Building A Garden Railroad

                                                      Perspectives and Recommendations from a Beginner!
                                                                                          Part 1 of 3 -

                                                                First published in 2012 for the OCGRS

                                                                                By Vic and Sue Thies

                                                              Operators of the TooMuchFun RR (TMFRR)

“Honey, I’ll be right back.” “Where are you going”? “I need to go to Home Depot for a part”. “You were just there an hour ago”!! “I know but I just need this one more “special” bolt to continue”   (Probably not the last trip of the day!)

Recommendation #1:  Live near a Home Depot or hardware store.

Self explanatory (see above conversation). I really don’t know what I would do if we lived many miles form a hardware store. Progress would be really slow!

WOW! What a fantastic hobby.

With nearly 90% of our TooMuchFun Railroad construction completed, we thought it would be a good idea to share some of our observations and recommendations from a “beginners” perspective. Not being an expert in anything related to designing and building a garden railroad, this new endeavor has proven many times that Clint Eastwood’s quote (Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry) is right when he stated “ A mans got to know his limitations.”

This series of articles reflects Sue and my recommendations and hopefully may prove to help new and “old” hobby enthusiast avoid time consuming and potentially costly mistakes. Garden railroading will certainly “test” your limitations.


                                         Five bridges converge over a 4-tier waterfall on the TMFRR
                                                     (Circa 2012 before phases 3 & 4 construction)


Recommendation #2:  Do your research. Join a garden RR club(s), read books, magazines and articles on Garden RR and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Visit as many layouts as possible.

Of course everyone has their own best way of doing things, but we found that after reading everything we could get our hands on, talking with people already in the hobby became our best resource.  What may work in the -0 degrees of the cold snow country or the hot 120+ degree desert sun may not be the best for your area. Articles describing constructing track roadbed to stand up to frost heave or the extensive allowances for expansion in extreme heat just might not have applicability to your area. The effects of coastal climates with corrosive ocean air may necessitate using different construction materials then if you live just five miles inland. Talk to club members in your area and get input as to what has or has not worked for them. Most are more than willing to help you.

Before starting to build the TMFRR, we must have visited over 30 layouts and received great input on everything from types of construction materials to use, tips on powering trains, elevated vs. ground level layouts and much more. The in-person Q&A proved to be invaluable. One of the most informative observations from our tours was seeing layouts built on a slope. Our track home backyard with its upslope to the neighbors yard was not a barrier but an opportunity (and challenge) for expanding our original thoughts for where we could build the layout. We discovered this opportunity after our initial design and construction began. See recommendation #3.



                                   Having a sloped backyard presents opportunities and challenges

Recommendation #3:  Decide to pre-design or design on the fly, AND allow for future expansion.

Having a general idea of what we wanted to build, I saw in the Garden Railways Magazine an ad for a graphical sectional track layout software program. After working with the program for nearly a month with general dimensions for the layout, it soon became apparent that transferring from paper to real world application was a challenge. What looked great on the 3D software just did not translate well to our back yard. Probably more from user inexperience (Vic) with this type of software, we soon realized that for us, just getting out there and laying out a design was more our style. We also realized that by getting our hands dirty with hoses, ropes, pvc pipe and the likes, it was much easier to visualize our thoughts for a track plan and change ideas on the fly. For us, designing on the fly was a better method than pre-designing everything in detail before construction. Of course no matter which method or combination you choose, track grades and curves need to be adequately taken into account.  In talking with some hobbyists, pre-designing works much better for them. Some people are visual and others more analytically oriented so the software or architectural designing work best.

As I will discuss in Part 2, whichever way works best for you (maybe even a combination) you may want to allow for future expansion of your layout if room exists. We never thought we could build on our steep slope, yet for us that is the most spectacular aspect of our layout. We fell in love with the hobby so quickly that we had three major expansions after our initial plan.



Some of the household materials used in our pre-design.

                      Designing on the “fly” proved to be our best method for track & building ideas

Recommendation #4:  Realize that building a garden railroad takes more time & $$ than you first imagine!

As novices to the hobby, we naively did not realize the time it takes to construct a garden railroad. Building our overhead patio layout first was a real eye opener for us. Early in our efforts we would make goals for laying so many feet of track per day. Construction challenges routinely arose and our goal of 10 feet per day turned into 2-3 feet per day. We learned quickly that very little goes as planned and we did not want to sacrifice construction quality for quantity. We realized that building a quality layout is a VERY slow process and needed to learn to take in stride any amount of completion as an accomplishment and not fret over a timeline.



                                   Building the overhead layout was good practice for the garden RR

We quickly realized that this is not an inexpensive hobby. Having a budget, if appropriate, is great.  From our early experiences, setting up a contingency or slush fund was necessary for all those unanticipated trips to Home Depot and purchasing necessary supplies. We were also very fortunate to have met a reseller of used train items ( and saved a good deal of money vs. buying full retail. It would certainly be nice to win the big lottery and not have to worry about the costs of things but that’s not the real world for most of us.  Another source of good buys is eBay for those special items you must have for your layout.  Sue has quickly become an eBay expert for knowing good prices when she sees them.

Again, these are our observations and recommendations, and may or may not have applicability to your situation.

In future articles we’ll highlight some of our other “learning experiences” in this great hobby including:

Documenting your efforts (comes in handy for future reference)

Building for future expansion

Sun and weather destruction - building to last

Access issues (especially for those of us “seniors”)

Lighting for effects

Building an era-themed layout or just for Too Much Fun



The TMFRR comes to life after dark - not adequately planning for the

necessary electrical connections necessitated much retrofitting