Building Your First Model Train: Tips and Tricks

Model railroading is an excellent hobby for enthusiasts of all ages. From researching historical time periods to creating intricate wooden structures and designing realistic scenery, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Family members can spend quality time together while engaging in a wide range of activities and experiences. 

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll share valuable tips and tricks for building your first model train, no matter your experience level. So, let’s get started and discover the joy and excitement of this rewarding pastime together.

What You Should Know

As someone new to model railroading, it’s best to start small, then move onto the big layouts you see in magazines. Doing the opposite could result in an inefficient build. With a small layout, you will be able to spend more time on details and even set up the model for expansion (though this isn’t necessary). And it’s definitely possible to do model railroading within a budget. For beginner tips and tricks in model train building, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Model Trains.

Pick the Right Scale

Picking the right scale is an important first step in building your model train layout. It determines what size, tracks, and train accessories you’ll be using, as well as the space required for the layout. Most model railways are manufactured in either N and OO scale, but other options also exist. Consider where your railway will be located and how much space you have available when it comes time to pick a scale. 

To help you make an informed decision, here’s a table featuring different scales and their suitability:

Scale Suitable for When to Pick
Z Limited space When you have limited space and want a compact layout
N Small spaces When you have a small space and want to run multiple trains
HO Most popular When you have a moderate-sized space and want versatility
O Large layouts When you have a large space and want highly detailed trains and scenery
G Outdoor layouts When you want to build an outdoor layout with large, realistic trains

Overall, choosing the right scale for your model train layout depends on your available space and desired level of detail. Take the time to consider and research the different options before making a final decision. To know more about scales and which ones are perfect for you to start with, check out the Guide to Selecting a Model Train Set.

Decide Your Layout

You can base the layout on the railway time period that you want to model. Every era’s trains boast unique features, and the one you choose will depend on your personal preferences. Here are the different options available to hobbyists:

  • American steam era: An excellent era to model, the time range of American steam rails was typically the 1920s to 1950s. The locomotives were often large and impressive, and the rolling stock included passenger coaches, wooden boxcars, and cabooses. HO and O scales were quite popular in this area.
  • Modern day era: In the modern era, you’ll find BR era Diesels hauling freight (typically refurbished and re-liveried). Mk2 1/2 coaches and mainline steam engines are also present because the locomotive still exists.
  • European rail travel: Modeling the railways of Europe can be a lot of fun, with a wide range of locomotives, rolling stock, and scenery to choose from. You could choose to model a particular country or era, such as Germany in the 1960s or Switzerland in the modern day. Popular scales for European models include HO and N scale.
  • Japanese bullet trains: If you’re looking for a more modern model railway, consider modeling the high-speed trains of Japan. The Shinkansen trains are famous for their sleek, futuristic design and typically based on N and HO scales.

Set up the Baseboard

Baseboards can be made from a variety of materials, including hard foam and baseboard kits. If you don’t want to build your own, consider commissioning a specialist baseboard building company that can create one for you. To find the right company, attend big model railway shows and speak to their staff to see samples of their products and construction techniques.

To build your own baseboard, start by choosing your timber and gathering your tools. The finished board should be made from sections no larger than 1200mm x 600mm for easy transport. Cut the sheet material to size, then cut batons to fit. 

Glue and clamp the batons in place to form a simple ladder or H shape, being careful not to put a stretcher-bar where you might need a point motor. Once the glue is dry, drill pilot holes from the top, then screw the sheet to the batons. Drill the long edge batons so that they can be screwed to the stretcher bars.

Lay the sections board side down on a flat surface, clamping them in place. Now drill accurate holes for nuts and bolts that will hold the sections in place. Next, make your own legs to support the broads. With a little planning and preparation, you can build a baseboard for your model railway in no time at all.

Purchase the Necessary Supplies 

The next step is to get the necessary supplies. You’ll want to go to Amazon or the local model shop to buy the following:

  • Track: You can either use fixed rigid sections of track or lengths of flexible track.
  • Rail joiners: These are necessary to connect the sections of track together. You’ll need insulated and nickel silver joiners.
  • Electrical hookup wire: This is necessary to connect the track to the power supply.
  • Points: Also known as turnouts or switches, these allow your trains to change tracks.
  • Track pins: You’ll need these to secure the track to the baseboard.

In terms of tools, here are some you may find useful:

  • Compatible hand drill: These will help you to drill holes for the track pins. Go for the 3mm variety as it is quite handy for drilling holes for wiring and other components.
  • Razor saw: If you’re using a flexible track, a razor saw will be necessary to cut it to size.
  • Hole saws: You’ll need these to cut holes in the baseboard for point motors and switches.

