Hand Laid Gauge 1 Track
This page deals mostly with hand-laid track using commercially made rails and spikes on home made ties and road beds.
Why Hand Lay Track?
The major cost of hand laid track is the cost of rail. Aluminum is cheapest, nickel silver is most expensive, and steel, brass and stainless steel fall in between. For a particular material, the cost of hand laid track made with that material is always cheaper than commercial track made of the same material. As we will see later, cost is not the only consideration for selecting rail material, but it is often a very important one. Also to be factored in is the cost of spikes and wood for the ties and possibly base boards.
How much does it cost to hand lay track and how does that
22 spikes x $.025 ___________ .55
5-1/2" x 12" base____________ .70
2' code 332 Aluminum rail ____ 1.76
TOTAL ________________________ $3.23
What about the cost of switches or turn-outs?
spikes ___________________ 2.50
base board _______________ 2.80
rail _____________________ 7.92
TOTAL _________________________ $14.12
If aluminum is so much cheaper, why choose any other rail?
Whatever the reason oxidation causes problems, if you want to power trains through aluminum rails then be prepared to clean your track each operating session. One of the Saskatoon Railroad Modellers who successfully runs rail power using aluminum rails has made himself a track cleaner which is simply a flannel covered plywood pad set at an angle on the bottom of a broom stick. He wets it with some Varsol or cleaning solvent to which a little light machine oil has been added. Usually one cleaning is all that is needed for a full session of running.
What if I am really not into cleaning track?
How does hand laid track fit in with the design of my
What tools do I need to hand lay track?
- Pair of side cutters or better nippers (end cutters), 4" to 6" size, for pulling spikes.
- Small pair of tin snips to cut sheet metal for point hinges and rail joiners.
- Pair of gas pliers or water pump pliers to bend up and tighten rail joiners.
- Small hammer for nailing down ties (an air nailer is nice if you have one).
- Nail set or 3" nail with the end filed flat.
- A Dremel tool with chuck and #65 to #68 twist drill for drilling spike holes (a pin vise with or without an electric hand drill will also work or if your wrists are up to inserting spikes without pilot holes, then no drilling is required.
- Sabre saw or better a band saw to cut curved baseboards.
- Table saw to cut ties and straight base boards.
How to Hand Lay Track
We will look in this section at two different types of hand laid plain track i.e. straights and curves before going on to switches and crossing in the next section. The two different types are with and without a base board. Let's consider why we might use one or the other.
Why use a Baseboard?
Why not use a Baseboard?
How Big Should Ties Be?
When you cut your ties, the height is critical. Ideally the height should not vary from one tie to the next by more than 1/32". Tie width is not so critical and some variation may actually improve the looks of narrow gauge track. One scheme is to rip 3/8" pieces off 3/4" fence boards using the table saw, or for variations in width, the band saw. Then turn the pieces 90 degrees and rip again on the table saw, using feather boards and a good sharp blade to keep all the ties the same. With this scheme, you need to set the feather boards only twice, once for a first pass of all the strips, and once again for a second pass. If someone is cutting your ties for you, print out this paragraph for him if you possibly can.
How Many Ties do I Need?
How do I Make Baseboards?
24" radius ................4-coupled steam, some 4 axle diesels with modified couplers
30" radius.................Bachmann Big Hauler 4-6-0, Shay, Aristo-Craft Pacific 4-6-2
36" radius.................Most 4 axle diesels (minimum with any hope of coupling)
48" radius.................Good for most equipment (minimum recommended for 4-6-2)
60" & up ................. Better looking curves, good for virtually all equipment.
Consult the manufactures of your equipment for exact minimum radii, then use a radius at least 6" bigger and preferably a lot bigger than the largest minimum. Minimum radius is also affected by coupler type, being smallest for LGB style hook and loop couplers and largest for body mounted Kadee couplers.
How do I lay out my ties?
If you are not using a baseboard, you have two choices - either lay out your ties upside down (i.e. marked side down and all the curves reversed) and then tack slats longitudinally along the track to keep the ties properly aligned while you lay the rails, or lay them out right way up and temporarily tack or tape them down until you have finished laying the rail. If you detect a lack of enthusiasm for track without a baseboard, you are right. It is tricky to handle, particularly the most prototypical type with neither baseboard nor slats, and once ballasted, does not look significantly better. The jury is out on the question of whether the extra work increases the longevity of the track.
On the Saskatoon Railroad Modellers' BiG Railway (see photos), a variation of the track with baseboard was used. The baseboard serves to spread the pressure of spiking down the rails over a larger area of foam so that the foam is not crushed. A baseboard only 3-1/2" wide and 1/4" thick was glued to the foam and then ties were glued to the baseboard. White glue was used as this is strictly an indoor layout. When the glue was dry, the ties and baseboard were stained tie colour, black for the main line and grey-brown for the sidings. Only after the stain was dry were the track guide lines drawn on the ties using track-laying templates.
