The ultimate guide on how to build a model train layout

If you’ve decided you want to get into model railwaying, but don’t really know where to start, one of the first things that will likely cross your mind is the subject of your layout. Of course, you’ll want to look at specific types of train and wagon to run on your layout, but if you don’t have a layout you can’t run trains.

There are so many things to consider when building a model train layout - what era, what gauge, how large you want it, the space it’ll be going into, etc - so what we’ve done in this article is put together a comprehensive guide of everything you’ll need to consider when building your model railway layout. This will also be useful for anyone already involved in model railways looking to go from a temporary layout to a more permanent one. 

Without further ado - let’s get started!


Tools required

First off, let’s do a little review of all the tools you’re going to need. You don’t necessarily need to have every single one of these - it’s entirely dependent on what you want to do with your layout. My advice would be to work through this article, decide what you want to do with your layout and then base your list of required tools on this.

However, at a minimum you will need:

  • Some kind of saw for cutting/making benchwork
  • Screws 
  • Screwdriver or a drill
  • PVA glue
  • A small hammer
  • Pins
  • Acrylic/enamel paints
  • Pliers
  • Cooking sieve
  • Grab adhesive
  • An airbrush
  • Wood of varying sizes and thickness

You may find along the way that other, more specialist tools help you achieve your desired result a little quicker or more easily, but the above list will be enough for any aspiring model railroader to make a very high quality layout.

Of course - this goes without saying but you’ll need track, a controller and the ability to wire up your layout using the power connecting clip - I would recommend some kind of wire clips or cable ties to keep the wires out of the way. You could also get creative with this and put the connecting clip in an unseen part of the layout and run your wires under the baseboard.


Choosing your gauge

The first thing you’ll need to do before you do anything is choose the gauge you’ll be working with. If you already have a model railway layout that you’re looking to make more permanent, this is less relevant for you. If you’re new, however, you will want to research this in depth, as the gauge will determine how large your layout is, and therefore how much track you need to buy, how much space you’ll need to leave for your layout, etc.

Gauge is basically the distance between the rails. Therefore, gauge determines how big or small your layout and your trains are. Over the years there have been many different types of gauge, and the gauge on offer differs depending on the country you’re in, but a loose guide is below:

N Gauge - 9mm

This is used primarily in the UK. There are two types of N gauge - the 1:148 scale used in the UK, and the 1:160 used in Europe and the US. You’ll need to ensure you pick the right one, for example, if you’re in the US and you want to model a UK layout or vice versa. However, the thing to remember with N gauge is that it’s very small. This is fine if you’re building a shelf layout, but you may want something a little bigger.

H0/00 gauge - 16.55mm

H0 and 00 gauge are effectively the same thing - the track gauge and difference between the rails is the same. However, the difference is in scale - H0 is 1.87 scale, and 00 is 1.76 scale.  00 trains will run on H0 track and vice versa. The only difference is that 00 gauge is primarily used in the UK, and the reason is that UK trains are generally smaller than European trains, and so if you tried to make UK trains in H0 scale, the bodies would be too small for the motors and running gear inside. Therefore, 00 gauge locomotives are slightly larger to account for this, hence the difference in scale.

00/H0 gauge is probably the most popular gauge worldwide, and most train sets and starter kits include H0/00 gauge track. This is probably the best place to start in my opinion given the availability of rolling stock; especially if you’re on a budget and you’re looking for used items, as this is what will be most widely available.

0 gauge - 32mm

Twice the size of 00/H0 gauge, 0 gauge tends to be for the more experienced model railroader wanting more detail from their layout. The locomotives and rolling stock are twice as large, however the scale depends on the region you’re in. It’s worth noting that locos and track are going to be more expensive, and you will need more room to run an 0 gauge layout - but if you’re not satisfied with the realism or detail of H0/00 gauge, you might want to look into an 0 gauge layout.

EM Gauge - 18.82mm

EM gauge was created to solve the problem that 00 gauge is ever so slightly out of proportion - if you ever look at an 00 gauge layout compared to the real thing you’ll notice that 00 gauge is very toy-like, and that’s because as we discussed earlier, 00 gauge locos are scaled larger than H0 gauge locos to fit the motors and the running gear, and as a result they aren’t scaled the same as the track is. This can and does bother some people, due to the lack of realism.

