Model railway layout tips

“Hello Alastair,

After spending six decades in this hobby, I’d have to say my best tip is to think small.

Gargantuan layouts are fantastic, but for many of us they are impractical, if not overwhelming.

I’ve achieved my best results with the good old 4 X 8. When I tire of one, I simply dismantle it and build another.

Of course there are compromises due to the smallness, but it’s easier to wire, scenic, and operate the completed layout.

Admittedly, no layout is ever truly finished, but it is easier to gain a sense of completion (success, if you will) with the smaller pikes.

I’ll leave the huge layouts to the masters. I certainly enjoy seeing them, but I have to accept my own limitations as far as skill, energy, and finances. I also need to be aware of my wife’s interests.

Not really a technical skill, but it might encourage a few folks who are just beginning, or even simply needing to downsize.

Thanks for the opportunity to spout off.


“Alastair – When laying track ballast (relatively large stones) for “0” gauge track, wet the stones in salt water first and apply them wet. After the ballast has dried, the salt binds the stones to keep them from straying and adds to their appearance.


“Hi Al,

Here is a tip for you, I admit I got this one second hand.

If you need to remove track that has been glued down to the roadbed, and ballasted.

First pour hot water on the track, this dissolves the glue and loosens the track.

Leave it for a while, then start dismantling the track.

This works well for track renewal or replacement, also if you want to be Doctor Beeching and close a branch line.



I like to keep my train’s and car’s serviced, cleaned, and oiled about every 4 week’s. Even if I have not run them, and I have very few problem’s over the years.

It also give’s me a break from, my busy life & buisness. It is very relaxing, as well as good for the equipment. I don’t have much of a layout, but love to hear the trains run on the track, and change them up quite often, and just so they don’t get a lot of wear. Busy work I guess.

Love your book’s and information. When I retire, (soon), I plan to use some of your idea’s for a big layout, to keep me busy.

Thank you for all the information you share.


“My best tip, or advice, is to pay close attention to the prototype that you are modeling.

If you are free-lancing, then pay attention to the prototype of a railroad that resembles what you are trying to do. Study. Take photographs. Compare your trackwork and scenery to the real thing.

If you do these things, you will be able to create a more realistic model railroad, assuming that’s your goal. It’s certainly mine.


“One way to make realistic wood piles is to use old wine corks sliced vertically into wedges


“hi allistair

here are some of my latest developments to my oo gauge layout my layout is made up with three stations and up and over .we then added a container base to it .also stead loco depot with turntable I will forward you some pictures of it along with the diesel repair shed

hope they are of interest


A big thanks to John – look at all the comments below!

That’s all for today folks, please do keep ’em coming.

And if creating your own model railroad is an itch you just have to scratch, the the Beginner’s Guide is here.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

57 Responses to Model railway layout tips

  1. paul starr says:

    Very useful tips about removal of ballasted track.It will save lots of money in the future.

  2. Alan says:

    Hi Can you please teel me where you bought the Stobbart loco and truck please



  3. nitya says:

    It has always been a kind of a nagging feeling that 8 x 4 is too small,thanks to you Ray i feel good and of course i agree with you that in the long run smaller is better even for cleaning or maintanance.I’ve started on 7 x 4 (thats how much space i could spare) will be posting soon.thanks to you Al for all the mails,it always brings cheers to me from all the modellers…

  4. Tom says:

    Thanks for all the great tips … thanks for ebay cheat sheet … thanks to everyone contributing.

    Al I like what you said about going smaller. I am building a 3′ X 6′ N scale railroad. The planning the purchasing(almost done) the building next. I will send some pictures when I get started.

    best regards,

    Keep on training!

    Tom N

  5. Does Roger not know that SALT is very corrosive! It is best kept well away from electrics etc. It also attracts moisture, = rust.

    Cheers, Geoff

  6. Some good tips there Al, and nice pictures , like to just add about lifting track . I just spray with PVA mix leave for 15 minutes , then find it lifts easily , done that a few times

  7. Chris says:

    like the latest tips, please keep them coming

  8. Robert says:

    Some good tips and food for thought.

  9. Robert G. Hurd says:

    al: i feel the samy as Ray about size. stay in your class and make it better like every i would love to beable to make a veey large layout but if can`t fimish it what good is it, oh i like to see them and wish i could have one like it knowing i can`t thanks bh

  10. Phil says:

    Hi Al,
    I have to agree with Ray, after having a 20 x 15 foot layout in the roof we then shifted house. Had fun and games stripping it down and i don’t think i ever totally completed it. I’m now down to an 8 x 4 and loving it and almost FULLY completed it.
    Love your tips and info that come through as i’m only an amature.


