Build Your First Model Train Layout

Do you want your model trains to run around a Christmas tree, or are you trying to create the Union Pacific in 1942? The cost, time, planning and patience required for a large-scale diorama is much more than you’ll need for an oval layout under a Christmas tree.

Choosing a Model Train Theme

The theme of your model railroad is usually figured out by the purpose of the model train layout.  Besides the obvious purpose of building your first model train layout for enjoyment, it must have a utility. The main question to answer is what is the destination of my model trains? If the trains do not have an actual purpose, then you’re just running your model trains round and round in a loop and you’ll get bored fast.

Deciding on Model Train Era

When choosing an era, such as the mid to late 1800’s, keep in mind that equipment and trains are even smaller than current times. A typical steam locomotive from that era is ¼ the size of a normal sized engine from today. When building to scale, it will be incredibly small and for individuals that have reduced vision or “fat finger syndrome,” this era can be quite frustrating to work with.

Below is an Example of a Model Train Layout Theme

Christmas themed model railroad

Types of Model Train Constructions

Scratch build

This involves creating an entirely new building from raw materials, such as sheets of styrene or wood. You may even want to consider creating a design for the structure you want to build and sending it to a laser cutting service to make the parts. 3D Printing is another way to design and make your own unique structures.

Prototype

If your model railroad is designed after a prototype then using a tool such as Google give you an aerial view and a better geographical representation of what you’re about to model, as well as more ideas based on the 360 degrees view of the local terrain.

Choosing Scale and Gauge

Before making any decisions about scale and gauge, let’s understand the difference between the two. Scale is the proportion of the model relative to the real-world size. Gauge is the distance between the rails.

When looking at scale size, you’ll notice that scale is expressed as a ratio or as a fraction, with the numerator or top number always being 1, and the denominator or bottom number being how much bigger it is in the real world.

Tools for Beginning Your Model Railroad

Investing in high-quality tools is important as cheap tools tend to break or not work very well. The great thing about investing in quality tools is they can last you a lifetime and will pay for themselves, in the long run.

  • Screwdrivers
  • Crosscut Saw
  • General Purpose Saw
  • Cordless Drill
  • Multi-meter
  • Airbrushes

Model Railroad Benchwork

It’s important to have the track plan in mind before building benchwork because once you start to lay track it will become very evident if the curves fit on the surface of your bench. If they don’t fit precisely then your trains will not move correctly, and it is a sure-fire way for constant derailments and an overall unpleasant experience. Remember that lacking bench space will not allow you to alter anything.

Trackwork

Laying model railroad track is perhaps the most fun part of the hobby, right next to choosing locomotives and building scenery. Once you start laying track, you begin to see how the trains will move across the layout along with the curves and gradients. It’s important to have the track plan in mind before building benchwork because once you start to lay track it will become very evident if the curves fit on the surface of your bench. If they don’t fit precisely then your trains will not move correctly, and it is a sure-fire way for constant derailments and an overall unpleasant experience. Remember that lacking bench space will not allow you to alter anything.

HO Train Track

ho train track HO Code 83, which is means the track is signified as HO train track. HO train track comes in HO Scale 100, 83, 70 and 55. Different track codes can be used on the same layout and many real-life layouts use different sizes of rails on mainlines. Remember, when connecting rails of different codes, sometimes a special joint bar called a transition joint is needed for it to fit perfectly and avoid derailments.

First off, it is half the size of an O scale, which means that everything you desire on your model railroad can be done in half the space. This means that your track turning radius will be tighter, tunnels will be smaller and, due to its size, mistakes can be hidden.

HO scale is much smaller than O scale and a bit harder to handle. That’s why larger scales such as O scale are easier to build with but lack the realistic looking detail that an HO scale can provide.

Model Railroad Roadbed

If you are using a sectional track, you will most likely not have to use roadbed as sectional track usually comes with it molded on.

There is a few different kinds of model railroad roadbed, some of the more popular ones include homasote, which is a great ground defining material that keeps the trains very quiet. Homoabed is another material that can be used for model railroad roadbeds. Sometimes they have curves cut into them, which make them ideal for bedding around curves. Another type is called track bed made by Woodland Scenic. By far the most popular is using the cork model train roadbed as it’s the most readily available and most used.

Model Railroad Wiring

The best type of wiring is done for digital command control or DCC wiring. When deciding what to use, keep in mind that DC is a lot cheaper than using DCC. Soldering is a big part of the process. When installing it, make sure that the plus is on the outside rail, and the minus is on the inside.

DCC Wiring

There are several different manufacturers of DCC control systems available, which makes it somewhat difficult to decide which one is right for you. This decision will most likely depend on the size of your layout, the ease of use, the expense, and whether the system is expandable. When deciding what to use, keep in mind that DC is a lot cheaper than
using DCC. Soldering is a big part of the process. When installing it, make sure that the plus is on the outside rail, and the minus is on the inside.

Model Railroading Scenery

Developing model train scenery must start with the process of making terrain. This would include not only mountains, valleys, cliffs, riverbeds, and gorges, but also meadows, fields, undulating landscapes and any other landform that you can imagine.

HO Train Bridges come in many different types:

ho train bridge construction

  • Beam bridges which are horizontal beams supported at each end by
  • Cantilever bridges which are built using cantilevers – horizontal beams that are supported on only one end. Usually, there is a cantilever beam from either end that meets at the center.
  • Arch bridges which are arch-shaped and have abutments at each end.
  • The weight of the bridge is thrust into the abutments at each end.
  • Suspension bridges which are suspended from cables.
  • Truss bridges which are composed of a solid deck and a lattice of pin-jointed girders for the sides

Below is a Video on HO Scale Layout Bridge Building:

Model Railroad Tips

Caulk for Tracklaying – Forget track nails, use a foam safe adhesive cock. Spread it out and apply your track then track it down to cure it. Staining Wood Parts – Be sure to stain all your wood parts before accessible, the glue will mask the wood and keep the stain from penetrating leaving unrealistic light spots. Isopropyl alcohol for cleaning model train track – Try 70% isopropyl alcohol to clean your track, the regular household cleaner has additives like scents or residue whereas pure alcohol evaporates and does not damage.

Reference Links:

National Model Railroad Association

HO Scale Layout Bridge Build Video