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Déjà Vu All Over Again

(aka My N Scale Adventure, Part II)

Like that quote usually attributed to Yogi Berra, this is like déjà vu all over again. As I described in My N Scale Adventure, a while back, I decided to experiment making a smaller layout and working in a smaller scale with Kato's Super Chief (my favorite train). Unfortunately the length of the train I wanted to model was way too long to fit on the smaller layout I had planned. I wound up filling a six foot shelf with a mock-up of a yet-to-be created Super Chief diorama.

Shelf diorama
The Super Chief diorama mockup
on a 6' shelf.

Layout under table
The N scale oval waits patiently
under the main layout.

So for over a year, I've had a large, unused, N scale oval sitting on a 3' x 7' piece of plywood under my table.

I reached a good stopping point on my main layout and, probably not coincidentally, started eyeing the layout below it, finding myself essentially at the same point that I was almost four years before when I started the hobby: staring at an oval track on a table, wondering what's next.

Day One
Day One.

Beginning Anew
Here I am again, almost four years later.

Kato Unitrack

I spent some time familiarizing myself with Kato's Unitrack. And I've got to say, it's pretty neat.

It took a little time to decipher, but the way Kato sells their main and add-on kits can help someone new to the hobby build a good-looking, sophisticated layout relatively quickly. Besides the main track sets (M1 and M2) and the add-on sets they call V# (for Variations), they also sell a wide assortment of track (lengths, radii, etc.) in small packs. They have several accessories as well. Check out their web site,

Diving In

I cut the old seven foot piece of plywood down to five to keep my options open. But my goal is to build something small and easily transportable and I'm thinking that I will keep the length at four feet. The depth will be three feet.

The plywood was temporarily placed on a slightly shaky 45-year-old folding card table. (That's not a typo - I've had that little table for over 45 years.) That issue was soon addressed (see below).

In the first few days that I started playing with the track, I had already assembled three or four different configurations, testing different size ovals, sidings and, something I've always wanted to do, a "track over track" bridge.

After pondering potential themes for several weeks, I decided to relent on my original plan for the Super Chief (trying to include all the cars) and run a truncated version. I'll build a combination of an oval and a siding for the Super Chief as well as a Los Angeles trolley line of the 1950s. As a bonus, I'll be able to use a number of the components already on the shelf diorama shown above. I figure that the (heavily truncated) Super Chief will run on the outside (larger radius) track, while the trolley would run on an inner circle since it's comfortable on tighter radius curves. But I am going to connect the loops so that the trolley can experience a longer route and stretch his legs once in a while.

Finding an N scale PCC trolley in 1950's Los Angeles colors proved impossible. But I was able to purchase a generic yellow PCC on Ebay and it wasn't very difficult to disassemble and paint it. It came out pretty good. In fact, I think it matches my 50's LA bus better than the Bachmann version does.

Early mockup / testing.

62996 Trolley
A Bachmann N scale PCC trolley.

Disassembled PCC
Disassembled PCC trolley.

Painted PCC
After painting - very close.

It's kind of funny that the original plan – spelled out in My N Scale Adventure – is emerging as my direction. I guess once I became resigned to the fact that the Super Chief itself had to be significantly compressed, it all kind of fell into place, and I'm continuing the N scale project pretty much as I had envisioned it two years ago.

Although the final layout will consist of several "modules" so that I'm easily able to bring sections to the garage or relocate the layout, I am trying to plan and design most of the layout at once - something I didn't do with my first layout. It makes me all the more confident that sectional track is a great way to start for many newcomers. While I had a basic idea of the layout I wanted, I didn't know what was possible or what configuration worked best until I got some extra track and tried a few.

I'm also going to make this a 360 degree layout - viewable from all sides.

Playing with track.
Playing with track.

Track Testing
Closing in on a final design.

As with all my evaluations, I've spent plenty of time trying and changing different aspects of the layout. To me, it's part of the fun of just playing.

I've started using software (AnyRail) to help create model railroad layouts. (I put more information about it on the A Different Way to Start page.)

