The hobby of model railways can be as cheap or expensive as you want. This page describes what you can do to save money. The general ways are

  • make rather than buy - this often means a trade-off between time and money because making your own will almost always take more time than buying
  • make do with less of or fewer of
  • buy second-hand
  • re-cycle items

The sections on this page are

  • Home layout
  • Benchwork
  • Rolling stock
  • Conventions
  • DC or DCC?

Home Layout

Do you need your own layout? No. I know of someone who has been in the hobby for 54 years as of 2017 and who does not have a layout. What do you do if you do not have a layout? You can join a club and run trains, either your own or the club's, on the club's layout. Or you can do the same on a friend's layout.

If you are going to have layout, it can be small. You can have a shelf layout, see for example this article or a micro layout, see here for example, both links last checked June 17, 2017. Another possibility is to share a layout with a friend or friends. The cost of building and running the layout would be shared.


You have decided to build a layout. You have the space and have done the planning. The next step is to build the benchwork.There are many internet articles and videos on how to build benchwork. For those interested in saving money, two tips are

  • the benchwork can be of light construction
  • use re-claimed wood - the benchwork of my embryonic layout is made from wooden pallets I found discarded in a light industrial area near where I live.

Light construction is not for everyone. Some peoople like benchwork of sturdy construction so they can stand on it. 

Rolling stock

During the past year the partners of two members of a local garden railway society said to me that rolling stock is a bottomless pit. Some locomotives in the larger scales can be over $10,000 retail. Even in HO scale, locomotives such as a big boy with DCC can be around $1000 retail.

The key ways to save money are

Have less

I read a comment on the internet about a survey conducted by a popular magazine of its readers. The survey concluded that around 80 percent of the rolling stock bought by readers had not been taken out of its box. This is all very well if you are a collector or you get much of your enjoyment from buying items but not if you want to save money. The morale here is that it is all too easy to buy rolling stock and then not use it. This is particularly so when you are starting out in the hobby. The temptation is to quickly build up your roster. The purchases will often by wasted because it can take several years before you have a good idea of what rolling stock you need or which aspect of the hobby you find interesting.

Second hand

Buying second hand is obvious advice. And it is good advice for freight wagons and passenger cars. Buying locomotives second hand is also good advice provided you know for sure that the locomotive is not defective. The ideal would be for you to try the locomotive on your layout or one that is similar to yours. Almost as good is buying second hand from a trader at a train show or convention.

Buying second hand locomotives from Trademe e-bay can be problematic. Many people have bought a locomotive second hand and found the locomotive were as advertised. Others have found the locomotive was not and had difficulty getting their money back. There have been cases where the seller has not packed the locomotive well and it has arrived broken. It is your choice.


The discussion up to now has implicitly assumed the rolling stock is RTR (ready to roll). You can save money by buying kits and doing the assembly. Kits vary markedly in the amount of assembling required but they are always cheaper than RTR. Buying kits instead of RTR is an example of the time money trade-off.


The next step up in complexity from kits is kitbashing. You take a kit, or possibly a RTR item, and modify it so it is as required. For example, you could take a kit for a 40' box car and extend it to a 52' box car. Or more difficult, add a driving axle to a RTR locomotive.


The final step up is scratchbuilding. You build most or all of the item from material such as wood, cardboard, and styrene. Most people will buy wheels, bogies, motors and other machined parts, although tool makers and people with good machining skills can certainly make these parts, especially in the larger scales.

If you are new to scratchbuilding, I recommend that you scratch build one or two freight wagons or passenger cars, or build a locomotive from a kit before attempting to scratch build a locomotive.


I am reluctant to offer the following advice because the North Shore Model Railway Club supports modellers of all prototypes.

Possibly because the market for them is the largest, models of North American prototype locomotives are cheaper than those of other prototypes. If money is very tight North American models will save you money compared to the models of other prototypes.

I believe you should first look at other ways of saving money before giving up on models of non-North American prototypes.


Conventions are a lot of fun and good value. You view superby built layouts, get special access to prototype operations, listen to informative clinics, enter modelling competitions, and buy items cheaply from traders and at silent auctions. The downside is that convention can be expensive, especially those overseas. 

In addition to booking early, there is at least four ways you can save money compared with doing things in the standard way

  • Stay in more modest accommodation than that near the convention or recommended by the convention organisers. Instead of staying in a hotel, say in a motel; instead of a motel, stay in a cabin at a motor camp (done that). This more modest accommodation may be further from the convention than the recommended accommodation, another example of the trade-off between time and money.
  • Share accommodation such as a hotel room. Do not know someone to share with? Start advertising several months before the convention that you would like to share a room.
  • Do not get carried away and buy a lot at the convention!
  • Combine the convention and a holiday into one trip (done this). This will usually save a lot of money compared with taking the holiday at another time.

There are other things you might do, but these can compromise your enjoyment of the convention and what you learn from it

  • Skip one day of the convention, such as the last day.
  • Do not participate in the convention events that your have to pay extra for. An example of such an event is a Modelling with the Masters session at the annual national convention of the National Model Railroaders Association. As the title implies, such as session is a hands-on modelling session run by an expert modeller. You pay an extra fee to attend the sessions but you can learn a lot (I did - I need a lot more practice at modelling).


There is no doubt in my mind that DCC leads to greater control on a layout than does DC. However, if you have a small layout such as a shelf layout on which your run just one or two trains, you may DC as effective as DCC for what you want to do. And you will save money because the control system for DC is cheaper than that for DCC and each locomotive will be cheaper.

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