A Site for Your Model Railway

This article first appeared in the January/February 1994 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Stephen J Chapman.

So you think that you have no room to build a model railway. Well think again. Everyone has somewhere that they can put a model railway. You might not be able to fit the big fancy layout of your dreams but you will be able to fit something. Any sort of layout at all can be better than nothing. Another thing to keep in mind is that you may be able to build something now which is suitable to incorporate into a much larger layout at a later date.

The first thing that we need to do is work out all of the places where we could put a model railway. Then we can look into possible track plans and decide on an actual location.

There are many places where you can build a model railway. Some of these places are obvious while others may not occur to you (I am sure that there are many more possible sites for your layout than I mention in this article. If you can think of any that I have missed out then I am sure that the editor would like to hear from you with a short write up about it).

Well anyway let's begin.


The purpose-built railway room. The most obvious location. The ideal site because it is built to fit the layout that you want. Also the most expensive. You probably wont have the money or the space to be able to go with this option (and if you do then the wife probably has "better" ideas of what to use them for). This may be your goal for your eventual layout but in the mean time there is no need to despair because there are lots of other places that you can put a layout.

The spare room. All very well if you have one. Probably the next best thing after a purpose built room only a spare room (even if not filled with junk or the wife's sewing) is likely to be quite a bit smaller than you think that you need. Still its somewhere to start.

The shed. A cheaper alternative to the purpose built railway room. You can still arrange the size to suit the layout that you want. The shed can also be used for other things. By building the layout at an appropriate height and buying tools etc. that will fit, you can store all of your gardening equipment and toolkit under the layout.

The garage. If yours isn't full of junk then you probably keep the car in there. There are a number of alternatives here. Either you keep the car outside and devote the whole garage to the model railway or you arrange to have the car and railway share the garage. This can be done by building narrow boards along the side walls of the garage and having a removable section for the car to get in and out and possibly also across the other door as well (see figure one, removable sections shown shaded). If your garage is not wide enough to allow the width of baseboard that you require then perhaps you can arrange for the boards to fold against the garage wall when the car is inside (shown in black in figure one).

garage with layout and space for a car
figure one

Inside the ceiling (Attic or loft). Depending on the style of roof that you have on your house you can have quite a bit of space up there that is not being used. By flooring an appropriate area having sufficient headroom, a start can be made on filling a lot of the remaining space with model railway. Choose a baseboard height to suit the size of layout that you require and the clearances between the beams supporting the roof (figure two). The more distant parts of the roof space can be used for return loops and so forth that will not be a part of the scenic section of the layout provided that access is still possible for maintenance or if a train derails. The only other thing that you will need is a ladder to get up there.

ceiling layout supported between roof struts
figure two

Under the house (basement). Some houses have quite a bit of space underneath where a model railway could be built. If you have enough headroom under there where the operating area will be then you can still fill some of the rest of the area the same as can be done in the ceiling. If you don't have sufficient headroom for your operating area then consult a qualified builder before deciding to dig the area a bit deeper. You don't want the house collapsing because you have undermined the foundations.

In the garden. Yes, you could build your model railway entirely (or partly) outside. With the types of materials that go into many of the model railway components these days (plastics, metals, etc) an outdoor layout which can survive most weather conditions can be built. Only paper, card, and other building materials which are easily damaged when wet need be avoided. Marine ply (or equivalent) can be used to build conventional type baseboards in the garden, or the tracks can be laid on concrete, brick, or various other surfaces. A garden layout can also be built at ground level and blended into the garden (figure three). The garden can also be used to extend a layout built partly in a purpose-built room, a spare room, shed, or garage. The main station and fiddle yard are inside and the main running lines extend out into the garden (figure four). This allows for much longer runs than is possible inside without the inconvenience of having to take all of the stock off of the layout at the completion of an operating session as is necessary with an entirely outdoor layout.

figure three ground level layout cross section raised garden layout sith station in shed figure four

The suggestions so far are all very well for those people who own their own home. For those living in a unit the majority of the above alternatives are not viable. The garage or spare room may still be possibilities but none of the other alternatives are available. So what can someone who lives in a (possibly) quite small unit do to find space to build a model railway. The following are some alternatives which enable a model railway to be built in a much smaller space than is available with the more obvious options listed above. Most of the following options can be used by anyone who has at least somewhere to call their own.

