Aligning Track Across Module Sections

Anyone building a modular layout has no doubt run across this quandary: how to keep your trains running smooth over the gaps between modules. Rails run right to the edge of your module or section, and then just stop. You’re now faced with the challenge of aligning the next module perfectly, so trains run in an uninterrupted and worry-free fashion. But the chances of getting the transition right diminish without a standard and consistent method for laying and securing the rails at each transition point.

Because I started laying track without a ton of experience with flextrack specifically, and without a lot of model railroading experience at all, I was unaware of many modelers’ creative solutions such as soldering the end of your rails to a few PC Board ties (see picture below), or otherwise immobilizing your rails near the end of your module for spot-on track work. My track was laid on a cork bed and fastened down with some kind of clear and slightly flexible caulk, so there was all sorts of misalignment and chaos when the modules were aligned.

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M.C. Fujiwara’s PC Board tie Method – Fantastic!

Side note: I highly recommend this PC Board ties method. I would have used it myself and avoided the need for this article at all if I had dome some more research before hastily starting the shelf layout. For more information, this great video from M.C. Fujiwara, How To Make Beautiful Butt Joints (For Free-moN and other modular railroads), is an amazing resource. 

Bad news is that I didn’t know about all that when I laid my track, and to adopt this method would have required me to rip up and re-lay all the track near each module’s end.I started googling around for other options, and came across a very creative solution.

The folks at County Gate, modelers of the Lynton and Barnstaple railway in 009, detailed this creative solution on their troubleshooting page, and it looks like this:

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They created a removable section of track to bridge the joint between modules and developed a series of connectors to hold the section in place. They used hollow brass tubing and a rod that aligned the section and kept it in place.

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Because I had already laid all the track, I would have to modify their design to make it work on my layout. I eliminated the removable sections and just decided to solder the brass tubing to the outside edge of the rails at the ends of both modules.

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Bravery is soldering even when you’re not good at it.

 

I picked up some 1.5mm brass tube and 1mm brass rods from K&S Precision Metals, as suggested by the 009 group. Even though I’m using shorter and daintier code 55 track, I figured those dimensions would still work for my purposes.

Once the tubing was soldered in, (which was, I might add, very difficult. I’m not very talented at soldering, these pieces are very small, and my soldering iron is in bad shape) I cut some pins from the brass rod, bent them into an “L” for removal purposes, and threaded them through the tubing.

 

The closer pair is perfect. The farther pair is not the best… but the track still lines up

The key to success is soldering the tubing evenly and uniformly on both module ends, or else the tubing won’t line up and the pins won’t pass through.

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The messiest joint on the layout gets messier-looking, but more secure.

It turned out well enough for me, and I’m happy with the results. It’s a fix though, and you’d probably be better off using the PC Board method to keep things lined up and running smooth.

TT

My utmost gratitude to pioneers MC Fujiwara and the L&B Rwy 009 group for developing and sharing their ideas with the railroad modeling community. You can find MC Fujiwara on the N Scale forums and on Youtube. You can find the L&B modelers here.

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N scale wheel replacement primer

A few months back I picked up a 6-car runner pack of some NS coal hoppers. They were manufactured by now-defunct LBF corporation, and they came with black plastic wheels that had some formidable pizza-cutter wheel flanges. Clearly these hoppers would not play nice with my refined and classy code 55 track. Something had to be done about this garish wheelbase, but I wasn’t sure what. I hadn’t had any experience with swapping out wheelsets, and I didn’t even know where to start.

After spending some time on the nscale.net forums learning about LBF and finding out what I could about these odd hoppers, I also found out some very interesting information I did not know about n scale wheels.

First distinction: Some wheels are plastic, some are metal. 

This should come as no shock to anyone who is familiar with model trains, and N scale in particular. While it’s no indicator of actual model quality, some cars just come with plastic trucks, and some come with metal ones. Atlas Trainman rolling stock, for example, come with brown plastic wheels. Some Athearn hoppers I picked up recently have some bright metal ones. Make sure to do your research if you don’t want to be stuck in your train cave all day replacing wheels because you prefer metal to plastic or vice-versa.

Metal v. plastic wheels

Second distinction: Wheels have different axle lengths.

As if things weren’t difficult enough, manufacturers have not decided on a standard axle length for N scale rolling stock. Apparently this isn’t a big issue in HO or other scales, but in N scale there are multiple lengths. There are probably ten different lengths that come standard from manufactures from Athearn to Walthers, but I’ve found .540″ and .554″ are common for much of my rolling stock.

If you don’t know the manufacturer of your rolling stock, give it a quick google and you should be able to find all the information you need to determine what axle length you will need to shop for.

