Model railroading beginner’s guide: Model Railroading has been called “The world’s greatest hobby.” I’m serious, by the way. You can look it up. However, it can be a daunting hobby to get started in. Really, beginners are learning about two hobbies simultaneously: Railfanning and scale modeling. Of course, some are more interested in scale modeling than railfanning, and vice versa, but generally, at least a little knowledge of both is needed. Or, maybe not! The beauty of this hobby is its open-ended-ness. One can be as prototypically accurate (Note: the term “prototype” is used by model railroaders to refer to “real” railroading. -Ed.) or entirely creative as they so choose. There’s a saying among model railroaders, and it’s probably the most important single thing a new model railroader could learn: It’s your layout.
Want to model a totally anachronistic scene? It’s your layout. Think a steam engine would look cool pulling modern freight equipment? It’s your layout. Someone has a problem with it? It’s not their layout! You’re free to create and control your model railroad as you see fit. As an extension to this, experimenting with different eras and different equipment might help you find your niche within the hobby, whatever that may be. A layout may manifest as a hyper-accurate recreation of a real stretch of railroad, complete with hours of prototype research and detail work to achieve a result the modeler is satisfied with. In other cases, a model railroad is invented from whole cloth (or, as model railroaders call it, “freelanced”) by a modeler striving to realize their idealized railroad.
Here are some resources available to beginners in this hobby. While this article is meant to serve as the introductory guide for model railroading, it is by no means a definitive resource itself. Instead, this is meant to be a launching point, touching on basic concepts likely unfamiliar to those just starting out in the hobby, and directing them towards the aspects of the hobby which interest them. Additionally, Trains.com offers a section of Beginners articles, many of which are referenced and linked in this guide. Finally, we offer a series of emails designed for beginner model railroaders, offering resources designed to develop their knowledge and their skills.
Era and scale
There are two choices every beginner model railroader must make: scale and era.
First, one must know what scale they will model, as the scale serves as the underpinning of the world which they will create. Scale refers to the proportions of a given model to its real-life equivalent. For example, N scale is used to denote a ratio of 1:160, meaning that one inch on an N scale model is equivalent to 160 inches, or 13.33 feet, on its real-life equivalent.
Read Model Train Scales Explained to better understand what model train scales are and how your choice will affect the railroad you build. Many factors influence which scale will be right for you. For help making this decision, read Choosing a modeling scale.
Era is likewise an important choice. Choosing the time period you intend to model not only decides whether your railroad will run steam locomotives, diesel-electrics, or both. Especially if you are modeling a specific prototype location or railroad, your layout’s era will decide things like whether a trackside industry is open or closed, whether grain is carried in boxcars or covered hoppers, whether your favorite locomotive was invented yet, what kind of vehicles should drive on your roads, and whether cabooses were still run on freight trains, among other things. Some hobbyists model a broad, general time period, like the 1970s or the steam-to-diesel transition era, while others set their railroad’s operations in a specific year, season, month, or even day on the calendar. Again, it depends on what aspect of model railroading is important to you.
Often, people wonder if they need to know a lot about prototype trains or railroading to begin model railroading. The short answer here is no. The longer answer: It depends on what you want from the hobby. If you want your model railroad layout to be accurate to a prototype, or to a type of operation (be it passenger service, coal hauling, short-line deliveries, or any of many other possibilities), it’s beneficial to have an understanding of protype railroad operations. But if that doesn’t interest you, then focus on what does, be that the art of scenery modeling, creating towns with structure kits, or wiring a working signal system – whatever suits your interests. Remember: Model railroading is what you make it, just like your layout.
Track planning is, for most, an essential aspect of model railroading. The best place to begin your layout is the drafting desk. Sketching out plans for your layout, however roughly or precisely you are capable, will make the process of building your layout much easier and more enjoyable. In layout planning, one must consider track design, scenery composition, and structure placement, among other concerns.
Model Railroader’s Steven Otte writes a series of articles for Trains.com in which he draws upon his talents as a sketch artist to demonstrate track planning techniques. For example, this article explores the possibilities available to a model railroader in a small spare bedroom, while this piece demonstrates what an industrial layout confined to a single shelf can accomplish.
