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|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:
I can't help you order bolders and mulch online, 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 2015 - Every year we rework our "short list" of products folks should consider starting out with. Some years the list gets shorter; some it gets longer, depending on the state of the economy three years ago - yes, it takes 18-36 months for global economic changes to affect our market. Thank goodness, we've had a few good years in a row, so stuff that was hard to find in 2010-2013 is starting to reappear again.
The other thing that has happened is that several vendors who used to do their online business through sites we could link to directly are now doing most of that business through Amazon. So most of our train links just go there these days. Once you get to an Amazon page, though, you can often find multiple vendors selling the same thing. So you can do "competitive shopping" (more-or-less) directly from the Amazon page.
Also, certain train products tend to come online late in the season. So once you get to a product's Amazon page, look at the "other people have bought" and "other people have looked at" lists to see if something's come online since I most recently updated this page.
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 FirstChances are your initial purchases will be along the following lines:
|Bachmann Logging Train Set When Bachmann first started making garden trains, their industrial-style Mogul 2-6-0 was a favorite. They have reintroduced it with much-improved engineering, smoke, and chuff sound. It is hauling a 20' flat car with logs and a logging caboose. the train comes with a 5'4" x 4'3" oval of track that you can use indoors, as well as a power pack with speed controller, illustrated "Bach Man" instruction manual, and DVD-format video instructions.
|Midwestern Freight Train - This train set represents the great railroads' contribution to western expansion. The ten-wheeler pulling this train has a "diamond" smoke stack to catch cinders that would otherwise start prairie fires. It has smoke and synchronized "chuff" sound. By the way, Bachmann's first Large Scale locomotive was a ten-wheeler, but this one is the product of several upgrades and reengineering efforts. There is also a caboose, a stock car for hauling cattle to the big city, and a large oval of track for use indoors, as well as a power supply and instructional DVD. Midwestern Freight Train -
|Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus Train -
This is another favorite Bachmann train set of the past. Based on real trains that used to bring the circus to town. (In fact, when my father was a boy in the 1930s, he used to earn a pass to the circus by helping them set up tents - true story.) In a year when the big circuses are announcing that they will be closing down soon, here's a way to keep the magic alive.
Bachmann has reengineered this locomotive several times so it's more reliable than ever. It has operating headlight, smoke, speed-synchronized sound, and a coal tender. It pulls a coach with a lighted interior and two classic parade coaches. There's even a lion and a tiger in the box.
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. Own a classic!
Note: LGB and its parent companies have had some difficulties over the past several years. LGB used to make hundreds of products and hopefully will again. However the most recent new owners said they were going to start rebuilding LGB's line from the student sets up. So that is the only one we expect to see in wide availability this fall. Once again, if you click on the Amazon link, look at the "other people ordered" and "other people looked at" links to see if anything else has become available in recent days.
|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 switchyards where a big, heavy switcher wasn't required.
Note: PIKO's US importers began ordering these trains when they couldn't get LGB trains. Right now most people seem to be out of stock, but these sets are worth considering, and several other PIKO sets have been available in recent months. If you click through to Amazon, please be sure to look at the "other people ordered" and "other people looked at" links to see if something else has become available in recent days.
LGB invented the track that most garden trains run on. Track from AristoCraft/GeneratioNext 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.
Note: Piko's larger curves aren't always exactly the same as the other brands, so if you have to mix and match curves, consider sticking with the other three brands on this page. Otherwise read the product discriptions carefully.
Because of the uneven availability of track in 2014, 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.
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 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
|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:
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
Piko Sheriff's 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.
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.
Piko Red River Station
Note: As of July, 2014, no one is selling this building through Amazon; however many vendors still have them available, and it's one of Piko's most popular structures, so I'm leaving the photo up as a reference.
"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.
"Trees for your trains" lists a few trees that are relatively low-maintenance, and tells you how to get them started off right in your garden railroad. Here are three I have had good luck with.
Many more conifers are useful if you don't mind training them a bit, or at least being judicious with the trimmers. I like conifers because they can represent all kinds of trees, and they stay green all winter long, looking cheerful.
A few non-confers can be useful, such as laceleaf Japanese maple. Just know that the ones you buy are all grafts - the laceleaf branches are grafted onto a "generic" Japanese maple trunk. The branches tend to grow out, not up, so you'll have to trim the lower branches for a few years to force upward growtn.
Again our article on "Trees for your trains" has lots of information on trimming.
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