Note: Wheels can arrive “out of gauge” fresh out of the packaging. Metal replacement wheels tend to be adjustable, and this issue can be remedied with a NMRA standards gauge and some slight squeezing or pulling with your fingers. If you’ve got a car that won’t traverse the layout without giving you grief, this might be your best bet.

Third distinction: Wheels have different flanges.

Flanges come in three basic varieties: High-profile, Standard, and Low-Profile.

High profile flanges came standard on N scale stock from it’s early infancy until very recently. Yes, the good old “pizza cutter” flanges are still hanging around, riding low on Code 55 ties and giving modelers grief.

Low-profile have the least dramatic flange lengths and look increasingly prototypical. They’re also very handy to have if you’re using code 55. But they’re the most finicky and require meticulous track if you’re looking for worry-free operation.

Standard flanges split the differences tight down the middle. Not too long, not too short, just right. They handle questionable track work like the old high-profile flanges, but won’t  look out-of scale to even a well-trained eye.

Last distinction: Wheels have different diameters.

Most commonly, you will find n scale wheels come in 33″ or 36″ diameters. There are other sizes, but I’ve only had to deal with these two so far. I was struck at the noticeable difference I saw in just 3 scale inches when I set the two wheels side by side.

So to sum all this up: you could find 33″ .554″ plastic wheels on your next model, or shiny 36″ metal ones with a .540″ axle length, or any other combination of these dimensions.

Upon inspecting my LBH coalporters,  I found that they came equipped with Micro-Trains trucks. It was printed right on the bottom of the trucks and made my life that much easier. If you come across mystery trucks or wheels, you’ll probably have to measure with a caliper and find those tiny dimensions on your own.

Fresh metal wheels

I picked up a set of Fox Valley Models 36″ .540″ metal replacement wheels, which were listed on the website as a suitable replacement for Micro-Trains trucks. There were a lot of options, believe me. It’s a wild world out there in the wheel-replacement industry, but keep your head on straight, remember your dimensions, and you’ll make it out ok!

Comparison between plastic (left) and replacement (right) wheels.
I removed the trucks from the body of the car, taking care not to lose the kingpin that holds them together. The truck frames were flexible (plastic as well), and the stock wheels popped right out. The metal replacements went in just as easily, and in seconds I had a usable piece of rolling stock once more. The wheels I ordered came in a pack of 12 – only enough to outfit 3 of the 6 cars – but now we all know how to look for replacement wheels and swap them in!

Wishing you all success in your wheel-upgrading adventures!

TT

They run like a dream!

Back from a break

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on this blog. Things used to be fairly consistent and you could count on getting  2-3 big articles a month, with some other stuff sprinkled in as I progressed with my layouts. However, job stuff and life stuff took precedence over trainthings for a month or two… Or three. 


The good news is that I’m back and things are rolling once again on the layout – and not just the new locos and rolling stock. Started on some big scenery stuff, and reentered my epic battle with layout wiring. Troubleshooting track connections and stubborn DCC decoders. Stay tuned for all the glorious content heading your way.

The break was necessary and nice, but now that I’m doing train things again, it’s a welcome relief from all that “real life” stuff that gets too complicated. 😄


As always, thanks for reading!

TT

Handy Little Switch Contraptions

Apparently, slide and toggle switches are pretty handy to have on your model railroad. I haven’t finished laying track yet and I’m already coming up with a ton of these little “switch contraptions.”

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Contraptions adrift on the benchwork

Pictured above are two different types of switches that are being utilized on my N scale shelf layout.

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Adafruit 805 SPDT switch

This is an SPDT slide switch (“single pole, double throw,” meaning it has one row of 3 connection points, and a 2 function slide on top that activates 2 adjacent connections at a time). I will be using these as turnout controllers for Atlas Code 55 points. This specific model is an Adafruit 805. I drilled the hole in the top to accommodate some narrow gauge brass wire to connect to the turnout, following the great example set by M.C. Fujiwara on his YouTube channel. The best part about this setup is that once connected, it will power the frog  – enabling prototypical speed operation of yard locomotives without any stopping or spluttering as the loco passes over a frog with no juice.

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Radio Shack DPDT toggle

This old-school Radio Shack DPDT toggle switch (similar function to SPDT above, but with double 3-input rows) will be used to change an isolated yard siding into a DCC program track when needed. When not being used to program decoder-equipped locomotives, the siding can simply be toggled back into the main track power bus and be used to run trains.

What have you used slide and toggle switches for on your layout?

