The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Roberto Heijmans

Added to museum: 5/6/10

Builder of the "Great Wooden Railway" from the Netherlands

Roberto Heijmans (Click on photo to view a larger image.)


1/25 scale is a bit unusual in model railroading. It is not quite the same size as the popular gauges of 1:22.5 (G Gauge, LGB), 1:24 (Half scale) or 1:29 (G Gauge Aristorcraft/USA Trains) or even 1:32 (#1 Gauge). Even more unusual is that everything from the track and switches to the trackside structures to the rolling stock and engines are all made from wood. Like most good woodworkers, Mr. Heijmans leaves the wood unpainted, using different colors and grains of wood to define the dark and light structures. This adds an additional challenge, because mistakes cannot be covered up with filler and paint.

Naturally, with non-conducting wooden track, these are not “electric trains” in the usual sense where the power for the trains is transmitted through the rails. Rather, Roberto has come up with an ingenious system using battery powered electric motors in the engines and a series of magnetic or operator controlled switches around the layout to control where the trains stop and when they can go. Electronic circuit boards control acceleration and deceleration to give a realistic operational appearance. The layout is occasionally set up at train shows where it makes a giant impression. The woodworking is very precise and handsome and the variety of engines, cars and structures is mind-boggling.

The logo for Roberto's 14-year project. (Click to enlarge.)

Mr. Heijmans’ own story

A "railway virus" passed on from father to son

I was born in 1953 in Raamsdonksveer, a small village in the south of the Netherlands. It was my father who gave me the railway virus—he built my first layout when I was about 4 years old. It was a simple O-gauge layout with a Hornby clockwork train. I quickly found it boring to see this train riding around in circles, so he started a new layout with a Tri-ang HO scale train. This layout grew bigger and bigger, and we eventually changed to Fleischmann HO stock.

This lasted until I was about 16 years old, and then other things, like girls, became more interesting. My interest in model railways faded somewhat, but it was never gone. Years later, I married and had two sons. One day at a bargain market I saw a plastic train set that ran on batteries, and I immediately bought it for very little money. The track was 5 centimeters wide and the train and two cars were about a 1:25 scale. It was a nice toy to play with for my kids, but soon the oval of track started getting boring for them as it had for me in my youth.

"Why not make it myself?"

A thought came to me: “Why not make more track myself?” I started experimenting and after a while I had my first piece of track. Track width was 5 centimeter and a length of 100 centimeters. This became my standard straight track. I also, of course, needed curved track, so I constructed one piece with a radius of 130 cm. I went on to make fixtures to build the different track pieces I needed including switches and crossings.

Meanwhile I felt it would be great to construct my own carriages, and I started drawing. I purchased a piece of plywood, and after some weeks I had my first self-constructed carriage body.

In those days, I worked at a factory where there were lathes, so I asked a colleague of mine if he could make me some wheels that would have the same dimensions and flange angle as the wheels from the plastic train. He did so, and I was then able to construct the under-frame. Once I put the parts together I had my first project finished.

After this initial success I decided to build a real locomotive, and I took my first little Tri-ang dock shunter (switcher) as a example. This took much longer to construct, but at the end I had a running locomotive, and very proud I was.

Providing power to electric trains on wooden tracks

Then came the question of providing electric power. I learned that the batteries used in emergency installations were perfect for my trains. They have 12 volts and 7 amps, so they are very powerful. In the case of a small locomotive they can be put in a carriage behind the loco, or when the loco is big enough, the battery is placed inside it, which gives the loco extra power* because of the weight of the battery (2300 grams).

*NOTE: The weight a locomotive can pull is limited by power and traction. Once an engine has enough power to spin the wheels, the only way it can pull more cars is to add more weight over the drive wheels, thereby increasing the coefficient of friction.

I have now been doing this hobby for about 14 years, and during these years I improved my skills and purchased machines such as a lathe and a jigsaw. I currently have 16 locomotives and about 80 carriages. Total track length is about 350 meters (1138 feet), and there are about 40 switches, a few bridges and some signal houses.

Roberto's wooden railway is seen set up at a show while a visitor powers a model blimp overhead. (Click on photo to view larger image.)

Once every year or two I am invited to a railway show in the Netherlands or in Belgium. So that all the trains run without problems there are some simple electronics built in. Each loco has a micro-switch under its chassis, or bogie, that is activated by a small plastic strip between the rails that is electrically moved up or down. These stopping-places are activated by reed contacts, which themselves are activated by magnets under the train (automatic) or by the switchboard operator.  All the locos have built-in acceleration and braking electronics, so starting and stopping is quite realistic.

