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

Which Scale Should I Model?

This is the eighth time I have updated this article. Nowadays most of the questions and so-called controversies that prompted me to write the orginal article are all but moot. But folks who are new the to hobby still get confused, so we're updating the article again to reflect the realities of 2017 and beyond.

Why Was Scale and Gauge Ever an Issue in Garden Railroading? - As of this writing, it is about fifty years since a toy company reinvigorated the garden railroading hobby by introducing their cutesey "Lehmann Grosse Bahn" Stainz locomotive and a handful of "shorty" cars. At that time, setting a new standard for model railroading scales was not that important to LGB or its early adopters.

But when North Americans started looking for garden trains that didn't look like they belonged in the Alps, a handful of manufacturers rushed American-looking trains to the market in a wide range of periods and scales. This led to quite a bit of confusion from folks who discovered than hardly anybody's trains looked quite right with anybody else's trains. Unfortunately, what started out as a call for standardization quickly turned into demands by each separate camp that the entire hobby standardize on the scale and other standards that their favorite manufacturer had chosen. This lead to some heated discussions among hobbyists who should have been trying to grow the hobby as a whole and not just their little piece of it. But, ironically the so-called "scale wars" were never about scale; they were really about preferring one brand over another, and most people were just throwing numbers like 1:22.5, 1:24, and 1:29 around as a kind of shorthand.

How I Got Into Quicksand and Worked My Way Out - This may seem hard to believe nowadays, but back in the early 1980s when I got into the hobby with three train sets that have long since been discontinued, I couldn't mention that I was considering a new purchase without somebody chiding me for buying the "wrong" product. In the meantime, with a tiny budget and no local means of checking out any of the trains I was interested in, I wound up ordering used pieces from online auctions, etc., setting them side-by-side, trying them out, measuring them, and so on. And I realized that the self-appointed experts were universally "full of it."

Some of my hands-on research found its way into the earliest version of this article. Some of them found their way into a supplementary article "Mixing and Matching Large Scale Cars/Sample Car Measurements")

Things Are Way Better Now - Years later (thanks, in part to the earliest versions of this article and other thought leaders recognizing the same problems I did), most garden railroaders realize that arguing over things like scales, coupler heights, flange depths, etc. is self defeating. After all, our competition for the attention of new families is not trains in the "wrong" scale. It's video games, 12-month sports leagues, and all the other 21st-century issues that prevent youngsters and their families from spending time on creative activities that build the heart and sooth the soul, such as music, art, and - yes - gardening and model trains.

Scale Isn't Really the Issue - That said, questions about scale still confuse newbies, because garden railroaders are still using the same track to model all shapes and sizes of railroads. So newcomers can't help but wonder "which scale is best?" The answer is "None of them." The real question is "what kind of railroad do I want to model?" And once you've answered that question, the question of scale is all but settled.

Think of this puzzle as one of those cereal-box mazes you worked over breakfast when you were a kid. More often than not, they were easier to work if you started at the "goal" and worked your way toward the "beginning."

This article will help you work out your "goal," then work your way "backwards" through the maze of choices, to make decisions that really bring you to your goal.

Scale Isn't Even The Most Important Issue - Even though this article is about the scale of the trains you may choose to use, I have to insert my observation (after decades in the hobby), that a good, maintainable track plan with wide curves and an attractive setting are far more important long-term to most garden railroading families than what trains are running on those tracks.

Yes, some folks will call me a heretic for saying that. And the same folks will chide you if your railroad doesn't conform to their expectations. But, ironically, many of the biggest nitpickers are people who never actually run trains in their own back yard, so they have no idea what it takes to actually build, maintain, and operate a garden railroad of any kind.

Naysayers aside, lots of folks who started out with European trains have switched to US-style trains and vice versa. Lots of folks who started out with narrow gauge trains have switched to standard gauge, and vice versa. Some folks, like me, run different kinds of trains on different days, as the mood strikes us.The important thing is to get started and to build a railroad that will give you years of enjoyment. (Our Construction articles will help you with that)

So consider this page as a general guideline, and a reference to check back with in the future, but don't lay awake nights fretting about which train to start with. Go out in the yard and figure out where you want to start digging, come up with a plan, price lumber and supplies, and then buy a garden train set you like (our Starter Set page will give you some idea of your current choices.)

Thanks - Even though some of our conversations took place years ago, I will still extend my thanks to Lewis Polk (former head of AristoCraft), Phil Jensen (designer for Delton and HLW), David Buffington (former representative of LGB), Andy Edleman (MTH marketeer) and Vance Bass (GR historian and a long time garden railroader) for their assistance in "cross-checking" the facts. I have also received help with minor questions from most of the other major manufacturers listed.

