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The Ultimate Guide to Model Trains for Beginners

The Ultimate Guide to Model Trains for Beginners

As a young child, you may have dabbled in the arts and crafts that is model trains. Whether it was a Thomas The Tank Engine model or a classic wooden Chad Valley train set. You will have enjoyed the satisfaction of creating a route and watching your own trains take to life, chugging their way around (even if it was with a little push of the hand).

Or, you could have experienced the unique dining excellence of Vytopna in Prague and been fascinated by the hobby. If not, you will need to check it out: it is a restaurant offering diners the opportunity to have their drinks served by railway cargo. And, it’s on a miniature scale. With model trains of railway cars from around the world, you’ll likely find yourself spotting familiar faces and being introduced to new modes of track transport. 

And, with that, you’re looking through the ultimate guide to model trains for beginners. So, here at The Hobby Kraze we’ll be taking you on a journey from how trains work with a brief history all the way to finding out which model train you should buy and how to get an idea for model railway layouts.

Here’s a list of the ground we’ll cover: 

  1. How do Model Trains Work and Are They the Right Choice for Me?
  2. Is There a Glossary in this Ultimate Guide to Model Trains for Beginners? 
  3. What are the Different Types of Model Train?
  4. What is the Most Expensive Model Train Money Can Buy?
  5. Are There Any Model Railway Layouts for Small Spaces and Big Spaces?
  6. Where Can I Find Tools for How to Build a Model Railway and What Will I Need?
  7. How Can I Clean and Maintain my Model Train Set?

Before we choo-choo off into the distance, we have one starting tip for you to get on board with: always plan before you place. Having a model train set can be very addictive and you’ll always find yourself in the mindset of wanting more space, a bigger house and a field to wander into space with. But, it’s important, especially with a beginner’s guide to model railways, that you keep things simple and start on the right track. So, after reading this ultimate guide to model trains for beginners, design a layout and think about your tools before you start adding miscellaneous bits of track to your basket. 

How do Model Trains Work and Are They the Right Choice for Me?

How do Model Trains Work and Are They the Right Choice for Me

Knowing how your model train will operate will be testament to how you decide to conduct your new hobby. 

Most modern trains run using electricity and, while we recommend one of these trains when beginning to learn how to build a model railway, there are some other types on the market, too. Such as; the expensive gas-powered steam trains. However, these are generally a large size G scale (we’ll go over what this means later) and are often referred to as garden trains as they are too big for the general household.

Another option is to find a battery powered train. You’ll likely find these within a children’s toy store as they provide safe-playing options for the younger conductors. But, they also prove to be an inexpensive test to see if you enjoy your new hobby of model railway layouts. 

Going back to the common electrically powered model train, there’s no need to charge or have an armada of batteries stored away. This is because they run using a small DC motor being powered by wires manually soldered (by you) onto the underside of the tracks. These wires run constant electricity through the mains meaning you’ll never have to worry about losing charge. 

And, if you’re still interested after hearing intricacies such as these, then continuing with this ultimate guide to model trains for beginners might just be the option for you.

Is There a Glossary in this Ultimate Guide to Model Trains for Beginners?

Is There a Glossary in this Ultimate Guide to Model Trains for Beginners

Yes, while such a mechanical and specialised hobby, it can be understandable to hear that the beginner’s guide to model railways includes the most common and important terms of the trade. 

In fact, the team here at The Hobby Kraze has got a little A-Z together for you to look at:

  • Scale

The scale of your model train is the size of the train in comparison to its true-to-life locomotive. The names, in order of largest to smallest are; G Scale, O Scale, HO Scale, N Scale and Z Scale. But, we’ll go into more detail about this later.

  • Gauge

Again, a larger topic of conversation later to come, the gauge refers to the ratio itself. Yet, instead of the size of the train, it is the size of the tracks at concern. The size ratio always relates to a foot in the real-life version. For example, in the G Scale train, the gauge is 1.75” to the foot.

  • DCC

Standing for ‘Digital Command and Control’, it refers to how the trains and tools are controlled through the use of digital signals. Either through a computer, mobile device or remote control, the trains and rakes are being operated through a DCC conductor.

