Choosing Elements for Your Layout

One of the first things we model railroaders learn when we go from a train set to a layout is that our work is never done. Perhaps one of the biggest attractions of our hobby is the ability to continually evolve our layouts, from swapping out a handful of accessories to completely taking apart a scene and rebuilding it as we wish.

We’ve previously looked at how you can decide which era of railroading history you should model, and we’ll touch and expand on some of those ideas here.

Do You Have to Stick to a Theme?

When we talk about building and evolving a layout, we always speak in terms of themes. But what if you don’t want to focus on one particular era or geographical location?

One of the most popular Netflix series of the last couple of years, Sex Education, has been acclaimed for various things, among them the quirkiness that arises from their not being a fixed theme. The show is set in the United Kingdom, but the school environment is very American. The characters are generally dressed like it’s the mid-to-late 1980’s, and the cars and buses look like they’re from this period too, yet all the characters have relatively recent cell phones.

Why shouldn’t you build a scene incorporating a “Wild West” town but with modern trains running through it? Or have early 20th century pullman cars arriving into modern stations?

If the idea of sticking to a specific era or location doesn’t seem enticing to you, try experimenting with a “not theme” and see what you can come up with – it can be a lot of fun!

You can get started by visiting our scenery department here, or you can build yourself something out of everything in your collection, if you already have materials saved from previous layouts.

Of course while having complete freedom from themes can be a lot of fun, for some, recreating something more specific is part of the excitement and a challenge in itself.

Choosing Seasonal Elements

Adding elements to give the feel of a specific season is all about the small details.

The main way you’ll differentiate between seasonal themes is with the use of certain color pallets and elements such as snow and grass types. We’ll take a more detailed look at how to achieve a realistic seasonally defined scene by using certain materials in a future post, but for now, let’s take a look at what accessories will help set your scene.

For spring and summer layouts, you can add many details to your scene. Pieces like our SceneMaster Spring Trees and Spring Wheat Fields are excellent for seasonal layouts, the latter especially if you want to add additional touches such as people working – going further to create a real world setting rather than merely building a landscape that your trains will travel across.

In a similar vein, these HO scale hikers are a cool addition to your layout, especially if you have a hilly or forested landscape. They can be used to create a fun cameo to challenge your friends and family to find them in the scene!

Fall is all about the magical color you can introduce into your layout. Here at ModelTrainStuff we have you covered, with a wide range of fall accessories that will not only make your fall layouts look incredible, but will also save you a lot of time. 

Finally, it’s worth remembering that winter layouts don’t have to be dominated by Christmas. The beauty of a winter layout is that it can be achieved as easily as adding your own homemade snow to your landscape, but of course if you want to go into more detail and create a full winter layout then there are plenty of additional options.

Choosing Elements for a Specific Type of Scene


Building defined locations can be a challenge, but can also be incredibly rewarding.

Urban areas are arguably the most challenging to work with. One of the challenges is that larger buildings tend to cost more. To offset this, you can add new buildings over time, as your layout evolves, but this will of course slow down the project. That said, there is a certain charm to starting out with what might look like a barren landscape and gradually adding to it as your finances allow. It’s like seeing a real-life town grow on your train table!

If you want to enjoy a real clean cut, slick look, then you are best served making sure that all your buildings are produced to a similar caliber. Our Life-Like range, which features as part of our wider buildings and structures range, is a great collection of affordable structures which display an undoubtedly acceptable level of detail, but will look less realistic when placed next to some of our more costly brands. They will however enable you to build a huge town or even a city-like landscape with minimal expense. You can also add additional custom details to any structure to make it more realistic, which will help it blend in alongside more high end structures. 

Choosing Elements to Reflect a Certain Era 

Building your layout around a certain time period is similar to building around places, in that you’re looking to match as much of your collection as possible.

If you want to create a fairly modern town, then Walthers Cornerstone would be a great brand to use. If you’re thinking about creating a scene based on the Golden Era or the Transitional Era, for example, then you’ll find plenty of options in our range from Woodland Scenics, Carolina Craftsman Kits, and Custom Model Railroads, among others. Of course the great thing about most buildings is that they can be adapted to fit almost any era. Plenty of the structures designed for period scenes will also work on modern layouts – perhaps with some customization or additional details. 

Of course, the key to really nailing a certain period in your layout is to choose locomotives and rolling stock from that particular era. Unless you go down the Sex Education route and want to create a quirky layout with modern buildings and early 20th century trains, or vice versa!

Perfecting Your Railroad

What makes the perfect layout?

That’s up to you. Adding specific elements of your choice, from trains to buildings and scenery items, will bring your layout to life in whichever way you want it to.

Once you know what you want to build, run with it! If you’re not sure, then have some fun. Whether you go for a combination or a “not theme” layout, or if you start with a theme that you can slowly add to over time, it’s your layout and as long as it makes you happy, it will be perfect!