Laying track on The Roadshow

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I’ve written many posts on this blog about how I hand-lay track. But if a picture is worth a thousand words than a 38-minute video must be worth about 68,400,000 (at 30 frames per second).

On the latest episode of The Roadshow – which documents the construction of two Free-mo style modules for use with The S Scale Workshop – I demonstrate my track-laying techniques. These are the same techniques I used for my Port Rowan layout.

Click on the image, above, to watch the episode. You need to be a subscriber to TrainMasters TV to see it, but membership is quite reasonable.

Thanks as always to Barry Silverthorn at TrainMasters TV for letting me be a part of his show!

“Leather Brown”

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Today I airbrushed the rails on two four-foot sections from the Judge Farm module that I’m building for TrainMasters TV.

“Rail Brown” is hard to find these days as traditional railway hobby paint lines dry up. Instead of fretting about this, I grabbed a bottle of “Leather Brown” from Acrylicos Vallejo – item 70871 in the “Model Color” line – and used it instead. These paints spray well and dry dead flat – and I think it worked just fine. I’ll have to grab another bottle, though – the one I have may run out before I finish all the track.

Sharp-eyed readers will note the joint between two rail sections in the foreground rail, just to the left of centre. I notched the top of the rail head with a fine saw before applying the joint bars to either side of the web. The paint gets into the notch and does not get removed when cleaning the top of the rails after airbrushing.

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These two sections aren’t yet finished – there’s a lot more scenery work to do. But they’re now close enough to finished that I can show them as part of the S Scale Workshop modular layout at The North Shore Train Show in Laval, Québec in a week and a half.

That’s the good news. The bad news is I still have two more four-foot rectangle sections – plus four small trapezoids – to wire. And then I have to sling scenery, ballast and more “Leather Brown” paint. I’ll get there – and my friend Chris Abbott is coming over tonight so we can work on more wiring together.

But I’m going to spend a lot of time in the workshop between now and next Friday morning when I hit the road…

Division Street :: Spiked!

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(Progress ensues…)

I spent a few hours today in the workshop, spiking rails on the Free-mo-style modules I’m building for the S Scale Workshop, and documenting for TrainMasters TV.

The lead photo shows one of the two four-foot long sections that make up the core of the Division Street module. Today, I spiked both sections of Division Street – every second or third tie. I’m feeling a little cross-eyed right now and my plier-wielding hand is feeling pretty angry. But I’m pleased that I’m almost halfway there: Between the two modules, I have 21 feet of track to spike, and I’ve done about 9 feet so far.

Rails are soldered to PC board ties at each end, with expansion gaps in the middle of the modules. While it’s not obvious in the lead photo, I’ve also applied joint bars to the rails. And I’ve installed some rail segments on the abandoned interurban track that parallels Division Street:

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I added the interurban as a way to demonstrate some more heavily weathered ties. I’ve even added rust streaks to the tops of the ties where the rails used to be, by masking the ties and then brushing them with rust-coloured weathering powder. I’m pleased with the effect.

My work table is silting up…
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… so before I tackle the next set of rails I’ll have to do a sort’n’store. But I’ll do that tomorrow, once the eyes and hands have had a break. The bottle of Mad Tom IPA in the photo is an essential part of the spiking process. Sadly, it’s also empty: I think another adult beverage is in order…

Paint Pen

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I picked up this Paint Pen during a recent visit to a hobby shop and this week I put it to good use on the layout, touching up some of the track work.

Any layout will expand and contract as humidity and temperature levels fluctuate in the train room.

For the first couple of years after I have the track laid, I always expect to find some areas of the track that need tweaking. The most common problem is rail gaps that close up as the rail expands. My friend Pierre Oliver is “enjoying” fighting the expansion gremlins on his Wabash layout, due to a particularly cold winter here in southern Ontario. I have been more lucky in this regard, in that the instances of closed gaps have been relatively rare and they have not caused any problems with shorting.

I did, however, have a spot at the west end of St. Williams where the rails expanded to the point that they actually pushed the rail ends out of alignment. It happened to both rails just east of the Stone Church Road overpass. My solution was to run a Zona saw down the gap between the two adjacent rail ends. This removed enough rail to create “winter-sized” gaps. In the summer, the layout shift should widen these gaps – but not enough to cause problems. I restored the proper alignment with some extra spikes at the rail ends:
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What does this have to do with Paint Pens? Well, fixing the problem scraped away some of the airbrushed paint on the rails. A quick touch with the Paint Pen took away the shine. The pen I used is a bit too “rusty” for my rails so I’ll look for other colours next time I’m at my local chooch emporium, but the pen definitely made it easy to apply the paint exactly where I wanted it to go.

