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Beginning In Z Scale 1:220

| June 10, 2011 | 29 Comments More

The Marklin Company of Germany has been making model trains since the late 1800′s and in 1972 introduced their Z scale model trains to the world. At 1/220 (commonly written as 1:220) the size of real trains, Z scale trains are one of the smallest mass produced trains available. Several of these locomotives measures well under 2 inches in length!

You may have also heard the term Mini-Club used to describe some Z scale products. This is simply an advertising tag used by Marklin to brand their Z scale line which includes trains, buildings, lighting, etc. For the first few years after its introduction nearly all Z scale products were produced solely by Marklin but Z scale has grown well beyond its initial Mini-Club designation.

Z Scale Beginning

A Z scale diorama from Ztrains

Marklin led the way with the development of Z scale and in the years since, major manufacturers such as Micro-Trains Line and AZL have joined the party! With a wide selection of locomotives, rolling stock, track and accessories… these two companies are today the principal suppliers of North American Z scale models.

In addition to the major manufacturers we’ve also have seen a minor explosion of high tech small businesses now working either solely in Z scale or including Z scale in their product lineups. Laser cut wood kits, brass etched kits, resin, Hydrocal and injection molding have all become a permanent fixture in Z scale.

What exactly is Z scale? Let’s look at two basic model railroad terms… scale and gauge. While these two terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference.

Scale: Scale is actually a simple ratio that describes how our model trains compare to trains in the real world. A Z scale locomotive is 1:220 the size of a real locomotive. Compare this to an HO locomotive which is 1:87 the size of a real locomotive. Scale also refers to all the items on our train layouts… houses, trees, cars, etc. If we wanted to accurately model a 30 foot high tree for use on a Z scale layout, we would make that tree 1:220 the size of 30 feet, or 1.636 inches.

Gauge: Gauge represents the distance between the rails on a track. There are essentially two families of railroad gauges, standard and narrow. These gauge classes apply to real railroads (also called prototype, prototypical or 1:1) as well as model railroads. Standard gauge prototype railroads have a distance between their rails of 4 feet, 8.5 inches. Narrow gauge prototype railroads are defined as railroads with a distance between their rails of less than 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

Z scale trains operate on standard gauge track as the distance between the rails in Z scale is an accurate representation of prototype standard gauge track (at 1:220 the size of course). Z scale track is also referred to as 6.5 mm gauge track, as that is the exact distance between our Z scale rails. The concept of the standard track system for railroads was developed in the United Kingdom in 1845. The Gauge Act of 1846, passed by Parliament, cemented the idea. This UK track standard eventually made its way to the US, and is the standard that is still in practice today. You can read more about rail gauge history here.

Beginning In Z Scale

The B&O diorama using MTL's bridge and locomotive

Why Get Involved In Model Railroading?
Call it a hobby, building a 1:220 scale empire, or just having fun… there’s a lot to be said for model railroading for both the beginner as well as the more advanced modeler. One of the most tangible results of model railroading is the creative stress relief it offers. From high school to retirement age plus, everyday stress affects us all. Working with model trains for many is a terrific stress reliever as it allows you to immerse yourself into a unique world that you create. Your model railroad world can be as simple as a single loop of track that runs like a fine watch, or as intricate as a bustling 1950s switching yard by the harbor… it’s all up to you.

Why Choose Z Scale Model Railroading?
One of the more unique features of working in Z scale is duality of the size. On one hand you can have an interesting layout in a very modest space. On the other hand you can model incredibly vast scale scenes in a medium to large space. To put in into better perspective, look at what has classically been a beginner’s size layout in HO scale, a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood. In Z scale this would equal 1′ 6″ x 3′ 2″. You can have the exact same track plan, trains, buildings and scenery in a fraction of the space.

Of course if you want to have a larger layout here is another real and still being discovered strength of Z scale. You can build broad, open stretches of land featuring multiple track lines that will easily accommodate several dozen cars. Create neighboring towns and industrial areas that are not built on top of each other but instead are allowed to sprawl out around the edges as they do in real life. Let your mountain ranges… be mountain ranges! From portable briefcase layouts to truly expansive modular and permanent layouts, Z scale model railroading is unique in its ability to adapt to your needs.

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Category: Introduction To Z Scale

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  • Peggy Julliann

    Thanks for the great and UNDERSTANDABLE introduction to Z scale trains. I have worked in the design field and with architectural models as well as miniatures for years but just getting my feet wet with Z. Your article is both informative and a good basic start for a true novice. I look forward to future articles.

