Where There’s A Will There’s A Wall

When you’re planning and building a layout of any reasonable size you live with it in your head for a long time. I’ve been thinking and pondering over this layout plan for so longthat I mostly know well in advance where the tight spots and speed bumps are going to be. One D’oh moment did happen as I laid the track between QW and Morpeth but I think I’m being honest when I say there haven’t been many instances where I’ve been caught out and things didn’t fit where and how the plan said they were supposed to. As the process of building a layout is curated by our own individual personalities it’s no surprise to find that the habits and personality quirks we bring to life and work are reflected in the way we build our layouts and that has never been more true that in building and laying out the curve between the storage yard and Raworth.

Now for those of you who don’t follow my ramblings all that closely I should probably say that the construction of this layout has been impacted by one critical decision I made prior to settling on the final plan. This decision was to include my two portable layouts, Queens Wharf and Morpeth, into the “permanent” design. I knew this would have an impact on the design and construction of the layout but if I’d known how big an impact I’m not sure I’d have gone down this path, at least not with Queens Wharf. This is not to say I’m unhappy with the result, but equally I’m not convinced that the payoff (in terms of time and effort saved) of allowing QW to dictate what happens on a major portion of the larger layout has been worth it. In fact I know it hasn’t been. Queens Wharf was a tiny test bed of a diorama I built over a decade ago. It had some charm and it allowed me to test some ideas but here I am a decade later letting it partially dictate the position and arrangement of the track on a large, permanent home layout. Some of the scenery and all of the track from QW is now sitting on the permanent layout but great slabs of the scenery have either had to be removed or have simply fallen off and as such will need significant amounts of work to be reinstalled. In addition the switches on this little diorama were the first I’d ever made by hand in any number and as such their construction and geometry leave a little to be desired. Anyway the decision was taken, QW now sits along one wall of my layout room and I’m now moving toward the point where I will have the circle of track around the entire perimeter completed and I can run a train around the room. Not that this is a significant accomplishment to a “serious”, operations orientated modeller like me of course. I only put a circle of track in to pander to those of a less serious frame of mind than me 🙂

So I’ve essentially got both QW and Morpeth installed, the storage lines are in place, the not inconsiderable obstacles of a staircase and a cupboard that were inconveniently in the way have been addressed and the two ends of track that form the circle are gradually creeping toward each other to eventually meet in the one totally “new” part of the layout: Raworth! The Raworth (pronounced Ray-worth) portion of the layout is the only station that I can build free from the constraints of a pre-existing diorama or layout segment. Here I can let my imagination run free and “design” to my hearts content to get exactly what I want. Or not. If this layout were a movie it would be Twins starring Danny DeVito and Arnie. Morpeth and QW would be Arnie, who got all the good genes and Raworth would be Danny DeVito, who got all the left over crap. All the easy to fill spaces and walls have been taken up by my two portable layouts with Raworth getting the truncated, “leftover” corner. In addition every fudge and compromise I permitted myself in the design phase to get them to fit has come together in Raworth to provide me with a genuine construction challenge. A challenge that culminated yesterday in me knocking another whacking great hole in one of my newly installed walls/ceilings.

When I reach a tough spot in a modelling project I tend to ignore it and work around it. Thus it has been with Raworth: I had a plan and I knew what was supposed to happen in the corner it sits in but I had done the sums and made some measurements and I knew my minimum radius of 1.5m was in real trouble in one particular spot: the apex of the curve as it rounds the bend into Raworth’s short yard.

After a long design process, a lot of time and effort put into testing curve radii and a great deal of thought I’d put into how to build this part of the layout I discovered three days ago what I’d long suspected: I didn’t have enough space to accommodate my minimum radius curve in this part of the layout. Where my plan said a 1.5m radius curve should be, there was a wall and it wasn’t going anywhere! 🙂