After having spent some time playing with the software, I produced what I think is something close to my final layout. Late in the process, I decided to add a small (6"x36") diorama of a switching yard where I'll store other cars of the Super Chief which I had wanted to keep on display somewhere. Perfect! And if I can get good at switching, they could be part of a functional rail yard.


The most recent layout...

Final Layout
...and what might be the final
track configuration.

The square photograph at the top of the track diagram on the left is a small test section I made for the shelf diorama a while ago. I think I can incorporate it here.

Now that I'm playing with actual track, I've realized that a big advantage in assembling sectional track is how much play there is. I'm sure the software produces an exact geometric solution relying on the specs of the track (length, radius, etc.), but, in reality, there is quite a bit of flexibility, especially on the longer lengths of multiple pieces. I came close to the plan that the software produced, but it's good to know that there is a range of comfortable "adjustments" one can make without putting strain on the track in any direction. As such, I moved the track slightly in two places to make connections. And no, I don't consider it cheating. ;)

Benchwork Catches Up

If you've come here the long way (reading everything I've previously written) you know that I've avoided traditional benchwork. But it caught up to me in this project. I knew some day it would.

It occurred to me that a great way to "spice up" my little layout would be to include lights. Woodland Scenic's "Just Plug" lighting worked so well in a few spots on my HO layout, I thought they would be a great addition here.

But the need to drop wires throughout the layout at various locations has negated my idea of using a regular table. With that in mind, a custom bench seems like the way to go.

Of course, it's no surprise that a guy who is into "simple" would take a simple approach to benchwork. I figured a frame on four legs would be the base for my sections which will have wires hanging from below. Once the sections are placed on or in the frame, I can attach the wires to control boxes, perhaps affixed to the inside of the frame rails.

Model of the table

It may look like I'm planning to build a pink pool table but this was only a quick model so I could visualize it in 3D. (Plus it was fun to make.) It looks like this plan could work well.

And after four years, I've finally watched a few "how-to" videos on benchwork. (There are several good ones on Model Railroader's Video Plus.) And I've gone back to some "how-to" books I purchased years ago, finding good information and possible design ideas.

But, even after all that, I'm still not ready to build the bench until I'm further along in my project. I have some production steps to figure out, like wiring and module breaks, and probably some stuff I haven't thought of yet. So I came up with a fast and easy solution to creating a temporary, function layout bench.

First Bench
Temporary bench.

Using inexpensive brackets and 2x4s, I've constructed two saw horses on which I placed the plywood. (I'm sure I'm not the first to do something like that.) On top of that, I'll build my main modules which will consist of two 18"x48" sheets of 3/16" MDF with 1" foam on top. My rail yard will be a similar, smaller module built adjacent to the main 3'x4' layout. Holes can then be drilled anywhere for light and switch wires. (As of now, the foam is in place, but not the MDF.)

I was surprised that the 1/2" plywood is slightly warped as it has been sitting on the floor for a long time. But it's fine for my current purpose, and I'll continue building my layout on this temporary bench. At some point, I'll build a real one. The modules, by their nature and design, will be easily transferrable.

"A Celebration of the Super Chief" starts to take shape.

With the temporary bench in place, it's time to start mocking up the layout and see how it all might fit together.

Foam Cutting
Preparing the foam for an underpass
and my old New Mexico test diorama.

First Wire Hole
My first hole for a switch wire.

Isn't it neat to see natural light
shining on your favorite choo choo?

MockupSimple component mock-ups made
from paper, foam, plastic, etc., help me visualize different layout possibilities.

I spent quite a bit of time in the mock-up process. Unlike my first layout when I was working on one small section at time with little or no thought about the next one, I wanted to have a good idea of how this one will all come together before I dig in too deeply. I can also test topography, bridges, tunnels, etc.

After spending some time altering the mockups, the overall layout has started to take shape.


This page will be devoted to the "big picture" of the layout. Specific setions/areas will be covered on subsequent pages.


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