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Product Review

October 3, 2012

Because of the nature of my work, I have a lot more contact with vendors and experience with products than the average hobbyist.  I've found out who you can count on and who you can't.  Through trial and error I know the products that work and those that are poorly made.   After wrapping up my current project, I thought it would be helpful to pass the following product and vendor assessment along.  I'm going to travel the high road and only address the positives, the 'go to' folks I recommend.



My construction criteria for a good structure kit consists of:  parts that are warp and flash free,  parts that fit well enough that the kit goes together without issue, and finally window and railing cross sections reasonably thin given the constraints of injection molding.  Of equal importance I look for kits that look believable.  I avoid whimsical models that look like they belong in Disneyworld.  I want  working class, blue collar themes that look like they belong in the real world.   I was particularly pleased with the following kits. All four could be used to house industries other than what is on the box cover.

  • Black Gold Asphalt (Walthers pn 3085)

  • Grocery Distributor (Walthers pn 3760)

  • State Line Farm Supply (Walthers  pn 2912)

  • Middlesex Manufacturing (Atlas pn 721)

Walthers New DCC 130ft. Turntable

Let me start by saying this is a well designed product.  It runs very well, is well designed, and very fairly priced.  It's not without issues though.  The instructions are just awful.  Major steps of the programming sequence are omitted and you're pretty much on your own to use trial and error button pushing to figure out how to make it work.  On my product, the rim of the pit was sloped upward slightly and the turntable track slightly high.  The end result is that if you don't make adjustments your service tracks will sit almost .015" higher than the turntable track.  You can compensate for this height difference simply by using code 70 rail for the service tracks (which I discovered after the fact at a great expense of labor costs).  Good product, buy it, but know what you're getting into.


Atlas code 83 flex track and number six turnouts.  What can I say, it's the definition of bulletproof.  I'm hitting 12 years in business and have not had a failure or gauge problem yet.


I deal exclusively with Arizona Rock and Mineral Company.  Natural rock based products and lightning fast shipping.  The website and online ordering process is a bit quirky though.  You need to place orders directly by phone with the owner, Phil Anderson.  Phil is the expert on soil and ballast blends so I prefer to discuss the look I'm after with him first and then defer to his judgment.  He hasn't been wrong yet.  Minimum order is six bags.

Specialty Track

I had some concerns about shorts and reliability when a customer recently requested the use of the Walthers double crossover (pn 8812) in the design.   I was pleasantly surprised to find the unit works flawlessly, no shorts, no derailments.  I did have a point or two go electrically dead but this issue occurs with all brands and is easily addressed by adding a feeder wire to the dead rail.


Here are some very nicely done and commonly needed details from some of the smaller manufacturers.

  • Selley Finishing Touches: Line transformers pn 637.  This is a commonly needed part and their white metal casting is very crisp and flash free.  You get six per package.

  • Tichy Train Group: Pallets, crossbucks, signs...everything they make is well done.

  • Sea Port Model Works: Barges pn M544HO

Signal Circuits

 For signal and grade crossing triggering I use the Signal Animator and Grade Crossing Pro from Logic Rail Technologies.  Bulletproof reliability.  Fast shipping.

Order Fulfillment

For my business, I look for two things, neither of which is price.  First, is the website inventory up to date and accurate?  It's time consuming and frustrating if you have to call your dealer before every order to verify that they actually have the items in stock.  Second, does the order go out in a timely fashion?  Here are my 'go to' houses that I rely on to keep my projects moving.

Walthers.  They have pretty much EVERYTHIING, the broadest selection to chose from.   Generally if they say something is in stock, it  is.  If you need mass quantities of a product, occasionally you exhaust they're inventory and don't get the full quantity.  Shipping is fast IF (very big "IF" ), you pay the extra five dollar shipping surcharge.  If you don't pay the surcharge, you'll be waiting FOREVER for the order to come in.  No discounts but often some good sale prices.

ModelTrainStuff.com.  The best website out there.  They list actual inventory so you never order something (or a quantity) that they don't have.  Pretty fast shipping.  Good discounts

Mainline Hobby Supply.  Nice people.  The FASTEST at order fulfillment and shipping.  From phone call to my doorstep in Maryland is frequently 24 hours!  Good discounts.  If I need a special favor I call them (ask for Bonnie).   You do need to call to verify inventory before ordering though.

I had good experience on small orders with a few houses I hadn't used before: T and K Hobby, and Empire Train and Hobby.



Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover!

December 1, 2011


It’s always a challenge coming up with a title for a book.  As soon as you do so, you run the risk of having the book being pigeon holed.  That is, giving the shopper the impression it doesn’t address areas that may be  helpful to them.  Although my book How to Design A Switching Layout does focus on smaller layouts, many of the concepts are universal and apply to layouts of all sizes.

To Name Just a Few: 

  • Strategic Planning

  • Setting Your Project Scope

  • Scenery Only Zones

  • Industry Selection and Placement

  • Track clearance issues

So, even if your layout is larger and doesn’t fall into the category of a pure switching layout, it will likely have industrial areas within the towns where the concepts apply.  For less than the cost of a freight car you can pick up some valuable planning tips.





Layout Construction

Throwing Turnout Points

October 7, 2011


If your layout features slow speed operations and standard locomotives, it probably is not necessary to throw the points with a switch machine, you can just flip them with your fingers (left photo).  If the points are loose and won't lie snug against the stock rail, slip a styrene shim beneath the throw bar to add friction (right photo).


When it comes to model railroad track work, no subject gets more attention than the turnouts (aka track switches).  It's amazing when you think about it.  The simple process of moving the point rails an eighth of inch one way or the other becomes one of the key mechanical issues on the layout.   There are  three methods for moving turnout points: electrical or mechanical switch machine, Caboose Industries ground throws, or flipping the points by hand.  The key is to match the method to the right situation.  All too often I see modelers quickly making the assumption that every turnout must be thrown by a switch machine.  There is no harm if you go that route but it does introduce a lot of cost and complexity in cases where switch machines may not be needed.

How do you decide which method fits your situation?  First if in doubt, always drill the throw rod hole through your plywood base in anticipation of adding a switch machine at some point in the future.  If you decide not to use switch machines and don't need the throw rod hole no harm done.  On the flip side, deciding you need the hole after the turnout is in place is a dicey situation.

Switch machines (Tortoise, Blue Point, etc.) are the best method of throwing turnouts when:

  • You have a fairly high volume of traffic passing through the turnout and/or the trains going through the turnout are generally moving faster than you see with switching operations.  Switch machines ensure the points are snugly in position.  In addition, powered switch machines can be thrown quickly with a flip of a switch.

  • Crossovers.  You can control both crossover turnouts with one toggle switch allowing the crossover movement with a single flip of that switch.

  • Powered points.  Most turnouts have an electrically dead frog. The need for powered points is relatively rare and a 'dead' frog is pretty much a non-issue with almost all locomotives.  If you have a very, very short wheelbase locomotive such as a trackmobile or critter it will stall on the dead turnout.  Mechanical switch machines have wire contacts that make it easy to properly route power to a frog.

  • I'm not a big fan of inaccessible turnouts.  If you end up needing some, such as in hidden staging, then switch machines make sense.

If you have a layout that features low traffic volume, slow moving trains, and easily accessible turnouts you don't need  switch machines. So, how then do you throw the points?  The Caboose Industries ground throws are extremely reliable. That said I don't care for their appearance.  Having a nicely detailed layout with the over scale ground throws is distracting.  I do use the Caboose throws but only in staging.

In a slow speed environment, throwing the points is as simple as reaching in and flipping them with your finger tips.  Micro Engineering and Peco turnouts have a spring wire solely for this purpose.  If you're using a brand without the spring wire, simply slip a thin styrene shim under the throw bar to add tension and the points will stay in place.  Using the finger flipping method eliminates the need for the unrealistic looking Caboose ground throws and allows you to use a nice dummy switch throw casting.

In summary:

  • High volume/high speed line: Juse Tortoise or Blue Point Switch Machines

  • Staging: Use switch machines or Caboose Industries ground throws

  • Switching layouts and low speed branch lines: Just flip the points with your finger tips



Layout Design

 Turnback Loops?  No Thanks.

September 26, 2011

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, something real railroads have first and foremost in their minds when it comes to going from point A to point B.  In real life,  railroads go a LONG way without turning.  Unfortunately, our basements are so small that we can only go a few feet before we hit the proverbial wall and need to turn.  Taking something that is long and straight and bending it back and forth so that it fits in our basements is a real design challenge both in terms of realism and creature comforts.  Going back to the 1950's the 'go to' design solution was the dog bone solution shown in figure 1.


Figure 1

There are four major problems with the dog bone design shown above:

  1. Area 1 is out of reaching distance, a real problem if you need to access the rail for maintenance or to deal with a derailment.

  2. Ideally we would like rectangular shaped areas when dealing with rail features such as yards and structures.  The track running behind the features in area 2 looks toy like and out of place.  The circular region in area 2 is difficult to deal with visually both as far scenery is concerned and track layout.

