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FAQ

What size (scale or gauge) is best for a beginner?

What is 1.5" scale? What is 1/8 scale?

What is 1.6" scale?  

What is the difference between scale and gauge?  

What is "Narrow Gauge" or 2-1/2" scale?

Is all the equipment custom made or are there companies that actually make this stuff?

How do I make or get parts like wheels?

What is a good locomotive to build for a beginner?

Which is better for me, Steam or Diesel?

How does a steam locomotive work?

Where do I go to learn more about this hobby?

Where can I buy a small rideable train and track?

How do you figure the grade on laying out your roadbed?

I'm thinking of going into business in this hobby, any advice?

Who is Jim O'Connor?
 


 

Q.
What size (scale or gauge) is best for a beginner?

A.

That's a big question.  ALL scales look good to me.  If the builder puts enough detail in it.

Cost vs. Size: Think of it as a continuous line with cost on one side and scale at the other. With the smaller scale costing less (for everything from track, rolling stock and engines).  Another truth is... Larger is easier to ride (easier to get on and off, less likely to tip if you lean over).  On the flip side (no pun intended) the larger scales are more difficult to transport.  Not a problem if you plan to keep your stuff on your home track only.  However, it's great to pack up the trailer and hit the road for some other tracks within driving distance.  You may get bored with going around your own track no matter how large it becomes.

And speaking of the above,  if you take your "show" on the road, you will want to know what size gauge track is being used in your area.  Check it out now, before you commit to a scale.  The most popular (most track on the ground, most equipment running) scale in North America is 1.5 inch (or 1.6) = 1' foot which normally runs on 7 1/2" gauge track (with parts of the US and Canada  running 7 1/4" gauge).  But 1.5" scale hasn't always been the most popular.  And I predict the even larger scales/gauges will become more popular in the future.  If space is an issue, remember the large trains need a larger turning radius.

Q. 

What is 1.5" scale? What is 1/8 scale?
A.

1.5" scale means 1.5 inches on the model will equal 1 foot in the real world.  1/8 scale is another name for 1.5" scale. When you divide a 1 foot ruler into 8 parts, those parts are 1.5 inches in length.  Full size standard gauge (56.5) divided by 8 equals 7.06.   Therefore, 7-1/16" would be the most accurate gauge for 1:8 scale.

Q.

What is 1.6" scale?  

A.

1.6" scale is just slightly larger than 1.5" scale. Some folks prefer to use 1.6" scale since it more closely correlates to "standard" gauge of track if the scale track is 7.5".

Q.

What is the difference between scale and gauge?  

A.

Scale
If a real life rail car is 40 feet long, a half scale rail car would be only 20 feet long, one quarter scale would be 10 feet long and one eighth scale would be 5' long, etc.

Gauge
Gauge refers to the distance between the two rails on a railroad track.  Full scale standard gauge railroads use track with rails that are 4 foot, 8 inches apart (56 inches).  Some of the more common gauges in live steam and diesel railroading are 360mm, 2", 3", 4", 7", 15".  In the North East US and most of Europe, 7 is used in place of 7. most popular gauges  Read a complete treatment of this subject written by Rick Henderson by Riding Scales & Gauges.

Q.

What is "Narrow Gauge" or 2-1/2" scale?  

A.

In some parts of the world, full size railroads ran on non "standard gauge" track (track like 36" or 24" gauge).  So what do you do if you want to model "narrow gauge" equipment?  You could invent your own gauge or you can use one of the common gauge tracks like 7 and build your model to a scale that will fit on that track.  Example: If you wanted to model a locomotive from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad that ran on 3' track, you would build it to 1/5 scale (2-1/2" to the foot) and set up the wheels to run on 7.5" gauge.  When you do this, your model will be rather large and wide.  So wide that it will hang way over the rails giving it the same stance the actual equipment had.  Read more about Narrow Gauge Trains at Wikipedia.

 

Q.

Is all the equipment custom made or are there companies that actually make this stuff?

A.
Some locomotives and cars are purchased from a handful of manufacturers world wide.  But most are hand built.  Some are from kits and some are scratch built by talented and resourceful amateur (and pro) machinists.  These machinists deserve a lot of respect in my book.

If you are interested in purchasing some used equipment, go to For Sale

Q.

How do I make or get parts like wheels?

A.
I'm not much of a machinist.  I have turned my own wheels from castings.  I can say this;  It took longer than I had anticipated.  The next time I did a set of wheels, I purchased them fully machined.  It was a great value.

Q.
What is a good locomotive to build for a beginner?

A.
I'm in the process of building a 4-6-0 narrow gauge steam locomotive.  It's coming to my house in sections.  Most of the machining has been done by the manufacturer.  It's more expensive that way but I have only limited experience with a lathe and mill so for me, this makes sense.  The more drive wheels and trucks the locomotive has, the more complicated it is.  I would suggest you keep to something like an early 4-4-0 American to start with.  They don't pull as well but are rather simple compared to the later engines.

