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Modeling an N scale Great Northern layout in less than 13 square feet

By | March 26, 2020

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Picture of an N scale small town with a GP7 Great Northern unit in the foreground and an industrial building in the background. The original headline appears in the sky: Start Big, Finish Small.
Picture of an N scale small town with a GP7 Great Northern unit in the foreground and an industrial building in the background. The original headline appears in the sky: Start Big, Finish Small.
Powered by Great Northern GP7 No. 624, a westbound local rumbles past the business district of Ash- ton, a fictional community on Don Culp’s 21⁄2 x 5-foot N scale Havaphew Central. “Start big, finish small” in the sky of the layout was the title of the original article, published by Model Railroader in 2005.

Although I’m really an HO scale modeler at heart, I’ve always been intrigued with N scale trains and have more than once thought how neat it would be to “have a few.” Being without any other outlet for modeling, those very thoughts soon translated into construction of the Havaphew Central, my first N scale layout.

I modeled the Havaphew Central to represent Great Northern operations in the Pacific Northwest. The fact that Great Northern tracks once traversed the area I now live in made the railroad an appealing prototype to model. The time period for my layout is loosely set between the late 1950s to the early 1960s.

Framework construction
Measuring only 2-1/2 x 5 feet, the layout is compact. I built it 32 inches high with the thought that I could sit in a normal desk chair to operate trains. The open grid framework, assembled from 1 x 4 inch lumber, a 1/2 inch plywood top, and 2 x 2 inch legs, is finished with dark green gloss paint and wood stain. Although the entire railroad is not heavy, casters on the legs make it especially easy to move. The backdrop, made from 1/8 inch hardboard on a 1 x 2 inch wood frame, extends 10 inches above the top surface of the layout. To help re-create the rugged skyline typical of the Pacific Northwest, I first covered the backdrop surface with light blue (flat finish) latex paint and then used spray adhesive to apply background scenes from Detail Associates.

Track plan of Don Culp's layout.
A bird’s eye view track plan of Dan Culp’s Havaphew Central. The track plan shows major structures on this 2 1/2 by 5-foot layout. Rick Johnson and Elizabeth Kelly

Track and power
You might recognize the track plan as an Atlas original that I modified into an expanded double loop scheme. Following the design, I used Atlas Snap Track secured to cork roadbed with track nails. The turnouts are Atlas Custom Line manual switches operated by ground throws from Caboose Industries. Following installation, I sprayed the track with a combination of flat rust and black paints, applied Woodland Scenics ballast, and then cleaned the top of the rails. The plan also includes a Warren Truss bridge and a Plate Girder bridge, both from Atlas.

Power to the rails comes from an MRC Tech II Dual Power 2800 power pack. With the double loop design broken into 10 separate blocks, I can have two trains running at the same time. One train can run continuously on the outside loop while I switch with another locomotive on the inside loop.

Hydrocal, paper towels, and cardboard forms cover the layout surface. I painted the landscaping with diluted acrylic paints and added ground covering from Woodland Scenics. Although I made several Hydrocal rock castings using molds from Woodland Scenics, I also included a few real rocks that amount to N scale boulders. Hydrocal, stippled for a wave effect, provided the basis for water that I painted with acrylics and coated with Gloss Medium to give it a shiny surface.

A different view of the layout through evergreen trees and focusing on a Great Northern painted locomotive, likely a GP7.
Judging by the array of realistically weathered locomotives and rolling stock spotted in Welsh Yard, Don’s collection now includes more than just “a few” N scale items. For Don, collecting equipment is just as enjoyable as operating it. Dan Culp

Locomotives and rolling stock
What starts out as “a few” trains can easily turn into a few too many, especially on a small N scale layout. As it now stands, I have a roster of six locomotives from Atlas, Bachmann, and Life-Like. Rolling stock on the Havaphew Central is an assortment of 22 freight cars from Life-Like, Atlas, and Micro-Trains, plus 3 additional passenger cars from Bachmann. All of my cars are equipped with Micro-Trains couplers and weathered using paints and powdered pastel chalks.

Structures and vehicles
The structures are all commercial kits from Atlas, Corner Stone, Heljan, Model Power, Plastruct, and Stewart Products. As with my rolling stock, I weathered all the structures using powdered pastel chalks and then sealed them with Floquil Figure Flat.

The vehicles on the layout are made by Con-Cor, Road Apples, Detail Associates, Mini Metals, and Champion. Although the Champion vehicles are actually a collection of toy cars that are slightly larger than true N scale proportion (1:160) they are fairly nice representations that look fine when placed in the strategic locations.

Figures and details
The layout population includes an assortment of figures and animals from Preiser, Model Power, and Rustic Rails. I repainted some of the figures and even did a little plastic surgery on a few of them to change their positions. To add more even visual interest to the layout, I placed an array of plastic and cast metal details including signs, telephone poles, garbage cans, and miscellaneous parts from my scrap box.

A big finish
Building the Havaphew Central was both enjoyable and educational. With multiple options in the track plan to provide some interesting operation, it’s also been very entertaining. But most importantly, in a matter of a few square feet, I’ve been able to practice various modeling techniques that I’ll surely use on my next layout, whatever size or scale that might be!

At the time of publication in 2005, Don Culp was a deputy sheriff and lived in East Wenatchee, Wash., with his wife, Jan. They have two grown children, one daughter and one son. A version of this article was first published in March 2005.

A lengthwise view of Dan Culp's layout with a look down a ladder track into the yard.
With a day’s work in tow, GN RS-1 no. 183 prepares to switch off the main line. The crew looks forward to ending their trick in Welsh Yard and heading to the bustling business district of downtown Ashton. Dan Culp

2 thoughts on “Modeling an N scale Great Northern layout in less than 13 square feet

  1. Loved this! I used this basic track plan for my N scale layout (as yet unnamed). Mine is set somewhere in either upstate NY or eastern PA. My first layout in about 65 years! Working on a mountain with tunnel now, and ballasting.

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