TT

 

First layout update video

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I finished some tricky trackwork at 2AM and decided to just take a video showing my progress so far before I tucked in. This is my progress as of 11/1/2016. I don’t even know how to calculate how many hours I’ve put in so far between the benchwork, trackwork, wiring, decoders, and DCC system troubleshooting.

Click HERE to view the video on YouTube.

Kato “Gevo” DCC Installation

I tried my hand at converting my first N scale locomotive to DCC. I bought a Digitrax DN163K1C decoder and decided to take the plunge.

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The locomotive is a Kato GE ES44AC (Gevo) in CSX “Dark Future” scheme. From Kato:

“The ES (Evolution Series) of locomotives are built by GE Transportation Systems and designed to meet the U.S. EPA’s Tier 2 locomotive emissions standards that took effect in 2005. These Evolution Series locomotives are equipped with AC traction motors and are powered by a newly designed “GEVO-12” 12 cylinder engine that produces the same power as the 16 cylinder AC4400CW, but with fewer emissions and greater fuel economy. It also carries a redesigned air-to-air dual-fan heat exchanger, which gives it its distinct “oversized” radiator; a common spotting feature for these new locomotives.” –Kato USA prototype information.

I purchased her “used” off of Ebay, but upon receieving the loco, I realized it had never even been opened before. A solid deal for what I paid for. The loco is a smooth, quiet, and strong runner on DC.
First, I removed the locomotive shell with the ever-handy drop method (gravity always wins!).

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Old lightboard, meet shiny DCC decoder

The gray PC board chip was easy enough to remove. Then I applied some of the included kapton tape onto the metal chassis in places that the diagram recommended. However 1). There was already some kind of insulated coating on the bottom of the decoder and 2). it seems many people do not see the necessity of using tape at all. I figured I would err on the side of caution and stuck some on for good measure.

Then it was as simple as sliding the new decoder into the same spot and checking to make sure the motor brushes were securely beneath the side contacts.

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That wasn’t so bad

I’m going to hold on to the old light board just in case the decoder doesn’t work or i need it for other projects. Once a few rails are down and hooked up to the Digitrax system, I’ll give this loco a test run.

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The final product – DCC equipped

TT

Shelf Layout 02: Mounting the Shelf

This is the second entry in an ongoing series as I document the progress on my N scale shelf layout. To start from the beginning, click here.

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Once the four shelves were constructed, I laid them out on the floor underneath the location I was planning to mount them. You might not notice from the pictures, but the floor in my apartment is uneven and sits at an odd un-level pitch that would make mounting something on the wall difficult. You can’t measure up from the floor or down from the equally warped ceiling.

Fortunately, whoever installed the baseboard heating units installed them perfectly level, so all my measurements just started from the top of the unit.

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I used an electric stud finder to scope the walls and marked the location of every stud with tape. I had purchased six heavy-duty shelf brackets from my local big box hardware store, and marking the studs allowed me to chose the six best studs for supporting the layout.

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Once I had my studs marked out, I measured up from the heating unit and chose a uniform height  – the top of the shelf would be approx 33″ high. I decided to mount the brackets on some wood to avoid drywall-on-metal contact, and cut some thin wood I had laying around into even sections. I taped the wood to the wall at the measured height, then attached the brackets through the wood.

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I ended up having to purchase some really big screws from my local TrueValue hardware to  secure the brackets. Screwing them into the wall with a low-powered drill wasn’t ideal, and I ended up using manual hand power (see: screwdriver and elbow grease) more of the time than not. But these brackets could now support a full grown human, should he decide to take a nap on the shelf…

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I secured the wood to the top of the brackets with some small wood screws.  Working with these brackets was often difficult because the supporting strut (hypotenuse?) of the bracket got in the way when attempting to fasten screws into the inner holes. I wish I had a picture of the odd contortions I crumpling my body into just to drill and drive these brackets in.

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Finally, I tested each span between the brackets for level (which they all were – whew!) and then laid out the shelf. I used some 3″ C-clamps to secure each section to the next. Because my layout is modular, I don’t want to permanently attach them together. The clamps hold together well, and moving/replacing sections will be easy.

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That’s all for today. TT

Shelf Layout 01: Trackplan & Benchwork

Welcome to the saga of the shelf layout!

I’m going into this with little to no experience in serious model railroading. I have some experience with carpentry and I’m pretty handy with tools. The electronics, computers, scenery, etc is a bit daunting, but this is the place to find out if I’m out of my depth or up to the challenge.

