Our hobby is witnessing the increasing popularity of scale standards and proto type modeling. Better adherence to actual railroad equipment has been gaining momentum the past five years. Besides locomotives and rolling stock, other aspects of model railroading have been influenced to emulate the real railroads surrounding us. Attention to trackwork is one such area. Prototype ballast and drainage profiles, along with better track arrangements have been discussed before in the hobby press.
Most agree that custom-built track can approximate prototype practices better than ready-to-run track. Handlaid trackwork has always been common in the larger scales, like HO and O. But few have taken the plunge into N-scale hand laid tIackwork. Fine-scale N scale is not for everyone, but handlaid track in this small scale can be accomplished. With N scale's big advantage of small size, the modeler can easily have the long, flowing turnouts commonly found on most real railroads. Modelers can banish for ever the extremely tight and sharp turnouts from their N-scale layouts. Few if any prototype railroads use the No. 4, 6 and 8 turnouts that most modelers use. By combining small rail, Z-scale body-mounted couplers, low profile flange wheelsets and painting and lettering equipment, much of the "toy-like" atmosphere that surrounds some of N scale model railroading today can be removed.
This three-part article covers several areas dealing with hand laying N-scale track. First, preparation of the area where the track goes is considered. Roadbed, ties, rail and ballast are the primary topics. Next, general track laying is discussed. This includes all track without turnouts, but not crossings. This is all covered in Part 1. Part II has several turnout templates along with some prototype turnout information. Finally in Part III, hand laying turnouts is dealt with. Tips and techniques are given along with numerous photos and Figures to aid during construction of handlaid N-scale track. Although other scales can use some of the tips, most have been specifically designed for application to N scale. References to several track articles are also provided. Specific brand names of N-scale track products are also given. If not specifically mentioned, N-scale is assumed for any product, tip or technique.
Traditional roadbed is adequate for N-scale track. Cork, Upson board and strathmore are all equal for the techniques given. Styrene can also be used. Homasote is not recommended due to cost and uneven surfaces. Since the rail will be glued to the ties, the roadbed does not have to hold spikes as is traditionally the case in the larger scales. Smoothness and uniformity are more critical, since even minor irregularities are magnified because of the smallness of the trains. Cork is recommended. Sand the top of commercial cork roadbed to remove the seam between the two halves of the roadbed after the cork has been glued to the subroad bed (see Photo I ).
Wood ties are endorsed for any handlaying project. Micro Engineering (ME) makes several varieties, natural and stained. For regular length ties, use their products #37-105 (natural) or #36-105 (pre-stained). The natural ties must be stained prior to gluing them to the roadbed. Pre-stained ties can also be weathered before installation. Homemade ties can also be cut, but the task is not necessary unless specific tie sizes are required. The ME ties scale out to 7" (deep) by 10" (wide) by 9' (long). Although proto type ties vary from railroad to railroad, today most ties are 7" x 9" x 9 '. Except for bridge ties which should have a significantly larger cross-section, the ME ties are within tolerance. They also closely match the plastic ties found on their flex track products.
Tie spacing also varies. Most modern railroads use between 20" and 22" spacing (distance between two adjacent tie centerlines). Micro Engineering code 40 flex track has a 22" spacing. Ties on spurs should be spaced wider apart, up to 36".
Thinly spread white glue on the roadbed and place the wood ties. Use Pliobond adhesive when gluing wood ties to styrene roadbed. Glue only 6" at a time. Keep the tie edges aligned as straight as possible. Use a straight edge as an alignment tool. Accuracy here helps later when sighting the rail in. Curves should be continuous, with out flat spots. A piano jig can also be fashioned if many ties are needed. The Trackwork Handbook contains an excellent reference for building and using this type of jig . For spurs, occasionally skew a tie or two. Weather random ties with Floquil Flostain colors.
After the glue dries, ballast comes next. Use whatever products and techniques appeal to you. During the ballasting process, keep stray ballast grains off the tie tops. If possible, ballast with different shades of color to signify mainline vs. siding vs. spurs. The top quarter of the tie (in cross-section) should be exposed on main lines and sidings to match the prototype. The ties should be almost buried on most spurs. Add a pinch of fine ground foam when ballasting spurs and seldom - used tracks. Most yard tracks also should get the ground foam "weeds." Cinders and dark ballast are common around engine shops. Natural stone ballast is recommended if possible for appearance.
When the ballast is firmly glued, sand the tie tops lightly with 200-grit sandpaper as illustrated in Photo 2. This removes any ballast grains and levels most of the ties. Some ties will split during sanding. These ties should be marked for removal the next time the track inspector walks the line! But seriously, the ballast keeps most of the ties together. Do not sand the ties before ballasting as the soft wood used in ME ties will break apart with any sanding. Re-stain the tie tops with a bit of color to match the tie. When using white or a light-colored ballast, be patient with this touch-up staining process or you may need a darker ballast to hide the painting mistakes.
For the fine-scale look to N-scale track, code 40 rail should be used. Code refers to the height of the rail in thousandths of an inch, e.g., code 40 is 4/1000" tall. Although small, code 40 rail in N-scale is the equivalent of 125 pound rail (125 pounds per yard of prototype rail). Most rail used today is 135-150 pound rail. Code 55 rail (the next available model size) scales out to 160 pound rail. This is almost too large to match most prototype railroad specifications for rail size. Code 80 rail (what most commercial model railroad track is) scales out to a whopping 240 pound rail! No wonder most N-scale track appears oversize. For branch lines and sidings, code 35 rail is needed. For spurs and older track, code 25 rail is necessary. Unfortunately, no manufacturer presently makes such tiny rail.