Several weeks ago I’d been able to stand in the middle of the area where the track would curve out of the storage sidings around into Raworth and I could tell that things were going to be extremely tight. This was without adding in a curved point at the top of the curve where the triangle of track was to be created. The radius on this Peco point was much larger than 1.5m and there are straight sections on these manufactured points so this would push the radii out even further. I knew that a 1.5m radius curve wasn’t going to fit, I just hadn’t worked out by how much. So being a go getting type of personality I ignored the problem and started work on the suspended section of rail line that runs over the stairs and through the storage cupboard. This kept me occupied for two or three weeks but the curve into Raworth was always there in the background. I came back to the problem about a week ago. Surprisingly the wall hadn’t shifted out 50mm in the hiatus of work in this area 🙂 The problem wasn’t just confined to the amount of simple distance I had available between the throat of the storage yard and that or Raworth: in addition I once again had to contend with the dormer ceilings that slope up at 45 degrees from the vertical walls. While I would have been able to squeeze in a 1.5m radius curve if I had straight walls, I have in fact got 45 degree angled walls and these were in the way due to constraints further up and down the line: at one end I needed the track to be at a particular height so that it would match the shelf the track runs across in the storage cupboard and at the other end I had plans to curve the coal branch up and over the line running out of the storage roads so every millimeter I could raise the track where it enters Raworth means a slightly less stiff grade on this branch. Of course I couldn’t just raise the line because eventually it would hit the ceiling. So if I couldn’t will that wall away I had to come up with a solution.

The problem had two aspects: the first was that there simply wasn’t enough space to fit my minimum radius in and secondly there was a strict limit to how high I could raise the track at this point to ease the grade on the coal branch. It turned out that I was close but there wasn’t quite enough room to squeeze in my 1.5m “minimum radius curve. In fact I was short by about 50mm (2”) for this size curve to fit in. So I reduced the radius of the curve to 1450mm and drew up and cut two lengths of 12mm ply at this radius and fitted these in place. And it worked. However at the point where I wanted the trains to run the ceiling starts to angle out. While there may have been room for the curve of track, unless all my stock could be reduced to being only 50mm high none would pass that spot without hitting the ceiling.

A couple of days ago I had a visitor who was delivering some wood for a project I’m working on and she came upstairs to see the layout. I’d spent the day struggling with the realization that I couldn’t fudge this part and that I was going to have to do something to get trains round that bend but I wasn’t prepared to reduce the radius of the curve any further to bring it away from the ceiling. I was swearing and carrying on to my friend when I said “and I’m not cutting a hole in the wall!” to which she replied, “why not? You’ve cut holes in three other places.” She was right! So cut a hole is exactly what I did! 🙂

So I gave into the inevitable and cut a new hole in the ceiling, this time to allow the trains to pass. It was a long narrow hole which sits about 200mm behind the backdrop and will allow the leading outside edge of my trains to swing through the arc of the 1450mm curve without hitting their noggins.

As usual with my hole cutting excursions there was a piece of plasterboard channel sitting behind the exact spot I wanted my hole to be. Cutting the hole in the plaster was a mere bagatelle but the bloody metal channel needed the application of a lot of elbow grease by way of a hack saw and I was sweating by the end of the process. Well it was actually two processes as I had to extend the hole when I discovered it wasn’t long enough. And then we come to the backdrop. As you may be able to see from the photo above the hole in the wall is quite a way behind the backdrop. I wasn’t prepared to have a 20mm high backdrop along the entire length of Raworth so I cut the backdrop away to allow the curve to swoop into the gap and out again. Before starting this I thought I could disguise the hole by a few judiciously placed trees but the gap is 1.5m long and 240mm high. It would take a lot of frigging trees to disguise that! 🙂 And before anyone suggests it there are no grades on the Morpeth line so there are no hills and hence tunnels were not an option. I needed a solution to try to reduce the visual impact of this huge gap prior to the application of some judiciously placed trees!

I decided that I would curve a short length of backdrop into the hole created for the curve but this would need to be held very precisely in place on some sort of brace that was ever so slightly of a larger radius that the 1.450m radius curve of the track. This was my solution.

Once I’d made the brace I attached a length of 3mm mdf (this is the backdrop material) to it so that it could be slid in place to provide a cover for all that ugly wall and the hole in it.

