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In-situ track construction

introduction

Now that MEC no longer produces the ready made flex track the only way to obtain code 40 track is building it yourself or find someone to do it for you. You can probably think of several ways to built your own track but some methods give more reliable results than others.
The method sometimes followed in larger scales by using wooden sleepers and glueing and nailing the rails has proven to become unstable over time. Using wooden sleepers and soldering the rails to nails is probably more durable but neither easy nor fast. A proven method is using sleepers of copper clad print circuit board. With this material you can produce very durable results as rails can be soldered to the sleepers. There are several ways to obtain copper clad sleepers. One method is to become member of the 2 mm scale Association and use their products, it is by far the fastest and easiest method. But using a small machine table saw you can cut your own sleepers using the hard paper type of pcb. Don't use the glass fiber reinforced epoxy type as this requires an expensive diamond saw blade and produces dust that can be a bit dubious for your long term good health if not cut with a water cooled unit. Alternatives as industrial cutting to order by laser or water cutting machines are at least theoretically existent.
Producing your own sleepers leaves the option open to pre-etch the pcb material in such way that you get an impression of the chair plates. These chair plates depend on your chosen prototype of course and there are many variants. Alternative approach for chair plate track is to use small etched plates or cut these from sheet. In this case the height can be chosen, which for the larger chairs is probably better. A prototypical cast chair from the 30's of the Dutch state railways gave a raise of nearly 5 cm or 0.3 mm in model. These chairs can still be found in sidings and on some museum lines. An untested approach is to cast the chairs separately and add them later by glueing onto a sleeper.
The 2 mm SA also stocks the english rail type of Bullhead. Although this profile was hardly used on the continent this type of rail is attractive if you want to model a lightly built railway. This is because the model code 40 Vignol profile has wrong dimensions. The foot being much too wide with respect to its height, this leads to a main line impression. Bullhead rail has no foot and is therefore sometimes preferred. This can also depend on the prototype, pre-UIC railways in Germany were often only suited for 15 ton axle loads. In Belgium track of the state railways generally was much heavier even before WW1 they already had track suited for 22 ton axle load, but at the same time smaller companies such as Nord Belge did not follow this practice. In most cases code 40 is a fraction too high but smaller profile such as code 32 or 36 is not on the market. This seems to be due to production difficulties limiting the cross section with respect to the forces needed during the forming process. If you really need lower rail profile then you are on your own. Mechanically grinding to smaller profile is feasible but needs a good set-up to keep control of the end result. My own experience is limited to code 55 rail. Another suggestion is etching but a set-up for even results over the entire length needs some careful thought but certainly looks promising.


Basics

To start with you need some small jigs to help you keeping the exact gauge width. When keeping to the Fremo standard of a minimum radius of 1000 mm there is no need for gauge widening.

jigsjig
The photo on the left shows an assortment of track jigs for building soldered track. The right hand photo shows a later development to check gauge in narrow spaces such at the tip of the V.


  • right: aluminium roller gauge for checking point gauge incl.flange ways

  • left: 2 brass 9 mm jigs for keeping rails upright and fixing it (when drilled for pins)

  • below: 2 brass 9mm jigs for inner gauge in points and normal track






sleeper jigs

This photo shows 2 sleeper jigs with slightly different sleeper distance and of different make. These are both homemade and serve different purpose. The sleepers are put in the jig and can then be lifted in one go with a piece of tape. The lower jig is a bit narrower enabling to cut a little bit off to produce sleepers of 16.25 mm for continental use. Simple jigs like these can also be made using plastic card strips. First produce a straight edge than using this as alignment, position a strip of plastic with the right dimension for the required sleeper distance at right angles, fix with (fast setting) glue, put a sleeper against and fix another plastic strip and so on until the required length is reached. The sleeper distance is varying from prototype to prototype. You will find some information in the page on standards.

tape

My preferred method is to use very thin double sided transparent tape for sticking the sleepers onto. The glue on this tape softens when heated. This enables you to correct the position of the sleepers when you are not satisfied, but it is also possible to remove the entire track without damage using a heat source such as a conventional hair-drier. This is very handy when building points on the desk. However of far more importance is a flat and stable surface. If you glue your ballast with normal white glue you won't get any sound deadening anyway thus forget cork and use plywood as base material. A high ballast bed imitation can be obtained with a layer of cork with 1.5 -2 mm birch plywood on top sanded flat with a long piece of plywood with sandpaper stuck to it. These materials can be easily cut to shape with a Stanley knife. In most cases sound is amplified by the baseboard like strings do with the box of a guitar. If you really want good sound deadening: use heavy and rigid base boards, a soft springy layer not pierced by anything (e.g. soft foam), on top of that a stable top layer to put your track on. An alternative seems to be the contrary an as light as possible massive baseboard thus using a thick sheet of poly-styrene foam as base with some hard plywood edges to prevent damage. This latter option is not only lighter but also less work but may be less durable for a modulair layout. This because it is difficult to produce a single unit from plywood and poly-styrene having such different properties, often cracks appear at edges and/or connections between the materials after some extended time of use.

connected sleepers

Another tip is to use some special sleeper strip like this here. It is produced by milling although that on the photo is a bit careless. Strips of several coupled sleepers are handy at the ends of the baseboard as you have some material for using a small nail against transport mishappenings ripping off the ends. Also a set of 2 connected sleepers are handy beneath the rail ends to prevent the developing of any misalignments when the track construction phase takes a bit longer than planned.










start of construction

use of jigsticking sleepers

This is how the jigs are used. Normal transparent tape lifts the sleepers out of the jig onto the baseboard maintaining their position.

baseboard double track
baseboard with points

These photos illustrate the building of a larger section of track. Use is made of a flexible strip of wood to make an edge to lay the sleepers against. This strip is also used in combination with the rectangular track jigs to position the track centrally over the sleepers. You also see the use of paper templates of points during planning. I prefer to built the points on a desk top off the layout using paper templates. The upper photo also shows the painting of the sleepers when track is finished. This is a matter of minutes using an airbrush. Some people prefer to ballast before the soldering of track commences but are then condemned to brushing the sleepers by hand.
What you cannot see but what you should do in this stage is drill some small holes through the baseboards for connecting the track. Each piece of rail should get its own connection. Butt ended rail connections soldered together won't survive due to temperature and humidity differences causing annoyance later on. Drilling the holes when rails is already laid needs special care in order not to damage the track. When you find out that you need to make extra connections use a rubber stop on you drill to prevent damage.

track jigs in use

Using the jigs to position the rails and fix it with a pin where necessary. The discs are used for the correct distance, the rectangular ones for keeping the rail upright and parallel. You now can start soldering. First start with soldering every 8th sleeper. Then look for straightness using steel ruler and eye ball methods. Next split every distance in half, thus every 4th sleeper. Repeat this procedure until all sleepers are soldered. Never work in one go from one end to the other, due to the heat the track will expand and you will be left with uncontrollable curves in the track afterwards. I use normal 0.5 mm flux solder (Conrad) + a dip Purine soldering flux(cream/paste) with a small brush. Alternatively liquid solder can be used but that is often highly corrosive. The same holds for phosphoric acid containing liquids which will also run under the sleeper causing corrosion later on because of humidity. Always clean with lots of water and a toothbrush. A soldering iron of 16 W suffices but a little bit more or a controlled iron up to 50 W cannot do harm. I solder all sleepers because I have experience of what can happen with my layouts but there are people who take shortcuts and do less to save some time. It is entirely up to you but personally I consider it bad practice.

finishing

illustrations to be added

When all sleepers are soldered, wires connected and track cleaned with water and dried you enter the last phase: finishing. If you think you are nearly there then be prepared for lots of more work. I count the following steps:

