How To N Scale Insight Wheel quality keeps rolling

Wheel quality keeps rolling

By Jim Kelly | March 15, 2023

Describing the progression of wheel quality in N scale model railroading

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Wheel quality keeps rolling: Over the last five years or so, N scalers have shown increased interest in replacement wheelsets. Maybe it’s just because so many more choices have ­become available.
Wheel quality keeps rolling: An infographic showing different N scale wheelsets

Up until the ’90s, some cars came with less than satisfactory wheels. Often the trucks didn’t roll freely. Sometimes cars would shimmy down the track and derail for the heck of it. Usually this was the result of wheels that were not round, mounted off-center, or out of gauge.

Finding replacements – Wheel quality keeps rolling

Replacing the wheels seemed an attractive option, but replace them with what? Replacement wheelsets were hard to find in N scale, and when you did find them, they often didn’t do much good. See, the wheels were only half the problem. The truck frames were the other half.

The solution for most of us was to replace the trucks entirely with Kadee (now Micro-Trains) trucks. The cars then ran proud and true.

But the Micro-Trains trucks didn’t satisfy everyone. First off, the wheels had oversized flanges, earning them the derisive nickname of “pizza cutters.” Micro-Trains addressed this issue with a low-profile replacement wheel, but the company kept the larger flanges as standard equipment. Within the last year, though, they’ve made a new wheel with a mid-sized flange the standard.

Plastic vs. metal

Some modelers still have a problem with Micro-Trains wheels: they’re plastic, while real wheels are metal. But plastic has several advantages. Because the wheels and axle are a single casting, the wheels are always going to be in gauge.

Secondly, plastic is non-magnetic, and so won’t cause problems for modelers using permanent uncoupling ramps installed between the rails. Cars equipped with magnetic wheels and ­axles can be drawn forward and uncouple when you don’t want them to.

But there are advantages to metal wheels, too. My evidence is only anecdotal, but I believe that plastic wheels tend to accumulate more crud.

It’s good that metal wheels have shiny treads. But the rest should be brown, as prototype wheels rapidly oxidize to that color. (It’s against federal regulations to paint a wheel.) Micro-Trains wheels come cast in brown, but most metal wheelsets are shiny, and we need to paint those bright faces to look more realistic.

There’s also the weight issue. I have an extremely accurate chemists’ scale that I bought 35 years ago when I was going to make my fortune casting resin products for N scale. (Thank goodness I got a job at Model Railroader instead.) Anyhow, according to my scale, a set of four standard M-T wheelsets weighs .57 grams; a set of four metal ­Atlas wheelsets weights 2.49 grams. So metal wheels weigh about four times as much as the plastic ones. Is that enough to make any difference? I think it must, but it takes 29 grams to make an ounce, so this difference is not that huge.

Today, we’ve got lots of choices for replacement metal wheels, including Fox Valley Models, InterMountain, NorthWest Short Line, ExactRail, BLMA, and Atlas (I hope I haven’t missed anyone). I’ve tried about all of them and like all that I’ve tried, though I’ve become partial to ­Atlas, BLMA, and Fox Valley.

We can get 28″-diameter wheels for our auto racks (the prototype does that to make these tall cars a little less so), 33″ wheels for most cars, and 36″ wheels for our 100-ton hoppers. I think metal wheels track a little better, and eventu­ally I’d like all my cars to have them.

About the only concern is choosing wheelsets with the correct axle length. The package should tell you which ones fit which truck.

My advice: try some for yourself. They roll just as well as plastic, and I think you’ll like ’em.

2 thoughts on “Wheel quality keeps rolling

  1. I too like metal wheels. Did any one else notice that Micro-Train changed their axle width from .540″ to ~.533″ on the 33′ wheel sets. The Fox Valley worked great on my old Micron-Train box cars but not one my new Micro-Train Roller Trucks. Does any one make a .533″ long metal axial for a 33″ wheel?

  2. The most desirable aspect of metal wheels for me is from a you tube video I watched where a layout owner dabbed transmission fluid on the rails every two or three feet with a Qtip. He did this every three months or so and claims that`s all the rail and wheel cleaning he needed. All your rolling stock would need metal wheel sets as I think plastic wheels would be ruined by the oil. Also he didn`t specify which type of xmsn oil he used. Some of these oils have quite different properties for different makes and models. I haven`t tried this yet because I have predominantly plastic wheels.

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