How can I make these track-laying
width of template = 45.5 mm + width of rail head - width of rail foot
(this should be about 42 mm or 1-21/32 inches)
As curves are (almost) always quoted as centreline radius, the inside radius of your template should be centreline radius minus half of the width and the outside radius should be centreline radius plus half the width. The curves can be cut in a manner similar to laying out the baseboard pattern, except an old tape measure blade works better as the trammel, and a #11 Xacto knife should be substituted for the pencil. The holes for the Xacto blade need to be very small, allowing only a tiny bit of the blade to protrude, just enough to allow it to score the surface of the styrene. The styrene sheet can be taped firmly to a sheet of plywood into which a nail is driven to act as a pivot for the trammel. If the knife blade is angled outward a few degrees, it will keep the trammel under tension and score a perfect arc. After both the inside and outside radii are scored, the styrene can be snapped along all the scores, producing a very smooth, accurate template. While you are set up, you can easily make a series of templates for the different curves you plan to use. The effort of making these patterns was more than repaid by the ease with which the rail was laid to an accurate line. Later these templates can be used to lay out switches.
How do I put down the rails?
Let's get down to details. Your track guide lines are probably far from perfect at this point - variations in marking and variations in placement of the ties tends to make the line wobbly at best. On straight track, cleaning up the line by laying a long straight edge through the average position of the marks and drawing a new line is pretty straight forward (if you will forgive the pun), but what do you do on curves? If your curve is of a radius that you plan to produce lots of, making a tracing pattern out of Styrene, as mentioned a few paragraphs back, may make sense. Otherwise pre-curve your rail and use it as a guide to mark a more accurate guide line running through the average positions of the previously marked lines.
In any event, the rails should be bent to about the right curvature before laying (or bent to the exact curvature if you are using neither baseboard nor slats under your ties.) To curve rails, you can use a rail bender which in its usual form consists of three cylindrical rollers with a track profile turned into them. By adjusting two of the rollers closer to a third, tighter (smaller radius) bends can be made. As none of the Saskatoon Railroad Modellers owns one of these, we all bend our rail by hand. This can be done by grasping the rail, head up, in your hand exactly as if you were trying to bend it over the end of your thumb. But instead of applying enough pressure to put a sharp bend in the rail at the end of your thumb, you apply less pressure and cause only gentle bending as you move your hand in the direction of your pinkie. If you are doing it right, the rail will start to encircle you. Repeat this motion until the rail is curved enough. Do not rush it - trying to achieve all the bend in one pass results in uneven bends. If your hands do not want to slide, add a little oil. On rough track (possibly nicked by spikes) leather gloves are in order. And remember, aluminum rails is MUCH easier to bend that nickel silver.
By now, you should have your guide line, at least one of them, straight or smoothly curved. Use this line to drill pilot holes for your spikes in every second tie. Ideally, the hole should lie just inside the guide line so that the spikes hold the edge of the rail just at the guideline but in practice, the pencil line is an easy point to start the drill without it wandering, so it's up to you. When all the holes are drilled, push spikes half way into every third or fourth hole so that you can butt the rail up against them. Put the spikes is right way round (elongated head over the foot of the rail) so the rail will take a bit of side pressure without jumping out of place. Then draw a guide line on the ties at the outside edge of the foot of the rail, using the rail itself as a guide. On curves, be sure the inside of the rail is firmly against the spikes when you draw along the outside, working along the rail bit by bit to do this. Then take away the rail again and drill the second set of holes, this time centered on the pencil line. At this point, you can either spike the first rail down permanently, putting in all the spikes on both sides, or you can spike it down temporarily using just enough spikes to allow you to gauge the second rail and then remove both rails while you stain the ties. The latter procedure would be appropriate if you were using prepainted rail that you wanted to keep a different colour than the ties. Another alternative is to permanently spike both rails and then stain both the rails and the ties, wiping off the tops of the rail heads before the paint dries. That procedure tends to visually minimise the size of the rail which is quite useful with code 332 rail. The third alternative is to leave the rails and ties in their natural colours. There is some indication that this reduces spike popping as the naturally shinny rails and faded-to-grey cedar ties reflect more radiant heat than black ties and rails. The Saskatoon Railroad Modellers have done it all three ways, but the majority has been unpainted rail on unstained ties.
When you are ready to mark the second rail, get out your gauges and place them at intervals across your rails to hold the un-nailed rail in place while you mark a pencil line along both sides of the foot. Unless you have enough gauges to put one every six inches or so, you will have to work along the rail in stages. Remove the second rail and drill pilot holes in the same ties as the first rail - four spikes in every second tie is a lot more stable than two spikes in every tie. Now either spike down the second rail, or remove the first rail, stain the ties, and spike down both rails. You're finished! You have just hand laid some track.
