desk is supposed to be for things you are actually working on; it’s not for storage.
There are various ways of storing your projects. Using bookcases or shelves is one idea. Another option is to have a system of trays and racks. Each project gets its own tray. These trays should have a small lip around the edge to keep small parts from escaping. The racks should have grooves or some means of holding the trays. The trays become the shelves. As there aren’t any fixed shelves to get in the way, your projects can be any height. Large O-scale grain silos and tiny N-scale trackside buildings happily coexist in the same system.
When you are ready to work on one of them again, simply bring the entire shelf down from the rack. All the bits and bobs you need for it are still there. They are not lost in the jungle of your old cluttered desk. This will not only keep your hobby workstation cleaner, it will also speed up the process of diving back into a project previously set aside.
Hobby Workstation Final Remarks
The solutions I’ve presented to common model railroader problems might not be the correct answers for you. However, almost everyone’s workspace has room to improve. Look around and see with fresh eyes the unique problems your set-up has. You spend a lot of time there and should make sure it’s as comfortable and efficient as possible. You want your hobby to be fun, and not frustrating or a chore. Some problems might require solutions that need money to solve. Putting a little money into your workspace is likely a very small percent compared to the rest of your layout. Your health and comfort is worth it. Redoing your workspace will not take too long, just a weekend or two. In the long run it will give you back so much more.
Special thanks goes to my father, William Ansley; the Division 7, Mid Central Region, National Model Railroad Association; and the University of Cincinnati’s top ranked Industrial Design Program.
For my research, I conducted a survey among the members of the Division 7, Mid Central Region, National Model Railroad Association of Cincinnati. I learned the common problems and the various work habits of model railroaders. I took that information and designed solutions to these problems.