Parental Advisory: It’s gonna get a little N-Scale up in here for the next few weeks at least. You’ve been warned.

I regularly do dodgey electrical stuff. Possibly risky, but I’ve only once actually electrocuted myself on 240v AC current. However when I say my hacked up hot wire is unspeakably dodgey, I think it requires a picture (click for more detail):

Dodgey Hot Wire

Yes, that is a couple of bare ends of wire with some nichrome soldered across them. The socket on the end plugs straight into a 4 Amp 12V DC supply. But it worked, and it worked damn well. I did need my lovely wife on hand to manage the power input (i.e. unplugging the wire when I wanted to put it down). Read on to see what it did for me.

Tape Straight EdgeWhat I needed was a nice, long slope up to the back of my layout. I took a second sheet of polystyrene exactly the same size as my main layout sheet (1200x800x40mm), and cut a big chunk out of the middle. The middle will be the ‘ground level’. Then I tried something that I was a little unsure of: using tape as a straight edge (click the image to see what I mean). I did use heavy duty fibreglass tape, which I think helped where the hot wire may have cut into regular tape.

This worked really well, guiding the wire along the tape edge, and allowing for a fairly straight cut. I just held the insulated portions of the wire and kept tension on the hot nichrome wire. A slight wiggling saw motion, and it just plowed through the foam like a hot knife through butter. Literally.

Here’s what I ended up with. I’m pretty damn happy with it really:

Two layers

Test runIt’s a little rough, but once I’ve glued it together and start adding roadbed and details, I think it’ll end up fine. The gradient is a little more than I had planned, ending up somwhere between 4% and 5%. I ran some test runs with my most baulky loco (a big 6-axle Atlas C-630), and it seemed to have no trouble with the gradient. I think I will shave a little more off the top left corner, reducing the gradient a bit on the clockwise uphill. This part will eventually be inside a tunnel, and I don’t want to have trains stalling inside the tunnel all the time.

So there you have it. I’m waiting on additional trackage so I can finalise the actual track layout, after which I’ll be starting to lay some permanent road bed and get into the actual detailing. Progress!


  1. Awesome! I’m really keen to see how this progresses. I’m a HO/OO guy from way back but have sold/lost everything but two locos, a passenger rolling stock set and a freight set. No track. I did dabble with Lego trains but the scale is huge andn my wife wanted the lounge back. Am currently pondering whether to reinvest in a full blown HO/OO layout or switch to something more convenient and N could be it. Although I do think that HO/OO is more suitable for sharing with my 9 year old son.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Madness! Seriously Ben, build some kind of simple sprung armature for your ni-chrome, even a bit of U shaped MDF because you can get a lot more leverage that way which makes cutting easier. 3mm MDF also makes for excellent stencils for hot wire cutting as well.

    Also if you’re looking to cover and level that polystyrene a bit I recommend Selley’s Pollyfilla as it adheres very nicely to polystyrene and is easily textured/cleaned up with a wet brush. This is what I used to cover and texture my North African 15mm WWII gaming table with.

  3. I should also add you might like to try lightly sanding the polystyrene back to smooth out the gradient, do it outdoors with a fine grit paper and a facemask imho. This is where extruded high density polystyrene -really- shines because you can sand it freely, with closed cell expanded polystyrene incautious sanding will break off individual balls giving you a pitted surface. This is just is a minor annoyance that can be rectified with Pollyfilla mind you – it’s just bloody messy!

  4. Thanks for the tips man. I’m reasonably happy with the finish because a) natural ground isn’t flat and b) I’ll be laying roadbed where the track will run, which will provide a much more even surface.

    But yeah I think I will use some sanding and polyfilla where I required. Still waiting on trackage. Damn I wish there was a decent nscale supplier in New Zealand.

  5. Wonder if there’s any way to gauge N gauge demand in NZ (pun intended)? As I’ve mentioned I’ve often considered trying to set up as a reseller in NZ for some of the 15mm lines I war game with, but haven’t really got a spare couple of thou to sink into setting up a company/web-site/stock/advertising. Have you researched N scale suppliers widely in NZ? Surely somebody is doing it here?

  6. Most of the local hobby shops carry some N scale stuff, but it doesn’t seem consistent nor at all competitive with online pricing. Including GST, Freight and a decent markup I could probably still sell at half the price by importing myself.

    I’ve intentionally gone in to purchase items to support the local shops, but can never find what I need.

    I think that’s the main issue with reselling locally: you have to get tons of stock initially just to make sure you can support one or two decent orders at the same time, otherwise people will just go offshore themselves.

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