  • Accessory Decoder

This is a part or chip on a circuit board that controls and decodes messages from the DCC to become instructions for the model train layout. For example; changing track direction, operating signals and so on.

  • Locomotive Decoder

Much like the accessory decoder, this is a chip located within the train that transforms electrical signals from the command station and DCC into directional instructions and actions. For example; start, stop, accelerate and slow down. 

  • Bus

The bus is the long wire that runs from the controller around the underside of the baseboard. Then, dropper wires connect the bus to the track and the trains. Alongside the electrically productive wire, the bus enables instructions from the controller to run to the locomotive at a more reliable rate. 

  • Solenoid

The solenoid converts the electrical charge to become instructions and mechanical movements. It does this by using magnets powered by electricity to start the clamping and turning motions of the wheels that control movement. They can also be used as single-point motors.

  • Volt, Watt and Amp

The amp is a unit that measures electrical current. The volt is a unit that measures electrical pressure. The watt is a unit that measures electrical production. A watt can be calculated by multiplying the number of volts by the number of amps. They all work together to help you understand the electrical charge of your model train. 

  • Backscene

This is a painted or pictured scene enlarged and attached to the backboard of your model railway layouts. They are used to extend the scene and create the impression of depth throughout your beginner’s guide to model railways.

  • Scenery

This is your artful background coming out to aid the viewer in looking at a model trainset in all its glory. Without adding in the train stations, greenery, mountains, animals, lights, people, roads, fences, flowers, trees and all the other aspects of real-life training, it will be hard to appreciate the full finished piece.

  • Fiddle Yard

This is the name given to an area of track that is hidden from standard view. This space allows for fiddling and re-manoeuvring of the train such as in being placed in storage or turned around.

  • Kit Bashed

This is a phrase that is used by model train enthusiasts to describe a train set that has been artfully planted together using models, trains and accessories from a miss-mash of kits bought from stores. Sometimes that can be seen as positive and other times it can be a negative phrase due to its lack of true-to-life setting.

  • Scratch-Built

Again, while it can sometimes be a compliment, be careful when hearing this phrase as it indicates that your model railway layouts have been constructed manually using hand-made components.

  • Weathering

Weathering refers to a type of painting that is done to the accessories and model trains to provide depth. This detailing can make the model train look old and therefore more realistic to your model railway layouts.

  • Bogie

The bogie is a very important part to your car, locomotive, train and coach. This is because it is a specific structure that holds the wheels and the axis to carry the wagon. Using bolster springs for suspension, brake beams for speed reduction and bearings for attaching to the train car, it can’t be missed.

  • Double Heading

This is a phrase given to the use of two or more locomotives at the front of a rake. Doing this can provide more haulage power and strength to carry a larger load.

  • DMU and EMU

Standing for Diesel Multiple Unit and Electrical Multiple Unit, respectively, they refer to the common inner-city trains and trams that have a cab at either end of the train to allow the train to be driven in either direction.

  • Flange

The flanges are segments on the wheels that helps to keep them on the track and prevent derailing. They are projections and lips that essentially ‘hug’ the track.

  • Rake

This is a name given to the construction of a long train inclusive of cab, coach, locomotive, cargo hold and more. Together they form a rake. So, instead of calling your finished pattern of cars a train, you would call the connectivity the rake.

  • Tank Engine

Instead of simply being used in the name of Thomas the Tank Engine, it is actually just the name for a steam engine locomotive that also carries its own fuel and water. In fact, the water is held on either side of the boiler to help cool.

  • Aspect

Looking at the railway and track, itself, the aspect is the pattern of signals on your model railway layouts. In the beginner’s guide to model railways you should incorporate common signals that would be seen in your scene. For example, in the UK, there’s the green, double yellow, single yellow and red signals that should be present in your aspect.

  • Ballast

The ballast is the name given to the crushed rocks that form the trackbed under which the railway sleepers sit. The railway sleepers are the wooden spacers used to keep the track in place.