Along a wall. A narrow model railway can be built along any section of spare wall that you might happen to have available. Forget about trying to fit in a large complex continuous run and build a simple terminus/fiddle yard layout instead. Alternatively if you are particularly interested in locomotives then consider building a reasonably substantial locomotive depot along the wall and forget about the rest of the layout for the moment. Your loco depot can always be incorporated into a larger layout when you get the space. A freight marshalling yard or some sort of industrial area are two more alternatives that can fit along a piece of spare wall and which can later be reused as part of a larger layout.

In a cupboard. Yes layouts have been built in cupboards before now. If the cupboard is large enough then a complete small layout can be built within it and all you need to do is open the cupboard door and pick up the controller to start running trains. A somewhat larger layout can be built in a cupboard by having a fold down section which opens out of the cupboard once the cupboard door is open (figure five). The fixed section inside the cupboard can hold all of the stock while the layout is not in use.

folding layout in cupboard with storage shelves
figure five

To fold down over a bed or table. Here we are perhaps looking at a 6' x 4' or 8' x 4' layout similar to the type of thing that a lot of people have for their first layout. By carefully considering the type of operation required, some quite different types of layouts can be fitted into this sort of area. The layout can be hinged to a wall either over a bed or table or with folding legs attached (figure six) so that it can be folded up out of the way very quickly (once all of the stock has been removed). Alternatively the layout could be attached to the ceiling by ropes and pulleys and raised out of the way when not in use (figure seven). Make sure that a proper method of securing the layout in its stored position is used to stop the layout from falling if it is bumped.

figure six fold down layout layout suspended from ceiling on pulleys figure seven

Inside a table. In the smaller scales it becomes possible to consider the idea of building a coffee table complete with model railway built in. Simply build a coffee table with a baseboard six or eight inches below the level that you want the table height to be. Build the layout at this height providing supports in the corners for the coffee table top. You either remove the top and fold down the sides of the table when you want to operate the layout or alternatively make the top and sides from glass and the layout will be able to be operated at any time. Remember to make the glass top detachable so that you can get to the layout for maintenance and rerailing of trains. A layout of this type not only provides a practical piece of furniture for the house but also gives you a talking point when friends come to visit.

Fully portable. If you really don't have enough room to have a permanent layout of any kind then you should consider building a portable one. By building the layout out of a number of manageable sections a fairly large layout can be built which can be fitted into a fairly small space when packed away (4' x 2' is a reasonable maximum for sections of a portable layout). The layout can be stored in whatever space that you do have possible in some sort of purpose built frame which permits a number of boards to be stacked on top of the other (figure eight). When you want to operate the layout you simply pull out all of the boards and assemble the layout in whatever space that you have that is temporarily available for your use while actually operating the layout. If you don't have anywhere at all where you can put up the whole layout for operating then you can still build a layout like this and run it at exhibitions (provided that you can find somewhere to temporarily set up the layout to properly test run it in the first place.

storage rack for portable layout
figure eight

Modular layout. If you have a number of friends who are also interested in model railways and none of you have enough space for a complete layout then consider building a modular layout between you. Each person builds one or more modules in accordance to the same set of modular standards. Each person then stores their own modules. When you want to have an operating session then you and your fiends all get together and assemble a layout out of your modules. This arrangement not only minimizes the amount of storage space that is required but also permits a variety of different layouts to be assembled simply by placing the available modules in a different order (figure nine).

modular layout - two different arrangements
figure nine

Diorama. If you really don't think that you have enough space to build any type of layout then you are not really trying hard enough to find somewhere. If the thing that is really holding you back at the moment is not lack of space for a layout but lack of space for the sort of layout that you want then you can still start working on that dream layout now. By building a number of small scenes now, you will have actually got started on that layout. This will give you an incentive to try to get the space that you need for the layout. It will also make it much faster to produce the layout when you do get the space because the dioramas can be plugged straight into the layout and will already be fully scenicked. If a number of the dioramas have track on them it may also be possible to join a number of these together temporarily to give yourself somewhere to run trains. Building dioramas like this also have the advantage that if you dismantle the layout at some future time the dioramas can be removed in one piece and reused in the next layout.


So there you have it, a few suggestions on where you can put a model railway. You can be fairly sure that no matter how little room that you think that you have for your model railway there is always someone else who has somehow managed to build a working layout in a much smaller space.

go to top
Copyright Stephen Chapman