This is just by-the-by, but you will probably reach the point where you get tired of putting down the rail, taking it up, and putting it down again, and will start using the edge of the rail to guide the drill bit just like the Saskatoon Railroad Modellers are wont to do. And you will probably have the same problems of nicks at the foot of the rail from drill bits and gouges in the head of the rail from the drill chuck. And when you have gone through all of this, you too can suggest to the next fellow "do as I say, not as I do."
How do I Join my Rail and Track Sections Together?
There are two considerations in joining rails. One is making a mechanical joint of some kind to keep the ends of the rails aligned and the other is joining the rails electrically if the trains are powered through the track.
Mechanically joining the rails may not always be necessary. Track laid on a base board will stay in alignment provided it is properly spiked - two spikes per rail per tie for at least three ties on either side for the "join" has been found to work well. Often it is convenient to make track with base board in sections, which results in rail joints falling over joints in the baseboards. Even then rail joiners are not absolutely necessary provided that the baseboards are well joined and that the last six to eight inches of rail on either side of the joint are spiked down after the joining the baseboards to assure good alignment right from the beginning. Joining the baseboards can best be done using scrap pieces of baseboard about one foot long under the joint. The piece can be let into the ground below the joint and the ends of the baseboards screwed down onto it using about eight evenly spaced wood screws, preferably made of stainless steel.
If you want to mechanically join the rails, and most of us do so to assure years of problem-free alignment, it is not difficult. There are a number of mechanical clamps available for joining rail although they tend to be quite expensive. Even slip-on rail joiners are still relatively expensive, often costing as much as several feet of rail (which sure discourages using up odd pieces.) Fortunately, it is easy to make your own. Starting with about .015 brass or about .030 aluminum, cut out some pieces about an inch long by twice the width of the foot of your rail (or about 1/2" wide for code 250, about 5/8" wide for code 332.) Using a vise and a soft faced hammer or regular hammer and a small piece of hard wood, bend your piece of sheet metal loosely around the foot of a scrap piece of your rail. Slide these joiners over your joints and tighten with pliers.
This still leaves the problem of joining the rails electrically. If you can afford the clamp-on joiners, they may solve the electrical problem as well, particularly if you coat the rail ends with silicone grease before installing the clamps. However, the best electrical connection is by bonding, that is, connecting the two pieces of rail with a short piece of wire extending across the joint. There are two common ways of attaching the wires - by soldering, which does not work with aluminum rail, and with screws, which does. The screws can be either pan head #2-56 machine screws or flat or round head #4 wood screws. In either case, stainless steel is highly recommended. To install the screws, drill a hole at about 45 degrees into the corner between the foot and the vertical web of the rail, working from the outside of the track. For the machine screws, drill with a #50 drill then tap with a #2-56 taper tap, using lots of machinist's wax. For the wood screws, drill with a 3/32" drill and let the screws cut their own threads. Cutting threads with wood screws goes much easier if you use Robertson slot screws and put some machinist's wax on their threads. Once your screws are loosely in place, it is simply a matter of placing the end of the wire under the screw head and cinching it down. Just be sure to leave a little slack in the wire to prevent any tension at the screws.
Not knowing of any commercial gauges that would do the job, the Saskatoon Railroad Modellers developed their own. It looks something like this:
This gauge can be cut out of aluminum, or better, stainless steel sheet using a hacksaw for rough cutting and a file for final trimming. The measurements, listed in millimetres, should be checked and rechecked with an accurate calliper as work progresses. Note that the enlargement in the upper right corner shows the upper notch of the wheel gauge. The lower notch is a mirror image of this. The tapered and curved part of the notch is supposed to exactly fit the profile of the wheel flange. The wheel gauge is used to check that the wheels on an axle are the right distance apart. The originals were made for Bachmann wheels and work well with Aristo-Craft wheels as well. The theoretical gauge width of 45 millimetres is from the outside of the fillet of one wheel to the outside of the fillet of the other wheel. Setting the wheels at 39.5 millimetres measured from the back of one flange to the back of the other flange is easier and can be done with a calliper, but does not take into account variations in flange profile. If the wheels are not in gauge, they usually can be adjusted by pulling or pushing while at the same time rotating the offending wheel on the axle. Wheels are usually under gauge as sold, which is okay for running on most track but unsatisfactory if they must pass through switches.
The bottom portion of the gauge is for checking track and switches. The gauge must be held straight across the track and the two tangs must fit between the rails but the step to the right of the right hand tang must not drop between the rails (i.e. the rails must be a minimum of 45.0 mm apart and a maximum of 46.5 mm apart. Further, the tangs must fit through the flangeways of switches (i.e. between the stock rails and the guard rails and between the stock rails and the wing rails, which will make more sense after reading the section on switches.)
Where else can I read about hand laid track?
Where do I go from here?
go to Hand Laid Gauge 1 Switches for more information