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O Gauge Outside - using O Gauge and O Scale Trains and Accessories on Garden Railroads. Click for bigger photo. Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and running well Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden Railroading
Large Scale Starter Sets: Begin with a train you'll be proud to run Best Choices for Beginning Garden Railroaders: a short list of things you're most likely to need when starting out
Large Scale Track order FormSturdy buildings for your garden railroad.
Large Scale Christmas Trains: Trains with a holiday theme for garden or professional display railroads.Free Large Scale Signs and Graphics: Bring your railroad to life with street signs, business signs, and railroad signs
Garden Railroading Books, Magazines, and Videos: Where to go to learn even more
Collectible Trains and Villages: On30 Trains and accessories designed by Thomas Kinkade and others

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

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Planning an O Gauge Outside Railroad

The Introduction to O Gauge Outside article outlined the resources available for people who want to build garden railroads with their O gauge trains. This part will include hints for planning the "best possible" O gauge garden railroad in your circumstances.

Here are some considerations for while you're still in the planning stages.

Raise Your Trains - Trains and the communities they serve are more fun to view if you're not just seeing the tops of box cars and buildings. They're also a lot easier to maintain, rerail, and recouple if you don't have to get onto your hands and knees to do it. (And frankly, keeping the track clear of pebbles and bird poop is more important in O gauge than it is in Large Scale.)

For viewing purposes, consider the places where people will be sitting to view the trains, and assume that the average rail height at that point should be 28" or higher. Yes, you may have seen impressive ground-level railroads using Large Scale equipment. But many of those trains have 4-6 times the bulk of your O-gauge trains. To be equally impressive, your O-gauge trains will need to be more "in your face."

Click for bigger picture.Use broad curves. - Just because your O-gauge trains can run on 24"-radius curves (or smaller) doesn't mean they should. Trains look better on broader curves. Broad curves also cause less "drag," allowing you to run longer trains, and they reduce the "lurching into a curve" problem you see on "train set" railroads. I would consider 36"-radius curves the minimum unless I was really short on space (48" radius or larger would be better). (For other tips about designing for reliability, please see Designing Your Railroad for High Reliability.)

Note: Because garden railroaders often have to interact with landscape architects and various kinds of builders, they tend to talk about track diameter, not radius. They do know the difference, in case you wondered, but it does sometimes confuse indoor railroaders who are used to talking about radii.

Use Low Grades - It isn't hard to stick to a 2% grade if you have room for big curves. As an example, an over-and-under figure eight, using 48"-radius curves on both sides will allow you to get to 6" of clearance at the crossover - enough for most O gauge trains - without going over a 2% grade. (You can estimate this example by multiplying the diameter of a circle using that track times PI - 96"x3.14. Then multiply times .02.) If you want the train to look like it is rising and falling more steeply than that, have the ground rise and fall around the train - you'll have the same effect while reducing the opportunities for "slippage" or for the train to speed up and slow down radically as it navigates the right-of-way.

Click for bigger picture.Plan to Get Your Trains In and Out Easily - Many would-be garden railroaders only run their railroads a few times a year because they don't have the energy to schlep a bunch of stuff out and in every time they want to run trains. This can be even worse in O gauge, where you cannot leave your trains on the tracks overnight without experiencing rust and other damage in short order. For your O Gauge Outside railroad to be as much fun as possible, you should consider a way to get your trains in and out easily. Running them into the window of a dry basement, where they can sit on a shelf between operating sessions is one of the best solutions. One friend has built shallow boxes he can simply unload his trains into and out of easily. This means he does have to get his trains on and off the track every times he runs, but it's still a far cry from putting them back in the manufacturers' boxes every time you end an operating session. You'll have to come up with your own best solution, of course, but don't ignore this issue during the planning stage, or it will affect how often you run your trains, and, as a result, how much fun you have with them.

Plan to Protect Your Trains When They Are Outside - Any place your trains will be sitting for a while should be dry and shaded if possible. This includes "yards," station tracks, etc. Make certain that any "storage tracks" on your railroad are extremely well-drained, so your cars aren't sitting over swampy ground absorbing dampness on otherwise dry days. UV is also a danger. A few days of exposure to direct sunlight will cause most O-gauge cars to fade; many days' exposure will cause them to turn brittle. You can spray them with a UV-resistant clear coating if you're not worried about "collectors' value." But even that's only good for about a year at a time. Better to think ahead during the design stage. By the way, garden railroads are also more fun to watch and to run if you can sit in the shade too, so you could be taking precautions to protect the trains and the people enjoying them at the same time.John Blessing's HDPE flexible roadbed construction. Click for bigger picture.

