Prince Street Layout

Driving home the steel spike

I’m on the tail end of a cold. While I wouldn’t normally be very good at resting while sick, I’m trying. So, with a mug of tea and some fruit cake by my side I buried myself deep in the couch to wait for the “get better” magic to happen. I’m hooked on a TV series based on life in Victorian England and so switched the TV on to watch the rest of Full Steam Ahead and then get into Victorian Farm. Needing to find something to busy my hands with, I figured it might be time to make some spikes for my model railway track.


The photo above is of a test section of track I made up back in 2010. I made it so I could experiment with spikes I’d made following an article Stephen Hatch had written and posted to his Railway Engineering website. The scale was 1/160, the ties are balsa, and the rails are Micro Engineering code 40. You can read more about that experiment, by clicking here and reading my 2010 post on the subject. Mind you, save yourself the trouble and just go read Stephen’s terrific article on his website here.

With a new batch of spikes made up, I laid some plain rail on the layout. This short section of track consumed pretty much all the spikes I’d made. In these photos: the track is On30, the rail is code 83, and we’ve all heard about those ties before.

The spikes were made from 0.015″ diameter steel music wire. The process to make a spike is really simple: Using a pair of pliers, grab about 1/4″ of wire and bend it to an “L” shape. This length you’ve bent is the part of the spike that gets driven into the tie. To make the spike’s head simply cut your newly formed spike free just a little ahead of the bend. I used a cheap pair of side cutters to make these cuts which not only spared better pliers from being damaged during this process but the cheap pliers tended to flatten out the area around the cut so one could pretend this was an advantage in that the newly formed “head” was broadened just as it would, could, or should be. This is Stephen’s technique and it works. It’s very easy and you can quickly consume a length of wire and produce a nice little pile of spikes. So, that’s the good. Is there any bad? Given how small a railroad spike for a model railroad sounds, they’re just not fiddly to make. In this case, the obvious negative isn’t one to worry about. Problems I did have were:

The wire is hard and I had to be careful every time I cut a spike free as they have a tendancy to fly off with tremendous speed. Like any small part high on freedom they not only travel far from their origin but have the ability to break free of the bonds of traditional time and space. Who knows where they went? I don’t. The only way I can think of to test any theories involves a TARDIS and some help. Chris Mears as the next Doctor? Sure, why not. Wonder what Rose is up to these days?

The size of the spike head is determined but the position of the cut. I found I wasn’t as consistent in figuring out this location. Time, repetition, and practice is the cure here. Repeat as required.

I plan on spiking each tie. I don’t mind making up that many spikes but the wire itself is difficult to get here. I could special order it but I could just as easily buy some spikes from Micro Engineering. Last week I was placing an order with Fast Tracks for some other parts so I included spikes in that order. I want to move forward with getting rail down so will prioritize thusly.

“What about those Proto 87 spikes?”

Good question. They are beautiful. They are about as perfect as I could expect model spikes could be. The ones I ordered were for HO scale and I think they’re just too small. I don’t mind not using them. Owning examples of these is a priviledge and I very well could see placing them in a frame just to celebrate this example of micro machine work.


Some Saturday Morning

So with the test baseboard complete I thought I’d tease out one track plan idea, to full scale, and tape a paper copy over top. It looked so nice and one thing led to another and, soon enough, out came the camera and some stock. Thought I’d share a couple of photos before continuing on with this morning’s errands.



runaround complete



I’m becoming quite sold on the layout of the track within the scene but, in terms of context, I have some decisions to make. It was fun to break out one idea that was far enough along to support these kinds of shenanigans and just enjoy being on the porch on a sunny Saturday morning. Well, the tea’s done now and I should get one with a couple of errands of a rather time senstive nature.



Foam core benchwork. I like it.

On couple of previous micro layouts, such as the Bush Terminals one, I’ve used paper-backed foam core board as a media for benchwork construction. I am still a major fan of that approach and would recommend it as something to try.

