You’re 55, 60, or 65. You’ve wanted a layout your entire life and you spend hours fantasizing about ‘the day’. By that I mean the day when the kids are out of the nest, retirement final yields some free time, or the necessary space frees up. Fantasizing is one thing but what about effective preparation? With a little thought now, you can effectively prepare for the day you are ready for a layout (and have a lot of fun in the process). Before we get started let’s think about what doesn’t constitute effective preparation. Random spending on rolling stock and structures frequently ends up being dollars down the drain that doesn’t move you in the direction you’ll want to go.

I suggest developing some basic skills now. In addition, take a much more focused approach to equipment and tools you will, without question, need. Here are some simple suggestions that will not only provide you with some relaxing afternoons but also put you in a great position later. The ‘layout on a plank’ blogs would be a good platform to work with.

Practice basic electrical skills

Learn to solder simply by practicing on a scrap of flex track. Start by practicing making feeders soldered to the rail. All you need is 18 gauge hook up wire (All Electronics), a 40Watt soldering gun and .032” solder (Radio Shack) and Flux (Team Trinity part 5004). Next, practice tapping the feeder into a scrap of 14 gauge wire. You can buy the 14 gauge wire by the foot at The Home Depot and 14 to 18 tap connectors can be picked up Radio Shack. The point is to get used to making the solder flow and making good connections in the controlled environment of your work bench

Learn To Use DCC and program a locomotive

Put yourself in a position where you have two smooth running, fully operational and tuned, DCC locomotives. If you’re positive you will have a layout, it makes sense to get the basic system now and learn how to use it. Even four or five feet of test track is enough. With no disrespect to other systems, you can’t go wrong with the NCE or CVP EasyDCC wireless. Setting up your DCC system is no harder than setting up a new television set. Hook it up to your test layout and begin experimenting with locomotive programming. You won’t blow anything up and if you really screw up the programming just do a reset. In terms of decoders I suggest the Soundtraxx Tsunami (great directions, high quality, very tunable). For starters I suggest having a professional install the decoders for you.

Practice Track laying

Pick up some Atlas or Micro Engineering flex track, joiners and a turnout or two. Practice laying straight track, curves, placing turnouts, and transitions to curves that are free of kinks. You’ll need some Xuron rail cutters and one small jewelers file to clean up any burrs. If you want roadbed I suggest Midwest brand cork, secured with adhesive caulk.

Practice laying ballast

You want even applications free of particles on top of the ties or sticking to the sides of the rail. The easiest way to get a successful application is work in several layers as opposed to trying to bringing it to full height in one shot. Life is much simpler if you use natural rock blends such as Smith and Sons or Arizona Rock and Mineral.

Start now on posts, signs, and sheds

Layouts have a voracious appetite for signs, utility poles and small sheds, even utility storage sheds by backyard storage if you are finished using them for your storage needs. Why not start assembling those now and find some cheap sheds for sale. These are small achievable projects that build assembly skills, don’t take a lot of time, and can be easily stored without taking up much room. If you’re worried about room there are many different shed sizes, such as 10×20 sheds.

Learn to use an airbrush

Paasche and Iwata are two excellent brands. You will also need a compressor. Start by practicing with dilute india ink washes as these clean up easily and then move on to paint. You’ll also need a high quality respirator to protect your lungs.

Practice Rolling Stock Weathering

Learn how various weathering mediums feel in your hand. These can be oils, enamels, acrylics, craft paint, ink washes, and chalks. Start now as it really does take LOTS of practice to get good results. I suggest picking up the cheapest freight cars you can find and work with those first. Begin with basic subdued looks before going on to the more complex weathered patterns. Grimy black or rail brown dusted with brown chalk or dusted with dark brown is a good starting point. Dullcote the car. Practice subdued washes (Diosol with a few drops of grimy black and roof brown) fogged onto the car. Read up and practice the techniques on The Rust Bucket Forum. When weathering, work hard at light layers and self restraint (easier said than done you’ll find).

Puttering around with some of these ideas over the next several years will not only be fun for you but also give you an early ramp up on the learning curve for when you do have that layout. The basic skills needed to build a medium to large layout are really no different than those for a four square foot test layout. You just repeat the same steps more often.