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Helpful Tools for Planning Your Perfect Layout

One of the keys to success in creating your perfect layout  –  the one you always dreamed of owning, is knowing exactly what you want… or more importantly, what aspects of the hobby give you the most pleasure.

Is it building magnificently realistic scenery, planning and laying track, or managing realistic train operations? Given the choice; would you prefer more yard switching, or mainline operations? There is no right or wrong answer  –  we all look for different things.

For most layouts you can’t really treat each of the above in isolation. To a certain extent they interrelate, and the emphasis you place on one aspect of your layout will potentially affect what happens to another aspect of your layout.

model railway charts

It is a case of knowing what YOU want, and what YOU enjoy most, and then deciding the “Relative Emphasis” you’ll place on each aspect of your railroad.  After all most of us have limited space available, so prioritizing each aspect of the layout is a necessary part of the hobby.

For example; if you like a lot of trackwork, then you might need to limit the space allocated to scenic features like rolling farmland, or maybe a harbor scene, or mountain range.

Here’s where these two sliding cursor drawings will come in handy to help define and clarify your ideas.

How to Use These Charts to Create a Better Layout

model train chart scenery track operation

Looking at the first drawing (the green one), imagine you could move the cursor to the left or right. Moving the cursor to the left would place more emphasis on having more scenic realism on your layout; and moving the cursor to the right towards the track / operation end will potentially be at the detriment of scenic realism. On your perfect layout, where would you place the imaginary cursor  –  at number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or maybe at number 10?

When you have decided  –  you can add your answer in the Reader Poll #1 in the right hand column to compare your answer with the views of others in the hobby.

model railroad chart - switching mainline operations

Similarly, on the orange drawing, imagine you could move the cursor to the left meaning your ideal layout would include more switching operations; or you could move the cursor to the right indicating you would prefer more mainline running. The imaginary sliding cursor won’t actually move, but it will help you get your operating balance right.

After you have chosen where you would place the orange cursor, you can add your answer to the Reader Poll #2 in the right hand column, and compare the number you chose with what other readers chose.

This is a great exercise to help clarify the mind, and decide which direction you want your layout to take.

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When To Use Magnetic Couplers?

HO fan Andy asks for comments:

“I am installing eastbound and westbound track for building trains in my yard.  I intend too have magnetic uncouplers at each end of the two tracks.  Should I do so and should I have an uncoupler in the middle of the track for the convenience of those building a train?”

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What Do Locomotive Numbers Stand For?

Donald wants advice from readers;

“I’m looking for a new HO Bachmann steam locomotive engine and I ran across engines with these number 2-8-2, 2-8-4 or 2-6-0. Could someone tell me what these numbers mean. Thank you.”

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Will a Loco with Digital Installed Run on Regular Analog DC Track?

NRC asks readers:

“Will a loco with digital installed run on regular analog DC track?”

Add your answer using the COMMENTS link below.

If you have a question you would like to be considered for publication, please send it to the Blog Moderator using the “ASK A QUESTION” link below any post on this blog.

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Choosing the Right DCC Decoder

Vernon seeks advice from readers:

“I have some older HO engines and would like to convert them to DCC. How do I find the right decoder for my engines?”

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What Materials Are Best For Constructing Scale Model Buildings From Downloadable Photo-Realistic Print-out Plans?

I often get asked what type of card to use for making model buildings from downloadable plans, so I have put together the following to illustrate the options.

PLEASE NOTE: I don’t want to confuse, or over-complicate the process by suggesting anything other than card from old cereal packs, or corflute… but I do appreciate that some model railroaders and makers of diorama scenes have their own personal preferences on which materials they use. So, the purpose of this is to simply explain some of the options.

card types for constructing scale model railroad buildings

So, in most cases you don’t need to go out and buy cardboard, unless you really want to. The cardboard from old cereal packs is what most in the hobby use for 3D buildings, and corflute is the material of choice for most who make “low relief” backdrop buildings. That’s the feedback I have had from hundreds (probably thousands) of happy customers.

HO, OO and N Scale go here                           O Scale go here

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Spot The Differences In This Model Train Scene

It’s been a long time since we had a Spot The Difference puzzle. The last series was really popular with readers, so I hope you enjoy the challenge of this latest photo. I counted seven differences – see how many you can find. Enjoy!
spot the difference model trains

You can add your answers by using the COMMENTS link below.

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What Size Should The Curves Be On My Model Railroad?

At 84 years young, Jim is planning his first layout and is hoping readers can give him some advice:

“I am 84 years old and about to start my first ever HO layout and admit to being pretty dumb about model railroads. My available size will be 42 inches by 13 feet with only one long side that is not against the walls. I want two loops. One for a freight train and the other for a passenger train. The outside loop can be the normal 18 inch style but the inside loop can not be that wide but in fact only 15 inch. I know that short rolling stock can easily operate on either size but not passenger models with the long cars. I really wish I had an AM Track passenger train but I hear they only come in long cars. Is there such a thing as short passenger cars that are short enough to operate on the 15 inch long line? I thank anyone who might be able to help me. Thanks.”

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Building a Train Layout Around The Christmas Tree

xmas tree train setErrhe sent in this question for readers:

“Please help me if you can. My wife wants me to build a small Christmas train around our tree. I agreed to do it but with a couple of conditions: I want one that has a circular track around the tree attached to a larger oval where I can build a little village – so I figured I needed a couple of switches.  And I do not want some cheap, noisy, battery powered, train. I want  a train where the track provides the power. This is because when I was little my friend had a train with a missile car the you could stop over a certain place on the track. The first button press opened the top of the rail car and elevated a missile, and then the second press of the button fired the missile. In always thought that was the coolest part of his track.