From the perspective of a relative outsider, model railroading may seem like a shopping list of products and supplies you don’t own. If you’re just starting out, it kind of is. Locomotives, rolling stock, track, and a control system are the bare minimum. In addition to that, you also need lumber, plaster, tools, wiring supplies, scenery, and structures – and that’s without getting into all the different manufacturers. It can be overwhelming.
But let’s pull back for a minute. Assuming you’ve selected a scale and an era, you can safely eliminate all the products not related to your scale or era. That’s a good start. For some modelers, the trains are their focus, so they buy their locomotives and rolling stock before anything else, as that then spurs them on to build their layout. Others enjoy architecture, and start building structures before they even have a layout to put them on. Yet others like building realistic scenery, and track and structures are an afterthought. But whatever your approach is, to build your layout, you’ll need tools, some of which you may have, while others you may not.
In days past, one could simply go to the local hobby store and find a myriad of model train sets, locomotives, rolling stock, and whatever else one could need for a layout. Unfortunately, hobby stores are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Luckily, almost anything you could need for your layout is now available online from a variety of model railroad retailers and manufacturers. Additionally, the advent of 3-D printers has also given rise to a bounty of accurately scaled models produced by enthusiasts looking to fill gaps in the marketplace.
Now, think about how you’ll build your layout. First, start with the train table. Often in layout building, extruded-foam insulation board is used because it can easily be stacked, glued, and carved to form changes in elevation, rolling hills, mountains, and cliff faces. Foam can also be used as the primary surface of a train table. If you plan to use insulation foam boards on your layout, it’s best to set those down before laying any track.
Once you have your train table built and foam set in place, you’ll probably want to take care of your tracklaying and wiring, as that will then facilitate you to begin running trains on your layout. Track laying and wiring can be a challenging process for beginners, but there are many resources available on Trains.com to help with this process.
Generally, there are two command setups in model railroading: Direct-current block control (DC) and Digital Command Control (DCC).
The difference between DC and DCC is as follows: DC is analog, while DCC is digital. Think of DC as a dial, capable of adjusting one variable, whereas DCC is a computer keyboard, able to control many variables at once. Deciding which command system you will use is critical, as it will determine what locomotives you use on your layout. There are direct-current locomotives, and locomotives equipped with DCC. Direct-current locomotives can be converted to be compatible with DCC layouts, but it’s a more advanced, involved procedure. Generally, DCC equipment is more expensive than it’s DC counterpart, but compensates for the increased price with additional functionality.
Finally, we arrive at scenery, generally considered to be last step for your layout, and for many, an ongoing, never completed process. Scenery can include, but is not limited to, landscapes, bodies of water, flora, fauna, cities, towns, structures, industries, roads, vehicles, and people. But where to start?
There’s no set, single way to approach scenery. It depends on what materials you are using on your layout. But generally, work your way from bottom to top. You’ll first need to create the general lay of the land for your layout. Once your topography is set, you may decide to add ground texture, be it grass, dirt, sand, or rock. Then you could move on to bodies of water you’ve chosen to include. The important thing is to take care of your ground first, as it serves as the base for the rest of your scenery.
When you’re satisfied with your scenery, congrats! You’ve completed your first model railroad layout!
A final few thoughts to leave you with:
Keep in mind that a model railroad layout is only “finished” when you decide it is, whatever state that may be. Some modelers approach their layouts a perpetual work, constantly being refined and redefined. Others reach a point where they’re happy, and run their trains, never again to pick up their tools, at least not for that layout. Some modelers never even bother with scenery at all, happily operating trains on their “Plywood Pacific.”
If you find yourself uncertain with whatever you’re working with, know that there is a vast selection of resources available to you. In addition to what is offered on Trains.com, there is a myriad of books available at the Kalmbach Hobby Store covering topics from scenery to DCC wiring and everything in between. We also offer an email subscription series targeted toward beginners. There are also message boards, forums, and enthusiast sites with members eager to help beginners and answer any questions they may have. Finally, look for model railroading events near you! People there are frequently eager to help, and who knows – you may just meet some friends to build and operate your layout with!
I’ll leave you with this link to explore. Hopefully, these impressive layouts piques your interest and spurs you to further explore “the world’s greatest hobby.”