Improving Holiday Train Displays

Make your locomotives and tracks stand out

Every year, hundreds of model trains come up from the basement or down from the attic to become part of an annual holiday train display. How can you get the most out of your model trains when you only see them once a year? Here are 10 tips to keep your holidays happy.

  • 01 of 10

    Clean Your Trains

    Clean Wheels
    Gently rub cars across a paper towel soaked in liquid cleaner to remove dirt build up. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle for About.com, Inc.

    After a year in storage, your trains could probably benefit from a little cleaning. In addition to brushing off the dust, track and wheels need to be thoroughly cleaned. Older steel track is prone to rust if stored in humid locations. If your track shows signs of rust, save your time and just replace it. Clean wheels with paper towels and cleaning fluids.

    After extended periods in storage, it may be necessary to disassemble, clean, and re-oil locomotive gearboxes. Do not over-lubricate. Check power supplies and wires for any signs of wear or distress. Replace if needed.

  • 02 of 10

    Elevate Your Train off the Floor

    Tracks with attached roadbed are available in many sets and scales. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Of all the possible good places to build a train display, the floor is not one of them. Any floor, but especially carpeted flooring, becomes the final resting ground for dust, dander, and other grime. Kids and house pets contribute to an ongoing hostile environment.

    You could build a table for your train display, but what if you really want that floor-level layout? Even elevating the track a few inches above the floor itself can do wonders. Use tracks with attached roadbed and/or build a small riser from plywood. Just this little rise will keep carpet fibers from finding their way into locomotive gearboxes. It also reduces noise.

  • 03 of 10

    Lay Track Correctly

    Bad Track Joint
    Make sure all track joints are in line and all joiners are attached to both rails. A high joint like this can cause a derailment. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Permanent or seasonal, any train will run better on a good track. Follow instructions for correctly laying sectional track even if you'll only have the layout in place for a few weeks. If you are building a base, nail the tracks down to keep them from shifting.

    After separating and rebuilding tracks repeatedly, the metal rail joiners can become loose. Even if the attached roadbed keeps track sections aligned, a loose joiner will rob your trains of the electricity they need. Tighten loose joiners with needle-nose pliers or replace as needed.

  • 04 of 10

    Keep the Circuit Simple

    It may be just an oval, but add some buildings, snow and maybe a small tree in the middle and you have a simple train garden that will provide lots of joy without a lot of effort. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Temporary displays don't have to be circles, but a simple plan will go together faster and require less maintenance. If you are adding more than one track circuit, keeping them separate is almost a must. Multi-level layouts are also possible, but elevated tracks should be anchored to prevent creeping out of alignment. Ultimately, you can make a layout as complicated as you desire, just make sure you can maintain what you create.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Make the Snow Stick

    snowman
    Workers have added a little holiday flair to the Harrisburg yards. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    It wouldn't be a holiday layout without snow, right? Artificial snow comes in many forms, from large flakes to granular powders. Flour, baking powder, or plaster are also sometimes used. But snow on the rails, or worse yet around the contacts and gear of the locomotive, can cause very unreliable operation. Like any scenery material, it is best if your snow can be fixed to the platform to avoid drifts and squalls. An easy way to do this is to paint the train board white and sprinkle in a little fake snow before it dries. If you still desire loose snow, choose a larger flake product and try to keep it clear of the tracks.

  • 06 of 10

    Make It Kid-Friendly

    Most basic sets will be easy enough for a child to use and even assemble. Parental oversight and a pushbutton control can lower the age limits even more. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Holiday trains are meant to be enjoyed by all ages, and they can be a great introduction to the hobby for children. One easy way to make any model train display more kid-friendly is to make them part of the action. In addition to running the trains, kids will want to help build and decorate the platform. Incorporating kid's toys into the display is a great way to make it personal and still keep a holiday feel.

    For younger kids who can't master the controls, adding a pushbutton will make the trains easy to run. Simply insert the button (a doorbell will work) on one of the wires between the power supply and the tracks. Set the power pack to the speed you want and let them go.

    Make sure the trains are at a height kids can enjoy safely.

  • 07 of 10

    Keep Tree Needles Cleared Away

    Christmas tree surrounded with gifts
    Tom Merton/Getty Images

    If your trains are running beneath a Christmas tree, you'll probably find yourself pulling needles off the tracks by the end of the season. There is no way to keep needles off the tracks (even an artificial tree will probably lose a few). Keep this need for cleaning in mind when choosing a location for your trains. You will need to be able to reach all the way around the tree to clean. You risk losing scenic material and other items while vacuuming, so it's best to glue them to the base.

    One additional concern for under-tree trains is the power supply. Make sure your electrical circuit can handle the needs of both the trains and the tree lights. Keep the cords clear of the tracks.

  • 08 of 10

    Think Modular

    A train platform is the best way to go while the trains are running, but what about the other 11 months of the year? Building a platform in sections, or modules, will not only make it easier to store it will also speed set-up and tear-down times. A modular platform is also easy to expand later.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Add Family Touches

    family trains
    Many of the buildings on this platform are made by hand to represent the homes of family and friends. This personal touch is all part of the fun on this display. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Family and tradition should be at the center of any holiday. Trains are often a part of that tradition, but the tradition can also be part of the trains. From commemorative cars to models of the family house, there are many ways to incorporate your own family's heritage into the train display.

  • 10 of 10

    Packing and Storing

    The original packaging may take more space, but it is designed to provide the best protection. ©2010 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Next year's display begins when you put this year's away.

    • Before you pack, take the time to clean track and wheels again.
    • Pack trains, tracks, power supplies, and all accessories carefully. Use the original boxes, if possible.
    • Store your trains in a dry place. Store fragile items where they will be safe.
    • If possible, give your locomotive a brief break-in run periodically throughout the year.