Assembling Your First Train Set

Children's Toy steam locomotive
Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

Assembling a train set for the first time can be intimidating, but anybody can do it. Whether you're just building a display for the holidays or starting on a life-long hobby, every layout starts with simple basics. Model railroading is a great family activity, and with a little adult help, the kids can do this too.

This "quick and dirty" approach to getting started should have you running trains within the hour. Everything you do will be reversible, so you can make changes and improvements later as your skills, confidence, and collection expand.

One of the hardest tasks is deciding which train is right for you. If you haven't already purchased a set, see this buyer's guide. With so many sizes and styles available, there is certainly a model train that will expand your imagination without overloading your space and budget.

No matter what scale or style train you've chosen, you'll want to prepare yourself before you get started. Take a few minutes to prepare the space you've chosen for the train and gather some key tools.

Preparing for a Train Set

Make sure the area you've chosen is clean and clutter-free. The floor, especially carpet, is not the ideal place for a model train. Electric trains depend on stable, clean track for reliable operation. For temporary layouts, or to engage young engineers, the floor may still be the best option. If you build on the floor, use an integrated roadbed track - one with a raised base to keep the rails up above the floor.

If you are using an elevated platform, make sure it is strong enough to support the weight of the trains and anything else that may wind up on it, including you. A level table is an advantage, but it doesn't need to be perfect.

Most starter train sets don't require much in the way of tools. A Phillips or flathead screwdriver may be all you'll need. Needle-nose pliers, wire strippers/cutters, scissors or a utility knife and an extension cord may also be useful. If you are making your track permanent, a tack hammer, nail set, and spikes will be needed. It is ok to wait a while before spiking all of your track. Take some time to experiment with different designs and learn what works best for you.

If you're doing this for the first time, expect to take 30 to 60 minutes to set up your first circle of track. If the set you've chosen has more than a circle of track, start with a circle or small oval anyway. Once that is up and running, you can test your train and then start expanding with confidence.

Get Started With Your Train Set

You will soon have your train set up and running in four easy steps.

  1. Unpacking Your Set
  2. Laying Track
  3. Hooking up the Power
  4. Testing Your Trains

Even if your set doesn't look like the one shown here, the steps will be the same. Refer to the instructions that come with your train set when there are differences.

Starting simple is a great way to build the confidence and passion you'll need to keep growing. You'll be learning carpentry, electrical and artistic skills as you go. Model railroading can be a lifetime hobby, so take your time and enjoy the ride.