Q.
Which is better for me, Steam or Diesel?

A.
Actual steam is not for the beginner.  You will need a mentor to help you along.  If you don't know anyone doing steam, to see if there a live steam railroad in your area, check Live Steam Clubs page for listings.  If you can get to one, visit and ask questions. If you have no mentor and no actual steam experience, I suggest you start with a diesel locomotive.  These are either battery or gas engine powered.  MUCH easier to learn and maintain without experience. Suggest you visit my Suppliers page and my For Sale page for used equipment.  You will also need cars and track, both are listed.  You will see links for web sites from live steam companies.

Q.
How does a steam locomotive work?

A.
If you continue to surf the internet you will find more sites on steam engines and steam power.  It's a simple concept but some of the machines get a little complicated.  There are two basic parts to the steam locomotive, the "boiler" and the "engine".  The boiler turns regular water into high pressure, high temperature steam.  It flows out of the boiler via a throttle (or regulator in the UK). This controls the amount of steam into the cylinders.  The cylinders are forced back with steam pressure and that forces the wheels to turn via a simple linkage.  The precise time the steam enters the cylinder is part of the magic.  When it's done correctly, it controls the direction and speed of the locomotive.  As steam leaves the boiler, water must be added or you will run out of steam, but worse, you will run out of water and overheat the boiler causing a boiler failure.  So water level control is very important. Here is a good site to explore the inner workings of a steam engine How Stuff Works: Steam Engine

Q.
Where do I go to learn more about this hobby?

A.
You must go over every page of my web site (of course).  After that, try one of the magazines, Live Steam magazine and the others are great resources for beginner machinists.  I also suggest you purchase "So You Want To Build a Live Steam Locomotive" by Nelson. Click Live Steam Books.  Another good thing to do is visit a live steam railroad and start asking questions.

Q.
My husband and I were trying to find where we could buy a small rideable train and a lot of track to wind through our property. We know nothing about where to look or if its something we'd have to put together ourselves.

A.
Think about the track first.  "Track" as we know it in HO, LGB, etc. is sold in sections. Those sections are not that long or so heavy that they can't be shipped via UPS or Federal Express. When you're dealing with track that's 7.5" gauge, it's a another story. We build our track more like the real railroads do. We purchase rail (most of us use aluminum) and we cut our own ties mostly from pressure treated wood or recycled plastic material. I've had folks sell sections of track pre-made in 10 foot lengths but the shipping has been so expensive that it's just not a savings. You MIGHT be able to contract with a local live steam railroad to have sections built for you. But I suggest you get comfortable with the idea of putting your own track together.
I have an article on track work here:  Building a Back Yard Railroad .

Q.
How do you figure the grade on laying out your roadbed?

A.
This answer comes from Ken Denham: If elevation is gained, or lost, changing 1' up or down in a 100' distance, the grade is a 1% grade, 2 feet in 100' is a 2% grade, etc.  When grades over a long distance are necessary, a 1 1/2 % grade is probably ideal.

Q.
I'm thinking of going into business in this hobby, any advice?

A.
As I see it, it's hard to make money in this hobby for 2 main reasons....

  1. Very few people are doing this hobby. You can make money if you mass produce something. But you can't charge what your time is worth if you only make one or two. No one can afford to pay it.
  2. Many of those that are in this hobby are "do it yourself" types. Some buy complete locomotive and cars, but most build their own. Some of us build from kits, others from "scratch".

Most everyone that I know of that manufactures stuff for this hobby is (primarily) a hobbyist first, and a businessman second. In my opinion, you're a hobbyist if you allow fun to come before profit. You'll never get rich in this hobby but you sure can make friends and have fun.

Q.
Who is Jim O'Connor?

A.
Jim is the webmaster and founder of discoverlivesteam.com  Together with a small team of dedicated individuals, has transformed the way we learn about riding scale railroads.  Jim works as a maintenance mechanic and stationary engineer with a high pressure boiler operator's license from the city of Chicago.


Jim O'Connor

500 hp. Scotch-Marine fire tube boiler

                                                       self portrait


Jim O'Connor

at The Hesston Steam Show

(aka The La Porte County Historical Steam Society, Inc.)

Photo by Brad E. Smith    


Jim O'Connor
On his home track with his big brother's Dash 9 from MCC.  New in 2004.

                                                                                                               photo by Tom O'Connor

 


Jim (
Don't even think about trying it on my coach.) O'Connor
Volunteer Conductor at the Hesston Steam Museum 2008.

                                                                                                               photo by Mike Lagness