Planning a Model Train Layout

Updated on October 29, 2019
Tricia Deed profile image

Tricia Deed is a freelance writer. Her liking for model trains has become a lifetime hobby.

The Locomotive: .
The Locomotive: . | Source

Model Railroad Display

Do you dream of building a model railroad? Start now and be ready for your first showing on a special occasion, or if you are like me, have it ready for the Christmas season. The platform may be made portable or stationary, so you will have to decide which is right for you. Building a model railroad at home is a fun and exciting hobby for many of us.

When your model railroad display is ready, I can assure you it will be a proud moment in time. You will want to show it off to family and friends.

Railway tracks passing a large building.
Railway tracks passing a large building. | Source

Start With a Plan

Start a model train layout with a set of simple plans. As you gain knowledge and skill you will soon advance to being an expert. Making and assembling a railroad platform is not difficult. Planning will be the most important step in order that you have direction and a plan of action. Yes, the plan will change occasionally; but for the better.

The next important detail is to have the right information. Setting up a train platform is no different from building anything from scratch. There is a sequence that needs to be followed. As you work with the correct sequence your dream layout will appear and more importantly you are able to enjoy the journey and be pleased with the outcome.

There will be many questions as you start to build your model train layout. The reason a planned design is important is that there is no fun in looking at a train that is in the box. Motion; the train needs to be on track and moving. The railroad engineer wants to put on his cap and drive the train.

The model train layout is admired by both the young and older generations. The adult who becomes a hobbyist was influenced in their youth when daddy built a display under the Christmas tree. I was influenced as a young child seeing the mechanical doll displays in the department store windows. If you ever wanted just one hobby which would last a lifetime, this is the answer. There are many facets to this wonderful indoor or outdoor hobby.

Popular Model Train Scales

N scale 1:160
Excellent for small spaces
Not suitable for children and limited accessories
HO scale 1:87.1
Larger spacing required
Popular, many accessories, realistic layouts
0 scale 1:48
Child friendly
Many available accessories
G scale 1:22.5 to 1:29
Ideal for under Christmas tree
Child Friendly
The definition of scale refers to the reduced size of the train which is replicating the real world train. These are the most popular sizes which hobbyists enjoy assembling in their homes, garages, basements, attic or a separate building.The layou
Engine Model: A model scale locomotive emerging from a stone mountain passage.
Engine Model: A model scale locomotive emerging from a stone mountain passage. | Source

Design Questions

  1. What is the size of your model train layout? The standard is 4 x 8.
  2. What space is available?
  3. Will the model train fit a briefcase, a small table, or more?
  4. Need a larger surface? Consider width and height
  5. What type of scenery? Country setting, city, suburbia, villages, industrial site, mountains, or a train yard?
  6. Will space be in the home, attic, garage, or a separate building?
  7. Are electrical outlets available?
  8. Will it be mobile or stationary?
  9. Is the layout in easy reach of repair, cleaning, and maintenance?
  10. Storage space for tools and other items.

A train hub of railroad tracks at a multiple intersection.
A train hub of railroad tracks at a multiple intersection. | Source

Factors to Consider While Planning

The train size scale will determine the size of the track layout. Start creating a draft of your ideas. The reason for trying to design your own plan is to bring attention to your strengths and weaknesses in order to make your layout a working reality.

Additional help will be needed after discovering your weaknesses. Gain an education from online research, libraries, museums, model train trade magazines, train shops, hobby retailers, model train clubs, and experienced model railroad hobbyists.

As you attempt to construct the railroad layout, there will be questions that need to be solved. Questions will relate to the scale size, tracks, wood, and Styrofoam structures, padding, accessories, and electrical outlets. Your budget will determine what items may be recycled from within your household, do it yourself projects, and items that need to be purchased.

