Welcome to The N-Scaler, a blog about high-tech model railroading in the 21st Century with limited space, tight budgets and the need for portability; impediments many of us with model railroading ambitions face. I know I’m not the only one out there with modeling ambitions that never see the light of day because of real world constraints.

Enough of that already, its time to make the constraints a virtue and get something done. First,I’ll give credit where credit is due: Model Railroader Magazine has been pushing the concept of smaller layouts recently, including a new publication and articles about doable projects. For quite a few years now they have explored alternatives to traditional building methods. And they are all over DCC. That’s why I’ve been a subscriber for over 2 decades. Good job, guys.

My project is to build a modular, portable N-scale layout that has a relatively small footprint, but supports multiple trains and continuous running, and is big on action, animation and modeling opportunities. The basic parameters are these:

  • It has to be built from materials readily available in a small city like Reno, Nevada, or via the Internet. If I can’t get it within a week for a reasonable price, I’ll try a different item or material. Struggling to obtain materials is a waste precious modeling time.
  • Ease/speed of building techniques is a high priority. The goal is to achieve continuing visible results with relatively small blocks of time in an otherwise busy life.
  • Cost matters. One of the attractions of model railroading has always been that it can be done on a proverbial shoe string; a blade, a straight edge and some glue can get you a long way. Most of the cost of the hobby comes from manufactured goods, and technology only makes that worse. At each step along the way I’ll be looking for ways to get the most out of my limited modeling dollars.
  • The layout will be modular, but it will not be built for use in a modular system (such as N-Trak).  For me, modularity is about breaking a layout down into manageable sections for reliable portability and ease of construction; I’m not worried about interfacing with other modeler’s work right now. Maybe next layout.
  • The layout has to be lightweight, structurally strong, and really portable. It should be easy to set up and take down, and its components should easily fit in the back of a Subaru (I’ll concede the rear seats may have to be down so we’re not too constrained here).
  • Modules have to interconnect securely and reliably, physically and electronically, every time the layout is assembled.
  • This will be a high tech layout. DCC cab control, block detection and signaling and animation. Lots of lights and animation. And sound wherever possible. Who knows where that will take me.
  •  I intend to create a layout with brains; essentially an autonomous environment within which to operate trains. No lack of ambition here! The availability of inexpensive, single board open-source microcomputers and microcontrollers(Raspberry Pi and Arduino, are well known examples) and the explosion of inexpensive robotics equipment got me thinking …. Follow along as I try a somewhat different approach to layout control.

That’s the plan. It probably won’t go exactly as I expect but that is part of the point. If I’m not running into trouble, I’m probably not pushing the boundaries in the ways that I want to.

6 thoughts on “Welcome”

  1. Just found your site – haven’t read it all but it strikes a cord. My theory is to use touchscreens for local control panels. Using an Arduino Mega and TFT touch screen, I started off duplicating the interlocking machine in the Feb 1961 Model Railroader. This led to connecting it to a model railroad, driving signals and switches. I drive multiple switch machines and signals with 16 multiplexer PWM chips via I2c communication. I use a 5 to 2.5 V voltage controller to drive bicolor LEDs.
    Another sketch drives multiple switches with routing logic. Glad to send photos and example codes if you are interested.

    • I’m impressed that you duplicated the interlocking machine from MR — I’ve seen a reprint of that article; it was impressive. I recall there was another 2 part article about an interlocking machine a few years ago — it was a particularly fine piece of craftsmanship.

      I’m always interested in seeing other people’s work. I’ve been thinking about putting together a gallery of photos from readers, so if you’d be interested in having some of your work shown here, let me know.


  2. Like David I too have just found your site and appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience. I have committed to tortoise motors before the introduction of servos. Currently trying to use Arduino to controll routing in my storage yard. The points (16) are all on a separate circuit and I have been trying to source a DPDT relay that will allow me to talk to the Arduino economically. I will be needing later to incorporate another 24 point motors on a separate area of layout so economy is important. Eventually hoping to construct a wireless control panel to talk to my Arduino controlled points. More later. Thanks again

    • Schrack relays are generally pretty inexpensive and widely available from electronics vendors like digikey. I think tortoise switch machines draw less than 20 ma, so you won’t need high power relays (500ma type is cheap and plentiful). Get the “Bistable” type so that you can power the coil briefly to move it either way, but don’t have to continuously maintain coil power to maintain its setting. I connect to relays through a Darlington Driver (ULN2803APG) to drive the coils, because they draw too much power for the standard Arduino outputs. One eight channel Darlington can control four relays. You can connect the Darlington directly to the Arduino, or through a Shift Register network. If I’m understanding correctly, you eventually intend to have 40 motors. So what I would do to control the relays is set up a shift register / darlington driver network (you’ll find more on those topics elsewhere on the site); that would make routes super easy since all the points can be set in a single efficient operation.

      Best, Robin

  3. i just started to read this post today. where I can I find instructions on how to use an arduino to control tortise turnouts. I have ordered the arduino starter kit to learn programing.

    • I’m sorry to say I don’t have a specific reference for you. However, running a Tortoise switch motor should be easy. The motor requires a 12 volt DC power source so it can’t be directly connected to your Arduino pins. So, you would use a DPDT relay to control the polarity to the Tortoise; control the relay with a Darlington Driver IC, which you can attach directly to Arduino pins or use as part of a shift register chain. You’ll find more on Darlington Drivers (and shift registers) on this site. Relay coils generally draw too much power to attach directly to an Arduino; hence the need for a Darlington as an intermediary. Watch upcoming posts where I’ll explain how I’m using relays to handle power reversing — this will likely help you set up Tortoise machines.

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