CP Executive train in Albany

CP Executive train in Albany

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Laying Track - Parts 1 & 2

(Edit: 10/15/2019) Somehow, Part 2 was recently re-posted at the top of the blog as a new post in 2019. I can't manually stick it on the correct date, so I am sticking the text at the bottom of Part 1. 

First off: to everyone out there: Happy Thanksgiving!

Though I still had some cork to glue down, as well as some design work for the fourth side and the entrance area, I decided to try laying some track. I had never worked with Micro Engineering flextrack before and had read many horror stories about how hard it was to work with. It was also rumored to be very delicate, and just looking at the code 55 stuff made me realize how small the rail actually was. But, one cannot learn to swim if he doesn't dip his toe in the water. Besides, how tough could it really be?

Using some string, I measured just how much track in each of the three sizes I would need, as well as the switches that would be required. I had plenty of the code 70 and code 55, but I still need to order some more code 83. One thing that disappointed me is that M.E. does not mold in the underside of the ties what code rail the track is. The code 55 looks different from the other two, but code 70 and 83 look pretty similar. Turnouts also look similar. I put a tiny white dot of paint on the top of my code 83 switches to keep track of them (I can scratch it off easily later) and decided to only work on code 83 for now so I don't mix them up.

Before I could glue the track down though I had to deal with the switches. I opened up the packages and flipped them over to remove the over-center spring. Since I planned to install under the table switch machines, these springs had to go. I also drilled two 1/4" holes in the benchwork: one for the Tortoise machine throw wire, the other for the frog power wire. I used a hole punch and my laminated templates to lay out where the holes had to go. I had to notch one side of the template to get the hole punch close enough to reach the frog area.

I then thought through all of the areas of track I could lay that wouldn't require switches (or fitting track between switches) and decided to start with the easiest section of the whole layout: the mainline along the back of the Colonie Liquor section. This was all code 83, and though the track came pretty straight from the factory with black tape on the ends I couldn't get it perfectly straight. I tried shimmying it, I tried pressing it against something flat, and I tried giving it the evil eye. Nothing doing. But, it is mostly straight, which is good enough for me.

I used the same Loctite clear caulk to attach the track, putting down a thin bead and spreading it with whatever scraps of styrene I could find. Where it oozed up between the ties, I lifted the track and spread it out thinner. I then tacked it in place with push pins (the plastic ones, and the thin metal ones). The plastic ones always crack when I hit them with a hammer, but they are cheap. The brass ones are great because they don't foul the track and you can roll a truck along the rails to test joints. I have a spare MDC plastic caboose truck with Intermountain 33" metal wheels (Intermountain wheels are my default) which I painted yellow to use for check for bumps.

As areas where the sections ended, I cut the rails flush at the joint. I didn't spike the rails down now, but there is solid wood underneath the track and I can easily add them in the future if necessary. I left very thin air joints between the sections, and the truck barely makes a click as it rolls over them. If the rail contracts and the gap becomes bigger, I may need to come up with something else. I then used a small needle file to smooth the insides of the rail ends, even though I used straight cutting Xuron pliers to cut the rail.

A friend recommended Walthers/Shinohara code 83 rail joiners for Micro Engineering code 83 and 70 rail. They are obscenely expensive as far as rail joiners ($15 for 50) go, but they do look great. And, it isn't as if I need hundreds of them. The rail is a little loose in the joints, to the point where I wouldn't rely on them to conduct current if they weren't soldered. However, I am adding a feeder wire to every section of rail so it isn't a problem.

Bending curved with the flextrack was supposed to be hard too. And I agree that getting a consistent curve it without some hardwood former. Some people have purchased track radius tools to bend the track, but I think that might just rip up the molded spike heads. Instead, I just used my hands and slowly wiggled the curves along. To be sure, joints on curves weren't much fun and I sometimes had to tack the track in place and use some superglue on the spike heads to get the rail to hold where i wanted it. My curves look pretty good but they are certainly not perfect. The ability of Atlas track to form a perfect arc when holding the two ends is a nice trick. But, my curves are fine. There is one joint where the track crosses on a curve, and that required cutting the rails at an angle. Again, if the rails act up I can always spike them down.

I then took spare M.E. plastic ties from the flextrack and sanded them thinner and slipped them under the joints. The ends of each section don't use rail joiners so the ties fit perfectly. Where the rail joiners were, I took some stripwood and cut it to the size I wanted, sanded it even thinner, and painted it brown. They don't match perfectly the M.E. ties, but who cares? 

