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Start-to-Finish: Build a Small Z Scale Switching Layout

This is a compilation of the previous two posts on this layout build. This is an easy to build and fun to operate layout that you can store anywhere, break out when you want to run some trains, and have a fun 15-30 minute operation session.

Even though this is a Z scale layout, operations have been surprisingly good. I’ve overweighted every boxcar, so uncoupling is much easier. I have no issues uncoupling cars with a small Phillips head screw driver, but I do have issues with uncoupling the car connected to the locomotive because the coupler is a little more finicky and it is connected to the locomotive trucks. A body mounted coupler would improve uncoupling dramatically as pushing down on the coupler wouldn’t lift up the rear wheel of the truck and at times cause some derailments. So, I hope to make that modification before long.

Anyway, you can watch part two of this layout build below.

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Anyway, let’s look at how I built this 8” x 36” Z scale switching layout. A couple of years ago I had a video on an “executive switching layout”, an 8” by 50” or so N Scale switching layout. This layout has essentially the same track plan, but being Z scale, you can fit it in 3 feet instead of 4 feet. So, even if you are a hard-working middle manager with limited desk space, you can probably still fit this layout on your desk for a quick operating session.

Before we get started, here is the track plan and parts list:

This track plan is an Inglenook plan, that has a specific 5-3-3 car arrangement to add a puzzle element to the track plan when you wish to operate it in that manner (by placing 8 cars on the layout). This is a screen capture from explaning the idea:

Ok, so here you can see all the wood parts I cut out and used for this build. I used a roughly 8” by 36” clear pine plank for the base, then cut a backdrop board from 1/2” thick by 6” wide poplar, with a couple of angled pieces for the two sides. I cut a couple of pieces off a 1/2” by 4” poplar board for layout feet, and also some pieces off a 0.75”x0.75” scrap piece of pine I had to frame out the control box area a little nicer. You can pause the video here to see the measurements if you want them. Note that 8” dimensional lumber is actually 7.5”, and 6” dimensional lumber is 5.5” wide because things are just stupid like that.

Anyway, I have measurements for the hole I cut for my Rokuhan controller, but just put whatever controller you want to use on the base and trace around that to get the actual dimensions to cut. You don’t even have to cut a hole out for the controller, I just did that so it would be recessed into the base and look a little nicer. Plus, it stays in place that way.

To cut out the hole, I drilled holes in each of the four corners and then cut out the area with my jigsaw.

I also took my router and rounded over the front edge of the layout base, but you could also just round off that front edge with sandpaper. That isn’t needed for anything other than aesthetics and to make it a little more comfortable if you are resting your hand on it.

Once I had the pieces cut out, I assembled them with wood glue and some brad nails.  The nails I used were long enough to go all the way through the layout base in places, so I trimmed the ends of the nails off later with my Dremel.

I was framing out the area for the controller with that piece of scrap 0.75” x 0.75” wood I had, but I had to chisel out a few notches for the cables so they would be able to fit into the plugs on the back of the controller.

I glued and nailed those pieces of wood in place, trimmed off all the nail ends with my Dremel, and then sanded everything smooth.

I gave everything another sanding the next day, wiped the layout clean, and then proceeded to paint everything a satin-black color. Usually, I stain the wood, but I decided to paint this one black. I painted the bottom of the base first except for the bottom of the layout feet, then flipped the layout over and painted the remainder of it.

I didn’t paint the interior of the back wall since I planned to have that a very light blue sky color. I came back and added a second coat of paint the next day, and then when that was dry I masked off the back of the layout and poured on a light blue and off-white color and mixed those directly on the layout as I spread the paint around. I did things that way so the color would vary some across the back of the layout which can look a little more natural.

Next it was time to drill holes for the turnout wires, as well as the track power lead. I’m only using one set of power leads to the track for now. That works fine, but I may eventually add three additional sets of wires to each of the track sections beyond the turnouts. Those will be ease enough to add later if I need them.

I also drilled holes up through the trim pieces around the hole for the controller so I could run the wires back up to the plugs on the back of the controller.