When I’d constructed the backdrop screen from a brace and an appropriate length of mdf I slid this in place and mocked up the track bed to check that everything would fit. I needed a clearance of about 115mm above the track bed for it to work and about 20mm behind the track base to let large equipment to overhang on the curve. I’m pleased to report that it all worked perfectly! 🙂

I pushed the backdrop insert into position and screwed it in place, ensuring the backdrop wasn’t leaning forward and interfering with the passage of trains. In spite of the rather bodged up, last minute nature of this solution it looked and worked far better than I had a right to expect. I’ll run a string of LED lights along the upper inside of the main backdrop to get rid of the shadows. It won’t make everything disappear but this will cut down on the visual impact considerably.

Ok, ok, this still doesn’t look “pretty” but it’s a heck of a lot better than simply leaving the gap unmasked so you could see the hole in the ceiling. With track in place, a photo backdrop applied to the whole area, a string of LED lights behind the main backdrop to remove the shadows and (yes you guessed it) a few judiciously placed trees, I think this isn’t going to look too bad. Well I have my fingers crossed 🙂 And I got my 120mm clearance to allow trains to pass at a reasonable height. Not a bad outcome overall.




What’s Hidden Beneath

In the video I posted recently you saw my NSWGR 44 class locomotive traverse the new section of suspended track work over the stairs of my home layout Morpeth (Mk5). It’s called Mk5 because this is the 5th “version” of the Morpeth line I’ve built. Of course Mk 5 incorporates Mk 3 within its confines but that’s another story. Following on from that video I’ve discovered a downside to having a layout where I can actually run trains for more than about 3m: it’s that when you get a locomotive out of its box for the first time in 5 years and run it 10 meters or so for the first time in its life it can be liable to pop its clogs. This happened with the 44. I ran it around the curve and out onto the suspended section of layout and when it reached the end of the available track I reversed it but it wouldn’t move. I could hear noises from inside and it seemed to move to one side slightly but it wouldn’t budge. And this was about 3 or 4 meters above the stairs! Exactly what wasn’t supposed to happen happened with the very first loco I ran on this length of track! Luckily I could reach the loco through the hole in the wall so I gave it a shove and it backed up along the “skyrail”. And no you didn’t see any of that in the video because I’m not stupid enough to broadcast my failures to the world! Well not on video anyway 🙂

So what was I to do about this? Pull the loco apart of course and see what was hidden beneath. I posted some photos and words about this loco on the blog a number of years ago (2012 to be precise) and I posted a photo of the new motor and decoder I installed then. Well it’s 2018 and I haven’t run the loco once in all that time so it’s perhaps not surprising that things went slightly awry. So it was back to the workbench and the photo below was the result:

The installation of the new motor in the 44 in 2012 was necessary to replace the very poor motor the loco was delivered with. However my installation was really a bit of a make do job. I used a motor that just happened to be in the cupboard for another project and it looked a little small and “under-powered”. The motor was brand new at the time and seemed pretty big when I bought it but looking at this photo now it looks too small for such a large loco.

In the space of a couple of days I went from having what I thought was a running loco to a pile of parts spread over my work bench. Before I started this service on my 44 I’d already decided that the fault was bound to be in one of the loco’s bogies but now that I have it in parts on my workbench I’m not so sure. After a bit of fiddling about I managed to extract one of the bogies from the chassis so I could test it on its own by running it with the motor. I wanted it free from the other bogie so I could narrow down where the problem might lie. The first thing I needed to do was make a small wooden cradle that would hold the bogie wheels off the deck so I could watch it as it ran under power. I used some scraps of timber to knock this up, set the bogie on it and applied power to the gear tower by holding the motor where the universals could turn the wheels. While there was no obvious binds in the bogie in either direction everything sounded “dry” to my ear, even the motor. Many years ago I learnt an expensive and valuable lesson when I modelled in HO that one should always apply a suitable lubricant to a new Japanese can motor before placing it under load. I read or was told at the time that it was standard practice among manufacturers like Sagami and Mashima not to lubricate their motors prior to shipping. At the time I failed to do this to a motor I’d installed in a Lima loco I’d re-motored and the thing came to a grinding halt eventually. It turned out I’d ruined the motor and it needed to be replaced.

