N Scale Signals

I've always been impressed with layouts that have lots of signals.  But then I've also been quickly overwhelmed with the complexity of wiring a working signal system.  Since my layout's not very large, DCC does all that I need and various 'block' control techniques would only add more (unnecessary for me) complexity to the layout.

However, having recently adopted the BCD Switch system by George Stilwell to replace my Kato 'big blue' switches and to create a control panel with LED indications of switch positions, I took advantage of this wiring opportunity to also add in 'signals' at the turnouts themselves.

Creating these signals had some restrictions.  The BCD circuit requires 2-pole LED's, which means that adding off-the-shelf signals (with one common and at least several leads for other signal indications) was not an option.  As with many things in this hobby, sometimes you have to figure out a way to do things yourself.

I was able to easily find red/green bi-color LED's with 2 poles (rather than the much more common 3 poles) on eBay and while these would easily serve my needs at the control panel, I had to figure out how they were going to look on the layout.  Here's the 3mm red/green LED with wire leads soldered on:
My first attempt was to encase the LED in a piece of rectangular styrene.  Paint it up, and see how it looks.  Here's the result of that trial:
YIKES!  What is that??  Some sort of alien signaling device?  I knew this approach would be far from prototypical (unless I was going with a HAL 9000 look), but this thing looks like something from Mars!  Fortunately, the dwarf signal looks a little better (well, tolerable anyway)...
While I think I can live with the 'dwarf' signals, I can't live with those goofy 'HAL 9000' signals. I needed another solution.  Fortunately, Greenmax makes a plastic kit containing 4 signals that would fit the bill perfectly.  Here's what the pieces look like on the spru:
As the LED (even at 3mm!) is still too large (although there is a 2mm version of this that will work much better which I wasn't aware of when I originally built these) I had to grind out a little of the plastic on the back side of the signal, and sand down the LED without getting close to the electrical elements inside the plastic:
Then glue the LED to the back of the signal....
Paint it black (no humming please)....
Drill out a small hole from the front of the signal...smaller is best!  Ta-dah!  That LED that was covered with paint is now mostly only visible through the new tiny hole that was just made:
And install....here showing the green indication....
That's all there is to it!

Total cost for each signal?

  • LED's: 10 pack for $1.75 or  $0.18 each.
  • Greenmax Signals: 4 for about $5.00or $1.25 each.
  • Wires? Solder? Paint? Total...maybe a $1.00 for each signal?
Your looking at about $2, maybe $3 a signal!  Pretty good price if you can accept the compromises that these obviously force on you - for example, I really want to find a way to hide the LED wires, but even painted black, their not that noticeable to average folks.  Compared with the admittedly beautiful signals that Viessman makes, I can do the whole layout for the cost of one signal!

The Greenmax signals are a pretty acceptable looking 'generic' style  and I think they'd look pretty good on a US themed layout, as well as Japanese obvuiously, and possible British! But I don't think anything in continental Europe looks close to these (albeit this is not an area of specialty for me, so I'm likely wrong and ignorant).  Unforunately, cheap plastic kit signals don't seem to be available outside these Greenmax versions (and I believe some Model Power or Bachman stuff for the US). 

And compared to my first attempt, which are so bizarre looking, I'm quite happy with how these turned out - I know have a control panel with LED indication of switch positions, signals on the layout (partially) for layout indication, and all for a relatively decent sum!  Of course, I'm quite happy my signals don't creep me out with their uncanny resemblance to HAL 9000!

Finally, a quick comparison between the two:


  1. You could simply use two LEDs, wired in parallel, but with opposite polarities, to achieve the same effect, but with lights peeping through different holes.

    Get some cheapy 1206 SMD LEDs off of eBay, and see if you are comfortable soldering them. I've found, much to my surprise, that not only are 1206 LEDs not too hard to solder leads to, but neither are the smaller 0608's. A good third-hand or hobby vice are essential tools, however.

