Some Modelling 'How To' tips

Quick Cheap but Very Realistic Scenery
Pointwork & Operating it


Practical experience from Anthony McDiarmid

So much has been written about baseboards and unfortunatley 90% is absolute rubbish and results in frustration and tears later. Many publications were out of date twenty years BEFORE they were written. Baseboards can be built in a variety of ways, but the timber used is the PRIMARY problem. Having built numerous exhibition layouts down the years, I discovered back in the 1970s if you want reliable running, AND the option of using all common accessories (such as signals and point motors and scenery) then there is only ONE medium for baseboard tops and that is PLYWOOD.

Softboard, Contiboard, MDF, chipboard and similar cause all sorts of problems, with many accessories, scenery and running qualities. It's well worth the little bit extra to use Plywood. Better still if you feel a little flush, use Marine Plywood, it will outlast the builder!

Scenery making quickly and cheaply uses a lot of water, so things like softboard expand, and distort, making good track laying impossible. MDF should be banned, its as dangerous as Asbetos when sanded and cut. It's also too hard for things like track pins. Chipboard - too hard and doesn't like water

Plywood, is versatile, soft enough for things like track pins, and hard enough to hold screws. It doesn't mind a bit of water (Don't buy cheap shuttering ply. Also go to a timber merchant not a DIY store as DIY stores stack timber vertically and ruin most of it. It's often cheaper at timber specialists too) and cuts easily and smoothly with a jig saw. You can mount plywood on traditional 2x1 framing, but you should have a support about every 18" or so. More space in the framing will allow the plywood to warp slightly (unless it's Marine ply where 24" spacing of the frame is sufficient) The baseboard top can be made using 9mm ply, which is thin enough for many accessories, but still strong enough to provide a good surface.

Don't build traditional 8ft x 4ft baseboards. They are too large and bulky to be handled, as the weight will double will all the accessories and scenery. In addition for OO modellers an 8x4 is now too small to accommodate the larger curves necessary with the latest quality models, if you want them to run well and last. Sharp curves reduce pulling power dramatically and massively increase stress in the model, reducing life expectantcy. In any case most large models won't negoiate radius 1 (317mm) and often not even radius 2 (438mm). So that won't leave much room on an 8x4 when using radius 3 (505mm) & 4 (572mm) only!!!

The traditional 8x4 is also a nuisance as it requires the middle of the room to be filled, much better to build a narrow baseboard around the room. For N scale a baseboard a mere 1ft wide is sufficient, and in OO a mere 18" wide. These sizes can be widened for larger stations, and yards at that point. Going around the room will allow larger radius curves at the corners of the room, providing much better and smoother running, and greater pulling power.

As an example of this problem, I used to demonstrate this very fact in my shop to numerous customers experiencing problems with running. I would take a Graham Farish N scale class 47 locomotive (pre Bachmann days) and run it around 9inch radius curves, and add coaches. Well everyone knew Farish couldn't pull the skin of a rice pudding so were not surprised when the loco started to exhibit slipping problems with just four coaches. I would them transfer the loco to the exhibition layout which used Peco finescale N track, with no curve sharper than 3ft radius, and the loco would happily pull 14 coaches without problem. A similar scenario will apply in each main scale. (Narrow gauge scales has a slightly different scenario).

