Three turnouts offer engaging ops.

An HOn3 micro train layout with three turnouts.

The layout at a glance

Name: Three
Scale: HOn3 (1:87 3 foot narrow gauge)
Size: 5' x 1'
Prototype: Denver & Rio Grande Western RR
Era: 1950s
Locale: Colorado
Style: Micro / switching
Benchwork: Foam board
Roadbed: N scale cork
Track: Micro Engineering code 70
Turnout minimum: no. 6
Min. curve radius: 24"
Max. grade: None
Scenery: Static grass
Backdrop: 1/8" Masonite
Control: Digitrax Zephyr


The layout models a small town at the end of a small fictitious branch line on the Denver and Rio Grande Western narrow guage line in Colorado.

Ok, so I cheated! This layout is 5 square feet instead of the 4 square feet maximum for micro layouts. I wanted to use Micro Engineering turnouts and the smallest turnout they offer in HOn3 is a #6, this design will fit into 4 square feet in HO standard gauge using #4 turnouts.

Most modelers pick Colorado narrow gauge for the breathtaking scenery and who can blame them? My reasons for choosing narrow gauge are a little more pragmatic. A given length of tangent track holds a lot more 30' narrow guage cars than it does 40' or 50' standard gauge cars.

The design uses a single spur / siding hosting a number of industries and a run around track. Despite the simplicity and elegance of the design, it allows for exceptional freight and passenger operations.

Track plan
This overall shot shows the layout on top of a bookcase. The fuel dealer structures are removable to allow for photography.


I employed my usual methods of construction using foam insulation board as the base of the layout.

Number 462 eases into an empty station with a passenger train on a crisp Fall morning. Its a good thing she has her snow plow attached, soon she will be high up in the snow covered mountains. Background photo added in Photoshop.


The layout is intended as a shelf layout or to sit on top of a set of bookcases and therefore has no legs. Thus construction was fairly straightforward. I made a small frame from some dimensional lumber and topped this with XPS insulation foam board.

Background added in Photoshop.

I used the same technique to make a small 3' staging section that attaches to the right side of the layout bringing the total length of the layout up to 8' (2400mm). There are few modelers who can honestly say they dont have room for a 1' x 8' shelf against a wall in a spare bedroom.

Track and Wiring

The track is all Micro Engineering code 70 HOn3 flex track and turnouts. Micro Engineering turnouts have a spring in them so no ground throws or switch machines are necessary and the turnouts on this layout are thrown by hand.

I soldered feeder wires to the underside of the rails on every section of track, this is a little time consuming but ensures good electrical continuity.

I painted the track and ties using Rustoleum Camoflage Brown. This is an excellent product that is easy to use and very effective, it has become my "go to product" for painting track.

Engine number 345, sporting a new coat of paint, arrives with a passenger train. This paint scheme is known as the Bumble Bee scheme and the gold color is called Aspen Gold.


I ballasted the track with Noch and Heki products. I couldn't decide on a color to use so opted for a general "salt and pepper" gray blend that I think works well.

Some Noch N scale buff colored ballast serves as gravel and works really well for HO scale. The grass is all Woodland Scenics static grass, I blend a mixture of light green and medium green, 2mm and 4mm and apply it with the Static King applicator.

Engine number 456, a K-27 2-8-2 Mikado, bakes in the hot Colorado sun. Background added in Photoshop.

Woodland Scenics clump foliage is used for the various bushes and the pine trees are from Busch (available at

Engine number 462, a K-27 2-8-2 Mikado, glides into town past the water tank with a single stock car and a caboose in tow.


All the structures on the layout are Walthers styrene kits that were painted with Tamiya paints prior to assembly. The depot (station) and freight house are the Walthers Golden Valley Depot and Golden Valley Freight House with the matching wood water tank.

The fuel dealer consists of a Walthers McGraw Oil dealer kit and some Walthers old time coal conveyors. All the structures have an "old time" feel which fits in with a steam era layout.

Number 462 takes on a drink of water as the crew chat. Steam locomotives are notorious for being thirsty beasts! Wood water tank is a Walthers kit.


HO Scale really offers excellent detail compared to the smaller scales like N and Z. This layout has some great detailing opportunities particularly around the station and freight house.

Crates and drums are great details to add at the freight house while baggage and station items are great to add at the depot. Figures really help a layout to come alive. All figures and details are by Woodland Scenics.

Figures and other details at the depot.
The freight house is a great area for detailing.

Backdrop and Fascia

Both the backdrop and fascia are 1/8" (3mm) masonite hardboard. I painted the backdrop a pale sky blue and the fascia a pale olive green. In this case I think a photo backdrop would actually work really well, perhaps I need to take a trip to the San Juan mountains with my camera...

The backdrop and fascia are attached to the layout with small screws.

Passenger train sporting the Bumble Bee paint scheme.

Rolling Stock

All the locomotives and rolling stock are by Blackstone Models. The level of detail is exceptional and these models really are a thing of beauty.

The locomotives fall into two classes, the C-19 Consolidations (2-8-0) and the K-27 Mikados (2-8-2). The Mikados are affectionately nicknamed "Mudhens". The locomotives have factory fitted Sountraxx Tsunami DCC sound decoders, they run and sound really good.

I have two sets of passenger cars, the standard DRGW green ones and a set of Aspen Gold coaches in the Bumble Bee paint scheme. These are not weathered.

The freight cars are all 30' in length and all are weathered except the Aspen Gold box car and the reefer cars. The cars all have metal wheels and Kadee 714 knuckle couplers.


The layout offers both freight and passenger operations. An ops session starts by staging 2 or 3 freight cars at the industries on the spur track, 1 or 2 of these will be outbound and some will need to remain in place, then I'll stage a passenger train and freight train in the staging area.

Passenger train operation might at first seem like a simple matter, but if we consider that baggage and mail is carried in a boxcar and the boxcar must come between the locomotive and the passenger cars such that tail markers can be attached to the last passenger car in the train, then this complicates matters.

Number 345 has uncoupled from its train and is tucked behind the freight house waiting for the switch to be thrown then she'll run around her passenger train. Background added in Photoshop.

When a passenger train arrives at the station from staging, the locomotive will need to uncouple from the train and then use the run around track to get to the other end. The box car will then need to be pushed forward to the track behind the freight house and the passenger cars pulled back to clear the turnout. The locomotive will then run around the passenger cars and pick up the box car so that it is now between the locmotive and passenger cars for the return trip back to staging.

Number 345 shoves a boxcar into spot at the freight house. This layout offers exceptional operation despite its simple track plan and limited size.

When a freight train arrives at the station from staging, the locomotive will uncouple from the train and pull forward passed the switch. It then runs around the train and couples onto the caboose. The caboose is uncoupled from the train and placed out of the way onto the run around track. This allows the locmotive to perform the necessary pick ups of outbound cars and set outs of inbound cars. Finally the outbound train is coupled to the caboose and departs, headed back into staging.

Number 345 spots a drop bottom gondola carrying some coal at the fuel dealer. Background added in Photoshop.

Most of my locomotives have a backup light so the assumption that they would run backwards back up the short branch line is plausible, albeit a little unprototypical.

Final Thoughts

Engine number 345, a C-19 2-8-0, shoves on a drop bottom gondola on a cloudy morning in Colorado. Background added in Photoshop.

This layout offers a lot of engaging operation, boasting both freight and passenger trains in a very limited space. Of course narrow gauge is not everyone's cup of tea but the design and principles can easily be applied to a standard gauge layout running either steam or diesel locomotives.