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10 Tips for Planning Your First Model Train Layout

Updated on May 27, 2012
Decide a theme for your layout.
Decide a theme for your layout. | Source
Start with a small layout ...
Start with a small layout ... | Source
... or a midsize layout.
... or a midsize layout. | Source
Switches allow trains to move from one track line to another.
Switches allow trains to move from one track line to another. | Source
Large transformers can provide power to tracks without much drop off of power.
Large transformers can provide power to tracks without much drop off of power. | Source
The lumber yard and sawmill have moving parts, so they'll need power.
The lumber yard and sawmill have moving parts, so they'll need power. | Source
This Ice company house shoots blocks of ice down the ramp.
This Ice company house shoots blocks of ice down the ramp. | Source
Vehicles, roads, newspaper machines and the like make the layout more realistic.
Vehicles, roads, newspaper machines and the like make the layout more realistic. | Source
Don't forget the people.
Don't forget the people. | Source

By Joan Whetzel

For those considering creating a model train layout of their own, there are several things to consider. The first and main consideration for any train layout is to start with only the basics. Remember, you can always add on scenery, trains, accessories, etcetera over time. The second major consideration is to decide what train gauge you want to work with: G, O or O27, S, OO, HO, TT, N, or Z-scale trains. G scale trains are the largest. They take up a lot of space and are frequently used outdoors as garden trains, and can get expensive if you want a large layout, but they are easy for small children to handle. Z-scale trains, which are very tiny, are great for small layouts in a limited space, but they are probably not the best choice for families with small children (the trains and scenery could become choking hazards). Once you decide the size, it's time to get into planning your layout.

Layout Design Tips

  1. Choose a Theme. Layout themes could be anything. Consider designing and building a layout around one of these themes: a basic cityscape, an industry (coal, oil, passenger stations, ship port intermodal lines), an era (19th century, WWI era, WWII era, 1950s, modern), SciFi/fantasy, a scenic route (mountain, desert, the country), a specific rail line (Northwest, Canadian, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, MKT), or a specific area of the country that you like, say somewhere near where you grew up, for instance.
  2. Decide on Rolling Stock. What kind of rolling stock (train engines and cars) do you want to run? Some of the choices are:

· Passenger

· Freight

· Intermodal (sea and rail)

· Steam or diesel (choosing a specific era may decide this for you) or crossover from steam to diesel (1930s through early 1950s)

  1. Decide How Much You Can Spend. Remember, you don't have to buy everything upfront, but you do need to figure out the initial outlay for the basics you'll need to get started, beginning with the layout table, the track, and the wiring. The rest (rolling stock - that's the train set or sets, the buildings and the scenery) can be added a little at a time.
  2. Operation Aspect of the Layout Design. "Operation" involves how your train will operate while on the tracks. Decide if you want a continuous track (any shape track with no beginning and end), a point to point track (goes from one town to another, then makes a return trip), an elevated track, or sidings for industrial layouts.
  3. Physical Space allotment. Determine how much space you have to build a layout in. This may also help decide which scale train you choose. Take measurements of the space and the locations of electrical outlets. Take these with you to the lumber store when you purchase supplies for the basic layout. Keep in mind, that if the layout is going to be deeper than your arm can reach, that you will need to hidden build hatchways into the layout so you can make repairs and tend to train derailments. Hatchways will either be hinged doors that swing downwards or a board that rests on lip (along the lines of a manhole cover) which can simply be lifted out and set back in place from underneath the table.
  4. Layout Base. The layout base or table should be made of 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick plywood, cut to the dimensions of your layout plans. Use two-by-four posts as the supports for the layout. They should be placed about every 4 feet or so and cut the height that you feel you can comfortably work with.
  5. Laying Track. Track will vary with the train scale you decide to work with. For Lionel O or O27 scale, the tracks come in two basic styles. Snap track. Snap together track, comes in standard lengths and curves. Very little technical knowhow is needed with this track as it comes with wiring connections already in place (it makes wiring easier) it easily snaps together, and it comes with faux ballast base. Other track styles can be cut into custom lengths and shaped into custom curves, for a more complex layout. Homasote or cork roadbeds are recommended, though, in order to keep sound vibrations down. Custom wiring and connectors as well as ballast will also be needed.
  6. Wiring. If you have little or no experience with wiring, I recommend you get help. Kalmbach Publishing offer a number of model train related books and magazines covering all aspects of the model trains hobby. Go online to one of the model train magazine websites for advice (,, Contact a local train and hobby story and ask the personnel for help or ask for contact information on local train clubs, whose members can answer questions and provide assistance. A few tips here:

