Scale or Gauge? is a free Model Railroad Discussion Forum and photo gallery. We cover all scales and sizes of model railroads. Whether you're a master model railroader or just getting started, you'll find something of interest here.


Gandy Dancer
We have it so easy today. Check out what your great-grandfather had to do it he wanted to build a 'model railway'.

From “A Boy's Workshop: With plans and designs for in-door and out-door work”
By Harry Craigen, 1884. [Now in the Public Domain]


IN a certain old-fashioned house that I visit, a large attic is set apart as a playroom for the boys, in which to keep their tools, their jig-saw, and their treasures of all sorts, dear to the hearts of young people.

All around the edge of this room runs a small railway with curves and switches complete, with bridges and tunnels, and an elegant station, made of a deserted dog house, and painted in the newest style.

Over this track, propelled by boy-power, runs many times a day, a train of cigar-box cars, engine and tender, baggage and passenger cars, all in order. And everything about it, from the ties to the latest parlor car, was made by two boys under fourteen years of age, at a very small cost.
[Illustration: FIG. 1.]

These boys are no wiser or more skilful than other boys, and there is nothing about it hard to make. I thought many of you young readers of mine would like to copy it, and so I have studied the thing, taken my instructions from the builder himself, and here it is, so plainly told that no ordinary boy of twelve need make a mistake if he follows directions exactly, although to make it perfectly clear, I have to use a good many words which make it _look_ hard. To begin with the track: first, come


To make ties for a single track, take a board one inch thick. Saw from the end a piece five inches long, and split it with a chisel into ties an inch square. The number you will need depends, of course, upon the length of your road. Having these ready, the next thing is the
Last edited:


Gandy Dancer

Buy at a tinner’s sheets of tin which come fourteen by twenty inches in size, though any other size may be used. If convenient, have the tinner cut each sheet into eleven strips twenty feet long and about one and a quarter wide. You can, however, cut them yourself, with a pair of old shears, first measuring carefully, and ruling the sheet off.

Along one side of each strip of tin, near the edge, punch nail holes; one close to each end, and four between, making thus six holes about four inches apart.

To bend the rail to shape, take a ruler and scratch a line the whole length one quarter of an inch from the edge which has no holes. Lay this edge on a straight board, with the mark exactly on the edge of the board, so that the quarter of an inch sticks out beyond the board. Then tack the tin with two or three tacks, to keep it from slipping, while you take a hammer and pound the tin down over the edge till it is bent at a right angle to the rest. Then take out your tacks, and laying the tin on the board, pound this turned-up edge over till nearly flat. This makes the top of your rail, as you see in _fig. 1_ (which shows the end of a rail) at _a_.

To make the bend _c_ (_fig. 1_) draw a line the whole length half an inch from the edge where the holes are. Again tack the tin to the board, with the half-inch sticking out beyond, and pound this edge over into a right angle. This completes your rail, the holes being along the edge marked _b_ in the figure.


Place a number of ties side by side, and with a ruler and pencil draw two lines across them, three and a half inches apart, having about three quarters of an inch beyond the lines at each end. These marks are to guide you in laying the track straight. When you have thus prepared a number of ties and rails, fasten them together by nailing, with small-sized carpet tacks, through each punched hole, on to a tie, being careful that the _end_ of each rail reaches no more than half over its tie, so that the next rail may join on right (_fig. 2_). The tacked edges of the two rails turn towards each other on the inside of the track, and thus do not show when a train is on, and the angle _c_ rests exactly on the line drawn on the tie. Go on in this way till your rails are all used, or you come to a curve.
Last edited:


Gandy Dancer

Take a cold chisel, or an old common chisel, and one of your finished rails. On the flat side (from _b_ to _c_, in _fig. 1_) cut slits reaching from _b_ to _c_, and half an inch apart. Lay a row of ties in the curve you wish to make, and bend the rail to fit them. The slits will enable you to bend them nicely, on one side by gaping apart, and on the other by slipping over.

If you want a guard rail to keep your train from running off at this point, lay an extra rail fastened in the same way inside of each rail on the curve.


Select a point where two rails join, for a switch, and take one length of rail for the purpose. This length, which includes both rails, of course, is to be movable, and so must slide over the common ties, and not be fastened to them. To keep them in place they must be tacked to special ties, much thinner, and coming between the regular ties that they slide over. Having prepared this length, put a tack, smaller than the hole you have punched, through the end hole at _a_ (_fig. 4_), so that the switch will move easily on it.
[Illustration: FIG. 2.]

