More layout reflections

Last night I posted some reflections on my first operating sessions on Prince Street and since that post I had a few other thoughts I figured I’d share. Perhaps these will be of use to someone else fooling around with a similar project.

Foam core as benchwork

I’m not the first to try this material and it’s something I would use again in the future. I had some on hand already but even if I didn’t it’s regularly on sale in stores here in Charlottetown and a typical twenty by thirty inch sheet of 3/16″ thick foam core sells for less that five dollars. Compared to dimensional lumber or plywood this is an appreciable savings. Of course, cheaper is seldom any guarantee of better so why else did I use it?

Easy to work with. One of the big casualties of our move was my workshop in which typical wooden model railway benchwork would have been constructed. I don’t regret the house purchase and will have another workshop someday. In the meantime I am working in the house and most often alongside my creative family at our dining room table. Dining room tables are great for popsicle stick bridges, colouring, painting and cutting with craft knives. They are not the place to set up one’s table saw. Ever. I wanted something that I could work on and the foam core fit this ticket perfectly. I did protect the table surface with a sheet of scrap Masonite. As for tools I used a break-off knife and a long straightedge from my workshop. The material cuts easily and cleanly.

Foam core is light. I only wanted to build a small layout. Even at it’s current size of six by thirty-six inches it’s actually still bigger than I had wanted. Focussing on storing and moving a small layout around one of the big details I thought about was finding something lightweight and again, the foam core delivers.

It’s not a perfect material. Every time I work on the layout I catch myself resting an elbow or arm across it. It’s not fragile but it does not do as well as lumber or plywood in compression so it’s best to avoid any motion that could compress the material. As far as sagging or warping, I don’t think it would be much different in these aspects even compared to wood. It’s important here to remember though that the perspective here is small layouts so wood sizes would be comparable.


My track is handlaid using code 40 rail on a mix of PC board and styrene strip ties. The PC ties are from Fast Tracks and in my opinion are the finest quality ties I’ve ever used. Traditionally modellers use wood for the non-PC ties and usually because we’re obsessessed with choosing the same material as the prototype used. In N scale wood’s grain is just too big and by contrast actual grain, when scaled down, would be invisible. What I needed was dimensional consistency and I found that in Evergreen styrene strip. Once painted I don’t think the track is going to look too different from wood tied track. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see here eh?!

Since my layout was so small I actually drew and printed a full-sized template showing track locations. Of everything I would do again exactly the same way this is one example. My template includes tie locations and this was really helpful. It’s also nice that some basic scenery features are included, albeit in two dimensional format, which helps mask the bare state of the layout currently.

I think my only regret was that I didn’t cut the isolating gaps in the turnout’s PC ties before building the turnouts. I waited until the turnouts were glued in place on the layout to do this and it was a real pain to do properly and in some cases I really messed up some ties that will need repair later on. “Do it right the first time…” and “…learn from this…” I tell myself.

Would I go with the handlaid code 40 rail again? Yes! I enjoy buildig trackwork anyway so I do have a bias. The finished track compared to traditional code 80 N scale track looks much better and really is much more scale-like in appearance. I’ve been asked about flange tolerances and have been trying out different pieces of rolling stock to test this and, so far, nothing has failed. The big savings here is in the lack of spikes so we have the full 0.040″ height of the rail for the flange. I have some old Minitrix steam engines I’ll have to dig out to see if they work on this track. Otherwise, so far, so good.


I don’t mind wiring. It always amazes me how much time dissappears in a fog of solder and copper during this phase on layout construction and this time was no different. I’m sticking with traditional block wiring for now as it what I’ve always done and I just don’t have the money to invest in DCC right now. DCC would still require the same number of feeder wires but I would have avoided all the wiring that is related to controlling each of the four isolated track sections. I can’t believe how much wire is now strung under the layout.

Ah, controlling the isolated sections. This is the first area where I wished I hadn’t done what I did. I had this vision of using some of those pretty little slide switches from Radio Shack to turn tracks on and off. I’ve included a picture of what I built: essentially a bank of four of these that looks a lot like a household electrical panel. The big problem with the design is the switches are just too close to each other and I have to really pay attention to making sure I only move one switch at a time. It wasn’t cheap either and I figure I spent about $15 on this idea in total. While not as pretty, I should have used a trusty old Atlas #205 controller for this function. What I’m really snickering at is knowing that in the attic I have two of these already so instead of spending what I did on an alternative I could have used something better for free.


I have a few tabs here on this website and I think I’ll put something more formal about the layout on a new one. I’ll try and streamline my rambling into something more efficient and I’ll take some decent photos of progress. Sort of a layout article.

Everything aside though, building Prince Street has been so much fun so far and I am looking forward to continuing to work on it. It has been a very long time since I built my last layout and I don’t really remember having as much fun as I am now so perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder. If you’re sitting around without a layout at home you really should have a go at building one. This year I adopted a “if I have time for TV I have time to build model railways” attitude and I’m proud of what I’ve created in this time alone.

Thanks for reading this far. Cheers.



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