"I can't go around the room, what about doors and windows?" I hear you say? Well obviously some planning is required to fit the room being used, but layouts can often go under windows. And doors? Well as you can't build the layout around the room as a one piece, you have to build it in sections, you simply have one section that is lifted out by the door, or hinged. A narrow viaduct board is a good scenario for a door. As doors are often in a corner, a baseboard cutting off the corner, and thereby allowing the door to partially open is another option. The baseboards can be bolted together with carriage bolts, washers and wingnuts (available in most DIY stores), and to ensure they go together precisely every time, "Pattern makers steel dowels" or even wood dowels, should also be used. Try "RED DOG" baseboards (Red Dog Model Railways. 9 Harcourt Bradwell, Milton Keynes, MK13 9EN. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a web site.), they sell all sorts of accessories for making baseboards, including adjustable feet, and various baseboard joining systems. With a sectionalised layout, alteration to fit a new location is easier. Obviously you can remove such a layout for redecorating or other reasons, and if the layout's good, who knows you might be invited to exhibit it! This type of construction is best free standing. (So it doesn't damage the wallpaper etc.) Supports can be made (or purchsed) in a variety of types, but I found a very simple and fairly quick system years ago. I use 2x2 legs simply slotted into ONE end of each board. Two verticals 2x2, with two cross bars 2x1 to make a frame. The upper crossbar is fixed 2 inches below the top of the legs, and the bottom crossbar, high enough above the floor, to allow the hoover to vacuum underneath. If the 2x2 legs are made 4 inches narrower than the baseboard end, then the legs will slot into the corner. The crossbar takes the weight of the baseboard as it rests on this. To stop the legs falling over you simply screw a small scrap of 2x1 on the inside of the frame sides 2 inches back from the corner. To stop the whole layout rocking so it doesn't damage the wallpaper, I put a diagonal bar from the lower crossbar on one leg to the upper crossbar on the next. For exhibition use the diagonal bar is bolted to the holes in L shaped metal joiniing plates screwed to the legs, but for home use one screw each end should be suffient. You can then pin drapes around the inside of the layout to make the whole room feel more cosy, and hide all the junk, tools, and the empty stock boxes, behind the drapes, so "'er indoors" doesn't give you to much grief!!!

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Quick Cheap but Very Realistic Scenery

Practical experience from Anthony McDiarmid

Plywood tops, 2x1 frames, all glued (PVA NON WATERPROOF GLUE) and screwed together. The PVA (non waterproof type) is useful for just about everything else too. Glue cork tiles (any DIY store) where the track will be laid. (Thin cork sheet from model shops is useless, the glue soaks through and it loses its suspension quality, and it costs too much). Glue the track, yes with PVA. Only use Peco fine track pins to tack the track in place while the glue dries then remove. Lay the ballast with a mix of 25% PVA, 75% water and a drop of washing up liquid to remove surface tension. Build the hillsides with polystyrene scraps (often free from electrical stores!) Simply cut with a saw to shape and glue with PVA. (You get free 5inch gauge scale snow effect as a by product). Then using old newspapers strip them up, and dunk them in a bowl of 20% PVA 80% water mix, and lay them over the polystyrene. Ensure edge of paper glues to baseboard, usually three or four layers is enough, and when dry you'll be surprised how strong that is. Spray the white newspaper hillside with track colour (Phoenix or Railmatch paints) along with your ballasted track. Then using more PVA glue scenic flock powders on, and even many accessories. Using ONE glue for much of the layout, reduces costs, and non waterproof PVA (That's EVO STIK in the GREEN bottle) can be loosened with warm water. So if you decide to alter your track, or rebuild the layout, take the layout outdoors and pour warm water over your track and ballast, and after about 10 minutes everything comes loose and you can salvage the expensive track for another day.

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Practical experience from Anthony McDiarmid

If you want lots of electrical problems and derailments then buy a clip together track system. If you want to save money and have more reliable running, and far fewer electrical problems, then buy Peco finescale flexitrack system. Peco code 55 (N scale) or code 75 (OO scale) is designed to match the newer wheelsets (such as RP25 - an NEM system) fitted to most new models with the finer flanges and treads. Finescale Peco will improve running just that little bit more over the older code 80 (N scale) or code 100 (OO scale). Also it must only be a matter of time before the older systems are withdrawn, as more and more modellers discover the advantages of the newer finer systems.