Model railway track and city setting—train amidst city traffic and buildings.
Model railway track and city setting—train amidst city traffic and buildings. | Source

Model Train Layout Design

Plan your model train layout design in order that the features you wish to see are included in your layout. It is critical that you start with a simple design. The size of the platform is determined by available space.

Your layout design will give a visual aid for future expansion. As you gain knowledge and experience additional items may be added. Starting with a complicated or very aggressive undertaking will discourage you from continuing when completely overwhelmed or lack certain knowledge and skills to continue.

Design Tips

  1. Draw rough sketches of the room and the platform to scale. This will not be a one-time assignment as the sketches will change as you refine the model train plans. The final sketch should be done on graph paper with the actual measurements. Do not forget to include the placement of electrical wiring, scenery, and other accessories.
  2. Decide if your model train design will be temporary or permanent. If the plan is to be permanent plan your spaces carefully. Think in terms of repair or maintenance which means making the longest reach comfortable to undo derailment or other miscellaneous happenings.
  3. Include the room space in your plans to allow for maneuverability in and around the train platform. Will the platform be an island, against the walls, or on shelving?
  4. A benchwork design will be needed for roads, scenery, shrubbery, trees, buildings, bridges, etc.
  5. Taking time to plan and design your platform, train tracks, and scenery will also let you know if you need to refine your construction, electrical skills, and other talents.

A winter scene platform—a model train display within a snow covered village.
A winter scene platform—a model train display within a snow covered village. | Source

My Train Display

We have a 027 Lionel Train set. Our platform supports a 6’ x 9’ platform to allow a circular track to have the train tour through a village, past a waterfall, a fishing pond, a skating rink, and around a large snow-covered mountain range located in the center of the platform.

We enjoy operating the train to take the curves slowly and to sound the whistle as it nears the train depot and allows it to slowly come to a stop to either load or unload passengers. When the train starts again, we sound the whistle and release the smoke from its stack. This is fun!

When I have sewn a new dress there is seemingly someone who always compliments with “Oh, I see you made a new dress”. This comment makes me feel as though there is something wrong with the garment. I have learned that if you mix the new garment with commercial accents; the comment changes to “Oh, where did you buy your dress?” I apply this same technique to my model display.

The village buildings are a mix of commercial ceramic and cross-stitched buildings. On the left side of the photo, there are four buildings that are brightly lit. The structures which shine the brightest are the cross-stitched units. We are currently looking for smaller lights to shine only from the windows; not the entire house.

The snow mountain in the center of the platform hides a box that contains 16 socket outlets in order to hook up street lights, miniature shrubs, and trees which are laced with laser lighting, and other accent accessories or train controls which need electric power. The ceramic and the cross-stitched buildings have separate wire connections in order to light them individually. It is wise to invest in laser lighting.

The snow over the mountain top is created with a sheet of commercial snow cover. There is a maze of wires running across the platform. These wires are hidden between the platform and 1”x 6’ Styrofoam sheets. These sheets hide the wires and help minimize the additional cost of commercial snow. Onlookers never notice these sheets as they appear as snow-covered ground.

The people, animals, bushes, trees, and other accessories are able to balance upright or are easily fastened to the Styrofoam sheets. Pieces of the commercial snow are strategically placed to cover any unwanted spots. The edge of the platform is framed with evergreen garlands that give the appearance of a hedge. The hedge separates the snow-covered area from a gravel road.

The train is in motion (in the photo), so there is a slight fuzziness in its appearance. The foam sheets are very supportive of the train tracks because the tracks can be fastened to the Styrofoam sheets and this keeps the train from jumping off the tracks or crashing. It is not necessary to use foam on the platform. We prefer to do it for the beautiful snow enhancement of the ground and it is more economical and lifelike than other materials which we have used.

Miniature Accessories

A model train community with buildings,cars, and landscaping.
A model train community with buildings,cars, and landscaping. | Source

The Budget

The cost is the number one reason for researching and planning before attempting construction. Building a layout need not be expensive. Start simple and learn the basics before advancing too soon.

