Whether you are brand new to model railroading, just coming back into the hobby after a break, or a seasoned modeling veteran, you’ve probably heard of N scale at one time or another. A lot of us grew up with Lionel “O” scale trains or the most common model railroading size “H0” scale. In the 1940’s and 1950’s Lionel three-rail O gauge was quite common. They were large, simple to setup and immensely popular. During the 1960’s many modelers made a gradual shift to H0 scale as it was about half the size of O, allowing more trains in a smaller space. The quality of H0 scale models was evolving rapidly into something that looked more and more like the real thing.
In the 1960’s a German company, Arnold, created the first commercially available N scale models. The diminutive size and lack of sophisticated production techniques back then resulted in models that left a lot to be desired. These models had spartan details, weren’t always the smoothest runners and had a tendency to growl their way around a layout when they did run right. Over time though, N scale quickly came into its own and today we have advanced technologies allow for very small models that can be built with a tremendous amount of detail. Likewise the locomotives available today are quiet, run smoothly, and are capable of pulling very long trains – over a scale mile long or more!.
In model railroading terms, a real life-size train is called a “prototype” for the smaller model. H0 scale is 1/87th the size of the prototype and nearly twice the size of N scale. N scale is roughly 1/160th the size of a real train. H0 scale is the most popular scale today according to both the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) and Model Railroader magazine. H0 scale modelers enjoy a very diverse and robust number of models in nearly any prototype and road you might be interested in modeling. H0 scale has more available product than any other scale. So why model N scale? The most frequent reason is space. Most of us don’t have a huge dedicated space to create the model railroad empire of our dreams. Even if you have the large dedicated space, N scale gives you the ability to pack a LOT of model railroad into a small amount of space. If you think about it, you can fit nearly twice as much model railroad into your available space as compared to H0 scale. Scenery looks more spread out, curves are larger and more expansive and equipment just looks more realistic as it winds its way around your layout.
Another reason is the train models themselves. There is something about a tiny mechanical device with so much detail and its ability to pull a long train around a similar small landscape. The length of the freight trains you can model is substantial – a scale mile-long train is only 33 feet in N scale. Passenger equipment likewise looks great navigating around broad N scale curves. Plus you can actually run a full passenger set like the California Zephyr or the Santa Fe Super Chief – both are available as complete sets in N scale – and fit it easily into a smaller layout. N scale also currently offers quite a bit more equipment than in the past and the number of roads available to model is fairly diverse. The hard core N scale modelers are even super detailing their models with lots of tiny additional detail and weathering them with rust, dust and even graffiti all in an effort to try and emulate the real thing.
But what if the technology side of model railroading appeals to you? N scale is great for that as well. Advancements in small electronics mean that all the Digital Command Control (DCC), on-board sound, operating MARS lights and beacons and flashing ditch lights available in larger scales can now all be added to a running N scale locomotive as well. DCC can also integrate with your home computer allowing computer control of everything from turnouts to signals to automated running of trains. There’s really nothing about N scale that will hinder your ability to explore these technologies.
So, is N scale difficult to work with? Most people that dive into N scale will admit that it can be a little intimidating at first. Everything seems very small and you’ll probably have a deep fear of breaking something. Over time it is amazing how quickly you adapt to the small scale of everything and you’ll find that you don’t even think about it after a while.
So that’s our soft pitch on why we think N scale is a great scale to model in. We love it and haven’t thought twice about the scale we model in. Sure there are people that want to try new things and we have more than a few friends in this hobby that have tried dabbling in even smaller scales like Z scale (1:220) and T scale (1:450). The support community for N scale, particularly online, is tremendous and there are a ton of people willing to pitch in and help whenever you are in a bind. There are N scale clubs with large mammoth layouts and modular groups like “N-Trak” or our own “Modutrak” where you can work on a small part of a larger modular layout. Or you can model at home on a simple door or sheet of plywood. Or you can build your own full basement empire. You have a lot of options.
If you are starting out, there are a bewildering number of things involved with model railroading and it can be pretty overwhelming. Keep in mind though that you could go to your local Hobby Lobby and buy a layout in a box that you can run around in circles today. The level of detail, size and quantity are only limited by your wallet, skills and amount of time you can devote to this hobby. The single best piece of advice we can give (that is also the most ignored in this hobby) is to pace yourself and start small. We all have dreams of recreating that amazing full-basement layout we saw in Model Railroader magazine. The reality, especially starting out, is that it is very easy to get overwhelmed and we’ve seen a LOT of people start a massive layout project and literally abandon it not even half way through. Do lots of research (it’s fun) and pace yourself with little projects and experiments to find out what you have a skill for and what you feel you just can’t tackle. As you get to know people that also have an interest in this hobby, you’ll be amazed at the help you can get, even with those things you don’t like to do.
One of our main goals here at Model:160 is to provide a resource for model railroaders interested in N scale. For those of you already in N scale we hope you will be able to take away some new trick or technique. There are a vast number of ways to complete a modeling task and while our staff and contributors have many years of collective modeling knowledge, we’re still learning and experimenting all the time. If you find a way that works better for you or delivers a better result, by all means use it (and let us know about it!). Model:160 being an online resource means that this is a fluid project that can be edited and improved upon continuously.
Over time we’re going to cover a wide variety of topics in photos, articles and videos to hopefully show everyone what N scale is capable of and that great modeling doesn’t have to be difficult. As always, feel free to contact us directly at email@example.com or through our discussion forums if you have any questions, comments, suggestions and more.
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