Plan to Provide Good Support For Your Right-Of-Way - Most O-gauge track suitable for use outside is not as strong, mechanically, as most Large Scale track. You may imagine that you will never step on or lean against the track, but the truth is that most garden railroaders do so sooner or later, usually trying to weed or adjust something across the track. In addition, O gauge trains are slightly more sensitive to uneven trackage than Large Scale trains. So choose a method that prevents natural forces like washouts or freeze-thaw cycles from changing the contour of your railroad. The Simple Raised Railroad Method is probably the sturdiest once it is built. Architect Bill Logan's HDPE Flexible Roadbed method is nearly as sturdy and far more adaptable to complex designs. You'll see that John Blessing used a modified version of the HDPE Flexible Roadbed method for his railroad. Knowing the calculations and testing Bill put into his original design, I would probably do something closer to Bill's version. But John is quite happy with his adaptation, and you can see that a spectacular layout can be the achieved. I've added John's description of his modifications to the bottom of this page.

Choose Suitable Track - As mentioned before, weather-resistant track is critical to a useful and enjoyable garden railroad of any scale or gauge. At the moment the most popular trackage solutions for O Gauge Outside seem to be the Atlas 21st Century track system and Gargraves stainless steel track.

  • Atlas 21st-Century trackage for O gauge is weather-resistant, attractive, and easy to use. Click for bigger picture.Atlas uses molded plastic UV-resistant tie-strips and solid nickel-silver rail, which is very low-maintenance. Atlas also makes many kinds of track pieces, including flextrack, turnouts (switches) and crossovers that will help you build a railroad quickly, especially if you use track planning software like the products from RR-Track. If you're used to HO or to "snap track" this may be a good choice for you.

  • With Gargraves, you can get very smooth track, but you don't get tie plates or spikes. Click for bigger pictureGargraves makes a unique product that O-gaugers have been using for decades. Its core product is a 3', somewhat flexible track piece, made from sheet steel that has been stamped into a hollow rail shape (similar to Lionel "tinplate" track). The bottom edge of each "rail" has little "flaps" that hold the ties in place. The track pieces are held together by pins that slide inside the rail, making it compatible with several common Lionel track formats. There are no tie plates, and the little flaps can be "disconcerting" if you don't bury them in ballast, so the appearance isn't optimum. If you're relatively new to O gauge you may wonder why people use the stuff when there are good alternatives available, but the answer is that for over forty years, it was the best, most cost-effective, solution you could buy for indoor O-gauge railroading.

    The rail on Gargraves track is actually sheet steel that is stamped into the shape of a rail with little flaps on the bottom that hold the ties on. Click for a bigger pictureOutdoor railroading, of course, poses additional challenges. Gargraves has offered stainless steel "rails" for years, but their traditional basswood ties don't hold up well to damp or buggy locations without a lot of "pretreatment" and "retreatment." When Gargraves introduced UV-resistant plastic ties, some O-Gauge Outsiders winced at the price (2-3X as much), but leapt at the chance to use a familiar product outside. And most of them were very pleased with the result. Our friend John Blessing, though, discovered that Gargraves' plastic ties can warp out of shape with the track is laid right on an HDPE board with no chance to "breathe" in direct Tucson-area sunshine. When the ties buckled upward, the inner rail was higher than the outer rails, which caused some locomotives to go right up into the air, and sometimes onto the ground. So John kept the plastic ties everywhere else, but on those stretches replaced the track with Gargraves track that used "traditional" basswood ties. First, he saturated the ties with fence post preservative to discourage insects, though. (P.S. I've used Gargraves track for S gauge and Large Scale railroads myself. My personal advice is "don't even think about getting anything but stainless steel, or about using the kind with wooden ties outside without serious chemical enhancements.")

    Note: Though this isn't critical, it's worth noting: consider replacing any plastic wheels on your rolling stock with metal wheels - if you run on really hot, sunny days, the track can get hot enough to make the plastic wheels get deposit a gummy substance on the track. Even on cool days, they may deposit a black powder after a lot of running. These deposits don't affect conductivity on 3-rail track like they do on 2-rail track, but they can still cause a mess. (Besides, metal wheels sound cooler, they run smoother, and they reduce derailments because they lower the center of gravity.)

