So you think you might try Model Railroading.

So you think you might like to try Model Railroading.

By Gordon Preller


But where do you start?  Perhaps you had trains as a kid, and now, looking for a more relaxing hobby you remember the fun you had running those Lionel (O Gauge) or HO trains.  Or, like me, you somehow acquired or inherited a starter set.  Regardless of why, you find yourself drawn to the hobby.  I, too, am new to this.  I had HO trains as a kid, but only started back into it in November 2012 with an HO set up, and expanded my horizons in January, 2013, with an N scale layout.  I’ve made mistakes, I’ve learned some things, and I have much more to learn.  Let’s help each other.

If you are reading this, then you have a head start.  You are on line!  Do some searches for model railroading in images, videos and just plain Google search.  There are many Model Railroading Forums with a great deal of info available.  There are books available at your local Public Library (you do have a library card, right?)  Most libraries carry Model Railroader magazine, an excellent resource.  While you are doing this think about the space you have available.  There are model scales to suit nearly any space, from 18”x36” on up to massive basement layouts.  But the space available will help you select what size trains you want to run.

If at all possible, look for a train show, and GO!  It will be amazing!  Everything from tiny Z scale layouts right up to Garden scale.  (Remember the space available before you buy anything!)  It will give you ideas for track design, also called layout, and scenery.  Try not to buy anything yet.  It’s hard, but try!

Now is the time to consider what your interest is.  Do you want to set up an “operations” layout, in which freight trains perform various functions such as taking lumber from a logging camp to a sawmill or delivering beer from the Löwenbräu Brewery to a ship for export to the USA?  Are you interested in recreating a nostalgic scene or period piece?  Do you want a complex layout on a flat plywood board, or are you interested in detailing scenery along with your trains?  What kinds of trains might you be interested in running?  Any particular period of time or place?  At this point you might invest in a track planning program such as AnyRail5EN, or simply go to your local train store and buy a book with some layouts in it.  Try to think in 3 dimensions.

If you can dedicate a room, attic, or a portion of a dry basement to this new hobby, that is great!  Start small, but leave space open to one or more sides for future expansion.  If, like me, your space is limited to what you can do on a 48”x96” sheet of plywood, then I believe you are limited to HO, N or Z scales.  I have an HO scale American layout, just two ovals and some sidings; and I have an N scale German layout, two ovals, a hidden staging yard, and a spur going up to a second village.  The HO set has a small town, ranch and river set in Colorado, 1935.  The N scale set has a city (Riesling Altstadt), farm, village (Hochdorf), river with ships, castles, vineyards, etc., in modern times. In the same space, there are more possibilities with N scale than with HO (for me ~ your mileage may vary!).  BUT there is more variety of trains, structures, and accessories available with HO.  It is, after all, the most common size model train.  There is no right or wrong ~ do what works for you.

Planning is the key, and the key to planning is knowing what you want to do.  Do a track plan in various scales, and sketch in roads, houses, rivers, parking (I always forget parking).  If you are doing passenger service, think about how long your passenger cars are when planning your station platforms.  If you have tunnels (and who doesn’t?) can you get your hands inside enough to clean track and fix that darned derailment that happens in just the worst place?  And it will.  Don’t ask how I know.

Now is the time to think about Controls.  The simplest and cheapest is the old-fashioned DC system – but it gets complex if you want to run multiple trains on multiple tracks.  On a small layout, it might be the best choice.  A DCC system (I am told) is the way to go for more complex operations.  It is more expensive, but easier to wire for multiple trains on multiple tracks.  It is easier, too, for multiple operators to run trains at the same time.  Are you doing this with your Granddaughter?  With DCC she can run one, while you play with another.

Track selection.  Oh my gosh!  Generally speaking, you can choose 3 rail (Märklin – HO or Lionel – O) or 2 rail (everyone else). The track can have roadbed attached, such as Fleischmann Piccolo in N scale, or you buy roadbed separately and lay the roadbed and then the track, such as Atlas code 100 in HO scale.  Track can be snap together or flex track that needs soldering.  Soldering track is simple – I had never done it before but it is no big deal: soldering iron, flux, and solder.  You will need it for your wiring, so no need to hesitate.

