A Personal Letter from Clarke Dunham
Hello, and welcome to Dunham Studios,
The design and manufacturing of custom model railroad layouts is a business that has grown, I believe, from the increasingly frustrating task of attempting to build your own home layout, a frustration caused largely by the increasing technical complexities involved in model railroading and a perceived need to solve those problems by having an expert do it for you.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the same comments: “I don’t have the time.”, “I waited all this time for my model railroad…”, “I’m getting too old to do all the necessary things right”, “I can’t lay track, wiring, scenery, etc.”, and so on. Indeed once you begin to appreciate the number of things you have to do well to have to a beautiful, smooth running home layout, the more desirable a custom supplier becomes. In my own case, though I’d been a Model Railroader for over thirty years, I’d never been able to master good track work or do sophisticated electronics or wiring. Lack of time or knowledge frustrated me every time.
It wasn’t until I put together the team that created the original Citibank Station in 1987 that even I had any realization of exactly how much I didn’t know! And every day I learn something more! DCC! A new control system here, a new model builder there. And so my team that started out as five hardy souls at the beginning of Citibank Station has grown into a network of nearly fifty specialists: designers, craftspeople, model builders, theatrical and movie scenic painters, carpenters, electronics designers, custom locomotive builders—all of that backed up by our now twenty-years-together core Dunham Studios staff. Not only that, but we have let some welcome fresh air into the musty old world of mainstream model railroading.
Plaster scenery? Nuts to that old idea! When I worked on the 1964 New York World’s Fair, we used Carved Styrofoam.
“L-girder” bench work? Nuts again! After thirty five years on Broadway, Broadway-style platforms built of by six inch plywood frames, plywood tops, and “keyed” so that they can only go together one way are the only way to go. Light. Strong. Faster to build.
Better for the customer. Better for the hobby!
As I’m sure you’ve discovered, the basic answer to almost any question about custom layouts is: It all depends
That can be very frustrating for you as well as for me. Part of the problem has to do with shyness (“Oh, god. This is so complicated!”) and part of the problem has to do with the clash of desire and truth
(“It’s really going to cost that much!”). So let me try to tell you as much as I can about Dunham Studios and what we can do for you before stumbling over that fatal phrase.
As you know, I come to this business by way of the Broadway theater, where I have worked on and off over the past forty-seven years. When Citibank approached me to do a large scale “concept layout” for the 1987 Christmas season in N.Y.C., I jumped at the opportunity, partly because it tapped all my talents in equal measure, partly because I could see Broadway dying right in front of me, and there was something in this that said, sort of like “Field of Dreams”, “build it, and they will come…”.
Well, four years and nearly a million people later we began to feel that it was time to apply what we had learned from Citibank Station to an expanded participation in the model railroad business. So in 1990 we began an advertising campaign in Model Railroader Magazine to capitalize on Model Railroader’s December, 1990 eight page color spread on our first Citibank Station layout. Though the main thrust of the campaign was aimed at corporate clients, we found ourselves receiving serious inquiries from private parties and Museums. Subsequent advertising in the 1990s targeting upscale private clients established us as the sole players at the top of the custom market.
What sets Dunham Studios apart?
The fact that we refuse to turn Dunham Studios into a layout factory.
Competition in the custom layout business began to increase with the coming of the year 2000 and for many years Dunham Studios was so insulated by reputation that our stream of clients continued without interruption. Well, our standards haven’t changed over that last twenty-five years and we still produce the best product in the industry.
What’s different? Just like our new competitors everything we do is computerized—-track plans, drafting, also our CNC computer-operated router/cutters, laser cutters and wide format printers.
A whole new world? Yes! Except, yes, But! That is, everything but the design process. That remains my personal bailiwick, and that won’t ever change. That is what sets Dunham Studios apart. That and the fact that we refuse to turn Dunham Studios into a layout factory. That is what continues to set us apart from all others. We continue to accept about four clients a year, fewer if the jobs are large.
Does that mean we’re expensive? (Well, here we go!)
