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Best Choices for Beginning Garden RailroadersGarden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and running well Best Choices for Beginning Garden Railroaders: a short list of things you're most likely to need when starting out
Large Scale Starter Sets: Begin with a train you'll be proud to run Bachmann Garden Trains: Narrow Gauge models designed to run well in your Garden Railroad
Large Scale Track order Form Buildings and accessories for outdoor railroading
Large Scale Christmas Trains: Trains with a holiday theme for garden or professional display railroads.Free Large Scale Signs and Graphics: Bring your railroad to life with street signs, business signs, and railroad signs
Garden Railroading Books, Magazines, and Videos: Where to go to learn even more
Collectible Trains and Villages: On30 Trains and accessories designed by Thomas Kinkade and others

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm) and Garden Train Store(tm)

This page lists products that are especially useful to beginning Garden Railroaders. If you don't know what Garden Railroading is, my article "Go Outside and Run Your Trains," on the Family Garden Trains Primer page will give you some idea.

Another helpful Primer article is "Building a Garden Railroad on a Budget." That article gives you some idea of the sort of expenses you may incur as you begin to move your trains outside. That article argues in favor of taking "baby steps" when you're starting out. But if you work your way through the sample budget sheets in that article, you'll soon realize that:

  • You can put a "test track" on level ground for little more than the cost of a starter set and an extra loop of track.
  • Building a nicely landscaped small-to-medium garden railroad with a pond and buildings will cost you several times that much - not because the train will cost you more, but because everything else will.
  • At first, you will probably spend more for gardening and landscaping stuff than you will for track and trains put together. This shouldn't scare anyone who's used to spending time (and money) at the garden store each spring.
  • At first you should expect to spend more for track than you do for your trains. (If you "chintz" on trains and structures at first, you can always fix that with another trip to the store, but if you chintz on track, your railroad will never be what it ought to be.)

I can't help you with bolders and mulch, or even with Dwarf Alberta Spruces, but I can help you make the most useful initial investments in track, trains, and structures. The goal of this page is to save you time and money by helping you locate the most useful (and generally the most affordable) products for when you're first starting out.

Update for 2013 - In the forty-plus years since modern garden railroading emerged, we've learned that financial crises hit our hobby harder than just about any other area of American life. Several of the products we had listed here not long ago have been discontinued, at least for now. But in the meantime, we're pleased to report that many of our favorite products are still available, including, ironically, a few that were hard to find not long ago.

That said, we did have to rework our "short list" of products folks should consider starting out with. If you saw something here before and it's not here now, please know that we have just replaced one excellent product with another one that's more currently more accessible to more people.

For information about why model trains and related products seem to "come and go" even in good years, please see our article "About Pricing and Availability." Please contact us if you have questions about availability, quality, or, suitability of any product listed on this page.

A Note about "Buyer's Guides" We post these descriptions to help you make informed decisions and to learn what is available, even if the suppliers we usually recommend have a short supply. In some cases, we will allow a description to remain online, even without a supplier link, if we have reason to believe that the product will become available again later. If you want a particular product, but we have no supplier button or the supplier's page says they are sold out, let us know, and we'll try to help you find one elsewhere. We apologize if this causes you any inconvenience or confusion.

Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose to provide your trains or other purchases are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier should any problems occur. (They almost never do, but you want to be on the safe side.)

Stuff You'll Need at First

Chances are your initial purchases will be along the following lines:
  • Large Scale Starter set - a complete train with a little power pack to get your started. Probable cost range: $150-400
  • Extra track - one or two large loops of track, as well as any other straight pieces or turnouts (switches) you need to complete a small but functional railroad outside. Probable cost range: $150-400.
  • Buildings - A few attractive, sturdy structures that go together easily, so your trains have a "community" to serve.
  • Groundcovers - a few plants you should try to get started early so you gain experience and "starters" you can spread around as your railroad grows.

Starter Sets

If you haven't already picked up a Large Scale starter set, you're in for a treat. Large Scale manufacturers such as those represented on this page have been making detailed, reliable trains for decades, and each year the products get better. A few samples that have a reputation for quality and which should be widely available are shown on this page. These sets come with track that is most suitable for indoor use in tight quarters, say around a Christmas tree or on a test track, but you'll want to use wider curves outside. The AristoCraft set also comes with a very handy remote control that you can use outside if your railroad doesn't get too big. Note: For more sets and for more details on the sets listed here, please check out the Garden Train Starter Set page.