EM gauge (alongside P4 gauge, which is most accurate, but can be difficult to inter-operate with 00 gauge trains)  was developed in the 1950s to solve this problem by making the track slightly larger, so that it was more proportionate to the size of the locomotive. As a result, 00 gauge locomotive bodies are the correct size for EM gauge track, and often all that’s required to make them compatible is to switch out the bogies. As we mentioned, P4 track is ever so slightly more accurate, but it’s often not a case of just swapping the wheels to make P4 and 00 gauge compatible. Therefore, EM gauge is a perfect compromise.

Z gauge - 6.55mm

Z gauge is tiny - around ½ the size of N gauge. I wouldn’t recommend this for a beginner model railroader as it’s very intricate and also can be more expensive. You’re also running into issues with fitting things like DCC controllers, or lights and other effects to carriages due to the diminutive size of the trains. It’s also not readily available in some markets - so if you’re looking to put together a European or Japanese layout, this may be suitable, but for anything else it’s likely that trains simply won’t be available.

Having said that, if you’re really really stuck for space, a Z gauge layout may well be worth considering - you won’t need a whole attic or garage as you would with an 00 gauge layout; you may only need a coffee table or a desk, and if you’re in an apartment or your pushed for space, this may well remove one of the barriers to getting into model railroading.

There are other gauges, such as T gauge, but the five we’ve covered above are the most likely for you to come across and therefore were the only ones worth covering in this article. We’ll be doing separate articles on all the gauges in due course, so keep your eyes peeled!


Temporary or fixed layouts

One thing you’ll really need to consider before going any further is whether you need your layout to be temporary or whether you want it to be permanently fixed in place. Of course if you don’t have the space for a permanent layout and you want to be able to take your layout apart and put it away when you’re finished running trains, then a lot of the tips in this article won’t apply to you. 

However if you’re serious about your hobby, you’ll eventually want to invest in a permanent layout. You’ll need to create space for this, as it isn’t something you can just take apart when you want to - so you’ll need to consider where it might go and what you may need to sacrifice to have your model railway set up permanently. Be aware that you also have less flexibility in terms of edits you can make to the layout - any permanent layout is changeable of course, but you don’t want to be regularly ripping up ballast and scenery to re-lay track very often, as this gets time-consuming and expensive.


Benchwork

NOTE: You will need to do the benchwork and track planning in parallel - you can’t lay benchwork without knowing roughly what kind of track you’re going to lay, and you can’t start planning track until you know roughly the kind of benchwork you’ll have in place.

You will need to have a rough idea of the kind of layout you’ll want to run, and to have planned it based on the space you have available. I go through this in detail in the “track planning” section, but once you have this, you can start thinking about the benchwork you’ll need.

Your benchwork is a really important subject as this is what the track will be laid on. Therefore it needs to be sturdy enough to support the weight of your trains, track and scenery, but soft enough for you to drill and attach things to. Remember that if the benchwork is too shaky, it can derail trains, and you also have the question of whether you can store things under the layout or not - which will help with keeping the trains that you’re not currently running in good order.

There are a million different benchwork ideas out there, some of which may be suitable for you, but really, you need to look into the kind of space you have and what would work best for you. If you have a garage or an attic to dedicate to your model railway, do you really want this huge baseboard taking up the centre of the room? Or would you prefer to run almost like a shelf layout around the perimeter of the room, maximising the space your trains can run and the space in your room? Alternatively are you limited just to a small shelf layout? All of these things need to be considered before you can even start to build benchwork.

There are also a number of other things to consider other than the logistics of your model railway - for example is the room still easy to get in and out of? Can you ensure your benchwork is at a comfortable working height if you’re going to be running trains for hours and hours? Do you ever need to stand on your benchwork - in which case it’s going to need to be extremely strong and well anchored into the wall? Additionally how hard is it going to be to pack everything up if you need to move house? 

Once you’ve decided the space you’re going to put your benchwork into, you’ll need then to get down to the DIY store and buy yourself some plywood. It doesn’t need to be majorly expensive, but you’ll need to get decent quality stuff. Don’t buy anything that’s warped - this will cause problems when you’re trying to run trains.

