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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?
Hand laid track is a time-honoured model railroading tradition. Not only is it cheaper and better looking than commercial track, it comes in an infinite variety that can exactly fit your trackage requirements.

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 compare?
Ready made code 332 brass track with plastic ties runs about $7 per foot for Aristo-Craft or $8 - $10 per foot for LGB. To make the same foot of track using cedar fence boards for ties and 3/4" pressure treated plywood for a base, the cost would be about:

        11 ties x $.02_______________.22
        22 spikes x $.025 ___________ .55
        5-1/2" x 12" base____________ .70
        2' code 332 Aluminum rail ____ 1.76
        TOTAL ________________________ $3.23
This is only 1/3 to 1/2 of the ready-made price but is for aluminum instead of brass rail. With code 250 aluminum rail, which is a bit fragile outdoors but fine indoors, the cost would drop to about $2.87per foot. With code 250 nickel silver, which is fine both outdoors and in, and is much superior to both aluminum and brass, the cost would rise to about $6.27 per foot. In other words hand laid track can range from much cheaper to better looking and functionally superior for about the same price. (A note to our American friends - the prices are in Canadian dollars so your prices will be quite a bit less.)

What about the cost of switches or turn-outs?
A brass LGB R1 manual switch is about $75 and an Aristo-Craft 10' radius manual switch is about $120. The hand laid version, using code 332 aluminum rail will cost about:

        ties ______________________ .90
        spikes ___________________ 2.50
        base board _______________ 2.80
        rail _____________________ 7.92
        TOTAL _________________________ $14.12
This will vary somewhat depending on what rail is used and on the size of the switch, which brings us to the next subject.

If aluminum is so much cheaper, why choose any other rail?
The down side of aluminum is that it is soft and it produces non-conductive oxides. Soft means that you are pretty well forced to use code 332 rails outdoors if your track is walked on, driven over with garden tractors, etc. With harder materials, you can get away with code 250 rails which look more in scale. As far as oxidation is concerned, you can accept on faith that it creates a problem with electrical pickup and skip the rest of this paragraph, or you can read on for the long winded version. Aluminum oxidises very quickly when you expose a fresh surface. If you have any doubts, just try cleaning a piece of aluminum then stopping for coffee before welding it. But this oxide is conductive. If you are sceptical, try this test. Connect an ohmmeter to two pieces of unused aluminum rail, then touch the pieces gently together. Even though the rail has had plenty of time to oxidise since it was manufactured, the ohmmeter will indicate a current flow. What then is the problem? I am not sure but I wonder if it might be that passing an electric current through the aluminum oxide causes it to be transformed into corundum which is chemically identical but has a different crystalline form. It is probably not so much the current itself, but rather the intense heat that exists inside any electrical arc. That would explain why once a pickup problem starts (as indicated for example by a flickering head light at a particular point on the track) it spreads very quickly at that point - every time the wheels break contact with the rail at that spot, an arc is formed which converts more oxide at that spot.

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?
If cleaning track does not appeal to you, or your track is not readily accessible for cleaning, then there are two other options - either buy the more expensive brass or the much more expensive nickel silver rails and clean track only occasionally or forget about rail power, go to on-board battery power, and never clean tracks again. In its simplest form, battery power is cheap and easy. It is only when radio control is added that the price starts to go up, but all that is the subject of another section of this site.

How does hand laid track fit in with the design of my railroad?
Hand laid track probably fits in better than you think. With off-the-shelf track, you are stuck with what the manufacturers offer you. With hand laid, you build what you need. Want a 22-1/2 degree crossing? No problem if you lay your own. Like a double curved switch to exactly fit an existing curve? No problem if you lay your own. Need a three way stub switch to fit in a small yard on your logging layout? No problem if you lay your own. Or how about bridges with prototypical see-through decks made of long ties? No problem if you lay your own. Hand laying your track gives you a freedom of design that you have never had before, even if all you ever lay by hand is the special, not commercially available pieces that your railroad begs for. The only problem with sections of hand laid track in an otherwise off-the-shelf railroad is that they may show up the rest of the road by looking too good.

What tools do I need to hand lay track?

    - Pair of needle nose pliers, 4" to 6" size, for inserting spikes.
    - 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.
This may sound like a large investment but you probably own most of the first six items already. Of the last three items, the only one you might want to consider actually buying for model railroad use is the Dremel or other brand of motor tool because it has so many other uses in the hobby. For the big power tools, if you already own them for other purposes, great. If you don't, ask around - a friend may have them, otherwise there are lots of amateur wood workers who would be glad of a chance to make a few dollars to help pay for their hobby.

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?
Track laid on a base board costs slightly more to make but can often be laid directly on existing ground and survive frost heave year after year without tipping or shifting. It is also easier to connect track with base boards to switches and crossings with base boards, and as we will see later, hand laid switches and crossings without base boards are not really practical to build. While prototype railroads do not use base boards under their tracks, neither do they hide electric motors in the boilers of their locomotives. Just as the later can be hidden from view, so can the former, using large sand or small gravel as ballast. Click here to see some tracks laid with baseboards.

Why not use a Baseboard?
Track laid without a baseboard is cheaper to make and is more prototypical. It may even be slightly less subject to popping spikes because the ties can dry out faster when wet. On the other hand track without a base board is more subject to damage from frost heave unless set on a well drained base, for example a foot or more of gravel set in a trench. The cost of such a gravel base will largely offset any savings engendered by not using a base board. Note that the often suggested solid base down to frost depth is quite impractical in Saskatchewan where frost penetration down to 6 feet is common.