If you see any historical, numerical, or other factual discrepancies, please let me know. Thank you very much for your help in maintaining this resource.


Table of Contents

Scale and Gauge
Other Scale/Gauge Combinations
Prototype Choices

Other Caveats

Manufacturer Support

Sorting It All Out

Appendix 1: Manufacturer Support Details

Appendix B: Urban Legends of Large Scale

Appendix C: Manufacturer Links

Today's Considerations and Choices

In building a model of anything, the issue of scale usually comes up immediately. What numerical relationship does your model have to the "real world"? For example, the typical dollhouse uses one inch to represent a foot of distance in real life. So we say that the most common "dollhouse scale" is 1:12, because each item is one-twelfth as long as the prototype, (a prototype is the real-world item that the model represents). Please pardon me if the next couple paragraphs seem a little technical, but this is stuff you'll probably want to know sooner or later, and it's better if you know it before you have several grand invested in choices that weren't the best for you.

Scale and Gauge

Most "indoor" model railroading scales, like HO, are known by the relationship their models bear to the real world (i.e. 1:87.1 for HO--there's a history behind the weird number that's not worth explaining here).

Modeling Standard Gauge Railroads Indoors - The vast majority of equipment in the indoor scales models real-world standard gauge railroads, which use rails that are 56.5" apart, like the modern Union Pacific. So if you want to determine the track gauge used by most HO scalers, you can divide 56.5" by 87.1 and get .649" (or 16.5mm), the preferred distance between the rails for HO scalers.

Modeling Narrow Gauge Railroads Indoors - But that scale and gauge combination works only as long as the HO modeler is modeling real-world standard gauge trains. Some HO scalers model real-world narrow gauge trains like the old Denver and Rio Grand Western, which used 36" track.

If an HO scaler modeling a 36" narrow gauge railroad wants to stay in HO scale (1:87.1), he or she will have to use narrower track (.414") to represent narrow gauge. Yes, trackage and equipment are available to model this scale and gauge combination if you look hard enough. (It's called HOn3). But the chances of the HO modeler accidentally picking up a car or locomotive for his or her railroad and having it turn out to be the wrong gauge or scale are just about zilch.

Modeling Anything Outdoors - Things are not so simple in Large Scale. In the smaller scales, the scale stays the same and the track gauge changes when you go from standard to narrow gauge. But in Large Scale, the track gauge came first. In fact "Gauge 1" track (which was initially defined as 1.75" and is now defined as 45mm or 1.775") is over 100 years old. It has been used most of that time by British live steam hobbyists running models of standard gauge equipment. Then when LGB chose to model narrow gauge trains, instead of changing the gauge, they changed the scale. Result? Trains in different scales running on the same track.

Here's a brief example of the most common Large Scale options that are widely available in North America. Yes, AristoCraft, featured in the chart below, is no longer in business. But many of their trains are still available used, and they had a huge influence on other manufacturers.

Prototype RailroadNorth American 36" Narrow GaugeEuropean Metre GaugeStandard Gauge (56.5")
Scale Calculation1:20.3
(1 meter/45mm)
Scales Supported1:20.3
1:22.5 1:29
Bachmann Shay

Bachmann 4-6-0,

LGB Mogul
Delton (AristoCraft Classic) 2-8-0,
HLW Interurban

LGB Stainz

AristoCraft U25B,

USA Hudson
MTH Hudson,
Accucraft/AMS Big Boy

As you can see, North American prototypes are represented, not only by the "correct" scales, but also by compromise scales, each of which has a history I won't take up space relating.

Only one company, Hartland Locomotive Works (HLW), is still developing new products in 1:24 (although many fine "legacy" products, such as the Delton/Aristocraft 2-8-0, are still available on the used market). HLW has an especially strong line of "traction" (trolley) products.

Overall, there are basically two "clusters" of scales that are of interest to most people modeling North American railroads:

  • Standard Gauge (56.5), modeled in 1:29-1:32
  • North American Narrow Gauge (36"), modeled in 1:20.3, 1:22.5, and 1:24

If are interested in modeling European trains, you have similar choices, plus a mostly British-inspired scale called 16mm:

  • European Standard Gauge, modeled in 1:32
  • European Metre Gauge, modeled in 1:22.5
  • (Mostly) British 24" and 36" gauge, modeled in 1:19 (also known as 16mm scale, runs on 32mm or 45mm track, respectively)
The short version is that knowing the kind of railroad you want to model helps you sort issues of scale out pretty quickly. As you'll see soon, in several cases, it even tells you which manufacturer you should probably check out first.

