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Beginner’s Guide to Model Railways

Model railways are a wonderful hobby for everyone. Modelling provides a relaxing and creative way to spend your time and create something you are proud of in the end. While modelling is an accessible hobby, it can be a bit tricky to know where to get started. We have compiled a comprehensive beginner’s guide for you to help you get started on the right foot. 

Understanding Model Railway Terminology 

At first glance, the world of model trains can be overwhelming and confusing. Products are advertised as being OO and HO, with gauges and different types of sidings and switches. It can be tricky to navigate buying the materials for your first kit when you don’t understand what you’re looking at. We have put together a brief glossary of the terms you need to get started. There are always more terms to know, but the ones we have compiled below are enough to get you well on your way building your very first model railway. 

  • Alternating Current (AC) – electric current which changes the direction of flow through a wire 
  • Block – there are electrical signals and blocks. Blocks give the modeller control over the track by isolating part of the track, or restricting access to one train only 
  • Coach – a vehicle used to transport passengers; these are available in different gauges, such as OO and N, to fit different sizes of track
  • Digital Control Command (DCC) – DCC is a standard digital control system for model railways 
  • Figure Eight – a continuous layout where the track crosses over itself to form a figure of eight 
  • Gauge – the distance between the two running rails on a piece of track. The gauge is normally defined by a letter, such as Z, N, TT, HO, OO, O and G. There are many more in between. The choice is up to you, and how much room you have to work with. 
  • Layout – a layout is a diorama containing scale track for operating trains. The size of a layout varies, from small shelf-top designs to ones that fill entire rooms, basements, or whole buildings. Your layout gives you a time and space to be really creative, so don’t be afraid to play around with things and explore different scenery techniques!
  • Points – used to change the direction of train travel. They’re typically made from metal and plastic and can be operated manually or by a point motor. The most important thing to remember when using points is that they must be correctly aligned with the track.
  • Volt – a unit of electrical pressure. Different voltages are used for different scales of model railway. 
  • Scale – defines the size of the train. The scale is usually given as a number such as 1:87 for HO scale trains. A full train has a scale of one. The numbers of the colon define its size when compared to a full train. A 1:87 scale train is 87 times smaller than a full train. Scale is the proportion of the model to the full-size item. Therefore, 4mm:1ft scale should be more correct in describing a layout, whereas OO gauge should only refer to the track gauge.
  • Sidings – is a low-speed track section distinct from a running line or through route such as a main line, branch line, or spur. It may connect to through track or to other sidings at either end. Sidings often have lighter rails, meant for lower speed or less heavy traffic, and few, if any, signals.
  • Switch – a track switch allows the track to split, sending trains in two directions.

Essential Kit for Beginners

There are thousands of wonderful products to choose from to help you build your first model railway layout. We recommend sticking to a couple essential items and building your toolkit up from there. 

  • Baseboards – these are the foundation of your railway layout. They can be made from a range of materials, from plywood to hard foam. Consider the space you have to build your railway layout in and choose a baseboard that fits accordingly. 
  • Tools – it’s worth investing in high-quality items that will provide accuracy and durability. Essential items include a modelling light, screwdrivers, knives and cutting boards, sanding equipment, rulers, a set square, drills, clamps, pliers, and paintbrushes. Also, a good set of tracksetta’s will help you set your track, so that your straights are straight and you curves are smooth. 
  • Scenery – While scenery is not strictly essential to get your railway up and running, scenery makes creating model railway layouts a lot more fun and creative. By adding static grass, trees, buildings, plants, rocks, ballast, and anything else you can imagine, you get to tap into your creativity and make your model railway layout truly unique to you. 
  • Control system – this can be analogue or digital. DCC systems are increasable popular as they allow for simple wiring and greater flexibility and control. 
  • Trains and Tracks – these are the heart of your model railway layout. There are a wide range of track and train sizes and styles to choose from.

Building Your First Layout

  1. Find a space for your model railway layout. Make sure you choose a scale that is practical for the room you have chosen. 
  2. Choose a theme – be creative! Your theme could be anything from a particular time period, your favourite season or setting. 
  3. Plan a design and buy the items you need. There is no “right” way to build a model railway. However, when planning your design, you might like to consider the gauge, scale, track type, layout, scenery, points, how many model railway stations you need, sidings, bridges, and the number of trains you want to run at any one time.
  4. Build a baseboard. Consider the size and weight of the baseboard. If you have a space that can be permanently devoted to model trains, a fixed baseboard is a great idea. However, this might not be an option when you’re first starting out and you want to make sure you are really invested in the hobby!
  5. Select a ballast. Ballast is a material laid under the track to hold it in position, reduce noise and improve the overall appearance of the layout. Choose a ballast that will help your track look and run as you want it to. There are a variety of sizes and colours to choose from. We stock several different ballasts, and if you need help choosing the right one for you, we are more than happy to help. 
  6. Lay the track. This is usually done by nailing the track to the baseboard using pins. 
  7. Set up your electronics. This could involve signals and point motors or a DCC. Make sure you test that everything is running smoothly and make any necessary tweaks. 
  8. Add your model railway scenery. Let your imagination run wild with your scenery. You can really use this as an opportunity to flex your creative muscles and create anything you want! The opportunities are endless here. We have a vast selection of static grass tufts and specialty kits you can choose from. Why not check out our realistic model railway ballasts? Don’t forget your modelling glue!
  9. Enjoy your model railway layout! Be proud of what you have built! Creating your very first model railway layout is an impressive feat. Enjoy using it and have fun planning up your next layout. 

Get in touch!

If you have any questions or queries about building your first model railway layout, don’t hesitate to look through our extensive selection of resources on our website, or join our Facebook group filled with friendly modellers who are always ready to help. We are also available to answer any questions you have so feel free to get in touch with us and we will help you in any way we can. 

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