N Scale Insanity = N-Sanity

Susan’s Uncle John left us a bunch of N-Scale trains, which has been my source of fun, amusement and total focus for a couple of months now. I wanted to do the right thing: make a layout worthy of the cause and something that would be fun for the kids to play with as they learn about modeling, train transport, intermodal transport and such. The result is a nice little track plan like this:


The upper left: A railroad museum with old cars and locomotives that look cool, but are no longer in running condition for any number of reasons. One main reason for me has been that many old trains in N scale come with Rapido couplers. The cars in the museum have Rapido couplers which are bolted into place and are not easily replaced with more modern and realistic looking Micro-Trains knuckle couplers.

The center left is the intermodal yard for train to truck transport changes. I intend to have an office building there along with a gantry crane to move materials to and from truck to train.

The center right is another industrial site, to be determined. I am thinking that either a rock mill (granite, slate, marble) or a furniture store would be nice to place in there.

Bottom center is a train station and some shops. The station will likely take the form of an older brick Santa Fe station + depot combination.

I wanted the layout to be easier for me and my back to install, so I decided upon Kato Unitrack for the base. I am familiar (years of working) with Marklin’s M and C Gleiss (track) which comes with an integrated road bed, so the Kato offering was just fine. I also intended to go with DCC for multiple train operations. DCC works very nicely with Kato track, and there is another plus. Kato switches come with electronics already installed! This is a savings in the long run both in time and money, plus they operate using DC power from a separate source (not the track)… this makes them remotely operable from the DCC, or, with more money, decoders can be bought from Digitrax for conversion to pure DCC and handle them all digitally.  Below is the layout in its initial phase.


Below the track layout is basically complete. The switches have power lines running to their bases, so those needed to have holes drilled through the table and to the switch controls. Wiring wiring wiring! The layout is wider and longer than the supplied wires, so I did a lot of soldering underneath the table.


Here you can see those tangles of wires heading down to the floor. The red/black pairs are the switch lines. The blue/white pairs are the power lines for the rails themselves. Since DCC is pretty simple, and I really was not into blocks, all I really needed one one line… but there is a catch. Kato switches are power routing! They did this to allow one to “run” or have multiple trains a DC layout, but the switches only allow power to one train at a time. Well, with DCC, each train gets commands to run or not all on the same layout, thus power routing was actually in the way of my plans. I had to run the DCC power to each section of switch isolated track. No worries. It was easy, and Kato supplies power cables with click right into their tracks.


The other end of all those cables have to go somewhere, so they go here… the switch system uses the Kato throw switches (blue). They receive power from the output nodes on the Kato power supply (DC). The supply only gives power to the switches. The track power is disconnected, so that little train controller on the blue box does nothing.  Track power comes from the black and white unit to the right in the photo below, a Digitrax Zephyr unit. I am just pleased as punch with that system. It is easy to use, comes with excellent documentation, and is affordable.


Here you can see the roads going in. I was going to use Woodland Scenics road system, pouring and leveling goo between dams made from window insulation foam. This is a pain… so I chose a MUCH simpler solution: self adhesive foam sheets. They are about 1/32” thick and come in multiple color packs of 10 sheets for virtually nothing. I bought a bunch, cut them to shape then painted them matt grey. They take paint very well. They stick very well. They are the right thickness. They are affordable. They cut easily. Love it!


Below you will see the micro-village forming. The houses are pretty typical New England style dwellings. I gave each one a little drive way and parking area (Woodland Scenics Earth foam).


Here the ground foam layers are coming together rapidly. I started with earth color, then a burnt grass tone to a bright green grass color for realism. White glue (half a gallon!) was used for the layout. Alcohol spray followed by 50:50 glue & water spray was used to seal the mess down later.


Here, the base layer of earth tone is almost done. The ground foam goes everywhere in the basement. My recommendation: have the shop vac handy when you take on a similar project. It can save your mind.


The earth tones have been completed in this image below. It is time to make some green happen, so the whole table needed to be sprinkled accordingly.


Before a whole lot more was done, I wanted to make sure the base layers were on the table pretty solidly. I masked off the track to allow for wide coverage spraying (so as not to let things get too fowled up). Kato switches with their internal mechanisms can get really gummed up by glue spreading to their insides. They are cleanable, but one has to remove them from the layout for cleaning, and this means de-gluing, and de-soldering. No thanks.  Once masked, the whole table was sprayed with alcohol to allow the next layer, white glue, to lose its surface tension and spread more easily. 50:50 white glue and water was then sprayed on, and it soaked right on in as expected. 24 hours later, the whole set was dry and ready for following steps.


The vast majority of base layer ground foam is complete here. The roads are done. Roads will have white striping, a la pre-1950s when yellow became the USA norm. I use fabric paint markers for road striping. Do not use Sharpie paint pens: they leak like a screen door on a submarine, and their paint is not opaque enough. The electronics are working. It is time to spend the next 5 to 10 years on details 😉


Below, you see some details. Some cars and old locos are in their museum spot (foreground) and there are some buildings going in.


Below is a close-up of the future railroad museum. There are some old F3 and F7s back there along with some cabooses, freight and stock cars. Eventually there will be a path (a PATH a PATH!) for pedestrians to use to get to the museum.


Here is the station entrance track way. I anticipate signalling and signage to get involved here eventually. The ballasting is a Kato blended sand material which works nicely with their Unitrack ballast color.


Lastly, an aerial shot of an old and worn down farm building with its newly worn driveway and some younger trees. I intend to make the trees to scale. Too often we see trees which are just TOO small for the layout. Mine will be the real deal, folks: big when needed, and small when needed. Stay tuned. There is definitely more to come.


About johnb

- Director of Grainger Observatory, Phillips Exeter Academy. - Variable-star-crazed astronomer, but have done research in other areas. - Drummer, archer, pilot, chef, friend, pet owner, husband, father, Train-nut.
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