  3. Straight track is more realistic, more reliable, and easier to deal with when it comes to industrial spurs and sidings. 360 degrees of S curves is a worst case scenario.  Curved turnouts help to an extent but they are expensive, less realistic, and less reliable than their traditional counterparts.

  4. Scenes are more realistic when a train passes through a scene only once.  It looks odd to have a train passing through an area it was just in a second time and heading in the other direction.  Separating the tracks visually  in area 4 is a problem.


Unfortunately, the dog bone has become the design solution of choice, almost by default. In reality it should be used only as a last resort.   Railroads are mostly straight and the features around them are generally parallel or perpendicular to the right of way.  To the extent we can maintain that linear spirit with our layout designs the better off we will be.  They will look better and be more comfortable to interact with.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows a linear, shelf style method of changing directions.   The train only passes through a scene once, the track is within easy reach, and the abundance of straight lines make the inclusion of sidings, spurs, and industries much easier.  Space and circumstances will sometimes require the use of a folded dog bone but let's keep it as a tool of last resort.



Layout Design

Making Design Features ‘Pay Their Freight’

September 6, 2011


As we take a design from the conceptual to detail stage foremost in our mind should be the realization that what we draw WE must build.   What may take a few passes of pencil on paper may take quite awhile to construct.   There should be a direct relationship between the amount of time (or hassle) it takes to build something and the utility or play value it provides.  If a complex feature is included in a design, then the expectation should be that it provide a larger than average payoff down the road. 

It’s important, particularly those building their first layout,  that construction proceed methodically to the point where trains can be run without constantly getting bogged down at every turn.  It is also critical that once the track work is finished that the layout be reasonably comfortable to interact with.  In our early enthusiasm, Rube Goldberg design shortcuts may be tolerable but over time they can sap our enthusiasm to the point where we don’t even want to deal with the layout.  Listed below are five features that are commonly requested by my design customers.  There is nothing inherently good or bad about any of them as long as the layout owner has their eyes wide open as to what they are getting into.  I fear that frequently they do not.  

Grades: Grades or slopes aren’t super difficult to build but they are certainly more involved than laying level track.  In particular, care must be taken in the vertical plane to insure that the transitions into and out of the slopes are smooth.  You also have to construct risers to support the slope and take care to make sure you have clearance at any point one track passes over another.  Trains of any length at all can only handle so much slope.  A two inch rise every eight feet (two percent roughly) is considered pretty stiff.  If you have a continuous run design what goes up must come down.  Since yards, sidings, and spurs must be flat, all of this rise and fall must be accomplished in areas between these features.  For a small to medium size layout that is a lot to make happen vertically in a short distance.  If you love watching a pusher on the back of a train, by all means incorporate the grades.  If you really, really love one track passing over another, design that in.  However, if you are somewhat ambivalent, keep your track level.  

Double Deck Designs With a Helix:  I hear it all the time, “Oh I think I’ll just throw a helix in and double deck the layout”.  Well you don’t just ‘throw a helix in’.   Helixes are complex to construct and contain an enormous amount of track.  That track will have to be cleaned.  If a car derails, somebody has to wiggle their hand between the helix coils to re-rail it.  Because of the very long mainline run length of a helix, the time waiting for a train to spiral from one deck to another can be unbearable.  With double deck layouts NEITHER deck is at the ideal level.  Lighting below the top deck must be factored in as a cost and construction issue.   Double deck layouts are most suited for prototype operations enthusiasts where a long main line run is critical to their needs and they are willing to put up with the negatives.  In most cases they are not appropriate for a first layout attempt.

Signaling and Animation:  Grade crossing gates, lights, and a crossing bell sounds require approach sensors, complex linkages, and fragile wiring.  Make sure the thrill of watching those red lights flash and the gates drop is worth the construction effort.  If so, go for it!  Fully operational signal systems are a hobby in and of themselves.  You don’t just plant the signal mast and flip a switch.  Blocking, occupancy detectors, and logic boards must be installed for the system to work.  Some forms of occupancy detection require special wheels on the rolling stock.  How thrilling is it for you to see that LED go from red to green?  Enough to double the amount of time you spend building the layout? 

Tunnels:  Tunnels are popular. Before designing a lot of them in, long ones in particular, remember Murphy’s Law of Model Railroading.  It goes like this, if a train stalls or breaks down it will do so at the point on the layout that is most difficult to reach.  Do you want to be reaching three feet down a tunnel to grab that derailed car? To clean the track? In addition, many people find it unnerving to have a train out of sight for more than a few seconds.  Consider a series of short tunnels instead of one long one.  In some locations consider a cut instead of a tunnel.

Hidden staging:  For those enthusiasts that enjoy operations, a staging yard to represent the outside world is a must.  However, it’s all to easy to take the design easy out and just bury the staging tracks under the layout or behind a building.  In such haste the same access issues mentioned with the tunnels raise their ugly head.  Every effort should be made to have your staging be open topped, even if it means cutting back a little on the actual layout itself.  Hidden staging should be an absolute last resort and reserved for those that are crystal clear as to the hornet's nest they are getting into.

Again, there is nothing wrong with incorporating any of the above features provided they provide a value in your mind equal to the inconvenience of building or interacting with them.  Just know what you are getting into.


Layout Design - The Drill Track

August 25, 2011 


If your layout plans include running trains simultaneously with switching a yard you’ll quickly find you run into a problem.  Specifically, if you don’t do some advance planning, a traffic jam will occur when a train approaches the yard and confronts the yard switcher on the main pulling a cut of cars.  Yard jobs are dead last on the food chain, and by rule, should clear for the higher class train.  If there is any volume of traffic at all, the poor yard job has to constantly stop working and wait for the main to clear.  The solution is what is called a drill track.  A drill track is nothing more than a long lead parallel to the main that allows the switcher to work away, totally clear of the main line.  Although available space won’t always allow it, ideally the drill track should be as long as the longest yard track.  If you’re in the midst of planning the yards on your layout, working a drill track into the yard design can go a long way towards streamlining future operations.



The "My Time" Layout - Operating the Railroad

August 11, 2011


This installment will wrap up the series on the “My Time” layout.  Over the past several months I’ve gotten a few emails expressing interest in how operations could possibly play out.  As designed, there are a few ways to go.  Some days you may be feeling lazy and will be perfectly content to just let trains circle the layout.  The plan has a continuous run provision for days like that. 

However, there may be other days when you are in the mood for a more sophisticated operating session, perhaps one that would allow several other people to be involved.  In these cases, the plan is set up to be an out and back branch line.  The continuous run connector is assumed not to exist or is treated as an industrial spur. 

The session starts with a main line train in the ‘outside world’,  in other words, staging.  It creeps out of staging and rolls into the yard.  At this point its sole task is to drop off cars destined for the branch line and pick up any cars it needs to take back.  The engines pick up the outbound cars, run around the train, and return to staging.  Their job is done. 

At this point we now have a yard full of cars that need to be spotted throughout the branch.  The yard switcher goes to work blocking and classifying the cars and, if era appropriate, tacking a caboose on the end.   The motive power for the branch line local comes off the diesel service track and couples onto the branch line train/local.  It then leaves the yard switching industries up and down the branch until it reaches the peninsula.  At that point the engines run around the train and make the return trip. 

Keep in mind that it’s not the number of industries that drive the complexity of the session but rather the number of car spots at each industry.  For example, it’s not enough to just drop off a cut of cars at Continental Foods.  The tank cars need to be spotted next to the piping, reefers at the refrigerated bays, and box cars at their appropriate door.  If the industry has cars still be being unloaded that are in the way, they will need to be temporarily pulled and then re-spotted. 

In terms of paper work you can use either car cards (available from Micro Mark) or work off of a switch list which is my preference.  In either case I suggest designing the car movements manually rather than working off of a computer generated traffic generation list.  The layout is small enough that doing so is not that hard and you will end up with a more realistic end result.  As far as uncoupling the cars is concerned,  most experienced operators prefer small wooden skewers which you simply insert between the couplers and twist (as opposed to using stationary magnets to uncouple the cars).  By operating at realistic speeds and employing  prototype practices, a typical operating session would likely exceed two hours. 

For those particularly interested in the subject of prototypical operations I encourage membership in   The Operations Special Interest Group. 


The "My Time" Layout - Wiring Part III (Feeder Wires)

August 2, 2011

Your track is connected to the main power bus by what are called feeder wires.  Jump back to the July 12th entry and you'll see the suggested locations for the feeders.  This is often the step that trips folks up but it's not bad at all if you're methodical about it.  For the wire itself you'll need 18 gauge hook up wire.  Starting out,  solid  wire is easier to work with than stranded.  Pick up spools of red and green wire.  It's not necessary to put feeders on every rail, every six feet or so is generally fine.  If you have an electrically dead spot on a track section then it is likely you will need additional feeders in that location. There are a few tricks that make life much, much easier:

  • Turn your track power on and install only ONE set of feeders at a time.  With this one at a time approach if you get a short you know it's the wire you just soldered in.

  • Use a relatively hot (40 watt or so) pencil style soldering iron (not the bigger pistol style).  Keep the tip clean.

  • Use thinner solder such as .032" diameter.

