Congratulations! You have decided to get involved in the hobby of model railroading. You really want to build your first train layout, but you do not know what scale you should select to model. The scale you pick to model in is going to be determined by the amount of space you have allocated for your layout.
The term model railroaders use to describe the real life railroads is “prototype.” “Scale” is the comparative ratio of measurements of the model and the full-size prototype it represents. The prototype railroads are considered to be 1:1 and the models are scaled down from this ratio. The other aspect of a model’s size is “gauge.” This refers to the size of the space between the rails of the track. There has to be consistency in the hobby so that the manufacturers can produce products that cater to their customer’s needs.
The two smallest scales are Z and N. A fifty foot full-size locomotive measures 2 ¾ inches. People have built model railroads inside coffee tables and briefcases using Z scale trains. N scale has become very popular to model in over the past decade or so. The ratio for N scale is 1:160. Many manufacturers have increased their product lines to cater to the expanding needs of N scale model railroaders.
The most popular scale to model in by far is HO scale. A 50 foot locomotive is only 7 inches in length if done in Ho scale. The majority of manufacturers have product lines in HO scale, so buying just about what ever piece of equipment you want to model should not be a problem. Many basic starter train sets come in HO scale, so chances are this is what you will be deciding to model in anyway.
The next two sizes are S scale and O scale. S scale was popularized by the American Flyer line of model trains. S Scale is still being produced by several manufacturers. O scale is very popular and is classified in the “toy train” category. O scale track has a third rail that runs down the middle of the track. O scale is 1:48 of the prototype. The 50 foot locomotive is going to be 12 ½ inches long in O Scale. Lionel is a well-known brand that makes products for O Scale.
The largest scales used in the model railroad hobby are classified as “large scale trains.” There are a few different scales that come in this category. All the models in the large scale trains classification run on Gauge 1 track. For 1:29 proportion, the 50 foot locomotive measures 20 ¾ inches. Large scale trains are perfect for running outdoors in what modelers call garden railroaders. They are also popular at Christmas time to run underneath a decorated Christmas tree.
Since you are interested in building your first model railroad, you will probably select building a layout in either N scale or HO scale. Both of these scales have more than enough products being made to support it. Beginning HO scale layouts can be built on a 4 x 8 foot plywood table, while an N scale layout can be built on a hollow-core door. N scale would be a great choice if you want to run trains with more rolling stock (freight cars or passenger cars) and/or want to model realistic mountain scenery. Due to its small size, N scale will allow you to have scenery that is proportional to the trains that run through it.
Whatever scale you decide to model in you will be able to build an enjoyable model railroad layout. Remember, model railroading is a fun hobby. You will learn a lot along the way and have an enjoyable time doing it!