Note for 2013: One of my favorite starter sets was made by AristoCraft. Unfortunately, the recession put a damper on how many trains they could order for a while. The AristoCraft train sets are still among my favorites. If you see one in a store, don't wait too long. If Aristo gets another order in this fall, I'll be sure to post them here.

Bachmann ET&WNC Passenger Set - The East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad Company ("Tweetsie" for sort) ran from 1881 to about 1940 in North Carolina and adjacent states. This recently improved locomotive (with headlight, smoke, and sound) pulls a coal tender and two lighted passenger cars. By the way, though this is a realistic, "every day" paint job for this set, it also looks great at Christmas. Around a Christmas tree in your living room, it would be a "jaw-dropper."
Bachmann ET&WNC Freight Set - This freight set shows how smaller railroads sometimes had to acommodate passeners and freight on the same train - a baggage/passenger combine with metal wheels and interior lighting has been substituted for a caboose, so the handful of passengers the line expects can ride in comfort. By the way, this is the largest single starter set anyone sells for garden railroads.
LGB US-style Freight Set - LGB invented modern garden railroading, but they've changed owners twice in the last several years, and their products are getting hard to come by. So if you like either this train or the one below it, don't wait too long.

Click this button to check stock on AmazonI'm told that the locomotive on this set runs well and puts out a nice amount of smoke when you want it to. It is not a model of any specific real locomotive, but gives the general impression of an early 1900s US-style train.

LGB Big Train - LGB's very first locomotive was a model of a small Austrian locomotive called the Stainz. This set combines a version of the famous Stainz with two "shorty" cars that will run and look great. Click this button to check stock on AmazonOwn a classic!
Piko SF Freight Starter Set - This locomotive is based on real 0-6-0 "docksider" locomotives that were built by Porter and Baldwin to serve industries and small Click this button to check stock on Amazonswitchyards where a big, heavy switcher wasn't required.

Track for Outside

When you move your trains outdoors, you'll want to give them room to run. Trains look better and run better on wider curves. You will never regret choosing good track at the outset and installing it properly.

LGB invented the track that most garden trains run on. Track from AristoCraft and USA Trains is totally compatible with LGB, but it has better connectors. Bachmann's brass track (not the stuff that comes with their trains) is also compatible with the other brands shown here. (Piko track is not compatible with these brands, so we left it off of this table - just know that if you start with Piko track you'll probably have to stay with Piko track.)

Because of the uneven availability of track in 2013, you might wind up using track from more than one manufacturer. That's why we have a cross-reference list of the most popular pieces. The pieces that I've found most useful are shown in bold. For more details on the track options listed here, as well as many other choices, please check out the Garden Railroad Track Options page.

STRAIGHT Track with Solid Brass Rail AristoCraft Std. Gauge
(US) #
AristoCraft Narrow Gauge
(Euro) #
LGB
(Euro) #
Bachmann ) # USA Trains #
1' Straight Track (usually comes in a box of 12 pieces) 30030 11000 10000 (300mm)
94651 R81000
2' Straight Track (usually comes in a box of 12 pieces) 30060 11060 10600   R81060

CURVED Track with Solid Brass Rail AristoCraft Std. Gauge
(US) #
AristoCraft Narrow Gauge
(Euro) #
LGB
(Euro) #
Bachmann ) # USA Trains #
4'-Diameter Curve Track (12 pieces make a circle. LGB calls this "RI".) 30100 11100 11000 (R1) 94653 R81100
5'-Diameter Curve Track (12 pieces make a circle. LGB calls this "R2".) 30110 11500 15000 (R2) 94654 R81500
8'-Diameter Curve Track (16 pieces make a circle. LGB calls this "R3".) 30115 11600 16000 (R3) 94655A R81600
10'-Diameter Curve Track (12 pieces make a circle.) 30120 11800     R81700



Buildings

When I first put this page online, several nice pre-built buildings were available. But most of the buildings available today are kits. That's okay; I always recommend painting buildings before you put them out, and it's a lot easier to paint a kit than a finished structure.

About "Beginning" Piko Structures The first several Piko structures listed below use essentially the same basic components and construction, so if you start, say with the smallest "Gingerbread" house, then move on to the schoolhouse or stores, you'll be able to apply any "lessons learned" as you progress. For maximum results, follow our detailed instructions on painting and assembling these.

Piko Gingerbread Houses
Piko Gingerbread Houses - These little houses are great for setting up a small town without a lot of space. They look tiny in the photo (taken from the package's cover art), but they're large enough to look fine with any garden train. In addition, I have a whole The Lewis Gingerbread House, repainted blue and white.  Click to go to article.article on how to paint and assemble these so that they'll last for many years outdoors. I started with the yellow one because I liked the trim the best. (Yes, it's blue now.) I've had this outside for four years, year-round, and it still looks as good as when I set it out.

