Why S scale?

That has to be the second question, and the answer is complex. This posting will therefore be long – thanks in advance for chewing through it.

First, some background. I’ve modelled in O scale for several years. My last layout was in O scale, two-foot gauge, depicting the unique narrow gauge railroads of Maine:

My Maine On2 layout.

I’ve also spent much of the last year working on various projects for a planned Southern Pacific layout in Proto:48:

SP-1767 in Proto:48

I enjoyed the projects, which included:

– Adding DCC, sound and lights to my Glacier Park Models SP 2-6-0s;
– Detailing rolling stock, including a lot of Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator cars; and
– Converting everything to Proto:48 trucks and Protocraft couplers.

A portrait of the Valley Mallet.

Cut Lever - Bottom Mount

I love the size of O. Trains have heft. Details can be seen. And I enjoy building large models of small prototypes such as section houses and flag stop shelters.

However, when trying to draw an O scale plan for my layout space, I always came away unsatisfied. The problem is, my space is reasonably long, but very narrow. I was running into curve radius issues. I was also finding that, in O scale at least, my two primary objectives for the layout were in conflict.

First, I wanted to create realistic scenes. That meant giving the scenes space to breathe, so they’d look like places one would find on a full size, standard gauge railroad as opposed to a miniature basement empire. It also meant using larger turnouts than what one normally sees on model railways. My friend Mike Cougill uses #8s and #10s on his Indiana and Whitewater layout and I love the effect. (But judge it for yourself by visiting the OST Publications website and look for his book on detailing track in the online store.)

Second, I wanted some operation. Not a lot, but enough to keep a couple of people entertained for an hour or so.

What I found was that even a simple design became so compressed in O scale that it ended up looking like a TimeSaver. (Not literally, mind you: I use the term as an example of any compact switching puzzle – the very sort of thing that real railroads avoid. Craig Bisgeier has written a great critique of the TimeSaver and why one should not use it in a layout.)

In addition, every plan required a HUGE balloon track involving almost 360 degrees of curvature (when one includes an adjacent yet necessary S curve) to get trains from one side of my layout space to the other. Even so, this curve was going to have to be pretty tight – I would say “train set tight”. Every design ended up with two too-tight switching districts (or a too-tight terminal and a staging yard) and a whole lot of curved, awkward nothing in between. Try as I might, I just could not imagine hand-laying all that track for something I knew would end up being frustrating. Been there, done that.

At some point, I realized that Proto:48 would not fit my space and give me what I wanted. So, what to do? Some friends suggested that I make some adjustments to my goals – for example, by trading in the small steam power for small diesels, which could negotiate a tighter curve and smaller turnouts. I decided on a different strategy.

I’m interested in a variety of scales, gauges and prototypes. And along the way, I’ve collected interesting equipment for each – often for use with local modular groups to which I belong.

It occurred to me that I should try working my way down through the scales/models in my collection. Could I design an appropriate layout for these, that would fit my basement, look realistic and give me the operation I desire? O scale (1:48) didn’t fit, but maybe its 3/4 sized cousin, S scale, would? If not, I have plenty of HO in the display cabinet.

My S scale models are of Canadian National steam-era prototypes, for use on the sectional layout built by the members of the S Scale Workshop:

S Scale Workshop.
(Want to know more? Visit the S Scale Workshop online)

I’m an associate member of this group – I’ve yet to build a module – but I’d picked up two lovely S scale CN 10-Wheelers built by Simon Parent from his own kits:

CNR 1532 in 1:64.

CNR 1560 in 1:64.

Could I find a suitable CN prototype?

Ian Wilson has written a series of books on the Canadian National in southern Ontario, so I grabbed my stack of these and started searching for small yet interesting spots I could model. Ian’s book on the Hamilton lines included information and photos on Port Rowan, which I liked for various reasons, aesthetic and practical.

It took two attempts to create a plan that fit my space beautifully:

– The 25% saved by downsizing to S scale would allow me to use the longer turnouts I desired and still give me plenty of space in my scenes for a realistic arrangement of structures.

– In addition, I could reduce my minimum radius by 15% in S; which would still be a more generous curve for my S scale CN 10-Wheelers than my O scale radius would have been for the SP 2-6-0s. The relatively larger minimum radius addressed the “train set curve” issue.

– The space saved by switching to S would also free up enough real estate for me to include the siding and station at St. Williams (the next town up the branch from Port Rowan) and still have room for a decent-sized staging yard to represent the rest of the world. Operations just got a whole lot more interesting and there would be a stronger sense of the trains actually going somewhere.

So far, so good. But two locomotives do not a layout make. What else is available for a CN layout in S? I’ll address that next time…

4 thoughts on “Why S scale?

  1. Hello Trevor

    I recently saw the video of your magnificent SP Mogul on Youtube
    Did you sell the model?
    I am trying to find one of these

    • Hi Romain:
      Good luck with your search. I found mine via the Proto:48 Yahoo Group.
      Mine is not for sale. While my layout is S scale, I enjoy working in Proto:48 as well and hope, some day, to build a small layout on which to run it.
      Cheers!

  2. I, too, would like to GO BIG and do a larger scale. S does have a number of advantages over O. But you also pointed out in your OST interview that there is a social aspect to these choices.

    In my case, there is a good number of S and Sn3 modelers in the area who would enthusiastically welcome me. But all the locos I prefer are done in O.

    So I am weighing the not-so-exciting loco choices but size advantages of S against the exactly-what-I-want locos in O but driving to the shows by myself. 🙂

    I’ll keep reading your adventures.

    • Hi Mitch:
      Very good points about the social aspect. But I would add that there are other factors than scale at play too.
      As it happens, my choice of S has brought with it a new group of friends – or strengthened previous friendships. But also, my choice of the home road – Canadian National – has made a huge difference too. It’s a prototype to which most people in my area can relate because many of them model it – in scales from N to O. So, perhaps you can have the best of both worlds, by picking a prototype that many in your area are modelling in S, but do it in O instead…
      Cheers!

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