Note: The very nice new Peco code 83 track system intended for US HO scale modellers is unsuitable for the visual part of British layouts as the sleeper spacing is much closer and designed to look like US track, which is different in many ways from British track. The pointwork can however be used in fiddle yards, as the code 83, system does have a larger point than the British new code 75 large radius. Very good, for those who love hurtling into fiddle yards at Formula one speeds).

The trick with Peco flexitrack (and it seems many shopkeepers don't know this) is that you must also buy a range of "TRACKSETTA" tools to lay it reliably. You will also need a couple of "roll gauges" to suit the track being used. (Available from Romford/Maygib). MOST important you need a mini drill with carbonundrum discs. DO NOT use rail snippers of any type, they go blunt after just a few snips, and they don't cut properly, they pinch the rail end, and then distort the rail joiner so it doesn't fit properly, and then the current doesn't flow properly, and then your trains run erratically or not at all!!!

I found that B&Q sell their own brand of mini drill at a very reasonable price. Half the price of the Black & Decker mini drill!. The B&Q version is also a mains type, not 12v, is therefore far more robust for safety reasons and provides much more grunt. It often comes with dozens of accessories, including a range of cutting and grinding discs. However you will need thin carbonundrum cutting discs to cut rail like butter. (20mm diameter 1mm thick). They are often available in many model or craft shops, but vary wildly in price from 10p to a £1 each depending on supplier. The mini drill with discs will cut finely, cleanly and quickly through track, and most importantly it can cut through rail after it has been laid. But take care, these cutting discs are very brittle, and any type of side to side motion while cutting will cause them to shatter. Tip, just run a fine modellers file under the bottom edge of the rail after cutting to ensure there is no bur, which is rare, but would cause a problem for the rail joiner. If laying track on a hot day, leave a tiny gap between two rails for expansion. I've seen too many exhibition layouts with track distortion at summer shows, so don't fall into that trap.

The TRACKSETTAs mentioned above are to enable both straight track and curves to be laid kink free. You simply clip a suitable tracksetta between the rails of the section of track being glued. The slots in the tracksetta allow you to carefully push a Peco FINE track PIN through the sleeper into the cork. You then move the tracksetta along, overlapping the last pin, so that you avoid kinks, and obtain perfectly straight or continuously curved track. This is important, as even minor kinks in tracklaying cause all sorts of nasty little running problems.

For a parallel track the second (and subsequent) track can be laid using the Peco parallelling plastic little red ruler (cost about 12p) so a couple of these always come in handy. Take extra care when using these little rulers, as there is a danger of getting kinks in a track laid with these. I have a handful, and use Peco fine track pins to hold them on edge in place, before pinning the track. The only downside with Tracksetta is they don't make any larger radii. The largest being 48inch in N scale and 60 inch in OO. I've carefully made larger radii ones in cardboard up to 120inch, using a compass and a pair of scissors. At these gentler radii, the stress in the track is insufficient to buckle the cardboard, but aluminium tracksetta's should always take preference.

Beware the plastic rail joiner. Obviously plastic rail joiners are needed at section breaks, and at certain pointwork locations. WRONG. Save money, if you are glueing your track as described, you simply leave a 1mm gap, NO plastic rail joiner required. This way the thick plastic rail joiners won't lift the rail slightly and cause another potentail derailment!! You can even forget section breaks until later and come back with the minidrill and cut gaps, anywhere you need. Saves a lot of fiddling about.

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Pointwork & Operating it

Practical experience from Anthony McDiarmid

I always recommend Peco finescale code 75 electrofrog (live frog) as the most reliable for running. For some reason this always seems to cause problems with many modellers who can't understand how you wire it up. I'm not surprised really, I can't understand Peco's electrical wiring diagrams either, far too many switches and totally superfluous wiring, so I bin the instructions. The points are great, as all parts are live, so you shouldn't even stall with a little 0-4-0. The only drawbacks with Peco points (or with any other commercial points I've ever tried) is the system of conducting electricity from the moving blades to the rail they touch. Someone recently mentioned he had a batch of duff Peco points, in that the blades didn't touch the stock rails properly. Well if you wire a point properly (and not according to Peco's diagram) then it won't matter if the blades touch properly or not! Hmmph think about that.

