On first opening a model railway starter pack it all looks so easy. The layout plan is shown on the box, the track clips together and the electrics just plug-in and, unless things have gone wrong, the trains will run perfectly.
It’s a lot of fun.
But it’s after this that problems start.
The problems come when you want to go further and begin creating a model railway that isn’t just a collection of tracks but something that actually looks like a real-life railway in miniature.
Suddenly you’re faced with a lot of challenges requiring skills you probably won’t have needed before.
But none are that difficult and thankfully there are only 5 core skills that are needed to get started and none are particularly difficult.
#1 Electrical Troubleshooting
Even elementary railways will involve electrics and they’re bound to go around at some point. If you’re lucky your railway will work the first time but sooner or later a problem will crop up and it’s more than likely going to be around the electrics.
And it won’t just happen once, oh no!
So being able to identify and fix electrics is the number skill I recommend model railway builders get under their belt. Thankfully, it’s not that hard.
Really, it’s just a case of some common sense, applying logic and knowing how to use a few tools.
Closely allied to electrics comes my next must-have skill.
To get reliable connections, to say nothing of authentic looks, something better than the standard power clips are needed.
And this something is permanent, stable, connections achieved by soldering and in particular, soldering the wires to the track. Doing so will allow the wires to be hidden from sight and ensures better, longer-lasting connections.
Get a soldering iron and practice joining wires together. It’s important to be able to do this well with as little excess solder on the joint as possible.
With the basics mastered, apply the principles to track soldering. My guides are below. Practice makes perfect!
- Tried And Trusted Track Soldering Techniques
- How To Avoid The Two Ugly Sisters Of Track Soldering Hell
#3 Track Laying
While you can just glue your track down your trains will run more smoothly and the trackwork look more realistic if the track is securely and robustly laid.
Achieving this isn’t particularly difficult but there is a lot to it so I’ve covered this in detail in a separate post on the subject. If you’re using track pins, there’s more to them than you might think.
Adding ballast to the track is one of the key differences that separate a train set from a model railway. It’s also one of the most fiddly and time-consuming jobs. Luckily, it’s not difficult.
Essentially, it’s a process of mixing up PVA with water; finding a dispenser that can accurately drip it into place; spreading of the right scale ballast between the sleepers and either side of the rails and then dispensing the PVA solution over it to hold it in place.
My most popular guides on this are:
#5 Train Maintenance
Whether you use O, HO, OO, or N gauge trains they all have moving parts that are prone to wear and tear. Their tiny wheels and gears suck up dirt and grime and friction will take its toll to eventually bring your trains to a grinding halt.
Train maintenance solves this problem.
Knowing how to clean and oil your rolling stock is a critical skill to master. Luckily, it’s also easy once you’ve learnt the techniques. I’ve covered them in this post.
The same also applies to track maintenance, which is covered in the same article.
Go and Master Them Now!
One of the joys of model railways is that there are so many skills and techniques to learn. The majority can be learnt over time but if you want to avoid early problems but the five key skills I’ve listed here should be right at the top of your to-do list so get started now.
I’d start with the electrical troubleshooting or soldering as these can be done regardless of whether you have a railway set up yet and can also be useful elsewhere.
How many of these have you mastered? Any others I’ve missed?
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.