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Information for the Beginner

Central Hobbies carries a complete selection of scale model railway products.

Model Railway Scales


  • What is the scale?
  • What are the scales?
  • What is the most popular scale?


Scale is the size ratio between the model and the real thing. HO scale is 1/87 which means that an HO scale model is 1/87th the size of the real thing. For example a real 60' box car would be 60'/87 or about 8 1/4 inches long in HO Scale.

The Common Scales

The most common scales are (from largest to smallest):

  • G Scale - Garden Scale (for various reasons the G scale track gauge is a constant 1 3/4 inches but the scale varies from 1:32 to 1 :20.5)
  • O Scale - 1/48 or 1/4" to the foot. Lionel.
  • S Scale - 1/64.
  • HO Scale - 1/87.1 or 3.5 mm to the foot. (The reasons why we use a metric measurement for an imperial measure are lost in time).
  • N Scale - 1 /160
  • Z Scale - 1/220

The scales from an HO Scale Modellers perspective.
A few Historical notes.

The Most Popular Scales

The scales in order of popularity:

  • HO Scale - 1/87 is the most popular scale (about 60% of the market). The largest variety of product is available in HO scale. Standard Gauge track is 16.5 mm between the rails.
  • N Scale - 1 /160 is the second most popular scale (about 30% of the market). A good selection of product is available but not as extensive as HO scale. N Scale is 9 mm between the reails.
  • G Scale - Garden Scale is now the third most popular scale. G scale track is 1 3/4" inches between the rail. This is actually #1 Guage track but as most G Scale is narrow gauge they do not worry about it.
  • After this comes O Scale Tin Plate (Lionel), S Scale (mostly Sn3 narrow gauge), O Scale (1/ 45.2) Z, TT and others.


When we talk about an era we are talking about a particular time (usually in the past) that you want to model. The eras break into the following broad categories:

  1. 'Today' - what you see on today's railroads

  2. 'Modern' - 80' and 90' diesels and equipment

  3. 'Diesel' - 60s and 70'

  4. 'Steam to Diesel' - 40s to late 50s Steam engines are still running but diesels are taking over.

  5. 'Late Steam 30s- 40s Steam only.

  6. 'Between the Wars' - post WW I through the depression to WW II.

  7. 'Early 20th Century' - 1900 to the end of WW I.

  8. 'Late 19th Century' - American Civil War to 1900.

  9. 'Early' - 1829 (or so) to the 1870's.

There is now a good selection of Plastic models for the most modern era. Modern era to WWII there are many good plastic models available. One you move into the steam eras you are talking expensive brass models (although Proto 2000 and Bachmann Spectrum have some nice models). The older you go the harder it is to find models and the greater likelihood that you will have to scratch build your equipment.


Most railroads in the world run on Standard gauge. Standard gauge is 4 feet 8 and one half inches between the rails. Despite the urban legends (Roman Chariots, etc.) surrounding the choice of the gauge the simple fact of the matter is that when George Stephenson built the Stockton and Darlington Railroad he used the gauge that he was familiar with, that of the last colliery he had worked at. Had that colliery been a different gauge, today's standard gauge would be different.

Broad Gauge is any gauge wider than standard gauge. Russia uses 5 foot gauge. India uses 5' 6" and meter gauge. Broad gauge was more widely used before Standard Gauge became the standard. Gauges up to 7 feet wide were used. Canada had large sections of 5' 6" in the early days. The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit System is broad gauge.

Narrow Gauge is any gauge narrower than standard gauge. Gauges as small as 1' 11 1/2" (Welsh Slate quarries) have been (and still are) used. At one time three foot gauge was common in the USA; Colorado was a noted location for 3 foot gauge. Several tourist lines in Colorado still run on three foot gauge. The White Pass and Yukon railway still runs on three foot gauge. The Newfoundland Railways were 42" gauge (3' 6"). Meter gauge is common overseas. Other gauges were used. They were common for branch line, mining railways or light railways where traffic did not justify a full sized railway.