About Variances Within "Scale Clusters" - You can also see that, if you choose to model either narrow gauge or standard gauge North American railroads, there is up to a 10% variance between manufacturer lines. This difference is noticeable if you set two of the exact same prototype next to each other. But if you start out, say, with 1:22.5, and later move toward 1:20.3, you can still use the same accessories and even some of the same rolling stock, without things looking too weird.

About Variances Between "Scale Clusters" - On the other hand, the difference between narrow gauge and standard gauge Large Scale models can be painfully obvious (up to 36%). Think of it this way: A six-foot-tall door taken from a 1:20.3 caboose would be nine feet tall in 1:32. How many nine-foot-tall conductors do you know?

Other Scale/Gauge Combinations

Many other scale and gauge combinations have been tried, including:

  • O Gauge Outside - In North America, there are a growing number of folks trying to operate three-rail O-gauge railroads ouside. Unfortunately, there are relatively few resources available. The most successful O Gauge Outsiders are folks who already have large Lionel or MTH collections and know all the ins and outs of O gauge railroading indoors. If you're not already an O gauge hobbyist, I recommend sticking with Large Scale trains and 45mm track. Otherwise you'll have to learn two hobbies at once. If you are an experienced O gauge hobbyist and you want to learn more about O Gauge Outside, click here.

  • 16mm Scale - An alert British reader points out that many other scale and gauge combinations have been used in UK garden railroads for decades, including the popular 16mm railroading. These trains are 1:19 in scale; they derive their name from the fact that 16mm is used to represent one foot. Both 32mm (two-rail O gauge) and 45mm track are used. 32mm track represents 2' gauge. 45mm track represents (roughly) 3' gauge. Both scale/gauge combinations are popular among live steamers. Standard gauge models of British prototypes on 32mm and 45mm track also appear. If you live in the UK, you'll see many of these and other combinations in folks' back yards. Unfortunately, very few 16mm options and even fewer models of British trains are available in North America, so this article will focus on the mass-produced trains and track that are reasonably available for garden railroaders on this continent. If you wish to learn more about 16mm railroading, check out the Association of 16mm Narrow Gauge Modellers.

Prototype Choices

In short, when you're considering which scale to model, the first question you need to answer is whether you want to model a narrow gauge or standard gauge railroad. For the sake of this section, we'll stick to North American prototypes.

Standard Gauge Prototypes

If you've ever been stopped by a train in USA or Canada, odds are millions to one that it was a Standard Gauge train, meaning that the rails are 56.5" apart (please don't lay down on the railroad track to measure the gauge, though). You can model old-timey railroads or short lines in standard gauge if you want to, But if you want to model a big modern railroad with really long cars, you'll probably wind up modeling standard gauge. One trade-off for those really long cars and locomotives is that they require wider curves. Ten-foot diameter curves are the minimum for many standard gauge pieces; fifteen or twenty-foot diameter curves look much better.

There's no question that sixty-car trains are impressive. There's also no question that they take up a lot of room to run (this example would typically be over 100' long and the locomotive would be "chasing the caboose" on a 33'-diameter circle). They also take a lot of room to store. Nevertheless people who've grown up in the "modern" era or who have come to Large Scale from an indoor scale like HO are naturally attracted to big equipment as used by big railroads.

One "downside" to Large Scale standard gauge is that so few accessories are available--most of the "Large Scale" buildings and figures were designed to look "right" with models of narrow gauge equipment. Currently, most garden railroaders are desensitized to 1:20.3 giants looking into the cab windows of 1:32 locomotives, but I expect that to change eventually. (For information on what figures work best in different garden railroad scales, check out our article Choosing Figures for your Garden Railroad.)

(Note that, in this context, the term "Standard Gauge" refers to prototype railroads, which laid their rails 56.5" apart. This usage has nothing to do with the old tinplate "standard gauge" trains that Ives and Lionel made in the early 1900s.)

Prototype standard gauge railroads include NYC, PRR, CSX, C&O, B&O, etc.

Narrow Gauge Prototypes

Many real-world trains once ran on track widths besides 56.5", and some still do. For example, many historic Western railroads in the US used 36" gauge, and some European railroads still use "metre" gauge. Such track widths are called "narrow gauge" to distinguish them from 56.5" standard gauge. Within Large Scale, the most commonly modeled US Narrow Gauge railroads are the 36" railroads, like the old Rio Grande Western. (Some folks do model 24" industrial lines, but that scale isn't widely supported by manufacturers.)

A huge advantage of modeling 36" narrow gauge in Large Scale is that almost all of the accessories, especially the POLA buildings, are made to look right with those trains. And it's a lot easier to add details and "personality" to 1:22.5 figures and accessories than to those in 1:32. If "quaint" and "charming" are adjectives that appeal to you, you'll probably want to stick with Narrow Gauge. That said, models of larger narrow gauge locomotives are becoming available, and the size is impressive--the standard gauge modelers don't get to have all the big toys.

Prototype narrow gauge railroads include industrial 24" gauge (logging or ore) railroads, the old Denver and Rio Grand Western (36" gauge), and Austrian meter-gauge railroads such as that modeled by LGB's first "Stainz" locomotive.

Other Caveats

As if the above information about Large Scale scales isn't confusing enough, a few more issues muddy the water in the cases of individual models and manufacturer claims:

  • Some companies adjusted some of their measurements to enhance "shelf appeal."

  • Some companies (especially in the early days) produced rolling stock that varied in scale from piece to piece.

  • A number of expensive custom products that have been imported as 1:32 are really closer to 1:30, due to a foot-to-mm conversion shorthand commonly used by Pacific Rim modelers.

  • Even companies which are conscientious for the most part made compromises to accommodate drive mechanisms, to enable equipment to handle tight curves, and so on.

  • Lack of equipment available in certain scales forces modelers who don't have enough time or skills to build all their own equipment to "borrow" equipment from adjacent scales to fill the gap. For example, a would-be 1:20.3 modeler may use log cars originally designed for 1:22.5.

  • Some garden railroaders (myself included) tend to run one scale of trains in one part of their railroad and another scale in another part. Since they all run on the same track, I can even alternate which scales I run on which mainlines depending on my mood that day.

So even after you've settled on a type of railroad to model and a scale, you're not exactly "locked in." If you prefer to stick with a particular range of scales, try to look at each new purchase next to something you already own, so you can decide if it's going to look right on your railroad, no matter what it says on the box.

Manufacturer Support

Once you've decided on a type of railroad to model, check out the manufacturers who support that kind of modeling.

The following chart summarizes the choices you face if you are trying to find a major manufacturer that supports your railroading interests. The fact that some of the boxes are blank or nearly blank just shows where the Large Scale manufacturing base is at the moment.

The picture could change quite a bit in the next few years as manufacturers continue to come and go. So this chart is nothing but a snapshot of the decisions you will face in the summer of 2017.

If you're interested in: Consider looking here first: Other possibilities include: Good starting points include include:
North American Standard Gauge USA Trains, Piko: 1:29,
MTH and Accucraft/AMS: 1:32
Used AristoCraft Pieces: 1:29 Piko Starter Sets
North American Narrow Gauge Bachmann 1:20.3,
Bachmann Big Haulers: 1:22.5,
LGB 1:22.5,
Accucraft/AMS 1:20.3,
Hartland Locomotive Works: mostly 1:24, Aristo Classics (AKA Delton) 1:24 (Used Market Only) Bachmann Big Hauler Starter Sets, LGB Starter Sets
European Narrow Gauge LGB 1:22.5 Roundhouse (UK) 1:19 (16mm scale), UK prototype
Accucraft UK 1:19 (16mm scale), UK prototype
LGB Starter Sets
European Standard Gauge Maerklin ? ?

Choosing by Manufacturers - The majority of large scalers "solve" scale/gauge issues by choosing one scale or manufacturer and sticking with them for the most part. If they are attracted to a product from another manufacturer or a slightly different scale, they try to see how it looks with their stuff before they buy it. The result is that there are many hundreds of well-established large scale railroads that look balanced and realistic, not because they are ideal, but because they are consistent and thought-out. (Additional information on mixing and matching equipment from various manuacturers is included in the appendix to this document, and in the Family Garden Trains article "Mixing and Matching Large Scale Cars/ Sample Car Measurements")

Sorting It All Out

If you feel confused by all this information, you should know that thousands of people before you have navigated the same issues and have put together Large Scale railroads that are fun, attractive, consistent, and - in many cases - magnificent. In fact, many fine garden railroads disregard one or several of the principles defined here, so think of these as guidelines, not as hard and fast rules. In the end, the person you have to please is the one you look at in the mirror after a long day of working on the railroad.

First: Choose a Prototype

You can see that which scale you use depends largely on which kind of railroad you want to model. The really big question is "Would you rather model a standard gauge or narrow gauge railroad?" After that, choice of era, continent, etc., will also be helpful.

