Getting started

Okay, the chances are you’re new to model railways and railroads. This means you’re a complete novice, or you’ve just blown the dust of the train set in your loft.

So let’s just blast through the basics.


Model railway gauge

Railway gauge is the distance between rails

Let’s start with gauge – it tends to throw a feel people, but it’s real simple really: it’s the distance between the rails. That’s it.

The gauges most modellers use are O, OO, HO and N.

OO is most popular. In fact in a survey I did on weekly newsletter readers, a whopping 68% were OO. But is doesn’t matter what gauge you use – as long as you’re having fun.

Some find O gauge too big. Others find N too small and fiddly.


Here’s where all the fun starts. Get your track wrong and your whole scene is doomed from the start.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. In real life, the scenery came first, then they build the railroads in to them. But in modelling, too many people work the other way round, and then can’t figure out why it doesn’t look quite right.

Add to that those troublesome bedfellows of tunnels, inclines and wiring and you’ve got a hobby on your hands that could drive you insane.

But help is at hand from the best source available – other modellers! Have a look at the helpful tips page and you’ll see whart I mean. You’ll get all the information you need too.

Station and buildings

You’ve probably heard this tip before. If you want a large station position it on the board when you start laying the track.

Sounds obvious, but I learnt the hardway… (you’ll hear that phrase a lot in the newsletter).

Trains and carriages

One thing that drives me insane is buying some new rolling stock only to discover it doesn’t fit on the station or sidings because they are too long.

And then of course, some locomotives and carriages always struggle around the tighter curves, which will also drive you insane. Sometimes even weighting the locos and trucks won’t work (sign up for the tips if you want an endless list of cunning ways to do so).


We’ve all made this mistake. And anyone who says they haven’t – don’t believe them.

Only place points where you can reach them easily enough, otherwise you’re going to need point motors or a long stick (don’t even try the stick option. Trust me).


Call me old fashioned, but the sidings are where all the fun happens. Ideally place them in the middle of the track where’s the lots of room for uncoupling wagans and ‘unloading’. Makes for great scenery too.


Everyone forgets about roads – but they are what brings a railroad to life. I know some modellers that think I’m mad for thinking that, but: roads along side rails and leading to stations and coal stations all ‘cement’ the scenery somehow. I guess because that’s what happens in real life.

And of course, everyone loves a road rail crossing on their layout. Corners of your layout work well for this as it is usually ‘dead space’.

Now let’s get started…

…with the baseboard for your model railroad.

Some say to start with a track plan, but I’ve always found people build the biggest baseboard they can, in the space they have. Normally your other half will go mad – but don’t worry – that’ll only be temporary 🙂

Once you have your baseboard, then it gives you a number of options with your track plans (have a look at the model railway layouts plans page).

Next…the ballast.

You have to get the ballast right. It’s what makes a great ‘scene’. Don’t buy all the expensive stuff you see in the shops by the way. There’s a million and one ways to get it cheaper – just have a look at the helpful tips page.

And for those thinking, “How can you put the ballast down before the tracks?”, you’ve misunderstood. You need to do a couple of things to the board for layout that runs well and looks good (check out the tips page and you’ll see what I mean).

I use cork under the track, as it gives the ballast more of a ‘shoulder’.

The big thing about gluing the ballast is the points and point motors. One of the great many tips in the my newsletter is soak the points in oil before gluing – a simple way to stop them seizing up.

My favourite part – laying the track

Before you start pinning any track down make sure you’ve the outside or your layout fits on the baseboard. Oh you can laugh. Sounds simple, but the hours I’ve wasted…And that’s even when I’m working from a plan.


Signals add a lot to the realism of a railway. But think were you are going to have to put them – otherwise they are going to have to stay in the position you left them, or get bashed with the stick again… Not good.

The last part before the best part!

Okay, so you’ve got your track down, plugged it in and now it’s time to test.

Make sure your trains don’t derail at the points or any tight curves. It’ s soooooo much easier to fix problems now without basking the scenery you’ve laboured over.

Happy with your layout? Enough track on your siding? Now the my favourite part.

The scenery

Now let’s get one thing straight: you can spend a fortune.

My advice is don’t. Have a look at the helpful tips or sign up for the newsletter and you’ll get more money saving ideas than you can shake a stick at.

One that everyone knows, for example, is using cat litter instead of expensive ballast. And then when you lay it, how do you stop it clumping whem you apply the glue? The tips take care of all this, and the resourcefulness behind you fellow modellers never ceases to please me.

If you sign up for the tips, I can say it will save you a fortune.