The Val Ease Central Railroad ©

Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos © Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)

Last Spike: 10 TipZ for a Better "Z" Experience

As a scale, Z has been around for more than 30 years and has much to offer the European-profile enthusiast. As a viable scale for North American-profile model railroading, Z is now coming into it's own. For recent adopters of Z in the "New World", I have some tidbits of advice that, I hope, will help you to establish a long-lasting and fulfilling relationship with your model railroad.

1. Take your time / paint a picture in your mind / tell a story

Z-scalers are generally considered to be an impatient bunch. Ironic really when one considers how long we usually have to wait for new products, but that is another story! There is, however, one very crucial phase in layout building when taking one's time is most important. The Planning Phase should never be skipped or shortened or rushed. It is important to heed the expression, "Model railroad builder, know thyself". Planning isn't fiddling with track plans and browsing through layout books. It is the period when one stops to think, explore, observe, consider and question. It is sometimes called the armchair modeling period.

A model railroad, as opposed to a layout, tells a story. It comes to life when the electricity is turned on. So ask yourself the classic five Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Once you've gotten the answers pretty well clear in your mind, then you can enjoy yourself to the utmost with the “How?”.

2. Avoiding Design pitfalls, or "When in doubt, shout!"

When the time comes to tackle track planning, nothing is quite so frustrating as discovering design errors later on that could have been avoided if only we had done some research and asked questions on Z_Scale.

Here are some of the more basic design considerations when starting out:

- avoid running parallel to the front edges of the layout
- think vertically, go below base level as well as above
- test to allow enough clearance for long cars around curves
- make sure you can reach Everything, Everywhere
- wire for easy trouble-shooting
- keep records
- keep it simple...

And remember, there is no such thing as a stupid question.

3. Have FUN, add a puzzle to the track plan

If you are like the majority of model railroaders, you will likely spend most of your 'quality time' with the layout all by yourself. Running trains continuously has a powerful Zen effect, I know, but the day may come when you will long for something more playful. This is why I find it useful to have some form of switching puzzle in the track plan. See the January-February 2005 issue of Ztrack for more on this topic.

4. Go the extra distance - add a backdrop

Adding a backdrop or a skyboard really completes all the effort that goes into conceiving and constructing a model railroad. Most of us, when we go on layout visits, spend our time admiring the railroading elements. I'm pretty sure that the most impressive layouts that we see have a skyboard or backdrop.

Printed backdrop images are available from several commercial sources. Check the Internet or your favorite major hobby magazine for contact information. Although a print may do the job, nothing beats a made-to-measure, custom-painted backdrop for visual impact and personal satisfaction. A hand-painted backdrop can take many forms and be as simple or as sophisticated as your artistic talents and taste permit.

5. Required figures: paint the rails and camouflage the switch motors

I'll be unequivocal on this point...unpainted rails (i.e. bare metal) are for toys, not for model railroads. I'll go even further. You want R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Weather the rails and camouflage above-ground turnout motors. I still see expertly constructed layouts with brightly shining silver rails glaring back at me. Size may not matter but, attention to these details sure does!

6. Choose depth over breadth or Think BIG, build SMALL

Too many modelers make the mistake of trying to build a large layout all at once. The result is often frustration and sometimes, the eventual abandonment of the project. I'm all for instant gratification, well as close to instant as model railroaders can get! Why delay the fun? Concentrate on finishing "manageable" areas of your railroad, then move on to another section. You'll discover that you'll enjoy your accomplishments much sooner (good for a healthy lifestyle) and you'll develop better techniques and skills as you progress.

Another irony of "Z" is just how much detail can be added to scenes. Telling stories in the form of vignettes is a great way to create depth. And if you can't control your urge to splurge, try your hand at a module. They have clearly defined edges which might help you color within the lines, so to speak.

7. Bring the layout to life

By definition, a model railroad is a dynamic system. Trains move over the trackage, or at least they should. But, that is not enough! A model railroad is much more interesting when there are active signs of human presence. We may not be able, yet!, to have people strolling along our miniature landscapes, but we can certainly provide the illusion. Think lighting effects, smoke generators, sound recordings, motorized accessories, odors even (although I'd stay away from running water!).

8. Slow down already!

Our railroads are 220 times smaller than the "real" things but the laws of physics aren't scaled down. I think I read that somewhere in “Einstein's Guide to Model Railroading”. Real trains careening around ultra-tight curves at 200 km/h wouldn't survive very long, not to mention the poor passengers and cargo.

Because we usually have a birds-eye perspective on our Z, we tend to underestimate the scale speeds of our trains. I have been surprised by how fast my "slow" trains run in videos. I've learned to compensate for my speed deficiency by watching the train pass a fixed point. Just remember how slowly train cars seemed to crawl past you while you waited at a level crossing.

9. Stop "training", "operate!"

Applying some of the principles of an operating railroad to our empires can add a completely new dimension to the hobby. There is no limit, either upper or lower, to the level of operations to be enjoyed in model railroading. Indeed, for some modelers, "operations" has become their hobby. However, I am not suggesting that "operations" should be a universal goal of Z-scalers. In my opinion, the principles of model railroad operations can be applied, in degrees, to almost any layout, not matter how big or small. In future "Last Spikes" I'll share with you some of the ways I operate the "Val Ease Central Railroad".

10. Share the passion

I believe that a hobby is an expression of our passions. In order for a commercially-supported hobby, such as "Z", to flourish it needs to be encouraged. As hobbyists, we can all contribute, in our own way, to the growth of model railroading and to "Z", in particular.

"Sharing the passion!" should be our rallying cry. Become an "Ambassador". Take "Z" to the public at trains shows, at hobby meets, at public events, at work, in hobby magazines, on the our homes!

Sharing is both a teaching and a learning experience and above all, it strengthens our community.

Go ahead, tell us how passionate you are. We're listening!

Z-Scale: minimum size, maximum enjoyment