Which gauge was used in a country depended on where the rail engineers came from. Engineers from the southern US spread 5' gauge (the main gauge of the south before the US Civil War). British engineers spread standard gauge or 3' 6". Continental engineers spread meter gauge. Others were home grown. Most countries had one main gauge (not always standard; India's main gauges are broad and meter) and one other gauge. Australia is a notable exception with nearly every state picking a different gauge.

Few model railroaders model broad gauge (mostly British modelers of the Great Western Railway - 7' and a few Russian modelers)
Narrow gauge is much more common.
N Scale modelers use Z scale track for Nn3.
HO Scale modelers use N Scale track for HOn30.
HOn3 and HOm (Metre gauge) products are commercially available.
Sn3 is quite common. O scale modelers do many gauges. Proper LGB G Scale is meter gauge equipment.

Rail Height

Rail height is the height of the rail in thousandths of an inch.
Most HO scale track is Code 100 (black ties). Code 83 is now quite common and is a better representation of current mainline track.

Sectional track comes in code 100 and code 83. Other codes are available (70, 55 and 40).

Most N scale track is code 80. Peco makes a good code 55 track system although it is of European appearance. Ballasted this still looks very good. Atlas has a new N Scale Code 55 track system. This track has problems with deeper flanges. Micro Engineering makes both Code 55 and Code 40 flex track. Micro Engineering Code 55 track can handle all current N scale flange sizes. If you wish to use code 40 Micro Engineering track you will have to change the wheel sets on all of your equipment.

The following table relates rail height (Code which is measured in 1/100 of an inch) to the equivalent prototype rail size in the various scales. Comments of "Too Small" are subjective as you could use the smaller rail if you were modeling a light field railway. Comments of "Too Large" are also subjective. Manufactures have often used rail sizes that were available regardless of whether they were appropriate. Most common N scale Track is code 80 which is way too large for any prototypical rail size.

Rail Size
Model Scale
100 Too Large Too Large Too Large 155+ 115 75 20
83 Too Large Too Large Too Large 132 85 55 Too Small
80 Too Large Too Large Too Large 132 85 50 Too Small
75 Too Large Too Large Too Large 115 75 45 Too Small
70 Too Large Too Large >155 100 65 35 Too Small
60 Too Large > 155 85 80 50 25 Too Small
55 Too Large 155+ 115 75 40 25 Too Small
40 >155 115 75 40 20 Too Small Too Small

Layout Design

Few layouts are completely designed before they are built. Most evolve as they are built. If you are stuck for ideas Kalmbach Publishing has several layout plan books. Kalmbach and Carstens publish track planning books.
Building a model of a prototype scene works if you have the space or can compress the scene to fit your space. Many model railways are built to duplicate a section of real railway. Many use real railway scenes (sometimes from several railroads) to make their own railway. Others are totally imagineered to their builders specifications and desires.
If you need help with your design, bring your ideas to the store and we can critique them for you.


On many model railroads construction stops or slows down when trains are running. Scenery is a fun inexact process. There is no correct way to make your scenery. The Woodland Scenics Scenery System is simple to do. We have several books on various scenery methods.


There are many, many books on railway subjects. From rail atlases, railway histories, to books on specific pieces of equipment. There is probably a book that can help or inspire you.

By Title A to C By Title D to N By Title O to S By Title T to Z
By Author A to D By Author E to K By Author L to R By Author S to Z


There are many hobby magazines. Some are general "MR", "RMC", some cover specific scales "N Scale", some cover specific aspects of the hobby "Narrow gauge and Shortline Gazette". See our magazines pages for a list of the Magazines we carry.

Links to product pages for various scales:
HO Scale - N Scale - G Scale - Z Scale - O and Other Scales - S Scale

Updated January 2, 2020

Central Hobbies
2825 Grandview Hwy, Vancouver, BC
Canada , V5M 2E1
Phone 1-604-431-0771, Fax 1-604-431-9855
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