HO scale is the most popular model railroad scale in the world. There are an endless number of suppliers of HO in both kit form and ready-to-use equipment. The scale, 1:87, is slightly larger than 1/8 in/ft. A scale foot in HO is 3.5mm or approximately 0.14 inches. The scale was originally developed in Britain as Half O, and quickly became known as HO. In the 1950’s, as American modelers were beginning a serious transition from toy trains to scale modeling, the space saving size advantage offered by HO scale became very popular. Although there were only a few steam locomotives available at the time, freight and passenger car kits were offered at a very reasonable price,-usually under a dollar-(less trucks and couplers). Plastic diesel locomotives, F-2’s and F-3’s, were the most common type of motive power available, and required one to purchase a plastic body and motor with powered wheels as separate units. The most common track was sectional and sometimes came with fiber ties which would warp and shrink when dampened-this created real problems when trying to glue the track to any roadbed material. In the late 40’s and early 50’s, Mantua Metal Products produced a number of cast metal steam locomotive kits- 2 of the most popular were the 0-4-0 “Shifter” and 2-8-2 “Mikado”-which were welcomed with enthusiasm by the new breed of scale modelers. The basic kits were plain, lacking detail, but lent themselves well to super-detailing by those who, until this time, were unable to model steam engines to any extent. It was sometime during this period that HO surpassed O gauge as the premier model railroad scale.
HO scale popularity exploded in the 1960’s and 70’s, when precision brass locomotives and cars became available from the Orient. A flood of exquisitely detailed steam engine models representing almost every major American railroad began to show up on hobby shop shelves. Even the most critical prototype modeler could find no fault with these miniature scale models. At the same time, many craftsman type freight car and structure kits were introduced. HO gauge track was improved significantly by the replacement of brass with nickel silver rail. Flexible track was manufactured in 3’ lengths and the old fiber tie strips were replaced with plastic ties which, when painted and weathered, appeared very realistic. New controllers featuring transistor throttles and precision can motors with flywheels gave more incremental control over the speed of trains.
Track for HO gauge is measured in thousandths of an inch of height. Most of the early track was made with brass rails and had a height of .100” and was specified as code 100. Modern flexible track has nickel silver rail which is more resistant to oxidation and corrosion as well as being a better electrical conductor and can be purchased in rail heights of code 100(.100”), 83(.083”), 70(.070”), and 55(.055”). The secret to good operation is to ensure proper electrical contact between loco wheels and track surface which means cleaning the rails often with a recommended cleaner. It should be noted that many European models may have oversized flanges which will only run on code 100 track.
Most HO scale trains run on 2 rail track and are controlled by varying the D.C. voltage to the miniature locomotive motor with a controller or power pack. The normal wiring configuration is to attach the positive lead to the right hand track when the loco is moving forward. Modern locomotives may come equipped with DCC (Digital Command Control), sound, or both. Almost all current production of locos contains a connector for installing a DCC decoder. DCC of course simplifies wiring and provides the ultimate ability to control all aspects of loco operation.
HO scale motive power and rolling stock is available to represent any era that a layout builder might choose to model. From the first American locomotive, the Tom Thumb, to the modern Acela Express,-models in the form of kits or ready-to-run can be obtained. Not only model train equipment, but scores of other 1:87 scale replicas such as structures, automobiles, figures, and scenery products are in abundance. Benchwork design and components can be purchased in modular sections to fit almost any track plan. As a matter of fact, complete model railroads can be supplied by some companies. Prototype modelers and Scratchbuilders have an enormous supply of parts and precision castings to copy in miniature almost any locomotive or type of rolling stock. Buildings and other structures can be kit-bashed or built from the ground up with modular wall sections. Rubber rock molds, ground foam, poly fiber, foam boards, and tree kits, just to mention a few, can be used to create realistic and striking scenery.
I chose HO scale in mid-1950 because of its size and price. Today, I would likely choose it for entirely different reasons. In those years it was necessary to be an experienced craftsman to model in any scale –skills that I did not possess! It took many years to develop the ability-not to mention the accumulation of tools-to arrive at a point where I felt comfortable and willing to tackle any difficult building project. Once I arrived at that point, I discovered that the advancements in scale modeling had diminished the need to have that proficiency to a large degree. But, it was not a waste of time. I enjoy scratchbuilding and still fabricate my turnouts as well as designing and building structures to suit my own tastes. For those who have an image of what they want their creations to look like-the modeling skills learned will give them the ability and confidence to modify them until they achieve their desire.