N scale vs HO scale trains

HO scale and N scale are the two most popular scales of model trains. Both are a small enough size to be practical, whether you have room for a table-sized layout or want to build a basement-sized empire. Here are the pros and cons and considerations of N scale vs HO scale trains.

Cost

N scale vs HO scale
This layout is HO scale but you can achieve the same look in N scale if you wish.

You can get started in either one inexpensively, but N scale is cheaper than HO scale. That said, the trains are the cheaper element. An N scale layout is no cheaper than a comparable sized HO layout. The getting started cost of N scale is lower, because the ready to run set you start with will be cheaper and the first layout you build will likely be smaller. But layouts tend to cost about the same per square foot regardless of scale due to the materials it takes to finish them.

Both scales offer plenty of opportunity for cost savings, but in theory, you’ll probably find more used HO scale trains than used N scale trains because it’s slightly more popular. N scale trains cost less than HO scale, but used HO scale trains are cheaper than new N scale.

Size

N scale is approximately half the size of HO scale. Since that size goes in all directions, an N scale layout takes up approximately 1/4 the space of a comparable HO scale layout. A layout that would occupy a 4×8 table in HO scale can fit in a coffee table.

An aging hobbyist will have to give up N scale earlier than the larger HO scale, however. Some hobbyists joke that “On30” means “30 years too old for N scale.”

For large layouts, the advantage of N scale is being able to fit more scale mileage into the available space. Even a basement-sized layout is really only a few city blocks in scale size, but N scale gives you a little more realism in that regard. And if you like long trains, you can run longer trains in N scale than HO scale in the same space.

As technology marches on, HO scale’s size offers one more advantage: It’s easier to stuff circuit boards into HO scale trains than in N scale trains so you can get things like sound effects and control via Bluetooth. The capability certainly exists in N scale too, but you’ll always be able to stuff more chips and more capability into HO scale, all other things being equal.

Magazine coverage

Both HO scale and N scale are too much of an audience for magazines to ignore. The big-name magazines, Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman, devote more space to HO scale and N scale than all the others. When it comes to N scale vs HO scale, most magazines choose both. Like a good politician.

Availability

You might be able to find a hobby shop that specializes in one of those two scales, but for the most part, hobby shops that deal in trains will have both. For that matter, sometimes even the craft stores carry them. Hobby shops will have a better selection of locomotives and rolling stock, but craft stores are fine for getting scenery and supplies like that, and possibly even your first ready to run set that you use to get started. As you move further along in the hobby, you’ll find yourself shopping at hobby shops for locomotives and rolling stock (the trains themselves), but you may get your scenic supplies elsewhere.

When you go to train shows, you can expect to be able to find both HO and N scale there, and probably more HO and N scale than other scales.

HO scale is more popular than N scale, and it’s been the most popular scale for a long time now. So in theory there’s a better chance of you being able to buy the exact car or rolling stock or engine or building you want in HO scale than in N scale. And you’re less likely to have to resort to buying something similar and paint it in HO scale than N scale. This is a crude way of measuring availability and popularity in terms of number of modellers, but as I write this, there are 114,955 active Ebay listings for HO scale versus 47,007 listings for N scale. O scale was in third place, with 42,392 listings, and no other scale had more than 7,109 active listings.

When it comes to availability, HO scale wins in the N scale vs HO scale battle, but N scale isn’t a bad place to be.

Detail

N scale vs HO scale - N scale detail
In N scale, you can simply omit details that are too small to be visible and still get a good-looking scene. Image credit: AC Studio [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Since N scale is smaller, you get less detail than you get in HO scale. That can be a disadvantage or an advantage, depending on how you look at it.

If you’re a master modeler, HO scale gives you more room to show off your scale-sized bird droppings and perfectly hail-damaged rain gutters and downspouts. In N scale, everything is so small that you can get by with cruder models, relatively speaking, and still have something that looks good. If you aspire to build your own stuff, you don’t have to achieve the same level of skill to build a spectacular looking building or scene in N scale as you do in HO, because you just don’t need as much fine detail.

If you’re taking up the hobby as an adult and you didn’t spend your youth building models, you may very well find N scale less frustrating.

Quality of running

There was a time when HO scale trains ran better than N scale trains, simply because the wheels were bigger. With more surface to conduct electricity, the track didn’t have to be quite as perfect in HO scale. There’s still a difference but it’s not as dramatic today, and the technology is changing. Today in either scale you can, if you want, just run off battery power and control the train via Bluetooth. The capability costs more, but it’s doable.

If you’re doing traditional power with a plug-in power pack, then HO scale still has an edge in the question of N scale vs HO scale. But you can overcome that if you want.

N scale vs HO scale – which should you buy?

If you want the best selection, nothing beats HO scale. It’s the most popular model railroading scale and has been since at least the late 1950s. That means plenty of selection in hobby shops today, and plenty of used inventory in the secondhand market.

If space is at a premium, N scale still offers a compelling selection. N scale’s space requirements are so modest that many model railroaders have a small N scale setup even if they prefer another size.

If you like trains and know you’ll stay in the hobby and have the space for it, it’s impossible to go wrong with HO scale. If you’re dabbling in trains, and especially if you’re fulfilling the requirements for a model railroading merit badge, N scale requires a smaller commitment up front in terms of space and money.

I can’t make the N scale vs HO scale decision for you, but hopefully I’ve given you enough information to decide for yourself which is right for you.

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