Cost-saving methods include:

  1. The correct type of wood for the project.
  2. Creating scenery with items found in or around the house.
  3. The correct electrical accessories needed for the train set and layout.
  4. Acquire knowledge about wiring, remote controls, adapters, transformers, DCC systems, and much more.
  5. Avoid mistakes!

Cost-Saving Tips

  1. Take inventory of all trains, tracks, and equipment which will be utilized. Place these items on a table and list parts, pieces, and supplies needed to activate the model train railroad.
  2. Measure the selected space and note the supplies needed to start the project.
  3. List items you will need to make or purchase.
  4. Time can be friendly to your budget. Some items are needed immediately; others can be made or purchased as the expansion continues.
  5. Allow time to assemble the model train railroad.
  6. Research or obtain additional help from experienced model railroad hobbyists.

A word to parents and grandparents.

Some families like to give gifts at Christmas and birthdays. As parents or grandparents, we never know what we want or we have too much, or sometimes we do not like the gift and resent going to the store to exchange it for something else. Suggest to your children and grandchildren that you would like people, animals, trees, and other trinkets for your train display. Make a list to help them locate items wanted. There are wonderful memories when your project involves loved ones.

Building a Model Train Layout

How did you get started in the model train hobby?

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Questions & Answers

  • Are the cars in a freight train arranged in any kind of order? (For example: box cars, then flat cars, then tank cars.)

    It is my understanding that the location of the box cars, flat cars, and tank cars (real life) are arranged according to the type of cargo, and non-hazardous or hazardous materials that are being moved. There are many laws and regulations regarding their lineup. The line up of cars will vary. The caboose is the last car as the workers need to keep alert to any hazards which may affect the cars. Men who have worked the rails would probably line up their cars viewed from their work perspective.

    It seems to be that the major issue for the model builder is not the lineup of the cars (unless you are striving for reality) but the weight. The weight, as well as the length, and speed of these cars tend to derail unless these corrections are made. The model builder has to be creative in balancing the weight of the different types of cars than by how the cars are lined up.

    You did not ask, it but the passenger train lineup is usually - locomotive, baggage or mail car, coaches, kitchen, dining car, sleeping, and observation.


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    • Tricia Deed profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Deed 

      14 months ago from Orlando, Florida

      There are things to think about before starting to layout your design. Regardless of the width size of your layout board here is a list to consider before starting to build or assemble.

      1. The width of the board should be easily accessible to work. Favored board sizes are 12 and 18 inches. If wider there may be some difficulties to reach articles which may need to be operated or repaired. Consider working area for both front and back of board.

      2. Is the wall straight or are there protrusions such as electrical outlets, wood or plastic strips which cover wiring, decorator obstacles, floor board trim, etc.

      3. Is the wall straight or are there peculiar irregularities?

      4. Will you be using a layout designed by another or are you freelancing? Is the layout straight, elevated, and are there curves?

      5. What is the train scale or the width of the cork, track, gravel, and cars?

      6. What buildings, roads, waterways, mountains, bridges, trees, shrubs, and other decorator items are to be used? Are these items placed against the wall or elsewhere?

      7. Will this area be shared with other family members or projects.

      8. Will this layout be permanent, mobile, or needing storage?

      These questions are also part of the planning process. Planning is the foundation for success. But, be flexible as changes may need to be made.

      Most people are visual. I find it helpful to make cardboard samples and models of three dimensional objects such as buildings, bridges, and landscaping of the intended layout. This method is helpful to see obstacles and problems which will be encountered. I have found that having an exact measurement is not always the solution. Sometimes the bulk, depth, or manual or automatic electrical hookups will undo those measurements.

      It is not a waste of time or effort to make these cardboard cutouts as it may be also be a way of constructing personal models which are more accurate or favorable for the layout. It also offers more variety and is less costly.

    • profile image


      14 months ago

      What is the ideal distance between edge of layout and the wall?


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