The good news is that you now have great choices that weren't available just a few years ago. But I put "choosing track" into the planning section because these products are different enough that they will affect the way you plan your railroad.

Plan for Good Access - Indoor railroaders who move outside and use larger curves sometimes forget that you can't reach across a 60"-radius curve the way you could reach across a 24"-radius curve. Take that into account as you design your railroad. You may want to plan for ways to get over, under, or through (via a drawbridge or some such) your right of way to maintain the garden inside big loops. It is especially important to have all turnouts (switches) within easy reach, as that is a place where minor problems can become major in a hurry.

Plan for Interactivity - Most indoor railroaders moving outside (including myself) first recreate the same kind of table-top railroad they were used to installing in their basements or spare bedrooms. Think about ways you can help viewers seem more "involved" with the railroad. For example, consider an E-shaped, or S-shaped railroad where visitors could wander "into" nooks and crannies, rather than just watching the trains from an "outside-looking-in" position.

For more ideas about moving from inside railroading to outside railroading, please check out the article Outdoor Railroading Primer for Indoor Railroaders

Choosing And Protecting Structures for an O Gauge Outside Railroad

Fortunately for O gaugers, hundreds of O-scale model buildings and accessories are available at any given time. These mostly divide into O Scale model railroad structures and accessories, and Collectible Village structures and accessories.

Model Railroading Structures - Most folks moving their O-gauge railroads outside will either have some buildings they would like to use outside or at least be familiar with the products available. As one "higher end" example, MTH makes a fine line of large city buildings that are as large as most buildings that are currently made for Large Scale garden railroading. (Of course they are four stories instead of two, and the doors are half as high, but the overall effect is just as compelling.) On the "lower end," This photo shows a plastic model station in the foreground and a ceramic collectible structure in the background.  Both have been sprayed with UV-resistant clear spray. Click for bigger photo.Bachmann is still making Plasticville, the snap-together sets I used on my American Flyer railroad a half-century ago. Both lines of products will fade and turn brittle if exposed to the sun for a season. That said, a few dollars worth of spray paint will make any Plasticville structure much more UV-resistant and make it look better at the same time. For more information on making plastic buildings UV-resistant, please check out our article on Painting Plastic Structures. On the other hand, if you're satisfied with the paint job on a building, you can still protect it from UV by purchasing a UV-resistant clear spray (such as the Krylon, UV-Resistant Clear Acrylic coating that John Blessing recommends). The coating will make your windows foggy, but to be honest, so will the UV if they're not protected, so it's your decision how much to stress over it.

Collectible Village Structures - Many collectible village structures average around O scale, so they can be used with O gauge trains as long as you like the appearance of them otherwise. Sometimes smaller buildings (like newspaper stands) are a little bigger than they should be, and larger buildings (like lighthouses or arenas) are a little smaller than they should be, so you might find yourself skootching things around to get the best effect. Other problems include unrealistic details, like every other window having an opening on many structures, or globs of white plaster dumped on top to represent snow. But every year there are still a few buildings that avoid those traps and are actually pretty good representations of real-world structures. Of course, the final choice is yours, and if you don't like ceramic buildings (some people don't), don't use them.

As you can tell by the photographs in this article, the Blessings like to use ceramic and resin buildings outside. I've had luck with a few resin buildings outside, but I haven't tried ceramic buildings myself. John Blessing says that they spray them with UV-resistant coating, and they still have to paint them again every year. On the other hand, the sun gets pretty hot in Tucson, so your mileage will vary. Buildings made of plaster, on the other hand, are very prone to weather damage, especially if you live some place like the Northeast with acid rain and a freeze-thaw cycle. I will probably be picking up some ceramic village structures this Christmas for some projects, and I may try setting a few outside next summer just to see how they do in Ohio. As I said, this is an emerging hobby.

Choosing And Protecting Accessories for an O Gauge Outside Railroad

Plastic Model Railroading Accessories - Mailboxes, figures, benches, lampposts, and hundreds of other accessories have been available for years. Just look for the "O Scale" stuff at any good hobby shop. Like plastic structures, plastic accessories need to be protected by UV resistant spray. You should also try to avoid items that are too fragile or which are small enough to get lost in the dirt, ground cover, or gravel. Things just don't stay in place outside like they do inside. In some cases, you'll discover that it helps to glue things down (with waterproof glue) that you might just "set around" on an indoor railroad (where they aren't exposed to high winds, driving rains, and curious animals, tame and wild).

