I planned for one side of the layout to be forest – dense trees evoking the foothills of Mt Fuji in autumn. Not sure how close I’ll get, but I started by ordering some 1/220 scale model trees.

Close-up of the newly placed trees

Still lots of ground to cover with forest

View of the whole layout so far

Each tree is attached individually by making a small hole, filling with hot glue and inserting the tree trunk. I’ve added some static grass tufts to try to make it look a lot more forest-like, but I think there’s still a long way to go.

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Ground Cover


I got some Javis ground cover and applied with PVA glue. Here are some pictures of the ground starting to take shape…

Bagged Javis Scenics

Application is simple – just brush on PVA glue, sprinkle the ground cover, hoover the excess once dry.

Layout starting to take shape

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Ballast refers to the rocks that make up the ground under real-life railway tracks.

Real-world ballast (Image from WikiMedia)

To recreate this in z-scale, I purchased some light-grey model railway ballast – I think it’s just coloured sand, for anyone wanting to save a bit of money here.

There are an awful lot of descriptions online describing how to apply it – the process I used was a bit like this:

  • Pour a small amount of ballast along the length of the track
  • Using a small paintbrush, carefully push the ballast in to place and away from the rail ties.
  • Carry on for what feels like forever gradually brushing the grains in to place

And then it’s time to glue it in to place:

  • Using a small dropper bottle containing a 50:50 water:PVA mix, gently soak the positioned ballast
  • Wait 24 hours
  • Scrape all the excess and errant grains of ballast that got stuck to the track

Waiting for the glue to dry

Before cleaning up the mess

Overview of all the ballasting – still some clean-up to do here:

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I think I want the layout to depict a variety of areas – a town and a bit of countryside with hills. In larger gauges, most layouts seem to use either papier mache or large blocks of foam to model hills and cliffs.
For the modest sizes involved here, I figure I’ll avoid some of the mess involved with cutting blocks of foam or playing with plaster and use a stack of 3mm foam board sheets. 10 sheets stacked will give sufficient elevation for the high points of the layout. About 30mm clearance is needed to comfortably fit most z-scale locos, although they won’t be able to run carrying large cargo containers – luckily I’m not planning to do that.
A skim coat of basic decorators caulk evens out the steps, and then the whole thing can be glued to the baseboard.

Stack of 3mm foam boards coated in white decorators caulk

Once all the hills were relatively smooth and in-place, it’s time to lay out the track again. At this point, all the foam ballast is added, and the track is pinned in to place using tiny nails.

First test of all track laid with the hills in place

At this point I also added the first bridge (in this case, a Rokuhan girder bridge), and used more PVA to make sure it doesn’t move.

Notch cut out of the cliff-face to allow the bridge to sit firmly in place.

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Track Test

With the board made, it’s finally time to test that the track fits. Here’s the layout loosly laid on the board. Everything just about fits, and it looks like the inclines needed will be no more than 3% grade – pretty steep, but the best I could do in such a small layout.

First track test

Real rail tracks are laid on ballast – to begin to mimic this, I’ve used 2mm craft foam, carefully cut to shape with a craft knife. The result looks something like this:

Roughly laid foam to form form the bulk of the ballast

The plan is to cover this with coloured sand to give the appearance of scale rocks.


Finally happy with my track layout plan, I’ve now put together a board to house the layout. Some leftover plywood of the right size (2′ x 4′) forms the main base, with some timber beams around the edged to reduce flexing. All glued and screwed in to place.
[Picture of underside of board]


On another trip to Japan, we visited a train museum in Kyoto where these impressive locomotives were on display:

Three Japanese steam locos in Kyoto. A “D51” is seen behind the others.

A bit of googling to find out about them [wikipedia – JNR Class D51], and I happened to find a manufacturer making a Z scale version. Here it is, along with some carriages typical of the era:

Track Planning

Layout planning seems to be something of an art form in itself. I’ve got a few conditions here, which will probably diverge from what most model rail enthusiasts would recommend.
  • I want to be able to run two trains continuously
  • I mostly want to run trains continuously, rather than model yard movements
  • I want some track raised above others – this adds interest and variety to a scene, breaking up a flat layout, and presents additional challenges.
I’ll be using Marklin brand track, as it’s easily available in the UK and they currently have the largest range of Z Scale pieces. A Japanese manufacturer, Rokuhan, has an ever increasing range at the moment, but I didn’t like the look of the pre-ballasted track.
I found a free and pretty full-featured web tool called “TraxEditor” [LINK] and started playing…

Track Planning software makes it easy to try out lots of options quickly

After a few evenings of trial and error, I came up with this – the outer loops are intended to be raised, with hills in the corners bring the track to the correct height.


Rapidly approaching middle age, I’ve decided it’s finally time to make a model train layout. As a child I’d inherited some OO Hornby locomotives, but never had the space to do much with them. An interest in Japan led to trips there over the last few years where I happened to see something I hadn’t before – a Z-Scale layout on display in a department store in Tokyo. Made by a company called “Pro-Z”, it showed off the craft of the scale by fitting a detailed layout with a complete loop in a small portable case.

This Pro-Z layout is 660mm (just over 2 feet) wide.

Z Scale model trains are one of the smallest commercially available, and it turns out they’ve been popular in Europe for many years, mostly produced by Marklin in Germany – Japanese manufacturers have only fairly recently started selling them.

I immediately bought a starter pack consisting of a Yamanote Line train and a small loop of track, and promptly forgot about it for a few more years.
Inspired by a few trips to the Model Railroad Exhibition at Alexandra Palace, I figure it’s time to do this right – create a compact layout depicting a vaguely Japanese scene. I want to keep it to smaller than 2 by 4 feet, so it’s easy to “put away”, or perhaps one day turn it in to a coffee table.

Real Yamanote Line train, photo by LERK

Pro-Z Yamanote Line