In the summer of 1988, I drove to northern Ohio to visit a friend who promised to accompany me on a sightseeing tour of the Cleveland area. One morning we decided to visit the city of Sandusky in order to spend the day at Cedar Point roller coaster park. On the way to Cedar Point, we stopped at the model railroad club nearby.
All sorts of model train layouts were on display. There was a large scale railroad, several in the familiar HO scale, and a tiny Z-scale train that captured my imagination. There were a few layouts that had been under construction for a long time. They were an artful combination of plaster, plastics, wiring, and months worth of fussing with tiny details.
Even though each layout was a scaled down version of reality, the task of constructing one was monumental. Aside from hundreds of feet of metal track, there were tunnels, turnouts, tiny towns, roads, and the little details. Some of the setups featured telephone poles with fine gauge wire strung along them. There were road crossing signals and drop gates that operated, and miniature streetlights that glowed.
The club was a perfectionist’s paradise, filled with small, realistic versions of trains, and switching yards. Layouts featured plenty of handmade buildings and detail work to enhance mental fantasies. The visit brought back memories of my boyhood fascination with minatures. After our tour of the model railroad club, I decided to purchase a starter HO railroad set as a souvenir of my Ohio visit.
The best layouts are group efforts. Sometimes families build a layout together. Other times, club members share in a long-range project. Individuals specialize in electrical circuits; others excel in artwork; some people utilize woodworking skills; and most take pride in their abilities to miniaturize.
Most model railroad hobbyists remember their first electric train sets. The trains ran on snap-together track. Oftentimes, the track would slip apart and cause derailments. Careless engineers sometimes took corners too fast, causing the locomotives to tip away and drag the trains to disaster. My childhood “Sears/Allstate” O gauge train actually ran on a figure 8 layout. My train suffered many rail accidents. Most of my friends owned HO scale sets that allowed for more elaborate setups.
Most of the early electric trains were powered by transformers that could control the speed and direction of the trains by variations of current to the track. As the PC age dawned, silicone chips have been embedded in the locomotives. The solid-state controllers enable more realistic speed variation of the models. There are other power sources available to the fussier hobbyists. Some of the more expensive locomotives are gasoline-electric powered. The most esoteric are petroleum-hydraulic and the petro-mechanical locomotives.
For many model train enthusiasts, landscaping is the best part of creating a miniature layout. Landscaping projects help people let their fantasies to rule. Model railroad tycoons construct a small fantasy world for their rolling stock to run through. There are some builders who copy an actual location based on photographs and maps. Elaborate layouts take many months or even years to evolve. Some layouts are constantly
updated and refined.
Traditional scenery begins with some sort of sub-terrain. It might consist of a plywood or an old tabletop base upon which Styrofoam sheets, screen wire, and cardboard are fastened. Sometimes plaster of Paris is used on formed screen wire to build hills, geological features and creeks or rivers. Water is simulated with rippled glass or plastics. Ground cover might include commercially manufactured scatter materials, natural moss or lichen, and dyed sawdust.
Plastic or balsa-wood model building kits are available for the most popular railroad scales. However, many railroaders prefer to fabricate their own buildings. The amount of detail is up to the individual. Trees can be modeled out of twigs and moss, or plastic trees and foliage can be purchased. Telephone poles and streetlights can be bought or painstakingly made by the hobbyist. Sand and small pebbles are used for roadbed detail, rocks can be placed for landscape interest. The only limits to model railroaders are financial.
After my return from Ohio, I went to work on my own HO layout. I assembled and painted the small buildings, crossing features, and tunnel. I purchased a panel of plywood to build up the landscape. Then I laid the track, attached the buildings, and tinkered with some details. I had more fun putting it all together than just running the train on the
finished project. Unfortunately, I ran out of room and became interested in other pastimes. I finally sold the entire layout to a fellow model railroader.
November is National Model Railroad Month. Individuals and clubs will be sprucing up their layouts. Many will open up their displays to the general public. This is a good time to visit a model railroad exhibit or just remember your own experiences with miniature trains.