Track Testing

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll be aware that I’ve been working toward building the ship model that is to populate the pier scene on Morpeth for quite a while now. It may also be apparent that I haven’t posted anything about this model beyond a couple of hull shots of it sitting next to the pier. There are a number of reasons for this lack of posts, not the least being the glacial pace at which I’ve been progressing on the model. I’ve been busy moving, renovating the new train room and building new benchwork is always fun. However I can’t claim that this takes up all my time. In spite of my expectations about building the ship I’ve been dilly dallying round the bush on this model for a number of reasons that have sapped my motivation and the primary one of these is that this is new territory for me modelling wise. As such I’ve sort of been approaching it and backing off for a couple of months now. Nothing is square and level and almost nothing fits because of the far from accurate hull casting! Every time I make a start on it I find I have to make major cuts to the wooden components. Because of my lack of knowledge and experience in this type of modelling I’m convinced I’m going to cut off something vital. Easier to just go and make some more benchwork hey? 🙂 Well I made a real start on the ship model last night and in spite of having to lop bits off willy nilly from parts I have no familiarity with I’m going to keep at it. I’ll keep you posted.

I made a trip to Sydney this past weekend to attend the Aus7 Modellers Group biannual O-Scale Modellers Forum. I had to fly down and back on the Saturday but in spite of this rush and the late minute change of plans that caused it I had a great day. I got to hand out the group’s annual award to Roger Porter and also had plenty of opportunities to poke fun at Keiran Ryan, an opportunity that almost made the trip worthwhile all on its own. While I was there I purchased a set of ModelOKits brand new track laying guides.

I tried to buy a set of these guides while I was down in Sydney at the Liverpool exhibition but a technical hitch emerged and Glenn the proprietor of ModelOKits had to withdraw them from sale. I’m glad to say the issue seems to have been solved and I got a set on Saturday.

The guides are laser cut from what appears to be 3mm MDF and are designed to be used with commercial flex track. Micro Engineering track is sold by Glenn and while I’ve been using them with this type of track I’m sure they will work equally well with Peco track. There are seven curved guides and a straight one in each pack and they are provided in 1400mm through to 2000mm curves. Each guide has its size cut into its surface to aid in identifying which one you’re after.

This photo shows six of the guides spread out in front of QW.

I’ve never needed guides like these before because I’ve never used a great deal of flex track in the past. However as I’ve got plans to trial the use of ME flex track (both code 125 and code 100) on this new layout so I’m sure these will come in useful in getting the track laid.

I’m going to have a rant about Micro-Engineering flex track at this point so if you have pets or children in close proximity get them to avert their eyes. Generally speaking I have a great deal of time for ME products: I use their NS code 125 rail almost exclusively in building points and for the track on Morpeth. I appreciate them making 32mm gauge track available in a number of codes that are of use to a modeller like myself however there are two things that really get up my nose about this track and it’s not that fact that the sleepers are too slim and spaced too closely together to look much like Aussie track. I can live with this, after-all this is a US product made for that market. No, what really drives me bonkers is that they don’t make rail joiners to match their code 125 rail and calling their track “flex-track” could be considered misleading advertising in certain quarters.The track doesn’t flex worth a $%*&! and it’s ability to bend in a consistent and smooth manner is so poor that I’ve seriously thought about selling off my small supply and hand laying all my new track or (gasp) using Peco (which flexes very nicely thank you very much). Peco may look even less like Aussie track than ME but at least they sell matching rail joiners! When I asked the lovely girl at ME what to use with their track she used words to the effect that “word on the street” is that you should use Peco code 148 joiners. Having purchased and used some of these I can attest to the fact that they do sort of work but that they’re big and ugly and I suspect that over time, because they don’t hold the foot of the rail well (being made for 148 Peco rail) that the joins made with these joiners will work loose. Selling track without properly proportioned rail joiners is like Toyota selling a car without wheels and telling customers to buy the ones made by John Deere that were designed for a tractor! 🙂

I’ve had this can of Ezy Glide for years and it occasionally gets used to ease zippers or door/drawer slides. I haven’t purchased a can in yonks so I have no idea whether it’s still available.

