N Scale Switching Layout in a Portable Case!
Updated: Jun 4
This is the first post in a series on building an N scale switching layout in a portable wooden case that runs on DCC and contains a storage drawer to hold the controller, cables, and rolling stock.
This post will cover the construction of the case, the installation of the track and wiring, and the first test runs. While the layout will have structures and scenery eventually as well, that will all be covered in a later post and video. I'm actually considering making modular structures and scenery panels for this layout that will attach with magnets, so I can swap out industries and other features to match what type of operating session I want to hold.
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Layout Design and Parts
Here is the track diagram I am using to build this layout. You can obtain the AnyRail file using the link below, and a listing of the track pieces is also shown below. Note that one of the 2.44” lengths of track has the wrong number on it in the diagram, but is still a 2.44” length of track.
Download the AnyRail file: https://stevestrainsfiles.s3.amazonaws.com/SanJoseSwitcherKatoVersion_1x5.any (right click and save the file, you won't be able to open it directly)
Track Parts List (note that 1.14” and 1.79” pieces are part of a small track assortment pack and are not available separately)
20000, N Kato Unitrack 20000. Straight 9.76". 7
20020, N Kato Unitrack 20020. Straight 4.88". 3
20021, N Kato Unitrack 20021. Road crossing 4.88". 1
20040, N Kato Unitrack 20040. Straight 2.44". 3
20048, N Kato Unitrack 20048. Buffer/Bumper Type C, 1.99". 6
20070, N Kato Unitrack 20070. Straight 1.79". 2
20071, N Kato Unitrack 20071. Straight 1.14". 4
20101, N Kato Unitrack 20101. Curve radius 9.8", angle 15º 2
20111, N Kato Unitrack 20111. Curve radius 11.1", angle 15º 1
20202, N Kato Unitrack 20202. Left turnout 7.32". (remote) 4
20203, N Kato Unitrack 20203. Right turnout 7.32". (remote) 2
Wood Case Parts List
60” length of 1”x12” clear pine - 1
60” length of 1”x4” clear pine - 2
60” length of 1”x2” clear pine - 1
58.5” length of 1”x12” clear pine - 1
58.5” length of 1”x8” clear pine - 1
11.25” length of 1”x3” clear pine - 7
drawer-width length of 1”x2” clear pine - 2
12” drawer slides - 1 set of two ( https://amzn.to/3PYRjV4 )
Drawer handle - 1
Large carry handle - 1 ( https://amzn.to/3GCsUAi )
Toggle latches - 2 ( https://amzn.to/3aiFt7P )
pneumatic door stay - 1 ( https://amzn.to/3x0AAb8 )
screws and nails
Remote turnout control (not really needed)
Momentary push buttons - 6 ( https://amzn.to/3M9eEQG )
Digitrax DS74 units - 2 ( https://amzn.to/3M7KBbW )
Assorted lengths of extra wire
DCC controller (personal choice)
NCE Power Cab - 1 ( https://amzn.to/3acwox9 )
Extra power plug - 1 (stolen off a generic Bachmann or other power pack, but can probably find online as well)
As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a commission on any products purchased through Amazon links.
Wood Case Construction
All the clear pine I purchased was in 6' and 8' long lengths. So, the first step was measuring and cutting all the required pieces. While I do have a chop saw, I cut everything using a handheld circular saw and a speed square. By holding the speed square tight against the edge of the board and using it as a guide, you can still get nice square cuts even when cutting by hand.
Here are images of most of the wood pieces with notes on where each of the pieces were used and also notes on the length and width of the pieces. Note that the exact measurements will depend on the width and thickness of your lumber. That top lid and main layout base were 12" pine, which means they were really just over 11" in actual width. In retrospect, it might have been better to use 3/4" birch plywood for the lid top and layout base in order to make it a full 12" wide. The top lid was a full 5 feet or 60" long, while the main layout base was 1.5" shorter to account for the thickness of the side pieces. My office desk is 60" long and so I wanted this layout to fit on the desk if I decided to operate the layout in my office. The back of the layout is a piece of 1x8" pine, while the front is composed of 2 pieces of 1x4" pine plus a 1x2 pine board that isn't shown, but is used to fill the remaining gap and also act as a handle to lift the lid. The short 11.25" pieces of wood used on the underside of the layout are all made from 1x3" pine boards.
I assembled the layout case with glue and screws, and I favor GRK fasteners or similar since it is nearly impossible to strip the head on them. I clamped some of the 1x3 pine boards to the back of the layout to help line up where I wanted the layout base to be attached. The layout base board was then glued and screwed to the layout back.