At _b._ (_fig. 3._), where your two tracks come together, you must put pegs (_b. b._) to keep the switch from moving too far either way, and throwing your train off. Also, from this point, the ties must be long enough to hold the side track till it is clear of the regular track (_fig. 3_). The curve of this side track is made, of course, by the directions for making a curve. The last special tie at _c_ (_fig. 3_) must run out far enough to take a hold of, to move the switch.


Gandy Dancer

At the point where the rails cross (_d_, _fig. 3._) you will need a frog, to allow your train to go smoothly over. To make this, you cut your side rails square off at _d_, and begin it again on the inside of the rail, leaving a space of a quarter of an inch open to let the flange of your car wheels pass through.

Also, you must cut a notch in your regular track at the same point, so that the wheels on trains switching off may go through (_fig. 4_).

Now your track is ready, you may begin on the train; and first the trucks.
[Illustration: FIG. 3.]


For wheels you need a lot of rather large spools with quite thick shanks, unless you can afford to have brass or wooden ones turned for you. The best spools come in the shops of New York, with French sewing cotton, and next best are those which hold the knitting silk, so much used nowadays by ladies.

Ask your mother and sisters, and all your fancy-work loving friends, to save their spools for you, and it will not be long before you have enough.

Saw each spool into three pieces, as at _a, a_ (_fig. 5_). The outsides form the wheels with their flanges _c, c,_ and the middle piece _b_, you will need later.

Now for axles, the best are cheap lead pencils (cost one cent each), but you can use common skewers such as butchers use, whittled down to fit. The axles are to fit tightly into the wheels, and turn with them.

Now take a block an inch thick, four inches long, and two and a half wide, to hold the wheels. In each corner of the underside of the block, three quarters of an inch from the end, screw a very light wire screw ring (or screw eye) with a ring a half-inch in diameter.

The axles run through these rings with the flanges of the wheels next to the block, to run inside the track.

Next comes the car itself.


Gandy Dancer

Cigar boxes are nice for cars, being already very neatly made. You can get at the cigar stores, at small cost, if not as a gift, any number of boxes with square ends, that is, with the ends of the box as high as they are wide. After you have washed off the paper, get two boards, one a quarter or three eighths of an inch thick, and the other somewhat thinner, both being the width of the box. Saw off pieces three inches longer than the boxes, for platform and roof.

First fasten your trucks under the thicker board, which is the bottom. To do this, bore a gimlet hole exactly through the middle of each truck block; put a six-penny nail from the bottom, first through the hole in the truck block, then through the cast-off part of a spool (_b_, _fig. 5_), or half of it if too thick, or a small twist spool a half-inch high. Nail one to each end of the board loosely, so it will turn.

Now, carefully take apart your cigar box, and mark on each long side a row of windows, like a passenger car, and in each end piece mark a door. Saw them out on a jig saw. (If you have no saw you can paint windows on the outside.)

After cutting the windows and doors, put the box together again, with the brads which held it before, and laying it on to the platform board, so that each end of the board projects for a platform, nail them together. Then open the cover (which must never be broken off) and nail the roof board on to it in the same way; that is, so it will project at each end. Use brads for this nailing. The object of fastening the roof to the cover is that you may open your car and fill it with passengers if you choose.

[Illustration: FIG. 4.]

Take pieces of stiff copper wire three inches long, and with pliers bend over one end of each to form a hook, and the other ends into a small ring. Turning your car upside down, lay one of these wires in the middle of the end, with only the hook sticking out, and fasten it by a small screw through the ring (_fig. 6_); do the same at the other end, and then with some small brass curtain rings, which cost two or three cents a dozen, you can couple your cars nicely.

Baggage and freight cars you can make in the same way, only cutting one large door in the side. You can make the cars as showy as you please, with paint of different colors, and finish them with a piece of muslin glued part way over the windows inside for shades. And now last comes the engine.


Gandy Dancer

For the foundation take a board one foot long, and three inches wide, which I will call the platform. To make the boiler, have a cylinder turned of wood, two and a half inches in diameter, and eight inches long; or take a square piece of that size and shave it down yourself to a cylinder; or—what is less trouble, and costs little—have a tinner make one for you, open at both ends, of course.
[Illustration: FIG. 5.]

The one I will describe, since it is the most simple to make, is the wooden one. Nail it to the platform board in such a way that the board will project in front one inch. You will have to nail it from the bottom of the board.
[Illustration: FIG. 6.]