  • Buffer

If you’ve ever seen a large white and red post at the end of a track, this is the buffer. It is often a horizontal bar posted at the end of a track with a light or reflective indicator at the top. This specifies a train conductor needs to stop. They are also at the end of each platform at a train station.

  • Cutting

This is a route that is cut through a terrain to allow a train to pass through without having to travel uphill, downhill or horizontally. In terraforming the landscape, railways and companies can reduce their energy output and use of fuels. These can also add great scenery to your model railway layouts.

  • Viaduct

While they may commonly hold organic stores in a 2020 world, a viaduct is actually a construction that can keep the railway and track above ground. These are commonly used throughout towns and cities to reduce the need for traffic. It can also help prevent the train travel up down and across like a cutting in a hill.

  • Y Point

A final term in the ultimate guide to model trains for beginners is the y point. This point is much like a road’s T-junction but for trains. A track can excerpt into two directions, showing a ‘Y’. The train will then travel in the direction it needs.

What are the Different Types of Model Train?

What are the Different Types of Model Train

There are far too many trains set out on the market to choose from. And, it would be difficult for the team here at The Hobby Kraze to go through every single one. However, what we can do, is tell you how some of the model trains are categorised to help you narrow down your search. From finding the right fit to learning which brand is in your budget from this beginner’s guide to model railways. 

To start with, let’s think about size. If you have the range to have a train running through your house and into your garden, then do it. But, if you’re the type of person who has been pre-allocated a particular space in the house by the pants-wearer, then it’s best you start small-scale and work your way into the bigger routes. 

The G Scale, as mentioned is the biggest model train usually found on the market. It has a scale of 1 to 22.5. Meaning the model train is 22.5 times smaller than the original construction. As well as this, it has a track gauge of 1.75” to the foot. So, this train is best for the garden routes to make your neighbours watch in awe. 

The O Scale is 48 times smaller than the original train and has a gauge of 1.25” to the foot. This size is one of the most common sizes alongside the OO, HO and N scales. These scales have a ratio of 76 to 1, 87 to 1 and 160 to 1 as well as a gauge of 0.65” to the foot, 0.625” to the foot and 0.365” to the foot, respectively. 

Finally, you have the Z Scale. As the smallest of the model train sets, it can be the best tool for learning how to build a model railway. While it can be more difficult to paint, when you by a pre-decorated kit, it is the perfect size to try out your new-found hobby. With an aspect ratio of 1 to 220, it is 220 times smaller than the true-to-life locomotive and a gauge of 0.25” to a foot, it’s likely to take up an entire room in your house. 

Now we’ve covered size, let’s have a think about the brand of train you could go for. Here’s a list of the most popular brands in the UK:

  • Hornby
  • Oxford Diecast
  • Oxford Rail
  • Rivarossi
  • Märklin
  • Trix Minitrix
  • Lima Expert
  • Kato
  • Kadee
  • Jouef
  • Hobby Train
  • Heljan
  • Faller
  • GM
  • Electrotren
  • Arnold
  • Atlas
  • Efe
  • Dapol
  • Piko
  • Herpa
  • Roco
  • Wiking
  • Fleischmann
  • Kato
  • Noch

With the most popular of the bunch being the well-known Hornby set, going for a popular name in the model railway layouts can allow you to have access to the biggest of sets, accessories and tools to expand your hobby into every room of your house (except the bathroom). 

Other than this, your choices are through the power aspects. As we’ve mentioned, these model trains can be electrically run through mains or battery power or they could run through good old-fashioned fuel. However, the latter will cost you an arm and a leg. And, whether you choose to go for a battery powered engine or an electronic chugger is a decision you’ll need to make for yourself with this beginner’s guide to model railways. 

In this ultimate guide to model trains for beginners, it’s our job to relay the usual hobbies which, in the case of model trains, would include the use of electric wires being soldered onto the track. However, as a beginner in the field of model railway layouts, it can be smart to buy a cheaper battery-powered train before putting the investment into a larger and more expensive track. 

What is the Most Expensive Model Train Money Can Buy?