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Shelf sketching

 

I’m just about done with the layout plan. It will essentially become a switching layout with a return loop on both sides. The layout will be comprised of four sections, two identical middle sections and two identical ends. Each middle section is 1′ wide and 4′ long, and each return loop section is 2′ wide and 2′ long. This gives me 12′ of fun, taking up one wall in the apartment.

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Just a few of the many plans and diagrams

The layout was originally just going to be the 2 middle switching sections, but I realized most people who would see the layout would expect trains to be able to “go around in a circle.” That, coupled with the fact that more is better, convinced me to add on the loops.

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The main components are:

  • 8′ switching yard with several industries for the locos to busy themselves in and around
  • One main line that circles the layout, with an 7.5′ elevated back section and medium-radius curve at either end
  • Additional industries inside of each loop, accessible from the switching yard.
  • Front spur that doubles as a programming track for DCC decoders.

The diagram leaves much of the planning undetermined, and lots of areas to improvise, which is my style. Just the big idea and important parts are represented. If I want to throw in another spur, move an industry, add an inglenook puzzle, or change the main line, it’s bound to happen regardless of the plan.

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I’m open to inspiration. Even from pirates.

TT

Click here for part 2.

 

 

My First Project – Small Shelf Diorama

I had a free afternoon last week and decided to start an N scale scenery project that was small, movable, and would make a nice display for N scale engines and rolling stock.

I found an old shelf I was keeping for no particular reason and decided it would make a nice base. It was fashionably pre-cut so that was less work for me! (The shelf was approx 18″ x 4″.)

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Engineering a vision: Laying track, outlining features, planning scenery

Stage I: I roughed out where I wanted the track to run, and laid it out. I then cut a base of cork for below the track. I then sketched in a rough plan for the rest of the scenery, including a pond and a river.

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Stage I: Laying track and cork, planning scenery

I glued the cork down and nailed the track down using tiny brads.

Stage II: Next, I finished sketching out the scenery and painted the wood base with some initial colors. I used acrylic craft pints, available from any craft store. I used green/brown tones for the grassy areas, and a light brown for the pond and river. I painted progressively darker blues on top of the brown, creating the illusion of deeper water.

Once the acrylic paint had dried, I began to ballast the track. I poured some gray gravel into a small cup and slowly applied it to the track and surrounding area, spreading it evenly with a small brush. When satisfied, I saturated the ballast with scenic cement with an old contact solution bottle. The ballast took 24 hours to dry.

I attached all heavy scenery objects to the shelf with hot glue or a custom mix of craft glue and Loctite adhesive

Paint finished, ballast and rocks drying
Paint finished, ballast drying, rocks glued down

Stage III: The next day, I fixed up all loose spots in the ballast and started on the turf. I used Woodland Scenics products (all fine/medium turf mixes) and applied the mixed brown first, followed by a mix of light and dark greens. I left the brown exposed near the banks of the stream and around the pond for effect. Once sprayed down with scenic cement, all that was left was the water.

Turf and scenery shaping up
Turf and scenery shaping up

TIP: run a strip of masking tape over your rails when spraying cement around. It keeps them clean and leaves you with less to worry about later on.

Mask it!
Mask it up, people!

Stage IV: I put a bead of Elmer’s glue (dries clear!) around the areas to be filled, and when dry, applied a thin layer of Woodland Scenics Realistic Water, spread evenly with a paint brush. I applied several layers, once every few hours, to reach a desired deepness.

I attached small rocks and trees with craft glue, and added more turf as necessary. I used paintbrush bristles to create realistic-looking weeds and tall grasses around the pond and in the ballast.

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Detail: Pond, complete with realistic water, paintbrush cattails, pebbles, turf bushes, matchstick logs, and turf moss.

Stage V: Lastly, I painted a thin coat of white paint wherever I wanted to create disturbances in the water or rapids. Once dry, I applied Woodland Scenics Water Effects with a brush on top of the painted areas, creating rough water and ripples.

Nice day for a canoe trip!
Rough, realistic rapids from white acrylic and Water Effects

I looked everything over, gave it some final touches, and locked it all down with one last coat of scenic cement and left it to dry.

Detail: Lazy canoers heading for rough water
Detail: Lazy canoers heading for rough water
Detail: Trackside pond
Detail: Trackside pond
Detail: End of the line
Detail: End of the line

Though I created this diorama as a stand-alone display piece, both sides of the track are capable of being connected to, effectively making this piece operational if added to a modular layout or at least capable of being expanded in the future.

The aftermath: clean up as you go to avoid messes like these
The aftermath: clean up as you go to avoid messes like these
LT Pannier Tank #94 makes it's way down the line.
LT Pannier Tank #94 makes it’s way down the finished line.

That’s all for now!
TT