If you’re connecting to the wall, I recommend cantilever supports drilled into wall studs or masonry. You should be able to pick these up at a DIY store as well, but make sure they’re big enough depending on how far out your layout will be from the wall. I’d advise against support legs as they’re easy to kick accidentally and destabilise the layout or cause a derailment.

For building your benchwork, you don’t really need any fancy woodworking tools - a good electric drill, a small circular saw, a jigsaw and a screwdriver are really all you need. Use the electric saw for straight cuts, and the jigsaw for curved cuts. Make sure you have planned out exactly what you’re going to need, and if you’re drilling into the wall, make sure you use a stud finder to avoid drilling into any pipework or electrical wiring. 

Once your baseboards are up, you can go back to your track plan, and start a dry lay - but keep reading for a guide on how to do this.


Track planning

Track planning is a huge subject that could really take up the entire article. However, I want to give you just a few tips and tricks to ensure you have a solid layout plan before you start laying track - as it will likely save you a number of headaches further down the road. There’s nothing worse than spending hours laying track to find that there’s one small section that won’t fit, or that the radius of a curved piece of track is too wide and doesn’t fit where you imagined and you have to rip everything up and start again.

The most important thing - measure your space and build your track depending on this. What I would suggest is you get a piece of software known as SCARM - Simple Computer Aided Railway Modeller. What this does is allows you to experiment with different track layouts depending on the space you have available - simply put in your dimensions and start laying. What’s more, it’ll also connect with a number of different track libraries, so once you’re finished it’ll tell you exactly what track you’ll need to buy, whether it’s Hornby, Peco, Bachmann or anything else. 

Do this before you buy anything - because by doing this you’ll see how much plywood you need for your baseboards and what kind of track you’ll need to buy to realise your layout plan.

Ideally if you follow these steps, when you go to lay your track, you’ll have a layout that is wel-designed and takes perfect advantage of the space available.


Track laying and ballasting

So now you have your layout planned, and your baseboards fixed. It’s time to start laying your track.

Dry lay

A dry lay is absolutely CRUCIAL. It will validate all of your planning and make sure your tracks actually do fit. Don’t start permanently fixing anything in place before having laid everything out exactly as you intend it. Additionally test it with some trains on a temporary basis - is there enough spacing between the running lines? Are any gradients or inclines you have planned too steep for the trains to climb? 

Once you’ve got everything sorted, now it’s time to prep the baseboards.

Preparing the baseboard

You can do this before or after the dry lay but I would recommend you do it after, as you’re then 100% sure the track is going to fit where you want it to. You don’t need to do a lot to the baseboard in order to prep it for track and ballast, but I’d recommend you paint or varnish it simply because when you come to ballast the track, fresh unpainted plywood is going to really soak up the glue and may make the job quite difficult. After you’ve done this and your baseboard is dry, then set your track up again and pencil around it, so you know where to secure the track.

Securing the track

There are two methods of securing track to baseboard - you can either glue, or pin. I’d personally recommend you pin your track down as it’s easier to remove if necessary and it’s less messy. Trust me - gluing a piece of track down and finding then that you have to remove it is not fun.

If you decide to glue, just be careful not to get any on the rails - this can cause problems when trying to run trains. If you do get any on the rails, wipe it off immediately with a damp cloth.

If you’re really planning for this to be a permanent layout, I’d recommend putting a layer of cork or other material down as a road bed - this will definitely help with the next job which is ballasting the track.

Ballasting

Ballast is the layer of gravel put down underneath and around railway lines to prevent them moving. We can emulate this with model railways - most manufacturers also sell ballast kits.

I’m not going to go into detail on how to ballast your track in this article (that’s one for another day) but here’s an excellent video that takes you through the whole process.


Scenery, stations and other fixtures

Going back to your track plan, now it’s time to add scenery items. Really your imagination is the limit here - feel free to add landscaping effects, stations, vehicles, etc - anything you can think of is either available from the major modelling manufacturers or something you can create yourself. 

There are a multitude of tutorials and techniques available on how to add scenery to a layout, and to be honest this is really where you have to do a bit of thinking on how you want your layout to look.

And there you have it - your new layout is ready to enjoy! 

Hopefully this article has helped you on your journey to being a model railroader - if you have any questions or comments, let me know down below and I’ll do my best to help!

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