Glenbrook is an online mechanics writer who enjoys model railroading, as well as rebuilding and modding classic Chrysler cars.
Model Railroading in Only 4x8 Feet
One of the easiest and best ways to get started in model railroading is with a 4x8 train layout in HO scale. These layouts are easy and cheap to build, thanks to the availability of 4x8 plywood sheets. They do take up a fair amount of space, but they're easy to move out of the way when you need the room for something else.
Most 4x8 model railroads let the trains run continuously. The best thing about a 4x8 layout is that it's small enough to get you started in model railroading without being overwhelmed, yet big enough to give you excellent operation and realism. One of the most famous model railroads of all time—the Gorre & Daphetid—started out essentially as a 4x8 layout!
It's Not Just a Beginner's Layout
4x8 layouts are usually considered "beginner's layouts," but they're great for any model railroader from beginner to expert—so says the spirit of John Allen, creator of the Gorre & Daphetid model railroad. Lots of great 4x8 track plans are available—and, with careful planning, your 4x8 layout can become part of a larger layout if you decide to grow your railroad. The most important thing is that a 4x8 train layout is a lot of fun!
How to Get Started With Your 4x8 Track: Recommended Book
HO Railroad from Start to Finish has everything you need to know to build a 4x8 layout in HO scale. The table is built from foamcore board, so it's very light and easy to move around, and the track plan is simple but offers several switching spurs and good scenic potential.
All aspects of building a model railroad are covered: benchwork, building structure kits, weathering freight cars, backdrops, simulated water, scenery, walk-around control, operations, and more. If you're just getting started in model railroading, this book is the perfect starting point.
How to Build a 4x8 Train Table
Model railroading is very traditional, and nothing is more traditional than building your layout on a 4x8 table. Building a 4x8 table for a model railroad has always been easy, and newer construction materials like extruded foam sheets make it even easier.
2-Part Video Tutorial
The video series shown below is an excellent tutorial on building a table for a 4x8 model railroad. The only thing I would change is to use small screws instead of nails (just personal preference).
The method shown in these two videos is pretty easy and works great if your track plan and scenery are fairly flat. If your track plan has lots of variation in track and scenery elevation, a "cookie-cutter" table would be better. Building a cookie-cutter table is explained in great detail in the book HO Railroad That Grows by Linn Westcott. It's out of print, but it's usually easy to find on eBay or Amazon for around $8.00, and it's well worth tracking down. It's a classic.
List of 4x8 Layouts
You can find lots of good 4x8 track plans in model railroading books and magazines or on the internet. Below are some of my favorites that I've found online, along with a few book recommendations.
National Model Railroad Association Track Plans
The National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) has a website with a great selection of 4x8 track plans you can access for free.
Pacific Coast Airline RR
The Pacific Coast Airline RR is a beautiful small layout that shows what you can do in 4x8, even in O Scale. The Pacific Coast is built in On30, which means O scale models running on standard HO track. (When you open the link, scroll down the page to see the original 4x8 layout; there is also a newer 5x8 version of it shown at the top.)
California Dreaming is a 4x8 layout design with lots of switching potential. It's based on a Red Wing HO 4x8 track plan that was originally published in the December 1994 issue of Model Railroader Magazine.
This track plan would work best if most of the structures were centered around a single industry. There isn't much room for water tanks or coaling towers, so you'd want the time frame to be diesel. An SW-1500, Alco RS-3, or a GP9 would be a good locomotive choice for this layout, and you'd want to run 40' freight cars. What I like best about this design is that it was developed by someone who doesn't particularly care for 4x8 layouts.
Gateway Central X
The Gateway Central X is even smaller than 4x8, but it still has enough switching spurs for good operation. You'll want short locomotives and cars on this one. A Bachmann 70-ton switcher would be perfect. If I was going to build this, I'd put it on a 4x8 table and extend one of the switching spurs into another industrial area.
The Alkali Central is a Model Railroader project layout that was originally published in the December 1995 issue. The Alkali Central is a simple track plan that still offers good operational possibilities, as long as you like branch line operations and not Class One main line operations.
