Starting Your Model Railroad

Starting your model railroad is exciting, whether you’re simply putting together your first “train set” or already thinking about a more detailed layout.

When you look up pictures of impressive layouts and see the time and work that has obviously gone into them, it can be very intimidating! However, the sense of satisfaction when your layout reaches such a level is well worth the time and effort.

You may be wondering how to build a model railroad. To get there, you need a strong foundation to build on.

While you can get a train set up and running by simply laying track on the floor, it’s a great idea to lay those foundations today if you eventually plan to construct an entire layout.

Let’s look at how you can start your model railroad.

Building a Base for Your Model Railroad

how to build a model railroadhow to build a train table

When we talk about building a base, we’re really talking about establishing how to build a train table for your model railroad. Having a table will provide the space you need in the early days, and as you start to expand your track plan, you’ll have somewhere to set it up without wondering what you’re going to do next!

You might want to expand further later, but by the time you reach that stage you’ll have some experience – and ideas for how to build a model train layout – to design your own solutions.

While you can buy a train table or a storage solution for your model railroad, you’ll have much more fun building your own.

In terms of what your track will sit on, a sheet of readily available plywood will do. We’re going to paint this and add scenery later, so your focus should be on building a base to attach your sheet to, thus creating a table.

The extent to which you do this depends on your woodworking skills! You can simply find 4 – 6 strong pieces of wood the same size and screw your plywood or other piece of wood to it, or you can make a stronger base where your legs attach to each other for greater stability before you then add the top where you will build your track. To prevent your table from warping over time, it’s also a good idea (but not a necessity) to include some horizontal cross-bracing on the underside of your board. This will make the weakest points of the table stronger.   

Once you have your table built, choose a base color for your layout. You can go for tones such as gray or brown that will blend in when scenery is added, and you can even add roads and areas of concrete at this time by simply painting them on. 

Laying and Securing Your Track

A common mistake among beginner model railroaders is not securing their track. That said, if you decide to spend hundreds of dollars on a beautiful train table, we understand if you don’t want to start hammering thumb tacks through it! Thankfully, there are other ways to achieve this without ruining the plywood.   

While track has traditionally been laid using nails or tacks, many modelers today are using clear silicone caulk. This glue-like material can be found at most hardware stores, and is a great alternative to traditional methods. Instead of securing the track permanently, leaving a scar or hole in the table, track laid with silicone caulk can be taken up easily months or even years after the material has dried, but will hold as strong as any glue unless disturbed! This is a great advantage, especially if you decide to change your track plan once everything has been fixed down. 

While you can lay your track directly onto your table, another option is to use a roadbed as a base. These come in materials such as cork or foam, which can be shaped to whichever track design you have planned. They are designed to not only position your track at a realistic height off of the ground, but will also reduce the sound of the trains running on the board. These can be secured to the table the same way, with silicone caulk, as can the track on top of them.   

Getting Started with Scenery & Adding Structures

how to build a model train layout

Scenery at its most basic level starts with the coat of paint you apply to your base before you lay your track. For young hobbyists or newcomers, this can be more than adequate for base scenery. For those looking to build a more substantial scene, this will allow you to get used to running your trains, and will give you the flexibility of trying different track configurations before creating something more permanent on your table.

When you’re happy with your track plan, and you’ve tried and tested it to make sure that it all works,  this is a great time to add more scenery and structures. Again, you have the choice of buying them ready built or creating your own.

One option to help you achieve a happy medium might be to buy some simple anchor structures while you decide where features such as rivers and lakes will go, or as you build up your landscape to add depth to your scene.

Our recent blog post that looks at expanding a train set into a layout gives you more tips for doing this.

Improving Your Model Trains and Updating Your Layout

The tips we’ve given you here are just the start!

Once you have started the construction of your model railroad, it won’t take long to realize how much enjoyment you are getting out of it, and you’ll soon be starting to think about ways you can improve your collection and update your layout.

Before long, you’ll be painting your trains, creating detailed scenery, and posting photos of an inspirational layout that is entirely the product of your imagination. 

Remember to send us your photos when you do!