I’ve read several articles describing a modification of that approach but more along the lines of foam clad in light plywood. Gordon Gravett described it in a rather nice article in Model Railway Journal and Mike Cougill has tried it for a project he’s working on. Mike wrote a great blog post describing his approach and you should check it out on his blog:

I was curious and really wanted to try it out for myself but didn’t have a layout in mind and didn’t want to waste materials on something that was only a study in benchwork construction. Last weekend I was cleaning out the shed and managed to unearth some door skin plywood and a panel of 1-1/2″ thick white (“beadboard”) styrofoam. Realising this for the opportunity that it was, I dug out some contact cement and set to work.


Investing a few minutes each evening and using only old material from the shed’s collection of “someday I’m gonna use this” wood pile I’m done. I’m really pleased with how well it worked out. Sounding only a bit like I’m hosting an infomercial on late-night television: I’m sold. It’s super lightweight. It’s strong. It won’t twist. Given its laminated layers it should not warp. Did I mention it’s deceptively light for it’s size?


It has a heart of foam. Not the nice extruded stuff that is so fashionable for layout construction these days but a sheet of beadboard, 1-1/2″ thick. We normally shy away from this becuase it’s real mess to work with. Clad in a protective shell of plywood that problem goes away.

The strength from this method comes from the marriage of laminating foam to plywood. I reason that you could extend this logic to apply a thicker sheet to gain a longer span. I doubt that weight will increase at the same rate as it would were one to use more traditional framing methods for a portable layout as I expect it will using this method. Not only less weight but I expect the rigidity to stay constant and it will far out-perform the equivalent in almost any other traditional framing method.


I used 1/8″ thick three-ply plywood that I’ve always heard and called “door skin”. It’s the same thing an interior slab door in your house is clad in – at least if you grew up in 1970’s Canada in a house decorated as a shrine to clear-finished faux-wood panelling as I did.

When described in the various construction articles, each author has described cladding all six sides with plywood. I didn’t have enough so used some 1×2 strapping I had. No other reason than, as James Barber would say: “You use what you got.”


I used water-based contact cement to bond the foam to the plywood. The wood at the perimeter uses just plain-old white glue from the school supply section of the grocery store.

Look Ma, no drywall screws

I’ll admit it. I’ve used my fair share of drywall screws to fix benchwork lumber together. It’s the kind of guilt secret I’ve been hiding from the public for far too long. I know better. I’ll try to do better in the future.

In this style of construction I did use some temporary staples to tie things together while the glue set but have removed them now. They wouldn’t contribute anything to any sort of strength and just looked clumsy.

Clean joinery made simpler

I reasoned that during the assembly phase I would make sure that the bond between each piece was very tight and the glue well set. Once the glue was set I’d just square everything up with a few passes through my table saw. Those lovely sharp corners and clean sides are evidence to just how efficient this actually was.

What’s next

I’ve been drawing a lot of layouts and Krista’s super engaged in getting one of these off the ground. I guess I’m on my way now.

I knew I liked it but…

It’s been a year and a half since I wrote My morning coffee, trackside. That was my last blog post about my previous layout and a little while after I wrote that post I took the layout apart. When I took it apart, I carefully prised the entire top, track, wiring, and all, and stored it in our shed. I didn’t save the layout out of some belief that one day I’d resurrect it but more as a long term test to see just how well it would hold up in a typical uninsulated garden shed. During the time in the shed the layout endured two full Island winters, one and a half really hot summers, and all the weather that comes in between.

On several occasions, Lance Mindheim has talked about using white glue to stick down flex track*. I hadn’t tried it before and this layout was my first applicaton to try his advice. I was immediately pleased at how well it worked when I first stuck down the track. That level of satisfaction doesn’t even compare to what I discovered last week: man, does the track ever come up nicely!

The track I used was Micro Engineering, N scale, with code 55 rails. It’s delicate stuff. As one last test of how well white glue works to stick down track I figured I’d try lifting it back up. I can’t begin to describe my surprise as the track started to lift up almost perfectly. I’ll admit that I worked by very carefully sliding a putty knife along the base of the ties.

I took some photos to illustrate just how well.

Sometimes we try something and find it so successful that it feels almost evolutionary. For me, using the cheap white glue I bought in the grocery store’s school supply aisle is just how I plan on sticking down track pretty much from now on.

I was so delighted, I figured I’d share my story.