In spite of reservations about how applying some sort of lubricant to this track may affect working with it later I decided to test a dry silicone lubricant to see if this allowed me to bend it into a vague approximation of a smooth curve. I put some newspaper down (remember leftover newspaper, it’s become an endangered species at my place) and gave one length of track a good squirt with some Ezy Glide I had sitting under the kitchen sink. The stuff stinks and while it is a dry lubricant I’ve always worried that using it on my track may adversely affect trying to paint or solder the track at a later date. I’m going to do some tests on this to see if my fears are justified. Use of something greasy like WD40 is not an option so I’m hoping that the Ezy Glide will be ok. Applying the lubricant did make a difference to getting the rack to flex but I wouldn’t describe the result as “problem solved”. The track became middling malleable after the lubricant was sprayed on and I was able to get the 2000mm track guide to sit between the rails. Trying this before the application of lubricant was a total failure. In spite of wrestling with it for 5-10 minutes I just couldn’t get the track to flex in a way that would produce a curve. It was that bad! I’ve read of other dry lubricants people have used to ease flex track, one on Gene Deimling’s P48 blog where he wrote about using a carbon based lubricant but I couldn’t find this commercially available in Australia. I’ll do some more testing and keep you posted.


Track Laying on Queens Wharf

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.

Brass Bolt Units


This shot shows the home made bolts I made to deliver power to my turntable roads. This is not on the scenic portion of the layout so it doesn't need to be pretty. Power to the "bolt" units is delivered via wire that is soldereded to the base of each unit run up through holes near the rear of the units. Power is delivered to the rails on the table via solid lengths of NS wire. The bases of the bolt units are 25mm wide.

This shot shows the home made bolts I made to deliver power to my turntable roads. This is not on the scenic portion of the layout so it doesn’t need to be pretty. Power to the “bolt” units is delivered via wire that is soldereded to the base of each unit run up through holes near the rear of the units. Power is delivered to the rails on the table via solid lengths of NS wire. The bases of the bolt units are 25mm wide.

Jumper Cables


This photo shows the jumper cable installed in one of the modules. The layout is on its side so you have to imagine looking at this from below to get a sense of what's going on. You can see the way the wiring serminates in the white nylon terminal block on the left with the wire running out the other side up to the socket. The jumper cable is a separate unit that can be unplugged and packed away for transport. No cables dangling from beneath the layout to be trodden on and damaged. Of course I suppose I could possibly foget to take the cables with me to an exhibition but the terminal blocks could then be temporarily hard wired to bridges the gap. The spare holes I've drilled in the socket panels are obvious.

This photo shows the jumper cable installed across the gap between two of the modules. The layout is on its side so you have to imagine looking at this from below to get a sense of what’s going on. You can see the way the wiring terminates in the white nylon terminal block on the left with the wire running out the other side up to the socket. The jumper cable is a separate unit that can be unplugged and packed away for transport. No cables dangling from beneath the layout to be trodden on and damaged. Of course I suppose I could possibly forget to take the cables with me to an exhibition but the terminal blocks could then be temporarily hard wired to bridge the gap. The spare holes I’ve drilled in the socket panels are obvious.

All Wired Up

I reached a stage over the weekend where I could commence wiring up the final two modules. I have left this task till quite late in the day because I like to get jobs finalized and don’t like to do things in fits and starts. I wanted to wait till things had reached the appropriate stage and this really meant installing the bridge and the 8th and final point (switch).

After I had set up to start work early on Sunday afternoon I got stuck in and spent 3 hours working systematically through the tasks. I quite like wiring layouts: not so much because I know much about wire and electricity, I don’t, but because I understand what is needed to complete the job and it’s logical. Like just about everything else I do in this hobby I have a process and a method for the way I wire my layouts.

So here are my hints and tips about making wiring a layout easy and fun (almost).

