Model Railroading on a Budget

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 in performance and details, but "fun" can be had at any price. So if you're feeling the pinch, or feeling left out, 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, Inc.

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

    It also helps to choose a prototype or theme and stick to it. With so many great models available today, it is easier to avoid temptation if that locomotive or building wouldn't have been found on the railroad or in the time period you model.

  • 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, Inc.

    It seems you can buy almost anything you'll ever need for this hobby ready to go right out of the box today. Not only does this raise the cost, it also takes a lot of the fun and sense of accomplishment out of building a railroad.

    Kits can still be found 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 building is more important than just having, you can really stretch your dollar.

    Of course it's not just kits. You can forget the packaging all together if you scratchbuild. Whether it is a structure, train, track or scenery, making it on your own can be very rewarding and is sure to yield a layout that is unlike anyone else's.

  • 03 of 09

    Make it Better

    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, Inc.

    It's true that a $15 train car won't have the same level of detail as its $50 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 the manufacturer's have to offer.

  • 04 of 09

    Quality vs. 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, Inc.

    How many trains do you really need? If long trains are your passion, consider the less-expensive kits. As they're rolling by in a train, you'll be hard pressed to spot all the brake lines applied to the underside of each car.

    If you're more into appreciating each individual model, then save up and buy only the best. 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, Inc.

    A local club can be the best money you spend on this hobby. Not only will you meet fellow modelers and learn from each other, the club layout can be your way to enjoy the things you can't do at home. And pulling your resources you can all accomplish more than you ever could on your own budgets.

  • 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, Inc.

    Do trains come into your house and never leave? As your interests change, skills improve or simply when you're just ready for something new, there is nothing wrong with financing part or all of your next purchase by selling off some of the old.

    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 little used or is still "new in the box." But the monetary depreciation should be more than offset by the enjoyment you've had with them. That being said, there are some tips you can follow to get the best price when selling model trains.

  • 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, Inc.

    All those models others are selling have to go somewhere! Just like buying a used car, used model trains can save you a lot of money. Also like 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 buy in a place where you can test the model before taking it home. If buying online, use sites that offer a clear return or buyer protection policy. Most sellers are honest, but a thumbnail picture can hide a lot of flaws!

  • 08 of 09


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

    When building a layout, there are lots of opportunities to think outside the hobby shop and repurpose older materials. Whether it is old lumber for your benchwork, repurposed foam for scenery, or just sawdust shavings off the shop floor for a woodchip load in a hopper, opportunities for savings and good models are all around if you know where to look!

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 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, Inc.

    Rome wasn't built in a day. Your 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.