ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Games, Toys, and Hobbies»
  • Hobbies

Model Railroading Tips and Tricks!

Updated on July 3, 2016

This Hub is based on the knowledge and experience gained through the trials and tribulations of model railroading. I have been model railroading for about six years. I use it as a way to relax in the evening after a stressful day working in the Information Technology field. Model railroading is actually a multifaceted hobby and you learn many skills including kit building, electrical wiring, railroading history, and real world track layouts. You also learn a lot of about creating miniature landscaping. Seasoned model railroaders participate in what is known as Kitbashing in which you take two or more model railroad building kits and combine them to make a unique structure custom for your model railroad layout!

Interesting Facts

Did you know that rockers Rod Stewart and Neil Young are avid model railroaders? Rod Stewart has a 23 x 124-foot HO scale layout in his Los Angeles home which is modeled after the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads during the 1940s. While on tour, Rod Stewart's staff sets up a hotel room in which he can work on his model railroading hobby and often does so before a performance.

Neil Young, financially backed and assembled a technology team for the development of Lionel's Trainmaster Command Control (TMCC) system. TMCC allows you to digitally control TMCC decoder equipped trains. At one time he was part owner of Lionel Trains.

Track Cleaning Tips

I use Rail-Zip to to clean my tracks of dirt and carbon from electrical arcing and to condition the tracks.
I use Rail-Zip to to clean my tracks of dirt and carbon from electrical arcing and to condition the tracks.
Rail-Zip is a skin irritant so I recommend wearing gloves. I apply a little to a dry paper towel.
Rail-Zip is a skin irritant so I recommend wearing gloves. I apply a little to a dry paper towel.
I then wipe the head of all rails with the Rail-Zip soaked paper towels making sure I remove all black deposits from the track head.   It takes me about an hour to do my 20 x 6 foot layout.
I then wipe the head of all rails with the Rail-Zip soaked paper towels making sure I remove all black deposits from the track head. It takes me about an hour to do my 20 x 6 foot layout.
I then take a clean paper towel and wipe down the tracks again to remove any Rail-Zip residue.
I then take a clean paper towel and wipe down the tracks again to remove any Rail-Zip residue.

Cleaning Wheels on Train Cars and Locomotives

To clean the wheels on train cars, I drape a paper towel over a track segment then add a couple drops of Rail-Zip where the paper towel touches the rail head. I then place the rail car on the track and move back and forth until wheels are clean.
To clean the wheels on train cars, I drape a paper towel over a track segment then add a couple drops of Rail-Zip where the paper towel touches the rail head. I then place the rail car on the track and move back and forth until wheels are clean.
To clean non-powered wheels of locomotives, I drape a paper towel over a track segment then add a couple drops of Rail-Zip where the paper towel touches the rail head. I then place the locomotive on the track and move back an forth.
To clean non-powered wheels of locomotives, I drape a paper towel over a track segment then add a couple drops of Rail-Zip where the paper towel touches the rail head. I then place the locomotive on the track and move back an forth.
Cleaning the powered wheels of the locomotive can be achieved by turning on track power and touching the non-powered wheels to the track while the powered wheels rub against a paper towel.
Cleaning the powered wheels of the locomotive can be achieved by turning on track power and touching the non-powered wheels to the track while the powered wheels rub against a paper towel.

Buy Rail-Zip on Amazon

Pacer Technology (Zap) Rail-Zip 2 Track Cleaner and Corrosion Inhibitors, 1 oz
Pacer Technology (Zap) Rail-Zip 2 Track Cleaner and Corrosion Inhibitors, 1 oz

Rail-Zip is a great product for removing carbon and dirt from track and wheels!

 

Use Ballasted Track

I know a lot of seasoned model railroaders will give me grief over this, but I use Life-Like Power-Loc ballasted track for my HO Layout. It has the following advantages:

  • It comes with most Life-Like Railroad train sets, so most likely you already have it lying around.
  • Comes in a variety including curves, straight, and switched sections.
  • Very inexpensive.
  • Snap together fit makes it easy to tear down your layout if you are moving.
  • Snap together fit always provides perfect rail alignment.
  • It snaps together and makes electrical contract without those pesky rail joiners that always seem to work their way loose.
  • There is no need for layout boards, nails, screws or other tools.
  • The roadbed ballast base of the track allows it to be setup on any surface.
  • Track pieces are rigid and can be used to bridge short chasms or rivers in your layout.
  • Track employs stainless steel rails so corrosion is not a problem.
  • Track is durable and will take the wear and tear of children.