Next, I shifted the 1x3 boards to help prop up the layout sides so I could glue and screw those in place. I also glued and screwed in a piece of 1x3 on the inside bottom of the layout case to help support the layout base board and provide a thicker side on the bottom to which I could later add adjustable feet and not have them stick out beyond the side of the layout. My wood was warped in various directions, so this extra board also helped to securely attach the main layout base board.
I got the other side attached, and then started marking out where I wanted the front boards to go and where I wanted the drawer to be situated. Once I figured out where I wanted the drawer, I could attach more support pieces on the bottom of the layout. Those not only helped to stiffen and flatten the layout base, but also would serve as places to secure the drawer slides later on during construction.
I then cut the front trim piece where I wanted the drawer to be, ending up with three sections, the left and right sides, plus the drawer front itself. The lid to the case is just a 1x4 piece of pine attached to one edge of a 60" long piece of 1x12" pine, with a 1x2" pine board then attached at a 90 degree angle to the bottom of the 1x4" pine board.
I attached the lid to the layout case using a 48" long piano hinge, roughly centered on the back of the layout. This piano hinge was attached with a couple dozen screws, making for a secure connection.
I did need a way to keep the lid open since it was front heavy and would tend to fall shut. I tried using different locking mechanisms, but none of them worked well. So, I jumped on amazon and ordered a couple different door lift stays to hold the lid open as well as some toggle latches to help hold the lid closed during storage and transport.
While I waited for those to arrive, I worked on the front of the layout case. I glued and nailed the front trim of the layout in place on either side of the drawer opening. Then I worked on attaching the drawer slides.
The drawer slides are 12" long and were the shortest I found at Home Depot. Since the layout base board is only 11.25" wide, I needed to cut notches in the back of the layout to accommodate the back end of the drawer slides. The 1x8 on the back is 3/4" thick, and so the combination makes for a 12" deep case and the needed 12" length to fit the drawer slides. I used my circular saw to cut the notches to the right depth and then finished knocking them out with a chisel. I used a couple clamps to hold each drawer slide in place while I screwed them in place.
Next, I built the drawer box out of two pieces of 1x3 and two pieces of 1x2 pine. I already had cut out the 1x3 pieces earlier, and so just needed to cut the 1x2 pieces long enough to make sure the drawer would be wide enough to fit in between the drawer slides, but not so wide that it would be a tight fit, making the drawer hard to open. I screwed the inner side of the drawer slide to the sides of the drawer box and then attached the front trim piece to the front of the drawer with a few screws. While I still needed to add a bottom to the drawer, the Amazon Prime truck showed up with my door stays, so I decided to work on those next.
The pneumatic ones looked to clearly be a better choice since the folding arm version would take up too much space on the side of the layout. They would fold down as you closed the lid, and so I wouldn't be able to put anything on the sides of the layout near them. The pneumatic stays don't drop any lower than where you attach them when they are in the closed position, so you don't have to worry about them eventually damaging any scenery. Also, the stays I picked up can hold a lot of weight, and I only needed to use one on the layout case.
The instructions tell you where to install the brackets that hold the pneumatic piston arm, and those just attach with a few screws. Then you just snap on the piston arm and you are good to go. I'll definitely use these on future projects, especially since I have extra.
At this point it was time to sand the layout case smooth to get it ready for staining. I sanded the layout with coarse and then fine grit sanding disks, and then went back and filled in all the nail and screw holes with some wood putty.
While waiting for the wood putty to dry, I worked on making the bottom to my drawer. I cut a piece of cardboard down until it was the right size to fit the drawer, and then used that as template to cut out a piece of 1/8" plywood. I cut that to size, sanded it a bit, and it was ready to attach with a few screws. I sanded the bottom of the drawer and then went back and sanded the rest of the layout again to smooth out all the spots where I had used the wood putty.
After wiping all the dust off the layout it was time to apply a nice cherry stain. I stained the inside and outside of the layout case, but if you are going to add scenery right away, you don't really need to stain the inside. But, doing the inside gives a nice finished look, and makes it more enjoyable to use before the structures and scenery are added. After staining, I attached the toggle latches on each side of the lid, and then attached a handle onto the front of the drawer. A handle isn't really needed, but I liked the look of it. Finally, I attached a carry handle to the front of the lid to use when transporting the layout. It also acts as a nice handle to use when opening the lid. I put the handle in the middle, but the layout isn't quite balanced, since the side with the drawer is heavier, so that does make it a bit awkward to carry, but it isn't too bad.
Anyway, here you can see the mostly finished case. I'll still need to put a few coats of polyurethane on the case, but I'll wait until after the layout project is done since I may have to touch up the case in places.