Not necessarily, but it all depends. It all depends on what you’ll settle for, and to a certain degree it depends on what you can afford. The simple fact is that at Dunham Studios have different standards of operation, and a different idea of what minimum standards are. We have learned from painful experience that so called “consumer grade” model railroad gear – from “consumer grade” DCC to “Factory-ready” locomotives – just don’t cut it. We won’t use them and we won’t take short cuts in the areas of electronics and wiring or track and track components. We won’t ship a layout project till it’s been up and running for at least a week (or more if necessary). Our layouts automatically come with wiring harnesses to interconnect the sections and the sections are keyed for absolute fit where required. And because we build this way, if you happen to move, your layout can move with you. Our layouts are finished all the way to the floor, usually with handsome T-111 decorative grooved plywood (no two by four legs here!). We have done everything from Cherry wood raised paneling to Knotty Pine. Our turnouts can be diode matrix or DCC controlled (your choice) and our power supplies are specification grade. Automatic train control, with two to three trains following each other on the same track (either DCC or Legacy), is commonplace to us. Likewise, automated dispatch loops. When it comes to DCC Command Control, we prefer to specify NCE products. PECO turnouts are our standard for their reliability.
The scenery is executed by our twenty-years-together staff, assisted by Broadway craftspeople when required, the structures by our
own renowned staff of expert modelers along with a number of famous model railroaders you have no doubt heard of. Scenic backgrounds are custom painted or computer generated to Broadway standards.
Yes. It all depends! Let me try to define what your costs might be:
A simple layout with some elevated scenery, a few manual turnouts, a few simple structures, simple wiring, and a single power pack costs about $300.00 per sq.ft.
An average layout with automatic turnouts, simple structures, more complex scenery, and dual cab wiring costs about $400.00 per sq.ft.
The average upscale Dunham Studios layout with a simple backdrop costs about $475.00 per sq. ft.
A layout involving more complex scenery, track or complicated turnouts, major electronics, or involving custom scenic backgrounds can be expected to cost about $50.00 per sq. ft. more for each specialty added.
With the exception of our larger commercial or touring layouts the ceiling seems to be about $600.00 per sq.ft.
With the square footage arrived at, we then factor in a “degree of difficulty” multiplier (or divider) to reach a final estimate.
So there it is. A little clearer than mud, but until we know your particular wishes and desires, as clear as we can make it.
A little pricey? Maybe, maybe not. And this is why:
It may seem like it, but the difference between our prices and other suppliers reflects the quality standards we set for the equipment we supply, the quality control involved in proper installation of that equipment, and the care we take throughout the entire layout construction and finishing process.
Unlike many of our competitors who consider every request a “Change Order” resulting in an extra charge, we guarantee our prices.
Unless there are major changes after the design is approved our price will never change (and you will be the first to know before a change is charged for).
We also always encourage our clients to visit as often as they wish, but if you can’t visit we’ll keep you updated by e-mail on the internet with photos and progress reports.
Our custom layouts really are the best. That’s why museums count on us for layouts that run day in and day out for months (and years) on end. Remember, too, that we have often been the largest consumers of our own layouts, with big commercial and museum attractions across the country. Unlike our competitors, we have to live with our own work day in and day out.
We may be a long way away from you. But we deliver by trailer or ship by air freight or container. If you want us, we’ll be there to personally supervise the installation.
So that we can take the next step together, please fill out our “let’s break the ice” wish list, a click away on this website. Please fill it out, and most important, if there are any layout plans you particularly admire, e-mail a copy for me to share. Ultimately, we can adapt a plan you like, do one using features you admire in other layouts, or we can of course do a whole new one from scratch.
Pay particular attention to era and prototype in relation to your available space – the Santa Fe doesn’t fit in a bathtub. Once we’ve got your input then we can work together to keep costs down while creating the layout of your dreams. We’ll be there for you throughout the entire design process, construction, and down the line after your layout is delivered.
I’m looking forward to your reply.