One of my initial tests on an FDM 3D printer. An O scale narrow gauge boxcar body that's about half-finished.
A 3D printed O scale narrow gauge boxcar frame.

3D Printing for Model Trains

Welcome to the 21st Century.  In the past, building models was a very time consuming process that took great skill and effort to become a master of the craft.  Of course, there is still a lot of effort involved in creating miniatures and that effort is great fun for a lot of people.  However, the world has gotten smaller and faster. People are working more for less and facing an ever-shrinking amount of time to themselves.  For model railroaders, this means less time operating or running trains.  We can’t skimp on maintenance and we can’t really speed up the fine art of creating models… or can we?

Okay, there are plenty of reasons not to rush a good thing. But one of the great benefits of being in the present is that there are tools out there for making our workflow more efficient.  Let’s say your railroad needs a small fleet of new freight cars modeled after a specific prototype. In the past, scratch building each car could take anywhere from a couple days to a couple of months.  Kit-bashing and super-detailing models sped the process up a bit but it was still many hours at the workbench.  3D printing offers solutions that weren’t available even ten years ago.  What if you could spending a couple hours every night for a week designing the exact model on a computer, and then letting the printer do the hard work of making physical copies of those designs?  Better yet, what if you could simply download a file of the internet and then let the printer do it’s thing?  Print, paint, letter, wheels, couplers, and viola, ready for service!

3D printing has that potential, and it’s one that I’m currently trying to explore.  You see, the specific things I like to make models of can’t be found in a hobby shop or bought off the internet, they need to be created.  Small, obscure railroads like the Rapid Canyon Line had equally obscure equipment that’s not reproduced by the major hobby manufacturers.  Sure, people can buy ready to run models and get started in the hobby, but that’s just scratching the surface.  With 3D printers becoming more popular and acceptable, this new technology offers us hobbyists a major advantage over our predecessors.  Once a design as been perfected, it can be repeated in small batches. Files can be shared across the net so that once a new model is created people from all over the world can use it and enjoy their new miniature replicas.

Another great advantage of 3D printing is that the small, annoying parts of a model railroad that used to be made from scratch can now be replicated en masse without wasting much time.  How many people actually want to make 300 telephone poles?  How about a 1000 fence posts? Switch stands? Signals? Streetlights?  There are commercial products available, but they don’t cover the trackside details found alongside every railroad of every continent.  With 3D printing, a lot of time and effort can be saved by creating a few files and then letting the printer run, making matches by the dozen of small parts. Little details that took forever to painstakingly make out of styrene, brass, and wood.

Clearly 3D printing is worth a look, yes?  It’s my intention to see just how usable this technology is, and I want to share my discoveries, trials, and efforts with you.  That’s why 3D printing has it’s very own page on Model Train Maker.  Below you will find an ever-growing index of how-to articles, reviews, videos, and primers.  Much of this content can be found in my blog, but there are also other places on the internet like model train forums and Youtube where this content may be published.  All the content below is either presented by me or other contributors to the site.  Please have a look, feel free to write comments to contribute your thoughts and ideas, and I hope something here inspires you.  Thank you!

3D printing content index:

Getting Started in 3D Printing Series.  This is a five part series that explains my thoughts and decisions while learning about and getting started with 3D printers. Starting with an overview of what 3D printing is and continuing up until purchasing my first 3D printer, this is a series you don’t want to miss if you are thinking of getting started!  Eventually, this series will be edited and revised into a complete primer on the subject.  Follow the links to the right starting with Part 1.

3D Printing a Model Train Layout.  This series answers the question, what if we used the technology of 3D printing to build a model railroad? In order to meet the tight space requirements of living in an apartment, I’ve opted to build a small, modular HOn30 train layout that can be set up on desk and table surfaces then packed away into small boxes when not in use. This is an ongoing series that will first cover the concept, design, and construction of a 3D printed model railroad but will later be expanded into different scales, track systems, and unique projects.

  • Concept
  • Design
  • Assembly
  • Track
  • Terrain
  • Running