Track and Wiring
For this layout, I'm using an NCE Power Cab to control things, and I think it makes a nice choice for a layout like this if you want to go DCC. In the basic package you get the hand controller, a panel you can mount on your layout fascia that you plug everything into, the AC power supply unit, and a plug with screw terminals to which you can connect the wires from your layout. Cables to connect your hand controller to the layout panel are also included. The Power Cab is a little different from other DCC hand controllers in that the Power Cab hand controller also serves as the DCC base station and contains all of the electronics. Thus, it is a larger unit than the basic hand controllers you might have in a Digitrax or other system. But, it is still comfortable to hold and use. Overall, this is a great DCC system for smaller layouts.
To mount the panel to the front of the layout I drilled a few holes and then chiseled out the opening to the size that I needed to fit the panel. Curiously, the box didn't come with any screws to attach the panel to the layout, but I had plenty of small screws that would work fine, so it wasn't an issue.
I didn't want to plug the power supply directly into the back of the panel, since that would be awkward to do if the layout was sitting on a table as you would need to tip it over to access the plug and then the layout could crush the power cable. Luckily, I had another plug of the same size as the one on the Power Cab panel so I soldered on some wires to the terminals on the power port on the back of the panel that I could run to the other power plug port I planned to mount on the side of the layout. I drilled a hole through the back corner of the layout case, chiseled it out large enough to fit the plug, and then fed the wires through that I had soldered onto the main panel. Then, I soldered those wires onto the extra power plug port, added some hot glue to the hole in the case, and pushed the power port in so it was flush with the side of the case. A little wood putty filled in the small gaps around the power port to finish it off.
Finally, it was time to install the track on the layout. I picked up a load of Kato Unitrack for the project, unpacked the track, and assembled it per my track plan which you can see earlier in the post.
Once I had all the track laid out, I needed to drill holes for the turnout wires as well as the power leads for the track. I added power connectors on the ends of each track as well as between the turnouts in the middle to hopefully prevent any dead areas. The Kato turnouts are power routing, so it might be possible to just have two sets of power leads in the middle of the layout and power everything, but I would rather not have to rely on the turnouts to supply power to each track.
I marked the location of each hole, drilled the holes, cleaned up the mess, and then replaced the track on the layout. I fed the turnout wires through the holes, then used the Kato tool for removing the rail joiners to remove the joiners where I wanted to add the wired Unijoiners. I did eventually have to solder a pair of wires to the rail on the end of one track section because I accidentally pulled the wires off one set of the wired Unijoiners. It is of course cheaper to just solder all the wires, but the wired Unijoiners are fast and convenient to use as long as you don't break them.
I had the bad idea to attach the track by putting hot glue in all the holes where I fed the wires through. The idea was that I could put the glue in each hole and then hold the wires taught to keep the track flush against the wood. That would have worked really well had I done that long enough to let the glue dry. Unfortunately in a few spots I found the track had pulled away before the glue set, creating little raised areas that caused cars to uncouple during testing.
The solution was to scrap away what glue I could, and then squirt more hot glue under the track in the raised area. The new hot glue would melt the old hot glue and then I could press down on that track until the glue set to flatten and secure the raised areas. Once that was done everything operated smoothly, except that my new Atlas S2 switcher does still tend to have the sound cut out pretty frequently. I'll need to make sure all the pickups in the locomotive are good and the track is clean, but I may end up needing to try and install a small keep alive capacitor of some type for better low speed operation if I want to use the sound effects.
While I connected two sets of wires to the DCC system for initial testing, I still needed to go through and redo the wiring for long-term use. Remote turnout operation isn't needed on a layout this small when your hand is never more than a foot from any turnout during an operating session, I went ahead and added remote control push buttons anyway. Since the Kato turnouts have built-in switch motors, it felt like a waste to not use them. So, I picked up two of the Digitrax DS74 units and more of the push buttons I used on my previous 3.5x5.5 foot N scale layout project to control the turnouts. Now, you might think that you can't use Digitrax DS74 units with an NCE Power Cab, but I've had no issue whatsoever using them together, at least in this application. However, I haven't tried operating the turnouts from the PowerCab hand controller yet, so I don't know if that feature will work or not.
These DS74 units work like the DS64 units I used in the past, except that they now have a pin connector to which you attach a ribbon cable instead of additional screw terminals for those wires. It is kind of odd having half the connectors be screw terminals and the other half be a ribbon cable, but the wiring is basically the same as before. There is a set of terminals to connect the DCC power to, 4 sets of terminals to connect the switch machine motors to, a common power wire terminal that supplies power to your push buttons or whatever else you are using, and then the ribbon connector to which you attach the other push button wires, sensors, or whatever else you plan to use with these units.
