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Building a Model Railway Layout

Building a model railway layout is exciting, time-consuming, pleasurable, hard work, relaxing, frustrating, worthwhile, educational and it tests your skills. Yes it's all of these but above all it's FUN. You need to start with a concept and be prepared to change that concept along the way if necessary. Have a look at the steps below to see what might be involved.

1. Planning

Where are you going to put your layout? A bedroom, the garage, the attic?

What size can you afford to make it?

What gauge/scale is it going to be? N, OO, O or something else? The smaller the gauge the more you get.

Is it going to be end-to-end, a continuous loop or a combination of both?

What is the theme going to be? Town or country? Somewhere from your childhood? Modern or historical? It's your choice.

2. Building the baseboard

What type of wood? Plywood, MDF, chipboard or insulation board. Choose the best you can afford.

Make it yourself or get it ready made? It's cheaper to make it yourself but do you have the skills?

Build it in sections. If you are moving it later you need to be able to carry it! Sections of 4ft by 2ft are best.

Have you got the tools? You'll need saws, drills, screwdrivers, a spirit level, clamps, tape measure etc. Maybe you can borrow some if don't have what you need.

You might also need catches, screws, bolts, t-nuts, dowels, wood glue and adjustable feet.

some model railway track pieces.jpg

3. The Track

Most people buy ready-made track but you could build your own.

There is a choice of track height. The lower the height the more realistic it is.

Be careful of the radius of curves. Some locos and rolling stock won't like it if it's too tight a radius.

Use computer software tools like Anyrail to plan your track layout.

Be careful where you place points and where you are going to cut the rails between sections.

some model railway track pieces.jpg

4. Electrics

Use different coloured wires for different functions such as track power, points, lighting, signals etc.

If you are not keen on soldering there are options for screw-in or clip-in connectors.

Are you going to use DC (Direct Current/Analogue) or DCC (Digital Command Control) for your operations? If you are using the older DC method you will need more wires! You will also need to create isolating sections.

Use plug-in terminal strips to join the cables between one baseboard section and the next. Get cable ties too.

Get some top-quality wire strippers. You will save a lot of time and hassle!

some model railway track pieces.jpg

5. Electronics

The newer DCC method of operation makes more use of electronics but some can be used with DC too.

Electronic components can be used to build a control panel and to control points, signals, lighting, moving scenery etc. 

Low cost and low power LEDs are very popular on layouts.

If you are going down the DCC route your locos will have electronic decoders in them with their own distinct addresses like computers on a network.

If your DCC loco has room you can also fit a speaker and get all the original sounds for that type of loco.

In some cases you can control your layout with your mobile phone!

some model railway track pieces.jpg

6. Scenery

If your layout is going to be depicting an actual location then the scenery, particularly the buildings, has to be pretty accurate. You should be able to get plans and photos to help you.

If your layout is from your imagination then the world is your oyster. You can do what you want.

A lot of scenery can be bought ready-made or as kits but many modellers make their own 'scratch-built' scenery from bits and pieces.

In addition to buildings and trees you can have people, animals, vehicles and all manner of everyday items. Just have a look around a real railway to get your ideas.

And finally, remember, it's YOUR layout!!

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