I can’t remember whether I applied oil to the motor before I installed it into my 44 in 2012 but if I was forced to guess the answer would be I probably didn’t. So in addition to oiling the wheel bearings of my 44’s bogie I also applied a little oil to the bearings on either end of the can motor. I find applying oil is never a “magic” bullet: poorly engineered gear trains and motor set ups rarely “come good” after the application of oil or grease but to my jaundiced ear (is it possible to have a jaundiced ear?) both the motor and gear train in the bogie seemed to settle and run more smoothly after I applied the oil. I’ll do the same test to the other bogie next and see if can find a bind there, but it won’t surprise me to find that the thing runs ok.

What I’ve decided to do, while I have the hood off the loco and the ESU XL is in the hands of the “decoder whisperer” in Sydney, is install a bigger motor which I feel this loco probably needs. I’ve ordered this from NWSL and with any luck it should arrive about the same time I get the decoder back. I’ll keep this current motor for some other, smaller loco I might build at a later time. I’ve also decided to have a shot at turning up my own flywheel on my much under-utilized lathe. Having almost buggered a brand new Sagami motor, trying to turn up a brass flywheel is bound to provide new opportunities to stuff things up 🙂



The Magic Of Photoshop

I visited a friend’s layout a couple of days ago and we started talking about his plans for a loads in/empties out facility on a coal line. As he was telling me about his plans he said “I wouldn’t mind a backdrop with a power station showing in the distance”. When I got home I got thinking about what he’d said and thought “I can do that”. So I cranked up Photoshop and did some searches on Google Images for power plant cooling towers. After about 15 minutes work I sent him the resultant image and he replied he wouldn’t mind a smoke stack. After thinking “fussy bugger” 🙂 I went back online and did another search for power station smoke stacks with the tools setting set at large images.

Once I’d sent him the result he said “what next?” and I replied, print them out on paper and pin them on his backdrop for a week to help you decide if that’s what you want. We could talk about what other steps might need to be taken later.

I wouldn’t make any claims that this backdrop is of commercial quality but then that’s not what it’s meant to be. It’s meant to be an exercise in allowing my friend to see if he likes the idea of a photo backdrop in that spot to give his power plant/coal loader scene depth and character. What you can see here took literally less than half an hour to produce and as such I think it’s a good demonstration of getting what you want if nothing suitable is available commercially. Every element of this scene can be adjusted, from the lighting, intensity, the position and number of the smoke stacks/towers (the cooling towers are actually the same one I cut and pasted, changed the shadow and altered the mist to make it look different) and even the saturation of the colours so that the objects look further away.

We probably won’t use this image if he goes ahead and gets the backdrop printed commercially but I feel this more than adequately demonstrates how easy it is to add photo realistic scenes to you layout.

Skyrail’s First Locomotive Run

I got the piece of suspended roadbed I’ve been lightheartedly calling “skyrail” wired up and all the track leading up to it laid today and was able to test a locomotive over it. As the track doesn’t yet extend beyond the end of the hanging section on the far end the loco doesn’t get too far but I’m excited about it enough to post this video on Youtube. Sorry for how muddy and dark it is, the lighting conditions on the stairs are quite challenging.

Remote Track Laying

Things have gradually coming together on the skyrail and I must admit to being very happy with the progress I’ve made on getting the track laid. I’ve been putting some thought into a couple of ways of allowing easy access for track cleaning and possibly re-railing wagons and locos. The way I’ve come to see this problem is that if there’s a derailment on the track in an inaccessible location I’ll have to climb a ladder to get at it no matter what else I’ve done on the layout. So in this sense it doesn’t matter whether the track is open to the air with low walls (say about 50mm or 2″) protecting the edges of the track base or whether it’s completely enclosed with some sort of high walls (about 11cm or 3 1/2″). If there’s a problem I’m going to have to get up there and fix whatever’s wrong. Having the track completely enclosed, even with removable lids over it, felt like it was going to make things way too complicated when I’m 2 or 3 meters up a ladder, unable to see the wheels properly and more than likely on my own. So the tube concept where the track was entirely enclosed never made it off the drawing board. I’m going with low walls and little gates at each end that will keep the critters out.