And I found that the rust colour worked beautifully to touch up the guard rails around turnout frogs. These are the parts of the turnout where the wheels do not roll to keep the railhead shiny. But they’re often shiny on layouts because we scrub the tops of rails with track cleaners. I don’t have to clean my track very often – the graphite stick solved that problem – but when I do, this Paint Pen will make short work of reapplying the rust – like this:
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Track: Then and Now (TMC-07)

I was delighted to be asked by Mike Cougill to contribute a feature about modelling branch line track to The Missing Conversation – Mike’s quarterly, digital publication that encourages a fine scale, craftsman approach to the hobby.

The issue – Volume 7 – is now available for download from Mike’s site. Click on the image below to read more about Track: Then and Now:
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As Mike notes, this is not a rehash of Detailing Track, the excellent book he produced (which is still available). Neither does my feature simply rehash the material I’ve presented on this blog: I took all new pictures, and wrote a fresh story with – I think – many ideas I haven’t covered here previously.

If you buy a copy, I hope you enjoy it. Mike’s philosophy – one which which I am in complete agreement – is that this hobby is worth doing well. It’s worth pushing one’s limits and trying new things. It’s worth being inspired by – and striving for – excellence, even if that means going back and redoing portions of one’s work that are no longer the best one can do.

I’m enjoying The Missing Conversation and look forward to each new issue.

2B or not 2B :: Fighting dirty rails

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There’s no question: Model railways are only fun if the trains run – and run reliably. And unless one is using a battery-power system, reliable running depends on excellent electrical contact between rails and wheels.

Over the years, modellers have tried many things to improve the electrical path – from additional wipers on locomotives, to hair clipper oil, to special circuits designed to burn away non-conductive contaminants. The one that works for me is the above graphite stick (of 2B hardness), purchased from an art supply store more than a decade ago.

I learned about applying graphite to the rails from a local modeller. Brian Fayle is best known in these parts for his figure-painting techniques (which I also use). But while talking at a train show he mentioned that rubbing graphite on the rails improves electrical performance and – since I was working in On2 at the time, and suffering from terrible performance, I decided to give it a try. What a difference! I’ve been a convert ever since.

After painting the rails, I clean the tops of paint with various tools – anything from a piece of strip wood dipped in thinner to a fine emery board. Then, I simply rub the graphite stick over the top. (Be careful around switch points – you don’t want to catch one with the graphite stick and tear it off the head rod.) It can be rubbed flat or used on end: Look at the above photo again and you’ll notice a notch at the left end of the stick, which I’ve worn into the stick while dressing the rails.

And that’s it. In seven years of running my On2 layout and more than a year of running trains on Port Rowan, I have never needed to do routine cleaning of track or locomotive wheels. (I do engage in a bit of cleaning after applying scenery in case I get water or glue on the rails – then reapply graphite.) Electrical contact has been super-reliable, and I have not noticed any loss of pulling power as a result of applying graphite. (That said, I run short trains on a layout with no significant grades, and my train room is a relatively clean environment. Your mileage may vary.)

Applying graphite to the rails is a popular solution amongst modellers in the UK. To read more about using graphite and other methods of fighting dirty rails, I recommend a presentation by Mike Walton. He’s a member of The Platelayers Society, a local group for fans of UK modelling, and he did an excellent presentation at one of their gatherings. The slides from that presentation are online as a PDF called Go With The Flow.

Track sprayer

This morning was cold – but it’s only going to get colder – so I loaded up the airbrush, turned off the furnace, opened windows, started up ceiling fans, and finished spray-painting the rails on the layout. Then I took the dogs for a long walk while the place aired out. By the time we got home, the rails were (appropriately enough) a nice Rail Brown.

Previously, I had painted all the rails from end of track in Port Rowan to the water tank in the Lynn Valley. Today I airbrushed the rails through the valley and through St. Williams to staging. I’ll leave the rails in staging unpainted.

Later today, I’ll clean off the tops of the rails and test everything to make sure the trains still run reliably. With that done, I can finish planting static grass around the track.

