Lighting the Layout

June 9, 2013

Overhead/room lighting for the layout is something that I want to take much more seriously with this time around. With the last one I was hoping that the room lighting would be enough (it wasn’t), but honestly I didn’t give it that much thought. With this layout, since I won’t be able to climb on it, I needed to come up with a lighting strategy before continuing much beyond basic benchwork construction or I wouldn’t be able to reach the ceiling very well.

I tried to do quite a bit of research on the internet but didn’t come up with much. Here’s what I did find:

  • YouTube user MonsterRailroad uses CFLs in bare fixtures. Note the cloth baffles, I believe to cut down on glare. (link)
  • Layout Lighting Consultant David Zelly does an informal interview at a noisy train show. I found the interview difficult to understand but I did come away with the wisdom that the lighting should be a few inches off the edge of the layout to avoid shadows close to the viewer. I also got the impression that Mr. Zelly could design a rather expensive (yet amazing, no doubt) lighting system for your layout. (link)
  • Ken Shores has an article that has a nice overview of the basics around lighting. (link)

My thoughts leading up to my decision were thus:

  • Though I usually love warm lighting, I came to the conclusion that daylight bulbs would be the way to go. I might mix in warmer bulbs here and there, too.
  • Incandescents suck energy and get very hot. No.
  • I’d love to use LED bulbs for their very low energy usage and low temperature, but the price for LED floods, plus concerns about their performance (flood light vs spot light) and color temperature, make them impossible at this point in time.
  • I loathe fluorescent tubes (my office at work is kept dark, thank you very much), but they seem like a great choice. Cheap and even light, and you can get a daylight (5100K) tube. Not dimmable. Fixtures are pretty crummy. Fluorescent tube fixtures for track lighting exist and look cool but are very expensive.
  • CFLs are inexpensive and available in daylight. Mercury content is a concern.
  • The flexibility in positioning allowed by track lighting seems ideal.

I decided to go with track lighting, with 23 Watt (100W equivalent) CFLs in the cans.

Upon buying everything and getting it home I realized I had a problem, however: I had bought normal CFL bulbs, not CFL floods, and the black interior of my track lighting cans ($9 each) was sucking up all of the light. I got a sinking feeling when I realized that all of my precious watts were going to waste. I could try to get CFL floods but they are fairly hard to come by, and much more expensive. I got to thinking that I could try to silver the interior of the cans and thus bounce a lot more light out, and that’s exactly what I did. I used Valspar Silver Spray Paint to coat the can interiors and immediately got significantly better results. My watts were now being much more fully utilized.

Our layout has two sides, so I setup two 12’ lengths of track on each side, each with 5 cans in it presently. We quickly realized that because of this the viewer can easily look directly into the incredibly bright lights shining from the opposite direction, thanks to that silver coating. We talked about putting up cloth baffles (thanks, MonsterRailroad) but I don’t think that will be necessary. Normal people will probably manage to avoid looking into the lights.

It’s a week later now that I’m writing this and while I don’t have any scenery up to speak of, I did set some cars on track in front of the lighting and I think it looks pretty good. There are still some shadows which I may try to fill in with a track of lights down the middle, but all in all I’m happy with the setup. There’s an eerie blue-white glow around the door, and I imagine the neighbors think we are growing, so there is that to consider.