  11. Jim says:

    Love looking at all the different set ups and tips. Would love to get started again with a new layout, but money ! money! . I used to have a ‘N’ guage layout in a shed, 18 foot by 10 foot, with a mountain across the far end and inm the middle of this I had a viaduct (at eye level). There was sixty foot of track behind the hill out of sight of the front so it took quite a while for trains to re-appear, which gave more reality to the whole thing.
    Made one very bad mistake, though at the time there was no warning. I made all opf my scenery using newspaper and flour paste over wire, whivh gave me great options for hills, etc., and looked good when painted with poster paints, had trees houses and all the other bits and pieces put on.
    Disaster reared it’s ugly head when I bought a dairy farm and moved the layout to a new shed on the farm.
    No problem moving it, I had allowed for this possability when I laid it out. No, what i never thought of was a plague of hungry rats on the farm, that cleaned every bit of scenery off my layout within a week.
    Having stored the whole thing in the shed till I had time to get going again, I did not have time (new farm takes every minute to get going), the damage was not noticed until too late. What a disaster!!!! Finished up selling the l;ot to another rail mad person.
    By the way, loved working with n guage for the more realistic look.

  12. Paul j Long says:

    A beautifull layout,thank you for some tips and ideas

  13. Pat Taylor says:

    In my forty one years as a professional photographer I have been asked to photography many outstanding layouts, some which have consumed entire basements. Layouts which have taken years to build and decorate and then had to be destroyed because they needed to be moved. Heartbreaking.
    In preparing for a new layout in a home we just purchased, I plan on using the sectional method of construction with no section longer than eight feet or wider than thirty inches. That way, if I have to move in the future, the layout can be disassembled with minimal structural or scenery damaged.
    The basement in the new home is thirty one feet wide and fifty seven feet long with ten foot ceilings, is totally unfinished, dry and has a double door outside entrance. A tremendous blank canvas.

  14. Austin Wilson says:

    Great advice and tips from many, thanks for sharing and Al, thanks for posting them. Love reading others stories on railroading and getting hints. Austin Wilson.

  15. THOMAS says:


  16. Dingo says:

    It’s funny that you mention about closing a line here in South Australia my home state in Australia that’s exactly what the Government has done closed the entire metro rail system so it can be electrifried ( mistake on purpose)??????? BUT you know wot I mean. These R great tips you have given us thanks.

  17. Ian says:

    great tips and photos thanks.

  18. D.B. Lewis says:

    I love this public service you provide, Alastair!
    I’m currently working on a 3 x 4 layout in N scale (standard gauge), with point to point, circular and reversing track features. It’s designed to be lug-able by one person. I glean your website frequently for ideas, and am grateful to all who leave useful tips: Thank you!

  19. Ken says:

    Love the tips and suggestions heres one my wife said , For bundling wires in small bundles use plastic bag clips like on veggie bags or bread wrapers to tag and bundle wires. recycle them save for future use on other bags but they would be good for siding ,or switch routes . Ken

  20. seth says:

    Salt does not corrode brass silver gold or copper the materials most tracks are made from will not be harmed by salt although it would make a mess and tarnish. the point someone was trying to make was the engines run on those tracks and pick up things from the rails and throw them on the chip boards and motors and gears. i would never pour salt water on anything i own. i know first hand what it does i work in the oil business and the tank trucks we used are made of heavy steel. About every five years they need to be cut up and overhauled because they literally rot away. salt water is no friend to any type of mechanical or electronic device. very bad tip.

  21. Jeff McNeal says:

    Love it, love it, love it.

  22. Charles says:

    I too chose to have a small layout because of lack of space. I am 66 yrs, old
    and about to finish a ~5 x ~6, layout, I was able to have three tracks and three trains running at the same time, very nicely landscaped and very managble. Being retired and on a tight buget I really enjoy working on my layout as it makes the days fly bye.Ironically, the legs I have on my small table are the same wrought iron legs that I had on my first train table when I was 6 yes old.
    What a wonderful hobby.. Have what you can manage, the reason is to have fun,
    and enjoy……Good luck, Charles….North Carolina

  23. Terry Dancy says:

    I agree with the Keep it within your own parameters, one smallish panoramic diorama, can offer loads of operating potential. Mind you if I had a warehouse I would still endeavour to fill it… hahaha Keep this stuff coming…. Nice one Alistair

  24. Tom says:

    I have been buying N Scale items for four decades. My last layout was built into a modified mahogany office desk table thirty years ago. I have now constructed a 4×8 platform, installed mostly flex track and currently working through fine tuning the soldered rail joints, etc. I have based my layout on a section of my hometown area which had three railroads systems I could observe as a young boy sitting on a bluff near a river. I can run three trains on three routes or one train operating over the three routes linked together. If interested, I will send progress photos. Have appreciated, Al, the great service you provide and I thank your followers for many useful tips and suggestions. Tom

  25. Roy Tibbles says:

    Alan I saw 3 Eddie Stobart Lorrys for sale £ 4 each, this was at Thornbury leisure centre, Bristol last week end at the model railway show. You might see these at these shows. Best of luck. Where you saw these lorries in the photo, I like to know how how these Eddie Stobart lorries get over the bridge in the photo ? Roy

  26. Bumper says:

    Roger thank you for the information concerning ballast on the “0 “, glade to hear there is 0 garage person in the hobby.