The setting is high desert, so if you like the Owens Valley or similar areas, you might enjoy building the Alkali Central. I think it would look really nice set in the 1920s with an IHC Mogul for motive power.
Gorre & Daphetid 4x8
The next time someone questions your choice of a 4x8 layout, you might point them towards the Gorre & Daphetid. The G&D layout was built by John Allen (one of the most famous and talented model railroaders who ever lived), and the little 3.5x7-foot layout eventually grew into one of the most famous model railroads of all time. If I was going to build the G&D, I'd expand it to a "full" 4x8 layout and build it in Sn42.
The January 2012 issue of Model Railroader Magazine has an outstanding 4x8 layout based on the Virginian (a coal-hauling layout). It's the start of a 5-part project layout, and it's absolutely stunning. The track plan offers great operating potential and also shows how a basic 4x8 layout can be extended with a branch line and staging yard.
Besides that, they also talk about some of the trade-offs required if you want to build and operate a 4x8 layout. For example, the 6-axle locomotives they wanted to use had clearance problems, so they had to run smaller 4-axle units. The layout is outstanding even with the smaller motive power. You really should check it out.
As a bonus, if you manage to get your hands on a print copy, the January issue comes with an insert featuring the Alkali Central (another great 4x8 HO layout discussed above) and an N scale layout built on a door.
Great Northern Pacific
This is my favorite 4x8 layout. The Great Northern Pacific was featured in HO Railroad That Grows by Linn Westcott (I don't have a link to this plan, but you can find it in the book that's linked further above). The Great Northern Pacific is perfect for learning about model railroading because you start out with a simple oval, then you add track, buildings, and scenery in steps and eventually end up with a fairly complex model railroad.
The finished "HO Railroad That Grows" is more toy-looking than the other layouts I'm highlighting, but the retro look makes it my favorite.
101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders
Also written by Linn Westcott, 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders has some excellent 4x8 HO track plans, including the original Gorre & Daphetid (which was actually a little smaller than 4x8). If you're just getting started in model railroading or are limited in space, it has quite a few plans for model railroads that are even smaller than 4x8; on the other hand, if you find the idea of a 4x8 layout a bit limiting, it offers many plans for larger (sometimes much larger) model railroads.
101 Track Plans is a classic, and if you like model railroading, it deserves a place in your library—especially if you like 4x8 model railroads.
Tips for Success: How to Avoid Building a Bad Layout
It's easy to build a crappy 4x8 layout, but it's almost as easy to build a really nice one. To get the most out of your small layout, consider these tips:
- Leave room for scenery. Space is going to be at a premium, so make sure to leave room for scenery. Don't try to cram in too much track.
- Run small equipment. Modern locomotives and 80' cars are never going to look good on a 4x8 layout, even if you build it in Z scale—so don't even waste your time trying. Choose smaller equipment like small 4-axle diesels and 40' (or shorter) freight cars. If you're into steam power, model an earlier era when locomotives were smaller.
- Choose small buildings. The same thing applies to buildings: A few big buildings are a lot less interesting—and make your layout look smaller—than a larger number of small buildings.
Advice on Choosing Small Equipment for Your Small Layout
As much as I like 4x8 layouts, even I have to admit they have some limitations. When it comes to picking equipment for your layout, the most important limitations are tight curves and short sidings. Big locomotives and rolling stock just don't work that well on a 4x8.
- For steam locomotives, probably the best option is the Tyco Shifter. Others that work good are 4-4-0, 4-4-2, 0-6-0, 2-6-0, and 4-6-0 locomotives. Some of the smaller 2-8-0 Consolidations are also OK, but that's about as large as I'd go.
- For diesel locomotives, stick with switch engines or small 4-axle road units.
- For rolling stock, use cars that are 40' long or less.
You might think this sounds awfully restrictive, but your layout will look and run a lot better if you stick with locomotives and rolling stock that fit your curves and sidings.
Ignore the Naysayers Who Mock 4x8 Plans
In model railroading circles—especially among self-proclaimed "experts"—it's common to look down on 4x8 model railroads. As an example, in a forum dedicated to small model railroads, I once posted a link to a 4x8 model railroading site that I run. I titled my post "For those who like 4x8 model railroads." Almost immediately, someone made a post titled "For those who hate 4x8 model railroads."
