A model train setup is a big boy’s toy, a world in miniature in which the creator is God. It’s not something to set up for a young child, and it’s not even for all older children. Setting up your model train is a project that requires patience, time, and commitment, but not necessarily a lot of money.
The first step is to determine where you’re going to have your setup. It does you no good to purchase all the equipment for your model train if you don’t have room for a good setup. You need an area that will be relatively undisturbed, where children and animals do not dare intrude unless invited; and you need to remember to leave enough room to move around all four sides of your table, board, or other platform. Ideal spaces are clean, dry basements (dust is bad for your model train), spare bedrooms, workshops, or safe attics.
Next, you have to determine whether you are going to use an old table to lay your train out on, or if you’re going to use an alternate support, such as sawhorses. It’s important that the base of your train set be stable; test any tables or sawhorses for shakiness by leaning on them with your full weight and shaking them. Any shakiness needs to be stabilized before you build anything else.
You will need a flat of plywood or a similar lightweight, strong material to set your world up on. Before you go out to get it, consider whether you just want your setup to remain in its room, or you intend to take it to model train shows. If you are going to have a portable train set, you need to cut your plywood into sheets small enough to move through the door; and you will have to come up with a clamping system to tie them back together, again without any shakiness or instability. One model train setup designer used simple flat brackets and screws to put his setup together; it may become unstable eventually, but it’s fine for now.
Now that your table and your plywood are waiting for you, you can think about the fun stuff: design. How complex do you want your model to be? Do you want hills? Rivers? Roads? You can have cities, or you can have tunnels through rustic highlands. Sketch out your vision with carpenter’s pencil on the plywood, and draw a rough map of where you want the track to lie. Make a list of the supplies you think you’ll need; for instance, for grass you’ll need to get spray-on grass from a model train supply store. You need to save newspapers to make the paper mache to build hills and other rises, and you’ll need model paints for roads, houses, and any models you build yourself.
At this point, it’s imperative that you determine your model size. The most common size is an H-gauge; but whatever size you choose, you need to make sure that everything you buy for your model is the same gauge size. Purchase enough to start your set, including the train, some track, and a small housing setup or other structures you want on your model.
Almost everyone who builds a model train set wants to have tunnels on their setup. Somewhere on your penciled map, you probably have an ideal place for one. Start with a short tunnel, so that if anything goes wrong you can reach in from either side and fix it. Measure the height of your train plus the height you are going to make your tracks (almost everyone uses a slightly raised track) and make the tunnel roof at least 25% taller than that height, to accommodate any oversize cars. Make the width of the tunnel the width of the widest point of your train plus 25%; if you are going to have a curve in your tunnel, you might want to consider making the interior of the tunnel the width plus 35% to make sure the train doesn’t get stuck on the bend.
The tunnel should be made before building the hill it runs through. You can create it with stiff cardboard, wood, or anything else that will retain its shape when wet papier-mache is mounded over it.
Before you build your landscape or place your tunnel, you need to lay the track. Glue it down with modeler’s glue (you can find that at the same store as the track) and make sure that breaks in the track lay along the splits in the plywood, so that when you take your setup apart it will break the track in the right places and you won’t have to pry anything up. When the track is down, set the tunnel up in the appropriate place, run your train through it once to make sure it won’t get stuck, make any necessary adjustments, and then glue it down (be sure the tunnel isn’t really tight around the train), and build your hill over top of it. When the hill is quite dry, you can paint it. Though you have purchased spray grass to cover it with, you should paint it before putting the grass on; that way, you don’t have ugly newsprint showing through the grass.
Glue down your other essential models, build any other tunnels or hills, and you have your first model train setup. Congratulations!