3×5 N scale layout : Ralph’s

Ralph’s been in touch with his 3×5 N scale layout:

“Hi Al –

I’ve been an avid follower the past year or so, and decided it was time to contribute.

I title my segment “How NOT to approach model railroading, but have a grand time doing it!”

I started with a 3×5 N scale layout that I had initially made with my kids about 30 years ago.

I hauled it from California to Tennessee when I retired; I was “just” going to see if I could refurbish it and run a couple of trains.

3x5 n scale layout track bed

Mistake #1: I started by building the world’s most ridiculously complicated analog control system. I wasn’t aware that DCC existed. And I recommend truly understanding your layout before worrying about the control system.

My concept was to make a sandwich front panel out of 1/8 inch particle board and a sheet of metal. I could then print out the front face using printer magnet sheets, and have a representation of my layout and labels.

Inside the box, I have the LEDs, switches, terminal blocks, relays, and a power supply. Various logic is invoked (for example, when a siding is activated, the turnout to that siding is automatically adjusted).

Any track section can be assigned either of the two transformers, and direction is also controlled from the panel. The front panel is held closed by a magnet, and is hinged at the bottom so I can access the innards.

It is mounted to the layout, but by disconnecting three24-pin connectors to the under-layout wiring and removing two wing nuts, the whole contraption moves over to the workbench and lays flat for modification/repair.

3x5 n scale layout DC control pabel

DC control panel

3x5 n scale layout wiring

model train wiring

I also turned my design docs into a manual. I included a troubleshooting guide which has come in handy. The one failure so far is Transformer B will not move a train on the long crossover between the inner and outer loops. I know this means I have a loose connection at either pin 7 or pin 9 of switch C2. (Right now I just switch to Transformer A and move the train).

So then I turned to the layout. It turns out the track was useless, and the cork roadbed had crumbled, so I was back to a flat 3’ x 5’ board that sits on a table which is 2.5’ x 6’. The table is on casters so I can roll the layout into the middle of the toolroom (I’m in a wheelchair, so that lets me reach everything from all sides).

Mistake #2: At this point, I should have made the base bigger. The extra foot in length the table allows would have opened up (out of spec) tight track curves in the figure 8. But alas, I plowed forward.

And back to Mistake #1: I discovered as I thought about operations that I needed another crossover from the inner to the outer loop to avoid trapping a third train on the main lines, and that a switchyard siding had to be eliminated to allow large engines to navigate the re-fueling station. Fortunately, I was able to re-print a new magnetic layout which covered now unused holes in the control panel, repurposed some existing holes and wire appropriately.

I had never mastered the art of ballasting, and I had bad memories of grains of sand gumming up the 19 turnouts on my little layout. So I went with foam roadbed, masked and painted it with two colors of Krylon Stone Texture spray paint.

3x5 n scale layout track bed

Like many of you, content on my layout harks back to my days growing up. I lived in Joliet, IL (just outside of Chicago). My dad was chief engineer for the fossil fuel side of Commonwealth Edison, the local power company. So my first additions were a coal-mining operation and power plant.

Note the asynchronous lights at the top of the stacks in case there are low-flying aircraft in my toolroom…

model train scenery

Now that I had completed the industrial part of the layout, I was hooked. I wanted to build a town, and try some geography (hill) on the left side of the layout. But now I was limited to about two square feet to fit this in.

Mistake #3: The outer track is up against the edge of the layout, which precluded building a mountain in the corner as there was no room for tunnel entrances.

Mistake #4: There was a turnout in the middle of it; the turnout ended up in a tunnel, but the top of the mountain comes off for access in case of derailment. (More on the temporary house in the picture later).

n scale trains running

As many of you have probably done, I made paper mockups of buildings, roads, etc. to help plan the next steps of my 3×5 N scale layout. I wanted to allow access to the hill from the town, and my time in San Francisco reminded me that apartments can exist on a steep hill leading to the top. The resulting design left one place on the layout for the obligatory train station.

3x5 n scale layout building mock up

It is about this time that I discovered the great Alastair newsletter. Mistake #5: too ego-coupled to my existing plan to access “the Beginner’s Guide”.