In fact, starting with a "Gingerbread" series house is a pretty good idea. It's one of the simplest sets to paint and assemble, but it uses the same walls and basic construction as many of Piko's US-style buildings, including the Schoolhouse and the Church below.

King's Gingerbread House (gray)
Adam's Gingerbread House (blue)
Lewis' Gingerbread House (yellow)
Piko Little Red Schoolhouse
Piko Old West Storefronts
Sample Pico Western Storefronts
Piko Old West Storefronts - This is one of Piko's best-known line of buildings. It uses many of the same components as the "Gingerbread" series, so if you started with that one, this is the next logical step. Or vice versa.

I don't have detailed instructions on painting and assembling these from the ground up, but you'll get a lot of good tips from our articles on painting a Piko Gingerbread House or on painting plastic structures in general. The buildings in the photo to the right are examples of a few of the dozens of Western storefronts Piko has produced.

In fact, I still have one of these new in a box, so when I get around to painting it up, I'll try to put a specific article together. In the meantime, the main differences between one building in the series and the next are:

  • The shape of the cornice
  • The number of windows
  • The colors
  • The included graphics

Since we recommend painting anyway, and we have plenty of free downloadable graphics you can substitute, don't be too nervous if you don't like the color scheme or business name of one you come across.

Piko has also made special versions of these for Christmas, to go with the (now discontinued) LGB Toy Train sets, to commemorate specific companies like Harley Davidson, and so on. The photo above is just from one collection of these. We'll list the ones we can find available online, but once you click on any of these links, chances are you see others we don't have listed yet. They all go together about the same, so don't be afraid of trying one we don't show.

Shown above, left to right:

Piko Hardware Store

Piko Leather Goods and Boot Store
Piko Acme Liquor Store
Piko General Store


Not Shown


Piko Lgb Train Hobby Shop
Piko Saloon

Piko Sheriff's Office

Piko Dentist Office
Piko Red River Station - This is Piko's smallest station kit, so it fits on even tiny railroads. On big railroads, it still looks good as a way station or serving small towns on your railroad. I don't have detailed instructions on painting and assembling these from the ground up, but I have embedded some painting suggestions in our Painting Plastic Structures article.

For this station, I used a color scheme similar to the original Red River colors, but added protective paint and detailing. Click for a bigger photo. For this station, I used a rust primer for the 'bricks,' then used a 'wash' of acrylic white paint to flow into the mortar lines. Click for a bigger photo.

In addition, I have made my own graphics for both stations (in case you want more variety than what comes in the box). If you want to take a look, go to our Large Scale Sticker Sheets page and look at the second sheet.

Red River Station
Piko Red River Station

Ground Covers

My Primer article "Groundcover 101" gives you many hints about kinds of groundcovers to use in various situations. One thing worth knowing from the start is that the sooner you get some ground covers going the better. If you have early success with a groundcover, you can save money by transplanting starts elsewhere on your railroad. Coversely, if something doesn't work for you, better you spend a few dollars finding out early than many dollars finding out later.

Springhill Nurseries, a reputable sponsor, offers several which you may find useful. Simply click on the button on the right, then use the following plant names as search terms to get started early. Note: Some groundcovers that are sold for general use are too invasive to use on garden railways. If you have a question about any particular plant, and I haven't discussed it in my "Groundcover 101" article, please contact me and I'll tell you what I know about it.

  • Magic Carpet Thyme - This is a kind of creeping thyme, handy variety for filling in "brushy" areas on your railroad, or growing between stepstones in a path. Creeping thyme is a garden railroading favorite. Thyme thrives in full or partial sun, especially on elevated, fairly dry areas such as "hillsides." See my article on "Inexpensive and Low-Maintenance Plants for Garden Railroads" for more tips about using creeping thyme.
  • Irish Moss - Another Garden Railroading favorite. Beautiful, low-lying clumps of very tiny leaves, full sun or partial shade, zones 4-7
  • Purple Ice Plant, also Golden Ice Plant - I haven't used these but some of my friends have used them with success. They have small leaves and bright flowers; fine in dry areas, zones 5-9

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Return to Family Garden Trains Home page Return to Big Indoor Trains Home page Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and running well Big Indoor Trains Primer Articles: All about setting up and displaying indoor display trains and towns. Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden RailroadingBig Christmas Trains: Directory of Large Scale and O Scale trains with holiday themes
On30 and O Gauge trains to go with indoor display villages and railroads


Note: Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, and BIG Train Store™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.


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