Getting Started in S - A Guide to Scale Modeling in 1:64

By Edward Loizeaux

By now you know that S is 36 percent larger than HO, is 3/16″ to the foot, and is 1:64 in proportion to the real thing. In round numbers, S is about halfway between HO and O scales. We consider S scale to be the optimum size - with the advantages of both HO and O, but without their disadvantages.

Our friends in O scale have beautiful rolling stock filled with visible detail. However, home-based O scale layouts usually have simplistic track geometry consisting of a large circle with short sidings. It's difficult to construct a full-featured O scale layout in the typical spare room or garage. Authentically-sized large structures overwhelm the available space. Thus, most home-based O scale layouts have only smaller structures and use building “flats” along the walls to simulate largeness. Figure 1 shows the space requirements in both O and S for a modest 7-stall roundhouse, turntable and lead-in track suitable for a 4-8-4. Note that 81 percent more actual square feet are required for an O scale facility compared to S. How large is your garage?

(Figure 1) — Ed Kozlowsky

The O scale track gauge of five scale feet is a bit wide due to a computational error made a long time ago when converting from metric 7-millimeter scale to American (English) inches. It's far too late to change it now, but it kind of bugs some folks. And it's difficult to obtain a wide variety of economical and accurate O scale vehicles because most of the imported die cast vehicles are made to 1:43 (for 7 mm scale) instead of 1:48. Being 11 percent oversize is noticeable to some. Close, but not perfect.

Please do not conclude I am anti-O. That's not the case. Some of my best friends are into O scale big time. And I've served on O scale convention committees. Each scale has a set of advantages and disadvantages. The important thing is to learn the pros and cons of various scales when making a decision. You'll find that S scale, my personal favorite, has disadvantages as well. That's right, S is not perfect. Being factually correct and objective is the goal here. Your emotions can take over later while looking at the pretty pictures.

The other side of the scale coin is the HO world, which has the greatest variety of products. We already know that, but did you know S scale has all the essential materials needed to build a fine layout? It's the catalog and the advertising that are missing, not the products. More about that later.

(Figure 2) — Brooks Stover

If HO has a problem, it is being small. How many HO steamers have a huge speaker in the tender and another smaller speaker in the smokestack or boiler? Dirt and track irregularities affect operation more in the smaller scales than in the larger scales. When was your last derailment? Spending much time cleaning track recently? As we age, seeing those scale-sized rivets becomes harder and harder and harder… Details just seem to disappear after a while. If you expect to be over 60 when your layout is completed, the size comparison (Fig. 2) might be worth some serious thought.

Consider these questions: Do you really need all the stuff shown in the Walthers catalog? Are 200 freight cars overdoing it a bit? Is enjoyment proportional to quantity? Can less perhaps be more? There are alternatives - and S scale is one of them. But S is a different planet than HO. Let's look at the S world and see what it offers. No scale is perfect, but you'll be surprised at what S offers.

Advantages of S

You've just been passively introduced to S scale's advantages, which are the exact opposite of the O and HO disadvantages. Fine detail can be appreciated without eyestrain. Easily readable car numbers ease frustration during op sessions. Derailments and dirt problems are infrequent. Sound decoders are magnificent instead of merely good. A full-featured home-based S layout complete with locomotive servicing facilities and decent-sized yards fits into most homes. Several modelers have replaced standard-gauge HO layouts with Sn3 layouts because the rolling stock is essentially the same physical size and HO track radii work fine with S narrow gauge. Just replace the track and structures with larger equivalents and you're on your way. Have you measured the layout space in your home with S in mind?

Mental Adjustments

The first thing to realize is that S is a minority scale. It has a unique set of characteristics that differ from HO. Understanding and accepting them enables an enjoyable S experience. Expecting everything to be just like the major scales leads to frustration. You cannot change the S world singlehandedly. Adapting to it is best; just be flexible and open-minded.

