How to Build Model Railways: Design & Layout

Building a model railway has long been a hobby reserved for the true tinkerer.

This fun and fascinating hobby takes planning, creativity and a little bit of technical know-how to build up models make them special, and are challenging personal projects as well as fun group activities to do with family and friends.

Model railways range in size and scale from small projects to large ones that stretch several hundred square feet, and many of the area’s keenest enthusiasts will spend years – even decades – designing their models.

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned model railway enthusiast, getting involved is easy and before long you can master the basics and bring your imagination to life on the track.

Designing your railway

Before you can begin purchasing track and building your railroad you’ll need to spend some time thinking about design and track work.

Decide where you plan to build your model railway and what you intend to use it for – for example, if you are building a model railway for your grandchildren, you will want to spend less time on fine details and more time ensuring the construction can withstand playtime.

Your design should take several other important factors into account; make sure stations are well positioned and any tunnels are bridges are wide enough to fit your model train.

Some trains will be too fast or bulky to operate smoothly – or safely – on a tight radius so carefully consider turns on your track.

The early stages are the best time to do your research, and online there’s a wealth of information that can help you out with everything from layout design to the tools you’ll need to get the job done.

As you get started, websites like New Railway Modellers and World’s Greatest Hobby will help you answer any questions you might be having.

Building your baseboard

Once you’ve established the general design you’d like to use you need to build your baseboard.

Remember that the board you use will determine how big and intricate you can make your model, so the bigger the better.

It’s also worth noting that your baseboard will get heavy quickly if you’re building a permanent model.

Many enthusiasts choose an attic space for their models – wherever you decide to build yours, make sure there are plugs so you can power your railway when it’s ready to go.

Once your baseboard is in place you can lay your ballast underlay or scatter – this will help set the scene for your railroad and also make sure it’s safe when your electric train is running.

Understanding trackwork

Your track will be the backbone of your model railway so take some time to really focus on this step.

Most track is made from brass, zinc-coated steel, steel, or nickel – some conduct electricity faster than others but also require more maintenance so ask for advice from your local model shop when choosing.

The two most popular manufacturers of track are PECO and Hornby, and typically model railway enthusiasts stick to a particular brand for ease of assembly.

There are also a number of great resources online to help you as you begin laying your track, like the National Model Railroad Association’s guide to basic trackwork.

Designing the scenery

After you have laid and tested your track the final step is to add the finishing touches on your railway. For many modellers, the technical side of building is the most exciting part – but decorating can still be worthwhile and rewarding.

Get creative and look for ways you can build up landscapes and interesting scenes around the track by adding trees, as well as human and animal figurines for those final finishing touches.

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Rachel - Silversurfers Assistant Editor

Hello there! I’m Rachel and I’m the Assistant Editor for Silversurfers. I work behind the scenes to bring interesting, informative and entertaining subject matter to the Silversurfers community. I hope you enjoy the features we have shared with you. Please feel free to comment below and share your thoughts with us, we love to hear from you!

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7th Feb 2020
Thanks for voting!
I would agree with Frank about the quality of the above article. It lacks any practical advice but I guess it at least gets some surfers talking and giving their own advice. Yes there is a lot of info on the net and in the mags but, for the most part, it is fragmented leaving enquirers more confused than when they started. A lot has changed in model railways, well over more than half a century since I was a kid. Back then it was easy with Hornby train kits & instructions, and the like, but that just won't do for our 'grown up' perspective and experience. Yeh, I'd like to relive some of my youthful hobbies but I also want a challenge at creating and using something to be proud of and I don't want to spend my last days on earth working out HOW to do it and not actually doing it. Questions like, "Should I go DC or DCC, How do I wire-up a track & controller, etc. can be confusing when you really don't know where to start.

Rachel was absolutely correct stating it takes planning but this was understated. Planning, planning and more planning is more like it. But even then it is easy to miss something out when you've never done it before. I reckon the best place to start is to get an overview of the whole project so that you end up being able to 'see the forest from the trees'. There are step by step books available like C.J. Freezer's The Model Railway Manual and Brian Lambert's Newcomer's Guide to Model Railways. The later even gives you 125 railway plans to choose from. If reading books isn't you bag or you just want an extremely helpful, inspiring, quality video to watch, there likely isn't anything matching 'Building a Model Railway' 1&2 (new on Metcalfe Models's site).

Fortunate for me, creating, building & electronics is my background so I take to the latest model railway tech like ducks to water but it's not that way for most. If it were me, I would set a budget and create a small railway/railroad with modest engine, rolling stock, buildings, scenery to start with and then see what I could add to make it more interesting. In other words, walk before I can run.
Sprinter 150
16th Jun 2014
Thanks for voting!
The best way of getting an idea if starting or restarting after a long period is to buy one or two magazines and visit your local model shop if you are lucky enough to have one. Also there are several UK forums online .Just Google Model Railway forums UK .
4th May 2014
Thanks for voting!
Not the greatest of articles but anything that helps to inspire someone to become a model railway enthusiast is welcome. My experience of Clubs has not been a happy one. I am too much of an individualist.
jeff king
16th Jul 2014
Thanks for voting!
Hi Frank,

Sorry to hear that your experience of 'club life' was not for you but I think it fair to say that most clubs are made up of people who are individualistic but the successful clubs can cater for and even welcome such as you and it is amazing how everyone can benefit.

I'm not sure which part of the world you are from but I can certainly recommend the Stafford Railway circle. They aren't JUST a model railway club and have active sections for all aspects of the railway scene.

Jeff King
Michael Smith
27th Apr 2014
Thanks for voting!
Blue Tom
5th Mar 2014
Thanks for voting!
Most track is either steel or nickel silver, the latter containing little if any nickel and no silver.
I'd suggest that whoever wrote the piece isn't into model railways and offers little advice of use to a complete new comer.
Go to exhibitions, the standard of some layouts might seem impossibly high, but the way up a ladder starts on the first rung.
Join a club, there isn't usually just one way of doing something, in a club you'll find folk who have tried different ways. What you will find is advice on the ways not to try. A good club will welcome beginners, if they don't then it isn't the club for you, try another.
John Mac
18th Feb 2014
Thanks for voting!
"some conduct electricity faster than others" ???
19th Feb 2014
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Definitely: the silver electrons in nickel silver are definitely quicker than those in steel.

Gold track would make the engines go even faster but a bit expensive
22nd Feb 2014
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Actually, silver has less resistance than gold and steel. Which I guess is what you mean by saying the electrons travel faster. The advantage of gold of course is that it doesn't corrode the way silver does.

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