Some of the track pieces I had used had uncoupling magnets in them. I removed those track pieces, and then cut some others down so the track on the layout would run fully from one end to the other. I glued the track down with some tacky glue, but PVA glue, hot glue, or latex caulk would work as well. You can also screw the track down if you want to do that.

Once the glue had dried, I turned the layout over on its back and soldered the wires on the bottom of the layout. The holes I used weren’t big enough to run the plugs through, so I had to cut the wires so I could run them through the holes, and remove all the excess wire. Then I soldered the wires back together and protected the joints with some heat shrink tubing. You of course don’t need to wire the turnouts since the layout is so small and they are easy enough to throw by hand. But, since the Rokuhan controller as built-in switches for two turnouts, I figured I might as well use them and wire up the turnouts to the controller.

With the simple wiring done it was time to test out the layout.  Everything worked great, and it is fun to use the built-in turnout controls on the Rokuhan controller. Switching operations in Z scale are easier than you think, but they are even easier if you overweight all the cars. I haven’t done that yet to all of them, but gluing one or two 3/8” nuts (about 9-10mm) to the interior of each car adds enough weight to help the cars track better, and makes it easier to uncouple cars with a screwdriver without derailing them.

You could leave the layout just like this and operate it for many years in just this manner, but next we will add some simple scenery.

For the single warehouse structure on this layout I took a TeamTracks paper model kit that I downloaded, printed it at about 70% original size, and assembled that paper kit on a piece of chipboard which I then glued to a piece of Gatorboard (although foam core board would work just as well).

I added an angle piece of styrene to the edge of the rooftop to hide the paper seam there, and to make it look a little nicer. I also added some half-round in places to simulate downspouts. I brushed on some weathering powder to tone down the sheen of the paper, and I should have sprayed on a layer of dull coat at this time to seal everything in but forgot to do that.

In order to bring the height of the loading doors up to the level of the doors on boxcars, I added a piece of roughly 1/4” square styrene tubing, painted black, to the back edge of the layout. I then glued the structure flat on top of that tubing and to the back wall of the layout.

There is also a team track type loading area towards the front of the layout. For this area I glued in two pieces of chipboard to bring the area up towards the height of the track, and then sprayed a third piece a concrete color. I brushed on some brown, black, and gray weathering powders to that piece, and glued that one in place as well.

Next, I brushed on some slightly diluted white glue to the remainder of the layout. For areas near the warehouse and along the edge of the track I used a mix of Woodland Scenics Earth Blend ground foam along with a ballast mix I had (that is a blend of several fine gray ballasts). For the remainder of the layout I simply used the Earth Blend by itself. I came back and soaked everything with more diluted white glue, this time about 1 part glue to 4 or 5 parts water, after spraying everything down with 70% IPA to act as a wetting agent. I immediately came back and added 2mm green static grass to the large open area towards the front of the layout.

When this was dry I came back and added some glue along the back edge of the layout and along the front edge of the structure, and pressed in some coarse medium green ground foam. Then, I brushed on some diluted white glue in between the two rear-most tracks on the left side of the layout and added more static grass. All excess material was then vacuumed up.

With that the layout was complete and it was time to operate. For layouts like this, I take pictures of all my rolling stock, add them to a Word or Pages document, print them out on full-sheet label paper, and stick the sheet to some card stock (I used an old file folder) and cut out all the individual cards. I put a red box around each image before printing so when I cut them out I could be sure they were all the same size. I also made four blank cards.

This layout can operate with up to eight pieces of rolling stock, plus a locomotive, and there are effectively 12 spaces or cars to occupy, thus the 12 cards. You can operate the layout by shuffling the cards, and dealing them out to all the possible car locations. Then, simply try to move the cars to the appropriate locations. You can then shuffle the cards and do it again. There are thousands of combinations, so each one is a little different.

Anyway, I love these small Inglenook layouts, and they are fast and easy to build. Maybe you would like to be build a small one like this for your office to occasionally shift your mind off work for 15 or 20 minutes.

You can watch the full video on construction the layout below:

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