  27. Roger says:

    Hi Al.
    Salt will corrode non ferrous metals. You should see what sea water does to boats electrics. I had a boat at Whitby, North Yorkshire for 25 years and repairing wiring was a constant problem. Without sacrificial anodes ships propellers De zincify and turn to white powder. Roger

  28. tom in az says:

    Thanks so much Ray you are so right. I have learned this myself the hard way.
    do whats good for you, your money, and your space………and of coarse your wife. Just enjoy what you have. Tom in Payson AZ.

  29. Stephen Shustermaan says:

    What is PVA? I am planning on revising my 4 x 8 layout and need to lift track glued to a layer of foam insulation. The 4 x 8 works but is tight for HO. Many thanks for all the tips.

  30. Danny Marso says:

    I strongly agree with Ray , I have had two layouts dating back to the 70’s,4×8
    Because I don’t have more room. I have been away from the hobby, now retired,I want to get back, I still have my old bench work,and have joined a club. But I got
    Very satisfied with my 4×8 bench, but I do dream about a larger layout, if I had a
    Warehouse, I too would try to fill it,but that’s not happening. I had an old DC
    Layout,where the whole track is powered, and plastic insulators to create blocks,
    So Icould run two trains, plenty for me. Also having worked in the telecommunications and networking industry for 45 years, I know salt has no place anywhere near electronics, you are asking for trouble,as Salt is highly
    Corrosive,keep the Salt AWAY! Otherwise some great tips,thank you.

    Danny, Rhode Island,D&WRR

  31. David R. Shaw says:

    Just a question. What is the difference between “N” gauge, HO gauge? I have all HO gauge and an old old Lionel (1940) in its’ standard gauge (whatever that is) Thanx

  32. joseph Kleinerman says:

    My day is not complete until I read and review your priceless Model Railroad layout tips and Helpful information. I look forward to your next Email Layout tip.

  33. Albert Luppo says:

    Your tips and How-To-Do articles have been very helpful. Most people do not understand the motive Model Railroaders have when it comes to realism in their displays. Age is thrown on the side when ones imagination is in play. One can imagine being in the Motorman’s Seat when operating his/hers display. Nothing can win over ones imagination. Please keep these ideas coming, and lets enjoy our fantasies together.

  34. Joe Cavilla says:

    Very enjoyable read and good tips. Thanks for posting.

  35. Ernest says:

    remove ballast- simply spray with the soap/water mix used to get the glue to flow in between your ballast material. It softens up and can then be removed. I was actually able to reuse the ballast.

  36. Robert LaGoe, Freelancing the New York Ontario and Western says:

    Another very easy and effective way to remove track and existing ballast is to spray the track with isopropyl alcohol, bought at walmart, cheaply. After a few seconds the alcohol dissolves the glue, the track can be removed and the old ballast scrapes up very easily, with the alcohol evaporating.

  37. Robert Shuman says:

    As always great tips from everybody! Sometimes more than my small mind can handle! And thanks to you too AL for keeping this altogether. Here’s a thought about layout size and portability. There is a book about shelf system layouts. I purchased to book for when we move. And knowing my wife, we’ll move again and again. She says it’s easier to move than to clean. ?

  38. John Renard says:

    Someone asked above, ‘What is PVA?’ PVA stands for PolyVinyl Acetate, but don’t let that worry you! Just accept that it’s one of the most commonly used glues when making rail layouts or other models (wargames etc). In the USA, I believe it’s known as Elmer’s Glue. Marvellous stuff, use it neat or dissolved in water. It looks white when applied but dries clear. It’s cheap and easily obtainable at craft shops, DIY stores etc. I find it hard to believe that any modeller can do without it!

  39. Timothy Barr says:

    Has any body ever ran a n gage on a ho gage layout Thinking about putting one down for an inter city run

  40. Timothy Barr says:

    Any body put a n gage train on a ho gage layout? Thinking about running an n gage as a inter city train way

  41. Robert Rolfe says:

    What ever you choose to use to take up blasted track, DO NOT USE ANY TYPE OF SALT SOLUTION –Bad things will happen, I have been in the trades for 40+ years, trust me. Hot water, to me is your best friend.
    NV Bob

  42. C RS says:

    Great ideas. But what is PVA ?
    Thanks again for the tips.

