9 Tips for Model Railroading on a Budget

Miniaturte of train on tracks
Jason Todd / Getty Images

It is often said that model trains are a rich man's hobby. And with prices seeming to rise with every new release, it certainly sometimes feels that way. With model trains, you usually get what you pay for when it comes to performance and details, but satisfaction and fun can be had at any price. So if you're feeling the pinch or feeling left out in the stampede for the best and newest, here are some tips for enjoying the hobby on a budget.

  • 01 of 09

    Focus on Priorities

    Patched locomotives, a wide mix of equipment and weathering options are halmarks of this era. No wonder it's gaining popularity with modelers. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Model railroading is many things to many people—that's part of its appeal. To control costs, find the part of the hobby that you like best and focus on that. For example, if model-building is your thing, crafting small and detailed dioramas may be just as rewarding as constructing a larger layout.

    It also helps to choose a prototype or theme and stick to it. There are many great models available to tempt you, but it's easier to control your budget if you stick to a particular time period.

  • 02 of 09

    Do It Yourself

    cutting parts
    Use special nippers to cut parts from a sprue. Seperate all of the gates. Clean up the cut with a sharp hobby knife or file. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Model railroading is a hobby that allows you to buy almost anything you need, ready to go right out of the box. This comes at a price, though, in two ways. Not only does it raise the monetary cost of your hobby, but it also eliminates a lot of the fun and sense of accomplishment that comes from building a railroad.

    You can still find DIY kits for buildings, freight cars, even locomotives. Just like the ready-made models, a high-end kit can still carry a high price tag. But these craftsman kits provide hours of enjoyment. When your hobby places as much emphasis on building as on having, you can really stretch your dollar.

    Of course, the true purists avoid even the kits. You can forget the packaging altogether if you scratch-build your models from raw materials. Whether it is a building structure, train, track, or scenery, making it from scratch can be very rewarding, and it's sure to yield a layout that is truly unique.

  • 03 of 09

    Customize Inexpensive Models

    All that remains is a coat of paint and the pilot on the left will be complete. The locomotive at right shows the starting point. What a difference a little plastic can make! ©2013 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    It's true that a $25 train car won't have the same level of detail as its $75 counterpart. Inexpensive models are out there if you're less concerned with having every last rivet exactly correct. But what if you want those museum-quality models without the high price tag?

    Again, you can do a lot on your own. There are many ways to customize your models to improve their look and performance. Add your own details, paint, decals, better wheels and couplers...with a little work, your model can stand next to the best offered by the high-end manufacturers.

  • 04 of 09

    Quality or Quantity?

    North Platte Hump.
    One of two humps at the world's largest freight yard, Union Pacific's North Platte facility. The hump is in the center. Note the retarders in the ladder, control tower, signals and lighting masts. Photo taken from the Golden Spike Tower visitor center. ©2008 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    To control the cost of your hobby, give some thought to whether its quality or quantity that is most important to you. Focus on what's most important—how many train cars do you really need?

    If long trains are your passion, consider the less-expensive kits. After all, as they're rolling by in a moving train, you'll be hard-pressed to spot all the brake lines applied to the underside of each car. But if you're more into appreciating each individual model, then save up and buy the best versions of a small number of cars.

    Are four cars better than one? It all depends on your priorities and how you want to stretch your dollar.

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  • 05 of 09

    Join a Club

    Lionel RR Club
    The main room of the Lionel Railroad Club of Milwaukee ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Membership dues to a local model railroading club can be the best money you spend on this hobby. Not only will you meet fellow modelers and learn from each other, but the club can offer a way to work on layouts that are impossible at home. The combined resources of a good-sized club can achieve far more than individuals working separately.

  • 06 of 09

    Buy and Sell

    This Athearn HO model represents a former Central RR of New Jersey locomotive. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Do trains come into your house and never leave? As your interests change or skills improve, there is nothing wrong with financing part or all of your next purchase by selling off some of the old.

    Be aware, though, that model trains are a poor investment if you're looking to make money. Don't expect to get back what you paid for a model—even if it has been lightly used or is still almost "new in the box." In most cases, though, the monetary depreciation should be more than offset by the enjoyment you've had. And the money you make can be put toward new pieces that reflect your current interests.

  • 07 of 09

    Buy Used

    modern era
    Powerful locomotives, high-speed rail, double-stack trains - today's railroads remain dynamic and interesting. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    All those models that others are selling have to go somewhere. Just like buying a used car, buying used model trains can save you a lot of money. And just buying a car, you have to do your homework, inspect carefully and be willing to accept that your train may need a little work.

    When buying used—especially powered locomotives, transformers and the like—it is best to either buy from a store that has a place you can test the model, or that has an iron-clad return policy. A good return policy is especially important with online retailers. Most sellers are honest, but a thumbnail picture can hide a lot of flaws!

  • 08 of 09

    Repurpose Old Materials

    Layer upon layer of foam can be stacked to create scenery of any size. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    When building a model train layout, there are lots of opportunities to repurpose older materials rather than buying new. Whether it is old fencing lumber used to build a benchwork, repurposed seat-cushion foam used in scenery, or just sawdust shavings off the shop floor serving as the woodchip load in a hopper car, opportunities for savings are all around if you get creative and keep your eyes open.

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  • 09 of 09

    Pace Yourself

    silver spike
    All of the townfolk have turned out for the driving of the ceremonial silver spike on the HOn3 Rio Grande project layout. ©2011 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to About.com, Inc.

    Rome wasn't built in a day. Your railroad empire won't be, either.

    The total cost of your dream layout may be out of reach right now, but start where you can and grow as you can afford it. You'll get there eventually, and you'll enjoy every step of the way.