  • Finally, use soldering flux for heat transfer.  Many struggle with the ties melting before the wire and rail are hot enough to melt the solder.  Using flux solves that problem.  You can pick up some flux at Radio Shack or Team Trinity.


To make the individual feeders cut a section of wire long enough (and then some) to connect the track to the bus.  Strip off 1/2" or so of insulation from the end.  Form an "L" on the end of the wire.  Finally, bend the "L" slightly so as to make it easier to nestle in the rail web.

Install the feeder so that it is touching the rail side.  Apply a drop of solder flux to the point where the wire touches the rail.  Firmly press your hot soldering tip at the point the wire meets the rail. A second or so later touch your solder to the same area.  The hot wire/rail should be what is melting the solder not the solder tip.

Finally, connect your feeders to the wiring bus using tap connectors.  Put a test locomotive on that section of track to make sure it runs.  If so, move on to the next feeder.




The "My Time" Layout - Wiring Part II (Control Systems)

July 26, 2011

This installment will be addressed towards those that have been out of the hobby for quite some time and are coming back.  It will also apply to the newcomer as well.  Today we will discuss the control system that controls the speed and direction of our locomotives.  There are two basic systems.  In the 'old days' we had DC (direct current) power packs that applied current to the rails.  As you spun the knob on the pack, the voltage varied thus changing the speed of the engine.  That was simple enough.....until you wanted to control more than one engine.  Put two engines on the track and they both received the same voltage and ran at  the same speed.  To get around this problem a complex system of isolated electrical blocks was set up so that separate power packs could control separate locomotives.  The wiring quickly becomes a complex nightmare and is not particularly fun.  The old power pack is still viable for situations such as small switching layouts where you will be only running one engine or for general testing.  Beyond that?  Forget it.

The second, and much more common system today is called Digital Command Control, or DCC for short.  With DCC the computer does all of the work previously required by blocks.  The end result is that DCC wiring is much, much simpler than the old block system.  If you are running more than two engines, have anything larger than a tiny switching layout, or  want sound, there is no reason NOT to use DCC.  A common issue is that those used to old DC systems sometimes view themselves as 'digitally challenged' and can be somewhat resistant to DCC.  They will do anything to avoid the word digital!  Unfortunately, such avoidance makes life immensely more difficult for them as they try to cobble together the old DC system.  For these folks I'll point them to an old adage, "You don't need to know how a watch works to tell time".  In other words, you don't need to be an electronics expert to get a DCC up and going quickly.  Just as you don't need to know the intricacies of your TV remote to watch a show, you don't need to be an electrical engineer to figure out DCC.  Again, DCC is so much easier than the old way.  If you view it as a black box, wiring is as simple as connecting said black box to your power bus with two wires.

The details of DCC can be found in dedicated books but essentially this is how it works.  A simple computer controls the  speed, direction and sound of multiple engines on the layout and has the ability to control each one independently from the other.  This computer is called a command station. For DCC to work, each locomotive must contain a chip that interprets the instructions being sent by the command station.  This chip is called a decoder.  You can purchase locomotives with the decoders already in them.  Finally, the actual signal being sent by the command station (computer) is rather wimpy so before it is sent through the rails (or airwaves if you have wireless) it is amplified by the booster.  The only wires connecting the DCC system to the layout are two wires connecting the booster to the wiring bus.

There are a number of manufacturers of DCC systems out there.  Frankly, most people are fairly satisfied with the systems they own regardless of manufacturer.  That being the case, spending weeks researching which system is best isn't the most productive use of your time.  If you have a number of modelers in your area that are available for support, I'd simply purchase the system most people have in your area.  The three most common systems I come across are EasyDCC (by CVP Products), NCE, and Digitrax.

Wiring for DCC is extremely simple.  Two wires connect the DCC system to the layout's power bus.



The "My Time" Layout - Wiring Part 1 (Power Bus)

July 12, 2011

For many, wiring a model railroad is the one task they don't particularly enjoy.  However, with a few inexpensive tools and by taking things one step at a time, it really isn't bad at all.  Wiring really has only one task and that is to carry electricity from a power source to the track.  We'll deal with the power source in a later segment.  In terms of the wire itself, think of it in the same way that water is carried through your neighborhood.  You have a water main running down the street with individual feeders going to each home.  Wiring is very similar in that we have one large wire carrying power around the layout (called a bus) with a number of smaller wires tapping the bus and connecting to the track (called feeders).  Wire size is labeled by gauge with  smaller gauge numbers representing larger wires (a 14 gauge wire is thicker than an 18 gauge wire).  Wire comes in solid or stranded.  As the first step in wiring the layout we will run the main power bus around the layout.  Go to your local big box hardware store such as The Home Depot and pick up 75 feet of red colored 14 gauge stranded wire and 75 feet of 14 gauge stranded wire.  Run it around the layout as per the diagrams above.


At a few locations, such as the peninsula, you'll see that the main bus needs to tee off.  This connection can easily be handled by what is called a tap-in squeeze connector (or suitcase connector).  These are available from Radio Shack part number 64-3052Tap in connectors are rated by the size of wires being connected so you want to make sure you get the right size.  In this case we are connecting 14 gauge wires.  The connector above is rated for any wires between 14 and 18 gauge so we are good.  There you go, with the bus installed you have a major step completed and you haven't even had to pull out a soldering iron yet.  That wasn't so bad was it?  In the next segment we'll discuss the feeder wires connecting the bus to the track.



The "My Time" Layout - Track

June 20, 2011

For those building their first layout (or those where it's been a long time since building one) reliability and ease of use are the top factors in choosing track brands.  For this reason I recommend the Atlas code 83 product.  Atlas code 83 track is reliable, easy to work with, inexpensive, and readily available.

For this project you will need:

  • Code 83 flex track Atlas part number 500.  190 feet (this includes a waste allowance)

  • Number 6 turnout (Left)  Atlas part no. 563. Quantity of 7

  • Number 6 turnout (Right) Atlas part no.  564. Quantity of 10

  • End ties.  Atlas part number 598. 10 packs

  • Universal Rail joiners. Atlas part number 170. (3 packs)

  • Xuron flush cutting rail cutters part number 90028.

To glue the track to the cork, lay a thin bead of white glue down the track center line, smear it about with your finger, and place the track in place.  Use push pins to hold the track in position until the glue dries.   White glue is surprisingly strong so you won't need much.   You don't need to use track nails to hold the track in place. If you find after the fact that you made a track laying error, spray the track liberally with a mister bottle of water and let it soak for about ten minutes.  The glue will soften allowing you to remove or re-align the track.  Make sure you leave short gaps in your rail every three to six feet to allow for expansion with temperature changes.  A gap of 1/16" is enough. 

For your odd shaped track lengths, use the Xuron rail cutters to cut the rail to any length you need.  Note that after the cut one section of rail will be flush, the other side of the cut being tapered.  You want to use the flush end.  After making the cut, make a quick pass along the bottom of the rail end with a jeweler's file to clean up any burrs.  As you lay the track, put the majority of your effort into making sure you have smooth transitions from straight tracks into curves and the turnouts.  A wiggle here and there on a long straight, while unsightly, won't impact performance.  However, a kink or angle where a straight enters a curve or turnout will cause derailments.  In order to slip the rail joiners on the flex track you'll notice that you need to snip off a few ties to allow room for the joiner.  A quick trick to dress this gap up is to slip  the Atlas brand end ties on to the end of the rail to fill the gap.

You will get kinks at the joint if you try to lay your flex track around a curve using the same methods as your straight sections.  Here's a simple way around the problem.  Take two, 3 foot sections of flex track and join them into one, six foot long, straight section on your work bench bench.  Solder the joiners creating one, long straight section six feet long.  Use this long section you've just created to form your curves.  This is the ONLY situation where you will solder your rail joiners.  Do NOT solder them anyplace else or you will limit the tracks ability to expand and contract.

For more track laying tips check out my book, "How To Build A Switching Layout" available from Amazon.com.


The "My Time" Layout - Roadbed

June 7, 2011


Once you have your plywood or foam base in place, the next step is to install your track roadbed.  Although there are a number of materials available, I prefer traditional cork roadbed.  In HO scale I use Midwest products part number 3013.  To glue the  cork to the plywood or foam sub-roadbed I use DAP brand adhesive caulk (photo above).  It's important to use 'adhesive' caulk as opposed to other types and I'm told the DAP brand is the most reliable.  After marking your track center lines, lay a thick bead of caulk where the cork will be located, put on a latex glove and then spread the caulk bead out by hand.  Place the cork into the caulk, push it firmly into the caulk and allow to dry overnight.  Cork is made in larger sheets and there is a temptation to use sheets instead of strips in yard areas.  I have had some issues with larger sheets bubbling upward (probably due to improper glue coverage) so I prefer to use strips alone and not the sheets.



The "My Time" Layout - Sub-roadbed

May 30, 2011

Once your bench work is in order, the next level up is the sub-roadbed.  Sub-roadbed is the base upon which you will lay your cork (if you use it) and track.  Let's discuss two options being ever mindful that we want a material and technique that will do the job but won't get us bogged down.  Again, consistent forward progress of your project is crucial.