  43. Peter Martin says:

    What is PVA? Googie is your answer ! Poly(vinyl) acetate. Elmers gluein the us.

  44. Brad says:

    If I have the space I would start with a 4 x 8,then simply add more 4×8 layouts.Along the back edge I will add track,so that eventually I can have one LONG loop that goes around all the 4 x8 layouts.I have steamer,s diesels,trolleys and a monorail along with all the various rollling stock from all the eras.The trolleys will be on straight track with auto reverse switches,so it will continually go “through” town.The monorail will go around the room above all this mess.It’s a BIG undertaking,but should be a fun way to experiment with the various tips from here and elsewhere.I am planning a move next fall and will shop for a house where there is room to do all this over time.

  45. Brad says:

    RE-N scale on an HO layout.I was interested in this idea myself.If I can get it(the scenery) to look like the N scale is off in the distance,I will try to do it

  46. Brad says:

    N scale is much smaller than HO scale,which in turn is smaller that standard scale which is slightly smaller than O scale

  47. Jim says:

    OVA aka Elmers is good for almost all applications but I was
    Wondering if there is a good “people” glue. Something that you
    Don’t need a prop to hold them up while it sets
    Thanks Jim

  48. Standard gauge is actually larger than O. Lionel made Standard Gauge in the 30’s and after WWII went to O and O27. The difference between O and O27 is the height of the O rails is higher than O27 and the curves greater than 27″ in O.Loco’s and cars in O27 and O will run on either track. O27 was the cheaper of the two and made to be less expensive for the average buyer. Standard gauge requires it’s own track. S Gauge is smaller than the Lionel line and is usually American Flyer and some other minor manufacturers, Z, N, TT, HO, S, O27, O, Standard and G are the more or less accepted scales in the rotation of size smallest to largest. HOn3 is sometimes quoted which is an O gauge upper structure made to run on HO track. Not real popular. This is in the USA Some Japanese have made trains smaller than Z and are really hard to work with but interesting in that they can be used in really small layouts.

  49. 4ever young farms says:

    Larger is better. I run HO scale. I started with a 10×20 building and outgrew it fast, now I am building a 50×60 foot, maybe that will be enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life. It has its own a/c and heat so it will not have any dust and no windows so I can control the lighting.

  50. Wm althaus says:

    For the question about running n scale on an HO scale layout I saw at a museum years ago a layout that used an n scale layout in the hills at the edge of an ho layout table. Depth was about a foot back from the nearest HO track. This gave a great forced perspective of other trains in the distance. Think it was set up as a dogbone.

  51. Paul Swan says:

    Hi all, I have been a watcher for a very long time.
    John has put up some very good pictures, I get a problem not just here, you click them to make larger but the image is smaller, Is there a way to fix this, I would love to be able to click on a person posted pictures & its size is in my face.

    Swany ( my first ever post )

  52. Many model railroaders may not have discovered how well WD40 dissolves adhesives. I had some difficult to reach adhesive tabs that had a strong hold on the wall at the back wall of my layout. After spraying a couple of time with WD40, they came off very easily using my reaching tools.
    The WD40, which is a great lubricant, does no harm to the track. It would work very well for track removal with no mess, and the Silicon lubricant is easy wiped off.
    I use only alcohol to clean track.
    I use WD40 to lube couplings and wheels. The silicon lube leaves little to wipe off.
    On a different subject, many good locomotives have Delron gears and require no lubrication.

  53. Kaustav says:

    Great set of tips! My favourite is the first one… something that I always try to focus on. Even for my relatively larger layout that is in planning for last couple of years, I will take a sectional/modular approach. Do small, do it will, and then move on to the next one.

  54. George Moffatt says:

    The problem with small 4×8 layouts is that you keep seeing the same train go round and round. But I once saw a picture where a 5×9 HO layout was divided into four sections with view blocks. Yes, the trains still could go round and round, but he avoided the obvious by having a crossover X connecting the four sections to reverse the train routes. Better yet, the modeler created a different scene in each subsection–a city, a freight yard, an industrial park, and I think a passenger depot. Better yet, he also had a short trolley line, an elevated N scale oval that passed through the rear of all four blocks.

    Compact? You bet! Eye-catching? Absolutely!

  55. Andre Gregoire says:

    Ray, your quite correct, small is beautiful, building a HO 4×6 layout now that we have dowsized to a small condo.
    Rev. Andy

  56. William Orton says:

    Thanks for the awesome tips. I really like John’s passenger platform. Maybe he’ll tell us what the top is made from.

  57. william janmes palmer says:

    awesome collection of tips easy to pick and choose which work for you

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