Model railroading dates to the early years of the 20th century; artisans in Europe were building handcrafted metal toy trains even earlier. Today, more than 250,000 people in North America declare themselves model railroaders, and more can be found in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. Far from the image of a lone-wolf hobbyist slaving away in a dank basement, many model railroaders today embrace groups as a way to share skills and companionship by jointly building, operating, and enjoying scale model train layouts.

Model railroads are built in different shapes, scales, and sizes, from exact-detailed copies of railroad locales as they looked on a specific date in the past, to more fanciful railroads designed chiefly to please their builders. Some railroads are large enough to fill an auditorium while others fit on a bookshelf. Skills are shared, including carpentry, wiring, electronics, programming of digitally controlled trains, and of course scenery building and model making.

Construction begins with saws and hammers, and advanced hobbyists today turn to software programs, laser cutters, Arduinos, and 3D printers to improve their models. Model trains can even be the board pieces for a role-playing game that mimics actual railroad freight and passenger operations.

Some groups are formal organizations that construct and operate large permanent layouts. Others are informal round-robin groups, whose members jointly build each other’s home layouts. Still other hobbyists construct freestanding modules that are designed to connect with one another. You likely have seen these at public events and hobby shows. The newest spin on these modular railroads are the “Free-Mo” groups, who have jettisoned rectangles for free-form modules that have no rules other than the ability to pair up for public events.

For more about model railroading, check out World’s Greatest Hobby, Model Railroader magazine, or the National Model Railroad Association.