Model Trains Beginner Guide – Ultimate Guide To Starting Your First Model Trains Hobby

ultimate guide starting model trains hobby

Since I was a kid, model trains stuff has always been something that grabbed my attention. I would marvel at the trains in the stores, and when we would travel as a family, we would always stop at toy train museums across the country. I had a train set as a child, but real models were never something that I started collecting until I was much older. I grew to appreciate the models of trains that I could purchase as well as the accessories to help the models look more realistic.

This guide is designed to help you learn more about all of the model trains stuff that helps make a small collection into a passionate hobby. We will look at model trains companies, the scales that are available, and the accessories that you may be interested in, but before we begin, let’s explore some of the histories of model trains.

A Bit of Model Train History

The first model trains date back to the 1860s when they were first crafted in Europe. During this time period, most trains were crafted out of metal, though sometimes wood was used, and they were powered by steam, just like a real locomotive would have been.

In 1891, the first wind up trains started being manufactured, and the concept behind them is the same concept that drives electric trains to this day. About a decade later, the first electric train was created. In 1901, Lionel Toy Company created electric model trains to be used in the window display of their store, but their customers seemed to be more enthused with the toy train in the window than the rest of their merchandise, and the electric model trains were born.

During that time, many homes did not have electricity yet, so having electric trains in the home was not a common occurrence. It wasn’t until the 1920s that these model trains became popular in the states for adult enthusiasts. Then, after World War II, the model and toy train industry really began to take off in this country.

As time progressed, the accuracy of the train models that were being created became more and more accurate and the sizes of the locomotives became smaller as well to accommodate a smaller living space for the average person. During the 1980s, the trains started being operated by a digital control system, and they even started making realistic train sounds as they traveled along the track.

Model Trains Companies

Over the years, there have been more than a few model trains companies, but not all of them make the best quality trains on the market. I have been scouring the train market for years to add the most accurate models to my collection, and there are four companies that I find always produce quality models.


The originator of the model trains, this company peaked during the popularity of trains during the 1950s. In fact, during that period of time, it was not uncommon for the company to rake in $25 million on trains alone. The Lionel train was actually the first electric train to be inducted into the National Toy Hall of fame. To this day, they are still one of the most well-known manufacturers when it comes to train models.


This is also one of the largest model trains manufacturers. It is a brand that specializes in high-quality trains that come in a number of sizes, both large and small. In addition, they also have train sets that incorporate villages into the layout of the track.


Mike’s Train House is an American train toy company that originated in Columbia, Maryland. The company continues to be one of the tops in the nation because of the broad line of products that it offers.


Lehmann Gross Bahn is actually a company that originated in Germany in 1968. If you are looking for a garden railway model, then this is the brand that you will most likely consider before you look into other options.

Model Trains Scales

The biggest decision that you need to make is the scale of the train that you will be purchasing. To decide this, you will need to think about the main reason that you are starting a train collection. Do you want something that is going to sit around in your basement to be on display for your guests to see, or are you looking for something with a more complicated switch that you will have running constantly?

Remember, having a larger track is not always the most optimal option for your living space, so when you consider the size of the model, you may need to consider the space that you have available to you as well. Don’t forget that your budget will also play a factor in the scale of the train that you can afford.

Here are the different scales that you may be interested in:

O Scale

Since 1932, when the Great Depression removed the need for large scale train models, the O scale became the standard in the model trains industry. Today, these large train models are perfect for realistically detailed designs, which has helped them regain the popularity that they once had. If you do not have a lot of space in your home, this scale may still be too large for what you have envisioned.

HO Scale

This scale of the train is the most popular one in the world. It is half of the size of the O model, and it was created to help trains fit into the smaller homes for the average American after World War II. It is the perfect scale if you want to balance between the detail on the train and the amount of space that you have in your home. In addition, this is the scale to consider if you want a track with a lot of accessories.

N Scale

This is a very small model trains; in fact, it is about one-half of the size of the HO model, but it is not the smallest option on the market. The N scale has rails that are all spaced nine millimeters across, which means that the track is smaller, making it easier to set in a smaller space. Since this is a smaller model, accessories that are built to scale are more difficult to find.

Z Scale

This scale is amongst one of the smallest on the market today. Since they are designed at such a small ratio, it is simple to create layouts that are inside of briefcases, guitar cases, and other small areas where there is not a lot of extra space. Since the trains are so small, the track must be kept immaculate to make sure that it can run properly. Even a small amount of dust can cause the train to derail.

Model Trains Accessories

When you are looking for train accessories, you want to find items that will make your display seem more realistic. This could be features that make your background look more realistic, or it could be something that enhances the train itself. Some of the accessories that I look for when I am attempting to enhance my train set are:

Sound Enhancers

I know that this is not the first accessory that you are going to consider, but if you want something that is as realistic as possible, then you need to be able to hear the sound of the steam engine coming from the train. You will want to hear the sounds of the train traveling across a bridge and the sound of the horn as well.

Lighting, Signals, and Signs

You are going to want the signs and signals where the railways come in contact with the roadways to be realistic. To make sure that the realism is not lost, signal signs, stop signs, and crossing gates should be considered. If the train crossing is located in town, perhaps street lights are a good way to make the scene more realistic as well.

Additional Accessories

There are also hills, trees, and farmland that you can consider for your model. You will need to take buildings into consideration as well.

How to Get Started

If you have never built model trains before, chances are that you are going to start with a set. This makes it easier for you to handle all of the different aspects of the model the first time that you create a track. It is not likely to be a complex design, but it will help you learn how to assemble the track, connect all of the wires, and troubleshoot any problems that arise. Your first train is most likely going to be one that you remember with fondness.

Once you are ready to expand on this set, the first thing that you will want to consider is a platform. This makes it so that you do not need to have the track on the floor. It allows you to create more of a realistic scene because having a raised platform gives you more space for your buildings and landscapes. For your first platform, a simple piece of plywood will work well. It gives you an open grid that allows you to build anything that you’d like within the space.

When you create a platform, make it an expandable one, not one that is set in stone. Think about the future. You need something that you can add track to so that you can add switches to reroute the train on occasion. If you started with that simple plywood platform, then you can expand on it easily.

Once you have the train and the platform in order, then you can start looking at building kits that will help to add details to your model trains track. You can get ready-to-go kits, but if you go this path for your first train, make sure that you customize your buildings the next time that you get some because this is a great aspect of the hobby. Once your display, trains, and characters begin to take on a personality of their own, you can create a unique scenic model that your friends will envy.

Once you have the buildings in order, it is time to start thinking about the natural scenery that would surround the train tracks in reality. Flat platforms can be dull, so if you are able to add roads and rivers to the layout, you will have a much more realistic design. In fact, add some mountains to the design if you can to help make it even more realistic.

Things to Consider

Before you go out and purchase your first train, make sure that you are considering a few things. Of course, the manufacturer and the scale of the train are important, but you will also need to look into these things as well to make sure that you get a quality model:

The gauge of the tracks.

If you happen to purchase a rare gauge, then there is a chance that your train could derail.

The type of power that your train will run on.

Most train sets are designed to be plugged into an outlet, but some models do run on battery power.

The wheels need to be able to stay on the track at all times.

So you should consider metal wheels over plastic ones for a better performance.

Final Thoughts

If you are just starting out with this hobby, you will find that it is a lot of fun, especially when you know the ins and the outs of how the train works. Once you get into the details of building a platform, creating a landscape, and adding scenic details, you will begin to expand on the train tracks that you currently have or even create new models with a different track design and background altogether. The most important thing to remember with this hobby is that a track is never finished, so make sure that you always leave it open to an expansion.


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