Live frog type points, and I learnt this as I often handbuild my points, need to be wired quite simply using three wires. One wire is connected to the frog itself, and the other two to the switch on the point motor that you realistically need to operate points if you want trouble free running.


However, most commercial track systems recommend or sell solenoid point motors. Absolute suicide. Bang crash, bang crash, and the point is broken. You need nice slow action point motors which have many advantages and introduce some very helpful new ideas few people seem to have considered. First I only use Swiss made LEMACO or FULGAREX point machines, having tested and used just about every version known to man. No machine I've tried is 100% trouble free as purchased but the Fulgarex or Lemaco types have a very simple problem, cured with a spot of superglue. They come with two spare switches and a capacity for two more to be added. They also have interchangeable parts despite coming from different firms. The Fulgarex one is slightly longer but not as high as the Lemaco one. Price is similar and I always buy them in bulk to make significant savings. They are more expensive than solenoid types of course, but have a very serious advantage which can save a heck of a lot of money and stress. The bang crash solenoid type can often damage, or even break, the little hair spring in a Peco point. If that happens you have to dig up the point and buy a new one. That'll cost more than a point motor. You'll have a heck of a job digging up one point and relaying it flatly. Forget solenoid. With the motor drive type, you don't need the hair spring. In fact you should remove it as it is a nuisance and can cause momentary shorts when the point motor switches change but the blades haven't started to move. Fulgarex and Lemaco mechanisms are screwed under the baseboard with two small screws. A 1.5mm hole is drilled near the Peco tie bar (or between the rails) and the brass crank and sleeve provided are used to connect the mechanism to the point tie bar. The only maintenance required is switch cleaning after a few years' use. I've got some mechanisms now over fifteen years old that have been on a few layouts, and dragged around Europe to all sorts of exhibitions. Damned good investment.

The switches provided on these slow action motors are very helpful for curing some basic electrical problems in all layouts whether you use DCC or normal wiring. First one switch is allocated to controlling the frog. There are three contacts on each switch. The middle contact being common, so it is always connected to ONE of the other TWO depending which way the point is set. So the common centre contact is connected directly to the frog. The other two contacts are connected one to each outside rail. It's as simple as that. The frog and blades are therefore always energised with the correct polarity regardless of whether the blades actually make good contact or not with the stock rails. It's also much simpler than a Peco wiring diagram.

The second switch can be used for some interesting little games. You can use this to keep a signal at red until the point is set correctly. Gives the operators a realistic visual back up when they forget to set points. The wire to the GREEN LED/Bulb on the signal is simply taken to the point switch first. Connect it to the common contact on the switch, and then take another wire from the contact that is connected to the common one when the point is set against the signal, back to the RED LED/bulb. That way the green cannot show if the point is wrong, because the power to the green light is diverted via the point switch to the red. The fact that the point is set the wrong way, will also bring the train to a halt before it crashes or derails as the switch controlling the power to the frog is also set wrong.

The second switch can also be used for another very intersting scenario. This is route powering. The idea is that with normal traditional wiring you need a seperate controller for each circuit of track, and as with my layout, Basingstoke, this means four controllers (one for each main line). There are other controllers for the MPD, the Down (SR) goods yard, One for each Up and Down GWR Reading branch tracks, and another for the GWR goods Yard. That's NINE controllers, so I can have nine operators around for Tea. The complexity of such a large layout with so many operators is that despite the fact the layout has to operate to a type of timetable or anarchy ensues, problems at interfaces between controllers' areas need to be made as simple as possible. For example:
The Wolverhampton to Portsmouth Express (1958 Summer Saturdays) arrives behind a WR Hall or Grange with eight Collet coaches. It approaches on the Down WR Reading branch, but has to cross the Up Local and Up Main (SR) lines to get to the Down Main (SR) platform. The operator driving it from the hidden fiddle yard, down the branch realistically needs to drive it all the way to the down main platform. But this is normally on the Down main controller, controlled by another operator. For jerk free, sleeping operator avoidance problems, the crossovers, signals, and the Down Main platform are temporarily automatically given to the Down branch operator, so he can stop the train in the platform. To avoid nasty confusing selector switches on the control panel, the spare switches on every point motor are used to select according to route the controller + power, most suited to doing the driving.

