Model railway or workshop in a garage or shed? Live in the Northern Hemisphere? Here’s what you need to do to protect your layout and trains in the cold winter months.
I despise the cold. The miniature the temperature outside falls below 20c, I start thinking about turning on the central heating. Much to my wife’s consternation!
And given my modelling studio/workshop and model railways are in a log cabin at the bottom of my garden this presents a problem from October to around April every year.
And it’s not just me that suffers during these months.
The changes in temperature have caused problems with my layout and trains too. Condensation is never good when combined with electrics or water absorbent materials around a layout such as Papier–mâché scenery and extremes of cold can be the death of paints and glues.
But over the years, and successive sheds and cabins I’ve found the following techniques to help making things more comfortable for both me and my layout.
The best insulation for a shed/garage
With my earliest sheds, and those of my father, insulation was the stuff of dreams. Now however I always fit out any outside building in which I spend time with some form of insulation.
If cost is a factor, the silver foil type insulation rolls you can get in DIY stores are a good starter. They’re relatively cheap per square meter, quick to fit (just staple to the inside walls and roof) and provides basic layer of protection from the extremes of cold. If I can stretch to it the time, insulating foam sandwiched between the wall and either marine plywood is even better.
For my latest base of operations, a Danish log cabin built during the Pandemic, I splashed out and opted for 100mm insulation boards that sits between the inner and outer walls but could easily be placed between the outside wall and a plywood board on the inside. These boards have a good lambda value of 0.022 W/mK (the measure of its heat conductivity and heat loss) and are also water repellent which can be an aid if you shed or garage is ageing and prone to water ingress.
In my experience this boarding gives the best insulation of the various types looked at here, compares very well in performance with the well known Kingspan product and with it in place in the walls, floors and roof, I haven’t needed to turn on the heating on until well into the winter season.
Sheds, cabins and garages also tend to have lots of gaps and holes where walls, floors and roofs meet. Although small, these gateways to the outside world allow heat to escape and cold air to creep in so I always seal these up. Any damp resistant filler or sealant will do the job.
Heating shed, cabins and garages
If you want to regularly work in your shed or garage during the depths of Winter, I recommend some form of heater.
Small oil filled heaters, with thermostats are ideal for typical UK sized sheds and garages and can be left on for long periods without risk. Better yet, especially given the rising energy costs at the time of writing, oil heaters are amongst the cheapest to run.
Oil filled heaters are the cheapest way to heat a shed or garage
A heating element at the base heats up oil that flows around metal columns. The oil takes time to warm up — see the downside below — but also takes a long time to cool down so the heating element that consumes electricity — doesn’t need to be on all the time. A thermostat monitors the temperature and turns the element on and off as needed which reduces the running cost compared to pure electrical heaters that need to only generate heat when turned on.
The only downside of oil filled heaters is that they can take a while to heat a room from cold. In my case, and when I’ve not left it running, I have my dad’s old fan heater pointing at me and I use this until the ambient temperature has reached a comfortable.
The best heater for sheds, cabins and garages
After looking at various models, I’ve found this VonHaus Oil filled radiator to be the best. It’s 2KW unit with 9 fins and at around £50 it’s a bargain and I can’t recommend it enough if you are faced with a cold shed or garage and want to make it more comfortable. It’s also got thermal safety cut off and adjustable thermostat which means it can be left on a low setting for long periods to keep a room warm when you’re not in there.
I’ve also made a wire mesh paint drying platform for my models that I can clip onto the top of this heater. This speeds up the drying time of paint work which can be problem in colder wetter months.
Preventing condensation — air flow
One thing I forgot for my first sheds was catering for condensation.
Having a heating in a shed is wonderful but but condensation will appear on windows and walls where the outside cold air meets the warmer heated air inside. And this can be a killer for electronics, such as that in model railway controllers or loco motors.
To counter this, I now keep the layouts slightly away from the walls so air can circulate and keep the heater on as long as possible so there aren’t sudden changes in temperature. It’s also good to open the doors and windows occasionally, on days when the weather is dry and warmer, to let some fresh air in.
Summary: how to keep your shed warm
Shed, cabins and garages are ideal man-caves, workshops and rooms for model railways but they can get cold. To keep coldest nights out, the insulation detailed here can be easily fitted in the walls, floors and ceilings while an oil filled electric heater will quickly bring the temperature up safely and affordably.
Affiliate notice: Some links on this page will take you to carefully selected businesses, including Hornby, B&Q, Rapid Online, Amazon, eBay, Scale Model Scenery and Element Games, through which you can buy products mentioned. These links are made under their affiliate schemes which means that although the price to you doesn't change I get a small commission on the orders you place. Please see the disclaimer for more details.