    • John

      Thank you Peggy!

      I’m glad you enjoyed this first article and just as glad to hear you’re looking into Z scale. Like any class of model railroading Z has its challenges but I feel the rewards are well worth the effort.

      Any questions please feel free to contact here at Ztrains and again, welcome to Z scale!


  • HurricanCharlie47

    I have been for the last 12 years trying to get information on how to build the NY subway and EL train system. I was originally going to do it in HO scale however I changed my mind after much thought and decided to go with the Z scale.

    I have been writing for what seems forever both to New York Transportation System and various other railroad modeling clubs with zero results. I would like to cover all the stops to include some of those that have been put out of service and some of the EL lines that have been taken down. I grew up in New York but haven’t been back in many, many years.

    Any help would be appreciated.

    • John

      Doing any El (Elevated Trains) work in Z would be a real challenge for several of reasons. First of course are the actual elevated tracks and the associated columns and infrastructure. Nothing like this is currently available in Z scale, you’d likely need to make them yourself from scratch or have them custom laser cut. Trains would be difficult as well as again, we don’t have the available elevated cars or locomotives. You could go very early El and use steam but you’d need to do some loco bashing to make this happen.

      A third obstacle to overcome in building an El system would be the structures. Even in the days of the early elevated trains in New York, there were tall buildings that would require a lot of ingenuity to replicate in Z scale.

      I don’t mean to dissuade you from your plan but you should be aware that you’d be doing a lot of kit bashing and scratchbuilding.


  • Bill

    I suppose that you have studied model subway systems that have been built in the other scales. Subway systems do not exist entirely under ground. Most of them operate on or above the surface at times. If you model subway systems will you model long sections of underground track or only model station areas where the trains come into view. OR, will you model a city and most of the trains never are viewed except for port holes cut in the sides of your layout.

    As for the elevated railroads, will you build them so that the tracks appear to run through tall concrete canyon walls. Either way the main problem that you will encounter is to keep the track clean. The smallness of Z makes our trains very light weight and just having the normal dust that exists in our air settle on the track can cause problems. This does not take into account the ever present metal corrosion.

    If you build either a subway or an elevated system, you may have to have the scenery removable so that you can maintain your track. Our Z scale group attends more than a half dozen shows every year. The track must be cleaned thoroughly before each day of the show. It is cleaned with a liquid cleaner first then wiped dry. Then the entire system is cleaned with a small vacuum cleaner. Even after all of this we find areas where a more abrasive cleaner is need for smooth operation. If scenery if built too close to the track, it will get damaged.

    Your elevated tracks will be subject to this type of “abuse”. Build a small loop of track. Include, at minimum, one turnout. Also include all of the guard rails that elevated tracks have and the wooden walkways that the track service people use. Don’t forget the hand rails for protecting the workers. And the track signal lights. Another thing is a covered station platform with lights.

    After all of this is completed run trains and see if you can keep the track clean for smooth operation without destroying any of your work.

    I have no answers for cleaning track in your subway. A commercial or scratch built track cleaning car will not do the job.

    This only covers the surface of building and operating a Z scale model subway or elevated layout. You will encounter additional problems which do not exist in regular model railroading. I hope you the best and may you build a great operating Z scale subway-elevated system.


  • Deborah Williams

    Interesting article for a first-timer such as myself. I have been on the fence between starting N or Z scale. I went to the Rocky Mountain train show and there was very little representation from the Z’s but now I am convinced that Z is the way to go. Thanks!

    • John

      Hi Deborah,

      Welcome, glad you’ve decided to join Z scale. As you go along, if you have any questions feel free to ask. I’d suggest you start small and get a good feel for the scale.

      If you’re nearby, the 2012 Z Scale Convention will be held in Denver, Co., May 4th and 5th, 2012.

      Here’s a link to the convention page: National Z Scale Convention

      Again, welcome to Z!


      • John


        I meant to mention this…

        If you contact Rob Kluz over at Ztrack Magazine (http://www.ztrack.com) and mention Ztrains.com, he’ll send you a free issue of the magazine!


  • Ron

    Several years ago I started working with HO scale layouts. I spent countless hours building a base, laying track and scenery and getting my trains to run. I was really getting deep into the hobby when I got the news that my company was transferring me to another state.