To reduce wiring dramatcially, and make this power routing simple, the whole layout uses the COMMON RETURN principle of wiring which reduces wring under the baseboard by around 33%. Common return type wiring also reduces problems of jerkiness if a train has to pass from one controller area to another while on the move. It also allows a very simple system of automatic signal control by the trains, at absolutely NO EXTRA COST. Operators having a nasty tendancy to forget to switch signals to red after they drive their train past, but always want to see green signals. So with my layout having nine controllers, there is ONE COMMON negative wire to all negative rails all over the layout. There are also NINE + (plus) wires, one from each controller to each section of track normally controlled by that controller. So basically ten wires can control the power to all tracks. There are then seperate feeds for the signals, and another pair of wires to power the relays that control both signals and certain complex junctions. The relays providing the traditional railway interlocking system. The only other sort of technical electrical items being Diodes (used to stop back feeds) and Resistors to reduce 12v DC to 1.5v DC for the LED's in the signals. Most of these electrical bits are available from Maplin electrical stores at very low cost, and far cheaper than if you buy them from Model railway stores. One other useful item often available at Maplin is the multi-way connector. I often use 25 way D connectors between baseboards, which are small, and suitable with the fine Burglar alarm cable I use for much of the wiring.

Another MAJOR SAVING can be had with wiring. I always buy Burglar alarm cable from "City Electrical Factors" (There's one near you). A 100 metre roll of 8 core burglar alarm cable (that's 800 metres of wire) in eight different colours usually costs around £25-£30. (NOT recommended for large DCC layouts, as amperage in DCC systems can get quite high) Go to the model shop and they will sell you a 10 metre roll of one wire in one colour for probably £3-£5!!! There are also 100 metre rolls in 4 core, 16 core, 32 core and each has different colours for each wire. You simply strip off the outer cover to get at the cable, which looks like telephone wire, but is multi-stranded NOT hard drawn like telephone cable. Telephone cable should NEVER be used on model railways as special electrical tools are needed for its use, and being hard drawn, the wire will break if it is allowed to hang under a layout or flex frequently. It would drive you crazy trying to find out why something doesn't work.

"City Electrical Factors" can also provide things like "Chocolate blocks" 2amp screw wire terminal strips with 12 connections in each strip. Buy a box of 24 strips for usually under £5. Homebase will charge you £1.80 for HALF of ONE strip.

The advantages of simplified wiring using the Common return principle means it is often simpler than DCC. While DCC provides smaller layouts with a sophisticated controller, and built in control system, it defeats the whole point of a "Club" type layout in that everyone wants to drive trains. So more controllers are necessary, and some sort of panel for each to command the area each controller/operator covers. More importantly DCC was originally a British invention (remember Hornby Zero One), but was commercially a problem at that time. It was then taken forward by the US and their large national club the NMRA, managed to get agreement for standardisation between manufacturers. This however meant development of the product led to lots of facilities suited to US model railroading, but left very serious holes for model railway enthusiasts in other parts of the world. How do you interface DCC with around 60 four aspect colour light signals and interlock these with the points and get the trains to switch them to red when they pass and clear them when the section ahead is free? DCC can't without horrendous costs, while my system at the track is FREE, and the back up interlocking costs 60 x£5 for the relays (£300). I saved double that not having chips in my fleet of over 50 locos.

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This page was created 16 August 2009

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