It’s all too easy to start building a model railway with great intentions but then get stuck, never to get beyond the track stage. The trains are left to trundle around a circuit devoid of scenery, buildings and landscape. Here’s what I do to save my railways from this fate.
It nearly happened to me. A little while ago I took a short break from model railways and then wanted to get back to my model building. I had a wonderful dream of building a grand model railway and it was going to be awesome.
I rushed out, picked up a Hornby Flying Scotsman starter pack, some extra track and a few extra trains. Lovingly and carefully I put it together on the floor of the spare room. And there it stayed.
Over time I added more track and the occasional extra wagon and passenger car but it never progressed from there. Other priorities come up, other things pull on your time. The railway just sat there.
My grand design became a track only tragedy. It’s a sad yet very common fate for many railways.
Luckily for my railways, I pushed beyond this stage and have since gone onto build many more railways but for every one, I now stick to this technique to ensure I don’t fall into the table track trap.
Make It Real
One of the biggest challenges of building a model railway – as opposed to just having a collection of track – is having the motivation to keep at it. Sure it’s a lot of fun and I learn something new with every railway but it also takes time, effort and focus and so it’s easy to get distracted and not finish a layout.
There are lots of motivational strategies available but what I used – and have found most helpful – was having a compelling vision of what “my model railway” would look like when finished and by creating a picture I make my railways real before I’ve even started them.
And it’s not just a vague mental image I create but an actual picture with lots of details to bring it to life. Without this I’d just keep skirting around the edges so to speak and my never become more than just some track on the floor.
So before I start on a new layout I first create a picture of how it will look when finished.
I create a picture board (a collage of smaller pictures) showing not just the track plan – this is also worked out as part of this phase – but images from the Internet of the buildings, people, vehicles, scenes and landscape that co-exists with the track. The more pictures and more detail the more real my creation seems and the more inspired I am to finish it. If you’re not familiar with the concept, there’s a good overview of picture boards here.
Extra: I keep this in a loose leaf file along with other reference material, wiring diagrams and notes about my layout as it progresses.
I then use this picture board with motivational techniques — such as setting myself goals with fixed dates to complete the main parts shown on picture board and to-do lists of quick tasks that I can carry out whenever I have a spare five minutes to keep up the momentum — and look at it frequently to stay energised. Doing so reminds me of what I’m building and how great it’ll look and keeps me on track.
Lay The Foundations
When first deciding to build a model railway it’s all too easy to rush out buy a train set and then it’s only natural to want to try it out on a table or even floor.
I’ve learnt this is often the worst thing to do. Even with a picture board and goals, once you set up the track it can just sit there or if it’s in a temporary location and needs putting away it might never see the light of day again.
Instead, I’ve learnt that the number one action to take to ensure my railways move beyond just track is to get the baseboard.
Having the baseboard in place first has three big wins.
- Firstly, baseboards make building everything else much, much, easier. It solves so many problems that you’d otherwise struggle with and possibly lose interest with.
- Secondly, it pushes you to get the railway built. The blank board is a great motivator to get on and lay the track, hills, grass etc and everything else needed to cover up that horrible bare wood.
- Thirdly, having a baseboard takes away a lot of the reasons for procrastination.
Having a baseboard takes away many of the reasons that could be used to put off doing things.
With the baseboard taken care of there’s no reason not to tackle laying the track and electrics and then the ballast; with the baseboard, there’s a surface on which to build the hills, tunnels and roads etc. The grass can be put down and before too long there’s a model railway taking shape.
Without the baseboard and all these things can be put off and you just have some track.
The baseboard is the foundation of the rest of your railway. Get it and the rest of the railway will fall into place.
Traditionally, these would be made at home but increasingly many people now buy them ready-made..
Getting aboard pre-made means it’ll be ready faster than if done DIY — for most people at least — and it’ll be built a lot better, certainly in my case!
If you do want to make your own, Plywood is the best wood for baseboards with sheets available in a variety of sizes and thicknesses. For legs and braces, use 2×4 timber. Both plywood and timber can be bought at your local DIY store. Perhaps the biggest tip I can give if you are considering making your own, it’s make sure it’s perfectly flat and use a spirit level to ensure it’s level. Uneven boards will cause endless problems for your track work and smooth running of your trains.
Plan The Build
With a vision board of how the railway will look and a baseboard to put it all on, it’s then a matter of getting around to building and creating the layout.
Rather than leaving this to chance however I break the construction of the layout down into 6 objectives and work on these one at a time. (There’s a good guide to setting objectives here).
The typical construction plan for one of my layouts would be:
- Structures for large landscape/geological features built (hills, lakes etc)
- Track and Electrics Fitted
- Ballast Laying
- Buildings followed by scenery fine detail work
- Scenes, Signs and People
Note: sometimes the available budget doesn’t allow for all the parts needed for a particular stage to be acquired at once. In which case I try to get the parts vital to a stage and follow up with the other parts later. In the case of track, for example, I’d get the track parts that will be connected to the electrics and point motors done and drop in the remainder when possible. This isn’t ideal, it goes against a lesson a I learnt a long time ago – but it’s necessary sometimes.
What you do and in what sequence is a personal choice, the above steps and sequence is just my preference. Some people prefer to put the track and electrics down first for example. But the important thing is to have a plan as this focuses your effort and as you can the layout develop and come alive.
Follow these step, keep focused and don’t get demotivated or lost. Model railways can be a lifelong hobby but like anything that takes time and is worth doing it takes effort so keep at it. In a few years, your railway will be a triumph not tragedy.
A final, personal, note: I spend a LOT of time testing, photographing, writing and often wrecking my own layouts researching techniques for these articles and don’t charge a penny for them. If this article is useful to you or helpful, please add a comment to say so, it gives me encouragement to continue. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
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