For appearance, replace wheelsets with low-profile ones since most N-scale cars have very deep flanges. Experience has shown that most deep-flanged cars and engines will operate over hand laid code 40 track. Code 40 flextrack from Micro Engineering ( M E ) requires only l ow-profile flanges because of the tieplate and spike details cast into each tie.
ME produces code 40 rail in two varieties: weathered and unweathered. Where possible, use the weathered rail. The shiny silver sides of the unweathered rail shout to be painted, and this can be quite tedious, especially after the rail has been glued to the ties. While not inexpensive, handlaying track can be significantly cheaper (up to 75%) than commercial track. The rail comes in 3' lengths, 33 pieces to a bundle. However, experience has shown that a 2' length is more manageable. The following techniques can be applied to code 55 rail, too. Larger rail sizes need other procedures not covered here. Refer to the MRG articles listed in the references for these techniques.
Begin by cutting the code 40 rail to length for the area to be covered. Carefully cut the rail with a cutoff disk in a motor tool. Wear eye protection. File the rail head at the ends of the rail round with a fine-toothed file. This helps prevent a wheel from picking the rail joints and causing a derailment. If the rail becomes bent during the handlaying process, discard it. It is almost impossible to straighten code 40 rail. One rail can be butted tightly against another. There is no need to allow for expansion. Electrical gaps can also be cut in the rail after it is laid. Gaps can also be left between rail segments, too.
Drill small holes in the roadbed for feeder wires (Photo 3). Burnish the bottom of the rail with a track cleaning block to remove the weathering patina (see Photo 4) where the feeder is to be soldered. Because there are no rail joiners used, each section of rail must have its own feeder wire as shown in Photo 5. This also has the added benefit of reducing voltage loss through corroded or loose rail joiners. Remove a bit of the tie from under the feeder wire as shown in Photo 6 to ensure an almost invisible connection.
To attach the tiny code 40 rail, the rail is glued to the ties! After everything has been done to the rail segment (length, ends and feeders), coat the bottom of the rail with a bead of Pliobond contact adhesive as shown in Photo 7. The correct adhesive is critical, other glues will not work as well as noted shortly. Pliobond can be found at most well stocked hardware stores or hobby shops. If unavailable, write to W. J. Ruscoe Co., 483 Kenmore Blvd., Akron, OH 44301, for information about obtaining some. Practice on a piece of scrap rail to develop the knack of applying a uniform coat. If the Pliobond is stringy, it's old. Get a new bottle. It is not necessary to remove the weathering patina from the bottom of the rail before applying the glue.
Have a short (3"-4") piece of rail near the worksite. Set this piece of rail on the tie tops approximately at the correct location. This is just a guide piece of rail. Immediately after coating the permanent rail's bottom, place it alongside the guide rail and align with a three-point track gauge as seen in Photo 8. Micro Engineering makes the gauge; it's part #42-110. The glued rail can be shifted slightly before the glue sets hard. Remove excess glue with a sharp knife.
The rails at this point are attached to the ties, but not firmly. The key to using Pliobond is the application of heat to the glue. This makes the adhesive rock solid and makes it grip extremely tight. No other glue will do this. After the rail is adjusted (use an NMRA track plate gauge or a three-point gauge), apply heat with a small soldering iron. Do not use a soldering gun or a heavy iron since the weight will crush the tiny wood ties. A small 25-watt iron like that shown in Photo 9 is sufficient. Even this small iron will get the code 40 rail very hot within just several seconds. Tack the rail at several locations before heating the entire length. Begin at the middle, then the ends, then split the difference. Starting at one end and heating to the other will cause massive distortion in the small code 40 rail. When in doubt, let the rail cool before proceeding. Slight adjustments can be made after the rail is cool by re-heating the area and moving the rail. Let the rail cool completely five minutes before proceeding with the other rail.
Prepare the mate rail as before. Coat the bottom with Pliobond and press the rail in place using the three-point gauge and the first rail. Tack the second rail as before but do not heat the rail its entire length yet. Run the gauge along the track, moving the second rail slightly. You will feel a gentle tug on the gauge at any tight spots. Apply the heat while performing this continuous gauging. If any section of rail seems to slide around, let the rail cool since it is too hot at that location.
For curved track, apply the same procedures. Pre-bending the tiny rail is not recommended since it will easily curve into most radius selections. Curved track needs a bit more patience since the Pliobond will have to hold the rail in place with more force to over come the sideways stresses, but the heat bonding will hold everything in place securely.
After each section of track cools, continue with the next section. Remember, there are no rail joiners between pieces of rail so each piece must have an electrical feeder. Remember to perform all the rail-preparation steps before applying the Pliobond. Old glue can be scraped off the rail bottom, but scraping will probably bend and kink the rail. Discard any bent rail. Tack heat the rail before applying continuous heat. Clean off the rail tops with a rail burnishing block to remove the weathering patina and you're finished. Be patient with the delicate rail and your reward will be some beautiful handlaid code 40 N-scale track.