Making Tracks

In approximately 13 years of working in O-scale I’ve probably hand-made about 12 or 13 points (switches) and laid about 25 meters of plain track. My first O-scale layout was laid using Peco track. I don’t want this statement to be misinterpreted: the reason I’ve only made about a dozen points in that time is not because it takes me 12 months to carry out such a difficult task. The reason is that I’ve only built two relatively small layouts in that time and there are only so many points you can fit in such a limited space. I have a vivid memory from my HO days when I discovered modellers hand laid their own track which probably happened when reading one of Tony Koester’s Train of Thought columns in MR. I had this sort of 7 stages of grief reaction: shock that anyone would hand lay track, denial that anyone would bother, anger that others had skills that I lacked, bargaining with myself about whether it would be worth it etc. I didn’t ever get to the guilt and depression stages but I do remember feeling rather shocked that anyone would bother hand laying track until I actually saw some good, close-up photos of the resultant track. That was all it took – pretty soon I was laying my own track including a long curved point I was particularly proud of on my last HO layout Trundlemore.

Of course with the switch to O-scale (excuse the pun) it was only natural that I would continue to hand lay my track except there were a few hurdles that prevented this early on. The first and possibly most fundamental of these was the lack of a properly proportioned 1:43.5 wooden sleeper (tie) that matched NSWR dimensions. It took a while but the founding of the Aus7 Modellers group overcame this obstacle when we commissioned Mt Albert to produce some sleeper material for us. Kappler now produce these for Gwydir Valley Models and you can find a link to them on the right hand side of this page. In spite of this I can readily imagine the reaction of anyone reading this who hasn’t hand laid track and built points: I imagine they probably felt exactly the same shock or perhaps denial I did by asking themselves why would you bother or perhaps in denying they have the required skill. My only response to anyone reading this who might have doubts that they have the necessary skills required to lay their own track would be to declare, in my best Aussie vernacular, that this is bullshit! I’m an English teacher by profession: if an English teacher can learn to hand lay track anyone can! 🙂

By this stage in my modelling career I tend to ask exactly the opposite question to the one I asked when I first discovered that people hand-laid track: why wouldn’t you? Ok I don’t have 500m of track to lay but I actually enjoy hand laying track and have developed my own methods over the years. My first points in O were made from modified kits I’d purchased from the UK and they were a nightmare to modify and lay. They required hours of back-breaking toil bent over Queens Wharf and from this I learnt my first lesson of hand laying track: never lay your track directly onto the layout, always lay it onto some type of sub bed and then lay this onto the layout in a similar manner to commercially made track. I lay my points and track on cut outs of 3.5mm luan ply that I cut and shape before gluing on the sleepers. When the sleepers are glued down I then lay the rail, position the segments of track and then retain them with small brass screws. I’m essentially making pieces of set track by hand.

My points all have a point frog that is a #6 and these are laid onto simple paper templates drawn up years ago by my friend, and long time President of the Aus7 Modellers Group, Keiran Ryan. I’ve yet to convince him to do some drawings of other formations but I’m working on it. He reckons he’s too busy! The reason NSW modellers needed their own sleepers and sleeper templates was because the way points are laid in this state is quite different from UK and US practice. If you’re going to lay your own track you may as well make it accurate to the prototype hey? After I’ve cut out the ply sub bed I simply glue the paper templates to these and glue the sleepers on top, after I’ve distressed and stained them. I paint the rail with Floquil Rail Brown and then spike it down.

I think what really revolutionised the laying of track from me was the discovery of 2 or 3 tools that really made laying points and track fool-proof. The first of these was the range of Fast Tracks point form tools and accessories. I find these tools indispensable. It is quite possible to make points without them but with these tools making the various components really becomes a breeze. I think the next most important tool for me was to buy a set of Aus7 roller gauges. You can get other types of gauges and versions of roller gauges but I find that using the roller gauges makes laying consistently gauged track a snap. The final piece of the puzzle for me was purchasing a pair of the Xuron spiking pliers, the ones with blue handles. Before getting these I laboriously drilled a pilot hole for every rail spike I drove home. These pliers revolutionized hand laying track for me. I have Roger Porter to thank for suggesting I get myself a pair.

Because time is so short between now and the exhibition Morpeth will be appearing in on the 1st of March 2014 I felt I needed to finally settle the track plan around the wharf siding. I could probably have bodged up some sort of temporary cover for this area via a cheap and cheerful scenery shell, however I knew that at some point in the future I’d have to come back and rip this out to lay the new track to the pier and I hate having to redo something I’ve already done. As my sequence of layout work is a fairly rigid routine I stuck to my well-worn path and laid the track to the new pier siding over the last couple of weeks. Now that this is complete I can bring a scenery contour of foam up to this and get some ground cover on it to give the module a more finished appearance. I will repeat myself here: I won’t get this work all finished by next March but it will have a semi complete look. There will be no ballast laid on this module for instance and there’s a very simple reason for this: ballast is the last element I add to a scene with track running through it, not the first.

Before I can wire up the new track I want to install the bridge permanently over the creek and lay the main line over this. I can then wire everything up in one go, saving time and the need to come back and do this job in fits and starts. Doing it all in one go means it can all be tested and de-bugged together and then I can confidently move onto other items on the to do list. The wiring will include a jumper cable to connect the 3rd and 4th module (the train turntable) and I will then have to settle on a method of electrifying the fiddle yard tracks. I have some ideas about this but haven’t settled on the final version yet. I’ll do some experiments and let you know the results in a future post.

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