If you’ve decided to take the plunge and get into model railroading, this article will offer a few tips to not only help you get off to a successful and enjoyable start, but to set you up for a lifetime of great fun and satisfaction.
A model railroad is more than a kids train set running around the Christmas tree, although that’s likely where many of us got our start. The hobby has evolved into a multi-million dollar business, and while that’s usually not why we’re involved in model railroading, you can see that it has sustained its popularity despite the decline in train travel. The nostalgic and historical aspects of the hobby lure enthusiasts who long to model and represent a piece of yesteryear, and whose passions and attentions to detail make those scenes come alive.
The first and most important step you’ll make when starting your first layout is to carefully plan it. Take some time, and if at all possible, view as many existing layouts not so much for ideas as to see what is possible. You’ll come up with plenty of ideas all by yourself.
If you have a particular interest in a certain time in history, or a certain rail line or event, begin researching it to learn as much as you can. Decide how large your layout can be, and if there will be room for expansion later, and how would that be handled.
Decide up front if you’d like to use a DCC system (Digital Command Control) which makes it all computerized and easier to control, as well as much more realistic. (It’s simpler to start this at the beginning than to have to switch over everything later.)
After deciding how much room you can devote to this layout, you’ll need to pick a scale to work within. The most popular scale is HO (1:87). This scale has by far the most trains, track and accessories available to populate your layout. Other popular scales include O (1:48), S (1:64), N (1:160) and Z (1:220).
Once you’ve got your planning done, (and be sure to take plenty of time with it!) you’re ready to start purchasing and building. The first time you step into a hobby shop can be a daunting experience, so make sure you know at least generally what you’re after, and can answer the basic questions you’ll be asked about what scale you want, what you’re trying to model, and how much space you have.
The salesperson will likely be able to give you guidance, but it’s always better to come a tad bit prepared. Model train kits are sold as complete with locomotives, some rolling stock, track, a power supply, and some basic scenery. You can go this route if you wish, or do what many modelers do, and that is construct their layouts piece by piece.
If you’re modeling a specific time and/or rail line, you may want to go this latter route, instead of buying a generic set. There are literally thousands of pieces available, and finding what you need will not be hard. It may be hard for the hobby shop to have what you want in stock at the moment you’re there, but they are always willing to special order any pieces you may need, and if their prices or availability don’t suit you, there’s always the internet!
Probably simultaneously to your purchasing you’re also constructing your bench work to support your masterpiece. An L-girder table with support reinforced at critical junctures (again why you plan!) should do nicely. There are plans for this sort of train table published on the internet, as well as in books available at the library. Building scenery and laying track also are part of the foundation process.
While most of the actual train pieces you’ll buy are ready to roll, you have a choice to make regarding the rest of your layout, regarding just how much time, sweat and devotion to detail you wish to invest on your layout. Much of the scenery and accessories are also available readymade, but again will most likely have a generic, plastic look to it.
My personal preference is to use some pre-made pieces, but to augment these with scenery (mostly natural landscaping, bridges and some buildings) by hand crafting them. This is where the art of the modeler comes into play. You can create some incredibly realistic scenery doing it by hand, and the payoff is much more than merely a great-looking layout. The pride associated with crafting pieces that elicit much praise is a big reason why we do this hobby in the first place.
Take your time with this, however, as these skills are not learned overnight, and can take some time to implement. Best to incorporate pieces into your layout as you go, so that you’ll be getting enjoyment from the trains as you continue to refine and work on your overall layout plan.
There are many bells and whistles (pun intended) that you can easily incorporate into your layout, such as sounds, a stunning backdrop that adds dimension and depth to your layout, dramatic lighting and even special effects to liven up the action! If you haven’t guessed by now, creating the world of your model railroad is going to take a little time, and a few bucks. Ideally, you’ll have planned for some of these when you planned your layout, but in truth, many times detail is thought of and worked in as we are constructing our layouts, and it’s usually not too much bother to work something in.
The most important thing to remember about your new hobby is to take your time and enjoy yourself! Join a model railroad club near you for help and inspiration. Attend an NMRA (National Model Railroading Association) event and learn even more from those who’ve gone before. Model railroading is a great hobby, and one that can bring you years of enjoyment!