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Model Train Scales Explained

Updated on October 11, 2007

A Look at Model Train Scales and Gauges

Okay, you're looking to create the ultimate model railroad layout this side of the Mississippi and you're wondering, "Just what scale do I want to make this monster in?" Well, there's several things you need to consider and let's look at some of them.

First, a simple definition of scale for our purposes would the the reduced size relative to the original item being reproduced. The most common model railroad scale is HO (Don Imus' favorite scale!) This is 1:87 in relation to the real thing. This scale is used by maybe 70% of model railroaders out there. Variations on this scale include Hon3 and Nn3, which are narrow gauge versions of the same size models. (narrow gauge meaning narrower space between the tracks.)

HO is popular very quite a few reasons. First off, its size lends it to most home layouts without being too tiny to work with. For space considerations and expandability HO serves well as just the perfect size for most model railroad enthusiasts as the bare minimum for a decent layout seems to be about 4' X 8'. The size of HO model trains can operate well and show nicely. The HO scale also has by far the most available and ready to roll kits, parts and accessories of any scale.

Other common scales include N(1:160), O(1:48), G(1:24) and Z(1:220). There are more scales than these, but they are less common and harder to find.

N scale, is the next logical step down in size from HO, being roughly half its size. Part of both the charm and difficulty of N scale trains and layouts relates to their size. While it's undeniably cool to have a “tiny” layout and you can definitely cover more “ground” as far as having a representation of a large area in a small space, working with models and scenery this small takes a lot of patience and some darn fine motor skills. (Watchmakers leap to mind) This is due to the detail work on this particular scale.

As for Z scale, the above applies in even more importance, as this scale of model train is another third smaller, thus providing even more challenges for those of us with either large hands, failing eyesight or any other physical issues. (This size is personally way too small for me) I will admit though, that this micro-size does lend itself to placement where you might not ordinarily see a model train. I saw one in someone's office once that fit neatly around his desktop! You're only limited by your imagination when it comes to placing a layout in Z scale!

O scale was once very popular, and still retains some of that original cachet. Many of us had and have Old Lionel engines pounding down the track, sounding very realistic as it passes over rial joints and switches. This was the size most popular as children's toys, as they were big enough to be impressive and playable.

G scale has become more and more popular for garden model railroaders. This 1:48 size tends to be the best size in allowing for optimal operation outside as well as integrating well with existing and planned scenery. Plant management and the ease of keeping your layout's landscaping under control are definite factors here, as you don't want to spend ALL your time managing the scenery. This is a big reason why people choose the G scale, to be able to combine two passions, model railroads and gardening.

Now for a word or two about gauge. For a long time and probably still, people have thought that scale and gauge were interchangeable terms, but that is not the case. As mentioned above, scale is the size of the model in relation to the original, and gauge is the measurement between the two rails of track. Gauge has been a thorny issue for model train purists in the past, as the proportions of the gauges often didn't match up with the scales being used, and thus were historically and realistically inaccurate. This led to the development of what came to be known as “finescale” standards, which attempted to standardize the sizes for all concerned. While very much more correctly scaled, they nevertheless have had a hard time being accepted by the mass-produced markets, as concerns like consumer usability and cost have reared their ugly heads. For the purist, however, now there is an answer to these issues!

Whatever scale you choose, you can be sure to find the right model train size to give you hours and years of enjoyment!

You can get more helpful information about designing, building and operating your model railroad plus a free copy of my special report "Model Railroad Design Secrets"on The Model Railroader website


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