Over the last few years I’ve developed a method of hand laying track that works for me. This method isn’t perfect but it’s perfectly logical if you consider the alternatives and the fact that I want to avoid some of the pitfalls of hand laying track. I set myself what I would describe as perfectly reasonable standards in terms of my track: I want it to look like the track that NSW trains ran on but there is a limit to the lengths I will go to achieve this. None of the 32mm gauge track I’ve seen comes close to satisfying me so I’m left with hand laying my own. The available commercial track works ok, it just doesn’t look close enough to the real thing to satisfy me. On the other hand there are details and steps I could add to my track that would make it more realistic, but which I forego simply because to add these steps would only improve the aesthetics and add little to the operability of the track. I suppose I could be accused of a touch of Allen McClelland‘s close enough philosophy in this regard.
So to start at the beginning let me outline the basic parameters of the track I build and then I’ll describe how I go about laying it. I work in O-scale but this doesn’t automatically mean much without some clarification. The scale I work to is 1:43.5 proportion where 7mm = 12 inches. This is the O-scale that is the standard in the UK and my part of Australia. Just by way of comparison, the common US O-scale is a little smaller with a proportion of 1:48. The track my trains run on has a gauge that sets the rails 32mm apart. If I was to set the rails at the exact distance needed to represent 4’ 8 1/2″ then I’d need to set the rails approximately 33mm apart. I won’t go into the arcane reasons why my track gauge is a little narrow, trust me, you don’t really need to know for the purposes of this post. The timbers I lay my track on are generally referred to as sleepers and hobbyists in this part of the world have a bad habit of calling turnouts “points”. So I’ll apologise up front if I refer to these things in this way, it’s habit. I lay my track on custom cut bass wood sleepers I buy from Gwydir Valley Models, the rail I use is code 125 Micro Engineering NS rail and I spike this down with ME small rail spikes. All pretty standard up to this point. I used to hand lay my own track in HO many years ago using code 83 NS rail. These days I wonder how I managed to even see the sleepers! 🙂
I’ve settled on a standard set of processes I run through as I hand lay my track and I start with the sub-roadbed which, on my portable layouts, is 9mm marine plywood. When I build the new stretch of track joining up my two portable layouts, Morpeth and Queens Wharf, I’ll use 12mm ply. I know it will be 12mm ply (about 1/2″ in old money) because I’ve already purchased the sheet and it’s laying on the floor of my garage. I spend a fair bit of time trying to remove as much 9mm sub-roadbed ply from either side of the tracks as possible. I don’t like endless vistas of flat tabletop but equally I like to have a solid base of this material below line-side features whenever this is needed. So I tend to start with a larger sheet of material than is strictly required just for where the track will run, lay this out temporarily on the benchwork while I draw the track plan onto its surface and then lift it off and take it out into the garage to cut up with a jig saw until I’m satisfied I’ve removed as much material as I can. After I’m satisfied with this process I attach the sub-roadbed ply to the benchwork with short bolts that are counter-suck into ply to get the heads of the bolts below the surface.
After the sub-roadbed is bolted in place I use a thinner layer of ply to attach my sleepers to. This tends to be 4mm thick, mainly because ply any thinner than this allows the tips of the small rail spikes I use to stick out of the bottom of the ply. I cut this thinner ply up into smaller, appropriately sized pieces and then I clamp these into position on top of the sub-roadbed ply. Using a pencil, rulers, set squares and various other drawing implements I draw the track centre lines on this thinner ply and then mark out the width of the track either side of this line. When it comes to points I will cut out the shape of any points in the plan on this same 4mm ply using paper templates. After the lines are drawn I will cut out the shape of the track with an appropriate power saw; sometimes a jig saw or, if the section is straight, a table saw. The sections of plain track, either straight or curved come out at about 62mm wide: enough width for the sleepers plus a couple of mm either side.
For the track a start is made by preparing the sleepers. For points I will cut longer lengths of the basswood down and for plain track I use pre-cut standard length sleepers. I distress the top side of each sleeper and then dunk them in an india ink and alcohol stain and set them aside to dry. Once dry I glue the sleepers in place on the 4mm bases I cut out earlier using plain, white PVA and then spike the rails to these using the ME spikes. Before I start spiking I paint the sides of each length or rail with a suitably coloured paint. For straight track I will use a steel straight edge to guide the laying of one rail to ensure it is absolutely straight. I use this length of rail as a datum and utilize four roller gauges to lay the other rail from this. On curved track I use a digital caliper set to 16mm and work from the centreline I drew earlier, lay one rail and then spike the second rail from this datum using the roller gauges. By the way, I do all of this rail spiking to the 4mm ply bases at the workbench; none of the track is laid in situ directly to the layout. I only spike every second sleeper. I find this more than adequate to keep the rail exactly where I want it, it saves time and saves on materials. This is another example of my take on the near enough philosophy. I am more than capable of spiking every sleeper but I just don’t see the need.
After I have the rail spiked into place I take the sections of track on their 4mm ply bases back to the layout and make adjustments to the rail lengths to get them to fit. I then drill some small counter sunk holes between the rails and use tiny brass screws to hold the track sections in place. I position these screws down the centre line about 350mm apart. After this I’ll then drill holes and solder dropper wires to each and every length of rail, no matter how short. I mark and leave small spots of rail unpainted free of rail colour prior to spiking it down to allow for soldering the wires. Getting the paint off the sides of the rail after it has fully dried and is spiked in place on the layout is a real pain.
Well that’s basically my method of hand laying track. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks working on the track on QW. I hope to have this done in about another week or so but I’ve found it’s taken me a little longer than I’d anticipated to lay the #6 point I’ve been working on. I got almost all the track on this spiked down today and it’s now been screwed into place. Things are progressing but at a gentle pace.