*such as in this blog post:

Foam tape update


From left to right: Micro Engineering code 40 N scale flex track stuck to foam tape, length of handbuilt code 40 track just laying on the foam, length of track laying on tape (tape’s protective backing still in place)

Last week I bought a package of Scotch Foam Mounting tape. This double-sided foam tape is 1/16″ thick, 1/2″ wide, and white in colour. I bought mine at a local office supply store but it’s that kind of product you can probably buy just about anywhere in town. My own experiments with using the same clear doube-sided tape that I use to hold my turnouts to paper templates wasn’t working out but I’d read several convincing notes in model railway forums, written by David K. Smith, about using this other foam tape and I figured I’d have a go.

Where with traditional cork you would have two halves of roadbed. To install it, you’d draw a centreline for your track and simply lay each cork strip against that centreline. Since the tape I’m using is full-width I needed to instead mark the outer edges of the track. This was simple enough. As for aligning the tape, I adopted an approach not unlike the rule of the road: “As long as you’re between the lines, you’re good!”

My test is pretty simple. The foam is just plain old 1″ thick (R5) foam. No surface prep beyond cleaning to make sure there wasn’t any coffee or other garbage that might negatively affect the bond. The tape I’m using isn’t as wide as traditional cork roadbed but I actually think this is a plus in the tape’s favour. I like the shallower profile and the way the ties overhand the edge. I think this will afford me a little more control over the ballast profile at the edge. When I tried the clear tape my first problem was securing a good bond between the tape and the foam. I wanted to press the tape into the foam but doing so meant pressing my fingers into the glue I would later need to bond the track to the tape. This foam tape has a removeable protective layer and it did make a difference. Not only was it easier to place the tape in the first place, once I had the tape down I could just peel back the protective layer and then press my track in place.

The bond is instant. There is no time to move track around. Since my plain track options are either handbuilt or Micro Engineering flex this shouldn’t be a concern – the curves would be pre-formed anyway. I was curious if the bond would fade over time but the short length of track I pressed in as a test piece is as firmly bonded now as it was when I pressed it into place a couple of days ago. While I’m keen for this to last, I really only need it to last until I get the ballast in place and then I’ll have that additional glue to help keep things in place.

In all, I’m very pleased with this discovery and the way it responds to my scope for an alternative to cork and glue:

  • I don’t have a local hobby shop here and cork is a mail order only option like every other roadbed choice. The cost to ship is a factor in the price of this option.
  • I don’t care for the overall width of cork. I could resolve this by trimming the strips or just cutting my own from sheet goods.
  • While I’m on this rant, I don’t care for the height regular cork roadbed. I don’t need that full height but I do still want some distinction between the track and the surrounding scenery.
  • Comparing cost per foot between cork and this foam tape, they’re pretty close (the tape is still just. a bit more expensive.)
  • N scale ties are shallow. I find I don’t always get a thin enough layer of glue and worry that it will fill that gap between the ties. The foam tape leaves the complete depth of that recess between the ties open so even when ballasting I don’t need the ballast flush with the tops of the ties.
  • Controlling the glue around turnout parts, like throwbars, will be a great deal easier with any of the tape options since I can just cut the tape out completely or stick down some black paper over. I’ve accidentally glued enough turnouts into a single piece to appreciate this point.

I’m glad I tried this. I think this is a material I’ll continue to use. Thanks David. This is your idea and I appreciate that you shared it and spoke so strongly in its favour. I really appreciate it.

A lake boat of my own

Okay, I don’t actually have a lake boat. I do like them and have many fond memories of watching them at Welland on family vacations when I was a kid. So what do I have beyond a feeble attempt at a witty blog title? I have a really great tool I really should have made before.


Trevor Marshall inspired this tool. Mine took about five minutes with some scrap from the shed to assemble and it’s already earning its keep and proving its worth. Trevor dubbed his The Edmund Fitzsander and you can read more about his here:

The Edmund Fitzsander

I used mine this afternoon to sand the top of some cork roadbed I’d glued down yesterday afternoon. With such a long cutting face it really shines in how clean a cut it makes and how it doesn’t tend to cove the soft cork roadbed I was cleaning up. I used a medium grade (sorry, I’m just too lazy to go out and read the exact grit) sand paper on mine and it was so efficient at removing material that I used it to plane down the height of two of the sidings to better represent track at different heights. I was having so much fun with the thing that I used it to for some ditching along the roadbed. Man, this tool is great!

