Building a Model Railway Layout


The first step is to decide where your model railway layout will be built and operated. If it can not be left permanently set up then storage of the layout must be considered, whether it can fold up against a wall or under a bed. The size of the baseboard should allow for future expansion and for stations and buildings to be added. A minimum size would be 30cm wider and longer than the size of the trainset. Time spent planning the track layout now will save much frustration and re-working later on.

Constructing the Baseboard

A solidly constructed baseboard will avoid warping and sagging which can cause track problems. Equally important is that it does not move, so solid table legs are essential.. The base is usually 6mm Plywood and the frame 50x25mm pine and 80x25mm pine. There are a number of books by Kalmbach {1} and leaflets by Peco {2} which show how to build strong baseboards. During construction “V” notches or 15mm diameter holes should be placed in the cross braces to allow for wiring to be run under the layout.

The Track Plan

For the beginner, there are track plan books produced by Hornby, Fleischmann , Peco, Atlas and Kalmbach to give you ideas. In addition Hornby provides with its trainsets a “TrackMat” layout (HR8011). It is a layout plan to fit a 1800x1200mm baseboard and can be built in five easy stages with Track Packs A to E. For more in depth planning Hornby also have plastic track planning symbols (HR619) in quarter scale which clip together to build your layout in miniature.

In N Gauge, Graham Farish have designed their Magnum Layouts also on a rollout plan which can be used as the base for a railroad layout or the plan. In either 1500x750mm or 2100 x 750mm, (Magnum I and III) complete townships are integrated with the layout. Its as close as you will ever come to an instant layout.

Laying Down the Track

It is important that the track is laid out and checked that all rail joiners form a tight and well aligned connection. The rail joiner forms both a mechanical and electrical connection and if bent or loose will result in poor performance and de-railments. If a rail joiner is not perfect replace it now, before proceeding.

The track can be laid directly on the baseboard or on a cork roadbed. The cork is available in large sheets or strips (3mm thick for HO/OO) and can be cut to suit the track plan. The cork provides a realistic raised base and at the same time absorbs some of the sound caused by the train on the baseboard. The cork is glued to the baseboard with PVA glue. Next step is to nail down the track starting from one straight section. Most track will have nail holes in the sleepers and using a small hammer the nails are driven to the level of the sleepers. If hammered to tightly the rail will be deformed and if not tight enough will move out of alignment.

Power can be connected to the layout by a “Terminal Rail” which has screw terminals, by Power Clips which go under the rails and provide an electrical connection, or by Terminal Rail Joiners with wires attached. What ever method, it should be in place before nailing down that section.

Connect the power and run the train to test the layout.


Again as part of the planning you may be following the TrackMat format and it is simply a matter of reproducing on your layout the details on the Mat. The baseboard should be painted with a base colour acrylic household paint to suit the landscape above. Under and adjacent to tracks maybe a dark gray as background to a gray ballast. Under grass and in fields – a dark or light brown as soil etc.

Ground cover is available in all shades of green and fine to coarse grades. Lichen, a spongy plant which is dyed different shades of green, can be used for bushes or for foliage on trees.

Trees You can make your own trees using dead tips of garden bushes painted or stained an appropriate colour. Once dry , PVA glue is applied to the limbs and covered with lichen or coarse ground cover. Alternatively there are many ready made trees available (Heki and Life Like brands).

Mountains, Hills Embankments and Cuttings are easily added to your layout. In real terrain it is never perfectly flat. There are a number of techniques to create interesting hills and valleys on your layout. The simplest is to us crumpled newspaper to create a support for the shape you wish to achieve. Tie it in place with some masking tape . Mix ordinary one cup of Plaster of Paris to a “soupy” consistency then dip strips of newspaper or old cloth sheet cut into manageable size (50 x 200mm). When dry the plaster will form a hard thin shell. Add additional plaster where necessary. Once dry, the hill can be painted with a thick base colour for the terrain and then ground cover added.

Other methods of creating hills include chicken wire overlayed with plaster strips, polystyrene foam from fruit boxes cut into flat sheets and sandwiched together with PVA glue to give height then carved roughly to the desired shape and covered with plaster strips as before.

Other features of landscaping including rivers and lakes, road systems, realistic weathering of buildings etc are covered in the Kalmbach {3} and Woodland Scenics {4} How-to-do-it scenery books.

Towns, Buildings and other Structures complete you model railroad. The buildings you add to your layout should be in keeping with the style of town- Australian, English, European or American. There is a wide choice of plastic kits available from manufacturers -Faller, Life-Like, Hornby, Atlas, Pola, Heljan and Vollmer. All make HO/OO and some make for G, 1, N and Z. Most come pre-moulded in appropriate colours and are easy to assemble with plastic glue. There are also cardboard models available from Superquick (OO & N) and Farish (N).

The range of buildings includes Stations, Churches, Suburban Homes, City buildings, and a variety of industrial and rural sites.

Faller produce an excellent range of working Fairground models including Ferris Wheels and other side show attractions. The working models are powered by small Faller 15 VA.C. motors. Scale people and vehicles can be added to complete the model railroad layout. Preiser produce pre-painted figures in many scales and styles. If you wish to customise your people, unpainted figures in bulk packs are also available. Motor vehicles, trucks, fire engines and farm equpment in HO/OO and N Scale of both modern and vintage styles are made by Wiking, Busch & Herpa.

For added realism, the Faller Road System provides moving cars, trucks and buses powered by small rechargeable batteries and a magnetic steering system which follows a steel wire hidden under the road base. Now all this does not happen over night. In fact Model Railroading can be a lifetime hobby providing hours of entertainment both in its building and operation.