How To Model Train Layouts Easy model train décor

Easy model train décor

By David Popp | March 30, 2023

Simple ways to use model trains as decorative accents around your home

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For many, particularly those with limited space, having model trains means that the trains will in some way intersect with everyday life.

Obviously, if you live by yourself, this can look like whatever you want it to be. I’ve known single model railroaders who have taken train décor to the ultimate level, filling every available space in their homes or apartments with layouts, models, books, magazines, artwork, railroad artifacts, and more – down to railroad-themed towels in the bathroom and railroad print fabrics on the throw pillows.

But for most of us, we have some sort of domestic arrangement with other people that may or may not be fans of model railroading. Just exactly how much or little model trains fit into the décor of those homes various greatly with the comfort levels of the partners, families, and even pets.

But using model trains as décor doesn’t have to be as obvious as a layout in the living room or a right-of-way running above the toilet and vanity sink through holes cut in the bathroom’s walls. In fact, there are many easy ways that you can incorporate your love of trains into your home that will not require lawyers at the end of the day to settle real-estate disputes by one party or the other.

For example, while my wife is appreciative of the fact that model railroading for me helps pay our bills, there’s a standing agreement that any model train above the basement level of the house has to have a good reason for being there. If it fits the overall décor, it’s welcomed. If it does not… well, you get the idea.

In simply asking the staff about the subject, I received a wide variety of responses. Perhaps the simplest form of using model trains in home décor is the display model. This can be a favorite locomotive or car positioned in a place of honor where it may be viewed – but also potentially collected for use on a layout elsewhere in the home.

Black model steam locomotive on brass track resting on brown wood shelf and surrounded by light-colored vases filled with plants.
Dreaming of a future garden railway, Classic Trains editor Brian Schmidt displays this PIKO America steam locomotive among various floral arrangements on a windowsill in his house. Brian Schmidt photo

“Even though I’m an N scale modeler, I’ve collected G gauge equipment for 20 years for the ‘someday’ garden railroad. In the meantime, it makes nice, durable displays for around the house. Arranging it with some floral displays gives the feel of a garden railway without the hassle. This PIKO America Reading Co. 2-6-0 ‘camelback’ could be the start of that someday garden railroad – I just need some anthracite hoppers and a ‘Northeast’ caboose to go with it!” – Brian M. Schmidt

Because model trains are narrow, windowsills are often popular places to display them:

Black toy steam locomotive on silver display base resting upon brown wood windowsill
Staff member Rene Schweitzer and her husband display some favorite Lionel locomotives on one of their home’s windowsills. Rene Schweitzer photo


Black and white cat looks at model locomotive on windowsill
The guardrails on the aluminum display stand have helped protect Rene’s models from other inquisitive members of the family. Rene Schweitzer photo

“My husband Jim and I use a window shelf in their bedroom to display two of our Lionel postwar engines. The engines rest on a Railrax/Glenn Snyder aluminum display shelf (out of production). The models are a Lionel No. 2037 2-6-4 and a No. 675 2-6-2. With several cats in the house as well, we use a Railrax shelf, with built-in guardrails to secure the heavy models from curious paws!” – Rene Schweitzer

Black model train engine with gold lettering on small wood trestle on brown bookshelf
Steven Otte has this HO scale Pennsy GP9 proudly displayed on a scratchbuilt trestle resting on one of the bookshelves in his dining room. Steven Otte photo

Another technique is to display a favored model combined with a simple mini diorama:

“Before I moved to Wisconsin and built my steam-era layout, my only model railroading outlet was as a member of a train club in Florida. So I bought a pair of HO scale Proto 2000 Pennsylvania RR GP9s to run on the club’s diesel-era HO scale layout. After coming to work at MR, I moved into a house in Milwaukee that had these built-in cubbyholes in the living/dining room. My wife was filling them with her knickknacks when she asked me if I had anything to put in them. I thought of this wood trestle that I had recently scratchbuilt at work and dug out one of my old Geeps. It’s nice to have something that expresses my love of model railroading upstairs, not just in the basement.” – Steven Otte

 Large, dark green model passenger car on wood presentation base with model track
This custom-built 1:29 scale model of the chapel car Grace is displayed in Trains staff member Bob Lettenberger’s home. Bob cut the ties and handlaid the track on the diorama base. Bob Lettenberger photo

Diorama bases may be more elaborate, including full scenery as well:

“In the Old West, before there were church buildings, in many places Sunday meant a visit to the chapel car. This is a 1:29 scale model of Grace, the seventh and final car in the fleet of the American Baptist Publication Society. Prototype Grace is a Pullman custom-built car introduced in 1915. Model Grace is also custom-built and only one of five made. The model was presented to me as a gift for helping with the Elder Hostel programs at the Baptist’s Green Lake (Wis.) Conference Center and is part of our guest bedroom decor. The real Grace has been restored and is exhibited on the Conference Center grounds in Green Lake.” – Bob Lettenberger