Option 1, Plywood:  This is the old standby, as viable now as it was fifty years ago.  If you do decide on plywood keep in mind that strength is not the primary concern as model railroad equipment is  very light.  A much bigger consideration is resistance to warping with changes in humidity.  Unless you live in a climate that is consistently dry, you'll want to use 3/4 inch thick ply and avoid the temptation to go thinner.  Life is much easier if you go with high end, cabinet grade birch plywood as the smooth surface is easy to draw on and and it is less prone to warping.  Plywood also has the advantage that is much easier to work with if your track will go up and down hills.  It is strong enough that you can bolt accessories such as switch machines to the bottom.  The downside is that you will need to cut it, cookie cutter style to match the general route of your track.  For those without power tools this can be a roadblock and no small issue.  If I use plywood I don't lay it directly on the bench work as that doesn't leave much room for dropping scenery downward below track level.  Instead I put 3/4 inch spacer blocks or risers beneath the plywood to slightly elevate it above the bench work.


Option 2, Extruded Foam:  Extruded foam is the pink or blue insulation material you see in most building supply stores.  If purchased in a 2 inch thickness it has enough strength to be used as your sub-roadbed.  It is inexpensive, easy to cut, and the portions adjacent to the  right of way can easily be contoured into scenery profiles.  To mount it to your bench work lay down a bead of foam board adhesive or DAP adhesive (adhesive, not regular) caulk, weight the foam down, and let it dry overnight.  Foam is most appropriate for model railroads where the track doesn't slope up or down hills and is essentially at the same elevation throughout.  Some modelers complain that trains sound louder when going over the foam (as opposed to plywood) but I've found that once you have your scenery in place the noise isn't as noticeable.  Finally, if you want to add switch machines below the foam you'll need to glue a wood pad underneath so you have enough strength to hold the accessory.


The "My Time" Layout - Bench Work

May 21, 2011

As you re-enter the hobby it will be important that layout construction proceed relatively quickly through the mechanical portions of the project so that you can run trains sooner rather than later.  The goal is to get a solid infrastructure in place quickly and without getting bogged down. Not everybody has a fully equipped woodworking shop and not everybody enjoys woodworking.  With an eye towards quality and ease of assembly I suggest using the Sievers bench work system.  Although not cheap, it is of very high quality and an excellent value.  It can be assembled with just a screw driver.  For our project we'll be using the 24 inch long modules and the 4 inch  tall legs.  The modules come in lengths of up to four feet long and you will likely have to to some cutting on a few frames to make them fit your space.  Start by ordering just a few of the longer modules (part number 2448) and get those up and in place so you can get a feel for it. For legs get part number L-24 (48").  The catalog is on the orders page of their site.  Keep in mind that you won't need legs on every module.  Since many of you will be placing your layouts in nicely finished rooms you don't want the layout to look like construction pallet!  You want a nicely finished look.  To this end paint the legs semi-glass black. 


The “My Time” Layout Design

Starting the hobby beyond Age 60 

May 15, 2011 

The "My Time" Plan.  Click to Enlarge


My experience has been that one of the largest and most enthusiastic groups of new entrants to model railroading are folks in the sixty plus age range.  As excited as they are though, they are also very skilled at keeping such enthusiasm hidden.  It’s the old fear of not wanting to be branded with the ‘playing with toy trains’ label.  I’m not convinced that the age 60+  group is being particularly well served in that there seems to be a long standing myth that associates youth with the entry point into the hobby.  Not so. There also is a misguided view that simple layout designs are somewhat less worthy than more complex, difficult to build ones. 

What makes the 60+  group a little different than a younger person coming on board?   Although entry level teens and the 60’s folks have much in common in terms of the challenges they face, the older crowd is often looking for a little more sophistication.  They are less likely to be satisfied with a 4x8 plan or a design that offers no operational potential.  (Obviously this is a broad brush.  Many teens are interested in operations and many older adults want a layout that is very basic).  They are more interested in a layout that represents  a scale model of the rail transportation system.  Many are interested in the modern era.   

The older crowd has more stability in terms of housing and financing.  Although often not wealthy, they do have more disposable income than when they were younger.  With many of life’s occupational and family obligations behind them, they are looking to finally take of themselves.  Model railroading is something they’ve wanted to do for decades.  When the opportunity presents itself they are ready and able with cash in hand.  Many are living in houses that, as they put it, they’ll be in until planted in a pine box.  It’s their last home.  They often have an average size bonus room in a side room or above the garage.  

With so many things in their favor, this group has one major obstacle, and that is a lack of experience.  Like all of us once were, they are at the bottom of the learning curve and totally bombarded with information (often conflicting)  without any clear way to organize and prioritize it.  Unlike teens, these guys make things more difficult on themselves by being slightly embarrassed about their beginner level skill sets.  They tend to try to hide it.  Teenagers are used to asking questions.  The old folks ( a group I'm close to joining!) slow their learning down by being afraid to admit they don’t know something.  They then face the quandary of wanting something nice, not really having all of the skills to build it, and being afraid to ask questions.  Let’s see if we can work around that in the weeks ahead J 

Over the next several blog installments I’ll be introducing a design geared towards older newcomers to the hobby.  It will serve two masters.  First it will be sophisticated enough to hold modeling and operational interest.  Second, it is designed in such a way that somebody totally new to the hobby can easily build it.  The plan has no tricky track work, no grades, nor other features that tend to trip newcomers up.   

Check back from time to time as I dig into the “Over 60” plan during the weeks ahead.


Success with Structures

January 16, 2011


For many, building structures is their favorite part of the hobby.  There’s something relaxing about seeing a building unfold in front of you wall by wall.  Although there have been numerous articles on structure assembly, there really isn’t clear guidance out there as far as what it takes to get really good results.  Certainly we have the directions but that’s not what I’m talking about.  What areas of the project produce the most impact?  What are the trouble spots?  How do you make a great looking structure?

 Putting together a building is really about a mindset and paying specific attention to several areas.  The great news is that these steps can be followed by anybody from a teenager on up.  They are simple but take practice and dedication to the end result.

 -Parts Fit: Make sure that all joints are made cleanly and without gaps.  This is easier said than done.  You’ll often find that, with the exception of a few high quality kits, there are noticeable gaps at the joints.  These gaps need to be filled with modelers putty or covered with something such as a downspout.  For modelers putty I prefer Testors Contour Putty (#3511).  This is where practice comes into play but you want the putty to be applied in such a way that it isn’t noticeable.  Put on too much and it’s all the more sanding you’ll have to do.  Do a few light layers.  It’s often easier if immediately after applying the putty you smooth it out and work it into the cracks with lacquer thinner or Testors liquid cement (#3502).  All seams and gaps should be invisible or covered with another part.  No oozing globs of glue should be visible.  All parts should be fully seated in place and not sticking out.

 -Parts Alignment:  Make sure that items that should be vertical or horizontal are indeed vertical and horizontal.  This means windows and doors that aren’t cocked, downspouts that are dead on vertical, chimney’s that don’t lean etc.

 -Cross sections:  Cheaply made parts have overly thick cross sections that stand out like a sore thumb.  Prime offenders are window frames that are too thick, overly thick window mullions, stair railings and hand rails, or any other naturally thin shape.  Stick with high quality brands for windows and doors such as Tichy, Grandt Line, Rix/Pikestuff or, photo etched products.   If you don’t want to swap out the overly thick parts at least paint them a dark color to downplay the problem.

 -Paint:  Paint all of your structures.  Many kits come with parts made from colored plastic.  Avoid the temptation to use them without painting them.  You don’t need an airbrush as the quality of rattle can spray tips has become quite good.  Apply a final sealer coat of Dullcote over your paint if it has any sheen at all.

 -Weathering:  When I say weathering I’m not referring to a heavy, weather battered look, but rather something that is very subtle.  You just want to tone down the brilliance of the paint and very subtly bring out some contrast.  One way to do this is a very light application of dilute India ink applied with a damp (but not soaking) brush using vertical strokes.  A good mix would be ½ teaspoon of ink per pint of alcohol or perhaps a stronger mix of 1 teaspoon per pint.   Another trick I use instead of the ink is to initially paint the structure with Rustoleum light gray primer first.  Then, when I apply the main structure color, I’ll fog it on to perhaps just 90% coverage.  Allowing just a hint of the underlying gray to show through gives a subdued look to the subsequent paint layer.

 -Seating: When placing the finished structure on the layout make sure it lays flat and that the point where the base meats the layout is gap free or not visible.  You can hide the mounting point with scenery, pavement, etc.

 -Details: Details are nice but they aren’t a deal maker.  At some point you hit the point of diminishing returns.  When assembling a commercial kit I often find a number of details that, if added, would double or triple kit assembly time, and yet add virtually no additional visual impact.  I typically leave at least some kit details off.  Don’t feel compelled to add them if they don’t bring any value to the dance.

 In summary, color, fit, and alignment are what matters. These tips may seem rather basic but if followed will make a tremendous difference.