    The layout I had was definitely not portable and I was forced to tear everything down and pack it away. After reading your article on Z scale I am once again ready to jump back into the hobby. This is the perfect size for me as I am sure that sometime in the next few years I will be moving again. This time I will make sure to build a layout that I can move right along with me.

    Thanks for the jolt of inspiration.

    • John

      Hi Ron,

      Glad we could be that jolt for you!

      Coming to Z from HO is a big leap, lots of time we see N scalers coming over. One thing I’d suggest to get your feet wet in Z is to start small. Ok, no scale size pun intended.

      I’d pick up a small amount of track, maybe just an oval with a turnout or two, a loco and a good controller. See how Z feels for you.

      I’m sure you’ll be taken with Z scale and I’d like to make sure you get started on the right foot!

      If you have any questions, feel free to contact us here at Ztrains.com!


      PS. To get you started, if you contact Rob Kluz over at Ztrack Magazine (http://www.ztrack.com) and mention Ztrains.com, he’ll send you a free issue of the magazine!

  • Judy Gundel

    Played with Marklin HO back in the 60s (my grandmother got us a huge set from Germany). Then got into Marklin Z scale about 30(?) years ago. Now I’ve dug the Z scale out of the basement again. I have a ton of track, things for elevated track and 3 engines. Too much fun!! Gotta clean the track though!!

    There used to be a bunch of hobby stores that carried Marklin Z around here (Baltimore, MD), but apparently none are left. They all have Lionel or Bachmann now. And there doesn’t seem to be much Marklin Z online either. Will other brands of Z work with Marklin track?


    • John

      Hi Judy,

      Good to hear you’ve dug the Z scale out of the basement, now you’re cooking!

      As the brick and mortar hobby stores have become more scarce, Z scale too has become scarce in many hobby stores.

      Actually Z scale has thrived and grown through the internet, lots of online choices for buying Z scale today.

      In recent times Marklin has had major financial issues and as a result, their offerings have decreased. Not all bad news though, companies like Micro-Trains and American Z Line are producing wonderful trains with much improved motors (over the Marklin motors) than run incredibly well.

      As far as other brands working with Marklin track… virtually all of these other brands will work with Marklin track.


  • Judy Gundel

    Thanks for the Z info.

    By the way, a little silver polish on a damp paper towel is a cheap and easy way to clean Z track.


    • John

      Glad to help Judy!

      One note on the silver polish, I stopped using this as the dried polish bits left over can get drawn up into a loco’s mechanism.

      I tend to favor balsa or bass wood cut into small blocks and soaked in alcohol. This gives you a mechanical as well as a chemical cleaning action.

      In rare cases, I’ll use some 1000 grit sandpaper if the rail is badly oxidized. This is basically wet / dry sandpaper used to remove “orange peel” from new car paint.

      The real trick however is to clean your rail often enough so it doesn’t require any drastic measures!


      • Judy Gundel

        So far so good. Got a layout set up all on one level. Elevated tracks got too hard to configure (at least for now). Am AMAZED that a simple 9V battery can run the trains & lights!!!!! Seriously! Now just have to figure out how to control it. Maybe a sliding switch? Fun to play with if I don’t electrocute myself.


        • John

          Hi Judy,

          That’s great to hear! Tracks with inclines can be tricky to do well so I think be leaving them out, at least until you get a good feel for the trains, is a good idea.

          On controlling the trains with a 9VDC battery, the Marklin smaller sets did come with a 9VDC controller… of sorts. It’s either on or off which means the trains travel way too fast or not at all.

          A nice option is the Snail Speed Controller, sold by Ztrack Center. It allows for really nice slow speed control, you can see them here:



        • Dan


          I’m curious where is that shop n the Baltimore area? I accidentally found a HUGE train store in Wheaton, MD. They are collocated with a gun shop called Engage Armament.

          We have a little one on the way right now. I remember as a kid how much I loved the N gauge trains my father gave me, I would like to pass on a similar experience to my son.

  • Michael Vardanis


    Ever since 1987/8 when Marklin first announced digitally operated locos, subsequently revising their plans thus disappointing all their loyal “Z” clients, I have been waiting for someone to offer this facility.

    What is the problem? It cannot be size nor that it has been the difficulty for the past twenty years at least, technology in microelectronics has been capable, yet Marklin NEVER RETURNED.

