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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Planning: What Scale?

What Scale should I choose to model?  This question is probably one of the most asked questions in the hobby.  Model trains come in various sizes, from the small Z scale to the giant 7/8 in scale.  In the US, there are several major model railroad scales: N, HO, S, O, and G.  These letters are easy to memorize with a little experience.  Besides letters, each scale can also be distinguished by a ratio of numbers.  HO scale is 1:87 scale, meaning that every inch on the model represents 87 inches on the prototype.  So a model of 40 ft boxcar in HO scale is only 5.5" long.  N scale is 1:148, but is also found in 1:160 proportions.  S scale is 1:64, O scale is 1:48, and G scale is found in ratios between 1:32 and 1:20.3.

Each scale has it's advantages and disadvantages.  The smaller the scale, the less space it takes up. However, the smaller scales can be hard to see for those that do not have great vision.   Like anything else, don't buy something that you can't see or maintain.  Similarly, don't buy something that takes up too much space.  It would be wise to take a look at each scale in a hobby shop near you, or at least look at photographs if a hobby store is not nearby.  Space is a big issue for most people as well, so looking at each scale is a good way to go.  Another way to find out how much space a layout will take up is to follow the minimum curves.  Below I will elaborate more on this subject, so let's continue on.

Price is also a concern.  Here is a note; model railroading is not cheap, but it also isn't expensive if you don't want it to be.  The total cost of a model railroad varies greatly and depends on how creative the modeler is.  If you can get by with cardboard, plaster, sawdust for ground foam, and mostly used equipment, the price would be a lot less than using purely professional grade and new material.  Additionally, the larger scales tend to be more expensive than the smaller scales; however G scale is a great scale for scratch building, which can be much cheaper than using pre-built equipment.

So keep in mind how good your eyes are, the space available for use, and the price the setup will cost.  Finally, also keep in mind maintenance.  Smaller scales require more frequent cleaning of the locomotives and track, but larger scales require more time to completely clean a layout.

Do I have anyone confused yet?  If yes is the answer I'm about to go a bit easier on you.  Below I have a 1-5 star rating for each scale as well as a description for each of the following areas:

  • Readability; ability to read letters on the side of the equipment
  • Space; how little or how much space does a railroad take up
  • Price; how much would a set up cost?
  • Maintenance; how much extra work will this scale require?
  • Overall; how well does this railroad fit into a small bedroom?
N SCALE 1:160

Readability: **
N scale is a hard to read scale, everything is small.  This is getting better with time as more precise printers, painters, and decal tools become available.  The high end equipment in this scale is amazing, but you still have to have decent eyes to read the letters due to the small font size.
Space: *****
N scale's small size gives it a very big advantage in small spaces.  A decent layout can be built on a 2x4 foot sheet of plywood, or can be on a very narrow shelf.
Price: ****
Because of the special tools required to make and maintain this scale, the price is slightly higher than HO scale, but is less than the larger scales.  A layout can be built for less than $250 without requiring too much corner cutting.
Maintenance: **
Although modern models do not require extensive work to be done, this scale requires a lot of cleaning because the electricity running through the rails only has a small area of contact, so one piece of dust could disrupt the flow of electricity.  In even the cleanest environments, bigger particles of material than dust will accumulate, so this scale needs to be cleaned often.
Overall: ***
If you can see, don't mind a little extra work, and don't have a lot of space or money, N scale is perfect for you.  If you need glasses for reading anything smaller than size 12 font, perhaps can afford a little more space and some money, then go larger.


Readability: ****
HO Scale is a great scale for most people, which explains why it is also the most popular scale today.  Due to higher quality printing and painting, HO scale now has a variety of equipment where even the smallest numbers can be read if needed, although a magnifying glass is still necessary for some people.
Space: ****
HO scale requires roughly twice the space as N scale, but most people can afford that. A 4x8 sheet of plywood is a great starter for a layout if enough space is given, but in a small bedroom this layout is great for a shelf layout.
Price: *****
Due to the variety and amount of options available in this scale, HO scale's prices have remained low for a long time, so a layout can be built fairly inexpensively. a very good layout can be for $500 if a little balancing and budgeting is planned.
Maintenance: ****
This scale still requires frequent cleaning, however there are many easy ways to keep track and equipment clean and running. If you know what you need, parts can be bought off the Internet, while small sized screwdrivers work very well for many of the jobs needed.  This scale is just big enough that your work can be seen without aid from a magnifying glass or visor.
Overall: *****
Everything is balanced just perfectly for this scale. A small bedroom, a basic set of non-specialized tools, and a thin wallet are all that is required to have fun in this scale.  If you have a little extra space or cash, going larger is an option.

