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Model Railway Express

Hints and Tips - Layout Building

Updated December 16th 2008

The following Hints and Tips were contributed to Model Railway Express Magazine as a service where readers have been invited to submit "things they do" to keeps costs down, techniques they use to build their items and manage their railways in general.

These pages show the Hints and Tips categorised in the order they have been received by MRE mag. I am not promising "perfection" but as of the creation of these pages, these Hints and Tips page are also shown in order on Page 1... please click on this to access the hints in order that they have appeared in MRE Mag!

Click on the Menu to the area of interest to you.





Hints & Tips No.6 – Ergonomics                Brian Macdermott

 If you are designing a roughly waist height layout for your own use (as opposed to a club), it is worth giving some thought to your control panels – particularly if you are DC with lots of switches.

 Many control panels have switches mounted on schematic track plans. Before you commit to drilling holes, work out how far down the lowest switch(es) will be. If you have to bend to operate that switch (even slightly), you could do well to re-think. The unwritten laws of railway modelling state that the most awkward switch will be the one you use most!

Hints & Tips No.7 - Simulating Trees              Trevor Gibbs, Australia

You can simulate a great grove of trees against a backdrop by using green-coloured cotton wool balls cut in half and teased out a bit then glued to your backdrop as bushy clumps. The absence of tree armatures won't be a problem and give you a sense of 3D.

Use universal dyes or appropriate food colourings sprayed with a cheap air brush in a few different tones. The cost?  A few cotton balls and some sprayed universal or vegetable dye diluted with water - like most of my other ideas for this column as close to zilch as possible. If you can see part of the forest floor, a few deep brown vertical brush strokes where the base of the trees would be would/should be enough to simulate the trunks and will be fairly short anyway.

After all you are concentrating on the trains going past aren't you?

Hints & Tips No.11 - A good point                 Paul Jansz

Paint the rail sides on pointwork with the rail joiners in place, ahead of laying. So much easier when one can freely approach the job from all sides, and both electrical continuity and freedom of action can be tested before final positioning.

Hints & Tips No.24 - Virtual Planning         Trevor Gibbs

To try and see how a track plan may or may not work, I have used Auran's Trainz program to draw up the layout and test run the layout using virtual trains before committing to the carpentry. While I have not seen it, I am led to believe that Hornby's Virtual Railway can do the same using Hornby's track system. Trainz does not take long to learn the basic steps... sharp inclines on ridges still defeat me a bit but track layout, building placement, and even signalling becomes easier to visualise
The advantages of this is that you can set up the operating scenarios to run your trains and see if those scenarios work and workout your scenery at the same time. Rather than taking your model time away, it could save you time at the drawing board and even more time from making mistakes in the translation of what you visualise compared to what you finish building. The alterations are a lot easier to manage in the virtual world.

Hints & Tips No.33 - Oil Depot Tanks
  Trevor Gibbs (Melbourne, Australia)

I  don’t have room on my current layout for an Oil Depot but when I did have space in my junior days, I used either tins from Quik (Nestle Strawberry was good) or smaller coffee tins. 

Turning them upside down and screwing the lid to the board meant they could be removed easily if needed for moving etc. In these days of computer labelling, it would not be that hard to make a convincing sign or even a ‘wrapper’ to go around the tin with rivets, small ladders printed on etc. Once again, the cost is not high!

Hints & Tips No.34 - Scenic Shakers  Roy Thompson

I find these expensive at almost £3 for an empty plastic container with a funny lid. Have a look around your kitchen and you may be surprised how many of these types of container you can find in varying sizes.

Ones I have found include peppercorns, parmesan cheese, herbs and spices. If you know anyone who works in catering they often have larger catering sizes, which are excellent once given a good wash.

From   Alvar York

Further to Roy Thompson's tip, I have found that the 500g salt shakers from Saxa and the like to be very effective. You can adjust the pourer head to a few grains of small ballast to fully open for a flood. It is also excellent for grass scatter etc.

