Model Railroading for Beginners

Are you looking to embrace a new hobby in 2021? Perhaps you or a family member received a model train set for Christmas, but you’re not sure how to start expanding your collection? If so, welcome to the club! You’ve entered into an exciting hobby with plenty of possibilities to make it your own! Before you get started though, there are a few things worth knowing. 

If you’ve already started building your railroad, check out our tips for building a model railroad here. If you’re brand new to the hobby, keep reading and we’ll help you get started!

1. Decide on Your Scale

Now you might have already received a specific scale of train over the holidays, but if you plan to make model railroading a hobby, it’s still important to consider what size models will work best for you in the long run.

Ask yourself this: 

  • How much space are you able to dedicate to your model railroad?
  • Would you rather have larger models or more room to run trains?


Here at ModelTrainStuff, we offer the following scales, from smallest to biggest:

  • Z scale (1:220)
  • N scale (1:160)
  • HO scale (1:87)
  • HOn3 scale, or HO narrow gauge (1:87)
  • O scale (1:48)


HO scale is arguably the most popular among model railroaders. This has a lot to do with its size. At 1:87 it’s small enough to fit into most spaces, but still large enough to not be overly delicate or intricate.

2. Choose a Location for Your Railroad

Now that you’ve chosen your scale, it’s time to decide where to put it.

Model railroaders typically have a permanent location set up for their railroad that never gets taken down or moved! It’s important to find a place such as this if you are serious about the hobby, as running your trains on the floor or moving them around constantly will leave them open to damage and wear over time. 

When choosing a space, it’s also important to consider what type of layout you want to build. If you want a mainline where you can simply sit back and watch the trains run, a circular or oval shaped track layout will be best. For ease of access, these are best if accessible from all sides. 

If you’d rather design your railroad for operations such as switching freight cars into industries, a point-to-point layout will work well. These can also be more space efficient, as they can typically be set up around the perimeter of almost any space, rather than requiring a room large enough to fit in the middle. 

3. Decide on Your Control System 

There are two main choices when it comes to powering your railroad; DC Analog control and Digital Command Control (DCC)

Both have their advantages and disadvantages. DC Analog control was the standard for many years, and as such, a lot of older models are only compatible with this system. DCC on the other hand allows for infinite flexibility when running your trains, as you can control more than one train at a time. 

If you are starting out for the first time, we’d definitely recommend DCC, as there’s a lot more you can do. For instance most DCC equipped models now come with sound effects installed, which you can control from your DCC remote. There’s nothing quite like barreling down the track and actually being able to blast the horn of the locomotive! 

Watch our video here to find out more about the differences between DC and DCC. 

4. Practice and Plan Your Layout Before Committing 

When you buy or receive your first train set, you’ll have enough track for a classic oval setup. This can be a lot of fun initially, but you’ll want to keep your railroad interesting for years to come if you plan to turn it into a layout! 

Take a look at professionally designed plans such as those in these great books from Kalmbach Media. See what ideas you like, and what you don’t. You can even draw inspiration from the real thing by checking out your local railroad in person (safely and legally of course!) or by looking at real railroad configurations on Google Maps

Once you have a general idea of what you’d like to build, buy some track and play around with it. See if it actually works in practice, and make any needed changes before fixing down your track. 

5. Build Your Scenery

With your layout configured to your liking, it’s time to start building your landscape! 

So what are your landscaping options?


Your layout tells a story. It’s a great opportunity to bring to life a particular passion, experience or memory! You might decide to create a scene based on where you grew up or where you live today. If you have an interest in a particular real-life railroad, you can model your scene to represent the region it travels through.

This part of the process is where you can really get creative and turn your railroad into a living scene!

6. A Layout Never Stays the Same

As a model railroader, your work will never be done.

Even if you don’t plan on reinventing your entire scene from the ground up, you may want to occasionally change details from time to time. 

You might want to change the era that your railroad is set in, requiring some different buildings, vehicles, and railroad infrastructure, or you might want to change the way an industry or scenic element appears.

Sometimes you might just want to add a new building here and there, or incorporate the latest scenery item from your favorite manufacturer. Whatever you do, you can be sure that from the moment you complete your first circuit of track, the evolution of your layout will never stop. 

Just remember to take a step back and enjoy your creation from time to time!

Getting Started with Model Railroading

Are you ready to create your ideal layout? Get started right here at We have everything you need to start building your perfect scene, and our team of experts is available to help you along the way! 

Check out our full range across all scales at and make sure to visit the blog for modeling inspiration and tips to keep your layout fresh and exciting!