A sketch of the basic layout of the "GWR." The sectional track and switches allow different layouts to be built. (Click to enlarge)

Photographing students by day and building a railroad by night

My full-time profession is a school photographer, so every day I go to a local school to take photographs of the children and their teachers. It is a very pleasant job, and I like it very much. In the evening when I get home, I have time again to do some work on my railway. I have a nice workplace in my barn which is 3,5 meters (11 feet) wide and 7 meters (23 feet) long. It has a loft where I keep all the trains, tracks and structures.

To view a YouTube video of some of the trains in action: CLICK HERE.

Here are several examples of Roberto Heijmans' work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

The prototypes for these commuter trains were powered by overhead electrical wires. A catenary system on top of the cars extends upward to rub on the powered wires, although these are just for looks.


Power for each unit is supplied by an electric motor through a home-made belt driven wheel set. An emergency equipment battery powers the motors.


A large steam engine and tender are posed in this "outdoor" shot. Note the detail inside the cab too. 

1 2 3

1 and 2) What railroad could get by without a crane car? It can be used for loading flatcars or for righting de-railed engines and cars.

3) The crane car is secured in traveling position with the boom down over a flatcar.

A small tank car

Multiple tracks and switches make up a "yard" on this temporary show layout.

Roberto's wooden structures include a station and a large bridge.

A switchman's tower is also part of the scene.

An impressive array of motive power lines up on the main lines.
A night scene near the mountains features dramatic lighting.
Two trains await further instructions while stopped at a pair of the traffic control sensors designed by Roberto Heijmans.
A closer shot shows the detail in the bridge structure. Mr. Heijmans provides a good scale as to how large the bridge really is!
A consist of two Alco PA's and a PB pull a string of freight cars around the layout. The second photo shows a detail of the Alco engines.
This loco type is known as a Beyer-Garratt loco. They were specially built for mountain travel where the track has many curves. They were among the strongest European locomotives built because they existed of two complete driven units connected to each other. The tanks on these units contain the water, and the side tanks of the loco contained the oil. These were very much used in Africa.
A show layout spans large areas of "water."
Passenger and mail cars make up part of the rolling stock too.
From railbuses to big steam, five tracks show the variety of engines Roberto has added to the "Great Wooden Railroad" over the years.
A real layout compared to Roberto's sketch. This particular layout is only one of the several layouts Roberto has built. Each time he goes to an exhibition he makes a new layout. In October, 2010 he will attend an exhibition in Utrecht in the Netherlands. Here he will construct a layout with a length of 25 meters and a width of 9 meters that will be the biggest he has done up to this point. All of the track he has made will be needed to have all the trains running 
Roberto inspects one of the large diesels representing some of the more modern engines in his railroad.
The parts making up a passenger car are in the foreground, with a finished car behind them.
This is a car in which the trainmaster (conductor) has his office. It is usually placed at the rear of the train much like a caboose. The section of taller roof allows the trainmaster to see over the cars ahead.
The forward 1/3 of this passenger car is open with just a rail around it for passengers on a low-speed excursion.
Six identical small diesel switchers line up for yard duty.
Parts stand ready to be assembled into two Alco PA engines.
Small band-sawn people add life to the layout.
This is originally a German passenger unit, consisting of one loco and two passenger cars. The loco is in the middle. This train was originally used in the 1920's and up until the 1940's  by the Deutsche Reichsbahn. Originally they got their power via an overhead electric catenary system, but Roberto changed them into a diesel-electric set. They were originally called an ET 87 (Electro Triebwagen series 87).
A small yard switcher pulls hoppers full of coal.
  Roberto hand sands one of the passenger cars.
Some details of how the track attaches at the joints and some of the switches and track Roberto has built over the years.
1   2 1) These are the stopping places that are placed in the layout and which in connection with a signal, force the train to a halt or let the train depart. The plastic strip comes up and touches the microswitch under the loco, switching the power in the loco off so and the train comes to a halt. When the plastic strip moves down, the microswitch connects the circuit again, and the train departs.

2) Left-hand and Right-hand switches all have to be made by hand, and all are functional.

A well-lit photo, a little PhotoShop magic and you have what looks like an old black and white image from the late 1940's.

horizontal rule

New Submissions Welcomed

If you have additional information on a project or builder shown on this site that your would like to contribute, please e-mail We also welcome new contributions. Please see our page at for a submission form and guidelines for submitting descriptive copy and photos for a new project.

horizontal rule

This section is sponsored by (sponsorship available).

(Your company logo and a link to your web site could go here)

To learn how your company or organization can sponsor a section in the Craftsmanship Museum, please contact


Copyright 2010, The Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship. All rights reserved.
No part of this web site, including the text, photos or illustrations, may be reproduced or transmitted in any other form or by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise) for commercial use without the prior written permission of The Joe Martin Foundation. Reproduction or reuse for educational and non-commercial use is permitted.