· Transformers.- The bigger the layout, the larger the transformer you will need for reliable operation in order to prevent power drop off.

· Having more wiring connection points at more frequent intervals along the track will also prevent power drop offs.

  1. Signals, Lights, and Other Accessories. These are things that can be added later on, down the line. In general, accessories like signals and lights should be placed on their own, smaller transformer. If, however, you plan a large layout with lots of signals, semaphores, crossing gates, and train control signals, you may need to consider a larger transformer. Specialized buildings like the sawmill, log loader, forklift station, passenger stations, train yard control towers, gateman's shack, etc. fall under accessories that will need to be run off the smaller separate transformer. If using Lionel snap track, the switches (portion of the track that switches between the mainline and the sideline) can be run from the main track transformer. Regular track switches can get their power from the separate smaller transformer.
  2. Buildings and Scenery. Finally, regular buildings (non-powered) and scenery. Just about all model train layout needs can be found at model and hobby shops that specialize in model trains and airplanes. Most buildings can be created as is from kits, can be purchased already made, or can be custom made if you're artistic and feel so inclined to build these yourself. There are also special order companies and model shops online that usually carry a more extensive supply and range of model train layout "needs" (translate that "OMG! I have to get that. Please! Please! Please!"). A few companies make backdrops or wall papers intended for background scenery for layouts and other modeling projects. They include mountain vistas, cityscapes, desert scenes, etc. Dirt roads and streets can be created with a little imagination. Cars, trucks, school buses and other vehicles can be added. A huge array of other scenic details can be added to create a more realistic looking layout, such as:

· Coke machines

· mail boxes

· billboards

· building and highway signs

· traffic signals

· street lights

· fire hydrants

· materials to make realistic looking water

· telephone poles

· power towers (those things that look a little like Eiffel tower)

· and, of course people.

Starting out small, with just the basics, so you won't be overwhelmed by the cost of the project or the amount of work ahead. Building overtime, you begin to notice an increase in your skill level, and you will gradually need less and less help. Taking your time with it also allows you the time to explore your creative side by finding out how to make some of the scenic details yourself at a fraction of the cost of buying pre-made buildings and scenic details. Besides, doing it yourself means you get to customize the layout. Model train layout building isn't about the work, it's about the fun of building layouts and running trains, and getting creative while doing it.


Interview Mark Whetzel. 5/23/2012.

Rails USA. Rail Site Directory.

New Railway Modelers. Building a Layout.

Houston Tinplate Operators Society. Scale and Gauge Overview.

Houston Tinplate Operators Society. Links to Other Resources.

(Most of the links on this page are good. Some of the web pages, though, no longer exist.)

Model Train Layout

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    • joanwz profile image

      Joan Whetzel 5 years ago from Katy, Texas

      It sounds like a cool layout. It also sounds like you have some fond memories. Thanks for sharing them.

    • Audrey Baker profile image

      Audrey Baker 5 years ago from Arizona

      This reminds me of my dad. He had a cellar that he didn't use for cellar type stuff. He turned the entire room into a large train model/city. He was an artist so he had a mural on the wall as the background and he used a lot of neat materials to build buildings and trees, etc. It was really amazing. I can see how this can be such a fun hobby.