Prior to this I used a 1 pint plastic milk bottle with suitable holes drilled into the top. I also use the milk bottle for storage.

Hints & Tips No.35 - Making Rail look Scale in 00/H0, Trevor Gibbs, Melbourne Australia

I have been 'weathering' my rail for a few years simply by getting out one trusty paint brush and painting the sides, particularly of Peco code 100, with a Russet or Tuscan box car colour. I personally use Tamiya type acrylics. You can simply run a paint brush along the rail sides, before or after ballasting and not worry about the effect too much. In fact mine was done after ballasting because I was not happy with the effect of the shiny rail at the time.

I have been asked a number of times if my track is Code 70 or 83 rather than the 100 as removing the sheen from the sides of the rails in this way, hides its apparent height. This is also lowered by use of ballast. Dregs from the paint bottle are especially effective as you can get simulated a build-up of grime and grease, as does occur. You can even skimp a bit and just do the sides which are seen from a viewers angle.

If you need to solder a wire to the rail, it is easily cleaned by simple scraping off the paint and retouching it afterwards.

Although photos are not conclusive you can judge the result yourself by clicking on the website and scrolling down.

Hints & Tips No.38 -  Making Hedges     

By Trevor Gibbs, (Melbourne Australia)

 You can simulate a lot of hedges using green steel wool scourers cut into appropriate strips and glued vertically. This works fairly well. You could sprinkle the outer surfaces with ground foam such as Woodland Scenics to give a bit more texture closer to viewing distance.  If you really want to do it for next to nothing, you could grind up your own appropriately coloured foam

Hints & Tips No.52 -  Hi Rise Buildings   

By Trevor Gibbs, (Australia)

I saw a layout at an exhibition with a couple of very tall (for a layout) model buildings in a city scene which from normal viewing distance looked very effective. Looking closely I presume that they were a plywood box with normal building tiles glued around them, consistently one colour such as deep blue which gave the window effect.

Such a tile system could work very well on a backdrop to give a low relief depth but give the impression of more. Seeing a tile dealer for a remnant would be your cheapest option! You might even fool people at first about the detail and depth in your windows with moving characters in the office areas that look like the people admiring your work!


Hints & Tips No.54 -  Animation

By Rob Smith (Labrador Queensland)

 Although I work in larger scales, any movement or hint of movement can add that "something" to your village in any scale. Most often it is done by the train moving through your scene.

 There are also many other ways to induce movement regardless of scale. Small electric/battery motors can be mounted below the base board, above a fisherman can cast his line, an axe man can cut logs, a painter can paint a wall.....Simply moving a figurine left and right by having the shaft of the motor glued to the base of the figure will give the impression of life in the village.

 More intricate animation can involve boats moving on their anchors in the breeze to cars moving on roads. It is up to your imagination and your ability to see a small motor or gear and think of an alternate use in your scene.

Hints & Tips No.55-  Visualising Scenery.    

By Trevor Gibbs (Australia)

Some people do not tackle scenery usually using the excuse "I'm not artistic enough" or similar. Here is an easy way of being able to see how your scenery COULD turn out.
Cut some cardboard cartons into strips about 40-50mm wide. Start by stapling or tacking (cobblers blue tacks are good ) about an inch (25mm) or so of the strip to your base or frame then arc it upwards to the shape of your rolling hill. If your strip is not long enough to cover the size hill , simply staple another one on end and keep going. Place a number of strips about 120-150mm (4-5") apart parallel roughly where you envisage the hill being.
These strips will give you an idea of your shape and you can bend and crimp your strips to get the effect of hills, crags and cliff fronts. You can then make a simple lattice using strips and thread them through your laterally placed strips. This will give you a more solid base to look on and you can still make changes by crimping the card.
If you like what you see or you can visualise, make the frame a little more solid using hot melt glue and then you can cover it with whatever scenery you prefer to use, Chux cloths painted with PVA is good for this... or tear it out and try again for very little . Good luck...,

Hints & Tips No.57 – Laying Track on a Helix, 

By Max Bashtannyk and Peter Mitchell,  Sunshine MRC Australia

 If you are building a helix and laying track, instead of using track pins or nails, try using small screws and washers laid between the sleepers screwed to the plywood, using the washers to hold adjacent pairs of sleepers.