Anyway I want to start building a model track and village. I want it to be expandable later, and i want it to run on a powered track, not a engine full of batteries. But when I started looking for parts, I realized I really need more information before I start designing and buying pieces.

Almost all the store trains I see, are battery powered and come with a simple circle track. I want to design on am own track layout and use a variable speed control.

My other problem, of course, is my lack of know knowledge regarding scale size. Do I need gauge G, O,  SO or something else? I don’t want to get a scale that is dying out with limited future options. I want to be able to expand on my train in the future.

Yes, I am new to the model train building hobby, but I love working with my hands and I have created many pieces of furniture with beautiful finishes that my wife loves.

If anyone with a passion for trains can help me learn a little, I would be very grateful. It’s more than a simple model, it is a handmade gift to my loving wife and she deserves to best.

Thank you for any knowledge and help you can pass on to me.”

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Sawmill Question

Please asks readers:

“I have recently bought a plastic model HO German model sawmill, Auhagen 12217. I am pleased with this small unit but am unclear as to how the 4 buildings are related. The actual sawing part is quite clear but the sequence for the logs to becoming boards is not. I would appreciate help. Thank you.”

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Power To Trains

Ghi has HO scale and posts this questions for readers:

“I am just starting my model railroading. I made a big loop (20 x 4) . The trains run really well but the further from the transformer they go they start to slow down and when they come closer to the power source they speed up again. Can i put multiple power sources on the same loop from the same transformer?”

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Burlington Northern Locomotive #6318

Burlington Northern Locomotive #6318Joe asks for parts stockists details:

“Help! I purchased several HO cars & locomotives 30 years ago for my son. Now my grandson wants to play with the old set. I’m trying to find (2) 6 wheel trucks for a Burlington Northern #6318 locomotive. I can’t find anything in the internet pertaining to this locomotive. Can anyone help? Thanks.”

If you are able to point Joe in the direction of a supplier that would be great. As this is not a Buy/Sell or Swap forum, the Blog rules do not permit the exchange of personal contact details. This is to protect both the person posting a question and anyone answering a question. Regrettably there are people and software searching the internet for personal contacts.

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Woodland Scenics Risers and Inclines – Thoughts Please

Daniel has O gauge and asks:

“Has anyone out there tried to use the risers and incline foam pieces with O gauge? Their risers and inclines are 2 1/2” wide, but their roadbed is 2 3/4”. Obviously a mismatch. I like the process better than trying to cookie cutter the pieces. Maybe, there is a way that still looks ok. Thanks for any experience.”

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How To use LED Lights

HO enthusiast David asks:

“I have a Bachmann GP-9 that I removed the DCC board and replace it with a MRC emd567 decoder drop in sound board. I need to find out how to up the front light. Can anyone help me? This the first time I try this.”

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Quick Tips For Model Train Hobbyists

Dave sent in this quick tip to share with readers:

“If the small part does make it to the floor, use a vacuum cleaner with a nylon stocking taped over the end to find it. The nylon will prevent the part from being eaten by the vacuum.”

And a tip from Bobby:

“I just read your ideas on using masking tape to keep track of small parts, very good. I also have a suggestion to add to that. Where I live in the State, at our hardware store, there is a 5″ bowl with a magnet attached to it. It’s great for holding small steel parts so they won’t drop on the floor.”

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Do You Need To Separate The Switch With Frogs?

Douglas models N gauge and wants reader suggestions or comments on his question:

“I would like to know when setting up a DCC layout do I need to separate the switch with frogs? ”

Add (or view) comments using the COMMENTS link blow this posting.

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Model Railroads Electronics – Using Arduino For Animation

Learn more about using micro controls on your layout.

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Finding and Fixing Electrical Problems

Michael models HO and wants comments or suggestions from readers:

“I just received my new HO train and MTH commander and Z1000 power pack. My new MTH diesel engine runs fine on the Kato track and everything works (sounds, direction, etc). But when I place a box car on the track it seems to spark on the track and cuts the connection on the engine and become non operational. I used 18 gauge wire.  I feel clueless about what the problem could be? Any suggestions would be appreciated.”

You can add or view comments by clicking the COMMENTS link below this post.

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Reader Poll #1

On your layout - How important is having more SCENIC REALISM compared to having more TRACK / OPERATION? Select your personal preference by choosing a number from 1 to 10.

View Results

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Reader Poll #2

On your layout - How important is having more SWITCHING compared to having more MAINLINE RUNNING? Select your personal preference by choosing a number from 1 to 10.

View Results

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Scenery Techniques Explained

A Great Christmas Gift!

N Scale Track Plans

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Use Tiny Railroad Micro Controllers



A micro controller is basically a small programmable computer device to help the model railroader “make things operate.” It is clever way to realistically replicate the movements, actions and functions you are likely to see on a full size railroad.

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It’s YOUR Railroad!

Your rolling stock and locomotives might actually be the center of attention on your layout, but the scenic features that surround and envelop your layout is what's likely to make your train setup stand proud of the rest. Your selection of scenery and structures will add an element of customization that will make your railroad truly unique.



Scenery, structures, and fine detailing is a fundamental aspect of any good model railroad, particularly if it is intended to replicate a true-to-life railroading scene. How realistic or authentic you make your railroad is entirely up to you... and you alone.

Some enthusiasts like to replicate every tiny detail so as to accurately depict, in every aspect, a miniaturized version of a real life scene.

Others in this hobby adopt a more "free-style" approach and choose to mix and match accessories and features they personally prefer. Even though the purist will possibly be unimpressed with unrealistic or out of context elements, it is YOUR railroad layout so you can make it anything you personally want!

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