Trevor’s is a much nicer version of my tool. If you want to make one up yourself, read his notes first then come back to mine. I used scrap I had on hand:

  • The core of mine is some 5/8″ thick oak I had leftover from a house project last fall. The board was left its original width and thickness and cut to length to match the sand paper belt I was using.
  • The sanding surface on mine is a belt for my belt sander. I bought the wrong size and couldn’t use this one anyway. I simply cut it open and attached it to the oak core using staples.
  • I tried using this tool without a handle. It sort of worked but mostly didn’t. I remembered a gate handle I had in my “one of these days I’m gonna need one of these bins” and screwed that in place.

Yup, a truly great tool. Didn’t cost anything to make. Further, having it made it possible to get a couple of projects done this afternoon and I made some really worthwhile progress.

Speaking of progress, I painted the exposed pink foam with some tan craft paint I had. This looks much nicer than bare pink foam and encourages me to fool myself into believing I’ve got more done than I have.

Ties and tape

I’ve started placing the ties on the layout. This afternoon I washed some colour on them and thought I’d share a couple of photos. Not a huge pile of innovation here but I did change the way I’ve stuck them in place. Previously, I’d glue them in but often found that it can be really easy to lay down too thick a bead of glue which fills the space between the ties making ballasting a little tricky. When I build track over a template, off the layout, I use lengths of double-sided tape to hold the model in place. Each time I’ve tried removing the finished model, I’ve been faced with how tricky it is to remove that tape. I would have never made the obvious connection between these two observations on my own. Then, while reading through a page on Henk Oversloot’s website on finescale track, I read his suggestion to actually use the same double-sided tape I was using already to actually hold track down on his layout. “Eureka!”

I figured it would work but was worried that when I stared flooding liquid onto the track when painting ties and ultimately during ballasting might cause the ties to lift from the tape. I tried a few experiments and so far things are still holding in place. So far, so good. What else have I learned so far? First, the tape I’m using isn’t terribly flexible so stretching it around curves isn’t exactly easy. I’m using a broad radius and can just use shorter lengths of tape. Speaking of laying down the tape I am learning that as tempting as it is to attempt long lengths, so far, I’ve had a few moments where it’s just me with tape tangled around several fingers at once.

So far, I’m very pleased with the idea of using tape to hold down these ties. I’ll keep using it and will update as I learn more about how well it’s working out.

Here’s a link to Henk Oversloot’s page:

Turnout fixed. That’s good.

I remember how great it was to put together the first turnout for the layout. It wasn’t until I started working on the second that I really noticed the tie spacing on that first one. I figured I could fix it but managed to successfully find reasons to put doing so, off. This evening, it was time to finally get this done.


So, that’s what I started with. It works well and, excepting the tie spacing, I thought it looked really nice.

DSC01627Based on the tie spacing I had, I figured if I removed approximately every second tie, in its place I could fit in two. Starting from the frog end, everything worked pretty much to plan. This is probably the first time I’ve moved this many ties around and I know it’s the first time I’ve been okay with the occasional burnt one.

DSC01631It was an interesting project. By only moving a couple of ties at a time, I wasn’t so preoccupied with gauging rails and lining pieces up. In all, it did still take about as long to rebuild this one compared to what it probably would have taken if I’d just started over from scratch.

DSC01635With the ties replaced, I thought I’d trim the ties to their final length. While this evening’s focus was on the turnout itself, by completing this task I’m much closer to installing it on the layout. That, of course, brings me one heck of a lot closer to running a train again.

Storm day sector plate

Today’s project was the sector plate for the layout and I’ve managed to make some progress that I’d like to share.

The sector plate itself and its base are cut from some 1/2″ particle core that I had here. I’m still not sure if I made the right decision with regard to material but am equally tired of comparing options. I don’t think I’ll regret the choice of this material for the deck the plate will ride on. Where I remain concerned is how much the plate itself will warp over time. Given the size and shape of the sector plate I doubted that any of my reasonably-priced options would fare any better or worse in terms of dimensional stability, over time, and frankly if it gets too bad I’ll just make up a new bridge and try something else. So, on with the show.

