Model Railroading – What’s the Scoop?
In a nutshell, model railroading can be anything from owning one locomotive as collector piece to a miniaturized metropolis of a modeler’s favorite line complete with every conceivable detail. It is enjoyed by all ages from the very young to the very old. I’m sure everyone has seen the old cliché with Grandpa and Grandson both wearing engineer’s hats playing with Grandpa’s model train. The truth is, Model trains appeal to the most diverse group of people around and it is with good reason. Instead of simply being the sum of plaster, ground foam and wire, a train layout becomes the accumulation of many happy memories enjoyed either in solitary or shared with family and friends. It is the building of these memories which holds its appeal. In fact, many train layouts are never finished. They simply move through different stages of evolution.
How to get started In Model Railroading.
There are many different ways you can get started with your first model railroad and in order to make an informed decision you must first ask yourself “who is this train set for”. If the set is intended for a child then a small inexpensive set is the way to go. A basic set will usually include a locomotive, transformer, a circle of track, several train cars and other accessories. It has everything you need to set up a train that runs. If the train set is going to be for an adult, or someone who is pretty sure they want to continue further in the hobby then buying individual components is the way to go. The reason for this is that individual components, while costing a bit more, tend to be of better quality and will last longer than those in the sets. A realitively new thing on the market is the scenery kits from Woodland Scenics (pictured above). These kits allow you to choose all of the high quality components that you want and still couple them with a good scenery set that you know will turn out good.
What is scale and which should I choose?
Scale, by definition is a ratio that compares sizes of real object to the size of miniature objects. For instance a model may be in 1:160 scale meaning that each unit of measure in the modeled scale is equal to 160 units in real life. (1 inch on the model would equal 160 inches in real life) Thankfully in model railway most of scales have been standardized and named in such a way that they are easy to understand and easy to remember. The explanations below will help you choose which one is best for you.
Z Scale (1:220)
This is a very small scale and is very seldom seen in North America. It is quite expensive and hard to get parts and accessories for. Unless you are very limited on space and have exceptional eyesight, it would be a good idea to choose a larger scale.
N Scale (1:160)
N Scale is quite popular for those who have a small area to build in. You can build quite a good layout in as little as 4 square feet (2’ x 2’). Accessories are widely available and prices are also reasonable. Keep in mind that small children sometimes have trouble getting the trains on the track.
H.O. Scale (1:87)
Many say that H.O. Scale is the best “all around” scale to model in. It has the widest variety of accessories at more reasonable prices compared to all other scales. Most layouts are in the 32 square foot range (4’ x 8’) but it is possible to build them smaller. Because of the larger scale, the locomotives and rolling stock run better due to the easier machining of the wheels and moving parts during manufacture.
O Scale (1:48)
O Scale used to be the most popular before H.O. and there are still quite a few accessories around as well as new ones being manufactured. This scale, while being more than twice the size of H.O. does not require double the space.
G Scale (1:20)
Most people agree that the G stands for garden and that is where this hefty size train is most at home. Surprisingly the locomotives and cars are capable of very tight turns and will set up in quite small quarters considering their size. G scale trains make a wonderful addition to any well managed garden. Some enthusiasts go to such lengths as to manicure their plants to keep them miniaturized so they look better next to the trains.
What type of track?
Depending on the scale there are a few different kinds of track you can purchase. With H.O. and N scale you will find sectional track that presses together, flex track which will bend around odd corners where sectional track will not and, in some of the sets, you’ll find modular track that has a plastic simulated road bed attached. One thing to consider regardless of what type of track you use is what the rail material is made out of. Nickel silver requires the least amount of maintenance, brass blackens very nicely but requires constant cleaning, and steel tends to rust over time and is generally considered to be of “toy” quality. In some scales you do not have much of a choice but most people try to use nickel silver for its low maintenance. They simply paint the sides of the rails to make them look real. Here at the shop we don’t carry any of the brass track (except for “G” scale) because it just does not sell well.
Try to keep your design quite simple. With my first layout I thought that I would pack as much functionality and track into as small a space as possible. After a lot of fiddling and scratching of the head I found out that with all of that track laid down, there wasn’t a lot of space for scenery. Scenery, I found out, was what I enjoyed the most about making a layout. Trouble was, I only found out after my track was laid.
Any reputable hobby shop should be able to give you advice on how to plan and there are also many books available on that subject. Another thing to consider would be to buy a “layout in a box” which will provide not only a usable track plan, but all of the materials to build it and even the scenery to finish it. One nice thing about these kits is that they still leave you to decide which type of track to choose.
Creating A Beautiful landscape
This is what I personally enjoy the most, about model trains, probably because it leaves so much room for distinctiveness. You do have to follow certain procedures, and there are techniques that can save time and make things look more realistic but the scenery stage is where you put in the most individuality.
It is important to start with a good base. Half inch plywood is an excellent choice. Because of it’s rigidity it will stand up well while you are building the layout and will last for years. Think of the scenery base as a good foundation for the rest of the layout.
Risers and Grades
Risers are used so that the track does not sit directly on the scenery base to allow you to contour what is below track level. Remember, you are building in three dimensions so unless you are modeling a prairie scene make sure you leave room below track level. How often in real live have you seen a train run only in the very bottom of a valley? Grades are similar to risers and will allow you to change the height of the track as it goes along to simulate a hill that the train will have to go up or down. Be cautious of using too steep a grade because some locomotives will not be able to pull too many cars plus, it will look funny.
Plaster & Paper, Cardboard or Chicken wire, what should you use? The basic shape of the rough scenery will eventually determine how the layout will look.
Some people, myself included, will make a smaller model of their model just to see exactly how the different contours will look together. You will see immediately if you have a valley that is too tight or a slope too shallow.