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Z Scale Switching Layout Part 1

Updated: May 7

Introducing the Middle Manager’s switching layout. This is a small 8” by 36” Z scale layout that you can fit just about anywhere. 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.

I do plan to add structures and scenery to this layout, but you could build it just like this and leave it bare, so it is super easy to keep clean. Anyway, let's see how I built the layout to this point.

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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 I plan to add some simple scenery to this layout. I took a TeamTracks paper model kit that I downloaded, printed it at about 70% original size, and I’ll be using that to build a warehouse along the backdrop of the layout. I’ll also add a team track type loading area between the front two tracks and some basic ground cover. I don’t plan to add any trees, and likely won’t ballast the track as I want to keep this layout very simple so it will be easy to clean and you won’t be dropping bits of scenery material on your desk every time you bring it out to run an operating session.

Anyway, I’ll have a follow-up video in the coming weeks once I have that additional work done. But, the very small size of this layout allows you to operate it anywhere. If you don’t include the backdrop walls, you could easily just hang this layout on the wall when you aren’t using it, store it on a bookshelf, under the bed, in a drawer, or in many other places. Small layouts like this are easy and fast to build, and can allow you to run short operating sessions just about anywhere.

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

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