All in all, the first hour or two I spent laying track was fun. It was an educational experience and I have discovered that I don't always have full days to commit to certain projects. An hour here and there is more likely going to fit in my schedule.

I will deal with wiring the frogs soon enough, but I didn't want to do it today so I then set them aside. However, in the process of checking the switches I noticed one that had a defective, warped rail. A quick email to M.E. confirmed that they would replace it... thanks Debby!


First off- Debby from Micro Engineering mailed me to working RH code 83 turnouts. A big "thank you" to them! They tested them before shipment and upon arrival they still worked. But, my concerns about them being fragile are still out there.

With them in hand, I worked on finishing the remaining part of the mainline on two of the four sections. Then, I started laying the code 70 and code 55 sidings. The code 55 especially is really small rail, and once it is weathered and ballasted (or perhaps not, depending on condition) with weeds and stuff it will really look great. But, any slight bump can kink it so I worked carefully. As shown in the picture here, the sidings were all code 55 but the main was code 83 and the switches off the mail were code 70. There are a couple of standard ways to go from one size rail to the other, but the one I decided to flat-out avoid was the "smash the end of the smaller rail joiner and solder the rail on top. I just don't trust my soldering skills yet.

So, purchased some of the M.E. conversion rail joiners. They are made from plastic and designed to go from 70 to 55 (I think they also have 83 to 70 too I think). They came in packs of four pairs, which should have been enough for what I needed. What I found though is that they are difficult to use. The code 55 rail easily slipped in the joiner, but the code 70 rail just didn't want to slip in its side of the joiner. I mangled two of them before I got the joint below. And truth be told, it didn't turn out to bad. But, I couldn't push the rails as close together as I wanted without ruining the thin plastic joiners so I had to leave joints which create a slight bump.

After a couple more times trying them on different joints, I went with plan B. I took a file and filed down the end of the code 83 rail about 3/16" long until it was the height of the code 70 rail. It was mostly done by eye. Then, I used regular rail joiners to put the code 70 and 55 tracks together. Truth be told, this also worked for the code 83 to 70 transitions I had. For the sidings and spurs where I switch rail sizes it works fine, and the trains roll over the joints smoothly even though there is an audible bump from the metal wheels.

Another option I thought of was to take a thin (0.030") styrene and glue the end of the code 83 flex track's ties onto it, and then take the code 70 track and glue it to the styrene, with a shim of 0.015" styrene under the code 70 ties. The rails would come out about the same height and the joint wouldn't shift, though I woudn't have a rail joiner at the location. I may try that out, but filing down the rail seemed to work fine.

For the Menands section, I have three spurs: one long one that is still being used, one short one that is still being used, and one short one that was overgrown and I believe out of service. For the long one I used the code 55 track as is. For the OOS track, I took the code 55 and removed about 1/3 of the ties from the flextrack (carefully, as this stuff is delicate) and then re-spaced the ties. For the short siding still in use, I left it as is but I may go back and adjust the tie spacing a little. With the sidings at a lower elevation than the main line, it looks pretty neat. (In case you are wondering, the plywood is indeed painted gloss brown. I tried a new color in a sample size and that only came in gloss.)

For the siding leading into Norlite, I went straight from the code 83 mainline to the code 55 spur. The grade was created with cardboard shims and feathering the caulk, and the curves are tighter than 24" radius. However, the prototype was like this too. I will be burying much of this siding in dirt and gravel, so I didn't play around with the tie spacing. It usually only had 40' open hoppers on it, so no worries there. I tried to keep the siding's cross-elevation in check, as I didn't want the cars to tip or lean. If they do, though, that will be prototypical too! I use plastic push pins to hold things in place, though when I hit them with a hammer the top part fractures off. As a result, I have a lot of broken push pins (which still work for this purpose however).

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Cork and Vinyl roadbed

In preparation for installation of the roadbed, I painted the plywood with brown paint. When I was younger, I had followed articles in Model Railroader and had selected tan or reddish-brown paint for my previous layouts. And, no matter what I did they didn't look realistic to me so I used copious amounts of ground foam to hide any bare patches. Then it dawned on me... the dirt in New York isn't very tan or red. It is brown! So, I followed Lou Sassi's advice and looked for a dark brown. He used something called "Tobacco brown" and I have no idea what that is, but I found a "Turkish Coffee" color that was very dark. Perhaps too dark. Depending on the lighting (compare the other pictures in this blog entry) it varies a lot. I used up a quar, but when I need more I will change to something lighter.

