When your starting out in model railroading, one of the first tasks you'll have to complete is deciding on what scale you want to work with. There are a huge variety of scales available from the larger scales that must be run outside to the smallest scales that can literally fit a complete layout in a briefcase. In some ways this is the hardest of the decisions you'll have to make and depends on a great number of variables: space available, cost, availability, region, variety desired and so forth.

What do we mean by scale?

Model railroading uses the term scale to describe the size of the trains you will be modeling in. A scale is usually defined as a name which describes the size ratio of the models to their real life equivalents. For example, the most popular scale in the world today is HO (or H0) scale. HO scale has a size ratio of 1:87, meaning 1" of size in your models equals 87" of real life. Or you could say that an HO scale model is 1/87th the size of it's real world, full size equivalent.

Another term you'll often hear in relation to scale is gauge. Gauge refers to the distance between the rails in that scale. The standard gauge in HO scale is 0.65 inches, or 16.5 mm. There are also narrow gauge variants available in several scales where the tracks are closer together than standard gauge. In full scale railroads, narrow gauge railroads typically operate in areas that require sharp turns and narrow spaces, such as mountainsides or ravines. Narrow gauge operations are usually based in mining and logging operations, but are fairly rare nowadays as equipment must be smaller and capacities are reduced. In our HO scale example, the most common narrow gauge variant is called HOn3.

The three most common sizes are HO, N and O scales, usually in that order though there is some back and forth between N and O scales. There are, however, a vast number of different scales and variations on those scales that exist.

With that background in place, let's cover the more common scales available from larger to smaller and some advantages and disadvantages of each.

Large Scale or Garden Railways

Typical Scales: G (1:22.5), 1:24, 1:16, 1:12

Garden Railroad - Easton Towne Center Shopping Mall, Columbus, OH

I'll group the largest block of scales together into one group commonly referred to as Garden Railways. Unless you have a huge indoor area to build in, these scales are most commonly found in outdoor garden railroads. You can sometimes see these in local malls or parks. One of my favorite places to visit actually boasts a 25,000 sq ft indoor space of G scale trains: Entertrainment Junction.

Some of the displays that people build in these scales are amazing. If you go to YouTube and do a search for "garden railways" you can spend hours going from one video to the next gaping in amazement at what some people have created.

Advantages
  • Equipment size - If you have trouble working with small details, these scales are perfect. They are quite large and easy to work with for people who lack manual dexterity
  • All weather - If you don't have any indoor space to work in, but do have outdoor space available, these scales are about your only option as they can operate in all weather conditions.
Disadvantages
  • Space - These require a good sized space to work in.
  • Environment - Since you're probably working outside, you're limited by available lighting and weather conditions in your outdoor area
  • Cost - These are typically the most expensive trains to work with. Locomotives can cost in the $500-$1000 range and freight and passenger cars range from $100-$300
  • Low to the ground - Since most of these operations are from ground level to about 2' or 3' above the ground, if you have difficulty getting up or down, you may struggle with this
  • Lack of variety - There is not a huge variety of pre-made equipment and scenery available in these scales and it is not uncommon for people to make their own (often referred to as scratchbuilt)

O Scale or Lionel

Typical Scales: O (1:48), O27/Lionel (10% smaller than O on same size track)

Train at the Arizona Biltmore

Most people will recognize this as the train around the Christmas tree size. The most popular variant of this is the Lionel brand trains. The main difference between Lionel and true O scale is that the Lionel trains use a 3-rail system that is the same width as standard O scale 2-rail tracks, but has a center rail for power pickup. Lionel trains are also typically about 10% smaller than true O scale trains should be. Some people think this gives them a less realistic appearance.

Like garden railroads, O scale requires a good deal of space for anything beyond a simple loop around the tree. If you have a house with a full basement that you can devote to your model railroad, O scale or O27 are not unreasonable choices.

Advantages
  • Variety - There is a decent amount of equipment and scenery available in this area
  • Starter Sets - There are a huge number of starter sets available out there, especially around the holidays season. They make great ins to the hobby.
  • Size - Like garden railroads, these scales are also excellent for those with less nimble fingers
Disadvantages
  • Incompatibility - O and O27 are not compatible with each other. Once you choose one or the other, you're stuck with your choice unless you change everything out
  • Space - Unless you have a full basement or garage area to devote, you'll be somewhat limited in what you can accomplish in this scale.
  • Cost - While not as expensive as garden railways, O scale and Lionel tend to be on the higher end of the cost range for model railroading.

HO or H0

Scale: 1:87

By far the most popular scale of model railroad is HO (sometimes referred to as H0 scale). HO scale is roughly half the size of O scale. This scale offers the greatest compromise of size by being big enough to work with fairly easily, but not taking up too much space for those with less room to work with. HO scale also offers the greatest variety of available equipment and scenery. One of the industry's largest distributors, Walthers, publishes an annual reference catalog that contains hundreds of pages of HO scale products from vendors the world over.