Just ignore the naysayers, build what you like, and have fun—that's what model railroading is all about.
Please Sign my Guestbook - Share your 4x8 model train stories
Peter Lynch on April 20, 2020:
I have the book and am startimg my planning stage. I have 7 30 inch hollow core doors to work with. I want to run passenger and then some freight 60/40 probably.
Heading off now back to my railroad cave. Also known as a 16x20 full size two car garage!!!
Happy rails and geeat smokestacks
astevn816 lm on May 01, 2014:
this looks like fun
Paula Hite from Virginia on March 07, 2014:
Good lens! Some of your pic aren't loading though....
Tricia Deed from Orlando, Florida on January 12, 2014:
I too, share this hobby and it is a lot of fun. We do most of ours for the Christmas holidays and tend to change the theme from year to year. It takes us a full month to get it set up.
tonyleather on November 10, 2013:
Very informative lens. If I had the room, I would love to build a model railway layout!
anonymous on March 01, 2013:
We're about to do some model railroading. My wife commented about it a while back but she didn't know I have interest. I did some model railroading with my father 50 yrs ago when I was growing up and have always had interest in doing a little again. Talked with her the other night and she's thrilled. This will be a fun thing that will be a joint project. As for me, a 4x8 seems like a nice compromise. I'm not ready to put holes in my walls. Thanks for sharing.
anonymous on February 24, 2013:
I was a model railroader when I was a sophomore in high school. Now that I am retired and have had my first heart attack and a leg amputation and some (51) years later I started up my old hobby of model railroading again. I have always loved my hobby and now, things are certainly a lot easier.
ElizabethJeanAl on February 13, 2013:
norma-holt on February 01, 2013:
Love model railways and sometimes wish I was a kid again so I wouldn't look so stupid ogling them at shows and things. Great lens. Featured on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2013. Hugs
anonymous on January 07, 2013:
I would like more information on the northern pacfic railroad
anonymous on December 19, 2012:
I have been out of model railroading for 51 years, yes that's right 51 yrs. I am now retired, and going to start all over again in the world of 4x8 layouts. I am limited in space and a 4x8 is just plain easier to reach and work on. I have been bidding on some great pieces so wish me luck.
anonymous on November 22, 2012:
I like your approach. A 4x8 layout is a great place to start as it allows a continuous run as well as some switching opportunities and it has enough room for easier putting in buildings and scenery. I drew up a 4x4 layout tat will allow some of the same opportunities. If anyone isinterested, I will send a copy via e-mail.
selah74 on August 17, 2012:
Inspiring lens. I don't have trains, but I as I was looking through I was thinking of my sons love for trains. I should get him a long lasting set.
sentanta lm on August 13, 2012:
I am going to have to come back to this because my boys are already asking
cdevries on May 04, 2012:
A fun lens! Hard to believe anyone would dislike 4'x8' train models - it just seems so sensible to use a stock lumber size. I did once see a cool layout though that, to save space, went round most of a room on a narrow shelf-like table.
JoshK47 on April 27, 2012:
Excellent information! Thanks for sharing!
WriterJanis2 on April 03, 2012:
What a fun family hobby this would make.
LeckyT LM on March 30, 2012:
For those interested in the nuts and bolts of measuring for track plans, check out my http://www.squidoo.com/oo-track-plans-standard-lay... lens which has dimensions for OO track. I'll be doing the same for N, Z and HO when I get a moment!
IanMayfield on March 28, 2012:
My first train set was HO featuring a British locomotive and rolling stock, which was a curiosity because in the UK the standard is OO, which uses the same gauge as HO but is a slightly larger scale. It was by the French manufacturer Jouef, which at the time was trying to expand into the UK market. The loco was accurate but the carriages were just French models painted in British Rail livery! (I had fun with it though!)
There are a few great advantages to a 4 x 8 layout. One, you can buy that size board easily at any home improvement store. Two, it doesn't take up too much space in your home and is easily storable and portable. Three, if you want to you can expand it by adding other 4 x 8s to make a larger layout that's modular and still portable!
