Blast from the Past: Heljan – how a Danish family’s dream came true

Initially known for its plastic construction kits that first appeared in the UK in the 1970s, Heljan — named after children Helle and Jan – has become an established manufacturer of ready-to-run models for both the Scandinavian and British markets, and in recent years has played a significant role in the resurgence of O gauge. Tony Stratford tells the story.

In Denmark in 1956, a young Jan Nannestad was keen to have a model railway, so he started doing a newspaper round in order to buy one. There wasn’t a great deal of choice, for basic sets were expensive and mostly of German outline, and the one that Jan eventually purchased was produced by Maerklin. Accessories were difficult to obtain, and scenic items that are so easily available today were non-existent in Denmark.

It started with sawdust!

Jan’s father, Niels Christian Nannestad, was a serving police officer. Keen to develop the scenic aspects of a layout, father and son began to experiment with cardboard, sawdust and glue. Trees were produced, and those who saw the results were impressed. It wasn’t long before local toy and model shops were urging them to produce them for resale through their outlets.

In 1957, Mr and Mrs Nannestad set up a cottage industry producing coloured sawdust and trees in their spare time. They were sold under the name Heljan, derived from the names of their two children Helle and Jan. The result was an instant success, and this introduced them to many involved in the Danish model railway scene.

The Beyer-Garratt was followed by this 00-gauge LNER Class 02 ‘Tango’ 2-8-0, and the most recent steam introductions have been GWR prototypes in the form of a Class 1361 0-6-0ST, a 1366 0-6-0PT and a 47XX ‘Night Owl’ 2-8-0.

Although the fledgling business remained very much a cottage industry, with Niels still serving in the police force, the next move was to produce cardboard construction kits of typical Danish buildings. These were the first on the market, enabling Danish railway modellers to create models of their own localities, and unsurprisingly the buildings soon attracted attention from neighbouring Sweden. At that stage the buildings were not true HO 1/76th scale, but this came about later in the early 1970s.

Production was first centred on the family home. In 1962 the family acquired a hand-operated plastic moulding machine that was used for manufacturing doors and windows, and initially this was installed in the family bathroom.

A full-time business

By 1963 the family had moved to a new house, with all buildings now being produced as plastic construction kits. The following year Niels left the police force and the family moved to an Odense suburb where a small factory unit was utilised. A fully automated plastic moulding machine was acquired, greatly speeding up output.

The facilities remained too small, however, and in 1966 the firm moved to a purpose-built factory of more than 1000 square metres that opened on May 12 of that year. The company soon expanded into new markets in the UK and US, introducing bespoke buildings for each of them. By the mid-1960s N gauge was being produced commercially, and Heljan started making N-gauge kits too. Soon after this it was reported that plastic kit production accounted for 85% of the entire output.

For the full article, see the July edition of Modelling – available now!

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