If you're just starting out, or if you've been in the hobby for a while, and have never used anything but plastic, I'd suggest you read this article.
When looking for models, you'll begin to notice there's allot of materials that they're made out of. We'll do our best to describe them here. This page may become very long, so to simplify things, its all alphabetical by material, and the section titles are in bold, centered.
3d printing is an innovation of the 21st century that has allowed the development of models that might never be produced in brass or plastic.
3d printers can print plastic, resin, or even metal. Most modelers are familiar with Shapeways, an international 3d printing contractor website. You can upload and print your own designs, or even upload and sell those designs. It's also a great place to purchase parts or models, as you are buying from the manufacturer so to speak, not the 3d designer, offering more security of your financial details, and comfort knowing it will get delivered.
There are plenty of modelers with their own printers, and I've even ordered and tested some 3d printed EOTD from a British company, that turned out neat.
Brass models are commonly known as the "most expensive". Most brass models are imported. Many rare, and one of a kind prototypes are modeled only in brass. Just about every Steam locomotive, Diesel, and Electric have been done at one time or another. They're also know for being the first to do something, as brass models usually take less time in product development.
Prices can range from $150 for a single piece of rolling stock, to upwards for $3000 for a large steam locomotive, or diesel set.
Most older brass items are not well suited for DCC, due to the body being used as a ground. However, with a little skill, they can be converted.
Brass is also used heavily in detailing. Smaller items, such as brake gear, grab irons and air horns will last much longer then if they were cast in plastic.
Brass is also used extensively in lost wax castings, to create intricate detail parts, such as horns and bells.
Cardboard & Cardstock have been used to create rolling stock, long ago. It's still common to see cardstock buildings now.
Foam is used in a number of ways. Newer practices in layout building, use insulating foam boards, such as Dow Board (blue), or Owens Corning Insulating board (pink), to make up the basics of the terrain.
The advantage of using foam this way, is to save on weight. However, you have to remember that this foam is flammable, thus keep it away from heat sources.
Foam is also used in scenery products. They call it ground foam for a reason. Most people will recognize the green grass colored foam. It also comes in other colors, such as browns, & yellows.
Plaster is a vital material on many people's layouts. From rock faces, to mountains, and in some cases, buildings.
Most common uses seem to be rock faces, as the plaster can be molded, then dyed, instead of painting, to look like rocks. Plaster impregnated cloth also makes for what is called "hard shell" scenery. It's just that, a hard shell.
Downtown Deco is most well known for its line of Plaster buildings, however they're not the only company who makes them. Plaster buildings are nice, as they can take the look of distressed building materials much easier then other material.
Plastic is the most common medium today. Just about everything you want can be found in the more common scales. Plastic is almost exclusively injection molded.
Plastic is relatively cheap, especially if you get older kits. Newer RTR (ready to run) items are starting to climb in price, but still cheap when compared to brass or resin rolling stock. RTR items are now starting to have added brass details, for longer lasting performance.
Resin manufacturers commonly produce less common prototypes. Resin is similar to plastic. It is usually gravity molded, spin cast (gravity filled, then spun in a centrifuge to drive out air), or injection molded.
There are a number of kits on the market that allow you to mold your own resin kits. Model Railroader even printed an article about copying building parts (such as DPM wall sections), to make taller buildings for less.
Tin plate is not very common any more. Early O27 (aka Three rail) and similar items are tin plate models.
These are not know for their historical, or prototypical accuracy, however, they do have a large following.
White Metal (also Pewter)
White Metal (usually a mixture of metals, to include Pewter), are low heat melting metals that are gravity cast. Maybe items are made in metal, from figures, to trees, to scenic details. White metal works well for trees or figures, as the metal is usually pliable enough to allow you to bend the branches, or arms.
There are also a number of casting kits that allow you to cast your own white metal items.
Wood is used in many ways. There are a number of woods used too. Most common would be Balsa, as its a soft, easily cut wood.
Pine boards & plywood are commonly used on the construction of layouts. Hard woods are sometimes used to "finish" the front of the layout (fascia).
Soft woods (such as balsa) make appearances in kits, such as laser cut buildings, and "craftsman" style freight cars. There are also a number of real wood ties that can be bought. If you're laying track by hand, or just want to pile of ties somewhere, real wood cannot be beat.
©2008/2020, Josh Baakko, https://www.modelrailroadtips.com