Beginning with model railroading

We have a guest poster with us today: Mark Harrison, who’s going to talk about getting started with model railroading.

Your First Model Railroad: How to Start and Finish It on a Budget

Building your first model railroad layout can be intimidating. Open
any model railroading magazine and you will see page after page of
pictures of huge, incredibly detailed layouts, which have been built by
expert modelers or teams of expert modelers. Thinking about the
hundreds or even thousands of hours it would take you to create anything
similar – and with no guarantee of comparable results – is enough to put
many people off from ever starting. Those who do get started on their
own ambitious projects sometimes underestimate the time it will take, or
hit unanticipated roadblocks and get discouraged.

But don’t despair! Model railroading is actually a very accessible
hobby to the newcomer, and in this article we’ll discuss a few ways to
make your first layout inexpensive but still great-looking, and to
maximize the chances of you getting it finished.


1. Start small. As I hinted at in the introduction, emulating one of the big layouts you see in magazines is a sure-fire way to fail as a newbie. A small layout will allow you to spend more time on details, so although it won’t be huge, it will look great. Model railroaders are also constantly changing and expanding their layouts, so starting small doesn’t in any way limit the potential of your layout in the future.

You could design your layout from the start with possible future
expansion in mind, but this isn’t necessary – it’ll just be a bit more
work expanding it if you don’t.

2. Consider scale carefully. HO scale is the most popular, and so has
the widest range of products available. It’s also generally the
cheapest, as parts can be manufactured in greater bulk, and it strikes a
happy balance between being large and so requiring lots of material, and
being too small, thereby making production of fine detail difficult (and
expensive). (If you live in the UK OO scale is most popular and might
be your best bet, for the same reasons.) N scale is also popular, and
may reduce your expenses bill for materials used for landscape building
(as the layout will generally be smaller). Really the choice between
HO, N and other scales comes down to what space you have available – but
just make sure that whichever scale you choose has a sufficient range of
reasonably priced items available for the era and location that you want
to model.

3. Investigate unorthodox sources of materials. You’ll be amazed what
bits of ‘junk’ can be found at a tip which can be put to work on your
layout. Your garden or the local park will have everything you need to
build trees, grass and ground cover. Building sites often have unwanted
insulation foam lying around that they’ll be happy to give you if you
ask, and this is ideal for building layered hills and landscapes.
There are also a few things we suggest you steer clear of as a


1. Scratchbuild. Scratchbuilding is the art of building things from
scratch, rather than from kits, and is a way to produce bits of scenery,
buildings or rolling stock which aren’t commercially available. It can
also be a good way to save money, as buying raw materials will generally
be cheaper than buying a finished product or ready-to-assemble kit.
With that said, it’s also time-consuming and requires considerable skill
to get the finished article looking good, and is a great way to
frustrate yourself as a beginner. It’s also no longer necessary to get
a realistic-looking layout, as many manufacturers offer very detailed
and accurate pieces nowadays. Of course, if you’re really confident and
scratchbuilding is one of the aspects of the hobby that most appeals to
you, don’t let this put you off. Otherwise – you’ve been warned!

2. Kitbash. Kitbashing is the practice of taking bits from two or more
ready-made kits and combining them to make a new model. As with
scratchbuilding, it takes a bit of skill to get this right, so may be
best left for after you’ve completed your first layout.

3. Buy poor quality track or rolling stock. Naturally you want to save
as much money as possible on your layout, but buying the cheapest
available track and rolling stock is not the way to do it! There’s
nothing more frustrating than a locomotive which doesn’t run smoothly,
either because of poor electrical connections in the track, or because
of lower quality wheels or other faults with the locomotive. It’s also
a common cause of derailments, which will lead to more money being spent
in the long run as your train goes crashing through your lovingly
crafted scenery. Low quality track will need to be replaced sooner
rather than later, further adding to the check.

If you take just one tip away from each section of this article, it
should be number 1 from the ‘DO’ section, and number 3 from the ‘DON’T’.
If you take my advice about starting small to heart, you will finish
your layout, and a small layout where you can actually run your trains
in realistic surroundings is infinitely more satisfying than a large one
which is forever a work in progress. You also won’t really know if
model railroading’s for you until you’ve finished at least one layout.
As for buying high quality track and rolling stock – just trust me on
this one. It will save you untold heartache and frustration down the

Finally, many more tips like these are available in Mark Harrison’s
free eBook Model Railroad Planning for Beginners. In around 10 pages
Mark takes you through the whole process of planning and preparing to
build your first model railroad, without assuming any prior knowledge of
the hobby. Go to to grab your free copy now.

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