Start Assembling

With all the necessary tools at your disposal, you’re ready to build your model railway layout. Wiring the layout can be complex, so for testing purposes, it’s best to follow these tips:

  • For loops that connect back on themselves, you must isolate both ends of the loop where they join the wide end of the point.
  • Leave crossovers “straight-through.”
  • For passing loops, set both points for the loop or both points for the mainline.
  • Normally, power is fed through points to branch lines or loops connected at the “toe” or narrow end of a point.
  • Ensure the rail joiners are not sliding under the rail but rather gripping it when joining the track’s pieces.

Start laying the track one section at a time, beginning with the points, junctions, and crossovers, which require accurate placement. If you’re using a rigid track, the pieces should be laid out before you attempt to fix them. Mark where you need to make any cuts with a pencil and cut the track with a fine-toothed saw, such as a razor saw. Dremels or Hacksaws leave burrs on the rails, which require filing before fitting the rail joiners.

If you’re using a flexible track, connect one end to the preceding track, and secure one end of the flexible track with a single track pin. Then flex the track gently to the desired shape and fix it to retain its position. Unequal rail lengths at one end are typical, so trim them level before laying the next piece of track. Refer to our tips on laying track for a model train to get this part right.

Once you’ve laid out your track, test it with temporary wiring to each section from a controller and a simple loco. Remember to test gradients, with a maximum recommended gradient of 1 in 33, before finally fixing down the track. Do not glue any track down or ballast any track until you’re sure that each point works, and you’ve tested the complete layout. Check out our article on model railway points at the end of this guide for further information.

Controlling Your Model Railway Train 

Controlling your model railway train has become a lot more fun with the introduction of DCC (Digital Control Command), which has now become mainstream. The advantages of DCC operation are uninterrupted lighting and sound on the models, which adds yet another dimension to railway modelling. Nowadays, models in ‘N’ and ‘OO’ gauges are available in ready-to-run form. There are options like ‘DCC ready,’ ‘DCC fitted,’ and ‘DCC sound’ available for the modellers.

Choosing the right train control seems more complex than in the past, especially since digital control is now mainstream. DCC systems are ideal for taking advantage of directional lighting, train sound effects and for controlling multiple locos on the same track.

Analogue control uses a variable voltage between stopped (0v) and full speed (12v). DCC controls are now available as handheld controllers or as apps on smartphones and tablets. For anyone starting the hobby afresh today, DCC makes the most sense to future proof your investment.

A simple DC controller with a DC locomotive is a good choice when testing your railway model on a new unique track the first time. It is important to run your layout using your chosen controller until you are confident everything works as expected before ballasting and adding scenery.

Here’s a table to summarize the differences between analogue control and DCC:

Control Type Analogue DCC
Speed Control Variable voltage Digital signal
Direction Control Polarity reversal Digital signal
Multiple Locomotive Control Not possible Possible
Train Sound Effects Not possible Possible
Directional Lighting Not possible Possible
Computer Control Not possible Possible

Think About the Scenery and Other Stuff

Scenery is an important aspect of model railway building, as it allows for a more immersive experience. When choosing scenery, keep the scale and theme of your layout in mind and make sure it’s durable and easy to work with. Building up the landscape with foam board or card and covering it with plaster cloth is the best way to add scenery. Painting and decorating the scenery is a fun way to add personality, and static grass and plants can add extra height and variation.

The choice of available buildings has increased dramatically in recent years, with finished buildings and resin structures now available. Plastic kits from manufacturers like Wills and Ratio are also a great option. 

Once you have completed the baseboards, laid the track, and added scenery and buildings, you can start enjoying your layout. As you gain experience, you may want to add extra accessories like working lights, sounds, and detailed parts to your trains and buildings.


We’ve covered the basic steps to get started, from choosing the right scale and setting up the baseboard to adding track, scenery, buildings, and accessories.

If you’re feeling inspired and want to learn more about the hobby, there are plenty of resources available. You can join local model railway clubs or online communities to connect with other enthusiasts, attend exhibitions and shows to see other layouts, and read books and magazines for inspiration and tips. Reading reviews can also help you know which train sets are better than the others in terms of quality and features. To start reading, you can check our Review of the Bachmann Trains Chattanooga Electric Train Set.

Some recommended resources include the Model Railway Journal, Railway Modeller, and Model Rail magazine. Online resources such as RMweb, Model Railways Live, and Model Railway Forum are also great places to find information and connect with other model railway enthusiasts.

Now that you have the basics covered, it’s time to get creative and build your dream layout. Don’t be afraid to experiment, try new techniques and have fun with it!

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