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Model Railroading: The Ultimate Guide

Model Railroading: The Ultimate Guide is 84 pages, 15 all-new projects, and 18 free companion videos packed with helpful features and inspiration you can use when building your layout! In this special issue, our experts show you tons of modeling tips, share track plans for HO, N, and On30 layouts, and take you along on some amazing, and inspiring railfan trips.

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A layout your family can live with

So you want to build a railroad, but you’re having a hard time finding dedicated space for a layout room? If that’s your situation, consider building a shadow-box layout, such as our O scale narrow gauge Olympia logging railroad.

Our design places a compact model railroad inside a pleasing museum-type display case. When complete, the self-contained layout looks at home in the corner of any office, den, or rec room. And it’s built on wheels, so you can roll it into the room when you want to run trains, and set it against the wall when not in use.


Build a bigger layout

When space at the Model Railroader offices for former project railroads became a problem, I moved the Olympia to my basement and drew plans for an expansion. I drafted several options, including one that made the layout L-shaped. Eventually I opted to simply extend the railroad in a straight line with a second 22" x 78" shadow box, effectively doubling its size.

The 13-foot run of the new Olympia provides space for all the things I couldn’t fit into the first version, including a small sawmill, an engine service track, a trestle, and a logging camp. It also has extensive new trackwork and includes run-around spots on both the upper and lower levels. While I was at it, I replaced the 23" sector plate with a 31" model. The new, larger plate allows for switching longer trains between staging and the running tracks. It can hold a locomotive, three log cars, and a caboose.


Realistic roads

The distinguishing characteristic of older asphalt streets is the aggregate, the little white stones that show once the top layer of tar has worn away.

I did a lot of experimentation in an attempt to get the “white stone” effect. I tried painting styrene dark gray and lightly over-spraying it with light gray spray paint, but the effect was too dense; with an airbrush it was too fine. Using chalks and pastels proved too uncontrollable. I even tried spraying Testor’s Dullcote on gray foam core, hoping for a rough surface that would pick up a light dusting of pastels, but it didn’t.

7 great modeling tricks!

They started asking me to do things for Model Railroader Video Plus shortly after I joined the Model Railroader staff. First, there was a snow shed for the Olympia Logging layout. While I was at it, they had me build a sawmill too. Next the MRVP team filmed me weathering freight cars, casting plaster tunnel liners, and doing several other modeling projects.

From stripwood to plaster, these projects required a variety of techniques. Each project taught me a little something, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this hobby, the more modeling tricks you know, the better your finished models will look. Perhaps you’ll find some of these tips useful for your next modeling project.

From factory to faded

Imagine the pressure. It’s a few minutes after 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. I’m handed a clean HO scale Athearn Genesis EMD GP38-2 diesel locomotive decorated for Southern Pacific. My assignment: weather the model and have it ready for a photo shoot on Monday morning. Could I get this done before the close of business on Friday? You bet. In fact, I completed the task in less than two hours, and you can too.


Take weathering to the next level

Newly weathered Southern Pacific EMD GP38-2 no. 4800 was relaxing at the engine terminal on our Milwaukee, Racine & Troy staff layout when she was called on to be a cover model for the magazine you’re holding. Thinking the locomotive was ready for prime time, David Popp and Drew Halverson took the Geep to our photo studio to have it photographed. Sadly, the GP38-2’s performance fell flat.

What was wrong? Well, for starters the trusty Kadee no. 5 coupler looked oversized. Also, three of the six m.u. cables were missing. And the snowplow and scarlet nose weren’t sufficiently weathered. And do I need to mention that the crew was out on break?


The Morristown & Erie Railway

Today’s shortline railroads offer advantages for modelers with an interest in the contemporary scene, but who don’t care to tackle a Class 1 railroad. If the idea of running 50-year-old diesels alongside new passenger locomotives and cars appeals to you, the Morristown & Erie Railway may be the prototype you’ve been looking for.

The M&E originated as the Whippany River Railroad in 1895. The line, renamed Morristown & Erie after a merger in 1903, served paper mills and heavy industries until the 1970s when these core customers began to disappear as a result of a general downturn in manufacturing in the Northeast.


