The Val Ease Central Railroad ©

Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos © Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)


Lightweight Layout Techniques Used on the Val Ease Central ©, Part 2†: Laying Track

Note: the original photos illustrating this article have been lost (hard drive crash) but they will be replaced shortly with photos of the construction of Val Ease Summit.

Ok, the moment of truth has arrived, itís time to lay track†and just to heighten your anxiety level, I want to remind you that track laying is the Most Important Step in Layout Construction after the design stage, of course!

Well laid track is the key to reliable and satisfying running of trains (operations of trains is a whole other subject)! If your track plan is top notch but your track work has flaws, frustration is guaranteed to follow. If your track work is well done, but your plan has flaws, you will be able to identify them and perhaps make corrections. If both the plan and the track work are good, running trains is pure JOY!

Here are some rules of thumb for good track work gleaned from building the Val Ease Central Railroad © :

  1. the model railroading world is flat and so must your roadbed be,
  2. rail joints are derailments waiting to happen, the fewer the better,
  3. S curves do not exist, but there is at least one passenger car length of straight track between them,
  4. all curves have entry and exit easements,
  5. turnouts cannot live in tunnels or behind mountains or outside arms reach,
  6. the track is in gauge, especially those curved turnouts,
  7. flex track flexes,
  8. multiple track lines shall have enough clearance so that your longest cars and locos may negotiate curves and pass in opposite directions,
  9. there is always another rule that an expert will surely point out to you when they visit your layout!

Supplies: You can follow along on photo #1 from left to right.

  1. dilute white glue (3 parts water to 1 part glue) in a small dispenser,
  2. fine grade N scale ballast (Woodland Scenics light gray, in this case) which I tap out from a film canister or other transparent container,
  3. isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol dispensed from a fine tipped hobby container. The tip allows excellent control of the flow of the liquid. You can also use a spray bottle that provides a relatively fine mist such as a hobby spritzer found in craft stores,
  4. straight pins to hold the track in place while test fitting and gluing. I have fancy color pins so that I can see them and grasp them with my 10 thumbs,
  5. soft broad tipped water color brush used to spread the ballast,
  6. (optional) N scale cork roadbed material. The photo shows Centre Val Ease „ where I have used cork as the base. In the other two sections of the Val Ease Central „ , I laid the track directly onto the styrofoam base.
  7. (not shown) sharp hobby knife used to trim the cork and to cut plastic ties,
  8. (not shown) Rail Nippers or flush cutting sharp nose cutters,
  9. (not shown) flat hobby or jewelerís file.

Track Layout

I enjoy track laying. Especially fiddling and tweaking the final placement of the track components. I used Peco flex in the accompanying photos.

Place the turnouts and other track components on the base and pin them down. Pin your flex track through the center of a sleeper (tie) every few inches.. Several pins may be needed to hold the shape of your curves and easements (the gradual increase of curvature from straight to the tightest bend in the curve).

Once youíve settled the arguments with yourself on the final positioning of switches, curve separation and structure placement (donít forget to test fit your structures - use paper templates to represent them if they are still asleep in their boxes), take your pencil and trace the outline of the track onto the styrofoam by running the tip along the sleepers on both sides of the track. Now remove the track from the base. You should have a nice tracing of your track plan on the styrofoam.

Time to prepare the base...

  1. If you are laying a cork roadbed, use rubber cement as a contact cement to glue the first half strip of cork over the track tracing. Note: Here I assume that you are using commercial cork strips that come in two halves with beveled edges. If possible try to start and end in a straight section, not in a curve. Pin the end in place and bend the cork around the curve. Pin the opposite end in place. Repeat with the other half of the cork strip. As a final touch, using the paring knife, follow the angle of the bevel in the cork to carve a ditch into the styrofoam base. You can angle the second cut to remove a strip of styrofoam to produce a shallow or deep outside edge to the ditch depending on the geography of the track right of way. If you like, finish the roadbed with a coat of black acrylic paint straight from the tube.
  2. If you are laying track directly on the styrofoam base, start by giving the track outline a coat of black acrylic paint. Paint at least 1/2 inch outside the tracing. We want to hide the base color especially under turnouts where we will not apply ballast. Note: donít obscure the pencil marks completely. You need to be able to reposition your track.

Let everything dry overnight and retire for the evening with a feeling of satisfaction and dream of the fun to come such as...

Track Laying

I like to use flex track as much as possible especially for curves, long stretches of straight and to complete those hard to fill sections in complex yard designs. Flex also reduces the number of rail joints (rule #2). If you are using sectional track, pay special attention to joints. It is easy to leave dips and bumps at joints and to even submarine the joiner. Do a fingertip check of all joints to feel for misaligned track and sharp edges and corners on the joint that could use some filing. It is also important to eyeball your track from all angles, including from the side, to avoid kinks and dips (rule #1). Switches and crossings need particular attention. Watch out for the curve leading from the diverging route of switches as it is very easy to create a kink at the joint Take your time and donít be afraid to disassemble and adjust (a close cousin of fiddle and tweak).