Informal Poll Results

November 8, 2010

When I meet a new model railroader (or potential business customer) that does not presently have a model railroad layout , I have a favorite question I like to get to early. Here it is.  "If you have ever built (or started to build) a model railroad,  what did you like most about it? What did you like least about it?"  I'm fascinated by the consistency of the responses.   Going by rough memory over only the  past several years I estimate the responses would fall something like this:

  • I started a layout but never finished it because it was too complex and I couldn't get over the constant construction hurdles.  The few sections that I did get running were not very reliable.  Responses in this category: 20

  • I built a layout, finished it, and got it running reliably.  I grew bored with it because it was too simple.  Responses in this category: 0.  Zero.  Zip.

I'm not exaggerating.  I have never, ever had somebody say they did not like a layout because it was too simple.  The number that said they didn't like their layout because they felt they bit off too much numbers in the dozens.  Food for thought.



Working Structures Into Your Design

November 2, 2010

When starting a design for a customer, it's fairly common to hear something along the lines of, "Oh ,by the way, over the years I've been accumulating a number of structure kits and would like as many as possible incorporated into the design".  I can understand their point of view.  They've spent a fair amount of money acquiring them, and on individual basis each kit is interesting when viewed in isolation.  Unfortunately, I usually have to be the bearer of bad news and tell them that having randomly acquired structures drive a design is not in their best interest.  Often the kits were purchased long before any theme for the layout was established and, as a consequence, are generally unrelated to each other in any way or to any theme we could come up with.  One or two may fit together but certainly not the dozen or so we are usually talking about.  The other major problem is that structure footprints take up a lot of space and forcing a design around these very arbitrary placeholders is a case of putting the horse before the cart.

The best approach is to hold off buying any structures until after the design is complete.  Establish a theme and goal for the layout, create the design, and then select your building kits.  Let the design drive structure selection not vice versa.  The end result will be groupings of structures that fit together plausibly and a track arrangement that flows much more seamlessly.  What about all of those kits?  There's a company called ebay that can help you with that.  If that's not your thing, then give them away.  I know it's painful but sometimes you need to admit that  you jumped the gun, need to bite the bullet, absorb your losses and start over the right way.  Look at the bright side, you get to go structure shopping again!



Know Thyself

October 26, 2010 


Just as idle doodling and sketching can be relaxing,  so can casually roughing out layout design sketches.  The initial stages of layout design can be exhilarating, filled with promise and the untarnished vision of the perfect model railroad that surely lies ahead.  It’s easy to be consumed by this experience and immediately whip out the graph paper and start drawing.  There’s a problem though.  What, specifically ARE we designing?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of not giving serious and deep thought to what we want from our model railroads.  Not doing so risks correctly designing the wrong layout.  Sketching, drawing, and posting various design iterations on chat forums for comment is always easier than self examination.  The fact that self examination IS so hard is probably why we don’t do it.  The results can be disastrous.  Finding out you built, or are building, the wrong layout is expensive and discouraging and in extreme cases can result in somebody leaving the hobby.

I will concede that for some,  designing layouts (even ones that will never be built) can be a relaxing stand alone past time.  In most cases though, a design is no more than a plan, a set of directions whose singular goal is to serve as a guide to actually getting a model railroad built.  That’s it.

The definition of a good design is simple.  It’s a design that results in a layout being built that the modeler finds satisfying.  Discussions of curve radius, yard ladder design, staging yards, etc. are just secondary minutiae whose role is to support that primary design objective.

Before doing the ‘easy’ part of the design (drawing the track) the first step is to give long and serious thought to what you want the model railroad to do for you.  What do you want it to accomplish? What are your primary interests?  What are your lifestyle and personality limitations?  It’s only after these questions can be answered accurately and honestly are we to the point where we can pick up the pencil or open up our CAD program.

Here are some things to think about.

Too much attention is placed on the space available for the layout.  A far more important question is, “How much energy do you have?  How much time will you realistically have to spend on the layout?  Will you be as energized two years from now when the reality of construction obstacles has set in?  Is the design something that can be brought to critical mass relatively quickly without getting bogged down during construction?

What area of modeling interests you the most?  Scenery?  Structures?  Rolling Stock?  Does the design address those interests?  Do you want to model a specific town that brings back fond memories or a longer geographic expanse?  Do you want to model a specific rail company?  Do you want to model a specific operational scheme?

Are you primarily a railfan, happy to just watch trains running through interesting scenery or are you an operator?  Are you truly interested in operations?  Really, or were just told you should be interested but really are not?

 If you are interested in operations, what type?  Main line runs? Passenger trains? Locals? Yard classification?  All of the above melded into an overall transportation system?  Does the layout size and scale address those interests?

 Are you interest in highly detailed scenes, general representations, or a mix?

Have you built any layouts before?  Do you have the requisite skill and experience  level to build that 600 square foot layout you are planning?  If not, maybe you should build a smaller practice layout first.  Are you aware that highly dense designs with lots of grades, bridges, and over/unders are difficult to build?  If you haven’t built a complex layout before maybe you do a flatter, simpler one first.

 If you are an operator, can you realistically round up the number of people needed to carry out the operating scheme? What about in five years when the newness of the layout has worn off?  Will your operators be just as interested then?

 Not all of these questions are easy ones.  If you put the thought into answering them though, the result will be a layout that actually gets built and fits you like your favorite pair of blue jeans.



Setting Priorities

October 18, 2010

I don’t envy being a model railroad publisher.  Putting together a dozen plus articles every month, year after year plus content for special issues and books must be a pressure filled task.  Satisfying the hobby public’s never ending thirst for more eye candy must feel like an exercise in feeding the beast.

I mean no disrespect but the end result is often a mountain of how to articles, one hit wonders if you will, without any overlying message of how to tie it all together.  Where do you start?  Which techniques are most important?  Which techniques are fun but produce very little visual impact?

The good news is that prioritizing your modeling tasks can be done and I’ve made an effort to do so in my most recent  book, “How to Build A Switching Layout”.   In the book I highlight what I call ‘difference makers’.  These are areas where proper handling makes a dramatic difference in the appearance of the layout.  Surprisingly, the techniques are very simple and in many cases doing it right is easier than doing it wrong.  Taking an excerpt from the book, the ‘difference makers” are as follows:

  • Rail Color: When it comes to rail color, make a distinction between what you see in the field and what works for a model railroad.  Generic track products should be painted a dark brownish gray to downplay the oversize spikes and oversized rail profile.

  • Ballast: Use ballast products made from natural crushed stone as opposed to the more readily available products made from synthetic materials.

  • The Backdrop: A distinction must be made between effective and artistic.  Generally a featureless, cloudless, powder blue sky with a low horizon is the most effective.

  • Grass and Weeds:  Use fiber based products to represent grass as opposed to ground foam.  Strive for non-uniform color and texture in your grass.  Take the time to add small brush and weeds.

  • Tree Shapes: Choose armatures that have a natural shape and do not have sharp angular branch structures or large branch ends.  Make sure the armature realistically matches tree profiles found in nature and paint the armature a darker color.  For leaves, use a green blend as opposed to a solid green.

  •  Structure Selection:  Select structures based on what is usual as opposed to selecting them based on individual uniqueness and interest.  Focus on realistic groupings of structures and include non-rail served industries.   If you use commercial kits, try to modify the structure shape and/or profile so as not to be immediately recognizable as a standard kit.

  • Structure Color:  Paint all of your structures with flat finish paint.  Paint oversize details a darker color.  Select colors that are suitable for your location and era.  This means lots of off white houses, beige warehouses, and not much chartreuse!

  • Weathering Washes:  Apply a dilute India ink wash to all structures to bring out contrast, knock down any shine, and add a subtle layer of grime.

  • Rust:  Use dark brown and/or black to represent rust as opposed to orange.

  • Basic Neatness and Alignment: This can not be over stated.  Make sure all items that should be vertical are indeed vertical.  Make sure no ballast is stuck to the rails.  Structures should be neatly seated with no gaps visible at the foundation.  Trees and vegetation should not have errant strands of poly fiber sticking out.

So when you next hobby issue arrives read with pleasure but consider the above list when putting it all into context.


Backdrop Material

October 12, 2010 

In many cases the best option for your backdrop is to simply paint the drywall behind the layout.


A frequently asked question related to layout construction is, what is the best material to use for the backdrop?  I gather that Masonite is the default material of choice.  While Masonite will work, and can be made to look perfectly acceptable, it may not be the easiest route. 

The first question to ask is, what type of wall is behind the layout.  If the layout will be placed in a room that is already finished and has drywall up the best option is to simply paint the drywall.  Drywall is a very smooth, stable medium that accepts paint well.  It makes no sense to take a good material and place another in front of it.  Some have expressed concern about the appearance of painted drywall at the room corners.  I also had doubts as to how the corners would look.  On an earlier layout I decided to ‘cove’ (add a radius) my corners by bending and gluing sections of sheet metal to the wall.  I then feathered the edges of the metal into the wall with drywall mud.  The coving process was much easier to do than I expected.  However, it really didn’t pay off with the visual impact that I thought it would.  Un-treated corners (those that aren’t coved) just didn’t stand out that much.  In summary, if your layout is against drywall, and you have the option, just paint your backdrop on the drywall and don’t worry about the corners. 