What is the Most Expensive Model Train Money Can Buy

if you’re on the market for finding the most expensive model train set money can buy (or, hoping to work your way up) then you should look towards the Lionel Standard Gauge Set.

The Lionel Standard Gauge Set originates from 1934. This particular train set has had individual cars sold at auction for $250,000 USD a piece. The reason it has been able to fetch a high value is due to the mint-in-the-box condition with 400E Engine and State passenger Cars. As well as this, Lionel only produced a small number of this particular set, making it a rarity to collectors around the world. 

The most expensive model railway layouts ever built goes to a famous landmark in Germany named Miniatur Wunderland. This railway set has been valued at $12.2-million USD and covers a large route of 8.08 miles. It also has over 14 thousand wagons and more than 1000 trains running on the track.

Are There Any Model Railway Layouts for Small Spaces and Big Spaces?

Are There Any Model Railway Layouts for Small Spaces and Big Spaces

Whether you’re building a model train set on your living room table or taking over the entire attic, there are model railway layouts for you. From simple loops to incorporating main-lines and train stations, The Hobby Kraze has the route for you in this beginner’s guide to model railways. 

The first model railway layouts you should be thinking about are the simple loop and re-loop routes that allow you to get used to the way your model train runs. When you’re ready, you can create a Y Point with a buffer to indicate other tracks and turning points. 

Again, to progress onto the next stage, simply continue to add more complex turnouts for an interesting train loop that can hold more locomotives. But, again less is more in the realm of modern trains and before you head into the Miniatur Wunderland competitive streak, you should always make sure your model train railways have a sense of harmony and minimal maintenance. 

Don’t forget, this is a hobby and should not stress you out. Move at a slow pace to allow yourself the enjoyment of watching it grow. 

After a year or two and some experience experimenting with indoor and garden modern railway layouts, you can allow yourself the pleasure of an indoor-outdoor track. There is a little-known house on a hill in Switzerland. This house is on a small hiking route in the German quarter and features a steam train railway heading in and out of the house for hikers and tourists to see. Maybe, using this ultimate guide to model trains for beginners, you could work your way into becoming a similar tourist attraction in the UK. 

Where Can I Find Tools for How to Build a Model Railway and What Will I Need?

Where Can I Find Tools for How to Build a Model Railway and What Will I Need

Before you can begin to head out on the search for your new model train, you’ll need to understand what you’re looking for and how that will tell you which tools you will need to begin a new adventure. 

The first thing to think about would the aspect you find most appealing throughout this ultimate guide to model trains for beginners. For example; creating the scenery, collecting the trains, delving into your artistic nature, relaxing through watching, spending money on rare items, restoration of vintage models, re-creating a true-to-life train station, enjoying family-creation time, and so on. 

Within each of these aspects to the hobby of how to build a railway will have their own tool and equipment requirements. For example; those looking to expand on their scenery artwork will need far more accessories, moss and other artwork supplies. On the other hand, someone looking to enjoy model train building with their children will likely only need a model train kit which can be purchased from their local hobby store. 

Either way, the team here at The Hobby Kraze has gathered together a non-exhaustive list of tools and equipment you might need for your model train adventures:

  • Modelling Lights
  • Screwdrivers
  • Knives
  • Cutting Boards
  • Chisel
  • Sanding Equipment
  • Tweezers
  • Rulers
  • Clamps
  • Callipers
  • Loupes and Magnifier
  • Soldering Equipment
  • Visor
  • Face Mask
  • Paint Brushes
  • Acrylic Pain
  • Epoxy Resin
  • Rocks and Stones
  • Model Train Kit
  • Extra Cars
  • Model People
  • Airbrush
  • Oil and Lubricant
  • Copper Wire
  • Electrical Outlet
  • Remote Control
  • Microfibre Cloth
  • Varnish
  • Multimeter
  • Drill and Drill Bits
  • Glue Gun

In terms of knowing which location to look, there are many avenues that will allow you to be flexible on price. As an increasingly popular hobby among men and women of all ages across the UK, getting your hands on your beginner’s set to the model railway hobby couldn’t be easier. Try out some of these locations for new and used trains, tracks, cars accessories, scenery and acrylic:

  • RMS Railway Model Store
  • Hornby
  • Lionel’s
  • Hobbycraft
  • John Lewis
  • Your Local Car Boot Sale
  • Auction Houses
  • EBay
  • Hattons
  • Model Railways Direct
  • Wonderland Models
  • The Loco Shed

How Can I Clean and Maintain my Model Train Set?

