Givens And Druthers

Givens and Druthers for your model railroad are a simple and elegant solution to the question all model railroaders face. What is my layout going to be like, or more precisely, how do I figure out what goes into my model railroad? There are all sorts of websites around the Internet that try to describe Givens & Druthers, some more successfully than others.

When taking on a project the size of a model railroad, even the smallest bookshelf railroad, you need a way to organize and prioritize what the end result will be. This is what Givens & Druthers do. Givens & Druthers for your model railroad are a list of what you must have, and what you would like to have. This is also where many new (or not so new) model railroaders start to have trouble.

The Givens and Druthers for your model railroad are your list of what’s important to you, not what others tell you are important. Many people who start something completely new, look for examples to follow, some even want to see someone else do the new thing first, so they can watch. The problem is that while you can watch someone else make a list of what’s important to them, it will have no effect on what is important to you.

Givens & Druthers Start With IdeasOnly you know what’s important to you, and what is merely desirable. This is why it can be so difficult to explain how Givens and Druthers work. I can tell you what’s on my list of Givens, and what’s on my list of Druthers, but your list is most likely going to be very different from mine. This means you have to strike out on your own, and make your own choices.

For some, that is why they got into model railroading in the first place. It’s a chance to create their own reality the way they want, and have everything exactly as they imagine it. Others are more timid, and because they’ve never done anything like this before, they hesitate to try even the simplest tasks. No matter which you are, or think you are, Givens & Druthers are your chance to put your personal mark on your model railroad.

Givens & Druthers: What They Are

When you first found this hobby, you saw something magical. You saw a real world in miniature, and you decided, “I want to do that!” You marveled at the precision and detail of the model railroads you saw, either in person, at a show, or in magazines. That precision and detail both drew you into the hobby, and intimidated you. After all, how could you build something anywhere close to that level of craftsmanship?

It’s the idea of creating your own world, where you make the rules, and everything works as you choose, that attracts us to the hobby of model railroading. It’s the realization that we probably don’t have the skill to pull it off the way we see it in our mind that keeps us from trying.

Let’s face it, have you ever seen a bad model railroad in a magazine? Of course not. The level of modeling you see in the magazines, at a friend’s house, or even at a model train show, is daunting. The detail that goes into these layouts is magnificent. 

What’s not often mentioned, is that the owner of this magnificent model railroad, wasn’t born with the skills it took to build it. So how then, do you go from little or no skills, to building the layout of your dreams, with detail so real you sometimes wonder, is it a model?

Givens & Druthers is your first step to that level of detail.


Simply put, Givens are those things you cannot, or will not change. They are the things you must have as some aspect of your layout. Typically, the very first Given, is the size of the room that your model railroad will occupy. It’s a Given because it can’t be changed without restarting pretty much all of your planning from scratch. You can certainly knock out a wall, or negotiate for use of a better room, but that will involve major replanning of your model railroad.

Universal Given: Room SizeThe size of your room is about the only universal Given that every model railroader has. Everything else on your list will be by your choice. That choice may be enforced by outside factors such as a wife or kids, but it’s still a choice you will make to keep the peace, or keep the layout in one piece. This is why Givens & Druthers can be one of the hardest parts of planning and building a model railroad.

Ok, you’ve got room size as a Given, now what? You’re staring at that blank paper or monitor, and you’re stuck. If you can’t get past this, how are you ever going to build a model railroad? This can be frustrating, intimidating, and downright maddening. As first time model railroaders, we all face this moment of indecision. Maybe working on Druthers will help.


Druthers are the things you would like to have as some aspect of your model railroad. These are the things you’druther have. It really is that simple. As model railroaders, new or not, we all want our miniature world to have everything we can find. We want it all. Unfortunately, somewhere in the backs of our minds, we know we can’t. So we list out what we’d like to have, but don’t need to have.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a Universal Druther. At least with Givens, you got the size of the room as a freebie. No such luck here, because honestly, only you know what you want. The problem is, once you’ve built a layout, even a very small layout, you’ll have a much better idea of what you want in the next one. Because this is your first layout, you’re S.O.L. without a paddle.

Well, maybe not. You’ve seen other model railroad layouts, and more than likely, you already have some idea of what you want to build, even if that idea is still nebulous. This is why we make lists, and especially why we create Givens & Druthers, to take that nebulous idea, and sharpen it into focus.

Creating Your Givens & Druthers

There are several techniques I’ve discovered for creating Givens & Druthers that make it easy, fun, and most importantly that work.

First, we’re going to do some brainstorming. At this point, just about anything goes. We’ll pick and choose later. Most of us have some form of Microsoft Office, it comes installed on new computers. If you don’t have Microsoft Office, you can get Open Office for free and it will not only do everything Microsoft’s Office will, it also reads and creates Microsoft compatible files. If you have a Mac, there is also free Open Office you can get that will do the same.

So, no matter what version of Office software you have, I want you to open the Spreadsheet software. Yeah, you always wondered what you were ever going to use that for. Now you know, they created it for model railroaders to make Givens & Druthers.

Model Railroad Givens & DruthersI want you to take columns A, B, and C, and I want you to widen them so that the three of them take up the entire width of the window. Each column should take up roughly a third of the space. Don’t worry about being exact. We just want to use the three columns. At the top, I want you to put into cell A1 (column A, Row 1) the word Givens. In cell B1 (Column B, Row 1) put the word Druthers. Finally in cell C1 (Column C, Row 1) type the word Ideas.