    All that’s needed is a good electronics engineer to design and make a small enough decoder to fit even the smallest of “Z” locos such as the 8800. All the rest exists.

    If you can introduce me to such a man I will gladly fund his research.

    Any ideas?
    M Vardanis

    • http://www.raildig.com John Cubbin

      Hi Michael,

      It does seem that too often, Z scale took a backseat to Marklin’s other products. Understandable perhaps as Z scale may be a small part of their overall business. Still, it has been frustrating, I agree with you.

      There may be some good digital news right now. Digitrax has just made a product announcement for Marlin-compatible Z scale replacement boards that are DCC!


      It has taken a long time, but this does appear to be good news for Marklin Z scale!


  • Jack B. Erhart

    I’m interested in building a switching yard in Z scale. My objective is to have a yard layout with controls on either side. Setting up a game like environment for building trains. Not a speed contest, but a realistic competition between two people tasked with building a particular train from various rolling stock, and making one round of a mainline to complete your turn.

    Is there any plans that you may know of for a layout of this type? And how does coupling and uncoupling work in this scale. It’s been awhile since I have been into trains (HO) so I am just starting my research on the possibility of building something like I mentioned. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you.

    • http://www.raildig.com John Cubbin

      Hi Jack,

      You’re idea of having a game-like environment sounds pretty interesting, sort of a simultaneous switching puzzle for 2 people. Just to clarify, are you thinking of a single track layout with 2 (alternating) sets of controls, or 2 identical track layouts on the same board with 2 sets of controls?

      Initially I thought the latter but in that case you’d probably need to do point-to-point layouts, not with a loop-based plan. Let me know if I’m way-off on this?

      Though this seems to be made for children, a simple online switching game does illustrate the fun of simple switching:


      I’d think that setting up a pair of identical switching puzzles, each with it’s own controls, would allow for some fun live competition.

      Again let me know if I’m near-right or way-off on your idea.


      • Jack B. Erhart


        I don’t know if it would be best to just have one good yard layout, and have a move counter for how many moves it took you to make up a train. I would be afraid that a timing competition would take away from being realistic in the movement of the trains

        .I recall seeing something many years ago that was coffee table size, but was complex enough to be very thought provoking and challenging. That flash game link is very cool. I know there is also an online train layout software called Tranz. Maybe that would be a way to develop the concept.

  • Jack B. Erhart

    Well I’ll tell you John. If the layout concept is half as addicting as that game you sent me to, I think we just might be on to something here. So is shunting a railroad term? I never heard of it before.

  • Michael Binder

    Hello there. This looks like a great discussion group. I’m fairly new to scale model railroading, and I was hoping that maybe you could suggest the best way to light my mini club layout. It’s about 3′x4′ and has two loops. I have two Marklin transformers that I was planning on using to run two trains at once. I know I need rail joiners with isolators to do this. No problem. I have built nine models for this layout. However, I’m not sure of the best way to light those little buildings. I know Marklin sells individual lighting kits at about ten bucks each. I’ve already invested a good deal of money in this layout, and was hoping there might be a better and less expensive way to light them. I was also planning on including a few street lights for the parking lots and streets. Do you have any suggestions or tips on how to do this? Any info would be appreciated. Thanks

    • Raildig


      Actually this was an earlier article so I didn’t catch your comment right away, sorry about that!

      As far as lighting your buildings, I’ve become a big fan of the fairly (actually, very) inexpensive LED boards from China via eBay. I recently purchased a handful of these and was very pleasantly surprised by the quality.

      On streetlights, if you’re looking at inexpensive, again I have to suggest eBay. Now you may not find exact 1:220 lights but I just did an eBay search for “z scale, lights” and saw several vendors selling 1:200 street lights with an incandescent bulb, 20 pieces for around $8.00. Although not LED and slightly larger than true Z scale… it’s a very reasonable approach.


      • Michael Binder

        Hi John. Yes, I’ll look into the incandescents available on ebay. I actually ordered the LED kits online for the buildings. I figure the extra money was worth it since LED’s last longer anyway. Thanks!

        • Raildig

          Actually I just looked again and I’m seeing streetlights at 1:200, LED, going for about $1.00 each, including shipping. I’d be tempted to go the all LED route just for the longer life.


  • Michael Binder

    Not that great a group after all. Thanks for no response. I’l join a different one. Disappointing. Looks like you’re not really there for beginners.

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