In many cases though there isn’t a finished wall behind the layout, a landlord won’t let us paint the wall, or we are running down a peninsula.  In this case we will need to put up some type of backing.  Old stand-bys are Masonite, vinyl flooring, and styrene.  Styrene and flooring materials are both heavy and ‘floppy’.  They don’t hold their shape and are a pain to work with.  Masonite will require cutting with a table saw and patching seams every eight feet.  Table saws, Masonite dust, and finishing seams with mud are three strikes in my book.

My preferred material is aluminum trim coil.  This is a product used for home siding.  It comes in sheets fifty feet long by 24 inches tall and is available at The Home Depot and other large hardware stores.  It is light, stiff, easy to cut and has the advantage of being seamless.   A roll runs a little less than $50.  If the backdrop route has any curves or bends, such as along a curving peninsula, I’ve found the aluminum sets in place with very little support other than some blocking at the bottom.  In cases where it is mounted against a wall (such as in a basement) I run a horizontal furring strip along the top, drill a few holes along the top of the aluminum and tack it to the furring strip.

 If the layout is smaller, and you have the money, another excellent backdrop material is Komacel.  This is a stiff plastic like material used by sign shops.  It is pricey but accepts paint well and can be glued end to end with butt plates and pvc cement.

 Backdrops cover a lot of area and installing them can be a big job.  Before selecting the ‘old standbys’ give some thought to newer materials that will make your life much easier.




It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Or…It Looked Good on Paper

October 4, 2010


During the design phase it is so easy to rationalize in an all out blitz to create our dream layout.  The danger here is it’s easy to minimize the pitfalls of certain commonly used design features.  Closely related are design features whose complexity doesn’t warrant the minimal visual pay off.   Listed below are some areas to go into with your eyes wide open as to the potential problems that go along with their use.


  •  Hidden Track/Long Tunnels: Murphy’s law of model railroading states that if a train derails it will do so at the most difficult to reach section of the railroad.

  •  Long Reach In Distances:  This is the same as hidden track.  Ideally all rail should be within arms reach.

  •  Grades:  Grades (sloped track) greatly increase the degree of complexity when it comes to building the model railroad.  If the transitions aren’t handled smoothly or a turnout is located too close to a grade, derailments will be common.  Make sure the visual payoff of the grade is worth the effort to you.

  •  Complex Track Arrangement (double crossovers, etc):  Can you say ‘electrical shorts’?

  •  Curved Turnouts:  Curved turnouts solve a lot of design problems on paper.  However, in operation they are often less reliable, more prone to causing derailments, and more prone to buckling with bench work shrinkage.

  •  Helices:  Difficult to build, time consuming to clean, boring to watch trains traverse

  •  Number Four Turnouts:  Reserve these for very slow speed switching layouts.  Use number sixes in all other cases.

  •  Unfinished Basements: It’s easy to get in a hurry and not finish the layout room leaving exposed rafters over head and ignoring lighting.  A layout room need not be luxurious but it should be well lit and constructed in such a way as to minimize dirt problems.

  •  Duck Unders:  A single duck under or lift out to enter the layout room can pay big dividends as far as design options go.  Having more than one gets old in a hurry.

  •  Overly Narrow Aisles:  This can really decrease the enjoyment of interacting with the layout and can also increase the likelihood that surrounding scenery will be damaged.

 I’m not saying to totally avoid the features described above.  Just make sure you know what you are getting into and try not to have too many of them in any single design.




Curb Your Enthusiasm

September 21, 2010


Curb you enthusiasm.  Well….not so much curb it but at least keep it in check.  The early stages of a project are generally when our enthusiasm is at its peak.  We have a clean slate in front of us and the possibilities seem endless.  What fun lies ahead.   Since planning and design occur first,  these tasks will be performed when our excitement is at fever pitch.  Enjoyment is what the hobby is about so that’s not a problem in and of itself. 

However, if we don’t give ourselves the occasional reality check enthusiasm can easily push aside common sense resulting in a design that is neither practical, comfortable, nor fun.   Six months into construction, phrases such as;  "Well it looked good on paper.", "It seemed like a good idea at the time.",  and   "What have I created?"  will pop into your mind. 

As you work on the design keep in mind that:

  • You will be the one building it

  • You will be the one paying for it

  • You will be the one maintaining it

  • You will be the one accessing it and walking around it

During this exuberant period it is just so easy to rationalize.  You can kid yourself by saying things like:  

  • I’m going to hand lay my entire 400 foot long mainline.

  • I won’t mind ducking under that...or those…or all of those.

  • I won’t mind cleaning the track in that eight foot long tunnel.

  • I won’t mind waiting ten minutes while my train circles like a toy up and down a helix.

  • If I just use number three turnouts and 14 inch radius curves everything will fit.

  • I’ll be able to squeeze down those narrow aisles….at least before the holiday feasts settle in. 

  • If I stand on a ladder I can reach those last three yard tracks

  • It will never derail there

Those building their first layout are at most risk.  Those that have built multiple railroads hold more awards in the ‘mistakes made’ department and thus have a keener sense of what can go wrong and where the pitfalls are.    So have fun, be exuberant but check in with the angel on your other shoulder on occasion the one that asks, “Do you REALLY want to do that?”


September 14, 2010

Completed Layouts

During the first six months of building my current layout, I focused on getting enough of it done to run trains as well as making the overall appearance presentable.  Once I reached that point, I slowed down to a leisurely pace, enjoying individual projects without feeling pressured to meet never ending milestones.  In the photo above, the foreground area in front of the red line is completed.  Beyond the red line I've temporarily laid Atlas flex track in place and utilized paper mock ups for the structures.


Should ‘completing’ a layout be a goal?  Many modelers are subjected to good natured ribbing for never getting a layout started or, if they do, getting very little of it done.  But what about the other end of the spectrum?  Should those that are making steady progress set a goal to finish their layout? 

In my opinion, the answer in most cases is …. no.  The reason is simple, if the layout is done, what will you do then?  Unless your primary interest is operations, why rush through the most enjoyable parts of the hobby?  Why embark on a forced marched through never ending construction milestones?

Several years ago I set out to build a relatively small switching layout.  It turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience every step of the way.  By virtue of its small size I was somewhat surprised to find one day that it was, in fact, done.  The completion status sort of snuck up on me.   All of the details were in and there was simply nothing more to  add.  Rather than being satisfied that it was finished, the feeling was more bittersweet. The ride that had provided so much fun was over. 

Somewhere between the two extremes is a happy medium.   The key is to have enough self awareness to understand which aspect of the hobby you enjoy most, get to that part of the job as quickly as possible, make the layout and room generally presentable, and then drag out the enjoyment.  So often I hear modelers exclaiming “just three more projects until I get to the fun part.” At times that may be necessary but it can sap enjoyment if it becomes a habit over the long term. 

Everybody’s situation is different but I think a pace that has some merit is to put forth a burst of energy at the beginning to get the layout to a point of critical mass and then slow down and enjoy the ride.  Let’s say you have a half basement or spare room to work with.  During the first six to twelve months focus on: 

  • Finishing the layout room so it is comfortable

  • Getting the bench work up, or at least most of it

  • Install the fascia and paint it. Either paint the legs black or install skirting beneath the layout so that the overall environment looks presentable

  • Get at least enough track in place so that you can run some trains.  Maybe just rough in the main from end to end, leaving off much of the secondary track.  Perhaps just lay enough track to go between two towns. 

  • If you plan on having highly detailed track, consider laying inexpensive flex track temporarily so that you can get some trains running and then go back and replace it later.

  • Consider finishing one small scene so visitors can see your vision. 

  • Neat, but quickly constructed, structure mock ups can tide you over until you can replace them with finished models. 

At that point, slow down and enjoy the ride.  Measure the hours of enjoyment you spend on the hobby not the square footage that is finished.



September 8, 2010

Bench Work Height


How high should I make my bench work?  The question comes up frequently and is an important one as it will determine how comfortably we can interact with out layout.  The short answer is, armpit level.  This means that for must of us we are looking at something in the range of 50 to 54 inches off of the floor.  If we have the choice, and sometimes we don't, the ideal height accomplishes a few things.  First, it minimizes the amount of bending over we have to do to watch our trains.  Layouts that are too low involve a lot of stooping over and also give a helicopter view of the layout that many owners don't care for.  Second, we need the layout to be low enough that we can work on it.  Some people like high layouts that give an eye level or railfan perspective.  This is fine for viewing but such heights are not that easy to deal with during construction.  In addition, a layout mounted fairly high off the floor had better have a neatly executed underside because it will be highly visible. 

What if your options are limited?  In this situation you just get it as high as you can.  A layout that is too low or too high is still preferable to a layout that never gets built.  What if your layout is upstairs and has a hip roof?  A hip roof is a situation where the room walls are only three or foot feet tall before they meet the point where the roof starts to angle inward.  With hip roofs I suggest setting a standard of a vertical backdrop that is at least 9 to 12 inches tall.  Raise the layout as high as possible while still maintaining that backdrop standard.