S scale does not have many products conveniently in stock at your local hobby shop. The economics of a niche product line like S scale simply do not permit the multi-level distribution channels that most folks in HO and N have come to expect. A small number of brick-and-mortar hobby shops do stock S scale, but the S modeler normally uses other retail outlets.

Mental Adjustment #1: Plan on using mail order, eBay, swap meets, web-based retailers, conventions, online forums, Groups.io, word-of-mouth, and similar means to locate and purchase products.

Like all minority scales, S doesn't have the vast array of products found in the majority scales of HO and N. While Sn3 compares equally to HOn3, the situation for S standard gauge is different. Although fewer S products exist, every single essential item needed to construct a fine and complete layout is commercially available (Fig. 3). The larger size of S scale (36 percent larger than HO) means fewer cars and engines are needed to fill a given layout space.

Mental Adjustment #2: Adjust your goals to be consistent with available S products.

(Figure 3)

If you accept these mental adjustments, you're well on your way to a satisfying S experience. There are many resources available to make your S journey easy. And that's what this article is all about - making things easy and enjoyable as you explore the world of S scale.

(Figure 4) — Brooks Stover

(Figure 5) — Brooks Stover

(Figure 6) — Brooks Stover


Investigating S locomotives is a good place to begin. Modeling the PRR without a GG-1 is not very realistic. Yes, S scale has a GG-1. The NYC simply must have a Hudson. Yes, S scale has a NYC Hudson. Modern diesels, classic steamers, and transition-era diesels in both plastic and brass have been produced in S. Not seeing an advertisement in a major magazine does not mean they don't exist. Figures 4 through 6 illustrate just a few of the many S scale locomotives that have been or are still being manufactured. As I mentioned earlier, S products are available; it's the catalog that is missing!

As you create your S layout vision, begin to research which locomotives are available to fulfill that dream. You'll probably find a satisfactory number of engines for many major class I railroads - the NYC, PRR, SP and UP in particular. Finding many locomotives suitable for lesser roads and short lines can be done, but perhaps not a complete roster. If you like freelancing, you will be happy. If you find the engines you seek, all is well. If not, then comes the process of either adjusting your goals or retreating from S scale's challenges.

Researching S engines is neither hard nor time-consuming, thanks to good online resources. The S SIG has a series of articles called “MODELING FROM THE PROTOTYPE,” which provides all needed information to model selected railroads in S scale, complete with photos, commentary, product listings, etc. If your favorite railroad is included in these articles, it's the perfect place to begin.

The next best place for comprehensive locomotive information is the S SIG's “PRODUCTS & RESOURCES” section, which will lead you to a listing of engine manufacturers and importers. The National Association of S Gaugers (NASG) web site has photos of many locomotive models - both past and present. The NASG website includes American Flyer tinplate trains, but don't let that deter you from searching for S scale engines and products.

As with all scales these days, many S products are made in limited production runs and might be sold out at the manufacturer or importer. Being “sold out,” while common in S, is not particularly a cause for despair. It simply means you need to start searching and being patient. First, check with retail dealers who may still have some in stock.

Most every out-of-production S item will eventually show up on eBay. Also, there are a number of online groups such as the S SIG's Forum and various Groups.io where you can inquire about a particular older model. S mail-order dealers and fellow S modelers frequent the online venues. Often they can help you out from their personal stashes or back-room shelves. Then there are conventions, swap meets, and hobby shops to explore.

It's truly amazing how many products that have been out of production for some time will surface at these kinds of events. Don't get discouraged if it takes a while to ferret out a particular older product. Sooner or later it'll come your way - generally long before your S layout is ready for it. Hundreds of S scale enthusiasts have found what they wanted in this manner. You can too!

Engine Angst?