Collectible Village Accessories - The good news is that most accessories made for ceramic villages are made of a resin that will hold up well outside, especially if you coat them with a UV-resistant spray before you set them out. The bad news is that most of them are too big for your trains. They are even too big, Most figures that come with collectible villages are half again as large as they should be for O scale, although there are exceptions.technically, for the buildings next to them on the shelf in the store. This is a trick Dept. 56 and others use to keep the figures and accessories from being overwhelmed by the buildings. Most Collectible Village hobbyists don't mind, and you may not either, but I thought you should know about it so you can judge for yourself.

As an example, most figures for collectible villages are about 1:32 in scale, big enough for Large Scale garden railroads, and way too big to fit on O gauge trains. There are exceptions, of course. The figures made for the Thomas Kinkade Hawthorne Village sets are about the right size, and they are very well detailed. Again, if you find a figure set or other accessory you'd like to use, but it looks too big or too little where you first try it out, you may just have to skootch it around to find the right location for it.

Choosing And Using Plants for an O Gauge Outside Railroad

Plants and trees worth trying on your railroad are documented in several of our Primer articles, including: That said, you may want to look for smaller versions of commonly used plants, to keep them from visually overwhelming your trains. As examples:
  • Jean's Dilly is a smaller version of Dwarf Alberta Spruce; it has smaller needles and a more compact form.
  • Elfin Thyme is a ground-hugging thyme that won't get taller than your figures, as "Creeping Thyme" can. Woolly Thyme, a garden railroading favorite, also keeps a pretty low profile, as do Baby Tears and Corsican Mint (the last two do better in climates south of the Mason Dixon line).
  • As much as I love sedums, I would tend to avoid some of my larger favorites. Acre, which only usually gets a couple of inches high, should be fine for most "meadow" purposes, and Stubby Fingers would be good for a "brushy" area.

Of course, any discussion of plants depends very much on where you live. If you have any chance at all to visit area garden railroads and see what your fellow hobbyists are using with success, please do. By the way, the yellow flowers taking every available space on the Blessing's railroad are Dahlberg Daisy Thymophylla tenuiloba (Dyssodiat), an annual that cheerfully reseeds in Tucson and started with a single pack of seeds. I could get a similar effect in Springfield Ohio with Threadleaf Coreopsis, although it doesn't bloom as long. The lesson is: find out what works in your part of the world.

Stay Tuned

John Blessing has been answering reader questions about O Gauge Outside ever since he posted his first "slideshow" on the internet. We are hoping to publish some of his answers as additional articles, so check back often.

John's Revisions to the HDPE Flexible Roadbed Method

Again, these notes won't make sense unless you've read the original HDPE Flexible Roadbed article. But once you've read that, John's notes may help you figure out what you're looking at in the photos of the Blessings' railroad. According to John (with minor edits):

    We modified the "ladder" to fit the O gauge track, with the cross ties being 3 inches long and a support block on 16" centers. We purchased the plastic wood at Lowe's, which carries the 2"x6", 1"x8" and 1"x10". I select the 12' length 2"x6"s, as I can transport them and feed that length into the table saw without too much trouble.

    The 2"x6"s have three grooves running the boards' length. We use the non-groove part for the side rails and the groove part for the cross pieces. All the side rails are 12' x nominal thickness x 1/4".

    We stopped using the product as stand-offs (risers). We are using steel fence posts, instead; they are less costly and easier to use when you need some height.

    Note: John has posted many more close-ups of his railroad construction at the following web site:

John's Switch Control Panel

John also forwarded the following information:
    Another item you in which you might be interested is the RR switch control panel we now have for Anozira RR remote switch control. I refurbished an unused smoker/bar-b-que unit to house the panel. Keeps the panel dry, out of direct sun, and looks like --- well, a bar-b-que.

    Click for bigger photoClick for bigger photo

Ready to Forge Ahead?

We've established that O Gauge Outside is a growing hobby and that many resources are available. If you're ready to think about what it takes to plan an O Gauge Outside railroad, go to one of the following articles:

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