How to Layout & Wire Model Trains

Updated November 21, 2016

Ever since the invention of trains, enthusiasts have enjoyed model trains as an engaging, educational and recreational pastime. Constructing your own display, whether for private or public use, brings together many skills: artistic, electrical and mechanical to name a few. Your display begins with an imaginative design and then quickly comes to life as you lay your track, wire all of your components and build the landscape. A basic understanding of layout and wiring will help you as you begin building your display.

Look over the area where you want to build your display. Keep in mind that larger scale models such as G or O require more space than smaller scales like HO, N or Z. Visit your local hobby shop to compare model trains before deciding on a scale.

Draft a sketch of your display on a piece of paper. Think about the theme you want to achieve, such as wintertime in Chicago or the American Southwest. Also, design in proportion: For example, 1 inch of your track may equal 50 feet or a mile in real life.

Build your baseboard of particle board or plywood to the size specifications of the display you want. A baseboard supports your entire display. If you have limited space, you may want to build a small baseboard that fits on a kitchen, coffee or end table. Or, if you have more room, perhaps build a narrow baseboard that extends around the perimeter of an entire room.

Attach your baseboard to the benchwork supports underneath. A table may serve as the benchwork, or you may custom build one out of wood to fit into the space designated for your display.

Glue the roadbed, typically made from cork, to the baseboard in the pattern that your tracks will take. Common track layouts include continuous loop or end-to-end. A continuous loop pattern may look like an oval or a figure eight. An end-to-end layout forms a straight path, where your train goes from one point to another. Make sure the layout accommodates a large enough radius in corners for your train to turn smoothly. Some tracks you can purchase have curved pieces configured for the optimal radius.

Glue or nail your track to the roadbed so that it fits securely for the electric current to flow and the trains to run smoothly over it.

Connect your wiring from the track to the controller either by attaching to a rail joiner (which you can purchase at a hobby shop) or soldering the wire directly to the track. Attach the direct current (DC) wire to the track for the train to run. Attach alternating current (AC) wires to any accessories in your display, such as house lights or street lamps. Your controller probably already shows DC and AC switches on it; therefore, you should attach accordingly.


Some hobby shops can provide prefabricated baseboards if you choose not to build on your own. These boards can come with track already laid and wired. However, you may want to wire additional components as your display expands. Clean the track often in order to keep the track clean and free of debris. This will ensure that your train will operate smoothly.


When adding accessory components such as lights to your display, match the voltage of the bulb with the voltage of your controller. Otherwise, the life of your bulb can significantly decrease. Isolate track with rail gaps (plastic rail joiners) for reversing loops in order to reverse the polarity and to avoid short circuiting.

Things You'll Need

  • Room or tabletop
  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Particle board or plywood
  • Roadbed
  • Track
  • White glue
  • Nails
  • Hammer
  • Controller
  • Wires
  • Rail joiners
  • Soldering iron
  • Train
  • Accessories
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