The biggest part of working with model trains is the smallest part of working with model trains for Brian Williams, 49, of Crystal Lake.
Williams is known as the "pocket layout" guy to his peers because of his work with T scale electric trains, the smallest commercially produced trains in the world. The tiny locomotives are 1/450th of real size. Their diameter is about the same as a pencil, and the distance between their wheels is about 1/11th of an inch.
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"It's exceptionally small," he says. "People are fascinated by these at shows when I bring them."
At a recent High Wheeler train show at Harper College in Palatine, the majority of the 30 hobbyists' layouts were of larger scale model trains, like HO gauge. An HO gauge train car is about the size of a pop can and a large layout can be as big as half a basketball court, while Williams' four layouts drew a crowd even though his show space was the size of your desk at work.
He carries his T and Z gauge layouts, complete with little buildings and microscopic model people, to three or four model train shows a year in the suburbs. His largest layout, about 30 inches in diameter, is a complete mountain scene with buildings, bridges, tunnels and track for his Z gauge models.
Until 2009, Z gauge trains were considered the smallest in the world at 1/220th of real size. An average car is smaller than your index finger. But his smallest T gauge layout could literally fit in his pocket. It is an oval that is powered by two AA batteries and could run all day on the face of a large cellphone.
"Model railroading is the world's greatest hobby," he says of the craft he has been pursuing since high school. "This is a very small part of it that doesn't give you a lot of reasons not to build a layout. It doesn't take up much space."
Williams says he often will work on his layouts on the dining room table using a microscope and tweezers.
Then the tiny world is put back in its foam lined boxes and carried to another room.
His pocket layouts have become a way for him to share an interest in history with his teenage son.
"When you build a model of a locomotive, you learn something about it," he says. "Sometimes you learn something about yourself, too, along the way."