Model Train Collections: The Beginner’s Guide on How to Get Started

May 18, 2020 6 Comments

Model Train Collections: The Beginner’s Guide on How to Get Started

Whether we realize it or not, our brains are constantly longing for something new and different. If you ever find yourself stuck at home, chances are that video games, movies, TV shows, board games, crafts, and cooking will only get your preoccupation so far. You need something new: something that can open a whole new world of possibilities.

Have you ever considered collecting model train sets? Many grow up loving trains with their timelessness and sense of adventure. Think, the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter, the childish nature of Thomas the Train, or even the family-favorite Polar Express. People love trains, so why not bring some of that joy into your home?

That’s where TrainLife comes in with this model train guide.

We’ll be going over everything you could possibly need to know about how to start a model train collection, from terminology to logistics.


1) Choose Your Model Train Scale

HO Scale: The Most Popular

HO, or H0, is a train modeling scale using a 1:87 (3.5 mm to 1 foot) scale. It’s the most popular train model scale type due to the size being suitable for regular to smaller home layouts, as well as the fact that it’s typically cheaper to manufacture. Model train companies such as Athearn, Atlas, and Bachmann Trains are leading examples of this case.

The rails are spaced about 16.5 mm (0.650 in) apart for modeling 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 ½ in) standard gauge tracks and trains, making them definitively HO as far as scale identification is concerned.


N Scale: Smaller & More Flexible

N scale is also a standard model train scale, though not the most popular. N scale trains and accessories range varies based on the manufacturer or country of manufacturing but typically falls between 1:148 and 1:160. Regardless, the distance between the rails (also known as the gauge) is 9mm or .354 inches. 

That said, we express different rail heights with a “code,” such as Code 80, which would have a height of 0.080 inches or 2.0 mm. The advantage of N scale models is that they allow train enthusiasts and hobbyists alike to build and collect model train layouts that are more space-conscious in contrast to HO scales. These N scale train layouts may be higher, longer, or different than what you can build with an HO scale model.


2) Choose Your Time Period

Model downtown building for model train set

After figuring out what model train scale you want, it’s time to pick what era you want your model train to reflect. The beauty of model trains is the room for customization, so you can do whatever you’d like. Some modelers prefer replicating more modern layouts with accompanying ‘80s, ‘90s, or even ‘00s scenery since several older trains still run today. 

But, if you try to inverse that and put a modern train (think, an Amtrack freight) in an early-era British 1920s setting, it might look a little off aesthetically. It’s best to select something that can go either way you want: old-fashioned or more modern. Getting a variety of trains and pieces can promote a more neutral look.


3) Choose Your Location

This selection process goes hand-in-hand with the period you choose. That decision will impact what landscaping materials and structure kits you might need to complete your model.

For instance, are you in the rustic plains of Kansas, Oklahoma, or Texas? Is the train barreling through suburban New Jersey or downtown Chicago? Is it a mountainous train traveling through Canada, Utah, or Colorado?

The environment you choose will greatly affect what availability for landscaping you have. Is it the dead of winter, where a blanket of snow will cover everything? Early spring with blooming blossoms and trees? The crux of summer when everything is bright, green, and hazy? Or is it autumn with jewel-toned flora?

It's best to make these decisions before investing in the pieces of your model train set to avoid collecting model train pieces that you won't use based on the season, location, and period you choose.


4) Choose Your Desired Layout

Model train layout with red engine car on the tracks

Planning your layout will take time and will probably change from your first idea to your last. Trial & error is your friend when it comes to this process because you have to consider the actual dimensions of the space you’ll be building in and on, as well as the dimensions of the pieces you purchase.

Most decent-quality ping-pong tables (5 x 9-foot in size) are usually substantial enough for temporary layouts, and crafty folks create systems of cables and pulleys to raise and lower them for storage purposes.

For more permanent layouts, you’ll want a space like a basement, spare room, or garage that won’t see much destructive traffic to build your set. Generally, collecting a model train set is a more long-term hobby that requires a bit of planning but with impressive outcomes.


5) Choose Your First Train Kit and Accessories

model train station with mini figures

This is the most exciting part!

If you’ve decided to get into collecting model trains and related accessories, you’re in for a fun ride. A well-done train set is a unique feat to show off to friends and family. You’ll also experience the elation and satisfaction of crafting and completing it.


But where do you go to buy model trains and kits?

TrainLife is the go-to online model train store for collectors, veteran hobbyists, and newcomers. We’ve got everything from HO to N scale models, a variety of different trains, cars, and accessories, as well as an array of different landscaping pieces and kits.

The perfect at-home hobby is just a click away! Visit TrainLife today and get started on building and collecting your model train set.


6 Responses

Edward W Quinn
Edward W Quinn

December 20, 2021

I have a 7 year old son, and I’d like to introduce him to trains.


September 15, 2021

Looking for fishermen, and icefisherman. Looking to do a winter scenery with a wood base as the platform.

Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson

September 15, 2021

Thank you.

Richard S Yunker
Richard S Yunker

August 06, 2020

Interested in Alaska railroads

David Urbanski
David Urbanski

August 06, 2020

My dad bought me my 1st and only train set for my 1st Christmas in 1959.
It was a beautiful Castiron Lionel Train Set.
I loved it.
My mom took in a boarder without consulting me.
He helped with money
But he was a crook
He broke in Sacred Heart Of Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Dupont Pennsylvania
Was caught
Went to prison.
Mom bought him a bus ticket to call home.
I had an old money collection.
He stole it
I wanted a press charges.
My mom talked me out of it
Worst of all he stole my Lionel Train Set
I was living in Charlotte NC.
When I came home I threw him out.
He passed away several years ago and is probably playing with my train set in hell with the devil.

E Luber
E Luber

August 06, 2020

Enjoyed it 60 years ago and would like to start all over again

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