Life-Like Power-Loc Track on Amazon

Life-Like Trains Power-Loc  HO Scale Track - 9" Straight, Steel
Life-Like Trains Power-Loc HO Scale Track - 9" Straight, Steel

I use Life-Like Power-Loc track for my HO Scale Layout.

 

Use Hand-Vac to keep your layout clean!

I use a small battery powered hand vacuum to remove debris from my layout. The nose of this vac is circular and small so it easily fits into small areas like between the rails.
I use a small battery powered hand vacuum to remove debris from my layout. The nose of this vac is circular and small so it easily fits into small areas like between the rails.
I purchased my Darice brand hand-vacuum from a local craft store, it uses four AA batteries and has just enough vacuum power to pick up loose dirt.
I purchased my Darice brand hand-vacuum from a local craft store, it uses four AA batteries and has just enough vacuum power to pick up loose dirt.

Make wiring easily accessible

I use tables with steel legs and laminate tops for my layout. These tables are commonly found at office supply stores. The tables are sturdy, easy to setup and level, and compact when broken down for moving. For ease of access I hang all of my wiring under the exposed lip of the table. I fasten the wiring to the underside of the table using small nylon tie straps. Sure, the wiring looks messy from the point of view of the picture but is nearly invisible when standing next to table. You'll be thankful you hung the wiring like this when troubleshooting or tearing down your layout for a move!

Basic Wiring for Model Railroaders Book on Amazon

Basic Wiring for Model Railroaders: The Complete Photo Guide
Basic Wiring for Model Railroaders: The Complete Photo Guide

I own this book. It is a great book that introduces you to the art of wiring a model railroad layout.

 

Recycle and Reuse

Years ago my wife accidentally dropped her laptop off of the couch arm onto the hard wood floor shattering the LCD screen. You can see the diagonal jagged line where it cracked. Rather then toss the laptop into the trash I connected a monitor, mouse, and keyboard to it and use it to control my Digitrax Zephyr DCC (Digital Command Control) command station. I also salvaged the white table holding the laptop. The top self of the white table had a crack in it and I simply removed that piece.

Go Vertical!

Can't fit the track layout you desire? Go vertical by using gradual trestles to lift part of the track. As you can see from the picture I wanted two loops but could not fit them in the allotted space, I elevated the inner loop with trestles.
Can't fit the track layout you desire? Go vertical by using gradual trestles to lift part of the track. As you can see from the picture I wanted two loops but could not fit them in the allotted space, I elevated the inner loop with trestles.

Mounting Electronic Components

I mount my Digitrax  PR3 computer interface, along with other electronic components, to the front bottom of the MDF board that makes the tabletop. This puts the electronic components close to the exposed wiring.
I mount my Digitrax PR3 computer interface, along with other electronic components, to the front bottom of the MDF board that makes the tabletop. This puts the electronic components close to the exposed wiring.

Add slot cars to your layout for some racing excitement!

Try to beat the train with your slot car! Like-Like makes an adapter that allows to to create a slot car /  track intersection for just such fun!
Try to beat the train with your slot car! Like-Like makes an adapter that allows to to create a slot car / track intersection for just such fun!

Car and Train accident on my HO Scale Model Railroad

Life-Like Race/Train Intersection on Amazon

Life Like Race/Train Intersection Track With Power-Link Adaptors
Life Like Race/Train Intersection Track With Power-Link Adaptors

This special track section allows you to integrate your Life-Like Slot Car Race set with your model HO model railroad layout that uses Life-Like Power-Loc track.

 
My Zephyr DCS50, that comes with the Zephyr Starter Kit, in action!
My Zephyr DCS50, that comes with the Zephyr Starter Kit, in action!

Add Digital Command Control (DCC) to your layout!

With Digital Command Control (DCC), you can control several locomotives independently on the same common track. In addition, you can control lighting, braking, and acceleration of the locomotive. DCC uses signals superimposed on the direct current applied to the track to control each locomotive equipped with a DCC decoder. You can even control DCC equipped accessories such as track switches. Digitrax offers their inexpensive Zephyr Starter Kit that retails for around $200 dollars that will provide you everything you need to get started with converting your layout from a Direct Current Block Setup to DCC. Basic Digitrax controllers that must be installed in each locomotive to take advantage of DCC start at around $20. Will I grow out of the Zephyr Starter Kit? The beauty of the Digitrax Zephyr systems is that it is just one modular piece, you can add a Booster to increase power to the tracks, or throttles as needed. I have been using my Zephyr Starter Kit for over four years and my layout has not grown out of it yet!

Digitrax Zephyr Xtra Starter Set on Amazon

DIGITRAX, INC. Zephyr Xtra Starter Set DGTZEPX
DIGITRAX, INC. Zephyr Xtra Starter Set DGTZEPX

I own the Zephyr Xtra Starter Set, it currently powers my HO Scale Model Railroad Layout.

 

Mark track insulators so that they are easy to find

Sometimes, in both DC (Direct Current) and DCC (Digital Command Control) layouts, you have insulate track sections. I do this by cutting the track with a Dremel. Marking the spot with a red dot of paint will make it easier to find later.
Sometimes, in both DC (Direct Current) and DCC (Digital Command Control) layouts, you have insulate track sections. I do this by cutting the track with a Dremel. Marking the spot with a red dot of paint will make it easier to find later.

Insert rerailers in your layout

I had a bunch the rerailer track sections lying around from train sets I purchased. I insert these track throughout my layout to re-rail trains that may start to come derailed during operation.
I had a bunch the rerailer track sections lying around from train sets I purchased. I insert these track throughout my layout to re-rail trains that may start to come derailed during operation.

Add computer control to your layout

With the addition of PanelPro software, you too can control and monitor trains, switches, and accessories on your DCC (Digital Command Control) equipped layout. The software is free and can be downloaded from JMRI web site. PanelPro can run on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux platforms. You will, however, need to purchase an interface module to provide communication between the PanelPro software on your computer and your DCC Throttle. The Digtrax PR3, which retails for around $80, serves just that purpose for Digitrax systems. Other manufacturers should sell a similar computer interface. If you have a wireless network setup in your house you can use an iPad or Droid device to control trains and switches once you have PanelPro setup and working.


Digitrax PR3 on Amazon

Digitrax PR3XTRA USB Programmer w/PS14 Power Supply
Digitrax PR3XTRA USB Programmer w/PS14 Power Supply

I own this product, the Digitrax PR3 acts as an interface between a computer running PanelPro and a Digitrax DCC Throttle.

 

PanelPro demonstration, using an iPod Touch to control a locomotive on my HO Scale Railrod Layout

Leave parts on sprue when painting

A sprue is the passage through which molten plastic is introduced into an injection mold. The term also refers to the excess material which solidifies in the sprue passage. In plastic models, the sprue is the plastic that interconnects small injection molded parts. Leaving the plastic parts on the sprue makes it easier to paint them as it acts as a great handle.


Use a soft cloth on your workbench

Always have a soft cloth on your work bench when fixing or maintaining locomotives or train cars. This prevents them from getting scuffed up during the process. I use a soft car chamois for this purpose that I run through the washer periodically when it gets dirty.

Soldering tool gives a hand

This soldering tool, with heavy cast iron base, adjustable alligator clips, and magnifying glass works great for holding parts in place while gluing.


Helping Hands Solder Tool on Amazon

SE MZ101B Helping Hand with Magnifying Glass
SE MZ101B Helping Hand with Magnifying Glass

I own this tool. It gives me an extra set of hands when I need to hold parts in place while gluing.

 

Cleaning Tips

I use damp paper towels to clean buildings. Water does not seem to affect the dried acrylic paint I use.
I use damp paper towels to clean buildings. Water does not seem to affect the dried acrylic paint I use.
Damp Q-Tips work great for cleaning hard to reach spots.
Damp Q-Tips work great for cleaning hard to reach spots.
I just rinse small objects such as scale people, cars, and trucks to remove dust/dirt then blot them dry on a paper towel.
I just rinse small objects such as scale people, cars, and trucks to remove dust/dirt then blot them dry on a paper towel.

Summer Storage

I don't spend much time playing with my HO Scale Layout in the Summer as I have many outdoor activities and chores. I cover my layout with lightweight plastic painters tarps to keep dust off of it during its Summer hibernation. These tarps work great because they don't knock over buildings and people contained in the layout.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Scott A McCray 3 years ago

      Wow - model railroading has come a long way! Then again, I suppose it should have - it's been a long time since I looked into it. Very informative article.

    • GO Cybernaut profile image

      Gayle B Olson 3 years ago from Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada

      Very informative. I have two Lionel sets that I am looking forward to sharing with the grandchildren.