  • cleaning up of excess solder
  • checking the electrics and functionality
  • filling the sleeper gaps
  • pre-colouring track
  • ballasting and weathering

cleaning

The amount of cleaning up depends of course on your handiness with a soldering iron. It is always best to use as little solder as possible. Solder blobs are to be avoided at all times. Excess solder can be lifted using a strip of copper litze from the electronics shop. Dipped in the purine and using a hot iron it immediately soaks all blobs small and large leaving a tinned surface. Another method is to run a riffle file in the edge between sleeper and rail to clean up. Riffle files are coarse bend cheap files not to good for anything but jobs like this. If there is solder left in the gap between foot and head of the rail run a skrawker in the gap. (see the plastic tools page for skrawkers)

electrics

This is standing here because it is easier to finish all the electrics in this phase. First check if you did not forget to cut any sleepers. Use an ohm meter or a transformer with a bulb or such. If you don't find any short then just turn your module bottom up and do the electrics first. With DCC this is very easy to do, just connect all left and right hand wires into 2 connections for the booster. Apart from crossings no switches, normal track should be life at all times. Now turn around and check if all track is life and do some test runs with a loco.( I am supposing that long before you already did check with a wagon pushed by hand).

filling gaps

This is only for gapped sleepers, if you etched your sleepers yourself you won't have this point. Filling the gaps in the sleepers can be done with a fast setting car filler. I use a 4 mm wide strip of plasticard as filler knife to smear a blob into the gap. But before you do this, it pays to remove the remaining tackiness of the double sided tape. Just dust it over with some talcum powder. The remains of the filler can be sanded down. This can be done with a piece of sanding paper (#120) taped to a 6 mm wide bar e.g. a piece of tufnol frame spacer. Having done this use the vacuum cleaner to get out the dust and now you will see the purpose of the talcum powder.

filling gaps

pre-colouring

The fast way to colour the track is by airbrush. First spray everything a grey/brown/black track colour. An aerosol can is probably an alternative. The rails can be dark rust brown. Alternative is to run a full brush along or use paper tape to shield parts and airbrush again.

ballasting and finish

Ballasting is a critical phase, you can ruin your work with it. It is very easy but needs a little bit of attention. The main item is of course a good ballast. And with good ballast I not only mean size and colour, but even more its wetting properties. Prototype uses broken stone with sharp edges. Some traders try to sell coloured sand as ballast, this has rounded grains and should be avoided. Ballast can be to coarse too spoiling the effect. In most cases look for the Z-scale stand in order to find the better sizes. An even more ruinous effect can be the effect of painted ballast having awful wetting properties. A typical example here is Woodland, disastrous. Good ballast sucks water as a thirsty person. One drop should immediately disappear and spread over a wide area. This effect is necessary for a stable formation. The ballast can be glued with ordinary white wood glue thinned with water to about 1:5. What you need further is a very fine aerosol sprayer filled with water. You can add a little bit of liquid soap (Teepol, Lanoline, Methanol or equivalent) to break the surface tension but in fact this should not be necessary. The spray cannot be fine enough avoid sprinkling droplets as these will form small impact puddles in your ballast. Of course you first have to add the ballast. This can be done by using bottle with a small opening of several millimeters. I use a small bottle with a coffee milk dispenser. This ballast can be brushed between the sleepers with a wide soft brush. Don't add too much ballast in the first go. To get a better spread use a light hammer to tick against the base board below the track. The vibrations will cause the grains to settle and also grains on top of the sleepers to fall off. The trick is not to add too much ballast because adding water will cause it to become fuller. It is easier to add small amounts of ballast later, removing ballast is much more work. The next step is to spray water. This is best done not directly but spray from below and let gravity do its work on the drops falling in U-form trajectory. Add such amount of water that the ballast is fully wet but not yet floating wet. Use an eyedropper to add the thinned glue. This should spread into a wide spot of say 2-3 cm diameter. Best is not to add drops but let it out as a continuous flow from the dispenser, moving the dispenser all the time. After that wait until it is dry. Check if you added enough glue by fiddling around with a pin. If not re-do the water and glue. Also if you find spots needing more ballast than just add a little water and dust some ballast again. The last step is of course weathering of the whole track. This can be done with airbrush, crayons and powder paints depending on the effects you are after.

Pointwork

Building points is not described fully yet. But essentially the same methods can be followed for pointwork. An explanation of the process is given on this page: animated graphic how to built a point
A series of construction photos can be found on this page: building turnouts illustrated

The photo below shows 2 1:9 and a 1:10 double slip for Waimes. 3 double slips for Waimes

Building complex pointwork has no limits. This photo shows a crossing through 1:9 triplepoint on Splitveld Fabriek. Building things like this means fun. complex pointwork


copyright: Henk Oversloot
date: 27 january 2003