Top 10 money-saving tips for your railway modelling

21 May 2020
Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. Howard Smith explores 10 steps to keep our hobby more wallet-friendly.

Everyone likes a bargain, right? When it comes to non-essential things, like our hobbies, it’s nice to know that we can keep these going and make our budget stretch further, even in an era of increasing prices.

The rising cost of model railways hasn’t gone unnoticed. Regularly, I receive emails from readers who bemoan the increase in price of RTR locomotives, coaches, wagons or scenic accessory items. It can’t be ignored by many, whose modelling skills haven’t reached their potential and rely on new accessory purchases to save building an equivalent kit. However, for the savvy modeller, there are many solutions to help reduce your annual modelling spend, and leave a few spare pennies to purchase that ‘must-have’ new locomotive, coach, or wagon. Here are a few solutions to help make your annual modelling budget stretch just that little bit further.

1. Be a savvy shopper

Retailers are competitive with branded product names, though some more than others. It pays to do your research beforehand. Plan ahead, too – model auctions take place around the country on a regular basis. You don’t need to be present to bid – simply visit their websites to place your bid beforehand and/or bid on their websites during the auction as each lot comes up for sale. A glance at the advertisers' section of the magazine will highlight a few auctioneers. It pays to take a look at other larger online auction websites occasionally, too, such as eBay, where second-hand bargains are plentiful.

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2. Dig around

Many model shops have a good selection of products ‘front of house’, but I’ve been behind the scenes at many of these and there’s a wealth of second-hand bargains to be had. It’s often simply a case of asking and making an offer. From damaged, yet easily repairable second-hand items to ‘as-new’ older items of rolling stock or locomotives which have never been run, it’s often a treasure trove that waits to be uncovered, though more often than not, access to these can be restricted, so simply ask - you've nothing to lose. Don't forget to barter on price!

3. Pre-order

‘If in doubt, leave it out’ goes the saying. But, if there’s a new limited-edition exclusive ready-to-run item from a retailer or smaller manufacturer you really want, it’s often best to pre-order to receive a discount, these typically vary between 5 and 30%.

4. Postage

Postage is often overlooked. We take it for granted, but if most of the purchases for your hobby are made online – as so many are – it pays to plan ahead to reduce those ‘last-minute’ small orders where postage soon accumulates. Planning ahead on a project allows you to place a larger more cost-effective order. If you’re struggling to make up those last few pounds on your order to qualify for free postage, think about adding modelling consumables such as glues, or non-perishable goods, such as solders or drill bits which are always useful to keep in stock.

5. Recycle

Nothing quite keeps costs as low as something that’s free. Ask around and it’s surprising how many people have something that’s surplus to their requirements. From left-over project off-cuts of plywood lingering in their garage or shed to older die-cast vehicles in their lofts, many are prepared to donate these if they see they can be of use to someone who’s enthusiastic. 

6. Trade

You might be great at building wagons, but not so great at building baseboards. However, someone you know might be great at carpentry, but not such a dab hand at building kits. Many modellers build for each other on an exchange basis at comparable costs, particularly in clubs, and save money accordingly.

7. Substitute

Nothing quite beats a branded model paint for your models for authenticity of colour, but D.I.Y. stores are a good source for acrylic paint, particularly small test tubes that are useful for painting skies or ground terrain before grassing. Many a modeller has ballasted their track sidings with fine Chinchilla sand to represent ash ballast, or used fine twigs from the garden as a realistic base for a tree structure. It has even been known for dirt from the garden to be dried and sieved to make a fine terrain powder, all wallet-friendly options.

8. Be wise

Does your small shunting plank layout require the latest DCC system, or would a more-affordable entry-level unit suffice? Is it wise to build a large layout? Some layouts cost significantly more than others, too, depending on how many buildings or kits you intend to build. Scratch-building keeps costs low and a largely-grassed landscape with little track won’t cost anywhere near as much as one with complex track, intricate infrastructure and large buildings - all quite obvious, really. Simply scale your ambitions to your budget.

9. Thin out

We can hoard many things, some of which we believe might be useful ‘one day’. But can we remember every item we have saved for the time we’ll need to use it? Where rolling stock or locomotives are concerned, unless these have sentimental value, it might be worth selling to upgrade, or using the proceeds towards a new project. You can list these online, or, visit your local model shop and see if an offer can be made to put against a new item.

10. Team up

The shared costs of building something in a group, particularly a large layout, make it more cost-effective per head. The same applies to locomotives and rolling stock on a large layout, where members can pool stock resources to produce an impressive spectacle. Ploughing your own furrow with the purchase of locomotives and stock can be enjoyable if you have the funds, but don't ignore this option, particularly if you build many different layouts or change your stock regularly.