Modern short line magic

When it comes to finding a modern prototype railroad that fits into a compact layout space, it doesn’t get any better than the Morristown & Erie. Until last year, the short line’s operation was made up of four branch lines that served a variety of customers. Everything was linked together by New Jersey Transit tracks, which also affords a little commuter modeling.

Our plan fits in a room slightly bigger than 10 x 12 feet. It features key scenes found in the video Taking Care of Business: The Morristown & Erie Part 1, allowing the modeler to duplicate a typical morning’s work on the Chester Branch. To that end, we’ve included the engine shops at Morristown, the interchange at Chester Junction, and Holland Manufacturing and Kuiken Brothers Lumber Co., located at the branch's end.


Bringing your layout to life

If you can create a little scene that brings out a reaction in your visitors – like surprise, or a smile, or the thrill of discovering something – you’ve given your visitors something that goes straight through their eyes and into their hearts. And you’ve brought life to your layout.

That’s not to say that every mini-scene or extra detail should tug on emotional heartstrings. In fact, too many of these types of scenes will turn your layout into a cartoon – a caricature of real life. But the world is a cluttered place, and a tipped 55-gallon drum next to a dock or a tire in the ditch can add a lot to the realism of a layout.


Grande journey

Twenty years ago, after moving into our home in Colorado, I began an excursion into building a large N scale layout featuring the Denver & Rio Grande Western line west of Denver.

Benchwork began in January 1999, and mainline track soon followed with the gold spike driven in November 1999. Once the rest of the track and wiring were completed, I looked forward to getting my hands dirty with some scenery.

T-Trak tales

The T stands for Tabletop, and the modules can measure just a single square foot or smaller. Like other model railroad modules, you can build several and string them together to follow a theme, or you can make them all different, as the Model Railroader Video Plus crew did on our layout.

T-Trak is also a good option for those who don’t have much space. You can build a layout that forms a circle of track in just over 4 square feet. Those pieces can be pulled apart when not in use and stored in a box, on shelves, in a cabinet, or in a plastic storage tote. And T-Trak doesn’t need a table, either – you can set it all up on the floor just as easily, or even outside (providing it doesn’t rain).


Ready, set, switch!

Our WSS layout measures a little over 8 feet long and is 30" at its widest. It has a simple swing-up two-track staging yard that holds just seven cars. How can such a small layout offer much in the way of operational interest?

The secret is in the design. I based the model railroad upon the prototype Southbound’s Tar Branch, which in the 1950s served an amazing array of compact businesses along the north end of its line. It’s those industries that provide hours of realistic and rewarding switching work on the railroad.


Oh, the places you'll go

Going Trackside. For many model railroaders and railfans, this simple expression is equivalent to “goin’ fishin’.” However, for a rare breed of railroad enthusiasts or railfans like Drew Halverson and his thrill-seeking pals, the escapist phrase carries even more gravitas.

For Drew, a graphic designer by day, “Going Trackside” is a mantra that summons his seemingly supernatural skills and stamina to case, chase, and capture real railroads in action. Make no mistake, the art of documenting the North American railroad industry for historical or modeling purposes isn’t new. But the lengths that upstarts like Drew are taking to further that effort is adventurous and downright exhilarating!

Easy tree-covered hills

Backdrops are a key part of any layout and can really set the scene. I use a simple technique to make 3-D tree-covered hills as backdrops on my HO New Haven layout. They look realistic and take up a minimal amount of space. The best part is that this technique can be used in a variety of scales.

6 expert design tips

We tend to speak about our “model railroads” as though each was a coherent whole. It often pays to step back a ways to make sure what we’re planning will one day congeal into a coherent statement about what we are trying to convey. Let’s examine the process of planning, building, and operating a model railroad by exploring several logical steps that make the process easier and more rewarding.



Your questions answered

Rehab revisited

MRVP's layout makeover show recap

Off the Rails

Tool tips galore from a master modeler



Freight yard design and operation.

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