How Can I Clean and Maintain my Model Train Set

As with any hobby out there, there is a level of maintenance that must happen every so often to make sure everything is chugging along as smoothly as it did when first purchased. And, while it may not seem like the most fun time of the day, cleaning your model tarin set can help you with how to build a model railway while adjusting and perfecting it through time. 

As well as this, the quiet nature of model train maintenance can offer calming relaxation, improved accuracy, reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and perfected hand-eye co-ordination.

So, let’s consider the ways in which you’ll need to maintain your locomotives and railways:

1. Keep your Model Train Off the Ground

The first thing to do can be considered as pre-emptive care for your model railway layouts. Not only will you be saving your back, you’ll also save your model railway layouts from gathering unwanted pet hairs, sticky children’s fingers or catching accidental toes through the night. Keeping your model train off the ground will help you maintain a clean and structured railway for longer. 

2. Take a Dampened Cloth to your Wheels

Your wheels will become the dirtiest part to your model train set. Dust that has settled, oil that leaks and congeals and other dirt can all get picked up and dragged along by the wheels. However. While they are intricate and dirty, they can be very easy to clean. Using a microfibre cloth, wipe the wheels to remove loose dirt. Then, dampen another cloth with some isopropyl alcohol and lay it over a section of track. Then, while holding your track, run it manually over the cloth and it will pick up all dirt so you’re ready to set off.

3. Keep an Eye Out for Gunk on the Tracks

As they are the most static part (along with the scenery) of your model railway layouts, they will be the first to gather dust, hair and other bits of grime that could jeopardise your trains. Many people in the beginner’s guide to model railways will suggest taking a soft-bristled toothbrush to the tracks to make sure the settled dust does not find a home in the crevices of your cracks. You can also use some tweezers for more stubborn grime. 

4. Oil Your Cabs Every 100 Hours of Run Time

As Hornby is the most popular provider of model trains in the UK, we will always respect their advice, especially when it relates to their own products. Hornby has advised that model train enthusiasts, collectors and builders apply oil and lubrication to all moving parts in lieu of maintaining smooth running. And, while every 100 hours of running time is recommended, if your train is starting to make some unheard-of whiz-screech-bang noises, then you can lubricate at your leisure. Just take the oil to the wheels and gears until the strange noises stop and you’re good to go.

5.  Keep Knowledge of How to Build a Model Railway Simple

As this is the ultimate guide to model trains for beginners, it’s important that you don’t go overboard with your model railway layouts. This is because, as a beginner to this fun and fascinating hobby, it can take a while to get to grips with the maintenance required for your particular train and set. And, if there is too much to handle at once, your model railway system could fall into disrepair.

6. Make Sure You Do a Voltage Drop So You Don’t See a Surge in Power

Completing a voltage drop means allowing your mains to have a break while sorting out your wiring. If, for example, you have an extender running multiple cables, you’ll need to separate and reduce these cables every now and again to give your power some TLC. Not doing this could result in unwanted surges to leave you without electric in your home and a broken model train.

A final tip from the conductors here at The Hobby Kraze is to read-up as much as you can. There are plenty of books such as the Kalmbach Range who publish various how-to’s on every aspect of how to build a model railway. This includes; electrics, voltage, stem-power, fuel, space, layouts, track plans, model railway layouts, scenery flooding, track laying, wiring, benchwork and angles.


And, that is the end of the line for this chug-along ultimate guide to model trains for beginners. You’ll have to share your model train creation and adventure with the team here at The Hobby Kraze through our social media channels. 

While you’re here, don’t forget to have a read about all the other fun indoor hobbies we have from our fantastic team. From the green world of hydroponics to the cosy club of knitting, try our hobbies and find the new zest in your life!

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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

A bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.

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