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HOn3 narrow gauge model railroading

Frequently asked questions about
HOn3 narrow gauge model railroading

By Craig Symington/photos by the author

With the popularity of HOn3 modeling on the upswing and a steady parade of new modelers joining the fraternity, many hobbyists have questions about track components, available models, and more. We decided to put together a list of the most "frequently asked questions" to try to answer some of the most common inquiries. While by no means an exhaustive list, this FAQ should help get you started.

1) What kind of track is available?

Years ago, Shinohara was the only manufacturer of HOn3 flextrack and it came only with code 70 rail. This became the unofficial standard. Currently, Shinohara track is produced infrequently and many modelers are demanding finer rail so it is often a less used option. Micro Engineering has filled the void with a nice line of flextrack that comes in codes 40, 55 and 70. Micro Engineering also sells code 40, 55 and 70 rail for those people who like to handlay their own track. The entire line of Micro Engineering products is available from Walthers. Precision Scale Co. also lists code 83 flextrack in their catalog.

2) What kind of turnouts are available?

Once again, Shinohara used to be the only source for turnouts and they only came with code 70 rail. The Shinohara turnouts are point type #4s and #6s and are infrequently manufactured. Shinohara also makes point type dual gauge turnouts. Railway Engineering (RE) makes any kind of turnouts you can imagine in any rail code size commercially available. RE keeps many of the common turnouts in stock but some have to be produced on demand. BK Enterprises also offers a wide variety of turnouts, but only produces them on demand Both BK and RE make point, stub, dual gauge and custom turnouts. Light Iron Turnout Company is new to the market but produces a wide variety of turnouts. Micro Engineering should have their new code 70 #6 turnouts on the market by summer of 2009. The Shinohara and Micro Engineering turnouts are the only ones with plastic ties while all the rest come soldered to PC board ties and need to have additional ties added to them. For those who want to build their own turnouts, Fast Tracks makes jigs in a variety of sizes, again using PC ties.

3) Are any special track sections available?

At one time, Shinohara made several different crossings and transition tracks for dual gauge. These are all code 70 on plastic ties. BK Enterprises and Railway Engineering will custom make any type of special trackage for you.

4) Can I use N scale track and mechanisms?

Unfortunately, no. This misconception comes from the huge popularity that HOn30 modeling had in the 1980s. N-Scale track is slightly narrower at 30 inches in HO scale and even if you could use it, the ties don’t scale well into HO scale. Some N-Scale mechanisms can be widened and modified for HOn3 but that tends to be a challenging task.

HOn3 narrow gauge model railroading

5) What kind of rod locomotives are available?

The largest group of rod locomotives available to HOn3 modelers have been produced in brass for Colorado prototypes. The slightly less popular prototypes like the East Broad Top, White Pass & Yukon, Southern Pacific, Sumpter Valley and Uintah have also been represented. These engines have been produced in brass for nearly 50 years using varied techniques that have evolved over time. Some run well out of the box and others need some work. None of them come with DCC installed. Recently, Blackstone Models and Mountain Model Imports have brought mass-produced, diecast locomotives to the market. The Blackstone locomotives are the only true ready-to-run DCC equipped locomotives ever produced in HOn3. At one time, Model Die Casting (MDC) produced two inexpensive diecast kits for an oversized consolidation that was the mainstay for new modelers in HOn3. These MDC locomotives are no longer available but can be found on the used market.

6) What kind of logging locomotives are available?

The brass market offers up a number of Shays, Heislers and various other logging locomotives that were imported since the 1960s by names like United, NWSL and Westside. More recently, Precision Scale has been importing logging locomotives. At one time Model Die Casting (MDC) had an over scale diecast kit for a Shay that was briefly available ready-to-run.

7) Are there any diesels available?

Many narrow gauge railways had closed before internal-combustion ocomotives became practical and popular. That's not to say they didn't exist. For instance, there have been several versions of D&RGW #50 imported by different manufacturers over the years. NWSL once produced a model for a Southern Pacific narrow gauge diesel. Grandt Line sells kits for a generic boxcab and 25-ton locomotives. Although not exactly a diesel, the famous "Galloping Geese" have been produced in brass by several manufacturers and more recently in plastic by Con-Cor.

8) What kind of rolling stock is available?