    So, get some green and some red 1206 LEDs, and see if you can't take that Greenmax signal one better. I bet you could do it :D

  2. Don, that's a really good idea! I'm going to look into that for my next batch! Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. And by 0608, I meant, of course, 0805 :D

  4. I'm going to sound like an old Parrot but, good job. I allways loved signals but never understood them. Your approach of this problem strikes me as very simple and effective. I like it.

    Are we going to see your new control panel?

  5. Interesting approach, it looks pretty good indeed! When I look at my Viessmann signals, this reminds me of how unoticeable some of the details are (fortunately Conrad - a major electronics store chain in Germany - sells Viessmann signals as half/price as DIY kits).

    What really surprises me is your choice for the control panel. You are so fancy with your buildings (I'm jealous ;) ), but I notice you really wish to stay to the DCC basics (just train control).
    It's all a matter of taste, but I couldn't imagine wiring a good old control panel...I already mentioned it on an older post, but you may want to give a look at the "state of the art" in DCC commands: LCD screen with the magic of touch screen ;) The new Märklin Central Station II does DCC, or the Viessmann Commander (less user friendly, more functionnalities).

    Here is how mine looks, integrated in a wooden box, and next to a good old Arnold analog turntable control:

    How many wires needed from the network? 2, for track, accessories and everything. It sure does cost the same as 4 locomotives...but it's a lot of fun for those of us who also have a hidden geek side and don't miss the "buttony" feel;-)

  6. Jerry this is awesome. Really cool work.


  7. Nice way to save some money! :D

    I've decided to buy Viessmann lights and semaphores. I know they're a bit expensive, but love the look the give to my layout.

    About the SMD leds, I've ordered the 0603 because I was planning to put inside the loks and coaches, Now I'm gonna put them inside the houses.

    Great work!

  8. Thanks Everyone!


    Yes, the Viessman signals are beautiful, and if I could figure out how to do simple wiring to use them, I would do it (I'm still not done with that yet!).

    As for control panels...There is something I like about the 'traditional' control panel, but only if it has LED indication. If not for that, I would go to a more digital version. I actually have been thinking very long and hard about the Viessman system, the Ecos (although the NEW ECOS 2 is not yet available in the US), and the Marklin Central Station 2 (now that it supports DCC). I don't want to invest that kind of money yet for those, so I'm still waiting for the point when my current Mobile Station set up is no longer adequate, and I'm ready to 'upgrade' to one of those 3. The new Roco Multimaus is also somewhat interesting (I really like the idea of handheld, wireless control) and the new Trix Mobile Stations seem very interesting as well. A lot of interesting things coming it appears!

  9. Pierre---

    Thanks for the photos...when do we get to see more pictures of your layout? ;-)

  10. @Jerry

    I'll show picture of my layout when it will look at least half as good as yours ;)

    I know by following your blog that you've been sticking to your mobile station, just wanted to be sure you're aware of the choice you're making now that you're adding many accessories (and actually, the new ECOS must indeed be another good choice, never seen it yet though).

    Added to that, I was wrong in a past post, the Mobile Station II was not cancelled by Trix and should be out in April (in Europe at least: http://www.conrad.de/ce/de/product/249312/TR-MOBILE-STATION-66950-NEU/SHOP_AREA_21904) . As opposed to the "old" mobile station with which this one can control turnouts and accessories.

    In any case, having fun is always the most important part. Your choice (DDC for driving, analog for accessories) is interesting in this very opinionated hobby-world (look at me!).
    Should you ever want to switch to full DCC, here is the experience of an early switcher: the bucks will sure hurt a bit...but the hardest moral pain will be to take away the dozens of wires that you had taken hours to lay down and now made redundant. :-)

  11. >>really want to find a way to hide
    >>the LED wires

    You can use magnet wire for the wires. It's very thin wire with an enamel coating that scrapes off where you want to solder it. Works GREAT! You can get it at Radio Shack if you are in the states... Mouser should sell it too.

    I agree with the smaller LED's. I've just started experimenting with them and they open up HUGE possibilities! :-D

    Keep up the GREAT work!