Completed the 1970s midwestern town, the hill (and park) above it. Everything was constructed on the workbench, and then moved to the layout (due to my physical limitations). Nothing is glued down, so opportunities for mods later, and if necessary complete dismantlement. I like the weathered/beaten look, not only for aesthetics, but it hides a multitude of sins (“that balcony is not crooked – it just needs repair…”). Here’s the result:

N scale buildings

model train track plan

3x5 n scale layout finished model railroad

3x5 n scale layout finished model railroad

railroad fire station

model train stations

model railroad apartment

model railroad street

model railroad tunnel

You have no doubt noticed there is a lot of kit and kit-bashing involved in the layout. I did try my hand at scratch building. We had a family reunion, and my wife suggested I model the old homestead where we all grew up. I knew the garage doors were 9 feet wide, and then scaled everything else from the pictures.

In addition to the house, I had fun modeling the iconic family vehicles (’68 Chrysler Town & Country wagon ’84 & ’93 Town Cars, and especially the Winnebago RV).

My siblings delighted in pointing out that there needed to be crab apples under the tree in the front yard, and even though I had gotten the dog house, shed, picnic table, swing, and garbage cans in the back yard, I was missing the bird bath. I have since moved it off the layout to make room for the town.

scratch build N scale house

What’s next? As you all know, it’s never done. The cornfield needs work. A backdrop would be a good addition. Attention to rolling stock is necessary. Some weeds along track bed. I need to finish adding people.

A challenge I have is that I have developed macular dystrophy, and doing N scale details with peripheral vision is daunting. Pedestrians often end up laying on the sidewalk (homeless population?). And I’m hesitant to add too many more people, because I already have complaints to the Planning Commission about the inadequate parking downtown…

It is now time to access “the Beginner’s Guide”, have a good laugh at myself, and discover other “mistakes” I’ve made along the way. I’m sure one of the tenets will be planning ahead, because even though you may intend to “just” refurbish an old layout – once you’re hooked there is a great deal of time and energy involved. What a grand journey it’s been…

Best to all,


A huge thanks to Ralph for sharing his 3×5 N scale layout. Loved his narrtive – he’s really had fun with his layout.

That’s all for today folks.

Please do keep ’em coming.

And if today is the day you do what Ralph did – get started – then Beginner’s Guide is here.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

PPS More N scale layouts here if that’s your thing.

47 Responses to 3×5 N scale layout : Ralph’s

  1. Greg Marples says:

    I am beyond impressed with your electrical abilities! So much complicated, old school wiring in such a tiny space, wow! And those Atlas style turnouts! I’m amazed the trains get through without derailing. I can’t wait to see what you can do with a bigger space to allow some manageable radius curves, modern, precise, wider radius turnouts with under table machines, and DCC operated equipment! It will free you up to build more great scenery! Have fun!

  2. Eduardo S says:

    An excellent and exceptional job in all its steps the order and execution of the electrical installation it drawings and troubleshooting directions, among the extraordinary details, colored and city design, … all are 10 over 10 thanks for posting

  3. Wilfried says:

    Dear Ralph,
    Despite the fact that you are a bit negative about it yourself, it all looks beautiful. It is a great example of what is possible on a relatively small surface. You made me very curious about the way you wired everything. Is there a possibility to upload your drawings/schematics?
    Kind regards, Wilfried (Belgium)

  4. Robert Brady says:

    Great replica of the houses Ralph also The layout is so home townish.
    The Critic

  5. I am a novice however, that may be one of the best sets brought to life I’ve seen. Thank you

  6. Bob says:

    A great narrative about your journey. We have all had our mistakes but that is part of the fun. Often we just have to give it a try to see if it will work.

    The result of your mistakes looks terrific and if it makes you happy that’s what it’s all about. Hang in there and Happy Modeling.

  7. Jeff says:

    Excellent narration and I’m really impressed with what you’ve done in a small space. Definitely one of the best small layouts I’ve seen on here in quite some time. Keep up the great work.

  8. John says:

    Wow! Plan your work and work your plan! It’s looking good… very good!

  9. George Zaky says:

    N scale and physical limitations. You sure kicked my butt. Awesome work! The only mistake you made was not doing this sooner but you cant change the past. Keep plugging and let us know how how you are doing. God bless you and your family.
    George from LI, NY

  10. Cary B says:

    Thanks for sharing your unique layout Ralph. You have done a fantastic job of creating a wonderful railroad.
    I really like the back row of city buildings on a grade, very realistic indeed, well done.
    Cary B

  11. Tim "no trains yet" Crump says:

    Fantastic work….the control panel reminds me of my Navy Gunner’s Mate days of 50 years ago…very neatly wired…
    Quite the inspiration!

