Where to Build a Model Railroad

Grandfather, father and son playing with model railroad
Sean Justice/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

Finding the right place for a model railroad can be a big challenge. Of course, we all have our dream locations, but until you win the lottery or buy that old bowling alley, what options are best for you?

We don't all have the same living situations, so some of these options may simply not be an option for you. All of the following locations, however, have been used repeatedly by modelers in the past.

So while you continue to dream, take another look at what you already have - maybe you can get started before you hit the jackpot.

The true secret to success is to build a railroad in a space that works for you and your family. Bigger isn't always better. If you are comfortable, your modeling will reflect it. Most of all, modeling anywhere is sure to do more for your skills and enjoyment than not modeling at all.

Basements

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. It is out of the way and often offers some of the biggest rooms in the house.

But all basements are not created equal, and there are some things you should consider before you begin your subterranean empire.

  1. Humidity: Basements are often cool year round, but also damp. Humidity is a big problem for model trains. Fortunately, it is also easy to treat with the addition of a dehumidifier. Just be sure to check it regularly.
  1. Water: If your basement is prone to bigger water problems, ie flooding, you'll have to be very careful about where and how you build your platform and store your trains. Of course, if this is a regular issue, trains may not be the biggest issue you have.
  2. 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 plan enough space to work on and replace them when necessary.
  1. 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 too.

Attics

If the basement doesn't work, try going up. Some attics can be very hospitable to a train layout. Like the basement, headroom and access can often be an issue. But if you've got that, then you'll probably find a very large space little in the way of your plans. What else should you consider?

  1. 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.
  2. Unfinished space: While it is a good idea to finish off any area before building your railroad, attics often lack some of the layout essentials like electrical outlets, HVAC, etc. Make sure all of these are addressed before beginning your railroad.

    Garages

    An unused garage can often provide a large area for a layout. Some modelers have even built layouts that provide enough room to keep the car in there as well. The challenges to a garage layout are also fairly obvious. Often these spaces aren't heated or cooled - but like basements and attics that can be fixed. 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

    A spare bedroom often offers one of the easiest places to start a modestly sized model railroad. The room is already finished for you! Many track plans have been published in hobby magazines and books for typical sized bedroom layouts.

    Building a model railroad can be messy work - consider building the benchwork and even some scenic features in modular form outside or in another workspace.

    Also, remember that should you ever sell the house or see your family grow, you may need to turn that room back into a bedroom.

    You may also want to choose a plan that allows multi-functions of the room like a narrow shelf layout in a home office or a trundle bed layout that slides under the guest bed.

    Living Spaces

    A model railroad can be a work of art. Once all the mess of construction is finished, they 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.

    Think Outside the Home

    Who said your model railroad had to be inside your house? Or even inside?

    Outbuildings - A detached garage, workshop or shed 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 with a cost - in the form of a second building to maintain, heat, finish, etc. A less obvious problem is that with the layout out of the way, it is also easy to put it out of your mind.

    Garden Railways - For a growing group of hobbyists (pun intended) outdoor railroads have become a relaxing way to combine multiple interests. Yes, the weather concerns make basement humidity look like nothing, but who wouldn't like to see their rotary snow plow actually plowing snow? And what could be more relaxing than watching your trains meander through the garden on a nice spring day?

    Go Modular - Joining a local club is a great way to get involved in the hobby and expand your skills whether you have a home layout or not. Some clubs have modular layouts that travel to shows, even joining with other clubs to form layouts larger than most of us could ever dream of building at home.

    A modular layout like this could give you the best of both worlds. Focus your energy time and budget on a layout that could fit in your closet, but still set it up and watch 100 car trains rumble over it!

    This is also a perfect option for apartments or folks frequently on the move. There are lots of options when it comes to portable model railroads.

    Think Small

    If you're really strapped for space, consider going small with a portable N scale or Z scale layout. You'd 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.

    No Layout No Problem

    You don't have to have a permanent railroad to enjoy model railroading. Some of the most accomplished modelers never build 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 circling 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, not what you think you need.