Curse You Bunnings!

A few years ago I picked up four welded steel stands which I use to present Queens Wharf at exhibitions. These were constructed to a design by the late Rodney James and made by Keiran Ryan. As you would expect with something designed by someone as smart and thoughtful as Rodney, they are extremely practical and robust. They’re welded from square tube steel and are separate, individual units: they’re not integral to the layout in any way and when not in use they stand resting against the wall in my garage.

When I began construction of Morpeth I deliberately set out to build a bigger layout: QW was an enjoyable experience to build but it was only 3m (10′) long. I was determined to get a bit more length into the passing loop and some of the sidings on Morpeth. Now it probably escaped me while I was designing the trackplan and benchwork, but a longer portable layout tends to mean more modules or segments and this was the case with Morpeth. The segments of the new layout were a bit longer than those of QW but I still ended up with four segments over QW’s three. What escaped me was that with an extra segment I would need an extra stand to hold the layout off the ground. I enquired of Keiran whether he had any more stands he could let me have and the simple answer was no, so it was onto plan B. I’d be making my own.

As a general rule I don’t really like mixing and matching materials in my layout building. If I have four tubular steel stands and I need an extra one my natural preference is to have the new one made to the same design and from the same material as the others. However welding is one of the many skills I do not possess and I have no plans to acquire it, so I decided very early on that I would be making the new legs for my fourth section of layout from aluminium. This metal forms the key construction material for the rest of the layout being light, strong and readily available in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Aluminium was the obvious choice.

I’d been thinking about the way I was going to make the stand that would go under the fiddleyard of Morpeth for approximately 2 years give or take. I do most of my layout planning while I’m driving and I’ve expended quite a bit of this valuable thinking time while driving to and from work in that time trying to come up with a way of replicating the design Rodney used in his steel version of the stands. I had originally thought that the best design would be one that mimicked Rodney’s design but try as I might I couldn’t think of a simple and robust way of replicating the angle of the brackets that hold the layout at the top of his stands without welding. It is the strength of the steel and the welds that hold them together that allow for a very narrow cross-section in Rodney’s design, replicating this in aluminium without welding proved a real conundrum. I ran through all sorts of ideas and plans and in the end I decided that none of them was going to work in a way that I would find acceptable. Don’t get me wrong, I could have made it work, however I felt that the result would have been clunky and ugly and would have a much thicker cross-section than I was willing to accept, so I abandoned the plan to replicate a free-standing, hinged stand and decided to employ a simple pair of legs made from aluminium square section that would slot into small pockets in the underside of the fiddleyard. These would be joined in a pair by some form of cross bracing, probably thin plywood.

Well that was the plan until I visited Bunnings the other day! For those of you reading this who have no idea what or who “Bunnings” is let me enlighten you by describing this chain of enormous hardware stores as the work of the devil. They are a DIY cornucopia and they are way too familiar with the details inscribed on my credit card! 🙂 I go to Bunnings not so much because of the prices, in fact I don’t think they’re all that cheap, but for the range of stock they carry: they have things I didn’t know I needed and the sudden abandonment of two years planning is an example of this.

One item that is now ubiquitous in the Australian domestic landscape is a particlar variety of plastic table with folding legs that are sold in vast quantities by Bunnings: you can’t go to a BBQ or a church fete without seeing dozens of these tables cluttering up the place. I have a couple of these tables myself but I was unaware that they also come in various sizes and this was what did me in during my last visit. I found myself innocently strolling past an endless row of wheel barrows when I saw a small version of the tables I own “casually” leaning against a wall. No doubt placed there deliberately to entice the unwary and weak willed (like me). I stopped to look at the legs on this thing when, from behind a 3m high stack of bagged pool salt, leapt a “helpful” shop assistant who took me round to the row where the tables were kept in great profusion. The next thing you know I’m heading for the checkout with one of the tables and several metres of 2×1 pine precariously balanced on one of those strange trolleys they have in these places. Curse you Bunnings!

What I had noticed about the legs on the table I purchased was that they would be more than suitable as layout legs that could be tucked up under a layout segment such as my fiddleyard. The legs are sold separately but each single set costs more than the two that come with the table. The ones that come with larger tables were spaced too far apart for my needs but these were smaller and narrower and the only downside is that the legs are too short to match the height of my other stands. I’ve read quite a few articles and seen photos in magazines (an issue of Great Model Railroads from 2011 was one) using the legs from an almost identical table being used in the same way I planned to, so this is not a new idea. However what had stopped me using them was that I had designed the modules of my layout to sit on free-standing, folding stands and there was nowhere to tuck a set of folding legs underneath my layout sections.

What drove the decision about the sudden change of plan was a problem I’d encountered with the design of my fiddle yard turntable. The aluminium used in the layout construction works fine but it does have a bit more flex in it than wood. I knew this already and the sections are built in such a way as to reduce this by bracing them with a skin of thin MDF. However I discovered that the fiddleyard needed to be much more rigid than even this design allowed. When the fiddleyard was fully supported along its length everything worked fine, but as soon as it was supported at two points either end (as it would be in an exhibition) there was a small sag in the centre that caused problems with the operation of the turntable. It worked but it moved in ways I couldn’t predict and I had to fix it if I wanted to use it in public. My solution was to essentially go old school by running two L girders down the length of the undersaide of the module (which explains my purchase of the 1×2″ pine at Bunnings in addition to the table). This killed two birds with one stone in that it added the stiffness required and also provided a pocket into which the leg assembly could be slotted for storage and transport. I might not like mixing and matching materials but I do like things being integral to the layout and the legs for the fiddle yard now fold up neatly under the module.

I used some short lengths of the square aluminium stock I had purchased for my earlier earlier design to extend the legs that came with the table. My main reason for going with this material was that I wanted to install some T nuts in the end of the legs to allow for height adjustment and I already had the parts for this. I managed to construct and install the L girders yesterday and the legs went in today with little trouble. I only used one set of the legs from the table which means I have a spare if I ever need one. I’d seen people extend the legs with lengths of broom handle and such like but I felt that this would be liable to flex a bit too much for my liking so I simply bolted a cross brace of 5mm ply to the bottom of the table legs and bolted on the aluminium extensions.

After the legs were installed I set the module up and gave the turntable a test and the extra stiffness provided by the L girders allowed it to operate flawlessly. I’ve added quite a bit of weight to the module through the addition of these members, however it isn’t any heavier than it would have been if I’d made the module entirely from wood so I’ve lost nothing in that regard. I was able to manoeuvre it by myself onto the stands and back into the storage rack so it’s still a reasonable weight and being the fiddleyard it isn’t going to acquire a heavy layer of scenery. Overall I’m happy with the result.

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