Second: Choose a Scale and Manufacturer that Supports Your Prototype

Once you've chosen a prototype you want to model, the detail part of the choice comes into play. While your choice of prototype will somewhat dictate the scale you model in, the fact is that some scales are better served by manufacturers than others. When you hear someone saying he prefers 1:22.5 scale, he's really saying that he likes LGB (1:22.5) trains better than MTH (1:32) trains, and so on. He has every right to do so, but no right to tell you what to buy.

The Manufacturer Support appendix of this article provides many details you should find helpful.

Third: Choose Compromises You can Live With

Once you've chosen a prototype and a preferred scale to model, you'll realize that you may still have to make compromises to make your dream come to life. For example, you may have to use a locomotive designed for another railroad, cars or accessories from a different era, and even models from a slightly different scale.

The fact is that most people's tastes mature, or at least change, once they've been at this a while. You may find that some compromise that didn't bother you when you started out bothers you later. That's just part of the hobby, of any hobby, in fact. Just take a little care not to spend all your money "up front" while you're still getting your "feet wet."

In short, the best advice I can give is to decide wisely, then make time to enjoy the choices you made. Contact me if you have any questions, corrections, or additions.

Best of luck


Appendix 1: Manufacturer Support Details

At any given time, most garden train scales are only supplied by one or two manufacturers, so any worthwhile description of what's available in the different scales is sorted by manufacturer as well as by scale. A table summarizing this information is provided in the body of this article. The following section provides more detail on individual product lines.

Note: The following summary focuses on manufacturers who mass-produce a variety of quality equipment that works well together at prices that won't bankrupt the average middle-class family of careful shoppers. There are many additional suppliers who make a handful of excellent products, but whose product lines don't have the "depth" to meet the needs of most beginning garden railroaders. Custom manufacturing runs of $2000-$5000 locomotives, etc., are also beyond the scope of this article. Once you've chosen a prototype and a scale, you may find that the custom products, as well as the products of other "niche" manufacturers make nice additions and upgrades to your railroad. However, this section focuses on the needs of folks who want to equip a beginning to intermediate railroad on a manageable budget.

Narrow Gauge Offerings:

  • Bachmann Garden Trains: Narrow Gauge models designed to run well in your Garden Railroad Bachmann: 1:22.5, 1:20.3 North American Narrow Gauge: Bachmann's original models of US narrow gauge equipment were in 1:22.5 scale to match LGB's. Through mass-marketing and lower price points, the Bachmann 4-6-0 became so successful that Bachmann has reengineered it three times; it is still the "flagship" of their 1:22.5 line, and very inexpensive compared to other brands.

    Other American hobbyists complained loudly that 1:20.3 would be better, since that would be the proper scale for using 1.775" track to model 3' gauge railroads. So Bachmann began making more expensive, better detailed 1:20.3 locomotives like the Shay and Climax, and 19th century-looking 4-4-0s, 2-6-0s, 2-8-0s, and 2-8-2s. Some of the newer pieces are quite large and require large curves to look and run their best.

    Bachmann has also been making some freight cars and other "shorty" freight cars that look better with 1:20.3 locomotives than with 1:22.5 or smaller scales.

    If You're Starting Out - Bachmann's 1:22.5 starter sets are widely available and good values. This makes Bachmann an excellent good choice for people who are just starting out and haven't firmly decided what to model. If you start with a Bachmann starter set, then decide to model another scale later, you can always let the kids have the starter set. You will need to buy separate solid brass track to use outside though, since Bachmann track isn't made for outside use.

  • LGB: 1:22.5 Euro Narrow Gauge and US Narrow Gauge: The Richter brothers, Wolfgang and Eberhard, introduced LGB trains in 1968 using 45 mm track. Consequently, most early Large-Scalers operated European-prototype equipment in 1:22.5 scale. Indeed, some folks consider "LGB" synonymous with large-scale trains running on 45 mm track. LGB is a trademark, however, and not everybody running trains on 45mm track has LGB equipment.

    LGB's mass-produced offerings for the US market are slightly off-scale and occasionally have adjusted lengths to help the product handle tight curves, but they are built very solid and have an excellent reputation for reliability.

    LGB's new owners haven't always consistently kept up with demand for American-style starter sets. We try to list them on our Starter Sets page, but there's not always something to list, so our apologies if you click on that page and don't immediately see what you need. Chances are if you click on ANY of the LGB trains shown, you'll see other choices once you get to the vendor's page.

    Note about LGB and Maerklin - Sadly, LGB, the company that reinvigorated the garden railroading hobby in the 1960s and 1970s fell on hard times in the early 2000's and went into receivership in 2006. It was eventually bought out by Maerklin, one of the world's largest model railroad manufacturers. But soon after moving LGB manufacturing out of Germany, Maerklin itself fell on hard times. Now both companies are owned by a toy company who never made model trains before, but seems to be making an effort to return them to their formerly glory.