Gray model train track on black headboard of a bed with red pillows
MR staff member Bryson Sleppy uses the narrow, flat space on the headboard of his bed to hold the Digital Command Control programming track for his model trains. Bryson Sleppy photo

When you’re tight on space, your model train display may also have another function:

“Living in a 700 square foot apartment, space is a luxury for me. When I was searching for a bedframe, I saw this bed at Ikea, and it made me wonder if I could make a programming track on the headboard? After building the bed and headboard, I added a loose run of HO scale Kato Unitrack to the top and ran the wires through conveniently placed holes in the headboard. I mounted a NCE Power Cab to one of the side cubbies and wired everything up. The cubbies and drawers on the bed also offer plenty of storage space for more trains – or bedding, whichever you find more practical.” – Bryson Sleppy

Sometimes you can convert model trains and train materials to décor as well:

Red, blue, and white transit signs, some in black frames, on a yellow wall
David Popp mounted two London Tube car models inside a shadowbox to accompany this display of London Underground signs, maps, and posters in a small hallway in his house. David Popp photo

The one place in my own house where my wife if fine with trains of any sort is this small hallway, decorated with an assortment of London Underground signs, timetables, and maps. I took two diecast Tube cars that I’d picked up while on a trip to England several years ago and carefully mounted them inside a shadow box to add them to the collection of railroad artifacts. Bachmann makes a OO scale set of Tube cars sold exclusively by the London Transport Museum, but I’ve never been ablet to justify the cost with the idea that I’d be simply displaying them in the hallway.

Longtime contributor, Gerry Leone, took a different approach to model trains as décor – historical artifacts:


Brown picture frame holding brown sticks, a small model lamp post, and a description card
Part of the décor in Gerry Leone’s home is this small shadow box, displaying historical pieces from famous model railroader John Allen. Gerry Leone photo

“Only days after his death, John Allen’s famed Gorre & Daphetid layout was destroyed by fire. Three years ago, the National Model Railroad Association received a number of artifacts from the remains of John’s layout and workshop, which his two young neighbors had clandestinely salvaged and kept secret for almost 50 years. The items were put up for auction to NMRA members, including one of John’s scratchbuilt streetlights, a turned brass smoke jack, and a small pile of ties he’d cut and stained. I won the auction for these items and mounted them in a small, vintage-looking shadowbox, along with their card of authenticity.” – Gerry Leone

Of course, model trains can cross over into the realm of artwork as well:

Wooden steam train with caboose displayed on a white fireplace mantle and surrounded by yellow flowers
Video producer Kevin Gilliam has this hand-crafted wood steam locomotive and caboose proudly displayed on the fireplace mantle in his home. Kevin Gilliam photo

“When we moved into our new house, the first order of business was getting the appropriate railroad picture over the mantle. A print of Bear Creek Junction featuring North Carolina’s famous Graham County Railroad by the artist D. Morgan was part one of the display. Then, we decided we needed a something else. I’d acquired a hand-crafted wooden train and caboose many years ago from a friend – master woodworker Frank Mansfield of Raleigh, NC. Frank was part of our model train club in the early 2000s. Interestingly enough, the engine and caboose were not built as a set, and are actually different scales, but we thought they went well together.” – Kevin Gilliam

Sculpture made from gray driftwood and small black and silver railroad tracks
Several years ago, Harold Stromberger made this sculpture by combining pieces of driftwood and Z scale track, forming a highly artistic model railroad. The piece now resides in the Illinois Railway Museum’s collection. Eric White photo

Model trains as artwork can get quite large as well. While at the Illinois Railway Museum last fall, MR editor Eric White and I ran across an interesting piece of sculpture – driftwood and Z scale trains combined into a single artistic display. As it turns out, the item was run in the May/June 2011 issue of Ztrack magazine. The piece was created by Harold Stromberger, who used the natural curves and extensions of the driftwood pieces to become the roadbed for the Z scale track. The finished sculpture is approximately 7.5 x 3.5 feet. As built, it was originally free-standing and did not include the green base with extra loop of track, nor the small structures as shown in the photo.

In this initial survey, we’ve simply scratched the surface of easy model railroad décor ideas. In future installments we’ll look at other options, including layouts fully integrated into living spaces. However, as one more suggestion, models as décor don’t always have to be toy trains. Model railroad figures work as décor too. G scale people in particular are large enough to be noticed, and often make delightful surprises for your guests to discover. Even my wife doesn’t object to occasionally finding one of these people lurking around on one of our bookshelves!

toy plastic man in blue overalls standing on ladder and attempting to wash a full-sized windowpane
This Preiser 1:22.5 scale figure has been attempting to clean the window outside David Popp’s office for years. Visitors to Kalmbach are often delightfully surprised to discover the scale figure hard at work! David Popp photo

One thought on “Easy model train décor

  1. Some great ideas and I especially like the arrangement by Kevin Gilliam which I may use. Thanks. D. White, Palm Springs.

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