Copyright 1999 T. Sheil & A. Sheil All Rights Reserved


The All Gauge Model Railroading Page presents

Building HO & N Scale Layouts and Railroads

The layouts and techniques illustrated here describe scale layouts using HO or N track.  All of the layouts are basic.  The provide a good foundation for future development.

A problem for model railroaders is the mistaken concept that all trackwork must be complete prior to adding scenery.  Very few realize that just as with O and O27, gradual expansion works for small layouts.  There are two procedures for doing this.  The first involves expanding a layout on the existing table / benchwork.  The second requires adding table / benchwork to an existing layout.  Either will allow you to start with a basic layout and grow into a larger, more complex railroad.

While HO and N train sets are notoriously cheap, they usually contain elements of mediocre quality.  The tendency for serious railfans is to start with better quality materials.  That can incur the problem of cost.  A complex railroad with many switches and accessories takes time because elements must be acquired gradually.  The project stays unfinished for years as items are accumulated and added.  

A better method is to start small and have a running railroad, no matter how basic.  This is then expanded gradually as funds, space and time permit.  You get the pleasure of operating trains almost from the start, knowing that it will increase as you expand.


Here are the simple bare necessities for a serious, even if basic, scale railroad:

Rerailers: the straight rerailers sold by Atlas can also serve as rural grade crossings.  They are necessary, especially for N scale.

Rail Joiners: keep a pack or two on hand, as folks always seem to need more as work progresses.

Insulated joiners: a necessity that is often overlooked.

Terminal joiners: much better than the cheap terminal track, terminal joiners allow wires to be concealed easily.  Keep extras on hand for future expansion.

Odd straights: several companies sell packets of odd-sized straight sections.  They come in handy when freelancing a layout.

Wire: get a roll of three-strand wire from your local electronic supplier.  It is cheaper by the roll.  Wire sold in hobby shops is pretty much the same, but costs more.

Needlenose pliers with wire cutter: a most important tool for wiring, assembly and scenery work.

Screwdrivers: small slot and phillips head screwdrivers ought to be on hand.

Transformer: a good DC transformer can be bought through hobby suppliers.  Though the small transformers packed in train sets are adequate, better transformers allow more realistic operation.  Good models are made by Atlas and MRC.

Wheelsets: keep about half a dozen available.

Trucks: spare freight trucks come in handy - you don't realize it until you need them!

Couplers: keep six to twelve in the spare parts box.  They are a necessity.

Choosing a layout: - there are many layout plans, from simple ovals to massive, complex pikes that take several rooms of a house!  Start modestly.  You can find good, basic layouts which lend themselves to expansion.  The layouts illustrated here are about as basic as they get.  LifeLike includes its Beginner's Guide in train sets.  Several good, basic track plans are included.  You can also peruse the Atlas Fantastic Layouts booklet, which shows a great variety of HO and N pikes.  Both are available free from your hobby dealer.  Carsten's and Kalmbach both publish books of scale layout plans.  Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman often have articles with layout plans.  Look at various layouts to get ideas.  

These five layouts are good starters, and they provide a nice foundation for expansion into more complex systems:

Layout 1: simple oval with siding. 8 straight, 16 curve, pair switches

HO - 33 by 70 inches  N   19 by 46 inches

Layout 2: oval with passing siding.  18 straight, 16 curve, 1 pair switches

HO: 40 by 78 inches  N 25 by 46 inches

Layout 3: 16 straight, 12 curves, 2 bumpers, 2 Left-hand switches

HO: 40 by 70 inches  N: 25 by 45inches

Layout 4: 8 straight, 20 curve, 2 pair switches

HO: 33 by 78 inches  N  19 by 52 inches

Layout #5 (classic Figure 8): 4 straight, 4 short straight, 18 curve, 1 90 degree crossover

HO: 32 by 75 inches   N: 19 by 42 inches

Layout 1 can be modified by adding switches.  From left, we have two sidings outside the oval, which can be used later to expand.  Inside the oval are two sidings, as used by freight, logging and mining operations.

Layout 2 Modified shows switches added as sidings.  Those facing outward can be used to expand.  The siding in the lower left could easily expand into a third passing siding.  A loop inside the oval is but one way to get more action from a basic layout.

These two modified layouts show several examples by which a simple railroad can be designed with expansion in mind.  Rather than copying them, use them as examples of what you can do to develop your own unique layouts.

This layout uses trestle piers to create an overpass.  It allows continuous operation of a train, making it a fine starting point for expansion or as a layout for display purposes (e.g. Yule store-window displays)

An overpass railroad using a tunnel and mountain motif rather than exposed trestles.  The right corners show where a siding can be added to provide for future expansion.

Type of Railroad: just as there are many layouts, so there are many kinds of scale railroads.  If you are starting small, you can easily begin with a limited rail operation and eventually expand into a full-service railroad.  HO and N allow you to specialize your operation.  Unlike O / O27, which tends toward a more generic railroad, the smaller scales are geared for specific operations.  Here are a few of the more popular small operations:

Logging / Mining: the average logging and mining railroad is a quaint, rustic steam-powered pike with a variety of old-time locomotives, cars and structures.  Both operate in mountainous areas, and both have their own unique structures and trains.  Many manufacturers offer trains, structures and specialty items for logging and mining roads, circa 1900 - 1930.  They are great if you like tunnels, grades and varied terrain.

Interurban / Trolley - these little commuter lines offer a lot of action.  They are great for the passenger rail fan who wants something small and active.  Layouts can be set circa 1910 - 1950.  Interurban and trolley lines include built-up areas and allow for trestles, elevated lines and the like.  They also permit a dash through less developed terrain.

