An Easy to Build, Small, N Scale Tram or Light Rail Layout
by Richard Bell

My main hobby interest is building an interurban line in my basement that is 1:24 or 1/2 inch to the foot scale in which just about everything is scratch built. That being said, I also have a hobby from my hobby which doesn't require any scratch building, functional overhead wire, or large expenditures of time and money. It is a modest collection of ready-to-run trams and interurbans from Kato and Tomix, and a simple little layout on which to run them. The layout measures 28 inches by 18 inches and was cobbled together using bits and pieces from my scrap box, scenery materials left over from my large scale layout, some Tomix track, the aforemetioned trams, and a few n scale vehicles and people to make the scene more realistic. The layout is easily stored away in a closet or on a shelf when not in use, can be transported in any vehicle, and set up to run on a desk or table top.

I built it by assembling a 3/4 inch thick frame from some bits of lumber that I had in my scrap pile to which I attached a piece of 1/2 inch thick homasote with fine nails and white glue. The track is standard Tomix fine track. Curve and turnout radius is 140mm. I fastened the track in place with 1/2 inch wire nails, soldered electrical feed wires to a pair of rail joiners, and cut out the paved areas from 1/4 inch gator board which I glued in place with white glue. When the glue dried, I painted the paved areas with a dark gray water-based acrylic paint which was obtained from Michaels craft store. When the paint dried, I spray painted the surface with a flat finish called Dull-cote.

The hills were built up with an inexpensive, lightweight, material called Sculptamold obtained at my local hobby shop. I put some of the dried material into a bucket and added water until it attained the consistency of oatmeal, plopped it in place with a putty knife and waited a couple of hours until it began to set up. Then, I used a putty knife to create striations, gouges, and other irregularities. It took about 3 days for the Sculptamold to dry completely after which I painted it with gray, and brown acrylic paint from Michaels craft store. After the paint dried, I brushed a watery solution of india ink all over the hills and let the ink settle into the cracks and crevices to darken them.

Next, I added ground foam scenery of various textures, ballasted the track with a mixture of fine brown and gray gravel, and added the grey ballast in the area of the car barn. The ballast was set in place with diluted white glue and a spray of water to which a little detergent was added. Next came the buildings and some N scale people added to the station platform which I cut from gator board. I bent some 3/32" brass rod to hold up the station roof and glued the roof (3/32" basswood) on using contact cement. Note: to prevent the basswood from warping, spray it on both sides with a couple of coats of spray shellac (available at Home Depot) before spray painting.

The last step was to add the line poles and overhead wire. I intended to use 1/16" brass rod for the line poles, but that proved to be too pliable and bent when I was installing the overhead. I switched to something much stronger and readily at hand - 2 and 1/2" finishing nails. The nails are grossly oversized, but from 3 feet away do not look nearly as large as they do in the photographs. Someone suggested that I use stainless steel hypodermic tubing which is reported to be strong and has a finer diameter than the nails. I may try that if I find that I can't live with the nails. The cross span wires are 24 gauge phosphor bronze which are the standard used in O scale and HO scale trolley layouts with functional overhead. I also used 24 gauge phosphor bronze wire for the trolley wire which I simply soldered directly to the span wires. The overhead is not intended to be functional. It is there only for effect so I didn't bother to use hangers. I did make a couple of pull-offs to help position the wire over the track. N scale pantographs are rather fragile, so I made sure that the overhead wire is a good 1/8 inch above the top of the pantograph. Two coats of green acrylic paint on the poles and span wires added to the appearance and covered over a lot of the bright solder.

So, there you have it. A small tram/light rail layout that is a lot of fun to build and operate, is relatively inexpensive, and can be used anywhere. It took me about 30 hours to build it. My main expense was for the track and turnouts: about $100. The rest of the materials I had on hand. If you had to buy everything needed for this project, I estimate that the total cost would be in the $200-250 range.

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