I painted over the top with a pretty heavy coat to get into all the cracks of the plywood. I was careful to try and avoid painting over the track center lines, as they were carefully laid out. However, any building lines were completely painted over as I may rearrange them slightly. For the "Mohawk Paper" section, I also tried to preserve the  street markings because it took so long to draw them. They too are subject to change in the future, but right now it gives a simple visual idea as to what I will be modeling there. I also need to calculate the grade and make sure that what I had planned will work.

Unlike tan paint or bare plywood, it is hard to see markings through or on the dark brown paint. The sidings by Keis required some rethinking, and it came down to whether I wanted to use a righthand or lefthand switch once the track separated from the mainline. I tried drawing lines on the brown paint using blue sharpie, regular pencil, and silver pencil but it was no good. So, I grabbed some tan paint I had leftover on the shelf and painted the small section a lighter color so that I could see what I was doing. In the end, I reverted back to the original track plan. The yellow boxcar is used to show the length of a 50' boxcar, useful for planning siding lengths.

I had a couple of choices for roadbed. On my N scale layout I had used Vinylbed by Hobby Innovations and really liked it. It went down in one piece, was a nice gray color that looked like ballast, didn't dry out, and was firm and supportive. I planned to use Vinylbed (now called Flexxbed) for this layout but they reformulated it. It is not as squishy as foam roadbed, but much softer than cork. So, I bought a box of Midwest HO cork roadbed. Cork works well too though it requires sanding the edges to remove the rough spots. I still have some of the N scale Vinylbed (old stuff) left over, so I will be using that for secondary tracks and sidings.

For joints between layout sections, I wanted something stronger than cork. The track may flex in these areas or need adjustment, and cork just doesn't hold up to repeated changes. So, I went with wood. I tried to find sections of straight wooden roadbed that I could cut into pieces for each joint, but all I saw on Ebay were curved. Perhaps that is a good thing, as they were likely 1/4" thick and I need 3/16" to match the cork (roadbed has gotten thinner over the years apparently). So, I bought some 3/16" plywood on Ebay and cut it to make pieces 1.5" wide. This isn't as wide as normal cork because I will add slopes on each side. In certain areas shimming was necessary with some cardboard.

I used clear caulk to attach the roadbed to the plywood. I avoided any caulk that had the word Silicone on the bottle. So, I bought a bottle of Loctite "all purpose adhesive caulk" that doesn't have silicone. I quickly discovered though that once you squeeze out a line of it and spread it out, it is very tough to see track centerlines for laying the roadbed! So, I did one half of the roadbed at a time. For the Vinylbed, I split it down the middle and widened it to better replicate HO scale width roadbed. I used a spare piece of HO track (painted yellow so I wouldn't lose it) to verify the width I wanted. I also used the caulk to fill in the gap in the middle of the Vinylbed roadbed, which will save me some ballast later on.

I don't have a lot of experience with modeling grades in track, so this will be a bit of an experiment for me. There will be three different track heights (HO cork, N scale roadbed, and on the bare plywood) and I hope it pays of visually. I used cardboard to build ramps between the different thicknesses of roadbed. The ramps aren't perfect but I made sure to not have any abrupt drops, and I also didn't put any cross-elevation in areas where the grade drops because that is just asking for trouble. I think once track is laid and ballasted, it will look pretty good. If necessary, I can always use more cardboard shims under the track.

For the turnouts I used HO cork and split it at the start of the switch, and then filled in pieces. It worked okay, but for the N scale roadbed I instead used some cork sheet that I had and traced the turnouts onto it. I know they sell turnout cork pads but they are pricey. At the areas where the throw bars will be, I cut a 3/8" wide slot and dug up the cork and caulk in the area. Then, I inserted small pieces of cork into the slot on the ends to hide the gap. I will eventually put a thin piece of styrene over the top with a hole drilled in it for the switch machine motor, and that will keep any stray ballast out. I also put a small sliver from the edges of the cork along the wood block joint areas.

I had to sand the edges of the cork to get a nice smooth slope for the eventual ballast. Yuck! What a boring and dirty job. Plus, because the layout was so high it was hard to get in and sand it so I ended up standing on a step stool. My layout doesn't even use that much cork but by the end I was done with it. Now I remember another reason why I loved the Vinylbed so much! The rubber grit got everywhere but my trust shop vac made quick work of the removal. In the end, I am glad I put the work into doing it as it will make ballasting so much easier.

As the last step, I painted the top of the roadbed with gray latex paint. This not only will make it look better, but it also seals the cork and hides any brown spots when it comes time to ballast.