 We have used 6mm x 4 gauge screws with 1/8” washers to hold the track as they are small enough not to cause any problems for American style Kadee couplers. Pre-drill a pilot hole in the base board to make process a lot easier.

This will allow you to make tweaking adjustments to the curvature of the track using a stubby screwdriver in between the layers of the helix. When the weather changes and you get the usual rounds of expansion and contraction of your track or a kink develops in the track imperceptible to all and everything but your constantly derailing 2-8-0 for example, you should be able to move your track without taking the helix apart.

 Using Murphy's law, this could happen in the worst possible corner and this at least is a way of minimising your efforts to correct it. 

s explained, he was quite incredulous at what he was seeing! Well Done Tom) 

Hints & Tips No.60  -  How To Prevent Flange Snags On Rail Joints

By Crandell Overton (Vancouver Island, Canada)

Extruded rail stock is forced through a die and then cut with a sharp instrument.  It will have sharp edges.  If you are using flexible sections of track and joining them together along a curve, you will potentially meet with frustration when you find one or more engines or rolling stock items derailing in one or two places consistently. 

 There are several causes for derailment along curves, but a simple aid to nip this in the bud involves filing the ends of every rail section with a metal file to smooth off any burrs or sharp edges.  As your engines become larger and more demanding of fine track laying skills, particularly larger North American steamers, the wheel flanges get forced toward the outside rail head on cuves close to the minimum stated for your engine. You can imagine what can happen, when the flanges encounter a wider gap than desirable, and one with sharp edges or burrs on the flange faces and the tops of the rail heads.

 To help this, file a slight bevel (or a chamfer in other terms) on the vertical inside face of the railhead, and also on the flat top surface at the very ends where they were cut  to rail stock as well as to turnouts (points). That way, your wheels will encounter an easier camber that will accommodate their passage, and not a sharp and jarring surface that will toss them this way and that.

(A Note from Trevor – this hint comes up in Free-mo type specifications in North America where modules are involved and this operation needs to be done because of alignment of the track. It is also very useful as Crandell points out for curves in general. I actually tried it on already laid track on my “memorial” exhibition layout and it has worked fantastically well dramatically reducing the derailments on joins and smoothing the passage of trains!)

Hints & Tips No.62 - How To Avoid Unsightly Solder Globules On The Sides Of Rails

By Graham Plowman (Sydney, Australia)  

How many times have you been to an exhibition and looked closely at the track on a layout and seen huge great big lumps stuck on the sides of rails, accompanied by melted sleepers? It looks unsightly and ruins any possibility of realism or photography.

A little careful planning when building a layout plus the technique described here will see those solder lumps gone for ever!  Why do modellers solder wires to the sides of rails ? Well, the answer is simple: lack of planning. Traditionally, modellers cannot wait to get track laid and then they worry about the electrics later. In other words, the track is already laid before wiring starts.  

 The answer is to solder wires to the undersides of the rails as the track is laid. To do this, pull the sleepers off the track, solder the wire to the underside of the rail, then file down and replace the sleepers. The wire can be poked down a hole drilled in the baseboard and there you have it: a tidy connection, no melted sleepers and no unsightly solder globules. Once ballast is placed around the track, you will not even see the connections which is a much better appearance than the traditional solder globule!

This technique also works well with foam underlay ballast. 

You can see a full explanation on  www.mrol.com.au/SolderGlobules.aspx and find links to other Hints and Tips as well

From Dave Poynter -  Further to Graham Plowman's 'Hints and Tips' advice on soldering: the addition of a little flux to the rail before soldering will make the solder stick and flow much more easily, so the joint can be made neater and less 'blobby'. Plumbers' flux works very well and is available from most DIY outlets. Just apply a thin smear with a cotton bud first.




submit hints   Trevor   Brian