Beginners Guide to N scale metal wheelsets

Guide to N scale metal wheelsets

By Cody Grivno | January 28, 2024

A look at what’s on the market today

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Last month, I wrote about metal wheelsets offered in HO scale. In this guide to N scale metal wheelsets, I’ll cover the options available for those who model in 1:160 proportion.

The case for metal wheelsets

Color photo showing plastic wheelsets in N scale freight car trucks.
The flanges on Micro-Trains’ original N scale plastic wheelsets (left) were oversized, earning them the nickname “pizza cutters.” Later Micro-Trains cars had shallow-flange plastic wheelsets (right) that look better and roll well on code 55 rail. Cody Grivno photos unless noted

N scale wheelsets have come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s. For many years, Micro-Trains N scale cars featured one-piece plastic wheelsets with oversized flanges, dubbed “pizza cutters” by modelers. While the wheelsets worked well on code 80 track (track with rails .080″ tall), they proved problematic on code 55 (.055″-tall) rail, which has gained in popularity for its closer-to-scale appearance. The oversized flanges bump the molded spike heads on the track.

Micro-Trains later switched to plastic wheelsets with shallow flanges, which performed well on code 55 track. You can see the differences in flanges in the photo above. Some of the latest freight cars offered by Micro-Trains are fitted with metal wheelsets.

As I noted in last month’s story, plastic wheelsets do have some advantages. Since the wheels and axle are cast as a single unit, they’ll stay in gauge. Also, because plastic isn’t magnetic, they wheelsets won’t be attracted to nearby uncoupling magnets, which may cause freight cars to uncouple.

The drawback of plastic is that it’s non-conductive, causing the wheelsets to develop a static charge. Over time this causes dirt and dust to accumulate on the wheel treads.

The advantages of N scale metal wheelsets are the same as in HO scale. The metal wheels rolling on metal rails creates friction, which helps polish both surfaces. In addition, the metal wheelsets add extra weight to freight cars and helps lower the center of gravity.

Wheel size and axle length

Wheel quality keeps rolling: An infographic showing different N scale wheelsets
This image from Jim Kelly’s article “Wheel quality keeps rolling” shows the evolution of N scale wheelsets. Model Railroader photo

Though metal wheelsets have been around since the early days of N scale, the initial offerings were pretty crude by today’s standards. The flanges were oversized, and the face and back of the wheels didn’t look much like what was found on prototype rolling stock. The examples above are from Jim Kelly’s story “Wheel quality keeps rolling” on

Color photo showing eight N scale wheelsets
Examples of current N scale wheelsets include (from left) Athearn, Atlas Model Railroad Co., Eastern Seaboard Models Corp., Fox Valley Models, InterMountain Railway Co., Micro-Trains Line Co., Tangent Scale Models, and Rapido Trains.

Today’s N scale metal wheelsets look more like their prototype counterparts. Many of the current offerings are chemically darkened. Some even have shiny treads. Those that aren’t darkened can easily be painted, a topic covered many times over the years in Model Railroader magazine.

Color photo showing two N scale freight cars.
The Atlas Model Railroad Co. Milwaukee Road General American 50-foot insulated boxcar is equipped with 33” metal wheelsets, while the Rapido Trains Union Pacific Johnstown America AutoFlood III coal hopper rides on 36” metal wheelsets.

There are plenty of N scale metal wheelsets on the market. However, this isn’t a one-size-fits all world. The first thing you’ll want to check for is wheel size. Here are the general rules for freight car wheel sizes:

  • 28”-diameter wheels — modern auto racks
  • 33”-diameter wheels — 70-ton capacity or less (and most cabooses)
  • 36”-diameter wheels — 100- and 110-ton capacity cars
  • 38”-diameter wheels — Intermediate wheelsets on articulated 125-ton capacity well cars (end trucks have 33”-diameter wheels)
Color photo showing wheelsets packaging.
The axle length is specified on the packaging for wheelsets offered by Tangent Scale Models, Micro-Trains Line Co., Eastern Seaboard Model Corp., and Fox Valley Models (ScaleTrains). The Fox Valley Models packaging also lists the manufacturers its wheelsets are compatible with.

Wheel size is only one part of the equation when purchasing N scale metal wheelsets. The other is axle length. Most manufacturers specify the axle length on the packaging or list the brands of trucks the wheelsets are designed for (Fox Valley Models does both). If the axle length isn’t specified, use calipers to measure the distance between the axle tips.

Where to find N scale metal wheelsets

Color photo of N scale wheelsets in packaging
Here are samples from eight different manufacturers that produce N scale metal wheelsets. In addition to eight- and 12-packs, some companies offer bulk packs with 100 wheelsets.

The following is a list of companies that produce N scale metal wheelsets. If we’ve omitted any manufacturers, please let us know in the comments field below.

Athearn Trains

Atlas Model Railroad Co.


Eastern Seaboard Models Corp.

Fox Valley Models (now ScaleTrains)

InterMountain Railway Co.

Micro-Trains Line Co.

NorthWest Short Line

Rapido Trains

Tangent Scale Models

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