  12. Gary Girard says:

    Interesting! As I worked for ComEd in downtown Chgo for 25 years. I know the 2 joliet stations did not have an adjacent coal mine, but one of their’s downstate did! Unfortunately that plant burned that high sulfur coal which wasn’t acceptable as time went by.

  13. James says:

    Ralph, what a beautiful layout your wiring is very impressive actually the whole layout is very impressive for a man with physical limitations I’d say you’d beat the odds. Next time I’m complaining about my back when I’m underneath my layout I’m going to think of you tell myself to shut up and just get it done thank you for sharing and have a great holiday.

  14. Steve Hughes says:

    Amazing! So much fun packed into such a small area! Nice work. The electronics & controls are so far beyond my skill set.

  15. Bruce Benson says:

    For all the mistakes you say that you’ve made, it sure looks like a great job to me.
    Your electronics panel is way beyond me…..I have a Lionel 4 train transformer, and another Lionel 2 train transformer (O gauge) so far, on my 8’x16′ platform. I think you’ve done a splendid job.
    Bruce, from Surfside Beach, SC, USA

  16. Dick Littlefield says:

    This is a truly wonderful layout. It is small but doesn’t feel it. It has a lot going on, but doesn’t feel overcrowded. Points of interest are everywhere and invite closer examination. Congratulations on a masterpiece!!!

  17. Don Poitras says:

    This is the best I have ever seen.Brilliant!!👍👍

  18. Erick says:

    Pretty neat Stuff. Would like to see more.

  19. I am inspired ! We moved into a new home, with not a lot of space. I have been scouring the internet for a trackplan i liked. I want to run multiple trains, have a yard etc. My biggest problem is imagining the scenic design.. you have solved the problem for me.. off to find some wood and get started !

  20. Richard H Chapple Sr says:

    What a fun and very interesting layout. Ralph I like what you said, “what a grand journey it’s been” . and by your narrative, it still is. Fantastic. This layout could keep several people busy and happy working and operating on it.
    Dick (little r) from Hardin Mt USA

  21. Jim Robinson says:

    Pretty amazing for a 3 X 5 layout. You’ve got a ton of “stuff” going without looking cluttered or cramped. Great Job!

    I’m an analog guy, too, by choice and by budget; however, I’m not nearly at your level!

  22. Jim AZ says:

    Nicely done. Hard to believe this is N scale. Your scenery has so much great looking detail. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Jim Kelly says:

    Ralph, I’m more than impressed and plant to study your pictures and learn a lot about modeling in a small space. Extremely well done! From JimK in SoCal

  24. Bernie Glynn - Sydney Australia says:

    Ralph, Boy Howdy! That was a great story, interesting in every detail, and dang impressive! Looks like you’ve done cab control using two transformers? The expression of direction is really impressive too, and useful! I think we all aspire to wiring a layout in such a beautiful fashion. I dare say it is easy enough to fault find being so orderly.

    I loved your scenic photos. The terrace houses on the sloped road, and the modelling of your old house too. That adds a lot of personality to the layout that those who knew you in your old place would recognise.

    Surely this is not your first layout? It is WAY to good to be a first effort! I hope to see more in the future. Thank you for sharing your journey in such a descriptive way with all us Rail Nerds.

  25. Stephen White - Sydney says:

    Well done Ralph. It looks like you and I love electronics mixed with trains. I have worked on similar activities. If you want to check out DIY DCC, google ‘instructables’ and ‘Dave Bodnar’. I have built very cheap & reliable dcc controllers / programers from info at these sites. I am happy to share my modified code (no guarantees ).

  26. Al Otis says:

    That is a lot of great detail in a small space. As far as the problems/ issue you have faced that’s what the hobby is about, striving for perfection while having fun. Good job my friend.

  27. Calvin says:

    Having worked in industry for 40 years, I am impressed with the wiring, documentation and craftsmanship that you have on your layout. IMPRESSIVE!!

  28. Andrew Aves says:

    Ralph – Yours is one awesome layout – Very well done
    Andrew for Down Under

  29. Wonderful work! If you have a few minutes free I could use your help with mine. Merry Christmas All!

  30. Burton J. HELLING says:

    I congratulate you on your layout. It is a massive technical and visual achievement.

