From Train Set To Model Railway
(or how to build a model railway layout)
Welcome, if you’ve arrived here you’re probably building a model railway. Maybe you started with a Hornby-style beginners train set and are wondering how and where to go next or you’re returning to the hobby after a break and want to refresh and learn what’s new.
Either way this page is for you!
I’m Andy, the Model Railway Engineer, and on this blog I focus on making more realistic and better model railways.
I show how to create and build them; what works and what doesn’t and what I share what I learn while making my own layouts. I also collect and collate the best guides, tutorials and ideas from around the web and cover them all here.
In other areas of this blog, I cover the basics for those just starting out and advanced topics for those already well advanced with their layouts. On this page however I’ve collected my best articles on the middle ground, how to progress from a train set to a proper railway: from baseboard building to electrics to scenery and model making.
(FYI, I work chiefly in N and OO gauge and all these tips will work on both of these plus O, HO and other common gauges).
So let’s get started.
First up, creating a baseboard.
Build your baseboard
Baseboards are the foundations of a model railway. While a train set can sit on a table or even floor while you use it when you progress to a proper model railway you need a dedicated base on which to build. It provides a firm surface on which to secure your track, a raised area under which electrics and wires can go and a stable area on which to build scenery.
You can buy dedicated baseboards built for you but these can cost a fortune. Equally, you can adapt existing tables and do it on the cheap. I cover this in how to get a baseboard for under £30. What most model railway enthusiasts do however is to build their own.
This takes a little bit of woodwork but really isn’t difficult if you have the tools and materials.
See building a model railway baseboard in 3 and half minutes for a great video that takes you through it. If you’ve got a power drill you’re pretty much there although I’d also recommend reading model railway baseboard construction | avoid these 3 painful mistakes. It’s not vital but it might save you heart ache later.
> Before you start, make sure you’ve got the tools you’ll need. There’s nothing more annoying than starting a job and then having to stop because you haven’t got the parts. You’ve probably got most of them anyway but take a look at this roundup of essential tools just in case.
With the baseboard built, you can start on track and electrics.
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Lay the track & electrics
Laying track is pretty much the same as it’s always been for model railways.
First decide on a track plan — where the track will go.
It’s completely up to you what circuit your track follows. Some modellers prefer to mirror part of a full size railway, recreating a line, branch line or depot in miniature. Others make up their own layout either making up in their head or following an existing track plan from one of the many free track plan websites.
Which ever you do, draw the track on your baseboard first to ensure it fits. There are various track planning computer programs that make this easy (I use one called anyrail which is free for small layouts) and also shows you the parts numbers that will be needed — ready for ordering off Amazon.
With the plan laid out on the board, lay down and secure the track. This can be glued or nailed or both. I’ve covered this previous in how to lay and fix track.
Electrics is of course a huge area and depends very much on whether you are using DC/analog power or digital control (DCC). For a quick overview of these see:
- What’s The Difference Between DCC And DC Trains — Which Is Best?
- and it’s sister article The Top 3 Advantages of DC model railways,
- DCC Trains: Why You’ll Be Thrilled, 5 Exciting Advantages
For an in-depth walk through of model railway electrics, I can do no better than point you in the direction of Brian Lambert. I can whole heartedly recommend Brian’s book The Newcomer’s Guide to Model Railways. It’s a comprehensive guide to model railways include electrics that has helped me enormously over the years. It’s one of my top books for railway modellers and highly recommended.
Along with track electrics, many also like to deploy signals and lighting. This is another area that has progressed dramatically in the last few years, with tiny LED lighting and advanced in motors making both operational electric and semaphore signals possible.
Once track and electrics are in place, you can start on the scenery and modelling aspects to add realism to your railway.
This is really the part that separates model railways from train sets and for many, myself included, is the most enjoyable part of the hobby.
Perhaps the first part is to lay down ballast on the track. Ballast is the small stones the site between the sleepers off the track and on real railways serve to hold the track secure. For model railways, it’s relatively easy although time consuming process but many consider getting it to look just right an art form.
See How to Ballast for my guides on this. It’s not difficult and I recommend you practice beforehand.
Once the track, electrics and ballast are down you can make the hills and main landscape features such as rivers and hills. These are covered here:
- 5 Ways to build beautiful hills
- Create super realistic streams & rivers for your model railway in 5 steps
- Making tunnels the trauma free way
With these in place, you can move onto buildings and structures. Experience has taught me to place buildings first and then add grass so the vegetation appears to “grow” around the buildings as it does in the real world.
For buildings, things have moved on hugely over the years with high quality ready built and cardboard and plastic kits now available for just about every type type of building.
These kit forms are wonderfully easy to assemble and surprisingly realistic and while it is certainly possible to make your own, for many railway modellers the laser cut kits are more than good enough.
> If you want to add extra realism, there’s a neat and free trick for creating photorealistic walls.
Grass and vegetation too has developed a lot in recent years. While budget scatter materials are common, static grass is now widely recognised as offering the best results. This is, in very simplistic terms, short nylon type fibres that is sprinkled over and area while applying a static charge. The charge makes the fibres stand upright and so creates a more more credible grass and vegetation effect. This combined with an under layer of darker scatter material can create stunningly lifelike grass land.
I cover all you need to know about static grass here.
Bringing it all together
Of course, all this needn’t be done at once.
The great thing about building a model railway is that it can be done over time, adding to it as and when time and budget allows.
My current build certainly fits into this. The Great South Railway — a layout covering South England from Kent to Cornwall — will take a long time to complete but there’s no rush and it’s enjoyable to build it over time, learning new things as it develops.
> If you’d like updates on my railway project, to follow its progress and the techniques I use along the way please subscribe to my email newsletter. I’m also continually seeking out and trialling new products, tips and ideas to improve railway modelling and these along with money saving ideas and offers are all covered in the newsletter. Subscribe now.
Alternatively, if you have a particular problem you’re struggling with drop me a note via the contact page or like my Model Railway Engineer Facebook page and drop me a line there and I’ll be happy to help.
Happy railway modelling,
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