  • Hartland Locomotive Works: 1:24? North American Prototype: Hartland builds a solid, reliable line that varies a little in scale from one piece to the next because they have bought molds from other companies that were going out of business. I haven't owned much Hartland gear, so I can't vouch for it completely. But their stuff seems to be in the 1:24 range for the most part. Entries of note in 2017 include a very nice-looking interurban and a rail motor car. These pieces may follow the recently retooled Doozie onto layouts that need a little extra action but which don't have room for another whole train. HLW's line of inexpensive shorty 4-wheel cars just beg to be customized for a local industry.

    If you want to add a Hartland piece to an existing setup, try comparing it visually first to what you already have.

  • Accucraft/AMS 1:20.3 North American Prototype: Accucraft has long been known among garden railroaders for their relatively affordable "Ruby" starter live steam locomotives and their "Galloping Geese." When 1:20.3 became better supported, Accucraft's AMS line has expanded to include several very nicely detailed 1:20.3 locomotives and cars.

  • Delton (AristoCraft Classic): 1:24 North American Narrow Gauge (Used Market Only): - If you use 1.75" track to model 3.5' gauge, you get 1:24. This scale is handy because there are so many model cars and dollhouse accessories already available. Unfortunately only a handful of US railroads ever actually used that gauge. A company called Delton Locomotive Works didn't let that discourage them from building a line of fine, unique products including a very nice 2-8-0. When Delton went under, AristoCraft bought many of their molds and kept the products going as their "Classics" line, which was a good thing. However, AristoCraft went under a few years later, so the Delton molds are probably floating around China looking for a new owner, if they haven't already been scrapped.

    Most of the freight cars look fine alongside 1:22.5 stuff, but that isn't good enough for the 1:20.3 modelers. If you haven't already started an investment in Large Scale trains, don't necessarily start with Delton, as support for 1:24 may fade in the future.

North American Standard Gauge Offerings:

  • PIKO: 1:32 North American Standard Gauge - European hobby manufacture PIKO has been making buildings and other accessories for garden trains for decades. When LGB seemed to be "on the ropes" and kit manufacturer Roundhouse/MDC (below) went out of business, PIKO jumped at what they perceived to be a chance to get into Large Scale. They bought up the old Roundhouse/MDC large scale freight car molds, designed a new Large Scale locomotive, and start selling their own line of garden trains.

    The line is currently not the most detailed or accurate available, but it is expanding, so the jury is still out on whether they will eventually become a big contender. They are certainly important to the "low end" of the standard gauge garden train market, helping to fill the gap left by Aristo's exit.

  • USA 1:22.5 and 1:29 North American Prototype : Although Charles Ro's large scale train company USA started out by building 1:22.5 freight cars that closely matched LGB's, their current lines are closer to 1:29 (to match AristoCraft's).

    USA's current stuff is nicely detailed, metal-wheeled, and not cheap. When they came out, they nicely filled in some "gaps" in the AristoCraft line. Now they are the premier provider of 1:29 trains.

  • MTH (formerly Mikes Train House) RailKing: 1:32 North American Prototype : MTH has been supplying O-scalers with quality, reasonably-priced trains for years. Their first Large Scale locomotive, a 1:32 NYC Hudson in their premium "RailKing" brand name, arrived in 2003. Most of the locomotives they are currently selling are large enough to look reasonable with 1:29 cars, which was probably part of the plan. Most MTH equipment seemed to be an excellent value when it was introduced, but now that their major competitor AristoCraft has gone under, their prices have gone much higher.

    Regarding the 1:32 vs 1:29 "controversy" - I frequently meet future garden railroaders who insist on shopping for MTH or AMS trains because they want to model in the "correct" scale for 45mm track. Almost as often, I meet experienced modelers who have invested heavily in 1:32 trains, and now tell me that the 10% difference in scale between MTH and AristoCraft wasn't the only thing they should have paid attention to when they were starting out. The best thing you can do is see these products side-by-side, handle them, and, best of all, see them running in real garden railroads. There are good reasons for choosing ANY of these product lines - try not to be swayed by one factor.

  • Accucraft/AMS Standard Gauge - After years of offering occasional custom 1:32 or 1:30 pieces, Accucraft began producing, through their AMS line, a series of high-quality, yet relatively affordable 1:32 products, so MTH was no longer standing "on its own" in this scale. This line seems to have survived the recession that took AristoCraft out of the running, but it has yet to become a major contender.