For now, we’re just going to use column C, the Ideas column. I want you to put your cursor in the cell below the word Ideas, and I want you to type one or more words that describe something you want on your model railroad layout. This can be anything. Do you want the railroad to run on DC or DCC? Put it in the cell. Hit Enter, and the next cell below it is highlighted. Now type something else. Maybe you have a specific brand of DCC you want to use. Type it in, and hit Enter.

You’re going to continue typing in things that you would like to have as part of your model railroad. Want sound? Type it in and hit enter. Want an around the walls layout, or an island? Type it and hit Enter. Do you want one level or multi level? Type it in. What industries do you want? Type them all in. Era, location, scale, hand laid track, or commercial? Brand of track, maybe you want to build turnouts for better reliability, but use flex track for everything else. Type them in.

Ideas for your Givens & DruthersThese don’t have to be just practical ideas. You can put anything you want in this list. You want a Giant Japanese Robot Factory? Put it in the list! Oh wait, that’s my layout. Nevermind. Maybe you have an idea for a particular scene on the railroad, type it in. Every idea, no matter how off the wall or silly, goes into this list.

Once you get going, it shouldn’t take you long to come up with twenty or more things. In fact, once you relax and start having fun with it, you may find that your list becomes very long, and you’ve lost a couple of hours. Don’t worry about it, enjoy it. This is supposed to be fun! You may even find yourself laughing over some of the things you put into the list. Your wife will wonder what you’re up to, and that’s fun too.

There is no limit to what you can put on your list, nor is there a limit to how big it gets, or how long it takes. As the Nike commercials used to say, Just Do It.

Turning Ideas Into Givens & Druthers

Now that you have what is hopefully an extraordinarily long list of ideas, it’s time to go back through them, and see what you’ve got. Start at the top and work your way down. Look at what you put into Cell C2, and decide, is it a Given, is it a Druther, or is it just an idea?

When you find something in the list of Ideas that is a Given or a Druther, I want you click that cell to highlight it, and then cut it using the Control and X keys, or right-clicking and choosing Cut from the menu, or going up to the menu at the top and choosing Cut. Use whatever method works best for you.

Now when you select Cut, nothing will seem to happen. Move your cursor over to the cell under either Givens or Druthers, whichever the Idea happens to be, and paste it into the cell with the Control and V keys, or right-clicking and selecting Paste, or the menu at the top. Again, use whichever method works best for you. Once you tell the program to Paste, the contents of the Idea cell will disappear, and reappear in the Givens or Druthers cell you selected.

Continue working your way down the list of Ideas, cutting and pasting them into either the Givens or Druthers list. There’s no order to these, just select the next cell in the Givens or Druthers below the last one you pasted. You will probably skip many Ideas, looking for Givens or Druthers. It’s unlikely that every one of your Ideas will fit into a Given or Druther, and that’s perfectly fine.

Givens & Druthers ListNow, when you find a possible Given or Druther, which does it go into? Well, that’s really up to you. Something you decide you must have, and paste as a Given, someone else might put into the list of Druthers, or pass up altogether. It’s your model railroad. Only you can decide what is a Given, and what is a Druther.

By the time you go all the way through your list of Ideas, you should have a fairly sizable list of both Givens and Druthers. Go through the list of Ideas again, and see if something you passed up earlier, might not actually fit into your Givens and Druthers.

Scaling Givens And Druthers

Something I’ve never heard anyone talk about is the fact that Givens And Druthers are scalable. What I mean by that is, Givens & Druthers aren’t just general ideas about your model railroad. While you’re going to have Givens & Druthers that are general to the entire layout, such as the size of the room, the size and type of layout, and what scale you’ll model in, you’re also going to have more detailed Givens & Druthers.

For example, you might have a preference of a type of decoder you want to use, whether or not to have sound, do you want to have a tethered, or IR, or radio throttle. These can all go into a category under DCC, and you can have an entire list of Givens & Druthers for just DCC.

Another category you might have is Track. Are you going to use sectional track, flex track, or hand laid track? Standard gauge or narrow gauge? Commercial turnouts, or Fast Tracks, or some other hand built turnout? What number turnouts will you use, and where? How long will your passing sidings be?

You can have a category for locomotives and rolling stock. Metal wheel sets or plastic? Proto87 or the more standard wheels? What type of couplers will you use? Uncoupling magnets or skewers? What type of locomotives, and how many? What kind of rolling stock will you need to fit your era and what your railroad hauls?

You can have an electrical category where you define standards for different buses. Will you light structures, and if so, how? Will there be animated scenes that need to be wired?

Scaling Givens & DruthersRemember, there’s no rule that says you have to define all this stuff up front. The more you can do now, the easier time you’ll have later, but a lot of these things you may have no idea about just yet. Your Givens & Druthers will grow as you plan, build and scenic your model railroad. They are a blueprint to help you decide what you want your model railroad to have, and how important it is.

Keep your list of Givens & Druthers somewhere you can find it quickly and easily. Not only will you be using it to plan and build your model railroad, you’ll be adding to it, probably as long as you have your railroad. It is a living document that continues to grow and change as your circumstances and desires change. By the time you’re ready to build a bigger, better model railroad, you’ll already have a substantial list of just what you want that layout to be.

That is what Givens and Druthers are.


Planning Your Railroad