If you are unhappy with the past and present commercial offerings of S locomotives, then I'd say: “Welcome to the world of S!” You have lots of company here. We all want more. Even the HO guys want more. So what else is new? It's time to think outside the box and become more creative. If you like what you see except for one favorite engine, why not consider having it made by a custom builder? Not cheap, but very possible. Want cheap? How about a loco-bashing project to make something that's “close” become “perfect?” That's what the Canadian S modelers do. Changing a USRA Pacific into a road-specific Pacific (e.g., Fig. 7) is possible. Same for Mikes. Or detailing a similar, but not quite right, diesel. Check out a nice S diesel-detailing article in THE S SCALE JOURNAL on the SIG's website. The end result, before painting, is shown in Figure 8.

(Figure 7) — Brooks Stover

(Figure 8)

How about considering a vision-modification session with your buddies to discuss possible scenarios in which the unavailable loco will not be missed. Like the PRR west of Harrisburg where catenary never existed? Or the UP in Oregon where Big Boys and Turbines never traveled. Being creative can sometimes solve those vexing problems. PRR steam, diesel and electric locomotives as well as UP Big Boys, Challengers and turbines have been produced in S scale. So that much, at least, is not worth worrying about.

Mental Adjustment #3: Once your engine cravings are almost met, stop worrying.

Once you're satisfied that S scale has the engines you need, or can be kitbashed from something similar, it's time to move along. Just knowing a loco is available or was made at some time in the past is adequate for now. Finding it and buying it will come later and might require patience. All S scale guys have lots of patience, as you will see. Patience is needed while waiting for the next import to arrive from Boo Rim in Korea. Brass S projects are usually late - just as in HO. More patience is needed while waiting for the next plastic/resin loco to be released from domestic shops. Our small cottage-industry manufacturers try hard, but are not always on schedule - just as in HO.

S locomotives are currently being produced, and learning what's in the future pipeline isn't difficult. Friendly loco makers will tell you what they're working on. They have no fear of competition because there isn't any. Care is taken to avoid duplication of projects. Doing that makes good sense in a small niche market such as S scale. It's not uncommon for S scale guys to simply vote for the next loco. The winning loco is then put into the project queue.

Turnouts & Track

The variety of S track switches does not equal that in HO or N. However, there is more than enough for your needs. S and Sn3 both have:

A thorough and detailed article about S scale turnouts can be found in “THE S SCALE JOURNAL.” Dick Karnes and Dave Heine pulled out all the stops in writing a comprehensive

. It is well worth reading and can be found on the SIG's website. I suggest that S newcomers order one sample of each different brand of turnout for personal inspection and evaluation. It's best to know exactly what they're like before you standardize.

Next, review the

to find links to their web sites. You'll find that double slip, 3-way, and No. 10 turnouts are stock items - not to mention curved turnouts, weathered rail, and DCC-friendly construction. S also has turnout detail kits that include a bridle assembly for the points, rail braces that support the rail next to the points, frog bolt strips, guard rail clamps, and joint bars. S has crossings ranging from 14 to 90 degrees, cast urethane tie plates, transition rail joiners, and bumping posts. S has track gages and a complete line of Homasote roadbed pads for all track products in two different thicknesses with two different beveled-edge angles. Does the name Cascade Rail Supply (formerly HomaBed) sound familiar?

The products are available. It's the catalog that's missing. Where is S's equivalent to the Walthers catalog? A monster S scale catalog with everything in it doesn't yet exist. In the meantime, use the Internet and Google. Remember: Just because you haven't heard about it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

In addition to turnouts, S scale has standard-gauge flex track made by Micro Engineering and distributed by Tomalco Track with code 100, 83 and 70 rails. It comes plain or weathered, and Tomalco offers a free short sample upon request. P-B-L offers three-foot narrow-gauge flex track with code 70 and 55 rails also made by Micro Engineering. (Note: You will not find this track on the Micro Engineering web site.)