The main hurdle that I needed to address before I could install this length of track was that I wanted the whole section laid and wired up prior to it being lifted into position and permanently installed. As a secondary consideration I wanted to be able to get the whole shebang back down again as one unit so I could fix a major problem if one emerged at some point in the future and there was no other way to address it. The basic structure was to be my standard 12mm ply (1/2″) with 50mm high, 3mm thick ply “walls” running the entire length of the unit with the track bus running on top of the track bed, not hanging down below it where it might get snagged or damaged.

After a bit of fiddling and thinking I mocked up a cross-section of the track base to check that there was enough clearance to allow rolling stock to pass my standard terminal blocks that would allow the track bus to pass along on top of the road bed. There’s plenty of clearance. The side walls are 3mm thick and 62mm high which allows 50mm to sit above the 12mm play base.

I’d assembled the track base into position a few days ago and it sat there while I laid some track and did some work to the track which approaches the skyrail near the entry door. I manhandled the full length of track base down the stairs and set it up on a work table downstairs to allow the track to be laid, wired up and the protective walls to be installed along its edges. I cut up some off-cuts of 3mm ply into 62mm wide strips then laid some track underlay and secured Peco flex track on top of this.

My bus wire is 14 AWG dual strand, black and red cable. I use this around the layout and make sure that each and every length of track has a connection to this. To allow this to happen on the suspended length of track I ran bus down the outer edge of the track bed and ran connections to the rail from this every 900mm or so by terminating the wires into the plastic terminal blocks I’d tested earlier.

I decided to place the wiring above the track bed to protect it and make installation of the length of track bed easier as this would mean nothing would be external to the plywood thus presenting a neat, self-contained cross-section.

After laying the track and wiring this up I commenced installing the side walls along the outer and inner edges of the track base. Unlike my usual practice of avoiding the use of glue I decided to glue and screw these into position. I ran a bead of glue along the bottom edge of the ply and then used every large clamp I owned to hold these in position. I then went along the edges and screwed in small 9mm pan head screws to provide additional support.

I used glue in addition to screws every 200mm or so to make the whole structure as rigid as possible. I’m relying on the 3mm ply to provide some vertical rigidity to the track bed so that drooping and flexing is at a minimum. The brackets I’ve installed will be more than sufficient to hold the track bed and trains as they pass by in place but I want to ensure that there is virtually no sagging and these lengths of 3mm ply should make the whole structure extremely rigid.

This shot shows the walls in place and the wiring running down the edge of the base. There’s a little waviness to the 3mm ply but I’ve already checked and there’s ample clearance for trains to pass by.

All that’s left to do now is lift it into position and hook it up to the rest of the layout 🙂

Offcuts and Leftovers

It’s been quite a while since I’ve made a post and I don’t really have much excuse except that I’ve been so busy building the layout. The track has been gradually creeping around the layout room to the point where I really needed to take the bull by the horns and cut some holes in my newly installed walls to allow the trains to travel where they need to thus creating a full circle of track. I’d been unsure about the need for a circle of track but was convinced by friends that it would be a good idea to have this feature and I had originally planned to bypass the hole cutting by having the trains cross the path of the doorways but was talked out of this by another friend. I consoled myself that I could always blame these friends if things went wrong 🙂 After today I’m convinced that there is no doubt that this was the way to go. Having the trains circuit around the room behind the stairs which allows you to enter the room without a duck-under is going to be a long-term benefit as I enter my dotage, if I haven’t already, although getting up the stairs may be just as big a challenge over the same period 🙂

So the day had arrived: well it did about two weeks ago when I cut two holes either side of the cupboard.

This photo which I took a couple of weeks ago shows the interior of the walk in storage cupboard. It shows the first hole cut in the wall on the right but I haven’t yet cut the hole on the other side of the cupboard. The 12mm ply track-bed will sit on one of the shelves so trains will simply pass through. To provide a little more length to the rail yard at Raworth I’m going to place one of the points inside the cupboard. You can see this on the left. You can also see where I’ve cut the noggin “inside” the hole.