  • AristoCraft: 1:29 North American Standard Gauge (Used Market Only) : The Polk family, longtime hobby suppliers and one-time importers of LGB, started the AristoCraft (formerly REA) large scale line when LGB had no real competition. And the Polks wanted their trains to have the same "gee whiz" effect on first-time viewers as the LGB stuff did. They achieved this effect by modeling in 1:29, instead of 1:32 (the "right scale" for modeling standard gauge trains on 1.775" track. AristoCraft's first-generation boxcars, wooden passenger cars, and streamliners also sat too high off the trucks, even for 1:29 scale. These "high-riders" contributed to a "toy-train" look that some folks blamed on AristoCraft's choice of 1:29 scale instead of 1:32. However, those who took the time to replace the bolsters of their cars wound up running very realistic trains. Always looking for ways to improve their product line, AristoCraft lowered the bolsters on the last generation of box cars, and made other improvements in realism, like see-through walkways.

    Throughout their existence, AristoCraft continued to improve their products, often retooling and reengineering already-successful products in an effort to make them even better. The quality of the last-generation version of most of their locomotives was unequaled.

    Unfortunately, the drive to make more and better products did not put the Polk family business in a good position to survive a big recession. AristoCraft's constant reinvestment the hobby caught up with them in the recession of 2008, and they never quite recovered. In late 2013, they closed their doors for good, and, sadly, no one stepped in to keep any of their fine products available.

    Scale and height issues aside, AristoCraft was the closest thing US standard-gauge garden railroaders ever had to a full-service provider. If your taste runs to real-world big trains, you may find that collecting used AristoCraft gives you the start you need.

  • LGB Standard Gauge - In the past, LGB occasionally teamed with Aster or other "boutique" manufacturers to create collector-quality models of U.S. standard-gauge trains. Unfortunately, most of LGB's mass market models of US standard-gauge products are too big to look right with 1:29 products, much less 1:32. It's a shame, too - LGB's USRA Mikado (2-8-2) is a very attractive piece, but it towers over my 1:29 trains. Their F-unit (streamlined) diesel is toylike. But even if it wasn't, it is also too big to use with my 1:29 or 1:32 trains. :-(

    (If only they had made these products to work with 1:29 or 1:32 trains, they may have kept more of their market share. But when I told them that at the time, they told me they knew more about garden trains than I do, so go figure.)

  • MDC: 1:32 North American Standard Gauge (Used Market Only) - When Roundhouse/Model Die Casting/MDC decided to make equipment to run on 1.775" track, they chose to continue to model US standard gauge equipment. Unfortunately they were plagued by patchy distribution and uneven quality. Also their cabooses were closer to 1:24 than 1:32.

    Unfortunately, MDC has gone out of business, but their ore cars and hoppers are still valuable addition to many standard gauge garden railroads, and some folks really like the paint jobs on their "billboard" reefers. In addition, Piko seems to have bought most of their freight car molds - the ore cars are certainly from the same molds.

  • Lionel's Track-Powered Garden Trains: 1:24-1:32, sometimes on the same model, (Used Market Only) - Lionel has come in and out of Large Scale manufacturing several times. They made a VERY cute and fairly reliable 0-6-0T that was sold in D&RG colors with a set and in CN colors by itself. The mechanism was also used for Lionel's Large Scale Thomas and James engines. I have several of their 1980s-era Atlantic (4-4-2) locomotives, which are fairly useful, if you don't need to pull long trains.

    Since about 2000, though, Lionel hasn't made any Large Scale trains that I would recommend for garden railroading. All of the "Large Scale" trains now sold under the Lionel name are undersized, battery-powered toys similar to Scientific Toy's EZ-Tec trains. I have a couple I let kids run at my open railroads. An article about them is here. Feel free to buy one for fun, but don't bother getting one for a garden railroad.

    If you ever come by any of the older, "more serious" Lionel Large Scale products, you will notice that some of the paint jobs are very nice, and most of the equipment is pretty sturdy.

European Standard Gauge Offerings:

  • Maerklin: 1:32 European Standard Gauge trains and US Tinplate: Maerklin, longtime supplier of German markets in the smaller gauges, makes an expensive line of highly-detailed German-style equipment in 1:32, the "right" scale for standard gauge (56.5") equipment on 45mm track.

    Maerklin also once made a cutesy line of Large Scale tinplate trains that resembled American equipment. The trains, however, was plagued by inaccurate details like European-style steam chests, and - even more ironically - were not made to be used outside. Although you might enjoy having a set for fun, chances are Maerklin will never reintroduce these, as they were not well-received.

