Constructing a model railway is a challenging and rewarding process for both beginner and experienced railway modellers. However, when first starting out it can be very easy to overlook the common pitfalls or to make basic errors that can cost you time and money further down the line. In this guide we'll help you avoid these mistakes.
We've accumulated numerous essential tips and tricks as a result of our experience constructing model train layouts over many years. In this guide we'll share our top 8 steps you should take before building a model railway. These are the most important tips designed to help you smoothly navigate the process.
1. Consider the size and location of the layout (and think about potential future expansion)
The first steps you should take when planning a model railway are to choose the gauge/scale that you'll use and to determine the location where you'll build the layout. These are important steps to get right as they directly affect the planning of the track layout, how easy it'll actually be to build, and how the final result will look and function.
In terms of the best model railway scale to choose for your layout, this will largely depend on personal preference and requirements. You can potentially use any model train gauge you'd like. However, we would generally recommend HO scale or OO scale, particularly for first-time modellers, as these are the most common gauges and strike a good balance between the 'real world' space they take up and the level of detail that they provide.
When choosing a room (or any other location) in which to build your railway, it's important to ensure that you have adequate space for the track plan that you're going for. For more information, refer to our guide to the best places to build a model railway where we explain the advantages of the different options available.
Keep the future in mind
At this stage it's always a good idea to consider future expansion and to try and visualise what the layout will look like in the future. Are you planning on building the railway in stages? Will you look to expand the track layout in the future? What sort of operational flexibility do you require for your model trains? How varied will the scenery be?
Even if you don't currently see yourself ever expanding your model railway, things can change in the future and your interest in model trains may develop further and necessitate more space for future expansion. Therefore, we always recommend building your layout in a room that provides more space than you currently need.
Being restricted by space can be incredibly frustrating - particularly if you have other rooms available in which to build. It's better to take more time to carefully weigh up your options at the planning stage, rather than being forced into making extensive changes after you've started building. Having to move an entire model railway layout from one room to another can, at best, be incredibly challenging, and at worst be impossible without major changes. So, taking extra time to consider your options at this stage is definitely worth doing.
2. Plan your track layout before you start building
This is comfortably the most important step to take before building a model railway. Take the time to plan your track layout first. We can't stress enough how important this step is. Good planning of your railway track will save you time, money and a lot of stress. If there's just one tip that you take away from this guide, make it this one!
We've already discussed choosing the model railway scale and the location in which the layout will be built. So, we'll assume here that you've already decided these areas.
Next, you should take the time to design your track layout before you purchase any track. The time you take planning the track layout at the start will save you countless hours, or even days, further down the line. It'll also help you save money. Don't purchase any track until you know what specific components (e.g. straights, left/right curves and points) you actually require. If you need any help with designing a model railway track layout, be sure to check out our guide to the best track planning tools for more information.
3. Limit your spending when first starting out
If you're buying a child their first train set, or are just starting out on your journey as a model railway engineer yourself, you should start with a low cost beginners train set first and only spend more once the interest in the hobby proves to be more concrete. This will save you a lot of money by preventing the purchase of expensive kit that's then only used a handful of times. See our guide to the best train sets if you're looking for recommendations and advice.
4. Enjoy the journey
We hear numerous stories from fellow model railway hobbyists who started out with the intention of building a layout within a few months and then simply moving on to operating it and having many happy hours with their model trains...
Many of these modellers now have multiple layouts, are continually looking for ways to improve or expand them, are experimenting with different gauges and scales, and have growing collections of locomotives, carriages and wagons!
The point is that this is a fantastic hobby. There are so many different areas that go into producing a model railway. These all provide great opportunities to learn practical model making skills and to put these into practice. There's certainly something that everyone will enjoy.
Our advice is to initially start out small by creating a small 'practice' model railway layout - plan and lay the track, develop the buildings, scenery, grass etc. Then decide which areas of the process that you enjoyed the most. Some people like scenery modelling, others enjoy track planning, and some just like operating trains. Discover which aspects interest you and build from there.
5. Set a budget and DIY where possible
Like most hobbies, model trains can be expensive. So, it's certainly a good idea to try and DIY wherever possible when building your model railway. Learn to make things yourself rather than opting for 'off the shelf' solutions and save your money for things you cannot make DIY (e.g. trains and track). You'll be surprised at how much you're able to save when doing this. For example, making your own static grass applicator can be a useful way to save some money when laying model railway grass - if you're willing to put in a bit more time and effort than simply buying a ready-made one.
You should always set yourself a budget and, more importantly, stick to it. Always shop around for the best deals and seek out offers and discount codes wherever possible. See our train set deals guide for more tips when purchasing train sets. Utilise the second hand market as well - eBay and Facebook Marketplace can be great places to pick up bargains. Just be sure to do your due diligence before committing to a purchase.
6. Use the correct tools and equipment
This is another very important point that's often overlooked by newcomers to the world of model railways. Many of your typical DIY and workshop tools are unlikely to be very useful when working on small scale railway modelling. You may need to purchase some additional specialist tools, such as some high quality precision screwdrivers or a 30w soldering iron - so factor this in when budgeting for your build.
You should always use the correct tool for the task being undertaken. For example, using the correct drill and bit when drilling a hole for a track power wire run or using the proper soldering iron to avoid damaging rails and points.
Remember, using the wrong tool on your model railway can cause damage that's extremely hard to rectify. For this reason alone, the correct modelling tools are well worth investing in - providing they are of decent quality.
7. Look after your model trains
Your model locomotives, carriages and wagons are likely to be the most expensive parts of your railway layout. They're also fragile and susceptible to damage - so look after them!
Many beginners opt to leave their model trains on the tracks when they're not in use. However, the consensus from the railway modeller community is that this is a bad idea - and we share this view. If your railway is located in an unheated room or outbuilding then your rolling stock will potentially be exposed to damp and temperature extremes, both of which are likely to cause them damage. Even if it's located in a heated indoor room keeping your rolling stock on the track when not being used still increases the risk of accidental damage
Always keep the original boxes - they are the best place to store your model trains when not being used and help retain value if you ever wish to sell them in the future.
8. Care for your track
Track is an integral part of any model railway and is often one of the most expensive areas of any layout (after rolling stock). It's also very difficult to replace once it's been laid down on the baseboard. So, it certainly pays to look after it. Doing so will help prevent many potential issues encountered when operating model trains.
It's advisable to follow these general tips for maintaining your model railway track to ensure trouble free operation:
- Mask off areas of track when you are working near them. This will help to prevent dust and debris from falling onto the track components.
- Take care to ensure objects, such as tools, do not fall onto track causing damage to points and rails.
- Regularly perform cleaning and maintenence to ensure smooth operation of trains.
After decades working on numerous model railway layouts these are the top tips you should take in order to help you save time and money when planning and constructing your next railway layout.
The most important point to take away from this guide is that you should always plan your track layout before you start building your model railway. This is essential for avoiding a lot of wasted time, money and effort.
If you're a beginner you should also refer to our tutorial on how to setup a Hornby train set to ensure you get started easily and hassle-free.
The railway scenery modellers amongst you should check out our scenery guides for simple advice and easy to understand tutorials on a range of model railway scenery techniques.