HO scale layouts can range from small, shelf size switching layouts around 2' x 6' to massive empires filling warehouses, and every conceivable size in between. A common size for small layouts is 4x8, where a person simply buys a sheet of 4'x8' plywood and builds a layout on top of it. Another common size on the small end is the "door layout". In this case, the builder buys an interior size house door and builds their layout on that. Door layouts are more common with N scale however, as the 30"-32" width of a typical door is too narrow for many HO scale trains to loop in.

Advantages
  • Variety - HO scale offers the greatest variety of manufacturer products available, covering every era of railroad and almost any type of scenery you might imagine.
  • Cost - Typically less expensive than O and garden scales, HO scale equipment and scenery are usually fairly reasonable in cost. It also offers the widest cost range, with lower cost entry level products ranging up to expensive, museum quality products.
  • Space - HO scale can work in smaller areas and when given larger spaces can create an impressive railroad empire
  • Size - For those with less nimble fingers, HO scale is about the smallest scale that can be reasonably worked with
Disadvantages
  • Space - This can also be a disadvantage. If you envision a grand empire, but don't have a large, full basement or garage to commit to it, HO scale will still be too big
  • Cost - As with space, this can also be a disadvantage. While an equivalent item will often cost less in HO scale vs O scale, you will need more of them to fill the same space. So while individual products are cheaper, you'll need to buy more of them.

N Scale

Scale: 1:160

As HO scale is roughly half the size of O scale, N scale is roughly half the size of HO scale. N scale is sometimes referred to as apartment scale since it is well suited to those who have very limited available space. But even for those who have a lot of room available, N scale is sometimes the choice for creating massive layouts covering hundreds of scale miles in length. The door layout I mentioned above is a common size for making an N scale layout that is easily storable or portable.

The biggest problem most people will have with N scale is the small size of the equipment. Locomotives are typically 4"-6" in length and all of the equipment has small parts that can be difficult to work with. However, if you can accept those size related trade-offs, you can model a lot in a given area.

Advantages
  • Compact - Best size for apartments or other small spaces
  • Territory - If you have the space, you can model a vast amount and variety of territory
  • Variety - Though not nearly as much is available for N scale as HO, product variety is roughly on par with O/O27.
Disadvantages
  • Size - Tiny equipment. Definitely not for those who have difficulties with eyesight or manual dexterity

Other Scales

While the above covers the most common scales available, there are many more available around the world and some enjoy greater popularity in certain areas. Here are the three main scales that fit into a second tier of popularity:

  • S scale - Nestled in between O and HO at 1:64 sits S scale. While it is one of the oldest known scales for model railroads, it has never seen huge market share. While it has enjoyed steady growth in more recent years, it still lags far behind the big 3.
  • TT scale - This scale sits between HO and N scales, at 1:120. While TT scale enjoys great popularity in Eastern Europe and Russia, it has never really caught on outside that region.
  • Z scale - The smallest available scale that has any real availability commercially. Z scale sits at 1:220 in size and can quite literally fit a small layout in a briefcase.

For each of you, the scale you choose will be whatever one fits best into your environment. There is no one right answer. The best thing you can do is to take the highlights I've shared here and whatever else you find and go visiting. There are four main resources available for you to go and see and learn from to help you make the decision for yourself.

  1. Your local train store - Go and find your local model train store. I would recommend one that actually specializes in trains if there's one available. While most hobby shops carry at least some model railroading products, I usually find them severely lacking in variety and product knowledge.
  2. Museums and Displays - If you're lucky enough to live near a museum or entertainment center that has a model railroad display, pay it a visit. My personal favorite Entertrainment Junction is a two hour drive from my house and I make the trip once or twice a year. I would love to visit some others around the world someday, especially Miniatur Wunderland in Germany, but sadly I doubt I'll ever have the time or money to visit.
  3. Train Shows - Most areas, at least in the USA, will have a local train show every 6-24 months. These might be put on by local groups or might be a travelling show put on by a national group. These often occur at the local fairgrounds. Here in Columbus, there's a show that usually happens in January or February each year.
  4. Model railroading clubs - Many regions have a local model railroading club. These clubs will often have a weekly or bi-weekly open house night when anyone can visit, see the club layout, and meet the members. These members can provide a wealth of knowledge on the hobby and help you learn the ins and outs before you really get in to the hobby yourself. And if you have no space, time. or money for a layout yourself, you can join one of these groups and participate in their activities.

For me, I've chosen to work in HO scale. Partly because N scale is too small for my bad eyes and my big, fat fingers. And partly it's because I inherited my father's HO scale collection when he was no longer able to work on his railroad. I look forward to seeing what I can build.