First off, I needed to drill six holes for the push button controls. I marked the spots for the buttons so they were evenly spaced, drilled a set of small holes, then used a step bit to bore out the holes to the needed 3/4" diameter. The step bit is designed to be used on sheet metal, but it makes really nice smooth holes in wood as you can see here. A regular 3/4" drill bit would make a much more ragged hole, but you could still use one if you are careful.
I then pulled a bunch of wires to connect to the buttons and I tried to select wire colors that generally matched those on the ribbon cable used to connect to the DS74 units so it would be easier to keep track of what button was connected where.
First though, I connected the common power wire to the buttons, simply daisy chaining them all together instead of connected six separate wires. I then connected a second wire from each push button to the appropriate spot on the ribbon cable. The DS74 instructions show you which color wire on the ribbon cable connects to which switch machine terminal. The diagram here shows how I wired everything. I connected four turnouts to one DS74 unit, and then two turnouts to the other. Note that the common power wire going to the buttons was just from one DS74 unit. It doesn't really matter which unit the buttons are wired to for the common wire, only the second wire matters, as that is the one that determines which turnout the button will operated. The cool thing about these units is that you only need to use one button for each turnout. Each button press will throw the turnout in the opposite direction from which it is currently oriented.
I tested all the buttons to make sure I heard a turnout operating with each push. One thing I quickly learned was that since these are solenoid switch machines, the DS74 unit won't be able to power them if you hit the buttons in rapid succession. Sometimes it would take a second or two for the turnout to throw since the capacitors in the DS74 unit needed to recharge before being able to send enough current to operate the turnout. This is only an issue if you push a bunch of buttons one after the other. During normal use the turnout machines operate immediately when the button is pushed.
With everything working correctly, I soldered all the wire connections and then used some heat shrink tubing to cover the connections or just wrapped them in electrical tape. I didn't have enough heat shrink tubing of the size I needed, and my liquid electrical tape had mostly hardened up on me, so I had to resort to electrical tape on many of these connections. I'll probably come back and redo those with heat shrink tubing or with the liquid electrical tape which you can brush on at a later time.
Once the wiring was complete, it was time to add some panels to cover the bottom of the layout. I cut a bunch of small sections of 1x2 pine to help support the bottom panels and to provide places to screw the panel into. I attached each of the wood blocks with glue and a couple of screws and then screwed on the bottom panels. I of course didn't use any glue on those panels since I'll need to remove them whenever I need to access the wiring.
Once the panels were in place, I stained them with the same cherry stain I used on the rest of the layout.
Next it was time to finish up the drawer. I cut two pieces of foam to size that I stole out of one of my pelican cases I use for carrying astronomy gear. One is a thin piece that goes on the bottom and the other a thicker piece that will be cut to hold the controller and rolling stock.
With both pieces of foam in the drawer I played with different arrangements for all of the items. It was at this point that I wished I had made the drawer a few inches wider so it would be able to hold more rolling stock. Once I decided on the placement, I traced around each object with a knife to score the foam, then cut through the foam with the knife after pulling it out of the drawer so I wouldn't also cut through the bottom layer of foam.
That process is a bit tedious, so after cutting a few of the openings I worked on adding a piece of cove molding to the back of the layout case to cover up the exposed wires there. This is basically just a square piece of pine with one corner cut off. I glued the strip of molding in place, and then tacked it in with a few finish nails. I covered the nail holes with a bit of wood putty, and while waiting for that to dry, I worked on adding some adjustable feet to the bottom of the layout. These little feet have a threaded plastic insert that is pressed into the hole I drilled for each of them, and then the feet screw into those plastic inserts. This way you can adjust the height of each foot to level the layout as needed so rolling stock isn't rolling one way or another on the layout if the surface you have the layout placed on isn't level.
Finally I stained the strip of wood on the inside of the layout case and finished cutting out the foam in the drawer to hold everything, and the layout was ready to use.
It is nice having everything self-contained, and setting up and taking down the layout only takes a couple of minutes. This has been a fun project so far, and in the next video in this series I'll work on adding structures and scenery. As I said at the start of the video, I'm thinking about building separate panels for each structure and for the scenery in between, so I can swap them out over time. A warehouse could be swapped out with a food processing plant, or plastics manufacture, or other industry to allow for different operating sessions. I haven't fully figured out how I will do that, but possibly I'll have interchangeable panels that are held on by magnets. Anyway, look for that video later this year.
I also hope to start on some other layout projects this summer, but I'm also working on a lot of home remodeling projects and so videos will likely be rather sporadic until later this fall.
Anyway, thanks for following along and watch for updates on this project in the coming months.
Here is the video version of this post: