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Building A Model Railroad Layout: Growing Up with Model Trains

Updated on January 7, 2017
My HO Model Railroad
My HO Model Railroad | Source

My HO Model Train Layout

Like many little boys, I got my first model train set for Christmas. I remember going over to my grandparents house on Christmas morning, and there on the dining table was an HO scale model train set. I watched with childish glee as the little Reading steam engine pulled a short string of freight cars up, over and around a figure 8-shaped layout of track.

Back home, the train track was tacked to a sheet of plywood. There wasn't any free space in our house to set up a permanent HO scale model train layout, so my train set was designated as a holiday decoration and set up under the Christmas tree. After the holidays, I carefully wrapped up the engine and each of the freight cars and buildings before tucking them into a cardboard box for storage in the attic. The painted plywood with train tracks still attached rested on one edge against the back of the garage.

Every year as the holidays approached, my grandfather took me to the local hobby shop on a model train shopping spree. I always looked forward to this annual trip with Pop, and we would pick out either a new building kit, some foliage trees, maybe a switch with a few pieces of train track, or perhaps a new freight car. Over the years and with all of the annual additions, my seasonal model railroad began to look pretty good. And it was fun to run the trains for a few weeks every year before the plywood layout returned to storage.

Then like many teenage boys, I lost interest in the model trains. Instead of making the annual appearance under the tree, the box of trains was pushed further back into the attic.

My HO Model Train Layout

A local freight rounds the curve
A local freight rounds the curve | Source

Building a model railroad layout with my kids:

Fast-forward a few years to a growing family in a new house -- with a basement! I thought about the HO scale model trains again, envisioning the smiles on the faces of my kids as the old engine and a line of box cars threaded its way through the little town on a newly painted sheet of plywood. On a visit back to my parent's house, I rescued the old box of model trains from the attic and packed it into the back of the van.

Back home in the basement, my enthusiasm quickly turned to disappointment. My treasure of HO scale model trains was little more than a pile of cracked and broken plastic. Nearly every freight car was chipped or broken, and missing couplers or wheels. The model buildings were cracked with missing windows and separated roofs. Details like chimneys, fence posts and window shutters were gone.

The Freight House and Yard
The Freight House and Yard | Source

The cure for my railroading blues was a quick trip to the local hobby shop along with some online shopping. New silver-railed track replaced the twisted old brass rails. Before long, a shiny new Pennsylvania diesel engine was pulling a string of colorful boxcars and a Pennsy caboose around an oval of track. We added a few switches (called turnouts in model railroading) to give the train a couple of alternate routes to take on its trip around the loops of track on the plywood layout. A few more turnouts created sidings to park extra cars (and an extra, new Pennsylvania steam engine).

We were model railroading!

The Plywood Central Railroad was a lot of fun. The kids loved running the trains, setting up the buildings, and moving around a growing number of scale model cars, pedestrians, farm animals and woodland creatures. It is quite amazing how much HO train track and how many different track configurations you can create in a 4x8 space. As the mood hit me or as I got a new idea to send the trains in another direction, I pulled up track and moved it around. Single loop, double loop, crossovers and passing sidings - the track work on the layout changed several times.

Building A Model Railroad
Building A Model Railroad | Source

Building A Model Railroad Layout

A new room addition - including a new basement extension - opened up a new and bigger opportunity for a model railroad. No longer restricted to a 4x8 sheet of plywood, a new model railroad track plan emerged on shelves that wrapped along the walls and all of the way around the room. Two loops of mainline track provided lots of room to run trains, with two trains running simultaneously on the parallel loops. A removable bridge spans the doorway into the train room; when the trains aren't running, the bridge is taken down and stored.

The width of the layout shelf varies in different locations around the room. Along one wall where the track sneaks out of sight behind a large credenza, the shelf is barely 5" wide with just enough room for two parallel tracks. In other areas, the shelf widens out for scenery and scenic vignettes, industrial sidings and passing tracks, and a small staging yard for extra passenger and boxcars.

The Sand & Gravel Processing Plant
The Sand & Gravel Processing Plant | Source

The largest industry on my new HO scale model train layout is the sand and gravel company, tucked into a corner and between two large hills that provide the raw materials to the gravel processing plant. Low gondola cars and larger drop-bottom hoppers are filled with gravel and sand, then picked up by a passing freight train for delivery to some far off customer. Empty cars are dropped back off on the return trip, ready to be filled again.

The LDA Sand & Gravel processing plant was built from a plastic kit. Rather than building the model exactly to the plans in the kit, I painted and modified the gravel processing plant, outbuildings and conveyors to fit the available space in an inside corner of the layout. Then, I added other small buildings, dump trucks, construction equipment and other details to finish the scene. The results is a unique building that was built from an inexpensive kit.

HO Model Railway
HO Model Railway | Source

The primary design goal of my HO scale model train layout centered around running two trains simultaneously. The scenery is primarily hilly, rural and wooded except for one corner where a small one-street town sprouted up. Businesses and store fronts hung out signs and banners named after members of our family such as Mom's Bakery, Taylor's Feed & Seed and ATJ Machine Co.

Beyond Main Street and across the ally, a several industrial buildings line the track spurs.Along with the new freight and passenger cars, I managed to salvage a few of the pieces from my original childhood train set. Replacement wheels, trucks and couplers gave new life to a few of the old broken boxcars. A little glue and fresh paint, and some of the relic buildings fit in among the newer kits and scratch-built model buildings on the new model railroad.

Though the quality and detail is not as good as today's modeling products, it gives me a lot of joy to see the old cars back on the track and on the move. I think my grandfather is smiling too.

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Easy to make model railroad scenery
Easy to make model railroad scenery | Source

How to Build Realistic Model Railroad Scenery

Designing and creating scenery is one of the most enjoyable aspects of model railroading. Some modelers strive to recreate actual locations in miniature (either past or present) while other just like to make nice looking scenes. The scenery on my railroad is set in the late 1950s or early 1960s to capture the flavor of a small farming community. Railroad traffic serving this small community is starting to decline as trucks and highways begin to move more raw materials and finished goods to more customers faster and cheaper and with more flexibility than the railroads. Passenger traffic is also down at the railroad depot as more travelers take to the road in their own cars.

Designing and building the scenery is really quite easy and a lot of fun. I used a mixture of commercial products including ground foam in several colors along with small twigs and tiny stones to create the natural scenes. The scenery formula comes straight from Dave Frary's book How to Build Realistic Model Railroad Scenery: cover an area with inexpensive latex paint in a natural color and while the paint is wet, sprinkle on a layer of coarse ground foam. After the paint dries, sprinkle on additional layers of finer ground colored foam, held in place with diluted white glue. The results look good and the possibilities for creating realistic scenery is limited only by your imagination.

Like most model railroads, mine is not complete and there is always more details that I can add as time and inspiration allows.

Take A Tour of My HO Scale Model Layout

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    • bohica96 profile image

      bohica96 4 years ago

      Beautiful lens. I miss the model trains of my youth.

    • profile image

      wondering-tharpe 4 years ago

      if you ever want to give away a collection i will gladly take it as I love trains and have passed that love on to all my grandchildren. I have always longed to have a model train set up but lack of funds has stopped that. I thank you for the wonderful lens and i have been to the setups in Dallas area. Nice to see Plano included in your lense.

    • sentanta lm profile image

      sentanta lm 4 years ago

      i don't have a layout - but maybe for my boys during the holidays

    • vecchios-sicilian profile image

      vecchios-sicilian 4 years ago

      I have a set of Pre War Lionels, HUGH tin with seats inside the cars. I need to get them apraised. Nice lens.

    • deckdesign profile image

      deckdesign 4 years ago

      Thanks for putting together all of the photos and information. I had a model train when I was a kid and this brought back a lot of good memories.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Love it. I have a 50+ year old O gauge Lionel train set - get it out for the grandkids from time to time... super memories! ;-) Thanks for the reminders! ;-)

    • xriotdotbiz lm profile image

      xriotdotbiz lm 4 years ago

      Loved my Lionel as a child!

    • allenwebstarme profile image

      allenwebstarme 4 years ago

      What an excellent crafty work done by you guys so impressive, video are amazing.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 4 years ago

      I was always fascinated by model trains when I was a kid. Even today, I'm impressed by the intricate work some people put into their tiny towns. :)

    • nicks44 profile image

      nicks44 4 years ago

      I am not an expert, although my parents work at the railroad company, but I always liked watching these mini-trains in action! Just simply amazing!

    • suzy-t profile image

      suzy-t 4 years ago

      This brings back lots of memories. I grew up with four brothers and they built a nice layout in the basement...Congrats on the purple star and home page. Well deserved. Blessed...

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 4 years ago

      Congratulations on being on the Featured Page, I love this Lens; there's an art to model trains; where I live in the Bronx the Botanical Gardens has a famous Holiday Train Show which features famous New York buildings made of Natural Materials.

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 4 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      I want to do N Gauge but I do not have the time, money or space. At least I got to see it here!

    • profile image

      pawpaw911 4 years ago

      Very cool set up. I too had a train set as a boy. On the first morning, I think my dad played with it more than I did.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      I think that trains have a funny way of getting deep into your heart. I grew up listening to trains whistling past our house and in my new community I also can hear them when it is a quiet night. You brought back a lot of memories with your images of the train sets and layouts.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I sure did feel your disappointment when you opened your train set after many years...buy you are the DIY guy and got to work to make a dream come true...even did an addition to make it all possible...and even a bridge! I just knew as I read along that you would include as much from the old set as you could by salvaging and making repairs, and you did. The fun of the run is in all the details and creative work to make a dream come true....you are very good at the details!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Enviable work... Would love to build model rail roads, but I am too lazy for that! I do enjoy looking at nice works created by others! :)

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