The first task was to figure out where the pivot point was and get the pivot itself sorted. I sketched and daydreamed about a lot of neat bearing options but settled on a simple length of brass rod I had. This is the second design decision I expect to come back to in time since I’m still thinking I might want to make the plate removable so that the I could use it staging cassettes (pivoted like a sector plate). To make it easier to exchange cassettes I’ll need to make it both easy and reliable to locate this pin when exchanging cassettes full of stock. For now, this will do fine.

DSC01594Most of the ties on the sector plate are the same plain ties I’ll use on the layout. For a little more strength and since the plate itself will remain mostly hidden from view I thought I’d make up some wider ties for each end. Nice to use up some of that PC board scrap I’ve been hoarding in my “that’ll be useful someday” pile.

DSC01596I used CA to glue the ties to the sector plate. While that set up I carved out a piece of an apple coffee cake I’d made last night. Brewed a nice Americano for myself too.

DSC01605With me stuffed full of cake and coffee and the CA nicely set, it’s time to warm up my soldering iron and fit the rails in place. Not only was this a great project to use up some PC board scrap but also a great opportunity to use up some scrap rail salvaged from a layout I’d taken apart before. I hadn’t realised when I grabbed the second piece of rail that the bag I was keeping these pieces in was a mix of code 40 and 55 rail. It wasn’t until I soldered the full second piece in that I’d noticed it was code 55. Luckily I was able to pull that out and replace with code 40 without burning any ties along the way.

DSC01608The temptation to set up a train on the finished sector plate was almost too great. I still can’t decide if what I staged represents a short train of reefers from Charlottetown with some set-outs for here and the further east or if this represents a set of GP’s and some boxcars from Nanaimo with local setouts for Victoria Plywood. I’m leaning toward the latter.

All in all, it’s been great fun working on this project this afternoon. It’s still cold outside and this project was a nice break from shovelling the last of the latest storm’s snowfall. With the sector plate at this stage, I now have a means of determining the final location of the main line and the storage track (both are fed from the sector plate) so I can start placing ties and getting on with track on the main layout.

Even glacial progress is still progress right?

March 21, 2015

March 21, 2015

That’s how things look right now. All three turnouts are built and remain on their temporary backings. Yesterday morning I cut out the deck and bridge for the sector plate. With any luck, I’ll get that sector plate finished this weekend and with that complete, I’ll be able to proclaim the first track installed on the layout. Speaking of the sector plate, a test of it with a train in place shows it may be a bit too short to accommodate what I’ve been considering as the train length I’d like to use on the layout. I can extend it to reach that extra inch but still feel a little disappointed that I didn’t double-check things first.

Speaking of that third turnout, I thought I’d share a couple of photos of it to celebrate its completion. As with the other two, I still need to install a throwbar and trim the ties on the main side of the turnout. There were times I thought this one would never be completed and I’d never overcome some of the mistakes I was making during its construction. The first two frogs just wouldn’t go in at the correct angle, a detail I’d continue to fail to recognise until I was installing the stock rails. I managed to burn a few ties during its construction as well. Problems aside, it was all still great fun and time to reflect on a few points where I think I’ve evolved my approach or further reinforced some beliefs I’ve developed:

  • I used copper ties throughout. It took some practice to get used to planning my soldering patterns to make sure I didn’t box myself in, in terms of rails creeping out of gauge or alignment. I’m getting the hang of it and compared to a mix of copper and wood ties this just feels like a significantly stronger turnout.
  • Since all the ties came from the same stock I feel they’re more consistent in size and shape.
  • Ties on the branch track are stepped in length. I used to install ties by lining them up against the main track’s edge and trimmed these stepped ties. I could never, consistently, cut the ties to the correct length. This time I did the opposite, lining them up against the branch to plan the stepping correctly, then I’ll just snap a line along the main track and trim them all at once. Not sure why this didn’t occur to me before but it feels like a rare moment of brilliance at my workbench.
  • I used some scraps of PC board stock at the ends of each set of rails. These wider pieces are only temporary but serve to protect the rail ends until the turnout is installed on the layout. I was on a roll with great ideas here or so it felt!
  • I built these turnouts on scraps of thick card. The card stock’s surface was nice to work against and provided a soft, yet stable surface, to file rail on and write myself notes to plan construction steps.