Building A Garden Railroad

                                             Perspectives and Recommendations from a Beginner!
                                                                                  Part 3 of 3

                        (Originally published in 2012 for the Orange County Garden Railroad Society)
                                                                            By Vic and Sue Thies
                                                     Operators of the TooMuchFun RR (TMFRR)

In parts one and two of this series we covered 6 recommendations from a beginner’s perspective of lessons learned in getting into this great hobby. Many of these lessons were costly to us in not only wasted money, but also in time spent redoing various construction segments. In this segment, we will cover several recommendations that might prove to be useful for longer-term durability of your layout and equipment, and the avoidance of electrical problems.

Again, all of these recommendations have been from a layperson’s perspective, possibly unique to our particular situation and may or may not have applicability to your current or future garden railroad.

Recommendation # 7:  Avoid sun and weather destruction of your layout. Use appropriate building materials.

Early in our TMFRR construction, we saw how destructive the fury of nature can be on all materials used in the building of a garden railroad. From electrical wires for lighting and track power to structures of all types, all will eventually succumb to the elements; some just more quickly due to the types of materials used.

We bought some cute and inexpensive buildings made out of a soft wood that after just a couple months showed signs of severe weathering. These buildings will be lucky to survive two years before having to be replaced. While we did coat them with both water and UV protector, soft wood materials will just not have long-term durability. Thankfully, we did discover a more durable material for many of our buildings, that being precision board from Rainbow Ridge Kits ( With proper UV protector these buildings should last longer than my aching back! Of course, the major manufacturers of garden railroad buildings use UV tolerant plastics which also hold up fairly well to the elements but nothing compared to the precision board buildings. Properly constructed wood structures are also great if the appropriate hard wood (cedar, redwood, etc.) is utilized and protected.

Additionally, UV protecting most of your railroad buildings, figures, signs and structures will hopefully add years to their life expectancy.





While the buildings below the Santa Fe consist are cute, the soft wood

construction will not hold up to the destructive sun and rain
(Update 2016-all of these buildings were replaced after just one year)



The Dragon’s Lair Restaurant and Dragon’s Gate Castle are one of a kind buildings

                               constructed of Precision Board and we expect many years of durability


We did install numerous water drains throughout the low-lying layout areas to avoid standing water and this is where more is better.

 Water is very destructive to anything metal and our numerous metal bridges are showing signs of severe rust where located near splashing waterfalls. I would recommend if you incorporate any metal structures in your layout, purchase them unpainted, take them to a zinc or galvanizing coating business and then have them properly painted or powder coated. It has been very disheartening how quickly our bridges have rusted to the point where they will have to be dismantled and finished correctly or replaced.





Photo date approx. 2013

Improperly coating metal structures will lead to severe rusting – if placed

near constantly splashing water, it may happen within a couple months

(Update 2016 - the 3 lower bridges had to be replaced

                                               due to severe rusting after only 3 years of operation)

All electrical wires really need to be rated for outdoor use and/or placed in conduit if you expect decades of trouble free use. Low voltage landscape lighting type wire is excellent if conduit is not feasible. The challenge with this wire is they are all the same color and labeling correctly for later ID purposes is critical. Use a good label tape suitable for outdoor use.
Recommendation #8:  Minimize electrical issues (for dummies like me)

My personal disclaimer. When it comes to electrical/electronic subjects I (Vic) have no expertise or aptitude whatsoever! I couldn’t tell you the difference from a watt to a volt to an ohm if my life depended on it.

Early in the construction of the TMFRR, Sue and I realized that we wanted to have a railroad we could enjoy as much at nighttime as well as during the daylight. Planning for this early in the construction (irrespective to the fact that we did not plan adequately for future expansions) necessitated consulting with our household electrician who did work for us over the years. He gave us great advise on how to avoid problems with electrical issues down the road. He also built our control center with industrial grade/military spec material for years of hopefully trouble free use.

We have approximately 20,000 LED lights throughout the layout and minimizing electrical problems was a high priority.



                                                                The TMFRR comes to life after dark

  • So here is a list points we learned proactively from Kevin, our electrician, and which we incorporated into the TMFRR. 
  • Break down your layout into electrical (geographical) zones and circuits within each zone
    • This allows for quick identification of short circuits or problems within a particular zone. We have 40 individual lighting circuits, each one protected by an inline fuse and a LED light, which does not illuminate if the circuit is blown. If a circuit shorts it is relatively easy to find the problem.
    • Develop a lighting/track schematic to further define the zones.

The TMFRR Control Center has 40 lighting circuits (right side),

                                                  each with an inline fuse to help locate short circuits


  • Use quality connectors at both ends of the lines (field and control center)
    • Crimp, solder and apply adhesive heat shrink tubing each connector. This along with the next point will hopefully keep your connections relatively corrosion free for years
    • Coat your connections with a good anti corrosion spray such as CSP or De-Ox-Id
  • The use of LED lights greatly expands the capacity for lighting, as the current draw is minimal compared to incandescent lights.
    • While LEDs have drawbacks, improvements over the years have made them much more desirable for hobby use. The newer LEDs are now much more natural looking than just a few years ago and come in numerous colors, 12 volts (no need for resistors) and waterproof formats. (We buy most of the LED lights from )
    • Wherever possible don’t skimp on quality for price. This is one area that I really appreciate the advise of Kevin. I used cheap materials early on and paid the price just months later when they needed to be replaced.

Final recommendation #9:  Just have TooMuchFun

Hopefully some of our recommendations in these articles will be helpful to you or someone starting out in this great hobby. God willing, Sue and I plan on having way TooMuchFun for many years to come in garden railroading.