S SCALE 1:64

Readability: *****
Everything from this scale up can be read with ease for nearly anyone who is not legally blind.
Space: ***
Though it doesn't eat up the most space, S scale does require a bit of space, a spare bedroom is usually sufficient.
Price: ***
S scale is somewhat expensive, but G scale is worse.  What hurts the most is that S scale is not scratch builder friendly because everything is so specialized. 
Maintenance: ****
S scale is not as popular as most other scales, so parts are harder to find.  However, parts do not break as often as smaller scales, so this is not too big of a concern.  What is the hardest to maintain is cleaning.  A large layout in this scale will have many nooks and crannies that must be cleaned, to keep the trains running, cleaning is not as strict.
Overall: ***
Nothing against this scale, it's just that there isn't very much variety, and the track dimensions are such that really small, light, easy, and cheap set ups are difficult to design and build.

O SCALE 1:48

Readability: *****
Everything can be read in this scale even with poor eyesight.
Space: ****
O scale, if using O27, can be fit into a very small space.  If wanting true O scale, then more space is needed.  Most layouts in this scale are between bedroom and basement sized.  I built an 8' by 12' layout once in this scale and it was fun to run, plus it could fin into most bedrooms.  The downside is that track curvature needs to be very wide for large equipment, so the design is limited to around the walls or really complex walk-in designs unless wanting access hatches.
Price: ***
O scale is fun, very fun, but it is hard to get anything for cheap. Some things can be bought used, some can be made by hand, and this will affect cost, but only by 10-20%.
Maintenance: *****
Cleaning is required, but these trains will just keep going and going if taken care of properly.  Many older trains in this scale are made from steel, with little plastic used.  Quality is very high for most trains, even the lower costing set ups. 
Overall: ****
If you don't like work, if you have some money, and if you have a space that can fit anything bigger than a 4x8 sheet of plywood, O scale is for you.  O27 is also something to look into if looking for lower cost and smaller space.

G SCALE 1:32-1:20.3

Readability: *****
All numbers, letters, and even warning signs can be read in this scale. I personally can read most numbers and letters standing two or three feet away.  This scale is amazing if you have 20/20 vision, and still pretty nice if you are near or far sighted.
Space: **
Unfortunately, space is needed in this scale.  What many people do instead is take these trains outside, which is another plus.  Garden railroads are very popular for families because wasted space outdoors can be used while simultaneously leaving space inside for other activities.
Price: *
This scale is very expensive unless you are very crafty.  I have a low budget, but I still manage to do models in this scale because I make everything except the locomotives, car frames, and hardware myself.  Buildings can be made of real wood and look great, and Internet deals can be found if looking closely.
Maintenance: ****
If inside, G scale is great, requiring little cleaning, and little servicing.  If outdoors, more cleaning, plus much more authentic track work maintenance and servicing will be needed.  Many of the activities are, however, fun and quick if done correctly.
Overall: ****
About the only major drawback is space, everything else can be fixed or minimized.  If you have about $1000 to spend on a layout, a garden railroad is something different and fun to build/run/maintain.   If you have about $600 to spend on something for indoor use.  A porter engine, a few small wagons, and aluminum track will be all that is required (brass or Stainless for outdoor use).

As you can tell, each scale had distinct advantages and disadvantages.  So to answer the question, which is best?  My personal favorite is G scale due the the versatility, uniqueness, and options for scratch building.  However the choice is still up to you.  Look at you space available, amount of money willing to be spent, and look a your personal needs/wants.  I should also note that not all scales are included.  There are at least six narrow gauge scales, plus many European and Asian model train scales to be explored.  So get out and do more research, I'm sure you'll find what you are looking for in time.

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