I usually position and pin the flex overlapping the joint. Looking straight down over the joint, I make a scratch with anything handy on the top of the rails to mark the cut. Then I remove the flex track and cut the plastic tie strip about 1 tie short of the scratch. I separate the ties to give myself enough space to position the blades of a Rail Nipper tool. I just started to use this tool and it makes a good cut that requires much less filing than with the cutter or sanding disks that I had been using. No matter what tool you use, the cut will require filing to remove burrs from the top and bottom of the rail base. This will allow easier insertion of the rail joiner. I also like to draw the file across the inside edge of the rail head to give it a very slight bevel.

Now is a good time to solder electrical leads to the underside of the rail. This can be done later if you plan to attach the leads to the outsides of the unpainted rail.

Place the rail joiners on the flex and return the it to its rightful place in the layout. Expect to make the occasional adjustment to one rail to bring the joint flush together. Inserting rail joiners can be a challenge. Hint†: I like to spread open the joiner slightly with the tip of a small flat jewelerís screwdriver. I then place the rail joiner half way into the jaws of a pair of blunt wire cutters and use the cutters to push the joiner onto the rail. This technique has greatly reduced the number of dropped and bent joiners not to mention fewer bloody and bruised fingers!

Pin the flex into its final position making sure that there are no kinks and that you have provided a slight easement entering and exiting curves (rule #4).

When you have completed a worthy section of track, believe it or not, it is time to RUN trains! With all the track pinned down you should clip a couple of leads from your power pack and with the help of an engine push a gondola around to find bad things in the track work such as kinks, dips, bumps, out of gauge rails, sharp edges at joints, clearance problems and furry animals and children. Correct these irritants now while itís easy. Savor every moment because soon it will be just a memory.

OK, now everything is in place, all except the switch machine wires. I used a bamboo kebob skewer to poke a hole through the styrofoam base just behind the point where the wires exit the switch. If you have access to a crochet needle, getting the wires through the hole is a snap. Push the needle up through the hole from the bottom. Loop the wires around the hook of the needle and pull them through the hole. Pull the wires through the hole until snug avoiding knots and donít put pressure on the switch machine.

Track weathering

When do we weather the rails, you ask? Before or after laying the track, before or after ballasting? With an airbrush, paint pen or fine tipped brush? The debate rages on but in the case of the Val Ease Central „ , I have used all of the above. There is no rule in this case and there are probably other methods and opinions as well. As you can see from the photo of Centre Val Ease „ yard, I opted to weather the track after ballasting. But in this article, letís do it now.

For rusty looking rails in yards, sidings and infrequently used branch lines, I used Polly S Dull Red right out of the lid using a cheap medium tipped water color brush. For mainline trackage, I use Polly S dark gray. Starting at the furthest point, paint in even strokes towards you. Donít worry about paint on the top of the rails or on ties. However, avoid switch points and contacts! Once the paint is dry, youíll be using a Bright Boy track cleaner or fine sanding film to remove it from the rail heads. I like to run a pencil eraser over the ties to remove most of the paint and to roughen up and dull the plastic surface. If you are really enthusiastic about realism, you can paint the ties now too. A wash of light gray gives them a tired look especially interesting on sidings and poorly maintained branch lines. You can leave a nice new tie in place every so often to show that the track gang has been by. Hint: remember to place some old weathered ties along the right of way as finishing details later on.

The track is laid and tested, the rails are weathered and the ties are stained, time for...

Track Ballasting

See the list of supplies and refer to photo #1 for inspiration. I like to run a generous bead of ballast down the middle of a short section of track. Then using the brush, I sweep the ballast along so that it piles up and falls over the rails to the outside of the track. Then I go back and lightly brush the ballast away from the tie plates and spikes, trying to level the ballast just under the tops of the ties.

I lightly brush along the outside of the rail which, if all goes well, will level the ballast on the outside forming an even bevel just past the tips of the ties. If there are shallow spots, I add more ballast where needed. I use a Ďtapping ash from a cigarí motion to tease small quantities of ballast from the container. Hint: donít do the whole layout at once.

I like to lay about 12 inches of ballast and then fix it in place. That way if my beloved cat happens to jump up to inspect my progress or if I sneeze, I wonít have to start over.

Here is my secret Ďdribbleí technique for gluing ballast.

First, I wet down a 4 to 6 inch section of ballast with rubbing alcohol using the fine tipped dispenser. I dribble it on making sure that the alcohol has wetted all of the ballast. Then I apply the dilute white glue solution in the same manner onto the Ďwetí ballast. Doing short sections allows you to apply the glue before the alcohol evaporates. The glue will go everywhere the alcohol has penetrated without the Ďballing up effectí often seen on dry ballast. Youíll see the white glue fill the spaces between ballast particles. Donít overdo it, you donít want to wash away your great ballast spreading job. Then on to the next 6 inch section until done.

Stand back to admire your work. Tomorrow all will be dry and you can remove the straight pins, polish the glue off the rail heads and, unless you have adopted digital command control (DCC), cut block gaps in the rails with a rotary cutter disk or a razor saw. I like to avoid plastic insulating joiners because it is easier to cut gaps where they are most needed and you donít have to ruin a switch trying to remove a joiner.

Stay tuned for the next installment when we will bring our styrofoam to life with acrylic paints, ground texturing and real bull rushes.

"Donít look for Perfection, Perfect the Look!"

For further discussion of this topic and answers to your questions, join the Z_Scale discussion forum.

© Copyright 1999 Jeffrey MacHan


December 10, 1999