1. If there was one outstanding positive about building a layout in smaller, bite sized chunks it isn’t any of the things you might expect like portability and storage. No, the one thing that would be at the top of my list of positives about working on layout segments is ease of access. This applies to wiring as much as it does to scenery. I spent the first 10 minutes of my work time standing the layout on its back and then the next three hours sitting on a comfortable computer chair gliding back and forth as I worked. No blobs of solder in the eye for me!

2. I run everything I wire up to terminal blocks. simple. This makes sense, saves time in the long run and it allows easy swapping out of components if something goes wrong. For example, I’ll wire up a point motor and run the wires from this to a terminal block. I favour the white nylon variety rated up to 240v mains power. To complete the wiring I then run wires from these terminal blocks to where they need to go. Basically that’s it. This system works for me. I spent three hours working on the layout and never once had to check anything or record what I was doing because I use terminal blocks and I also use coloured coded wires.

3. Never, ever get tempted to use the same coloured wire for two different jobs. It doesn’t matter what colour scheme you use but use something! This is really important. I have about 10 spools of different coloured fine wire that does for the bulk of my wiring and I rarely if ever get confused about what’s going on. BTW it’s much cheaper to buy wire on the spool (normally sold in 100m lengths) rather than in 10 or 20 meters at a time. I bought five or six spools of wire from Tom’s in Sydney (in the days when they actually carried a good range of products) and I’m still dragging the wire off these. I’ve recently added some extra colours.

4. If you’re building a portable layout, develop a good method of getting power from one module to the next and then stick with it. When I built QW I used DIN plugs and sockets to do this and I’ve found these more than satisfactory. However I made the mistake of using plugs/sockets with different numbers of pins in different locations on the layout. Another mistake I made was I had one end of the cables dangling out of the bottom of one module with the socket for this located near this in the next module. This meant that there was always short lengths of cable with a plug on the end of it dangling below the layout as it was moved about and these always seemed to be in the perfect spot to be trodden on. On Morpeth I decided to go the whole hog and have a matching set of sockets on the ends of all modules (with standardised wiring) used in conjunction with a short standard jumper cable that could be used to run power across the gap on any module. This meant more wiring but it also means that there’s no fussing about matching up particular cables and plugs with particular sockets. There are four sections of layout (there will eventually be five) and three gaps so that means I need six sockets and three jumper cables. These cables are short lengths of 8 insulated strand wire with a DIN plug at both ends. I will eventually make up a spare in case one fails, probably after this happens the first time 🙂

5. I learnt from my work with QW that it was far easier to build in extra capacity from the start. All my jumper cables have a capacity for 8 wires so if I need nine wires to bridge a gap I have to install a complete extra set of sockets and make up a new cable. This is not such huge task but at the start I wasn’t sure how many wires would need to jump the gaps in the layout. As a general rule if you feed your controls and power into a portable layout from one end you will find that you need lots of capacity at that end and this will gradually reduce the further down the layout as power reaches components installed along its length. The way I reduced this funneling effect was to feed the main power in from one of the middle modules so that wires headed in each directio from this entry point rather than from one end. However I still couldn’t be sure how many wires would need to jump a particular gap so as I was installing my panels for the sockets that sat at each end of every module I made each panel slightly wider than they needed to be and drilled an extra hole where another socket could be installed later with little extra effort. These panels are simple pieces of thin plywood attached to a piece of aluminium angle. Thus far I haven’t had to use any of this spare capacity but I’ve used all eight wires on one end and I tend to come back later and add lighting and animation so this will probably mean I’ll use them at some point.


Close Up


This is a progress shot of my hand laid track. I use ME code 125 rail and Peco code 148 rail joiners. Using chunky rail joiners might seem a little old hat but I find nothing else holds the rail in correct alignment to the same degree. For some inexplicable reason ME don't make joiners that match their code 125 track. You can see the paper point template in this photo and the heads of the brass screws holding the track bases in place.

This is a progress shot of my hand laid track. I use ME code 125 rail and Peco code 148 rail joiners. Using chunky rail joiners might seem a little old hat but I find nothing else holds the rail in correct alignment to the same degree. For some inexplicable reason ME don’t make joiners that match their code 125 track. You can see the paper point template in this photo and the heads of the brass screws holding the track bases in place.

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.