Passenger Cars

The variety of passenger cars does not equal that in HO or N. However, there is more than enough for your needs. S and Sn3 both have:

Brass passenger cars of the NYC, PRR, UP and SP have been imported in S scale. Plastic full scale length (80'+) smooth-side Pullman cars have been produced. Plastic heavyweights and fluted Budd cars are currently available. Older style wooden passenger cars with truss rods have been made in both wood craftsman kits and easier-to-build resin kits. Sn3 has brass passenger cars available at this writing. Samhongsa has produced brass S scale RDCs in three different variations. Styrene overlay car sides are available made with either laser-cut or CNC-milled processes. Using overlay sides on core bodies, construction of most any kind of passenger car is possible. Sorry, no doodlebugs yet. But a doodlebug survey is circulating, so there is hope. Some folks have kit-bashed generic doodlebugs from heavyweight combines and many added details.

S scale's 72-foot heavyweights are prototypically correct (their prototypes are CNJ “Blue Comet” combine, coach, and observation; and NYC baggage and RPO cars). Undecorated full-length (80 feet) heavyweight Pullman sleepers are also available, as are “shorty” streamlined cars based on the NYC “Empire State Express” Budd consist of 1941. These exquisite injection-molded body castings are highly detailed with hand-applied separate metal detail parts and come fully painted and lettered from factories in China - just like HO. The wheels and couplers are different for the S scale and AF versions, but the injection-molded body castings are the same.

Current production plastic passenger cars are about 72 feet long because of the American Flyer (AF) tinplate collector/operator component of the S market. The AF influence on S is very strong because AF hobbyists far outnumber the scale folks, just as Lionel 3-rail O gauge enthusiasts outnumber the 2-rail O scale guys. The reason the AF folks require shorty cars is that AF tinplate turnouts have sharp curves with high switch motor housings with red/green lights on top. When a too-long car travels down the curved route, the inside overhang can hit the motor housing. This is not good! S scale inherited this situation and we can blame it all on A. C. Gilbert for causing this problem back in the 1940s.

Mental Adjustment #4: Get used to advertisements in which scale bodies wear tinplate wheels and couplers. Equivalent cars with scale wheels, on which Kadee couplers can be mounted without any body modifications, are also available.

I told you S scale was not perfect. Now you are a believer. Long cars can still be made - both passenger and freight - but they usually will not be injection molded. They will be made of wood, pewter, resin, brass or some other material that does not require a CNC-machined metal injection mold. For more detailed information regarding passenger cars, go to the

Freight Cars

Freight cars, being short for the most part, do not exist in “shorty” versions. Everything is properly sized without compromises in length. Over the years, numerous brass freight cars have been imported by firms like Overland Models, Sunset, and others. A wide variety of injection-molded plastic freight cars has been produced in both domestic kit form and ready-to-run from China, just as in HO. These Chinese-built injection-molded bodies can be equipped with either scale trucks and Kadee (or equivalent) couplers or with AF-compatible wheels and couplers (see Fig. 9).

Resin kits are currently being produced, and numerous wood craftsman kits have been made in the past. In general, most folks investigating S scale do not find any serious lack in the freight-car department. Figures 10 and 11 show typical examples.

Remember: The S catalog is lacking, not the products!

(Figure 9) — Brooks Stover

(Figure 10) — Brooks Stover

(Figure 11) — Brooks Stover

Keeping Things in Perspective

Every scale has its pros and cons. No scale is perfect in all respects. The challenge is to figure out which set of pros and cons is optimal for your personal circumstances. The major cons of S scale have been examined above. If you accept them, you'll find everything else about S to be quite satisfactory. The biggest pro: S is the optimum size! S scale is definitely an alternative to be seriously considered. An objective comparison is best, and daring to be different can be interesting and rewarding. Being unique in your neighborhood can be enjoyable - especially when others follow you a year or two later.

Structures and Familiar Names

S scale has a large variety of laser-cut wooden and cast resin structure kits. See the S Sig listing of

. Figure 12 shows just a small sampling of the kinds of structure kits that are commercially available.

