What is it about you and model railroading that got you to read this post? Face it, there is a spark in you for this hobby. Now, will that spark build into a fire? Whether you are a total novice or had a train set in the past, there must be some connection. So let’s take a look at what this hobby has to offer, both in the products that are available and the interest and skills you possess.

Where do you fit in to this vast hobby today? Let’s look literally at this question. Size or the space you have available is the very first question that needs to be answered. There are many different scales that are available today, starting at the largest G Scale (1:24 of actual size), all the way down to Z Scale (1:220 of actual size). As you can see there is a vast difference is size here. That is why it is so important to pick a scale that fits your space but also one that you are comfortable working in.


O-Gauge layout in North Carolina

If you are going with a permanent layout in your very own train room you have to consider how much space you have first. Putting a G scale layout into a 10 X 12 room will greatly limit what you can do. A good rule to follow is: “The smaller the space, the smaller the scale”. However, many with larger spaces still like to keep the scale down as there is just that much more you can do in a bigger space with a smaller scale. For example, running long trains in HO scale (1:87 of actual size) on a 24 ft X 30 ft layout looks a lot more realistic. Choosing a scale and a space for your model railroad will be the most important decision you will have make. Take your time and research this question well.

Scale-chart A scale conversion chart found on papermodelers.com

The three most popular scales in the United States are O-1:48 and HO-1:87, followed by N – 1:160. ‘O’ is the gauge that most of the trains Lionel produced were in, and ‘S’ (1:64) scale is what American Flyer used. Today, O, HO, and N scales are where you will find the greatest variety of models and products that are available. Many of these items are fully assembled and ready to use right out of the box. Over the last 20 years there has been an explosion in the number of items that have been produced and with much great accuracy than in years past.  From a G scale Big Boy (the largest steam locomotive ever built) to Santa Fe’s Super Chief in HO scale, they are all available today. There has never been a better time to be in this hobby.

If you had a Lionel or American Flyer train set in the past, you probably remember how those big heavy steam locomotives blow white smoke and how you could press a button to blow the whistle. Electronics has been one of the most important advances in model railroading. That whistle or diesel horn has evolved into a full reproduction of all locomotive sounds. In most cases that sound has been customized to be as close as possible to what that particular real locomotive sounded like. Another major breakthrough is your ability to independently control multiple trains on the same track with one controller. This is done through a system called digital command control or DCC. Each locomotive has a receiver that allows you to program it separately; this allows you to control not just the speed, but sound, track switches and lighting. As you can see, model railroading has come a long way. It is not just watching a 5 car train run around a circle over and over again; it can be a complete rendition of the real world in miniature. Now that’s entertainment!  

So what about you? What skills do you do possess, and what interests do you have?  Electronics, painting, model building, architectural design, town plan, engineering, and photography may be an interest of yours or some in your family. All these interests and skills can fit very nicely into this hobby, and they can be easily incorporated into your layout. Best of all, the hobby of model railroading can help you or yours hone such skills and talents which can only help be a building block for the success of one’s future.

And, it never gets boring! One of the greatest features of this hobby is that like Disney World, it will never be finished. There is always something new to add or improve on. This applies to layouts built by professionals also. You can always change, upgrade, and replace as you wish.

Let’s look at some of these outside interests that you may want to bring in to model railroading.

  • Photography: if you like taking photos, your model railroad is a very good subject, and it can be very rewarding at several levels. Making your model railroad look real in photos or videos will only improve your photographic side. If you choose, you can share them on internet web sites or the various social media sites like YouTube or Facebook. You can even send your work to the model railroad magazines for publication. Just look through them each month and see what your fellow modelers have personally contributed.

  • Electronics: one person for whom we built a very large Pennsylvania Railroad layout completely computerized its operation. So, if you or yours lean towards unique computer programming, or electronic circuits that yield all kinds of effects, model railroading has something for you.

  • Model building: if you can build cars or aircraft models, or military models, you can build rolling stock of all varieties and styles.

  • If architecture is a passion, coupled with model building, you will love building or detailing structures – whether out-of-the-box kits, or your own unique, scratch built designs, all the while improving on the skills to create these masterpieces.

  • Scenery. If there is a hidden sculptor, geologist, or even an environmentalist in you, building scenery can be one of the most pleasing aspects of model railroading. After all, the trick to the success of any model railroad is that the railroad, towns, and cities in it must look like they came after the surrounding countryside. That is how our miniature worlds come to life in a convincing and believable way.

  • Painting: Your ability to develop good painting skills is a major asset as painting is needed just about everywhere in a model railroad. Scenery, structures, locomotives and rolling stock are some of the things your painting skills can be applied to. 

  • Best of all, while pursuing all of these endeavors, ” . . . a model railroad is never done . . . ,” there is always something new to do or something new you will think of to add. So boredom is out of the question – only your own self made challenges are a constant.

You and your family can spend hours working and playing together with your model railroad. The skills you and your family bring will contribute to making this something everyone can share in. In Part 4 we will look at going with a permanent model railroad and what theme you may want.

— Ray Del Papa

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