7 Good Locations to Build a Model Railroad

Grandfather, father and son playing with model railroad
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Finding a location for your model railroad can be challenging. Unlike many hobbies, this one takes up a lot of space, and the more serious you are about model railroading, the more space it's likely to require. Building a single realistic rail layout can easily occupy an entire large room, not to mention the workshop space required to store tools and supplies and to build props. True fanatics have been known to fill entire barns, warehouses, or deserted bowling alleys with elaborate model railroad worlds, but for most of us, that's just not a practical option.

The true secret to success is to build a railroad in whatever space that works for you and your family. Remember that bigger isn't always better. If you find a space that is comfortable—no matter its size—the quality of your modeling will reflect it. Having a large space is great, but modeling in a small space dedicated to that purpose will do more for your skills and enjoyment than not modeling at all.

If, like most hobbyists, you are limited to a standard home setting, here are seven locations that have worked for model railroaders.

Basement

If there is a stereotype for a model railroader, the caricature usually includes the phrase "basement-dwelling." The basement has long been a favorite spot for model railroads, largely because it is out of the way and offers some of the largest available space in a house. In regions where homes are built over basements, this can be an ideal spot to conduct your hobby. But not all basements are created equal, and there are some things you should consider before you begin your subterranean empire.

  • Humidity: Basements are often cool year-round, but this means they are also damp. Humidity is a big problem for model trains. Fortunately, it is also easy to treat by adding a dehumidifier and running it constantly. Just be sure to check it regularly and empty the reservoir when it fills up.
  • Flooding: If your basement is prone to bigger water problems—flooding, in other words—you'll have to be very careful about where and how you build your platform and store your trains. It's not impossible to build model railways in a basement that occasionally floods with an inch or two of water, but it does take careful planning.
  • Utilities: Basements are home to many utilities and appliances—water heaters to washers, furnaces, gas lines, electrical panels, well pumps, etc. Sometimes you can disguise these elements, but it is important to build your model railways so there is enough space to maintain and replace these home mechanicals when necessary.
  • Access: Steep steps? Low headroom? Only one exit? If you're looking for a railroad that is going to last you into your golden years, or if you are planning a large layout that will have multiple operators, safe and easy access into and out of the basement is an important consideration. You and your guests might not always be as nimble as you think. And there are all those sheets of plywood, boxes, and other materials to carry. The ideal basement for model railroading will have at least two entrances, one of which should be suitable for bringing in large construction materials.

Attic

If the basement doesn't work (or if you don't have one at all), try going up. Some attics with walk-up access can be very hospitable to a train layout. Like the basement, headroom and access can often be an issue. But if your walk-up attic space has both access and headspace, then you may discover a very large space with little else to interfere with your goals. Some things to consider:

  • Heat: Hot air rises. In warmer climates, the attic may be the last place you want to be on a summer day. Although changes in temperature are less destructive than humidity on the trains themselves, extreme fluctuations are not good for the railroad or the railroader. At the very least, an attic may require a portable window air-conditioner to make it hospitable for enjoying your hobby in the summertime.
  • Wiring and HVAC: Attics usually lack some of the basics found in living spaces, including electrical outlets and HVAC ductwork. You may need to invest in some mechanical upgrades in order to make the space suitable for building your layout and enjoying your hobby.
  • Unfinished space: Unless you are willing to spend the time and money to finish the walls, ceilings, and floor, the setting for your train layout will be decidedly rough. This may not be a problem, but if you prefer a more genteel environment, consider going all the way to finish off the space completely.

Garage

An unused garage can provide a large area perfect for a model train layout. Some modelers have even built layouts that still retain enough space to continue parking cars. The challenges to a garage layout are also fairly obvious. Often these spaces aren't heated or cooled, but (as with basements and attics) that issue can be fixed. You may also want to finish off the walls and ceilings to provide a more polished environment. Dealing with the large garage door can be another issue, for both your track plan and for insulation and security for the trains.

Spare Bedroom/ Office

A spare bedroom or home office often offers one of the easiest places to start a modestly sized model railroad. The room is already finished for you, after all, with the necessary electrical outlets, lighting, and heating/cooling. Hobby magazines and books have published many track plans designed around the standard-sized bedroom.

Building a model railroad can be messy work, so consider building the benchwork and even some scenic features in modular form outdoors or in another workspace. And remember that should you ever sell the house or see your family grow, your train room may need to be reconverted to a bedroom.

One option is to choose a plan that allows multi-functions. For example, you can create a narrow track shelf layout in a home office, or a trundle-bed track layout that slides under the guest bed.

Living Areas

It takes an accommodating family, but plenty of model railroaders practice their hobby right out in the open, in living rooms, dining rooms, and family rooms used by everybody all the time. A well-executed model railroad can be a work of art, after all. Once all the mess of construction is finished, model trains are fun to watch and great conversation starters.

While your sizes may be somewhat limited, some very impressive layouts have been built into coffee tables and other furniture. Others have run trains on suspended tracks and shelves in place of crown molding.

Sheds and Outbuildings

A detached workshop, shed, or small barn has many advantages that the house can't provide, including the freedom to do pretty much whatever you want without fear of its impact on your daily life. Of course, that freedom comes at a cost, in the form of a second building to build, finish, and maintain. A less obvious problem is that because your train layout is out of immediate sight, it can also become out of mind. A shed with your model train layout may not be all that appealing in the middle of winter if it is 50 yards away.

Because of the expense, erecting a secondary building is a practical solution for only the most serious train enthusiasts. But if you count yourself in that number, then a prefabricated shed or hobby barn kit is worth considering.

Outdoors

For a growing group of hobbyists with multiple interests, taking the model railway outdoors provides a relaxing and rewarding way to combine hobbies. Yes, the weather impact on an outdoor model railroad make basement humidity problems look like nothing, but can you imagine seeing your rotary snowplow actually plowing snow? Or your model rivers actually filled with running water? Or miniature living plants serving as the trees lining your tracks? What could be more relaxing than watching your trains meander through the garden on a nice spring day? For an especially whimsical approach, blend fairy garden aesthetics with your garden railway.

Tips

There are several strategies that can help you find space for your model railroad layouts:

  • Go modular: Joining a local club is a great way to get involved in the hobby and expand your skills. Among the innovations you can learn is how to make modular layouts of the kind that some clubs use to travel to shows. A modular layout that is put together in segments can give you the best of both worlds. It is possible to have a modular layout that can fit into a closet, then assembled to hold 100 train cars. This is also a perfect option for apartments or folks frequently on the move.
  • Think small: If you're really strapped for space, consider going small with a portable N-scale or Z-scale layout. You'll be amazed what you can do in a suitcase. If watching the trains run 'round and 'round isn't your thing, consider a small switching layout on a shelf. Narrow-gauge trains can also get more railroading into a small space without going down in scale.
  • Forgo the permanent layout: You don't have to have a permanent rail layout to enjoy model railroading. Some of the most accomplished modelers have never built a railroad. Detailed scale models and dioramas can be impressive in their own right. And you can still exhibit and even compete at shows and network with others.

Whether it's a barn out back, a shelf in the office, or a circular track high on the walls of your dining room, almost any home has a place for a model railroad if you use your creativity and work with what you have.