Other familiar brands available in S scale include Kadee couplers, NorthWest Short Line wheels and gearboxes, Boo Rim brass steam and diesel engines (sold via River Raisin Models), Mike's Train House (MTH), Fast Tracks turnout fixtures, Micro Engineering track products (sold via Tomalco and PBL), Microscale decals (sold via Des Plaines Hobbies), HomaBed (recently re-branded as Cascade Rail Supply), and many detail parts made from brass, plastic, and white metal. What else was it you wanted?

S names new to you will include River Raisin Models, American Models, S-Helper Service, Des Plaines Hobbies, Smokey Mountain Model Works, BTS, P-B-L, and others. Now is a good time to learn what these firms offer. Visit these manufacturers at

. The products are here. The big printed S scale catalog is what's missing.

(Figure 12) — Brooks Stover

In Closing

In S scale, you'll find friendship, first-name relationships with suppliers, conventions, clubs, magazines, national organizations, S-friendly hobby shops, several Groups.io groups, and this NMRA-affiliated S SIG with its conversational Forum. All these enjoyable activities supplement the products - just as in O, HO, or N. Check out the SIG's


We invite you to use this NMRA-affiliated S SIG to seriously investigate S scale. Our web site at www.sscale.org is comprehensive and complete. You can ask detailed, specific questions of our S Specialists on selected topics. You can request a personal S Mentor be assigned to you for explaining all the idiosyncrasies of an S scale journey. You can converse on the S SIG Forum with other S scale folks from all over the world. Everyone will be helpful - almost beyond belief. Give it a try!!

Resources Available on the S Scale Site

Directory of S Scale Manufacturers and Products:


Buildings, Vehicles & Accessories:




Locomotives & Rolling Stock:


Track, Turnouts & Trackwork Accessories:


Trucks, Couplers, Gages, Wheels and Detail Parts:


Recent Marketplace Changes

Mike's Train House (MTH), the current owner of the former S-Helper Service (SHS) S scale line of highly-detailed ready-to-run cars and locomotives, has continued most of the former SHS line. The cars' wheelsets have large tinplate flanges, and the couplers are compatible with large American Flyer couplers. But all the cars are easily converted to scale NMRA-standard-compatible configurations. They all have molded-in mounting pads that accept Kadee S scale couplers, and all the wheelsets can be replaced with MTH or North West Short Line NMRA-compatible wheelsets. So, within 20 minutes or so, you can have a completely scale car that's interchangeable with all your other equipment.

Mike Wolf of MTH announced his retirement in 2020, with the company closing in mid-2021. However, the good news is that ScaleTrains.com has taken over the S-scale product line from MTH. So, the SHS/MTH product line should re-appear, in a few years, with the new company.

The situation is similar for MTH diesel locomotives. Replacement geared scale wheelsets are available from MTH as well as North West Short Line. Conversion from MTH's proprietary control system to DC is easily accomplished by unplugging the AC circuit board and connecting the power pick-up leads to the motor leads. Conversion to DCC is accomplished by inserting a DCC decoder into the circuitry, exactly the same way one would convert an HO or O scale loco to DCC.

Lionel S products present a somewhat different opportunity. Lionel's S line includes many carry-overs from the A. C. Gilbert American Flyer era, and in fact, Lionel still uses the American Flyer brand name for its S offerings. In particular, many Lionel S steam locomotives are candidates for conversion to scale, but that's a much more involved process. On the other hand, the diesels simply require changing out the tinplate wheel-axle-gear sets for scale wheels, which Lionel actually sells. These diesels also come with molded-in mounting pads or easily attachable mounting brackets for Kadee S couplers. Figure 13 shows one of these new Lionel American Flyer diesels.

All Lionel locomotives will operate on AC or DC current. They come with Lionel's proprietary electronic control system that includes pretty much all the features of DCC with sound and lighting effects. Some Lionel engines respond to NMRA DCC control as well, but that may or may not still be true. Best to check with Lionel regarding any particular locomotive you are interested in.

(Figure 13)