Drills: the freight drill can be a nice, small operation where a locomotive serves various industries by dropping off and picking up cars.  Set in almost any era, the drill allows a wide variety of trains.  From modern road switchers to early 0-4-0 steamers, the drill involves industrial structures amid lineside industries.

Shortline: shortlines are small railroads normally connecting larger routes and / or serving routes that have been abandoned by Class 1 lines.  They normally have a small locomotive fleet, modest facilities and a handful of non-revenue cars.  The shortline can be almost any specialty you desire.  It allows you to combine freight and local passenger service, if you so desire.  Many like them because they can design and name their own personal railroad.

Commuter: small railroads that haul local passenger trains make a nice subject for the passenger rail fan.  You can have several stations and a handful of different commuter trains, depending on the era and type of operation you wish to model.  Commuter lines can have everything from diesel-hauled "smoothside" coaches to RDCs and "Doodlebugs."

Class1: you can model a portion of a large railroad.  A popular motif is to take a locale served by one the the great regional roads.  This can also be specialized, such as a coal facility, tank farm, etc.  

These are not the only operations out there.  Check the model railroad magazines and other sources for ideas.  You can find many good leads in the prototype railroad periodicals, such as Trains Magazine.  Most of all it is your railroad, so choose the one that feel best for you.

Building the Layout:

The simplest foundation is a table made of plywood, reinforced with 2 X 4 boards and set on legs.  The size of the table depends on available space.  Figure that the smallest workable HO layout is 4' by 6', while the smallest N layout might be 24' by 36".  Anything smaller leaves no room for scenery.

These days, it is popular to put foam insulation or Homasote atop the platform before building.  Both absorb sound well.  The next step is to lay out your trackwork.

A simple thing is to lay down the track and trace around it.  This gives you a pattern for laying roadbed.  Remove track, then tack down cork or rubber roadbed.  Roadbed elevates track realistically and absorbs sound.  Once you have done that, tack down the track.  Remember to add terminal joiners before tacking down.  You can easily drill holes in the table to run the wires from terminals, switches and lighted accessories.

Scenery is up to you.  For small layouts, a recommended item is the Woodland Scenics landscape kit, which includes trees, foliage and ground cover.  You can also buy pre-made trees by LifeLike, Woodland Scenics, IHC or Preisser.  (The Woodland Scenics kit includes instructions.)

You can find methods in the scenery guides, posted on the main page of site.

Scale-roading: scale model railroading is more precise than tinplate, because the idea is to have a working scale model.  There are a few conventional concepts which are part and parcel of scale-roading.  These are:

Time: while tinplaters run any train that looks good, serious scale-roaders favor items that fit the period, locale and operation of the layout.  When making your layout, choose an era that offers you the kind of action and accessories you prefer.  Then, you are not only making a railroad, but an historical model, as well.  History buffs love old-time railroads, while technology fans favor the latest and greatest of these times.  You can easily learn which trains, accessories and scenery items are fitting for the era of your railroad.

Region: a railroad should be true to the region in which it is set.  Pick a region that interests you and stick to it.  If you choose Northeastern, Northwestern or Rocky Mountain railroads, snow equipment is essential.  Vista dome cars only go with Western roads.  You won't find a Docksider in the desert, but you will find it on the waterfront!  In other words, choose equipment that fits the region you are modeling.

Road name: if you choose to use models of real railroads, choose those that fit your pike.  Each railroad has its own region in which it operates.  Some roads share a region or junction, and some never come in contact with each other.  For realistic operation, select those which fit your railroad and which run in the same area.

Steam, Diesel or Both: do you prefer steam or diesel?  Steam was king prior to 1945.  Afterward, diesel took the reigns.  The only time both shared the rails in abundance was the period 1940 - 1955.  After that, steam was rare.  For realism, choose an era that suits the motive power you wish to run.

Cutting costs:  here are a few things that cut your costs.

If you are doing spring or summer scenery, the Woodland Scenics landscape kit will give you a boost.  For about $20 you get plenty of ground cover, plus trees and foliage.

Get a large box of lichen in the colors of the foliage and season you want to model.  It can be used to make trees and to provide bushes and other large plants.

The best prices on good quality locomotives are LifeLike, whose N scale is superb, and Athearn, who makes great HO scale.  Steam fans with model-building skills can check out MDC Roundhouse kits.  Bachman's Spectrum line is of good quality, but their basic trains leave much to be desired.  Model Power tends to make underpowered locomotives.  Atlas is pricy, but the quality is high and well worth the price.

For rolling stock, HO fans have the widest variety from which to choose.  Great models at nice prices include Athearn, Atlas, MDC and Branchline.  N scalers can check out Atlas and MDC.  Con Cor makes fine HO and N.  For passenger trains, both Con Cor and Bachmann make nice models.

For scenery miniatures, some of the best N and HO figures come from Model Power.  They are painted well and have a wide variety of people and accessories.  IHC can be a bargain.  Preisser makes beautiful miniatures, but they are costly.  You get a better deal using scenery pieces from Model Power, LifeLike, Bachman and IHC.

Personal favorites:


LifeLike and Atlas locomotives

Bachman and Con Cor passenger cars

Atlas freights, switches and track



LifeLike locomotives, especially Proto 1000 and 2000

Atlas locomotives and rolling stock, Atlas track & switches

Athearn locomotives and rolling stock

MDC steam locomotive and rolling stock kits.

Branchline rolling stock kits

Click here for eight action-packed N scale layouts


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