Just like the rod engines, Colorado prototypes dominate the market place. Blackstone Models' and Micro-Trains' recent releases have been the first ready to run offerings that aren’t brass. Over the years many manufacturers have produced brass rolling stock, especially passenger cars, tank cars and cabooses. There are a number of great kit manufacturers including Grandt Line, Precision Scale, Rail Line, LaBelle, Durango Press, Rio Grande Models and many others. It’s not unusual for these kits to not include trucks, decals, couplers or any combination of them. Some do provide all the parts. There are no “shake the box” kits in HOn3; all are finely detailed. That said, any modeler with some patience can build them into a very satisfying model.

9) What kind of trucks are available?

Currently Blackstone Models, Precision Scale, Rio Grande Models, Micro-Trains and Kadee are the main sources for trucks. Grandt Line used to have some very nice trucks but their availability has been sporadic in recent years. Model Die Casting used to make a tender truck and a really nice passenger truck that can still be found on the used market.

10) What kind of couplers should I use?

The Kadee #714 is the mainstay of couplers for HOn3 and most coupler pockets are sized accordingly. At one time, there was a movement towards using Micro-Trains N scale couplers and many of the older plastic kits have coupler pockets designed for them. More recently, many modelers are trying Sergent Engineering couplers for there more prototypical look and action. Kadee #58s can be substituted where a knuckle with a spring is required, especially on locomotive pilots.

HOn3 narrow gauge model railroading

11) What kind of DCC can be used with HOn3?

The whole idea behind DCC is that it’s fairly interchangeable between scales and gauges. Choosing a system is based more on throttle preference, amount of features and required track amperage. The short answer is that any of the mainstream systems will work fine with HOn3.

12) What DCC decoders work with HOn3?

Many decoders will work fine in HOn3 as long as the current rating matches the motor and it will physically fit. Generally, the so-called Z and N scale decodes work fine for most mobile only applications. Adding sound can be a little tricky in smaller locomotives. Generally, a SoundTraxx Micro Tsunami will fit most medium sized and larger applications. LokSound makes some smaller decoders that can be quite useful.

13) What minimum radius should I use for curves?

Somewhere in the history of model railroading, it was decided that an 18” radius should be the standard minimum in HO Scale. That will work fine for most smaller locomotives and Blackstone Models' offerings. A smaller radius could be used for logging locomotives. However, to build a layout that is functional for all unmodified HOn3 models, a minimum radius of 24” should be adopted. Naturally, a larger radius is even better.

14) What size turnout should I use?

A number 4 turnout will be fine for smaller locomotives but will become problematic with larger ones. A number 6 should be adopted as a minimum, but larger would be more ideal.

15) What is the maximum grade I should use?

Calculating a maximum grade really needs a number of factors to be taken into consideration. A lessor grade with tight curves will restrict your locomotives hauling capacity more than a steep grade on straight track. Heavy brass cars also restrict tonnage more than lighter cars. Each locomotive’s own performance should be considered. Logging locomotives can haul more than rod locomotives. A general rule of thumb is that after 4-5% grades for logging and 2.5% grades for rod locomotives, the chances of having operational problems increases.

16) How much should my cars weigh?

The NMRA recommended practice says to calculate weight by taking an initial value of ¾ ounce and adding 3/8 ounce for each inch of body length, but in practice this is way too heavy. You can really weight your cars to any amount you like. It’s more important to have all your cars weight the same and have them all be free rolling. Generally a weight of 1.3-1.7 ounces seems to be ideal.

17) What code size of rail should I use?

Code 70 rail scales out to around 105lbs/yd, code 55 is about 75lbs/yd and code 40 is about 40 lbs/yd. With the exception of heavy mainlines and dual gauge track narrow gauge track would typically fall into the 30 to 85 lbs/yd range. Traditionally, code 70 has been the standard for HOn3 probably because the only flextrack and turnouts available were Shinoharas. Code 40 and 55 are much more prototypically accurate. From an operational standpoint, most HOn3 equipment will run fine on code 55. Code 40 works well but can be a little troublesome. As with all track, a smooth sub roadbed is the key to smooth operation.

Still have questions about HOn3 model railroading? The Carstens HOn3 Annual is a great resource if you're just getting started or a seasoned veteran. The HOn3 Annual is packed with great prototype information and quality modeling from some of the best authors in the hobby. Each issue contains inspiring layout tours, helpful tips and techniques, and in-depth historical reviews. Check it out today!


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