  31. Rich B. says:

    Stop, look & listen… agree with all comments, this is a hidden treasure. A few still exist and makes you want to downsize. Way more than a challenge and for doing a few things wrong, sure turned out way better. I think a lost art was re-revived going DC, more fun running controls than trains here. Eye opener with the town street scene, what an idea with the uphill terrain.

    Also like the humor and humility involved with epilogue (maybe not right phrase). Yes, could see much more of this at any time.

    With Regards, R

  32. Brian Rockey says:

    Blimey Ralph, that wiring could control a nuclear power station – LOL.
    Great work on modelling houses on a steep hill, something very rarely seen on model railway layouts – well done.
    Best to all
    Brian, Wokingham, UK

  33. Joseph Randazzo says:

    Everything is so picture perfect. I have been in the electrical field for over 50 years, and to see what you put together there are enough words to express the expert production that you put togather..The building scenes, I enlarged the pictures. you captured what I could only express as a real still life picture. I agree with all the comments above

  34. Brian Olson says:

    Brilliant. Just brilliant.

  35. Jeff J says:

    Extremely impressive use of a small space! Looks fantastic.

  36. Sam H. Maryland, USA says:

    Nice job. The buildings and surrounding elements look great. That is where I need the most help. Your wiring diagram is amazing. It has my head spinning.

  37. Don Waldron says:

    It was great to see your layout at that size. I’m going to do a 4’x8’ and was worried that there wouldn’t be enough room to make nice layout. What type of track did you use? It looks to me that maybe some of your curves are custom made.

  38. John Bullock says:

    Ralph, this narrative should win you the “Most Honest Model Railroader” title hands down! Every singe one of us can relate, one way or another.

    However, what a beautiful layout you’ve created! I too am amazed at your electrical abilities. I’m hoping you can consider DCC, either for this one or the next one!

  39. Kevin McArdle says:

    For all of the headaches you encountered and amassing an advanced degree in model railroading, you have achieved a beautiful layout in spite of your physical disadvantages, and set a wonderful example of what can be achieved, and for that I say thank you.

  40. Gerald Kaminsky says:

    I believe this is the greatest posting I have ever seen. The quality of craftmanship, engineering is magnificant in my eyes and anyone else that has worked in those areas. You should be proud of yourself and the train layout by any means.
    Thanks again and keep up the great work.

  41. roger turner says:

    Ralph, you are an inspiration, great work. I wish I had one tenth of your electrical skills. love your attention to detail, it makes it so lifelike.
    Keep up the great work and have fun.

    Best regards
    Roger in Kansas

  42. KenG says:

    Ralph’s layout is great, but what I like the most is the actual train!

    That is an AeroTrain which was a prototype made by General Motors in the mid 1955 as sort of a “train of the future”. Walt Disney liked it so much he had his designers do a smaller version of it for Disneyland which became the inspiration for eventually Disneyland’s first monorail.

    I would love to get one of these models!

  43. MaRk V says:

    What a layout. An amazing amount of stuff in a small space. Having worked for a government agency.
    And done public projects quite often, We had to build around hills valleys streams et cetera…. Just like in life, you’ve accomplished it And overcome, awesome! And had fun doing it!

  44. Bill Butler says:

    “Note the asynchronous lights at the top of the stacks in case there are low-flying aircraft in my toolroom…”. 😂. One of many delightful comments in your positively wonderful narrative. Great job on the layout!

  45. Rocco Maley says:

    Ralph, You deserve this compliment. Your layout is beautiful, and for a disabled person like yourself to do what you did on your layout is an inspiration to all model railroaders that no matter what condition you may be in, YOU CAN DO WHAT EVER YOU WANT TO DO IN LIFE. Whether It be in model rail roading or anything else you chosen life. I really like everything about you, Your stamina, Your aggressiveness, your imagination and I could go on and on and on, You are such a great inspiration to all. Thank you for this great narrative. I myself cannot fathom how you done this with minimum flexibility. You have a great layout here. You have done a great job. Your wiring and neatness is unbelievable. Good Luck with your future model Railroading, and anything else you do in life. You have been very impressive. Thank you again.

  46. Malcolm says:

    Beautiful work. It is amazing what can be done with the small scales (less than HO) if your space is limited. Merry Christmas!

  47. matiSon says:

    I think that you have created a very nice layout. My only suggestion is that there is too much going on in such a small space, and that you would benefit by expanding one or more sides (perhaps an “L” shape) to give some additional space to the town and/or industrial complex.

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