CP Executive train in Albany

CP Executive train in Albany

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Handlaying a Switch

Part of the NMRA Civil certification requirement calls for handlaying some track. And not only must it work, but it also has to be good enough to earn a Merit Award. I am allowed to pick three items from the following list: turnout (point or stub); crossover, double crossover; single slip switch; double slip switch; crossing; Gauntlet track, gauntlet turnout, dual gauge turnout; gauge separation turnout; double junction turnout, three-way turnout, spring switch, and an operating switch in overhead wire. Quite the list, though some look a bit more difficult than others. I am picking the three underlined above.

I decided to start with a turnout. I didn't intend to work on this until later this fall, after I had earned my Electrical certificate. Frankly, handlaying track isn't easy. If you work in the smaller gauges, it involves spiking tiny rail and trying to file minute angles in small pieces of rail and forming them with perfect flangeways. Yuck. If you pick the larger scales, then you practically need a milling machine to work the rail over and any mistakes are out in the open. Yuck. So, I photocopied an article by Tony Koester from Model Railroader on handlaying switches and put it in my file and just left it alone.

Then, as I looked around at my shop I saw some old LGB sectional track I had lying around taking up space. Humm... I got to thinking. The thought of building track in G scale (or large scale, or F scale, or whatever you want to call it) sounded really fun. Cutting the ties up, staining them, spiking the rail with spikes you can see that won't look too large (like in HO scale track), just seemed neat. Plus, I am a big fan of Bernard Kempinski's O scale blog and he handlays his track. It seemed doable. The tipping point was that I had an article from Garden Railways magazine from 2009 showing how to build a #5 switch. Done.

Not having a table saw, and not wanting to order lumber online, I went to Home Depot and bought some 3/8" square basswood dowels. I only grabbed the reasonably straight ones (or, I should have... by my second trip I was checking!) which looked good for ties. I found a 1x3' board used for shelving that would make a nice base. And, I picked up some Minwax Jacobean stain to color the ties. I rushed home and cut the ties to the lengths called for in the plans, glued them to the board after arranging them on the template and putting tape over the top to help keep them in line while moving them, and when that dried I stained them. This was fun! I pooled the stain in places to give it a shiny creosote look, and when I went overboard some sandpaper knocked the sheen down. No, there wasn't any rail cut yet but I was getting somewhere.

The 8 pieces of rail for the turnout all required some machining. Two small guardrails need their corners smoothed over, two point rails need extensive machining to make them smooth, two stock rails need a groove cut in them for the points, and the two frog rails must be ground to a 1 in 5 taper. But, I had a grinder and a benchtop belt sander and it all seemed doable. So, in ignorance I began. And, it sure seemed easier than I thought. Because everything was so big, it was easy to see. The belt sander chewed through the code 332 brass rail easily. I had to stop and dunk the pieces in water to cool them off frequently, but that wasn't a big deal.

Then it came time to solder them up. The magazine called for building a fixture with fender washers that held the rails in place, which seemed smart. The problem was that you were supposed to flip the rails over and line them up, and then solder from above. That was beyond my ability. You need everything in perfect alignment, but cannot actually see it. So, I flipped the script (literally) and took a piece of wood and cut the template out and glued it to the wood. I put a thin piece of sheet brass on top, and then arranged the rails right-side-up on it. Everything was coated in rosin flux. I used the screws/washers to secure the rail and made final adjustments using styrene check gauges I built based on NMRA Standards found online.

Next, I used my brand new propane blow torch that I bought just for this project and slowly heated up the assembly. It took a while as I didn't want to rush it, and paper burned up and the wood got scorched. But, then I applied some silver solder I had lying around and it quickly ran into the gaps and filled up the joints in the frog rails. I then let everything cool down. I later soldered the guard rails to their adjacent point rails, which was a lot simpler. It sure looked ugly when I was done, but it cleaned up nice. This wasn't tough at all! I attribute my success to the article being well written, me taking my time in grinding the rail and arranging it on the templates, and God being really good to me!

Once it was all said and done, I used copious amounts of alcohol and a toothbrush to clean all the flux residue off of the rails. I checked the clearances and in one space a tiny bit of filing was done, and in another space I used my Dremel and a cut-off wheel to slightly open up the gap. Nothing big here. These rails are huge and easy to see. I then soldered some tabs under the point rails to eventually connect to the throwbar. I also drilled and tapped 2-56 holes in the base of some of the rails for wiring, but the screws looked out of place so I lightly bent the wire to look like spikes and inserted and soldered it directly into those holes.

I got so much farther ahead than I planned that I had to wait and order Micro Engineering spikes the following Monday morning. They arrived within a couple of days and I dove in. The article recommended pre-drilling the spike holes and I started to do that with a #51 drill bit held in a pin vice. However, it became very tiring and I feared I would snap the thin bit. On a whim, I tried just shoving the spike in with pliers (in the typical two-step process of starting it, then choking up on it and pushing it home) and it worked well. Sure, in the process the spike sometimes got knocked sideways and opened the hole, but I still used the hole because there was plenty of wood there.

I also chiseled away the portion of the ties that interfered with the sheet brass support underneath the frog and guard rails. I started off by using a regular #11 Xacto knife blade, but then remembered I had these wide #18 chisel blades that worked perfectly. I set the rail where it needed to go and scraped a line with the back of the #11 blade into the ties. Then, I lifted the rail out of the way and removed the rest of the wood. I then used a small brush to apply more stain to the newly revealed areas, which surprised me how little of the tie the stain actually penetrated into. Finally, the rails were spiked in place.

I still need to install a ground throw to control the throw bar, which is a length of 1/4" square styrene that I painted black and drilled/tapped for 2-56 for screws. I soldered small tabs to the stock rails and the screws go through that. Since I am a glutton for punishment and wanted to make sure to earn my 87.5 Merit Award points, I used 4 spikes per tie. In total, I used 266 spikes on the switch and probably broke/bent/lost another 50. Pre-drilling the holes would have saved spikes but cost me my sanity. Since a bag only contains 500, I will probably need to order more for the crossing.

 I was extra careful when spiking the point rails to allow enough free movement of the rails, and I also did my best to maintain gauge through the area. An Aristocraft freight car truck proved useful, though it was very sloppy and didn't measure out to NMRA specs. I am finished with this for now. I still need to wire it, but I don't know if I want to use a slide switch to control both the point rails and the polarity of the frog. I plan to paint the baseboard a nice dark brown, and ballast the turnout. Neither is necessary, but both make it more presentable. And, I already started working on my second item, a crossing track...

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