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How do you keep prices low? Volume!

Read the N Scale Insight column from the July 2018 Model Railroader
Jim didn’t need a water tank. He needed this water tank, and Shapeways came to the rescue.
Bill Zuback photos
Details include the piping to carry the water to the trackside water column or to the town of Tehachapi.
See-through detail such as the joists supporting the tank are possible in one piece with 3-D printing.
In the heart of Tehachapi, Calif., near the Union Pacific’s double-track main line, stands a steam-era Southern Pacific 65,000-gallon water tank. It was brought to the town from another location on the railroad after a major earthquake destroyed its predecessor on April 21, 1952. Without it, Tehacahapi had a big problem, as the tank doubled as the town’s water supply.

After the SP stopped running steam, the railroad donated the tank to the town, and today it stands in Railroad Park, an uncharacteristic patch of green grass and large trees in this high desert mountain town.

This water tank is of special interest to me because a model of it belongs on my N scale railroad, set in the mid-1980s. I was figuring I’d have to scratchbuild the model and wasn’t looking forward to it, as I’ve got plenty of other projects to keep me busy.

First I’d need some plans. Finding those shouldn’t be tough. The SP is an extremely well-documented railroad.
I was hoping I might even find a kit, and much to my surprise found something way better, a ready-built model – paint it and I’d be done. The photo shows the out-of-the-box model from Shapeways (, a 3-D printing service.

A whole new way. This is a 3-D printed model, that is to say, a model that was printed by a machine that lays down thin layer upon thin layer of plastic as a nozzle sweeps back and forth, following instructions from a computer-aided drawing (CAD) program. Think of a laser ink printer that keeps going back and forth over the paper instead of moving on.

Shapeways is a company that serves as a facilitator between the person who provides the drawings and the end product. Associate editor Eric White explained all about it in his freight house article in the September 2015 Model Railroader.

What is wondrous about this for someone like me, who has no desire to learn CAD, nor perhaps even the smarts, is that Shapeways provides a marketplace for those who wish to make the products they draw available to the general public.

I was able to buy this tower, manufactured with data supplied by Chris Kilroy of SP Stuff in N Scale, for $80.19 plus $4 shipping. Some of my friends thought that was a lot to pay for an N scale water tank. After all, good plastic water tank kits are available for considerably less, but the whole point is that this is not just a water tank. It’s the specific water tank I wanted.

Some modelers may wonder why the model has no spout, but that’s because the prototype didn’t. Water stored in the tank was delivered via underground piping to water columns beside the track.

An opportunity for N scale. N scale prototype-specific structures are hard to come by, just because of market size. Modelers in HO outnumber those in N by about five to one. Not only do commercial manufacturers make more HO prototypical offerings, but more individuals, small manufacturers, and the railroad historical societies often help fill the gaps.

Looking over the Shapeways online catalog pages, I’m surprised to see how many N scale models are offered, especially for locomotive body shells, rolling stock, and vehicles. I don’t see that much in prototype structures, but it seems to me that opportunities are ripe for getting more models that are exactly what we want.

N scale’s small size gives it an advantage in 3-D printed models. The company prices its offerings by the volume of the material used to make them, which means that our small 1:160 models are going to be relatively inexpensive.

The same object in HO has nearly eight times the volume of its N scale equivalent. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it will cost eight times as much, as walls and other components can be proportionately thinner. Still, I’d guess that an HO model would cost five or six times as much as the same model in N.

It seems to me then that structures like this water tower, signal towers, coaling stations, sanding towers, and other small structures can be produced at viable prices for those of us who like our models on the smaller side.

And modelers who have the CAD skills and moxie can make enough money to pay for their own model and perhaps buy another thing or two down at the hobby shop.

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