Dunno about any starting with "n": maybe Kato? That's good stuff (at least for locos and rolling stock). Not cheap, but worth it.
Berkeley Ace, eh? I've been watching the progress on the rebuild of their window layout with interest. That's a pretty good hobby store downstairs there.
Absolutely not. Of course, everything needs to have the same kind of couplers. I haven't bought an HO car in ages, but I ass-ume they no longer all come with the old crappy horn-hook couplers, no? Best to plan on installing Kadees on everything for realistic look, reliable operation (and automatic coupling/decoupling if desired).
Rereading this, maybe I wasn't clear: that was meant to answer your second question. You can mix and match all you want to. In fact, that makes acquiring rolling stock all the more interesting. (You can even get old stuff, like discontinued Athearn, Life-Like, etc., put new couplers on them and away you go.)
On 06/01/2011 10:46 PM, David Nebenzahl wrote: [...] Of course, everything needs to have the same kind of
All the medium and better quality HO and N stuff comes with knuckle couplers these days. Pretty well all current quality HO comes with metal wheels, N is more mixed. Detail has improved to the point where only the most skilled scratchbuilders can match it.
Some general observations:
HO: Locomotives and rolling stock: any brand will work with any brand. There is some mismatch in sound systems, but that is evolving into a de facto standard. Track: Sectional track without ballast: all brands match, but pay attention to rail size (ie, code 100 will not match code 83). Flex track: tie depth is not the same between brands, so shimming near joints may be necessary. Sectional track with ballast: each brand uses a different method for connecting these, they are not interchangeable. Gotchas: coupler height is standard, but manufacturing errors can cause problems. Kadee's _coupler height gauge_ is essential. Axle lengths and wheel profile are supposed to be standard, but do vary; most of the time, it doesn't matter. Turnouts (track switches) may need fine tuning, especially at the points. An _NMRA standards gauge_ is essential. N: In general, not quite as standardised as HO, but if you stick to quality brands, there are no major issues. 90% of new product comes with knuckle couplers, but Kato's version doesn't play very well with other brands. N is much less forgiving of minor variations in track (eg, dips/bumps at joints). Micro Trains makes a coupler height gauge, NMRA offers an N scale standards gauge.
Era: OP wants to model 1920-40s. HO selection is better for this era, but majority of new product is 60s and later. For modern image (80s and later), N and HO are about equal.
As one who has only recently started model trains after a 20 year hiatus, I feel I can make a few comments on the subject. First: I find that a lot has changed in 20 years. Things are much better quality, generally, and interoperability is nearly universal. Things to watch for in purchases: try to get locomotives that are at least DCC 'friendly' or DCC ready. Don't count on using DCC for some time, but at least have the ability to get there easily. In N scale, I find that not all rolling stock is equipped with knuckle couplers - look for those (not sure if that's even an issue with HO).
Sure, you can buy a basic set with an oval track layout. That will really not be very satisfying, and it won't give you much of a feel for what the hobby is about. Plan on putting out some money for several turnouts (or track switches as they're sometimes called) and some extra track before you can really assess anything. And don't set it up on the floor - that will be very tiring and not very satisfactory - the locos can also pick up carpet lint that won't help them any. If you don't have room for a 4x8 of plywood, try an old table or something.
Others with more experience can correct me if I'm wrong, but it's my understanding that overall quality of trains has increased a lot recently. Bachmann, for example, has typically made inexpensive and not very good quality trains - but with their Spectrum line, they seem to now be producing stuff of decent quality. Kato does have the reputation of excellence - and some of their equipment is not all that expensive.
It's true that HO is most popular and has by far the largest selection of 'stuff' - but N is, as I understand it, in second place now - there is a good selection and since N is about 1/2 the size of HO, you can do more if your space is restricted. I'd suggest you spend at least some time exploring what's available at some major online suppliers before you make a decision.
If you're the gregarious type see if you can find a modular club in your area and check them out. If the idea intrigues you it's a lot cheaper to build a module than an entire layout.
The other thing to consider is whether you lean more towards operating or more towards model building. If model building is your bent a small layout or diorama might be the way to get your feet wet. Take a look at:
And for the ultimate example of artistry in a small space see: