Expanding Your Train Set into a Layout

A big landmark in any model railroader’s “career” is when the basic train set is expanded into a layout. Many modelers start with a simple oval of track as their base, often in the form of a store-bought train set. From here, the possibilities are endless! 

Your layout won’t come together overnight. You’ll make mistakes, make changes along the way, and you’ll need to take some time to plan. However, once you’ve completed your first layout, you’ll find that it’s a constantly evolving entity, as you continue to add your own details and buy additions for your scene.

Getting Your Layout Off the Ground (Literally!)

One of the great things about starting with a train set is that most can be constructed right on the floor of your home. Thanks to their pre-ballasted raised track, you can be up and running in minutes, without having to dedicate a permanent space in a room! Note: Only sets with plastic ballast should be run directly on the floor, sets with standard, ballast-less track should always be run on a table to avoid dust and carpet fibers clogging the locomotive! 

At some point in every early modeler’s career however, there comes a time when you’ll want to expand and find a permanent, safer location to run your trains. Enter the train-table (or platform, as it is sometimes known)! 

To create your platform, we recommend using a 4×8 sheet of plywood for it’s convenient size, durability, and availability. These can be found at almost every “big box” hardware store. Specialist train tables are available to buy, but it’s much better to create your own, as this will allow you to customize your railroad as you wish.

This video produced by Lionel Trains is a great guide to building your first train-table.

Deciding on a Plan

As we mentioned above, you’ll still likely be working with a simple oval of track at this stage – Now it’s time to have some fun!

Now that your track is safely off the ground, you can choose to either keep the original “ballasted” track, or you can ditch it for standard track without ballast. Both have their advantages – ballasted track is already raised to a realistic height from the surface of the table, but offers less flexibility. Standard “ballastless” track will allow for a far greater choice in your track plan, and the types of track available to you. For more on standard track types, check out our video here!

Once you’ve decided on your track type, it’s time to make your dream plan a reality! At this point the possibilities are endless (within the confines of your table of course). You can stick to a simple oval, or you can add another loop for a double-track railroad (perfect for running two trains at the same time!). You can add switches to sidings, where you can store and display your growing rolling stock collection, or you can even abandon the loop entirely, and go with something more wild such as a figure-8 or a point to point layout (no continuous running, but fun for switching cars like on a real railroad!).   

Check out our range of track and accessories here.

From Train Set to Model Railroad

Possibly the biggest step in going from a train set to a model railroad is adding structures! Buildings are an essential part of any layout. While you might have had some on the floor next to track, expanding into a layout will take these details to another level and really help your entire scene to come to life. Whether you’re looking to place your railroad into a rural, suburban, or urban landscape, you can find an almost endless supply of ready-made or kit based structures to make your vision come true. 

If you really want to be creative, you can try your hand at scratch-building your own structures! Choosing to scratch build unlocks unlimited possibilities for customization. Whether you simply want a type of building that isn’t available, or to custom-build a miniature version of your house, garden, or workplace to include in your scene, there’s nothing like having your own scratch-built buildings on your layout.

Check out this tutorial from Budget Model Railways and get everything you need from our range of scratch building accessories.

Getting Creative with Scenery

Likewise, while it’s easy to buy scenery kits or even entire layouts, there’s nothing like building your own.

Model Railroader magazine has this fantastic guide to help you create a variety of landscapes for your layout.

When you’re getting started on your first “real” layout, a great place to begin is simply painting “ground” on your table. You’ll be surprised at how much a simple covering of green paint will transform the look of your railroad! For more detailed scenery, we recommend starting with brown paint to simulate ground, and building up a realistic scene using various grass materials. See our blog article on grass types to find out more! 

It’s a good idea to hold off on any permanent scenery until you’re happy with your track plan, building placement, and other features. You can then design the topography of your layout based on these features, rather than creating a scene which looks great, but is difficult to work with, or dull to operate.

Choose from our weathering tools here and from our range of scenery accessories once you’ve added more features such as mountains and rivers to your layout.

If you’re setting your first layout in a winter landscape, this blog article will act as a handy guide and complement the tips we’ve provided here.

A Layout is Never Truly Finished!

An amazing layout is never complete! Your leap from train set to layout will likely be just the first evolution of your railroad. Whether you periodically choose to take it apart and completely transform it, make small changes as you go, or even build additions if you have the space, your first layout is sure to be the beginning of many years of enjoyment in the model railroading hobby. 

Looking for some inspiration? Check out our Layout Tour video series or Model Railroader’s latest issue of Great Model Railroads!