Formed Layouts

Vacuum formed layout by Noch

One major assumption in these web pages is that you will be building your own model railroad from an assembly of track, structures and trains of your choosing.  But it has to be acknowledged that this is also an intimidating process, a just cause for producing helpful pages about Z-Scale in the first place.  Using a manufactured layout gets you started quickly.  What you may lose in individual creativity is compensated by the fact that you have a running railroad in fairly short order. You may have little disposable time, and a manufactured layout lets you enjoy what time you do have by running trains. Such layouts fall into three major categories, vacuum-formed, structured foam and the briefcase.  Briefcases are discussed here.  Noch is the major manufacturer of such layouts, and all three types are generally available in the American market although many dealers do not stock them so you may have to special order them.

In a side by side, just-out-of-the-box comparison between the two types, the structured foam layout is better looking. 

Foam layout by Noch

Getting this railroad running is fairly easy. Once the track and bridge are in place and the transformer or controller connected, you can start running trains. There are a series of locating pads for placing the structures of your choice, which are limited only by the size of the pad. Wiring such a layout is fairly straightforward, requiring the drilling of holes to run wire from the terminal tracks to the transformer.  Although it is possible to have remotely controlled track switches on such a layout, the small size of this railroad makes that unnecessary. The structured foam layout is also strong enough to be moved around easily, making it a natural for being stored in a closet when not in use.  That said, the foam layout is pretty much what it is, easy to build and easy to use, and limited in its scope. But this may be enough for you to get a taste of Z-Scale.

Standing by itself, the vacuum formed layout looks a little bleak. The layout pictured below is the Noch “Cortina”.

Vacuum formed layout by Noch

The vacuum formed layout is made of plastic reinforced by a wood frame. The structured foam layout is self supporting by virtue of its one piece construction, which also limits it somewhat. The vacuum formed layout is open underneath, which allows for electrical wiring; in the case of the Cortina layout above, this allows for multiple train operation. One train will operate on the outside loop of track while two trains can operate on the inside loop of track.  Using signals, these trains will follow each other, with the faster train stopping periodically to let the slower train get further ahead.  This makes for a more interesting model railroad scene.

The vacuum formed layout is manufactured in three stages. The layout shape starts out as a flat sheet of plastic, which is heated and then draped over a form.  A vacuum pump then pulls the heated plastic down over the form, creating the mountains, roadbeds and lakes of the layout. Once the plastic has cooled, it is removed from the form and the tunnel openings and such are cut out.  By itself, the plastic is not strong enough to support the trains, so wooden pieces are installed to make the layout rigid.  Once this is done, the plastic is painted and static grass is applied to portions of the railroad.

Noch sells a greater number of such layouts in Europe, and there are some add-ons available for the Cortina vacuum formed layout.

Noch layout add-ons

Using these add-on sections results in a larger layout:

Of course, as someone who has built a few model railroad layouts, I have to ask if going to this extent is better than just building the railroad from scratch, but Noch obviously feels that there is a market for such add-ons.  And, the basic advantages of the manufactured layout are still present, albeit on a much larger basis.

I have little direct experience with the structured foam layout other than seeing them at model railroad shows. However, I have built the Cortina layout for a busy soul, and I can share what I know about that experience.  I must admit that I like the Cortina layout, and have thought about doing one for myself on more than one occasion. It’s an interesting railroad and it does what a manufactured layout is supposed to do, which is getting you going quickly.  So, let’s talk about making such a layout.

Attaching the Track

There are several ways to approach the issue of attaching the track to a manufactured layout. Some people have used double sided tape, thin clear tape with adhesive on both sides. There are those that have glued the track in place, a process which I view as being just a bit dangerous since the glue may ooze into places it shouldn’t be, such as track switches and such. Z-Scale track does lock together, so it is possible to just join everything together and leave it as is. Should you choose to add track ballast, the ballast glue may be enough to attach the track permanently to the manufactured layout base. Personally, I ended up using track spikes to hold things together, because I’m a mechanical connection type of guy. That said, you may find this process to be unnecessarily tedious.

The Märklin track has locating holes in the crossties for use with the Märklin 8999 track spike.  These tiny spikes are thin and subject to bending; simply pushing the spikes through the track crosstie into the vacuum formed base causes immediate bending. So, I ended up drilling a small pilot hole through the crosstie hole and through the vacuum formed plastic.  I used a pin vise and a very small drill bit; your train dealer should carry these sort of bits in stock.