Haven't done any modelling myself for a long time, but used to love playing with trains and going to model railway exhibitions when I was younger.
Beverly Lemley from Raleigh, NC on March 27, 2012:
My husband loves trains and used to have a train "table" as a kid. We visited the Big Boy in Missouri, after seeing it on a model train display inan Indianapolis shopping center, I believe. The other old cars in the train yard were really cool, and the model train running was unbelievable. My kids loved it. Great lense ~ I'll have to share it with hubby! And I think I learned something! B : )
anonymous on March 19, 2012:
Nice just to stop by here again. The model trains bring back lots of memories of childhood, my kids, and now grands! :)
BeyondRoses on March 04, 2012:
The 4x8 scale Model Trains looks like a delightful project. Splendid info and presentation.
Always loved model trains!
SecondHandJoe LM on February 10, 2012:
I don't have any model train stories except that I always admired the guys that had them. This is a nice lens and I enjoyed reading it!
designOCS on February 07, 2012:
Very interesting lens! I think my train would have a Godzilla sized cat problem. It thinks anything that moves must be destroyed.
Pangionedevelopers on January 29, 2012:
congrats, great info
nikyweber on January 24, 2012:
Very nice lens! squidlikes!
Miha Gasper from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU on January 06, 2012:
Great father - son project:)
anonymous on December 18, 2011:
I have used your video's to build.my table came out great. I even built two more, for my christmas village. Thank You. Is there someplace to get step by step direction to do my layout and landscaping. I am using ho and this is my first try. Thank You
anonymous on December 04, 2011:
This would be a great way to start a model railway with limited space.
KarenCookieJar on December 03, 2011:
My husband collects trains, but he has never gotten around to putting a layout together yet.
RavenRunner on November 30, 2011:
I really want to give model railroading a try sometime and 4X8 would be a great place to start.
anonymous on October 09, 2011:
My oldest son got a model Ho scale train set years ago and my Dad made him a 4X8 layout that worked very nicely.
jlshernandez on September 27, 2011:
When my son was little, he had a HO Tyco train and I had my own. I always have been fascinated by trains, scale model ones and vintage ones. Great lens on train layout.
seeker2011 lm on September 24, 2011:
I used to have an 'N' gauge railway set many years ago. Nice lense.
ModelTrainHobby on August 31, 2011:
I got a Lionel train set for Christmas circling the Christmas tree. I've been hooked ever since. I really liked the videos you included on building the benchwork for the layout.
anonymous on July 17, 2011:
I had a model railway when I was a kid and have just started making another layout and I am now 54 years old, so it's never too late to start! Enjoyed reading your articles and your photos of layouts look great too...well done..Martin Zuerner
Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on May 21, 2011:
I always wanted the tracks on a table for my son but never got it and he is now over 30 yrs old so guess he will have to do it himself. Lensrolled this great Train Layouts lens to my Palmetto Live Steamers Club.
Renaissance Woman from Colorado on April 15, 2011:
My brother got a train set for Christmas when I was about seven years old. He wasn't the type to share, so I watched enviously from the sideline. I'd have much rather had a model train than a doll! To me it seemed like the perfect gift. Enjoyed learning more about model railroading. Now I would like my very own full-size caboose! Lots of people in Colorado have real train cars on their properties (for live-in cabins, etc.). Very interesting lens. Thanks! Found you in the Forum and wanted to stop by since this is a favorite of yours. I can see why.
shandigp on April 14, 2011:
I remember as a kid watching my dad build a model train set. Sometimes he'd let me help paint the people or the cars to decorate the landscape.
Kevin Wilson 2 on March 26, 2011:
We built a model railroad for my daughter as a family, and had great fun with it. It was 4x8 with a pop up hole in the middle so she could reach everything, as she was small. I still remember having a good deal of fun with her and a small girlfriend, laying plaster-soaked paper towels for mountains. They both thought it was the best thing since sliced bread :)
Vicki Green from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA on March 25, 2011:
I have to admit that I was always jealous that my brother had a train set. I would have loved to have had one, but I was a girl, so in those times girls didn't play with trains. I still enjoy looking at miniature train sets so who knows, maybe someday I'll get myself one!