    16mm Offerings

    Alert reader Sam Kennion has alerted me to a few of the more popular 16mm suppliers, including:
    • Roundhouse - Battery-powered and live steam, including kits for building small live steam locomotives (not recommended for beginners)
    • Accucraft UK - Live steam and electric
    32mm and 45mm track is available from several companies, including Peco and Accucraft UK. Accucraft UK's code 332 45mm track is compatible with LGB's and AristoCraft's Euro track.

    According to Sam, many 16mm hobbyists buy their locomotives but build most of their rolling stock. Sam recommends joining the Yahoo 16mm group to get your questions answered.

    Other Sources and Resources

    • Custom Builders and Niche Manufacturers: A few companies make high-quality pieces in limited runs. Generally these pieces tend to be 1:32 or 1:20.3 with extensive detail. For example, live-steam manufacturer Aster has made some nice 1:32-1:29 models under its own name and in conjunction with LGB. Accucraft and Berlyn have also made some fine models. Don't count on stocking a railroad empire with these, however, unless you're Bill Gates.

      If scale issues really concern you, you should know that some of the most expensive imports, which were advertised as 1:32 are really 1:30, due to a 10mm/foot shortcut often used by Asian model-makers. The same "try-it-before-you-buy-it" rules apply at the "high end" as they do at the low end.

    • Roll Your Own : Many people also scratchbuild or kitbuild their own equipment in other scales, depending on the railroads they want to represent. Hartford (not Hartland Locomotive Works, another company) used to offer a very nice line of "craftsman-level" kits and individual parts that many individuals are using to fine effect on 1:20.3 lines. Unfortunately, Hartford has changed hands and the line is currently in transition - even the name is slated to change. (For now, I suppose you could call them "the manufacturer formerly know as Prin-, er Hartford.")

    • Toy Story: Scientific Toys, New Bright and Others: You can often buy battery powered Scientific Toys or New Bright trains for $20-50 right after Christmas in many toy and department stores. They will run on 45mm (G-gauge) track, even though they aren't made for outside use, and most of them are much smaller and flimsier than name-brand garden trains.

      A "subculture" of "Shoestring Railroaders" have emerged who use mostly Scientific Toys (supplemented by other toy train brands) on their garden railroads. In some cases, purse strings are tight. In others, its mostly a challenge to see how nice a railroad you can make for under $100 or $200. For more information on this part of the hobby, you can check out our article Garden Railroading with Toy Trains. I don't recommend this approach for a "permanent," low-maintenance garden railroad, but it is a fun way to dabble without spending the kids' college fund.

      And if you move on to more solid trains and track, you can always save them to give the grandkids something to run when they come over.

    Appendix B: Urban Legends of Large Scale

    The 1:22.5 car as 1:32-stand-in Myth: For years people who mix and match scales have pointed out that many 1:22.5 models of narrow gauge cars have about the same overall dimensions as a 32:1 model of a standard gauge car, because the real narrow gauge stuff was about 2/3 the size of the real standard gauge stuff.

    It is true that many people would not particularly notice an LGB boxcar in a string of 1:32 or 1:29 cars if the train was moving, and lots of folks over the years have mixed and matched without anything really bad happening to them.

    But this casual approach to the matter eventually gave birth to an "urban legend" to the effect that LGB's 1:22.5 models of narrow gauge cars were "so close" to 1:32 car measurements that they were, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable with 1:32 cars, or even with 1:29 cars.

    This was an especially useful, and self-serving conviction to hold in the early days, when decent 1:29 or 1:32 equipment was almost impossible to come by. To this day, many of my friends still run 1:22.5 and 1:29 cars in the same train and nobody notices but me, because I've researched into all this stuff. I wouldn't dream of telling them they're doing it "wrong." Certainly not when their overall railroads are so much nicer than mine.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that if you place 1:22.5 and 1:32 (or 1:29) models next to each other and examine them, you'll discover lots of differences like handrail spacing, brake wheel placement, etc., in addition to some relatively apparent overall size discrepancies, especially in width. So you may or may not be comfortable with mixing and matching. Or it may not bother you now, but might bother you in a few months or years.

    In short, I would recommend that you try not to mix and match too much at first, because you could find out that details and minor differences that didn't bug you at first drive you crazy later, once you have more of the railroad built.

    Note: Additional information on mixing and matching equipment from various manuacturers is included in the appendix to this document, and in the Family Garden Trains article "Mixing and Matching Large Scale Cars/ Sample Car Measurements".

    Best of luck,


    Appendix C: Manufacturer Links

    In case you wanted to see any of the manufacturer's own pages, here are some links that worked as of 4/29/2010. (The links open in a separate window so you can get back to this site easily).

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