How Big Should Ties Be?
The first step to hand lay track is to cut the ties, which immediately begs the question how big and how many. The Saskatoon Railroad Modellers have pretty well settled on 1/4" thick by 3/8" wide by 3-1/2" long, although we have also used 3/8" x 3/8", 7/16" x 7/16" and even 1/2" x 1/2", always 3-1/2" long. To us they all look good. 1/4" x 3/8" is economical to cut even on a table saw and this size works out to a 7" x 10" x 8'-0" standard tie in 1/27 scale. This is smack-on visually for our 1/29 scale trains and represents a heavy tie for 1/32 scale. For our New Bright trains, which we calculate as 1/36 scale, they look big, but so does the track which scales out at 5'-4" gauge. For scales larger than 1/29 they look fine as narrow gauge ties. If your eye is more critical or your heart is set on having everything exactly match the scale of your favourite prototype, then by all means calculate your own tie size and go with it.

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?
The Saskatoon Railroad Modellers usually space their ties two tie widths apart. This is convenient as the only spacers needed are two of the same ties you are laying. For 3/8" wide ties, this results in 11 ties per foot, the same as Aristo-Craft uses for their "European" track. Alternately you can space ties one tie width apart to give 16 ties per foot, slightly greater than Aristo-Craft's "American" track with 14 ties per foot. The difference is perceptible if you are looking for it, but so far nobody so far has noticed it on the group's test track (or they were too polite to say it.) To calculate the number of ties you need, multiply the number of ties per foot by the number of feet of track you intend to lay and add about 10% for wastage. While you are ripping wood for your regular ties, rip a few extra lengths and set them aside for later cross-cutting into long ties for switches and crossings. In Saskatchewan, cedar is the wood of choice for ties, and the most easily obtained form is resawn fence boards.

How do I Make Baseboards?
Baseboards are typically 5-1/2" wide by 5/8", or better, 3/4" thick made of pressure treated plywood. Nominal 6 inch cedar fence boards and pressure treated 1 x 6 have also been used, but problems of twisting and warping occurred with changes in moisture content. For curves, you can start by laying out a full size pattern or template on a piece of cardboard using a narrow wooden slat, a nail, and a pencil as a compass. Tap the nail through the slat near one end, then measure along the slat the length of your curve's radius minus 2-3/4". Drill a hole which will just hold the pencil. Add 5-1/2" and drill a second hole. Tape your cardboard to your work table or floor. Tap the nail into a block of scrap wood to act as a pivot and tape the block to the table or floor. Draw two arcs on the cardboard using the pencil in your drilled holes. While your pivot and cardboard are still taped down and with your slat still on the pivot, draw lines straight across the ends of your curve, at right angles to the curve center line, using your slat as a guide. These lines are easy to establish now but almost impossible to add later. You may wish to cut out a series of these baseboard templates using different centreline radii.

    RADIUS .................. MINIMUM FOR
    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.
You can trace your baseboard pattern onto your plywood as many times as required to make the desired amount of road bed. Be sure to also trace across the ends of your template, shifting it as required. Finally, you can cut your curves with a sabre saw or a band saw.

How do I lay out my ties?
First mark your ties before nailing them in place. For standard 3-1/2" ties, a pencil line 15/16" in from each end will serve both as a nailing guide (assuming you are using a baseboard) and as a rough guide for placing the rails. Several dozen ties may be marked at once using a straight edge. Then place your ties on your baseboard and nail them in place with 3/4" nails placed just outside the pencil lines. That way, your nails will be covered later by the rails. Space your ties equally from both edges of the baseboard either by eye or use a pair of compasses to mark tie-end guide lines. Put the first ties 3/4" (two tie widths) in from the ends to allow space for rail joiners. Then space the ties one or two tie widths apart as you nail them down, working from both ends of the baseboard toward the middle. On curves, the outer ends of the ties will have to be spaced a little more to keep the ties perpendicular to the track center line. When you get to the last dozen or so ties, check to see if they will fit your regular spacing. If not, space them by eye and use 1 tie too many rather than 1 tie too few.

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 templates?
Templates can be cut from Styrene (NOT foam!) with a width exactly equal to the distance between the feet of the two rails. As this can vary somewhat with the rail manufacturer, only the formula to calculate this width can be given with accuracy:

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?
Basically, you spike one rail down using your pencil lines as a guide, then spike the second rail down using a gauge to measure from the first rail. Walthers lists an LGB standards track and wheel gauge by Simpson's for $20 US (say $40 Can.) or you can make your own. The Saskatoon Railroad Modellers have laid hundreds of feet of satisfactory track using nothing more than some notched ties as gauges - in each tie, cut two notches that just fit over the rail heads, spacing the notches exactly 45.5 mm. apart (or 1-51/64 inches if you prefer.) The track and wheel check gauges used by the Saskatoon Railroad Modellers (see How do I Check my Track and Wheels? below) can be used to check track once laid, but are not very satisfactory for laying it. It is also possible to use a three point gauge (remember to lay the outside rail first on curves) but the only one the Saskatoon Railroad Modellers have seen is one they bent up themselves out of sheet metal and unfortunately it does not keep in gauge very well.

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.

How do I Check my Track and Wheels?

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?
Garden Railways magazine had a four part article by Marc Horovitz titled "The fundamentals of handlaid track" which ran from December 1996 to June 1997. It is an excellent article and covers laying track without a base board, using ties nailed to a batten.

Where do I go from here?
Once you have convinced yourself that you really can hand lay track, the next step is to start hand laying your own switches. 

go to Hand Laid Gauge 1 Switches for more information


this page was last updated 4 January 2000