Ultimately layout height comes down to what is most comfortable for the individual.  It is such an important decision that it is worth doing a test run to make one hundred per cent sure you have it right.  Put a piece of wood or foam against the wall at the planned layout height.  Place a piece of track and a car or two and let it set there for a week or so.  If you aren't comfortable with it, adjust accordingly.



September 1, 2010

Backdrop Transitions

(This is the concluding installment of the Skills Builder project)


The photo on the left shows how I often handle the transition from the layout to the backdrop.  First, a distant tree line is represented by tearing off a strip of synthetic steel wool (Called 'Mirlon'.  Available from Beaver Tools).  Note how the horizon was kept low, no more than 1.5 inches tall, and muted in color.  At the base of the synthetic steel wool I worked in some Heki grass fiber mats.  Finally, I soften the edges of the grass mats with tufts of Woodland Scenics green poly fiber dusted lightly with ground foam.


August 25, 2010

The Backdrop

For shelf style switching layouts that will be mounted tight against the wall it is generally not necessary to obtain separate backdrop material, just paint the wall.  Begin by masking off the area to be painted extending 24 inches or so above the layout.  Purchase a light powder blue paint.  I don't recommend painting individual 'puffy' clouds on the backdrop as they are hard to do convincingly.  Working in some very diffuse clouds works better.  While the blue paint is still wet, dip your brush into some white paint and, using horizontal strokes, brush some white streaks into the still wet blue paint.


August 18, 2010

Adding Details

Detailing a layout is an inexpensive, enjoyable, relaxing, and satisfying part of the hobby.   Done correctly, detailing can enhance the realism of a model railroad.  Done carelessly, the details will look like a contrived caricature of an actual railroad.  Simply making the decision, in generic terms, that you want 'details' for the layout and then browsing the catalogs for a grab bag of crates, barrels, and what not and then sprinkling them about probably won't yield the best results.  The key is the order you approach detailing.  FIRST, look at a few photos to see what details exist on the type of railroad you are modeling.  Make a note of them and THEN order your parts.  It's a horse before the cart sort of thing.  Take a look at the photo above. A quick glance reveals: trash, road signs, pallets, whistle posts, fiber optic cable markers, and electrical boxes to name a few.

Details added to this scene include: rail stops, a pallet, trash, and discarded metal strapping made from slices of electrical tape.


August 10, 2010

Ordinary Scenes

When composing and detailing scenes it's always tempting to focus on the extra ordinary in an attempt to create interest.  If realism is the goal however, we often end up with a caricature that isn't that believable if we go too far over the top.  Don't under estimate the enjoyment and satisfaction that can be had from modeling the ordinary.  For one, there are more examples to follow, just walk outside or study a picture for guidance.  The above scene is just a typical gravel storage lot typical of what would be found in any industrial park.  This was a lot of fun to put together from detailing the tractors and flatbed to weathering the dumpster to arranging the weeds.  It's the type of scene that isn't overwhelming to build and something you can work on an hour or two here and there and have something of value when you're done.



August 4, 2010

Structure Weathering

Let's turn our attention now to the structures. For many, this is the best part of the hobby.  When choosing which structures to include, a decision needs to be made as to the ultimate goal.  Do we want to pick structures based on their individual interest and uniqueness or do we want a realistic cohesive theme.  There is no right or wrong answer. This is a hobby after all.  If  individual interest is the goal then it is simply a matter of browsing the product offerings and purchasing whatever catches our eye.  If realism is the goal (and there is no shame if that is NOT the goal) then a different approach must be taken, an approach where we model what is there.  An approach where we model the ordinary and typical without cherry picking.

Regardless of which path is taken, there is no single weathering technique that can improve the look of a structure than the India ink/alcohol wash.  The wash not only tones down the surface of the structure but also adds contrast, shadows, and subtle streaks.  Begin by making a relatively dilute wash by pouring 1/2 teaspoon of India ink into a pint of rubbing alcohol (any strength).  Pour some of the wash into a small cup and dip the tip of a soft flat ended brush into the mix.  Don't saturate the brush, you want it to be moist not dripping wet.  Using vertical strokes, brush the wash down the structure without stopping.  If you get noticeable pooling then the brush is too wet.  If you get a mottled look, wipe it clean with a cloth moistened in straight alcohol.  When you're done, seal the structure with Dullcote.

For very light colored structures you might want a weaker wash of say .4 teaspoons per pint.  For very dark structures you might want a mix as strong as 2 teaspoons per pint.  Other looks can be obtained by airbrushing the mix on.  If you use an airbrush, don't linger in one spot too long or you'll  get a mottled, pooling problem.  Experiment and have fun.

Different methods for applying the wash give different looks.  A brush was used to apply the ink wash to the tan structure in the left photo.  An airbrush was used to apply the wash to the girders of the scrap mill in the right photo.

July 21, 2010

Grass and Weeds

Heki grass fiber mats were used to line the canal in the top photo.  The weeds between the rails are Silflor 'Prairie Tufts'.

Now it's time to cover up some of that bare earth.  As the scenery market stands today, the two most realistic means of modeling grass are either by applying static grass or a relatively unknown product called grass fiber mats.  To keep things simple and less costly, we'll be going the grass fiber route for now.   Grass fiber mats are remarkably easy to work with and produce a very realistic look.  Essentially, they are a fiber impregnated gauze.  You simply remove them from the carton, pull off a patch, put a few drops of white glue on the layout surface and pat them in place.  I suggest the Heki brand of grass fibers available from Scenic Express, specifically parts HK 1576 and HK 1577 Some of the other colors in the Heki grass fiber line are a little too brilliant for my taste. Other brands don't look as realistic to my eye.  For weeds I suggest Silflor 'Prairie Tufts' and Buffalo Grass also available from Scenic Express. To apply these, place a spot of white glue where you want the weed, pull one off the sheet with tweezers and place it in the glue.




July 14, 2010

Some Clean Up

Ballast stuck to the side of the rails is pretty unsightly and should be brushed off soon after ballasting.


We've been moving along at a pretty stiff pace lately.  Time to slow down, take a breath, and do some clean up and touch up.  After applying the ballast your rails likely carry a substantial layer of matte medium, residual paint, and god knows what else.  Although I don't recommend regular rail cleaning with abrasives, we will need to do so at this point because the build up is so heavy.  Take a Brite Boy cleaning pad and firmly polish the rails.  Heavy glue spots can be popped off by gently nudging a tiny screw driver at the edge of the spot.  Dampen a rag with alcohol and wipe the rails clean.  Examine the rails under bright light from a few angles to see if you missed anything.  Once the rail is clean use only soft rags dampened in alcohol or Windex from here on out. 

Your turnout points are likely stiff as well.  Using your fingers, gently work them back and forth.  If they don't move under  slight pressure, don't force them.  Work an X-acto blade carefully around the edges of the tie rod to break up the glue.  If the points are glued closed, gently work a blade in behind them to break them loose. An optivisor can help you see glue any ballast stuck around the points and throw rod.  There will likely be some unpainted areas where you masked off the turnout prior to painting.  Go back with a small brush and touch those up.

Finally, there isn't much that looks worse than ballast stuck to the sides of the rail (see photo above).  Use an old tooth brush to get the looser particles off.  Remove the more stubborn pieces with the tip of a tooth pick.  Don't rub metal down the sides of the rail as that will scratch the paint.  Finally, take a photo, blow it up and see if you missed anything.  Errant ballast that doesn't jump out with a quick visual scan has a nasty habit of being very obvious in a photo.


July 7, 2010

Ballast and Soil Base

There are a few tricks that will make your track ballast easier to apply and look dramatically better.  As with a lot of things, it comes down to picking the right materials.  It's actually EASIER to do it right than to use old methods that don't look as realistic.  The keys are: Use natural stone based materials for the ballast and soils.  Use dilute matte medium for the adhesive.  Use fine mister bottles to apply the matte medium.

Many of the more readily available ballast and soil products are not rock or dirt at all but actually crushed walnut shells, ground cork, or sawdust.  These products tend to float all over the place when the adhesive is applied and are too uniform in color.  In short, they are hard to work with and don't look top notch after being put in place.  Natural rock or soil based products are much easier to work with and look better.  Arizona Rock and Mineral is an excellent supplier.  Another is Smith and Son (available through Scenic Express0.


For our purposes, lets use Arizona Rock and Mineral at www.rrscenery.com. I usually call the owner, Phil Anderson directly and place my order.  He'll want a minimum order of six bags.  I suggest the following:

  • 2 bags of part no. 138-2 (CSX.SP.Wabash  HO Scale) Nothing magic about this mix.  Its just a good 'salt and pepper' blend.

  • 2 bags of part no. 138-1 (CSX.SP.Wabash, N Scale)

  • 1 bag of part no. 2000 (Industrial Dirt)

  • 1 bag of part no. 1090 (Earth)

You'll also need one jug of pre-mixed, dilute matte medium from Scenic Express Part no EX0020Go to a beauty supply store and pick up some mister bottles that produce a very fine mist.