Pin vise

The pin vise has four different collets which are designed to hold small drill bits.  The bit is placed in the collet and the collar of the pin vise is screwed down onto the collet.  As the collet closes, it firmly grasps the drill bit. Typically, the largest drill bit a pin vise will hold is 1/8”.  Larger bits sizes are expressed in either inches or millimeters while smaller bits are expressed in a numeric fashion, with 90 being the smallest. Small drill bit sets for model work are often sold in sets with drills between #61 and #90. The smaller the bit, the more delicate it is.  Many dealers also sell individual bits, and if you are planning on drilling holes with a smaller size bit, such as #85 or such, plan on buying extras because they break frequently (usually as you are drilling the next-to-the-last hole).

Unlike using a power drill, the pin vise is turned by your fingers in a slow and deliberate manner, so using sharp bits is a necessity. In the case of attaching track to vacuum formed plastic, I was typically using a #85 bit (switching to a #84 after I broke the 85). Once the pilot hole was drilled, I pushed the track spike through the crosstie and the layout plastic, then bent the bottom of the spike over which holds the track in place.  Given the slow speed of this process, you don’t need to use every spike hole in the track, just enough to keep everything in place.

Inside the Tunnels

The Cortina layout has two tunnels and placing the track in these locations can be a challenge.  I’m bigger than the average bear, and my hands are really too large to fit into one of the tunnels, much less attach the track and overhead catenary wires without some cussing. It is helpful to remember that Z-Scale track does lock together and that the Märklin catenary mast are designed to lock onto the track. With that in mind, the tunnels are probably the best place to start laying track.  First, you will be in a fresh state of mind, eager to get this project underway.  And, second, you will be dispatching the hardest part of the track laying task at the beginning.

Upon sufficient reflection, it seems easiest to assemble the track pieces and catenary masts & wires for the tunnel segments out in the open and then to gently weave them into the tunnel areas,  Attaching the track is subject to the same issues as the exterior track, but a few track spikes should be sufficient.

Wiring the Layout

Typically, the instruction sheets which come with manufactured layouts can be maddeningly vague. The designer of the layout had something in mind but what that might be is not always clearly articulated, which is to say, you may have to figure a few things out for yourself.  Generally, the manufactured layouts use the Märklin approach to wiring; a discussion of this approach is here.

Generally, the Europeans like to have one transformer connected to one loop of track. In the case of the Cortina layout, one transformer would operate the outer loop of track and the second transformer would control the inner loop. This means that you will need to isolate both rails at the two points where the two loops of track meet, the two crossover pairs of switches at the front of the layout.  These will be marked on the instruction sheet.

Once you’ve got the two loops wired for track power, you can then hook up the track switches for operation.  After that, you can wire the inner loop to operate two trains moving in the same direction on one transformer; in this case, the Märklin signals and circuit tracks are used to keep the two trains from colliding. If you do not want complicated wiring, you can pass on this feature and simply run two trains, one on the outer loop and the other on the inner loop.

For such wiring, the instruction sheet will show an outline of the various relays, control boxes and circuit tracks necessary for both the track switches and for automatic operation. The outlines of the relays and control boxes will have numbers which correspond to the same number for a track switch or circuit track connection on the track plan.  The idea is to connect the identical numbers with the appropriate colored wire.

To avoid unsightly wires hanging down from the bottom of the layout, use self adhesive wire tie pads, which are usually available from hardware stores.  Look for them in the electrical department, in the electronics area.  These pads are fixed to the bottom of the layout in key locations; a wire tie is then passed through the pad and wrapped around the group of wires you want to manage.


Typically, many of the manufactured layouts do not come with structures.  The vacuum formed layouts have locating pads for structures however, and you can compare the available pad space with the different structure manufacturers’ catalogs, which list the base plate dimensions (usually in millimeters). Should you wish to internally illuminate these buildings, a small hole can be drilled through the layout below the base plate of the structure. 


The brown plastic of vacuum formed layouts such as the Cortina have basic scenery applied to complete the general appearance of the railroad.  Frankly, they could stand some improvement and that is your task should you wish to take it. In the case of water, these layouts use a bright blue to represent both standing and flowing water. In real life, water is rarely such a blue color except near petrochemical plants.  Take a look at natural examples and use acrylic paint to correct this problem; you should exercise some caution about your choice of paint, since some paints may cause an unanticipated reaction. Test your paint on a small segment of the layout’s painted area. 

Woodland Scenics makes acrylic products to represent water.  One, Realistic Water (Woodland Scenics No. C1211) is simply poured into an area that would have standing water.  The other product, Water Effects (No. C1212) is used to create water falls and flowing water. Both are clear, so the surfaces below the water should be properly colored for a realistic effect. In previous times, Woodland Scenics also offered a product called E-Z Water, which had to be heated in a double boiler type of arrangement. I cannot recommend this product since I have yet to see a successful outcome on projects done by the typical modeler. I’m sure that it can be done, and, by the way, you can’t heat this product in a microwave.

And that’s about it for the manufactured layouts. They serve a real purpose in the model railroad world, and they may be more than enough to bring you a satisfactory model railroad experience. 

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