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N Scale Train Layouts: Facts and Tips

Updated on December 3, 2015

Getting the Most from Your N Scale Train Layouts

Most scale model train enthusiasts who build N gauge train layouts have some space limitations in their living quarters. Given this challenge, one of your goals in N scale layouts might be to design for maximum action on a limited layout area. This page provides advice and tips for setting up N gauge train layouts, and general pointers on working with N scale model railroads.

Basics of N Gauge

N Scale Train layouts: Space saving!

N scale is a one of the most popular model railroad scales or track gauges. Depending on the manufacturer (or country), the scale ranges from ratios of 1:148 to 1:160. In all cases, the gauge (distance between the rails) is 9 mm.

The term N gauge refers to the track dimensions, but in the UK in particular N gauge refers to a 1:148 scale with 9 mm track gauge modeling, and there is a scale called Japanese N scale which is 1:150.

An advantage of N scale train layouts is that they allow builders to setup in less space than the more popular HO scale, or put longer track runs into the same amount of space, because the models are smaller (by nearly a half) than in HO scale (1:87). While N scale is quite small, Z scale is smaller yet at 1:220 and T scale is the tiniest at 1:450. Here is where N scale trains fall in the overall list of scale model trains:

List of Model Train Scales

1:12 | Large Scale

1:20 | G-Scale

1:32 | I-Scale

1:48 | O-Scale

1:64 | S-Scale

1:87 | HO-Scale

1:120 | TT-Scale

1:160 | N-Scale

1:220 | Z-Scale

1:450 | T-Scale

Functional Considerations for N Scale Train Layouts

Plan to your own ambition vs your own limitations

Space: If you've chosen to build an N Scale model railroad, you may have done so for space restrictions, but even if you have plenty of space for your n scale train layout you should still do your math carefully to allocate the space for your current and future layouts.

Calculate the square footage you will have and figure out how much track length that allows for within your planned train layout. Do your math, but honest with yourself about your own enthusiasm and ambition vs the amount of your living space you want your n scale layout to take up.

Power Management: If you plan to have a lot of accessories which require power, get a transformer that will deliver at least 18 volt-amps (VA) of electricity, or consider a separate transformer for your train vs accessories. You want maximum power going to your locomotive, so don't "share" too much with other items that are running.

Tip: Try new power options. N scale locos are usually powered by DC motors which take a max of 12 V DC. In traditional DC control, speed is set by the amount of voltage sent to the rails. Train direction is determined by the polarity of the power to the rails. An increasing number of n scale train enthusiasts have started using DCC (Digital Command Control) in their n scale systems, which gives you more control over the trains, allows you to run more trains in a smaller area, and wiring is much easier.

Aesthetic Consderations for N Scale train layouts

Steam or Diesel/Electric?: Steam is attractive to many n scale builders because of there are more outwardly visible moving parts, plus steam is more nostalgic, and there is more product to choose from vs Diesel or Electric for n scale train layouts. If you buy a diesel engine, get one with all-wheel electrical pickup. Low-priced diesels often run better than similarly priced steam engines, and you can get them for n scale train layouts.

Passenger or Freight Cars? Passenger trains are great to look at and can have a lot of variety, but Freight Cars usually make for a more colorful train setup, and it does seem as if children like the variety of freight car trains more.

Scenery: This is one of the great challenges of working with n scale train layouts because of the tiny size of elements like trees, people, grass, rocks, signs, etc. You can buy this stuff for your n scale layout, but you don't have to spend a lot buying off-the-shelf scenery... there are great ways to make your own (see my reco for model train help below or go here, and you can even make your own device that puts grass onto your layout.

Tips for getting the most out of your N scale train layouts.

Tip #1: Secure your base. With N gauge train layouts a secure base is extra important due to the lightweight nature of the elements, so use something strong to prevent operational derailments, not to mention external factors that can cause damage (like the cat, or your own feet!). On this base you should also choose the right material for the ground covering. The covering should not have fibers or particles which can get into the mechanics of the train and cause problems.

For a top cover, there is a material called Tyvek which is recommended to protect your layout, as it is tearproof and also fiber-free. It is used in kite manufacturing so it is strong and thin.

Tip #2: Use plenty of lighting. Especially with n scale train layouts, lighting is key due to the small size of your system features. You want viewers to appreciate the detail inherent in this scale of model trains, so illuminate your layout accordingly. It is also recommended to get a magnifying headset or workstation with lighting attached to help when you are working on individual components of your n scale layout.

Is Marklin Going Out of Business?

Bad News for Your Model Train Hobby?

Marklin, the 150-year-old German model train manufacturer, and maker of many products for n scale train layouts, declared bankruptcy in Feb of 2009. However Märklin is continuing to sell model trains and is in the process of restructuring the company in accordance with German insolvency law. Their sales have been strong but they have been having credit trouble, so we'll have to wait and see how they pull themselves out of trouble.


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