First trains from Simcoe

My friend Chris Abbott visited last night after work, and we worked on the sector plate that represents Simcoe, Ontario and points north. By the end of the evening, we had our first trains running across the entire railroad.

To keep rails aligned, Chris cut and installed large pads of copper-clad printed circuit board material. This photo shows the four tracks of the sector plate plus, in the upper right, the mainline to St. Williams:
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(Chris also cut plates for the other end of the sector plate tracks, plus the two ends of the locomotive cassette. We didn’t get those installed last night, but we’re that much further ahead for the next work session.)

Meanwhile, I continued to work on the wiring for the staging area. Having already installed drop feeders, I decided I wanted a way to route power so I could turn off tracks where trains are stored between runs. I’m still pondering my options for this, but in the interim I installed a temporary panel with four mono 1/4″ audio jacks, arranged to correspond to the four staging tracks:
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I ran a common wire from the track bus to one contact on each of these jacks, then individually wired the leads to each track to the other contacts. Finally, I connected the two contacts in a 1/4″ plug with a short piece of wire.

When the plug is inserted into a jack, it completes the circuit to the corresponding track – and only one track can ever be powered at a time. In the photo, the plug is in the jack for track 1, and the headlight is lit on the train on that track. Easy peasy. I’ll play around with this for a while, enjoying running trains, while I decide what form of track power assignment I want to install on a permanent basis.

Now that I can run trains in and out of staging, I am thinking about how I’m going to disguise this non-prototypical but necessary area on the layout. I do not like hidden staging – not in the least – so it’ll remain visible. However, this photo illustrates two techniques that will help minimize its presence during operating sessions:
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First, I designed the lighting system so the light would fall off as staging is approached. Note how bright the closest tobacco kiln is, compared to the one in the distance. That bright side also draws the eye, so I’ll emphasize that when I build the structures – perhaps by doing full detail on the closest kiln and making the other four less visually busy.

The second technique involves the addition of a wind break of trees across the layout at the entrance to staging. I’ve temporarily installed some evergreens and I’m pleased with the effect. I think a row of deciduous trees will work even better.

Having a working sector plate means I can clear the tracks in St. Williams – and that means I can start holding real operating sessions!

Progress in Simcoe

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Over the past few days, between other commitments, I have spiked all the rail on the four-track sector plate. It’s not completely spiked – only every sixth tie or so – but it’s enough to test the track. I will go back and spike it every second or third tie as time permits.

There are a few ties that need to be replaced – they came loose while sanding, but I can stain them and slip them under the rails. There are also gaps at the ends of each track – these will be filled with squares of printed circuit board so I can solder the rails to them. This will keep everything in alignment across the gaps to the main track into St. Williams, and to the cassette used to turn locomotives.

I have also added drop feeders for each track on the sector plate. I removed the plate from its base, then drilled holes for feeders next to each rail, near the pivot point. I made sure these holes were in two lines – one for lefthand rails, the other for righthand rails. I then used a router to cut two slots on the underside of the moving section of the plate, connecting each row of four holes. I then soldered a drop feeder to each rail and bundled the wires in the slots:
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I wired each track separately, so that in the future I can add switches to automatically power only the track that’s lined up with the mainline into St. Williams.

While the sector plate was off the base, I cut a square opening in the base to pass the wires through, with enough space to pass a plug as well. As the photo shows, I’ve added labels to the gold wires so I know which track they power. The silver wires will be wired together as a common return.

I am very, very close to having all track done and wired.

Wonky? No worries

A friend emailed me privately to comment on the “wonky” (his word) rails in my recent track level shots of Port Rowan.
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The truth is, my track laying skills are adequate – but not great. This is one reason I favour small branchlines, short lines and narrow gauge railroads: I could never lay track worthy of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the Second World War or of the modern Union Pacific.

When I did this section I was at first disappointed I had a jiggle’n’jog. But then I realised it added character to the track that was in line with the overall effect I’m attempting to achieve on this layout.

By the 1950s, the Port Rowan branch’s days were definitely numbered. Rails were practically lost in the grass, traffic was disappearing to trucks, and I doubt maintenance was high on the list. “Keep the flanges off the ties” was probably the plan.

So I decided to not worry about the wonky rails – providing my trains stay on them. At the slow speeds I’m running – the prototype’s 15 mph speed limit is enforced by custom decoder speed tables – this hasn’t been a problem.