All right, you decided on the size (gauge or scale) of your model train set up, you have track and a layout in mind (the layout could change as you progress!), and you think you are ready to start.  You decided on controls, have checked the Reynauld’s offerings of locomotives and cars until you have the catalog memorized, and are rarin’ to go!  Okay, NOW buy some track and a train.  But where to put it?

How do you build a table?

Tables can be attached to walls, or free-standing, or moveable, or a modular outfit to join with your local train club.  But it must be steady and level.  On a 4’x8’ setup, a sheet of ½” plywood makes a good base.  The plywood must be well supported, such as by a 1×3 wood frame and well braced legs.  This keeps it flat and helps in track-laying.  Track laid on uneven surfaces causes derailments.

There are several methods of landscaping.  On my N scale set I used a several strata of blue Styrofoam from Lowes, and grade risers from Woodland Scenics, and paper towels soaked in plaster of paris to fill some spaces.  Another method is to cut out the plywood around the track to raise and lower the runs for bridges and mountains and valleys.  Then one staples a cardboard lattice into the rough shape of the desired landscape and covers it with plaster cloth or plaster & paper towels.  On my HO set, I used a combination of blue Styrofoam and the cardboard lattice construction technique.  Here is a good explanation of cookie cutter base building:  Be certain to remove the plastic wrap protector from the blue styro before gluing it.  Again, don’t ask how I know.  Please.

The blue styro can be sanded with a palm sander (quarter sheet) or belt sander; it can be shaped with a sheetrock rasp.  It can be cut with a knife.  Clean up as you build.

White glue – Elmer’s for example – works well for gluing layers of foam together.  I did a base layer, then started laying out track.  I used the Fleischmann Piccolo on my N scale set, pinning it in place with straight pins from Joanne’s.  When I had the track on the first layer of styro pinned down satisfactorily, I started my grade for my spur onto the mountain.  I glued Woodland Scenics grade risers and layers of Styrofoam to build up the hillsides, leaving tunnels where necessary over first layer track, and installing bridges as needed.  Then I laid track up the hill.  My layouts are DC, so I then hooked up the track and ran my train to test how well my track was laid.  I corrected problems such as joints that were not well soldered (easy fix), tracks that were misaligned and turnouts (what I used to call “switches” before I became a rail-snob) that needed tweaking.  Then I ran the train again and again.  When I was satisfied the train was running smoothly, I first outlined the track with a Sharpie, then lifted track just enough to get the nozzle of a tube of silicone adhesive under the track, laid a bead of adhesive, and pinned it all down again.  Don’t get adhesive under the working parts of the turnouts.  Please –don’t ask how I know.

At this point I had a functioning railroad, with an ICE 3 train by Trix!  No scenery, no houses, watercourses but no water.  After the adhesive dried for a few days I pulled the pins and checked for function.


  1.  I didn’t allow enough room for my hands to re-rail a train under my mountain.
  2. The roof of my upper tunnel was too low, breaking off the pantograph on the engine using that spur.  I heated a metal bar and melted the ceiling until it was tall enough, and re-glued the pantograph to the loco, no permanent damage.
  3. I didn’t plan for expansion.  Should have run a track off each side for future use.
  4. I started with a 48”x96” piece of plywood, and cut it to 44”x96”, thinking that I didn’t have the room.  Sure wish I had that extra 4 inches!

What did I do right?  I had FUN and I learned!

You may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned “budget.”  A person can build a huge layout quicklyonly if one has a great deal of money.  But any person can build a layout of nearly any size with patience and planning.  If you don’t have a lot of money for this hobby, don’t despair.  Start small, with plans for step by step expansion.  You have a lifetime ahead of you to expand, improve, detail, and to build rail yards, turntables, structures, factories, stations, trees, fields, breweries and vineyards.  The person who does it all at once with an unlimited budget may have a fine layout, but will soon tear it down to start again.  Model railroading is more about the process than the end result.

Well we hope you enjoyed our article and starting building your model railroad soon.  The first step to starting is by puchasing a starter set.  To view all our starter sets click here…

The next article will be focus on landscaping and some more of the mistakes I have made.  Not all of my railroading errors, for that would be too long of a list for one article, even in the short time that I have been at this!  My N scale layout can be seen at

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