Layout Lighting Quandary

I’d like to hear some opinions about my approach to room/layout lighting.

In my concept drawing, below, you’ll see that there will be an aisle with benchwork “shelves” on either side in this first phase of my layout.  It may be a very long time before the layout grows beyond this space.  Whatever I do for lighting in this part of the layout should be consistent with the way the future sections of the layout are illuminated.

layout schematic1 copyHere’s my quandary.  My layout is being built in an open basement room.  Regardless of how large it does or doesn’t become, it will always be in a space that is shared for other uses.  I think that the more conventional approach to layout lighting (lighting directly over the layout behind a valance) works well in a layout room, but I’m not sure it will work in a shared space.  Also, I like the clean look of a suspended ceiling with drop-in lighting.

Below is a photo that was taken along the newly framed wall looking into the narrow part of the room where I will start the layout.  As you can see, there are a number of utilities that complicate the ceiling a bit.  I plan to install a suspended ceiling at a height of about 7 feet in that narrow space, which allows for a few inches of clearance under that duct.  Out in the main room, the ceiling will be almost a foot higher, with a bulkhead providing a clean transition.

IMG_3061In the above photo, you can see the benchwork for the International Paper plant on the right.  Notice that the duct is directly over the benchwork on that side of the aisle, which forecloses on any opportunity to put drop-in lighting over International Paper.

My plan is to install a continuous row of drop-in florescent lighting directly over the aisle (the lighting you see in the photo will be removed).  I recognize that this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, vis-à-vis layout lighting.  Does anyone have experience-based wisdom to share?

12 thoughts on “Layout Lighting Quandary

  1. Hey Hunter,

    If I had my time over again, and I still may actually do this too I would look at some form of LED lighting. Here in Australia we have the 240V & 12V variety, and in our home we have the 12V type, in particular the 9W – Cool Whites, these globes are almost as close to our 36W – 6000K fluorescent tubes that we have around the layout.
    The advantage to the globes is they give off no UV and I can run 4 LEDs to one fluorescent tube, and off one 50W halogen transformer.
    I’ve looked at the whole LED strip idea and it isn’t what it’s hyped up to be, I’ve had one 5 metre strip of cool whites double in half (making a doubled 2.5m strip) and although it put out a similar amount of light to a single fluorescent it used the same amount of power, but didn’t quite match the light the 6000k put out.
    The thing I’m also considering will help is with a LED globe they can be installed in a gimble fitting allowing placement to certain spots on the layout, and can be used to eliminate shadows. They would also be perfect for your application in a finished false ceiling.

    Hope this helps in some way, it’s a tricky layout build issue many have faced before.


      • Hi Hunter,

        Clearance and heat convinced me to go with LED strips ( However, I did find that in order to get the light level I wanted, I needed five strips right over the layout, which is two feet wide with 20″ clearance to the lights. So, if I were lighting a room with a seven foot ceiling, I would want something in addition to the LED strips.


        • LED lighting has been the topic of conversation with many of my friends lately. I have some time to figure things out, but I’ll have to do some experimenting. I need to see LED lighting first-hand to really get an appreciation for what it can do.

          • Hunter you idea of doing some more research and looking at the different variations of LED’s in person is a good idea. The one thing I found was that although cheap to replace my current lighting the configuration I was going to need to match the current level of fluorescent lighting was going to draw the same amount or more power than what I currently had installed. Many things to consider. Jas.

  2. Hunter,

    Here is how I tackled the same problem as yours. It is a combination of low-cost CFL strings and strip LEDs. These posts also show how my drop ceiling is integrated into the lighting valance minimizing the cost of the drop ceiling installation. I too had to work around duct work but did not want the whole ceiling low to accommodate the ducts.

    • Thanks Alan. I forgot about that post on your blog. After having a look at your photos, I realize that I should never post any photo of anything I build from wood. Everything I build from wood seems to come out looking worse than a shipping crate assembled with a dull axe from bits of wood collected off the beach at low tide.

      Anyway, the shots looking upward from the floor of your layout room were particularly useful. It’s beginning to look like the lighting of my layout project is going to take much longer to address than I anticipated.

      • If you are like me…. actual construction moves along quickly. It is the design/engineering phase that takes me forever to complete. So many little details and issues to be worked out. The “what if” analysis seems to go on forever. And then there is the ‘do this before doing that’ component. In the end it is all worthwhile when you stand back to witness what you have built. Press on Hunter. You are off to a great start. It will come together into a nice railroad I am sure.

