As the first visitors were arriving at the B&O Railroad Museum's Ellicott City Station to see its annual holiday train display, Tom Sellars was reaching over the clear plastic wall with a yardstick, pulling a few wispy strings of dried glue off the plastic trees.
"He's a fanatic for details," said Tony Zingarelli, who, with Sellars and Larry Harrington, spent a combined 750 hours building the display's tunnels, towns and tracks from scratch.
The details -- from the blue light at the end of a tiny worker's blowtorch to a wire fence tied by hand onto several dozen posts -- require a lot of meticulous work, but model train buffs are eager to put their imagination to the test this holiday season.
The Ellicott City location and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore are offering several train displays through January, continuing a long-standing holiday tradition in the Baltimore area.
Nativity and other scenes have been popular under Christmas trees for centuries, but in the late 1800s, Baltimoreans were adding motorized trains to their setups, according to a written history by the Fire Museum of Maryland.
Train-centered "Christmas gardens" became a staple in area firehouses starting in the late 1800s, according to the fire museum, which has its own display in December. The fire companies built large scenes to celebrate the holiday spirit and raise money for charity.
The B&O Railroad also regularly set up train layouts as part of its public relations efforts, said Dave Shackelford, chief curator for the railroad museum.
The Christmas garden tradition began to decline in the 1950s, but several fire stations, shopping centers and museums continue to offer displays at holiday time.
Such events give model train buffs a chance to make larger layouts, combine their efforts with fellow enthusiasts and reach a broader audience.
"The fun part is building it and seeing everyone's reaction to it," Harrington said. "Seeing the kids with their noses pressed up against the window, that makes it worthwhile."
In addition to the larger display, the Ellicott City museum has a new one using small N-scale trains and one with a toy Thomas the Tank Engine. The Baltimore museum has a G-scale display built by the Mason Dixon Large Scale Railroad Society. In the museum's roundhouse, a series of clubs will bring in their models over the coming weeks.
Those activities will be important for raising awareness and funds at the museums, said Shackelford. Previously, half of the Ellicott City museum's 25,000 visitors came during the holiday time, and 50,000 are expected in Baltimore.
Sellars, of Catonsville, has been building the Ellicott City display since it began. Zingarelli, of Perry Hall, has been focusing on scenery for three years, and Harrington, of Kingsville, is the team's electronics expert who joined about seven years ago. All three are members of the Wednesday Night Train Club.
They started this year's display with a vision of a valley between two peaks containing an S-shaped section of tracks, Sellars said. The rest grew from there as they went along.
Hillsides emerged as strips of cardboard were covered in layers of newspaper and quick-setting drywall compound mixed with water. The men added paint and fuzzy foam "ground cover," propped up plastic trees, constructed roads and bridges, whipped up a plastic waterfall and inserted all kinds of model buildings, cars and people.
Kitty litter stood in for stones along the tracks. A scrap yard got a pile of junk made of torn aluminum foil. A town scene in one corner received a heavy dusting of synthetic snow and two electronic billboards.
The whole thing was wired with electric switches so 10 trains run, several gates open and close, and numerous lights blink. Plus, a crane turns, a man pushes a box along a porch and a worker paints the side of a railroad car.
"We try to make it as perfect as it can be," said Zingarelli, who worked with his colleagues once a week starting Labor Day and through several late nights last week to reach opening day Friday.
Sellars said people are often surprised that the scene is not the same as the ones they saw at the museum before. "It hasn't been for the 18 years I've been doing it," he said.
And, he added, "I already know what I'm building next year."
Most clubs, including six that will have displays through Dec. 30 at the Baltimore museum, do not camp out at the locations for weeks on end. They put in months of work in basements, garages and workshops perfecting sections that will be assembled on-site into larger scenes.
This year, members of Baltimore Area N-Trak will bring their sections to the Baltimore museum to make one big scene. Several members also built a 5-by-7-foot layout for the Ellicott City museum.
Allen DelGaudio of Ellicott City said N-scale, where 1 foot equals 160 real-life feet, is nice because it enables the modelers to cover a lot more landscape in a small display, although it does have less detail than the larger scales.
He said it took six club members about 250 hours to make the new landscape.
The part DelGaudio enjoys most about making displays for the public is the camaraderie. "It's just a lot of fun getting together and putting displays up and ... talking with your colleagues and sharing mutual interests," he said.
When opening day arrived at the Ellicott City museum Friday, Leia and Kevin Butler, of Glenn Dale, brought their sons Bryce, 4, and Brock, 2.
"This is our way of kicking off the holiday season," Leia said.
Her children love Thomas the Tank Engine, she said, and the museum was offering the "perfect combination" of trains, Santa and seasonal fun.
"What more can you ask for when you've got a 4- and a 2-year-old?" she said.
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum's holiday train exhibits run through Dec. 30 at the Baltimore location and through Jan. 28 at the Ellicott City location. Directions, hours and program information: www.borail.org or 410-752-2490.