Why would anyone go through all the work of planning, gathering, re-planning, gathering more, designing, deciding you haven’t gathered enough, redesigning, feeling discouraged, realizing gathering more would help you feel better, wondering whether you’re losing your mind, understanding that you’ll know you haven’t lost your mind when you see the things you continue to gather are soooo cool, completely changing your design, deciding the house you live in isn’t quite big enough to properly house the empire you are about to build, and finally settling on a manageable layout that satisfies you? Because it is great therapy. No, you don’t think of it that way, but it is. Model railroading is a microcosm of life the way we wish it was, or the way we think it used to be. No one builds a model railroad duplicating everything the way it is because as soon as you’re finished you realize something changed and now you have to rebuild. Model railroading works because you are in charge. No surprises, nothing unexpected, your opinion is the only one that matters. Reality isn’t like that at all. Model railroading is completely safe.
The secret to being satisfied with your work is not to compare yours with others. You can learn a great deal by watching how-to videos, reading books and magazines, but the bottom line in model railroading is deciding that what you have created is good. Not because it won an award, or was featured in a model railroading magazine, or your track-side photos had a million likes on social media, but just because you created it.
If you don’t have room to build a permanent (just kidding – no model railroad is permanent) layout, make that table-top empire great with what you have. Your imagination will work wonders with sectional track, snap-together buildings and plastic trees if you use it. When you’re done, put everything away and start dreaming about your next layout.
Okay, everyone, get started on that model railroad empire!
People who consider themselves model railroaders, or someday hope to be, had to start somewhere. Not very many start with a bunch of locomotives, tons of rolling stock, loads of scenery and a ready-made layout just waiting for an engineer. Usually, they start with a “train set” and a dream. Even a small oval on a tabletop allows a railroading dreamer to get down to eye level and watch the train roll by. The clicking of metal wheels on rail joints is a wonderful sound.
You will know you’ve crossed a threshold from having a train set to being a model railroader when someone asks you, “How fast will it go?” and you are offended. When you talk of operating your layout (no matter how small it is) instead of playing trains, you’ll know you have arrived.
Model railroaders find a way to move from a circle to an oval to their first turnout and spur as quickly as possible. My first turnout was an Atlas kit I bought at the little hobby shop in our town. I didn’t have enough money to buy a ready-to-use model, so I tried the the kit. I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to put it together on a small piece of plywood. The result was a mess and it never worked. The old hobby shop owner saved me. You will find that used equipment can be your best friend.
For several years a ping-pong table I set up in my basement bedroom was the home of my layout. Nothing permanent, it was 12 inch brass track pieces and turnouts, most of it used. The wires weren’t hidden, I taped them down. What few trees I had were stuck down with clay. I loved it. When I first started I set everything up on my bedroom floor, so the table was quite an improvement.
Whatever you have is a great place to start. Attend model railroading swap-meets to find hidden treasurers. Online market places will sometimes have items for sale. Keep your eyes open and your railroading empire will begin to grow.
My first HO scale train was a Tyco blue and yellow Santa Fe F-7 with a few freight cars, and an 18 inch radius circle of track I received for Christmas when I was fifteen. My love of trains, however, began on Christmas morning in 1956 when my brother received an American Flyer S scale train set. My fascination with trains has been life long.
Sadly, my new F-7 didn’t work right. It ran backwards pretty well, but wouldn’t go forward. The small town we lived in had a model railroader’s paradise, a hobby shop where I spent a lot of time. The shop was a small garage but it was loaded with HO treasure. The owner loved trains as much as I did and was always willing to help. I traded my Santa Fe engine for an old metal 2-6-0 switcher that squeeked, but it ran. I also purchased two small boxes of track so my layout became a larger oval instead of a circle.
For those unfamiliar with model trains, HO actually stands for “Half-O.” O gauge is the size of the familiar Lionel-type, three-rail trains. HO trains are half that size. I have always preferred HO. The two-rail track and detail is more realistic.
The little hobby shop quickly became my favorite place, and the owner taught me everything he could about model railroading. He also sold me Pere Marquette Berkshire 2-8-4 and Southern Pacific 4-8-8-2 Cab Forward steam locomotives for $10 with a trade and $25, respectively. Unbelievable! Those engines now are twenty times that much! The only thing I still own from the little hobby shop is a twenty-five foot fiber tie strip for hand laying and spiking rails. I’ve never tried that.
The photos above are of my first full layout I built thirty years ago. As you can see, it had open-grid benchwork and it was also my first experience with cork roadbed and ballast. I learned a great deal about what not to do with future layouts. The biggest mistake I made was not planning for taking it apart. When we moved I had to chose the best spots to cut it apart and it was not easy putting it back together.
The unpainted wood stand with the white tank structure was scratch-built forty-two years ago. At one point it was crushed by a basketball, but since has been rebuilt and painted.
In upcoming posts I will include details about benchwork, scenery, and model railroading in general. I hope you enjoy it and find it helpful.