Now take a three-quarter-inch auger and bore a hole one inch deep, in the top of the boiler, one half inch from the front end. This is to receive the smoke stack. To make the smoke stack, get a piece of dowelling three quarters of an inch thick, and four inches long, or use a bit of broom handle of that length. Shave the end down till it fits nicely into the hole on top of the boiler. Have it reach to the bottom of the hole, so as to be firm, and leave three inches standing up.

To finish the smoke stack, and make it look like the newest fashion in American engines, you must nail on to the top, with brads, a round piece of wood, a quarter of an inch thick, and a quarter of an inch larger all around than the broomstick itself. Behind the boiler


This is a peculiar thing, and the boy builder of the cigar-box train insists that it must be done exactly as he directs, in order to make a really _proper_ cab. To proceed, then:

For the front piece take a board a half-inch thick, three and three quarters inches high, and two and a half wide. Cut with a jig saw, near the top, two windows, one on each side, to overlook the engine. Nail this to the back end of the boiler, and to the floor. Make the two side pieces of the cab of cigar-box wood three inches wide and four inches high. In these cut two windows, also near the top. Before you nail these side pieces on, make a third piece out of half-inch wood, two and a quarter inches long, by two and a half wide, and nail it with brads to the front piece of the cab, one inch from the floor, like a shelf. This is the real floor, and without it your cab will be a mere toy, and not at all the correct thing. Having this shelf in place, nail on your side pieces, both to the front piece, and to the shelf.

The roof requires a piece of thin board, two and a half inches wide, and four inches long, so that it will project one inch beyond the sides. Remember it must be put _between_ the side pieces, and on _top_of the front piece, and nailed with brads.


Gandy Dancer

The engine wheels are four in number, made by sawing from half-inch board four circles four inches in diameter, and from cigar-box wood an equal number four and a half inches in diameter. Each wheel is double, you see, to form the flange which keeps it on the track. Nail with little brads, each larger circle on to a smaller one, so that the former will project equally all around. Then bore a hole exactly in the middle of each, and your wheels are ready. With lath nails fasten one pair of wheels to the platform board at the side of the cab (flanges inside, of course), and the other pair to the same board in front, and so far that the rims of the two wheels on one side will be about two inches apart.


For this very important addition to the engine take a piece of wood three inches wide and two inches thick. Saw it on _both_ sides to a point (_fig. 7_). First shave it down on top so that it forms a sharp point at _b_, _fig. 7_. Then draw a line through the middle of the top (_a_ to _b_, _fig. 7_), and shave down each side so that it shall present a sharp edge all around from _c_ to _b_, and from _b_ to _d_ (_fig. 7_). Nail this to the front end of the platform board with inch-long brads.


This is very easily made of a cigar box, one of the low sort, the same width as your cars, but only half the height. Remove the cover and take out one end board. Put the box on a board a half-inch longer than itself, and finish with trucks as you did your cars.

At the back end of this tender—the closed end—fasten couplings like these on the cars, but to the engine it may be fastened by a common wire hook and eye. The hook being on the engine.

This completes your train, and if you wish to make a double track, you need only make your ties long enough to allow trains to pass, and then lay your tracks side by side.
[Illustration: FIG. 7.]

With a little ingenuity, you can make bridges and tunnels, freight trains, and gravel trains, and can, in fact, increase your “rolling stock” to any extent.

I hope you will enjoy building this railway and train half as much as did the boys in the attic in New York City. With them the building and improving, the running of trains and the adding of new facilities, make a never-ending entertainment.


Staff member
back then they used FULL scale , they just went to work for the railroad and played with their trains.
A "Vanderbilt Christmas" :

"I got Lionel"

"I got Ives"

"Cornelius what did you get for Christmas ?"


During the classic movie "Miracle on 34th Street", at one point Santa is talking to Virginia and says something to the effect of "Some little boys ask me for a full size train, whatever would they do with that?" Even as a kid, I was always like "Give me one, and I'll show you!"

Affiliate Disclosure: We may receive a commision from some of the links and ads shown on this website (Learn More Here) is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to - An online railroad bookstore featuring a curated selection of new and used railroad books. Railroad pictorials, railroad history, steam locomotives, passenger trains, modern railroading. Hundreds of titles available, most at discount prices! We also have a video and children's book section. - An online model railroad bookstore featuring a curated selection of new and used books. Layout design, track plans, scenery and structure building, wiring, DCC, Tinplate, Toy Trains, Price Guides and more.