The Val Ease Central Railroad ©

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

Last Spike: VECRR N-spirationsZ!

Z scale is a scale of many challenges. For some, it is the small size of the trains. Fortunately, we soon learn that "familiarity breeds magnification". For others, the challenge can be to find appropriate structures and vehicles. This was certainly the case when I was building the "Val Ease Central Railroad" which is set in the Pacific Northwest in the Fall of 1954. Although Z is making great progress in terms of rolling stock and motive power, there is still a long way to go in terms of an adequate offering for North American-style buildings.

What options are available to the Z modeler?

There are several possibilities, the first being to use styrene, wood and various metals to scratch-build your own structures. The VECRR is home to some modest scratch-built structures such as the coaling and water towers / diesel fueling station and "Samantha's gazebo" in "Val Ease East", and the old wooden trestle over "Bablin Brook", and Rocky's Gravel in "Val Ease West".

The second option is to try to "Americanize" kits of a "European" flavor. There are several good candidates for alteration. The Kibri workshops, factory and powerhouse kits can be easily modified to give them a more "new world" appearance by leaving off the "Euro-style" embellishments and applying detail parts. It is also easy to customize these structures by removing a floor or two from the factory or by even making additions using more than one kit.

The Märklin roundhouse kit offers lots of possibilities for modification. In fact, the roundhouse in "Val Ease East" has been shortened and given a more NA look using detail parts and decking. (See "Packing the Märklin Roundhouse into a Suitcase", Ztrack #7-3, May-June 2001). Other candidates for use on a US-style layout are Märklin's generic houses and some apartment blocks.

There is a third option available to help fill the void. It has often been said that "necessity is the mother of "N-vention"". Model railroaders enjoy a time-honored tradition of marauding neighboring scales for "nearly" scale specimens of structures, vehicles and scenic accessories. Z-scalers, unfortunately, do not have the luxury of having scales both larger and smaller from which to choose. We have only one close neighbor, N-scale, which fortunately, offers a huge variety of bridges, buildings, scratch items, vehicles and figurines.

Can you find the 5 NspirationZ in this photo of "Centre Val Ease"?
Click on the image for the answer.

Oddly enough, many supposedly N-scale items are not 1:160 scale at all. The true scale may vary quite a bit. Research by Bill Kronenberger of Houston Z-Bend Track has shown that so-called N-scale items may actually range from 1:200 to 1:148 (OO gauge) or larger. We are, of course, interested in anything in the lower size of that spectrum. In fact, many of the 1:200 scale vehicles, for instance, are quite at home in the 1:220 universe as heavy-duty machinery. In many cases, these items can be used on a Z layout with little or very slight alterations.

Dieter Nolte from Germany, builder of the award-winning "Red Rock, Texas" layout, found that a wind-powered water pump from Scale Link was a perfect fit for his layout after simply removing the bottom section.

Even figures can be used with some help. Glen Chenier from Texas, modified N-scale deer to make believable Z moose by building up the antlers using modeling compound and by painting the bodies a darker shade of brown. In many cases, all it takes is imagination and a good eye for a bargain as Manfred Gottschalch points out:

Photo copyright Manfred Gottschalch Photo copyright Manfred Gottschalch
I built the locomotive shed from a pair of N-scale iron works kits that were already built up and an HO-scale telephone booth. I took them all apart and reused the parts I needed for the shed. Each iron works section had three side windows on one side and slanted roofs with skylight windows. The opposite side had large doors which look good as loading access doors. The size of N-scale industrial doors doesn't seem to matter too much. I made doors for the locomotives using HO telephone booth sides glued to pins for the hinges. I still have to replace the roof vents or shorten them which would also work.

Still, not too bad for $5 bucks each for the iron works kits and $2 for the telephone booths. There were two in that kit and all I can recall is that they were in a plastic bag with a yellow label on it.

Other VEC N-spirationZ

Here are some "lightly modified" N items that have found comfortable homes on the VECRR.

  • Railway Miniatures construction crane
  • Life-Like lighted billboard with "At the Circus" advertising (base grillwork shortened)
  • Bachmann trucks / cement mixer (new beds made from styrene)
  • Gold Medal Models forklift (with a shortened cage)
  • N scale trackside details (which become speeder sheds and storage units)
  • Diamond Scale chain link fencing (sliced lengthwise for shoulder-height fencing or full height industrial fencing)
  • Bachmann small oil tanks (as is but with Z ladder details added)
  • Atlas steel truss bridge (narrowed and shortened, end girders filed to half thickness)
  • Faller arch bridge (narrowed and extra cross bracing added)
  • Sylvan Scale Models resin barge (shortened and narrowed; see "A Barge Bash: Adding a Barge to VEC Harbor Scene", Ztrack #6-6, November-December 2000).

I have also found that windows of factories and industrial structures were often quite large so N-scale structures that offer fine brickwork usually work out well in Z. On the "Val Ease Central", two full-size N-scale "pre-built" buildings served as the starting points for kit-bashing projects. NOTE: I find that pre-built and used buildings make it easier to visualize their kit-bashing potential for Z purposes.

A Life-Like paint factory became the "PURRfect Cat Food Company" (see "A PURRfect Kitbash Project". Ztrack #11-2, March-April 2005) and a Bachmann warehouse served as the starting point for a very important railroad customer in "Val Ease East".

The finished Bachmann warehouse is right at home on "Val Ease East"

A Bachmann structure goes under the knife, the razor saw, the file...

The customization of the original Bachmann warehouse was pretty straightforward and immensely enjoyable. Briefly, here are the changes I made:

1. removed the entire second floor of the building which contained a series of windows. The cut was made just at the roof line.
2. added extra loading bays and installed corrugated aluminum doors on both sides of the warehouse.
3. fabricated a new side foundation using styrene strips.
4. lowered the loading platform to Z height.
5. added a front door and steps (scavenged from Z parts box) leading to the office.
6. cut and framed a railway siding access door in the front wall. Note: the track ends short of the back wall so that the interior platform can frame the track. The track is long enough for two 40-foot freight cars or one 50-foot car.
7. scratch-built from styrene: interior loading platform framing the rail track.
8. scratch-built from styrene: lighted and detailed office complete with foreman looking out through acetate windows.
9. installed overhead interior lighting.
10. placed small speaker inside the hidden roof space and connected it to endless loop recording of industrial sounds (electric motor, gantry crane, press, etc.).
11. added roof vents, utility piping.
12. weathered the brickwork.
13. added worker getting "relief", freight on inside and outside platforms, vegetation and other details to complete the scene.

I suppose that I could have added roof details but it was time to move on to another project. Besides, nobody has complained, so far!

Let the Hunt Begin!

I am sure that there are many other examples of N-scale products being scavenged for the benefit of Z layouts and modules. The successful scavenger looking for "N-spiration" needs to have a keen eye and be able to imagine the customization potential in pre-built structures. So the next time you're at a local swap meet, don't despair because there are no Z vendors, check out the N-scale tables. You just might find some uNexpected treasureZ.

Z-Scale: minimum size, MAXIMUM enjoyment