Lets start with the soil base.  Take your Arizona Rock Materials above and create a mix of your liking combining the N scale CSX ballast, industrial dirt, and/or earth. Don't use the HO ballast for the soil base.  Mask off the areas you don't want soil such as structure bases.  Smear a very thin film of white glue on the layout surface.  Using a small strainer, lightly sprinkle the soil onto the white glue.  Put water and a splash or two of rubbing alcohol into the mister bottle.  Starting from about 12" up, lightly apply the mist so that the soil is not disturbed.  As the soil gets damp you can work down lower.  Next, put the dilute matte medium in the mister bottle and spray it over the soil base.  Be careful not to blast the soil away or drench it to the point where there are large puddles.  Let dry.

Now for the track ballast.  Mix some HO and N scale CSX ballast together in a small cup.  Staying clear of your turnout mechanism, apply your track ballast.  This is an area where it's easy to add more if you apply too little ballast but a real pain to correct if you apply too much.  To be safe, just bring the ballast up about half way on the ties.  Use a soft water color brush to brush errant particles off of the rail sides and ties.  There is nothing that kills the look more than ballast stuck to the rail sides.  Once you have a neat application down, mist the ballast with your alcohol/water mix as before.  Follow up with a mist of the matte medium.  You have enough matte medium down when you can just begin to see the white of it between the particles.  If it is being pulled down into the mix and you see none of the white, you don't have enough down.  Don't over saturate though to the point where you have thick puddles that cause the ballast to run.  Let dry.  Inspect your work and if it looks like too much of the tie sides are showing CAREFULLY dust on a second layer of ballast to bring the level up and repeat the fixative process.  It is far easier to use this 'go slow, two layer' approach than try to chisel away a ballast application that was put on too heavily.


June 29, 2010

Painting the Track

With the track feeders soldered to the sides of the rail, we can now paint the track.  This is an area where it is just as easy to do it right as it is to do it wrong.   It's all about color selection.  Using the correct colors will make a dramatic difference in how the layout looks.  If you look at the prototype, rail color varies all over the map from tan, to orange, to dark gray.  A distinction has to be made here though between model and prototype.  As reliable as Atlas and Walthers track is, the downside is that the spike heads are substantially over size.  If you paint the rail a rusty orange or light tan, attention will be drawn to this deficiency.  If you paint the rail a darker color, the oversize detail is downplayed.  So, that's the trick, we'll be painting the track a darker color.

Before we start,  Atlas turnouts feed electrical power to the points via an electrical pad at the heel of the points as well as the tip of the points.  Mask off these electrical contact areas as well as the throw bar area of the points  with small patches of masking tape.  Once that is done, take the module outside for painting.  The small size of the project is an advantage in this case and applying solvent paints outside is safer on many fronts.

The suggested color mix is as follows:  Apply a base coat of Floquil Roof Brown first.  Floquil produces this color in a spray can which is handy.  After the Roof Brown has been applied,  immediately follow up with a light dusting of Floquil Grimy Black.  If you ignore this suggestion, and go with Rail Brown, Floquil Rust, or any other lighter color you will regret it.

Immediately after painting the rail (as in a minute or two) clean the rail heads  by moistening a small block of soft wood  with mineral spirits paint thinner and wiping it across the rail heads.  If you wait too long, cleaning the rail becomes much harder.  Finally, remove the masking tape from the switches and touch up the unpainted areas with a small brush.

Here are the part numbers for the aerosol paints:

Floquil Roof Brown: Part no. 130070

Floquil Grimy Black: Part no.   130013



June 22, 2010


It's time to power up our little layout.  Many modelers dread wiring so this is the perfect platform to get a little practice in without being overwhelmed by wires running everywhere.  For track feeders I suggest 18 gauge solid hook up wire which can be purchased at Radio Shack or an electronics shop.  The 14 gauge power bus wire can be purchased by the foot from Home Depot.  Drilling the holes for the feeder wires is much easier if you use a longer drill bit.  These are known in the trade as 'aircraft bits' and can be picked up inexpensively online.  Pick up a 6" long, 1/8" diameter bit.    A more detailed tutorial on soldering and wiring  can be found HERE.  Wiring is not that difficult if you: use a 35w, pencil style, soldering iron with a CLEAN tip, use liquid solder flux, and use thin solder.  Suitcase style tap connectors (Radio Shack part no. 64-3052) make connecting the feeders to the main bus a breeze.  You want the 14-18 size connectors.




June 16, 2010

Let's Lay Some Track

After you have your bench work in order and trimmed with a neatly done fascia, it's time to turn your attention to the track.  Since your extruded foam base is likely pink or blue, it's a good idea to give it a quick base coat of earth tone paint prior to laying the track.   This will make it less likely that the pink or blue will show through your ballast or scenery base.  Inexpensive acrylic craft paints will do the trick.

Next, mark your track locations lightly on the foam surface using loose pieces of track as templates.  Industrial track tends to have very little ballast profile so we will NOT be laying cork roadbed in this example and will be  placing the track flat on the foam scenery base instead.  Make up your straight track pieces by trimming them to length with Xuron flush cut rail nippers.   Make sure the flat face of the nippers faces the section of rail you want to keep as the other side of the cut will have an un-wanted taper.  Even with the rail nippers there are often small burrs on the bottom of the rail at the cut.  Run a a few passes along the bottom of the rail with a file to take these off.  You will also notice that a few ties will need to be trimmed away in order to make room for the rail joiners.  After trimming away a few of the flex track ties slip the specialty Atlas 'end ties' back over the end.  The specialty end ties have a notch for your joiners. 

It takes very little adhesive to hold the track down.  Run a thin bead of white glue down the track centerline.  Start with the main track running down the center and set it into the white glue.  Follow up with remaining diverging tracks.  Take pains to make sure the track diverging from the turnouts follows a clean path without any kinks.   Don't solder the rail joiners and shoot for a gap of 1/16"  at the track joints to allow for expansion.  If you need help keeping the track in place put in some temporary push pins to hold the track until it dries.  If you decide you want to move the track later, moisten it with a water/alcohol mix and slide it to the new position.


Xuron flush cut rail nippers assure you will have a square end to the rail after cutting it (left).  Atlas end ties are a handy way of filling the rail gaps where track joints meet (center).  Make sure your track flows smoothly into and out of the turnouts (right photo).

Here's an example of Atlas track laid directly on extruded foam bench work to represent an industrial right of way.  Note the smoothly flowing curves.  Note the push pins that are temporarily holding the track in place while the glue dries.



June 11, 2010

Initial Materials For the 'Skills Builder'

Let's take a look at some basic materials to get the 'Skills Builder' up and running.

Bench Work

There are a couple of ways to go for the bench work depending on how permanent you want the project to be.  Keep in mind that this could be a pure training exercise to be disposed of after the lessons are learned.  It could also be built into something more permanent.

Option 1: Purchase an 18" by 80" hollow core door panel at Home Depot or Lowes.  This will run you about $25.  Also pick up a slab of 3/4" x 8ft. extruded foam.  This is the pink or blue material in the insulation department. Cut the foam board to 18" to match the width of the door slab. Using adhesive caulk or foam board adhesive, glue the foam to the top of the door panel.   If you want a nicer, more finished, look, frame the edges of the door/foam panel with floor trim.  For the staging cassette, a simple 1x4 (6 to 8 feet long) plank will suffice.  If you need the bend leading around the corner to the staging cassette, use 3/4" plywood.

Option 2:  The quick and dirty method is to simply use a 2" thick piece of extruded foam and cut it to 18" in width.


For this project we will be using Atlas code 83. 

  • Code 83 flex track:  Part no. 500.  10 pieces (30 feet)

  • Code 83 number 6 left turnouts: Part no. 563  Quantity of (2)

  • Code 83 number 6 right turnout: Part no. 564 Quantity of (3)

  • Rail joiners: Part no. 170 (2 packs)

  • 24" sectional track for the curve to staging (if needed): Part no. 536 (1 pack)  If you want a tighter curve use part no. 535 for a 22" radius curve or part no. 532 for 18" radius

  • Atlas end ties: Part no. 598 (3 packs).  These hand little pieces slip on the end of your flex track and fill the gap in places you've had to trim back ties to clear the rail joiners.


June 9, 2010

Introducing the 'Skills Builder'

There are a number of reasons for building a small layout.  Perhaps you have limited space, limited funds, or both.  Maybe you expect to move and don't want to commit to a large project.  Often overlooked is that a small, simple layout is a great learning platform.  In addition, the simplicity increases the odds of success.  Regardless, I'm a firm believer that whatever your  circumstances are, there are significant advantages to physically building a layout.  Just doing something is a huge morale booster and greatly increases a person's enjoyment of the hobby.  Over the coming months I'll be doing a series of blog entries on a layout designed to get somebody started.  I've named it 'The Skills Builder'. The target audience will be those new to the hobby, whether they be students or retirees.  The project would be practical for those in the military or a student living in a dorm.  It is small enough that it could be disposed of when its served its training purpose.    As simple as the plan is, it can provide deceptively more operational interest than would appear at first glance.  If built with care, it would be an attractive addition to an office or den.  As we go along special attention will be given towards keeping the cost low and thus within reach of the teenager on an allowance or retiree on a fixed income.  No more excuses.  Let's get started building a layout!



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