        • Thanks for the encouragement Alan. I like the advice that I’ve been given by my friends Pierre Oliver and Trevor Marshall. They advocate a balance between design and experimentation in order to avoid what they call “analysis paralysis.” That’s how I ended up building one piece of benchwork ahead of the room preparation, but it was a worthwhile pursuit. I didn’t get very far ahead of myself, and I learned some things as a result of forging ahead before having the room completely finished.

  3. Hunter,

    I have a strong opinion about the commonly referred to analysis paralysis. In my mind many times they are referring to the symptom, not the cause. Too often folks do not clearly and distinctly define exactly what the outcome is expected to be. Or they do so in too general of terms. By failing to complete this all important first step their ‘analysis’ becomes unbounded. There is no measure by which to judge changes as being towards the goal or drifting from the goal. Analysis paralysis sets in as the options become exponentially greater.

    Obtaining new skills during construction is always a component of the experience. Learn by doing. But there is a caveat to this approach. Without a well defined grand plan it is quite possible, no make that a certainty, that learning by doing will create mistakes that sooner or later mandate a do-over. This costs time and money that could have been better spent elsewhere on the layout. No one is perfect or knows everything. However, there are wise situations to learn by doing and there are very risky areas to do the same. I always ask myself…. how much of a PIA would this be to do over if it doesn’t come out well. If the answer is a bunch then I practice elsewhere first. For me, a lighting system squarely falls into the PIA do over category. Hence why I spent so much time planning and testing. The actual construction involves nothing more than basic carpentry and electrical work. You clearly have sufficient skills in those areas.

    You seem to be doing well in knowing what you want to build. The only reason I offer my opinion is to encourage you to think all the way through your lighting project before you begin construction. I spent much time designing mine and for the most part construction followed the final plan. Even still, there were unanticipated obstacles to overcome along the way. I can only imagine how much more difficult and costly it would have been had I not spent the necessary time in the design phase.

    • That was nicely articulated.

      My default mode of operating is to be informed before I take action, but also to gain experience, skill, and knowledge as I test out the information I’ve gathered. For instance, I moved ahead with finishing the wall behind the paper plant, and then built the benchwork and proceeded with the track in order to test out how much time I could honestly wrestle from my busy schedule. After about six months of successfully and enthusiastically working on it, I concluded that it was worth my while to frame up the opposite wall and build the layout to my planned first phase. It could have gone the other way, I suppose. I could have become frustrated by the fact that one needs to be flexible and resourceful to build a home layout. I wondered if I might find that I prefer to just build models and operate them on the club layout. I jokingly called that first shelf my “chainsaw layout” meaning that if, after all of the research into my prototype and figuring out how to fit it into my basement, I decided that a layout was just not in the cards for me, I could hack it up and burn it in a campfire. I think that frame of mind allowed me to forge ahead with my plan, but without the pressure of having something to prove to myself or anyone else.

      By my estimation, I’d like to be looking back to this day in three years from now quite satisfied with the layout in terms of its fidelity to the prototype and its entertainment value. I like your way of measuring whether you’ve done enough analysis. I think I’ve been doing that subconsciously all along. Once I made the decision to build more than the paper plant, I decided that I needed a ceiling and a framed wall in order to proceed. It would have been too much of a PITA to back and fix the ceiling the benchwork was in. Likewise, I recognize that I need to sort out this lighting plan before I get too much further into things. I have a few other things to keep me occupied while I ponder the best route.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful response Alan.

  4. Jason brings up a good point. I too discovered that a sufficient number of LEDs to provide the equivalent light of my CFLs ended up requiring just as much wattage. The problem is not with the LEDs themselves but with the power supplies that run them. Even by using switching power supplies in place of conventional transformer style the efficiency is only around 80%. Just another reason I used CFLs as heavily as I did. If somehow you could hook up all the LEDs in series so that they could run directly off the 120V mains then the efficiency would be there. At 2v drop per LED that equals a series of 60 LEDs. Unfortunately, that would mean if any one LED burns out then the whole string would go out. Not good.

    Be wary of quoted specs. They are determined under ideal lab conditions. Now that my system is complete I have directly measured the current in the mains powering the LEDs and the mains powering the CFLs. Sorry to rain on the pro-LED parade but the CFLs are putting out more light on the same amount of current.

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