This photo shows the hole being cut on the outer wall of the cupboard. These two holes both had a noggin in the place I needed to have the trains pass through and these both needed to be cut. This shot shows a pause in proceedings as I stopped to take the photo. The saw is upside down as I cut up into the noggin. This hole is about 2.5m above the stairs! Straight down…

I cut the holes and did some test fitting of road bed and left things there while I went back and laid some track on the other side of this gradually closing circle. I’ve found having the track in place as I approach critical steps like cutting holes in walls helps with placement and set-up of the track bed as it approaches the holes.

Today I started to set up the brackets that will hold the track-bed above the stairs. I started by bolting six short lengths (420mm long) of 70mmX35mm framing timber to the U channel that is a part of the shed’s structure. This U channel runs around the interior perimeter of the building and is used to hold on the exterior cladding. On the interior you get two screw ledges facing inward to which I bolted the short bracket joists.

As I was working on the stairs, and the joists at the far end of the wall are a good deal higher than me, I needed a way of placing a ladder on the stairs. I built a small box from 15mm ply that sat on one of the steps providing a flat level surface for the step ladders I was using. I did need to be careful as I got up and down the ladders but I was surprised at how safe and stable the arrangement proved to be. It was only after I made the box that I found all the treads on the stairs are slightly different heights so I had to block up the box with scrap ply.

This probably looks more precarious than it is. I made a 600mm long box from ply that sat at the same height as the steps on the stairs. I clamped this to the stair tread it was sitting on and this gave me a surface wide enough to place a step-ladder. The short ladder in this photo was one of three I used to reach the U channel and bolt my joists into position. My partner asked me if I had my medical insurance up to date 🙂

This photo shows the installation of the 4th joist. Only two more to go! 🙂 I clamped each one into position and drilled through pre-drilled holes in the timber into the U channel. After the holes were drilled I secured the joist into position with two bolts which you can see on the surface of the blue timber to the left.

After getting the six joists secured into position (they’re 500mm apart) I then started making up some brackets that would be screwed to these joists at the required height. Because of the noggins the track has to rise about 40mm from where it exits through one hole (next to the doorway you can see in the photos) and re-enters the room through the other hole at the back of the walk in storage cupboard which is inside the train room. So the brackets all need to be at slightly different heights as the track bed rises up grade.

After installing the first three brackets temporarily I was able to place a piece of track-bed on these and mark where the hole needed to be cut in the wall to the right of the doorway at the top of the stairs. I’ll set the height for these brackets and screw them permanently into position when I complete the track inside the room next to the door in the next day or so.

I normally cut my 12mm play track base 9cm wide on all straight and curved single track but I wasn’t convinced that the longest vehicles and locos I have would be able to round the curve on this suspended section of the layout once I installed side walls on all the track base. I did some tests and while the longest loco I have on hand sat within the 9cm edge of the track bed, it was only clearing this by about 1mm. I made the decision to cut the track base at 11cm wide to provide plenty of clearance within the tube that will be created by the track base and the side walls of 3mm ply I’ll attach to them later, after the track is laid.

I’m really just testing clearances here and the track is for demonstration purposes only. The height of each bracket has not been set as yet so these are clamped into an approximate position at this stage. The pencil curves on this piece of ply tells me that it was from one of the sheets of ply we used to test the curves for the layout a few months ago.

Generally speaking I was very pleased with the progress I made today on this part of the project. It was another one of those steps I’d been thinking about and planning for months and it feels gratifying to have cut all the holes in the walls finally and to have made a start on track laying. However the really tricky bit will be cutting and laying the curved section over the highest part of the stairs. I’ve yet to finally decide the best way to hold this track up as it gradually moves away from the wall and heads out into open space.

Everything I installed today was made from off-cuts and leftovers and when I ran out of the framing timber I took a trip over to my partner’s place and raided her stockpile of leftovers from the building of her new home. She told me she wanted that timber to build a dog house. I reckon her black Labrador can sleep in the great outdoors just like she has for the last 3 years, I have a more important use for the timber 🙂