Sunday, October 30, 2016

N Scale vs HO Scale

The vast majority of modelers in North America use one of two scales, N scale (1:160) or HO scale (1:87.1).  While no hard stats are available, it can be safely assumed that as many as 90% of the modelers on the continent are into one of these two scales.  HO scale definitely holds the majority, outweighing N scale two or three fold. However, both scales are quite popular.

While HO scale might have more models being produced, pretty much everything can be found in both scales for the diesel era.  For the steam era, HO scale still reins supreme, but N scale is fast catching up.

But in the end, when deciding a new model railroad layout, a scale must be chosen.  And that's the topic for today, which scale, between N and HO, should one chose?

To make things simple, I like to put the choice into the context of  'scenery vs details'.  If you want grand scenery, N scale is the go-to choice.  But if you want excellent detail, HO scale is a better option.  Don't get me wrong, N scale has excellent detail as well, it's just a matter of what the human eye is capable of seeing unassisted.

Both scales are capable of having DCC and Sound installed in locomotives, both scales have similar availability of track, but there are some different advantages.


As stated, N scale offers the modeler a chance to do big scenery.  The additional advantage to the small size is that a layout can be made in a smaller space.  Overall, N scale is cheaper than HO, allowing a similar sized fleet to be built at a discounted price.  Finally, N scale is a growing segment of the hobby filled with modelers, many of whom are younger than the stereotype of an old man in the basement building his railroad empire.

HO scale has the great advantage of detail and popularity.  Despite the recession in the United States and the slow recovery which hindered many of the niche markets in the hobby, HO scale has stayed quite steady with new products, magazine productions, and new layouts being built.  N scale might be growing, but it's popularity is far less than HO scale, and the volume of HO scale product speaks volumes.  Excellent deals can be had at any train show as the used market for HO scale is very strong. While the size is larger than N scale, many modelers find that HO scale balances details and space requirements well.  A really good layout really just needs a spare bedroom, or one wall in the case of switching layouts.  N scale needs less space, but many established modelers have enough spare room for HO scale.

To be fair though, there is no hard statistics on the demographics of model railroaders, everything here is merely observation and opinions based on observations.


Between these two scales, there isn't much for disadvantages.  And to be honest, one scale's disadvantage is the other's advantage.  The two really balance eachother well, and that is probably a major contribution as to why both N scale and HO scale hold the lion's share of modelers.  The only thing that can be precieved as a distinct advantage is that HO and N scale are too small for some people who have nerve issues in the hands, bad eyesight, or the need to have ultra-detailed models.

N scale does have one disadvantage in that it is extremely difficult to make such small models run outdoors.  If given the perfect environment, an N scale garden railroad should be possible, but up until now HO scale has been the smallest scale used in mass.  Most modelers who have outdoor train layouts gravitate towards the larger scales, which have equipment that is robust, heavy, and well suited to outdoor running.

Which is right for you?

To be completely honest, this is not a simple question to answer, and it is not up to me, or anyone else, to decide which scale YOU model in.  All I can really say is to assess your situation by answering the following questions (and other questions you come up with on your own, of course):

  1. How much space do I have?  If you only have a closet, N scale is a good bet.  If you have a basement, HO scale is an option.
  2. How good are my eyes and hands? Have the shakes and need glasses?  HO scale, or larger, would be a great benefit.
  3. Do I want big scenes or small scenes?  If you have visions of grand mountainous landscapes, but you only have a bedroom, N scale will give you more bang for your buck.  But if you like trains operating in smaller scenes such as eastern forests, rolling hills in the Midwest, or within a city, HO scale will hold the advantage.
  4. Train shows?  If you would like to bring your layout to a train show, N scale offers the benefit of portability, but HO scale is easier for many visitors to see.  Of course, if you have big scenes (or a small layout) N scale would still hold the advantage.
  5. Custom modeling?  The truth is that HO scale IS easier to customize than N scale, but it's not impossible to make great models in N scale, the smaller trains just need more practice with a soldering gun and an airbrush.
  6. Young children at home? N scale is a chocking hazard, plain and simple.  Even if HO scale details can fit in a toddler's mouth, a rail car or locomotive can't. If that's the situation though, extra care should be taken so that models don't get damaged or little hands fit little details into little mouths.

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